What is Theology?

This post is an exploration of what the discipline of Theology properly covers. In part this comes from a recent paper where I argued that, in Bonaventure’s synthesis of Aristotle with Christian Theology in which Bonaventure aimed to make Aristotle Palatable for Christian consumption, Bonaventure dissolves the distinction between philosophy and theology by making, so I argue, the Formal and Final causes of Philosophy the same as the Formal and Final causes of Theology; namely, it is God who acts as both and for both. In reflecting on this, and in recognizing that the early Christians saw Christianity as a Philosophy, and thus Clement of Alexandria, for example, could call Christianity the greatest “heresy” (meaning, in the Greek, school of thought or school of philosophy), I have been led to think more carefully about what the discipline of Theology is. What really is this distinction between Theology and Philosophy, and must a theologian recognize this to be a superficial distinction if they agree with Bonaventure? First, let us begin with a working definition of Theology. I found this one while surfing online, from J.I. Packer: Theology is…

first the activity of thinking and speaking about God (theologizing), and second the product of that activity (Luther’s theology, or Wesley’s, or Finney’s, or Wimber’s or Packer’s, or whoever’s). As an activity, theology is a cat’s cradle of interrelated though distinct disciplines: elucidating texts (exegesis), synthesizing what they say on the things they deal with (biblical theology), seeing how the faith was stated in the past (historical theology), formulating it for today (systematic theology), finding its implications for conduct (ethics), commending and defending it as truth and wisdom (apologetics), defining the Christian task in the world (missiology), stockpiling resources for life in Christ (spirituality) and corporate worship (liturgy), and exploring ministry (practical theology).

Now, I cannot tell if he really wrote everything in brackets, or if this was the problem of editing on the part of the person who provided the quote, but in any case, it’s clear enough. I would probably change some of the wording (practical theology should be ‘pastoral’ theology, for example) and I might want to collapse the categories of “missiology” and “Practical/Pastoral theology”. I also think it is lacking some really important categories, such as Philosophical Theology, Ecclesiology, Dogmatics, Biblical Criticism and even particular fields such as Hagiography or Iconography. Nevertheless, I do think this definition is a fair starting point.

So, what, then, is Philosophy? Well, unsurprisingly, there is disagreement among philosophers on this point, and indeed it seems very difficult to define in terms which don’t end up sounding just like ‘theology’. When one inquires as to a speculative discipline, one usually is able to define it in terms of its subject or object; think, for instance of Physics, Biology, Arithmetic (Mathematics), or others. But just what is the object of philosophy, and indeed what isn’t its subject? There is one brilliant definition I heard once attributed to Alvin Plantinga, according to which “Philosophy is thinking really hard about stuff”… I love Plantinga.

Nevertheless, it seems as though Philosophers and Theologians are constantly dealing with the same subject matters, and thus it may appear as though ‘Philosopher’ is simply the title one adopts which provides the license to examine the questions of theology without having faith. In a recent lecture given at Oxford by William Lane Craig, where he was cross-examined by three (almost) equally credentialed ‘doctors’ in various fields, the Philosopher presented this problem in his cross examination, as a criticism not just of Craig but of philosophy in General. He argued that Philosophy just is Theology (not in the sense that they are synonymous, since areas like exegesis or pastoral theology are clearly not ‘philosophy’, but at least all instances of philosophy are instances of theology). He also argued that until Philosophy and Theology are not divided disciplines anymore philosophy will never ‘find itself‘ again. This causes me to think of just how philosophical the Christian tradition (perhaps peculiarly the western Catholic Tradition) really is. For instance it is here in this Latin tradition that we get the father of the philosophy of Language, Peter Abelard. It is here that we get a developed school of Baptized Alexandrian Platonism such as we find in Origen or Clement of Alexandria. It is here that we find Scholasticism itself, the epitome of philosophical theology! Indeed, all of Modern philosophy itself comes immediately out of this one Western Christian tradition and it is always deeply informed by it.

Coming back to the question these reflections previously led to: where did this rupture of the two disciplines of Theology and Philosophy begin in the Christian Tradition? Well, obviously in the medieval period the curriculum for standard education in the “liberal arts” consisted of a Trivium and a Quadrium. The Trivium included Rhetoric, Dialectic (the study of Logic) and Grammar. The Quadrium included Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy and Music. These seven sciences were considered subservient to the greatest of these which was Theology. However, in the wake of Scholasticism this canon of academic curriculum was dissolved, and philosophy and theology were divided into two distinct disciplines. This happened, at least in part, thanks to the contribution of Thomas Aquinas among some others.

