Theology and Philosophy: In Praise of the Handmaid
Dr William Newton FAITH MAGAZINE July-August 2013
Dr William Newton, associate professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, discusses the relationship between philosophy and theology.
As a professor of theology, I am more and more struck that, among the students I teach, the difference between an average student and a good student comes down to a competence in philosophy. In this short essay, I wish to explain why this is so. In essence, it requires that we see more clearly the relationship between the science of philosophy and the science of theology and why strength in the former goes a long way in achieving mastery of the latter.
Making Theology a Science
In the first place, philosophy is needed in order that theology might be a science at all. This is because a science is a body of knowledge that has its own set of principles and, on the basis of these principles, derives further conclusions. This is true of mathematics, biology, engineering, and so forth – and it is also true of theology.[ ]Now, while the principles of the science of theology are not known by philosophical reasoning (they come by revelation), the further conclusions that flow from these principles are derived with its help.
The principles of the science of theology are given in the articles of the Creed and in Sacred Scripture and they are known by us through faith, not through philosophical reasoning: you cannot, by unaided reason, conclude that the doctrine of the Trinity is true, for example. Nonetheless, from the starting point of these principles (received by faith) further conclusions can be drawn, and this is done by philosophical reasoning.
For example, when St Paul says, “Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Cor 15:12) he is arguing from the principle of faith that Christ has risen from the dead to the conclusion of the general resurrection by mounting a kind of syllogism.
Another example would be the conclusion that Christ has two intellects. This is not directly revealed to us. However, it is revealed that He is God and that He is man. After all, we say that we believe in “Jesus Christ His Only Son our Lord … Who was incarnate from the Virgin Mary.” Starting from these two revealed truths, we reason that, since both God and man are rational, and since Christ is God and man, he must have both a divine and a human intellect.
In moral theology, the derivation of conclusions from revealed principles with the help of philosophical reasoning is very common indeed. For example, it is revealed to us that man has been created in the image of God (Gen 1:28).
From this we can conclude that man is different from all the animals and, accordingly, one man cannot own another man (as he can own an animal). This would lead to the conclusion that chattel-slavery is immoral.
Faith Seeking Understanding
The second service that philosophy renders to theology is that it allows a deeper penetration into the truths that are already known by revelation (through faith).
Take, for example, what the Creed says about the Father: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.” Without some philosophical understanding of what is meant by the word “Creator” this whole sentence is basically meaningless. Creation is normally taken to mean that something comes to be out of nothing (ex nihilo). The philosophical concept of creation, therefore, aids us in making sense of revelation.
Furthermore, it might be asked whether the Creed means to tell us that only the Father is the Creator and that the other Persons of the Trinity are not involved. Again, philosophy comes to our aid. Creation is an action on the part of God and all actions presuppose a certain nature capable of that action. For example, to think rationally (an action) presupposes a creature with a rational nature. This means that the divine act of creation is attributable to the divine nature (rather than to divine personhood). This leads to the conclusion that, since all three divine persons are of one nature, all three Persons are involved in creation. Philosophy, again, helps to solve the apparent problem.
Another common way that philosophy aids theology and deepens our understanding of revealed truth is through the “analogy of faith”. This is when a truth known by revelation is compared with one that can be known by reason; the analogy allows for a clearer understanding of the fittingness of the revealed truth. Take, for instance, St Augustine’s use of a human being’s mental capacities as an analogy of the processions of the Divine Persons in the Trinity: just as the Son proceeds from the Father and the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son, a concept in the human mind is conceived (or born) in the intellect and from this breaks forth a movement of love in the will.
The Corrective Power of Philosophy
The third way that philosophy comes to the service of theology is built upon the fact that truths known by sound philosophy and truths known by revelation alone cannot contradict each other. Truth is truth and (as is self-evident) something cannot be both true and false in the same respect and at the same time. Another way to reach this same conclusion is to note that God is the one source both of revealed truth and human reason.
