Philosophy: The Theologian's Handmaid or Taskmaster?

Join me as we give some thought to a nagging perennial question in theological circles. What is the relation of philosophy to theology? Are these antithetical? Are they virtually identical? Or are they kissing cousins? The antithetical perspective is seen in the now proverbial query of the North African lawyer-turned-theologian Tertullian, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?  What concord is there between the Academy and the church? What between heretics and Christians?  Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.”  Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!  We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel!  With our faith, we desire no further belief, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.” (Prescription Against Heretics VII) On the other hand, many would see Thomas Aquinas’ attempt to use Aristotle in the service of theology as an example of the near identification of philosophy with theology. In his missions and apologetics manual, Summa Contra Gentiles (2.3),Thomas noted that the Christian missionary can reason with the Christian heretic from the New Testament, with the Jew from the Old Testament, and with the pagan (i.e., Muslim) from reason (read “philosophy”).

Historically the church has often considered philosophy theology’s handmaid (for you Latin geeks out there, ancilla) or assistant. Philosophy may offer the theologian conceptual tools which assist him in explaining a doctrine founded upon Scripture. We might consider the use of concepts such as substance, person, relation, and subsistence which the early church drew upon in their attempts to formulate a biblical doctrine of the Trinity and the union of the divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ. Any who think the church just swallowed Greek philosophical concepts hook, line, and sinker have not done their homework and examined the concepts in the hands of pagan philosophers and in the hands of the early church fathers.

The problem is that historically theologians have sometimes allowed philosophy to become a taskmaster that drives their theology rather than an assistant which provides conceptual clarity. Thomas’ use of Aristotle may be an example of this turn to the straw boss. Certainly Schleiermacher’s reliance on the idealism of Immanuel Kant or process theology’s dependence on Georg Hegel are manifestations of philosophy throwing off the shackles of the handmaiden to take on the role of the taskmaster.

How does one benefit from philosophy without letting it dictate the terms of theology, and undermining the latter’s biblical foundations? Augustine of Hippo offers us some advice in his On Christian Teaching: Building off the Exodus narrative, Augustine noted that as the Israelites were leaving Egypt the Lord moved the hearts of the Egyptians to give jewels and precious metals to the Israelites. These items were most likely used to build the tabernacle later when Moses called upon the people to contribute to its construction. Augustine noted that Christians can learn from non-Christians because of common grace. Non-Christians sometimes get at truth and Christians should be able to benefit. However, we cannot simply takeover truth wholesale from pagan thought without baptizing it before placing this truth in its proper Christian context. Augustine called this “plundering” or “spoiling” the Egyptians.

Scott Oliphint in his book The Battle Belongs to the Lord echoes the insight here in Augustine. Truth found in unbelieving thought due to the fact that we live in God’s world, are made in the image of God, breathe the air of common grace, and are exposed to natural revelation, is still “twisted truth.” Twisted truth needs to be untwisted. The system of thought in which nuggets of truth are found needs to be properly assessed and the pagan elements need to be washed away. We have here two metaphors for the same thing: Untwisting and baptizing are getting at the idea that we as Christians are called to be wise in our use of philosophy. It is not as simple as the false alternatives of outright rejection and complete embrace. Cornelius Van Til years ago offered a homely biblical illustration that may help us understand this reality better. Dr. Van Til noted that Solomon allowed Hiram the King of Tyre to contribute cedar wood to the construction of the temple but he didn’t ask Hiram to draw up the blueprints!

Philosophy, twisted truth, needs to be untwisted and baptized and placed within its proper Christian context before it can be helpfully used. Inasmuch as the idea of philosophy serving as a handmaid of theology is getting at this reality, it is a fine metaphor. Philosophy makes a fine servant but a terrible taskmaster.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Jeffrey Waddington