Aquinas argues that the formal distinction of philosophy as a science apart from theology is a legitimate one, and though nuance is wanting here, we may be excused if we oversimplify by saying that others, such as Bonaventure, were not keen on this formal distinction. Moreover, what really is the practical significance of this distinction? Obviously Christian philosophers exist, who do philosophy in a ‘Christian’ way, and yet they are admitted by all to be doing philosophy. However, isn’t it also obvious that they are doing theology? Worse still, consider the developments in theological studies since Spinoza and Schleiermacher, where modern theology has been more about participating in a particular way in the human conversation. Modern theologians, perhaps as much as modern philosophers, have one thing in common: that they refuse to talk about metaphysics or ontology (as Pope Benedict XVI points out in his book The Nature and Mission of Theology). However, not only does this seem to disqualify philosophy from being ‘philosophy’ but it also disqualifies theology from being ‘theology’.

A professor of mine once asked a group of students (I was not present, unfortunately) the following question: “how useful do you think it is to use the assumptions of your faith when doing textual criticism?” I always thought I would have loved to answer “Exactly as useful as it is true.” To put it in a more nuanced way, perhaps I could say that it will prove to be useful just to the extent that it happens to be true, and it will prove to be misleading just to the extent that it isn’t. Thus, if one has good reasons to think that their faith is true, that conviction isn’t going to be bracketed out, but rather the believer will feel inclined, justified, and perhaps even privileged, to look to their faith as a guiding light to help them negotiate how to best interpret the evidence. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. After all, prejudices exist everywhere, and the only good reason for always trying to ensure that they don’t colour our thinking currently is that they are, or are likely to be, wrong. But that’s not a very powerful argument when directed against somebody who has solid convictions about their faith which come from an honest search and exploration of the truth. They may be wrong, but they would be epistemically irresponsible to assume that they are wrong, or are likely to be, since they have as much good reason to think that they aren’t wrong as one could be expected to have.

Theology is nothing less (though it may be something more) than the academic pursuit of knowledge from the perspective of faith. There is nothing philosophical which isn’t in principle theological. Philosophy, if it is not to be reduced to a technology in place of a science is about knowledge, and recognizes knowledge as a good which man naturally inclines towards. Philosophy then is oriented to the ultimate happiness of man, and thus to the Summum Bonum. The Summum Bonum is God, however, and thus philosophy is man’s confused quest for God. Theology is man’s quest for God as well. Only if philosophy is defined as man’s quest for knowledge apart from any of the presuppositions of faith can the formal distinction remain. However, that means that Christian philosophers, operating as they do with some of the presuppositions of faith, are not legitimate philosophers. Moreover, it is difficult to see what sense this can have from a theological perspective, since any good use of reason is an instance of Grace which effects good reasoning as its result. There is, then, no reasoning apart from God’s revelation in some general sense (from a theological perspective). So, this distinction seems problematic at first blush. However, I suggest that this distinction could be maintained, and indeed it was even maintained by Bonaventure. Whatever can be demonstrated by reason unaided by explicit appeal to revelation may qualify as philosophy. However, this seems to make philosophy as much a theological discipline as, say, textual criticism. For Bonaventure, although this distinction was real, it was also rather superficial, since philosophy stood under the “verdict of fallibilism” and very immediately led to theology (recall the definition above, thinking and speaking about God). Bonaventure certainly thought that human reason itself, given that it was fallible, could not be made the judge of theology, nor should the project of reasoning apart from revelation become an autonomous discipline not subject to the guidance and correction of theology. If one agrees with Bonaventure, it seems, the distinction between philosophy proper and theology is a real one, and should not be a formal one. At least today this may mean that the Christian who does theology may have exactly the same reasons for doing theology as the Christian who does philosophy, and vice versa.

These thoughts are incomplete, but it is interesting to think along such lines. Perhaps the distinction really is superficial. Moreover it makes one wonder if Bonaventure would have identified what we identify as philosophy today, to be philosophy at all, since it isn’t so clear that it’s Final and Formal causes are God, whether explicitly or implicitly. Perhaps there is a particularly Christian or Theological approach to philosophy which we might call theological philosophy, and which touches every subject that philosophy might touch, though with a different kind of approach.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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