Separating Philosophy and Theology

The Universe

I’ve been so thankful for an amazing week’s teaching with Michael Eaton and R.T. Kendall at Cornerstone Church this week. I’ll post more about that later this week as I go through some of the things that I’ve learned, what these mean to me, and how I intend to apply these things into my practical living. The conference ends tomorrow morning (R50 entry for the day) and is also happening tonight at 6:30pm (free entry).

Eaton has been going through the doctrine of man while Kendall has been doing a commentary on James. Both have been brilliant. In Eaton’s third session he speaks a lot about how we do doctrine and talks about Augustine and where he went wrong and where he went right. That can be downloaded here.

The key point of Eaton’s talk is how Augustine was quite the philosopher, influenced (much like educated people at the time) by Plato. The influence of Greek / Platonic ideas into Christianity is a vast topic and even today we think in very Platonic ways. It’s an ongoing quest and challenge to unlearn our philosophies that we’ve been basically brought up to believe from our mothers milk, as it were, as we learn proper theology and understand the Bible correctly.

Many of those that argue about Christianity take it for granted that their modern logic is superior to the Bible but they fail to see their presuppositions that cloud them seeing the Bible correctly. Conversely, many Christian leaders / teachers / pastors mix general philosophy, cultural philosophy and traditional philosophy (the stuff we’ve inherited from Plato and Augustine etc.) into Christianity and when you challenge these they think you are challenging Christianity itself.

Let me use Eaton’s illustration to show what I mean. In about 24 minutes of his talk he says that when thinking about doctrine we should not draw parallels. What he means by this is that if we read that God chooses people to salvation we cannot assume that means that he chooses who is to be damned. The Bible does not say that people are predestined to hell, only that God predestines those he saves. There is a doctrine of predestination (to salvation) in scripture but there is no doctrine of predestination to hell. It’s simply not in there. (In my words) we should not draw a parallel that if we read X in the Bible then Y must also be true.

“We don’t believe these things because we have worked it all out. The reason why we believe it is because God has revealed himself. He has stepped into our lives and showed us the way He is, and we’re just believing what He says.

“We shouldn’t be worried about this as this is the very proof that it’s from God. If it weren’t true that would be very suspicious. You worship a God you can understand? Surely that is proof that he can’t be the real god,” says Eaton (paraphrased).

My conclusion? Well, in reading the Bible we must ensure we don’t add our own ‘therefore’. Let’s provide a quick example.

Revelation 3:5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.

Many people have drawn a ‘therefore’ from this verse, saying that because Jesus says to those who conquer that their names will not be blotted out the book of life, then it means those who don’t conquer will have their names blotted out. But scripture doesn’t say that. In fact, in studying this scripture we’ll see it uses the figure of speech called litotes – it’s saying exactly what it’s saying only to those who conquer, making no comment at all about those that don’t. Reading it any other way means we read philosophy and logic into the scripture rather than just reading what it says.

So I come to the second conclusion that it’s important we separate philosophy and theology. Much like the separation of church and state, we need a separation of theology and philosophy in our thinking.

For example, the doctrine of predestination can lead to fatalism if people don’t check their philosophy and understand what is philosophy and what is not. The doctrine is not fatalism — it doesn’t mean everything we do is fate and we cannot make choices or that our choices are moot. To draw that parallel from the doctrine is to go further than the doctrine goes, meaning we are using philosophy on the doctrine.

Now that may be fair and well to a point as we go about building a way we should live, as long as we’re not dogmatic about our philosophy claiming that it’s “the Word of God” and that we alone “Hold the Truth”. Examples of this are countless. We have fatalistic calvinism on one hand and open theism (the belief that God chooses not to know all of the future) on another. Both raise valid points, but both take the whole doctrine too far and essentially make use of philosophical arguments and presuppositions to make their point. Then both claim they are preaching the Word when in fact they are not preaching the Word (no matter how well meaning they may be) but are in fact preaching an interpretation of the word, interpreted as such because of a kind of philosophy.

Am I making sense? I hope so. In the end, it’s no problem to build a philosophy of open theism in a philosophical way — in other words, talk and hypothesize and make theories about how the future is open (this is what philosophy is meant to be at root anyway) but don’t insist that we know how God works with the future, because we don’t and we probably never will. God hasn’t told us so we shouldn’t pretend He has.

When it comes to deciding how we should live I like to stick to scripture and relationship with God. No philosophy provides me a clear and peaceful way to make decisions in all situations. What I need is a father, one who can guide me and speak to me in my context and situations. That’s what I have in God and that’s why Philosophy falls short. Theology is meant to show me more of God’s character and tell me how to live in line with that, not expose the secrets of how the universe works in all of its detail. That’s for Philosophy and Science to talk about. So long as we don’t mix the two while ensuring that we (if Christians) are Christians first and (insert philosophy here) second then we shouldn’t have a disparity between the faith we claim and the life we live. We should also not have a disparity between the doctrine we espouse and the Science we enjoy and explore.

With all this in mind it’s probably worth just mentioning that this is why I think Science can never make good theology. Don’t tell me Science is able to tell me the meaning of life. It isn’t. Don’t tell me it disproves God. It can’t. It also cannot prove Him. Because it’s not meant to do that.

Last question then: is your theology actually a philosophy? I think it’s an important question.

6 thoughts on “Separating Philosophy and Theology”

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