Don't Synthesize Philosophy and Theology?
By Luke Lancaster
Many Fundamentalist Christians today will denounce a synthesis between theology and philosophy. They think that God’s wisdom revealed in Scripture is all that should be used and never any human “wisdom” from philosophy. However, this idea does not have support from Scripture and Judeo-Christian history. As can be seen in Josef Cardinal Ratzinger’s/Pope Benedict XVI’s arguments in his book “Introduction to Christianity” and speech “The Regensburg Address,” philosophy and theology were made for each other. This will become clear from God’s Revelation of His name; the teachings of St. Paul in Romans and Acts; the prologue to John’s Gospel; and the historical teaching of the Trinity.
In his book, Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger said that there was a synthesis between Hellenism and Christianity in the book of Exodus’s revelation of God’s name. When God said to Moses in the burning bush that His name was, “I am,” God was saying that His name was, “Being” (Ex. 3:14). Now, the Greek philosophers were the ones who came up with the idea of absolute Being. They said that He was the One behind the whole world, and they arrived at that understanding even in their sinful and corrupted minds. Their reason did not prohibit them from understanding something truthful about the universe. Natural wisdom and Divine wisdom met in a beautiful synthesis with this teaching about God’s nature.
The effects of God’s Divine Name of “I am” also synthesized with the philosophical understanding. In God’s Revelation of His name, it created the effect of separating God “from all other divinities with their many names” (Regensburg Address, para. 6). The philosopher Socrates believed something similar, for he did not believe in the many mythical divinities of his time, but instead believed in one “Being.” Both faith and philosophy were in the same camp.
The early Church Fathers saw this name of God (“I am”) to be showing the deep unity between philosophy and faith. They saw it as if Plato and Moses were seated together, joining the Greek and Biblical mindsets into one. Scripture presented a Divine truth that was accessible by natural reason.
This Greek philosophy of “Being” was entwined even in the mindsets of those who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Such translators were Greek-speaking Hebrews, and they interpreted Exodus 3:14 as a Divine Revelation of who the Greek philosophers already believed in: The invisible Being. It was pure reason that enabled the Greeks to arrive at a proto-Hebrew understanding of God, and that suggests that the two spheres can work together.
This understanding of the human intellect’s capacity for reason is within everyone according to St. Paul, who said that atheists,
“[S]uppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:18-20). [emphasis added]
This implied that every person was born with the ability to do philosophy. Not only that, but they should do philosophy. For Paul said that if somebody did not believe in God, then he was without excuse. By reason alone, the existence of God is clear. That was exactly what the Greek philosophers were doing - they believed in one God by reason alone.
Paul himself built upon natural reason in his dialogue with the Greek thinkers of the Areopagus. He said,
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23).
Paul had taken what some of the Greeks understood from reason alone and elevated it. He revealed to them that their recognition of an unknown god was the God of Israel. So, the philosophers were providentially prepared by God to accept Christianity. Paul synthesized philosophy with theology.
Besides Paul, the Gospel of John emphasized the union between natural philosophy and theology. The very first words of John’s Gospel said that the “Word” (Gk. logos) became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Jesus came to earth and was considered “Logos,” which meant that He was, “both reason and word – a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason” (Regensburg Address, para. 5). God is logos, reason itself, which literally is philosophy. This suggests that God approves of reason! Not only that, but the philosophers were imitating God by using their God-given reason. So, they were right on track to do that, they just needed God’s light from theology to clarify and super-naturalize their beliefs.
Because the philosophers used their reason, God providentially sent Christians to build upon their natural knowledge. This can be seen in the book of Acts, where Paul received a vision of a Macedonian man begging Paul to come and preach (Acts 16:6-10). Philosophy was not to remain natural - it needed to be sharpened and elevated by the supernatural. It was bound to synthesize with Christianity.
Pagans also helped to provide a synthesis between philosophy and theology. For they grouped philosophers and Judeo-Christians together, calling them “atheists” for denying the multiplicity of gods. The philosophers “developed in the course of history a stronger and stronger tension [with pagans], which is apparent in the criticism of the myths by the philosophers from Xenophanes to Plato” (Introduction to Christianity, p. 95). The Jewish prophets and Christian leaders did the same thing, condemning the pagan myths and gods! Faith and reason were providentially meant to be together.
From this fertile ground, the early centuries of Christian history approved of philosophy. This can be seen in the central doctrine of the Trinity, which was formulated through the lens of philosophy. Such a formulation occurred because God’s Revelation was confusing. The New Testament explained that the Father was God (Eph. 4:6), Jesus was God (Heb. 1:8), and the Holy Spirit was God (Matt. 28:19), yet the Old Testament said that God was one (Deut. 6:4). How could three be one? What would be done to synthesize this? Enter Greek philosophy. Its notions of “person” and “essence” were what allowed Christianity to attempt to understand God. The doctrine of the Trinity was born through a union between philosophy and theology, where the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were three “persons” of one “essence.” To state that philosophy should not be used in Christianity would be a contradiction, for even Fundamentalists believe in this doctrine of the Trinity.
The God of philosophy and the God of faith had similarities, but it should be noted that they had dissimilarities as well. For example, because the God of philosophy did not have Divine Revelation to elevate its understanding, philosophers frequently said that God would not act in the world. They thought that God was impersonal and pure thought, so acting in the world would be inferior to Him. This God was not named and could not name Himself (Introduction to Christianity, p. 80). Divine Revelation, on the other hand, contradicted this philosophical notion. God entered into human history and spoke with Moses, revealing His name. This name was not impersonal, but deeply personal, for after God said that His name was “I am,” He said that He was, “The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:15). God showed Himself to be a God that acted in the lives of ordinary people. He was and is relational, dealing with all men in this corrupt world. The philosophical God of geometry needed Divine Revelation to demonstrate the intimate nature of God.
Philosophy and theology had much in common. Both believed in one Being, God, and both called out the pagan myths as false divinities. Both said that God is reason – logos. All humans are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26), so all humans need to be philosophers. These are all strong reasons to believe that faith and reason are to be synthesized, for God made reason and revealed faith. If the reader thinks that Scripture condemns philosophy, see this article.