Two important consequences follow from this. First: a philosophical conclusion that is clearly contrary to revealed truth – such as that the universe had no beginning – cannot actually be a sound philosophical conclusion because it contradicts certain revelation. This helps to guide both the development of philosophical thinking as well as the thinking in natural science. Second: a theological position that is clearly contrary to a sound philosophical conclusion cannot be true, either. For example, if it was proved beyond any doubt that the universe was not created in six days then this would mean that an interpretation of Genesis to the contrary would be false. This would not mean that Scripture is in error, only that our interpretation of it was faulty.
To pick (somewhat at random) another example of how sound philosophy acts as a corrective to unsound theology, we could imagine someone holding the opinion that bilocation (as experienced by some saints) implies the simultaneous location of a person (body and soul) in two places at once. This in untenable because the human body – like all corporeal things – fills space and is, by that, located in a single place. This means that we need to find another explanation of this supernatural phenomenon.
The Hedge and Fence of the Vine
The fourth invaluable service rendered by philosophy concerns the defence of the faith. Let us use, again, the example of the Trinity: that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God. We have already said that this truth is beyond the grasp of unaided human reason and that we come to it by way of revelation.
What happens if an opponent of the faith objects to this dogma claiming that it is a contradiction because, as he understands it, the dogma claims that three equals one and, as any first grade student of mathematics knows, three does not equal one, but three.
“The philosophical concept of creation, that something comes to be out of nothing, aids us in making sense of revelation”
How does the defender of the faith respond to this? He turns to sound philosophy. With the aid of philosophy, he points out that the dogma of the Trinity says that three persons have one nature and then points out that person and nature are not the same reality, so there is no contradiction, at all. He would need, of course, to explain that the notion of person pertains to who is there, whereas the concept of nature pertains to what is there.
However, here it is important to note what exactly has been achieved in the defence of this particular dogma. We certainly have not demonstrated the Trinity because how exactly three persons can share the same numeric nature is not evident to us; we have no experience of anything like it. We have shown, however, that the objection is itself unsound and that the objector does not prove the Trinity to be a contradiction. We have rebutted his objection to our position without proving our position: still, this is very helpful.
Anyhow, the point should be clear: the objection raised by the opponent is defeated by philosophy and not by theology. Moreover – and this is of equal importance – the opponent is defeated by the application of what might be called “the perennial philosophy” because the categories employed are those of nature and hypostasis (person). These ideas were first developed by ancient Greek philosophers, then refined in dogmatic controversies of the early centuries of the Church, and subsequently taught systematically by the scholastics, especially St Thomas.
It has to be said that this confluence of a certain school of philosophy with theology has been amazingly fruitful. So fruitful that, according to John Paul II, it points to the agency of Divine Providence:
“In engaging great cultures for the first time, the Church cannot abandon what she has gained from her inculturation in the world of Greco-Latin thought. To reject this heritage would be to deny the providential plan of God who guides his Church down the paths of time and history.”
Finally, it ought not to be thought that the utility of the perennial philosophy remains confined to the ivory tower of academia. For good or for bad, philosophical ideas beat a path down the corridor of history: they have practical consequences in the way people live their lives. For this reason, Leo XIII styled his great encyclical on the importance of the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas as a social encyclical. He reminds us:
“Whoso turns his attention to the bitter strifes of these days and seeks a reason for the troubles that vex public and private life must come to the conclusion that a fruitful cause of the evils which now afflict, as well as those which threaten, us lies in this: that false conclusions concerning divine and human things, which originated in the schoolsof philosophy, have now crept into all the orders of the State, and have been accepted by the common consent of the masses.”
How true: it can hardly be denied that much of the muddled thinking about matters of human sexuality that “vex public and private life” finds its origin in defective philosophical theories (such as nominalism) that deny the reality of natures, particularly human nature. This is turn removes the foundation of a universal and objective sexual ethic.
But if the root of the problem is bad philosophy, the solution surely is clear …
St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q.1 a.2.
Cf. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q.27; St Augustine of Hippo, De Trinitate.
John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 72.
Leo XIII, Apostolic Letter, 19 March 1902.
Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris, 2 [emphasis added].