Philosophy, Marriage and the Queen
Philosophy is the love of wisdom. However, as soon as some hear the sound of the word they think of an unbearable heaviness. They immediately think thoughts that don’t often approximate what philosophy really is at its heart. What is more, theology and philosophy have enjoyed a close relationship over the years. The relationship can be a fickle one especially when disorder creeps in but the same could be said for marriage. When the husband and wife begin to think in unbiblical ways you get disorder and tension and the same could be said of theology and philosophy. So, what is the relationship?
Well, anyone who loves the Scripture is going to argue for the primacy of theology within the relationship. Historically this has been captured in the phrase, “Philosophy is the handmaid of theology.” Amen and amen. However, there have been theologians and philosophers who have mixed up these roles. An Integrationist like Rudolf Bultmann could be and some argue should be charged with confining theology to philosophy. In other words, philosophy sets the agenda for theology. Bultmann adopted the ontology of Martin Heidegger and his theology took an existential course.
However, mixing things up doesn’t destroy the paradigm for the relationship anymore than does an instance of a husband and wife who mix things up in a marriage. In other words, a husband and wife who operate different from the roles established for them in Scripture do not destroy marriage. Their behavior may and likely will poison their own relationship but they can never destroy the archetype of marriage by their own messed up conception of marriage. The same is true with theology and philosophy.
However, ever since Immanuel Kant we have been living in a bad marriage. But we didn’t just arrive at the point of Kant without some trouble leading up to the publication of Critique of Pure Reason. No, things had been bumpy for a little while. For example, John Locke, though he published a little book attempting to show the reasonableness of Christianity, didn’t do the Faith any favors. Once you say that the mind is a tabula rasa or a blank slate to be written upon by experience you have confined yourself to a materialistic worldview.
Bishop Berkeley understood what Locke was doing and attempted to rescue the Faith from his implications. He argued that it wasn’t actually a material tree that we experience when "seeing" a tree. If not, then what are we experiencing? Well, the tree we experience is just that, an experience. In Berkeley’s construction matter was not matter but simply an idea of the mind or spirit. However, he avoided solipsism by arguing that the human mind is itself an idea within the mind of God. Hume came along and argued that the mind is not a spirit but simply that which receives impressions or sensations and then processes their relationship one to another. Berkeley and Hume were famously summarized in the phrase, “No matter, never mind.”
Nevertheless, it was Hume that roused a slumbering Kant from his philosophical dogmatism and he set out to save matter for science and faith for the church through his philosophy of Transcendental Idealism. One might argue as to how effective he was at the latter but regardless that was his concern. However, do you see what is happening? Philosophy has the priority in all of these conversations. Even “believing” philosophers are attempting to make room for theology.
Yet, God has a different view of this relationship. Paul tells us in the Scriptures, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit…” (Col. 2:8). Paul may be speaking of a syncretistic Judaism but this verse could be applied to philosophy across the spectrum. It’s not that all philosophy should be eschewed, not at all. We operate by philosophy every day. It would be foolish to think we don’t. However, there is something more basic than philosophy and that is revelation. For instance, the sense of divinity within every person is inescapable. Every conscious thought runs concurrent with the sense of divinity that God has placed within them (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
But there is also the external and mediate general revelation, which men suppress in unrighteousness. But even Kant’s intellect was not powerful enough to hold down entirely that which continually seeks an audience. Thus, on his grave is inscribed what one finds in the latter portion of the Critique, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Even the philosopher of philosophers admitted that the things that most captivated him were matters of theology. I guess we could say that Kant lived in a bad marriage and yet he could never stop thinking about the ideal relationship that always eluded him. Indeed, philosophy is but a handmade to theology, the Queen of the Sciences.
Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.