The Challenge of Distinguishing Philosophy from Theology

At least from the Christian position, tracing the boundaries of philosophy and theology has proven to be quite difficult.  This is due in part to the fact that classic theological loci have so much to say about philosophy’s subject matter.  Cornelius Van Til once remarked that if one’s philosophy was Calvinistic, then it isn’t philosophy anymore – it is theology.  Herein lies the difficulty.  If the philosopher consciously presupposes the Triune God of the Bible in his system and presents Him as the foundation for epistemology, metaphysics and ethics, what distinguishes the philosophic discipline from the theological?

One approach would simply be to define Christian philosophy as the Christian approach to traditional philosophic categories (i.e. metaphysics, epistemology and ethics).  But this doesn’t seem to make a real distinction at all.  Philosophy would be no more different from theology than, say, ecclesiology would be.  Furthermore, the great theologians dealt with these topics.  Why do we prefer to call them theologians rather than philosophers?  This approach does not satisfy.

Others have suggested that theology is distinguished from philosophy in that theology requires exegesis.  This seems to be a better attempt at a distinction.  But we still speak of “speculative theologians.”  I think the title reveals how we intuitively think about this issue.  We still leave room [often pejoratively] under the category of “theologian” for those who venture into theological spheres without being rooted in exegesis.

Webster defines philosophy as “a search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means.”  This definition does not move us toward a distinction between philosophy and theology at all.  Rather, it underscores the difficulty in making such a distinction.  A Christian philosophy is neither “chiefly speculative” nor “observational.”  Truly Christian philosophy is revelational. And since this is the case, what distinguishes it from theology?

Perhaps it would be wisest to think of Christian philosophy and Christian theology as highly overlapping disciplines that differ ever so slightly in subject matter.  K. Scott Oliphint suggests we should be much more fluid in our understanding of the relationship between these two disciplines.  Whenever engaging in philosophy, the Christian should never put aside his theological thinking.  But there may also be differences in terms of method.  This is an area for further research.  How, specifically, does a presuppositionally consistent Christian engage in an explicitly philosophic endeavor?  I’m not sure anyone has answered that question.

11 Responses

  1. Joel Heflin

    Bavinck would say this is a ‘false dilemma.’ There is never a moment when reason is independent of revelation. It’s the only way scientific inquiry is possible.

  2. Theology (in the ReformedChristian sense) is a study of “special” revelation; Scripture. Philosophy, in substantial contrast, is a study of “general” revelation; creation.

    If all the various academic fields (apart from theology) study some particular dimension of ‘secular’ reality, be it the ‘natural’ fields of the ‘hard’ sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, math, etc; or the ‘social’ and ‘human/cultural’ sciences: psychology, sociology, language, art, history, economics, law, etc; Philosophy studies the natural creation and social-cultural reality in the broader general framework in which all these particular fields hang together.

    For instance, to ask “whether the norms of logic are rooted in language, or psychology, or bio-chemistry, or math, or are rather sui generis”… and to ask “how does one discover logical norms, and from what source”… these are not theological questions, and you don’t find the answers in the Bible! That is, unless you are Gordon Clark and you deny that empirical reality (general revelation) provides real knowledge and you hold that God *is* logic.

    But assuming a non-g.h.clarkian orientation, philosophy and theology can indeed be distinguished according to general and special revelation; ie, the cosmos and the Bible.

    For more about how Reformed religion, in a certain sense, influences a Reformational approach to philosophy & the sciences (but to which they are *not* reducible), see Roy Clouser’s essay “On the General Relation of Religion, Metaphysics and Science” [PDF]

    Hope that helps.

  3. Baus,

    I realize the slippery-ness of the term “natural theology.” The history of theology has provided countless nuances on the subject, but generally speaking, I would define natural theology as an attempt to develop a body of knowledge of God using natural revelation (creation) as its source material.

    I consider that natural revelation must be interpreted in light of special revelation. For instance, Adam was placed in the garden and given general revelation, but he would not have understood his requirements correctly until God told him not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Any natural theology that is not interpreted in light of special revelation is misguided and false as a result of the noetic effects of sin.

    But my point is that even though I think the project of a natural theology apart from special revelation is fundamentally misguided, people still engage in it. And I think it is still properly termed theology.

    I’m interested to hear how you would fit this definition into your suggested method above. I lean more toward Joel when he says this is a “false dilemma” though, I still think the two disciplines have different methodology.

  4. Is dance a form of meteorology (when witchdoctors do the rain dance)?
    I kid. 😉

    In all seriousness, would you say there is a ReformedChristian natural theology?

    Anyway, in my proposal, as you define natural theology… it would not be a false dilemma or fail to fit. Studying created reality in order to develop a view of God would be a “philosophy of God”.

    Yes, the respective methods of study in theology and philosophy differ, but so do the respective “source materials”, and this does not change when you are making conclusions about God from creation (rather than conclusions about creation from creation).

    That said, even if one believes there is a ReformedChristian natural theology, and/or one believes that natural theology is not actually philosophy… then I still recommend the superiority of my proposal over one which supposes there is “significant overlap” between philosophy and theology. In the ReformedChristian sense, there is not significant overlap.

    Might you consider a distinct “Reformational” approach to philosophy & the sciences, for example Clouser’s, and offer your response?

  5. No, I would not say there is a reformed natural theology – or at least one that is not founded upon special revelation. But that isn’t the point. There have been many throughout history who have engaged in natural theology and have constructed systems of belief about God strictly from natural revelation. No doubt this theology is incorrect. But it is still [primarily] a theological endeavor, not a philosophical one.

    I realize you qualified your initial response as a reformed one. Regardless, I’m still not convinced we can cleanly divide the disciplines along the lines of special/general revelation. I’ll look at the materials you mention, but for now I’m still with Oliphint on this one.

  6. Let me make another recommendation to your readers who, like you and Oliphint, find it difficult to distinguish philosophy and theology.

    The following article, again by Clouser, is a “Blueprint for a Non-Reductionist Theory of Reality”. It is Reformational Philosophy, and will help readers grasp how philosophy as an interpretation of general revelation, driven by reformed religion, is possible.


  7. Darry

    do you really believe “fluid” understanding is a better way of describing this relationship?

    You seem to set forth all the needed pieces to infer a much sounder distinction, particularly the requirement for the exegetical grounding of (sound) theology. …but then you abandon this track on account of the notion of “speculative theology” and intuition?


  8. Darry

    I left a post here yesterday, I believe, but it appears to have mysteriously disappeared.

    …is the positive police patrolling your site?

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