So, What Does Athens Have In Common With Jerusalem? The Valuable Contribution of Philosophical Theology

The early apologist Tertullian once exclaimed in his distaste, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? The Academy and the Church?” In his mind, such an attempt to marry the two worlds of philosophy and the gospel resulted in much heresy, confusion, and the dulling of spiritual fervor and growth.[1] He was not alone in this sentiment, for Bernard of Clairvaux of the Middle Ages, for example, shared his views. After all, they would argue that the gospel is God’s superior revealed doctrine as opposed to man’s flawed attempt at understanding reality. To be fair, Tertullian was not blind to the fact that there are truths contained in secular philosophy from which man can grasp certain realities about God. Yet, he believed, man, being the very foundation of human philosophy, is flawed at best and cannot attain such pure and high truth as God has revealed in Scripture. So there is no use in mixing the two. While it is true that man’s reasoning abilities are flawed, is it fair to swing the pendulum too far to the other side? Or is there a pleasing balance that faith and reason can achieve? This author believes it is possible.

Philosophical thought and Christian theism are not altogether at odds with one another. Indeed, theism has benefited philosophy by providing greater insight and answers for matters of mind/body relation, existence, ethics, the problem of evil, God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, and even science in general. Yet, with the many advances of using philosophy to the Christian’s advantage, there still exists the tension of opposing opinions on philosophy within Christian theology. On the one hand, many cry with Tertullian, “What indeed does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” However, one not need be so rash because, on the other hand, theologians such as Justin Martyr, Origen, and Clement of Alexandria believed, “Philosophy is a preparation for the gospel…it [is] ‘a schoolmaster to bring the Hellenistic mind, as the Law, the Hebrews, to Christ.’”[2] Decisively, though, they balanced this view with realizing the limitations of flawed human reason but sought to salvage many basic truths deduced through secular philosophy. In essence, they would skillfully extract from philosophy what was true and would discard or refute what was contrary to Biblical teaching. What’s more, they believed that the exercising of reason in this way can help Christians sharpen their understanding of revealed truths; those things which faith is a precondition but can be undergirded epistemologically to its furthest possible point. William J. Wainright also shares this belief when he wrote, “The mature Christian will therefore use reason and the insights of philosophy to understand (to the extent possible) what he already believes. But faith remains a precondition of the success of this enterprise. For some things must first be believed to be understood.”[3]

As a parenthetical thought, if the entire Church were to take the separatist mentality towards theology and philosophy then where would she stand today considering the volumes of secular contributions contrary to Biblical truth? Undoubtedly, this author agrees with the Lord Jesus Christ who said the gates of hell would not prevail against His church. Thus, in reality nothing will cause the Church to crumble, including secular philosophy. But who is to say that one of the ways of combatting the lofty arguments conjured by the gates of hell would not be accomplished through the use of philosophical theology? One era in particular when the church was bulwarked by such a method was during the Middle Ages. Most prominently in Paris, France, the Church perceived many threats coming from Aristotelian philosophy (specifically, a beginning-less universe, and other tenets) which was further advanced by Muslim scholars such as Avicenna and Averroës. They tended to mystify Aristotelian principles and were successful to some degree to undermine revealed truth. Perhaps the subsequent ecclesiastical constraints on medieval philosophy was an overreaction in an attempt to purge heresy. Nevertheless, it was Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic monk, who spearheaded the efforts to uphold the Christian tenets by means of natural philosophy. The same can be said today, that if more Christians were better equipped in such disciplines (in tandem with the word of God) then heresies would have difficulty thriving.

Returning to the relationship between theism and philosophy, Scott MacDonald also expresses the same views as Wainright when he wrote, “With respect to the content of pagan philosophy, revealed truth serves as the kind of rule the Christian philosopher uses to measure philosophical claims and arguments. With revealed truth in hand the Christian philosopher is in a position to salvage what is true and useful in pagan philosophy while repudiating what is false.” He continues, “With respect to philosophical method – the use of human reason – revealed truth serves as a kind of starting point and guide. The Christian philosopher starts by believing revealed truth and seeks, by the use of reason and with God’s help, to acquire understanding of what he formerly merely believed.”[4] Considering MacDonald’s words, it is evident that there is value in this discipline of not throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. The reason being is that ultimately all truth is God’s truth and if the Christian can separate truth from error then he will gain an upper hand in the secular world as well as in his devotional life.

MacDonald’s words also demonstrate two noteworthy points. First, there are philosophical underpinnings to theism, hence the necessity of prolegomena.[5] Since there exists within Christian theological preconditions[6] it is important to learn what those preconditions are and how to reason through them so that the theist can know how they know what they know. Second, by using God-given reason to understand the truths He has revealed will definitely glorify Him all the more. In some cases, revealed truth perplexes the mind—the Trinity being one of them—but this does not exempt the Christian from at least trying to apprehend truth. Such a pursuit is pleasing to God, especially if he is willing to allow his worldview to be open to criticism.

“For as we engage in rational inquiry, we always find ourselves reasoning from presuppositions held in various ways and reflecting dimensions of our personal and communal history not fully open to scrutiny. In short, all inquiry is “tradition-directed.” Traditions which last must themselves be open to criticism from within, a large part of which will itself be directed to clarifying unexamined presumptions or exploring cultural accretions to ongoing inquiry. So the key to a fruitful philosophical theology will lie in the manner in which its practitioners execute this maneuver of reconciling the twin criteria of faith and of reason, continually examining each set for internal consistency.”[7]

 

In what manner, then, is the theist supposed to defend his or her theological positions without solely relying on revealed truth and being accused of circular reasoning? The answer lies in knowing and learning to articulate the philosophical underpinnings of the Christian faith. Space does not permit to discuss exhaustively what those underpinnings are, but a couple of examples will suffice. These examples are the metaphysical and linguistic preconditions.

The Metaphysical Precondition: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1

At the foundation of theism is the metaphysical (ontological) precondition that there is a God who exists beyond the universe. Approaching this precondition the theist would first need to demonstrate that reality is pluralistic since he believes it was God who created the universe. Orthodox Christians hold the pluralistic view that things differ as complex beings. That is, there is a transcendent God who is separate from His creation. This means that there is an absolute distinction between God and the universe: He is one being (infinite, simple) and the universe and all that is within it is another being (finite, complex). In contrast to this view, the Greek philosopher Parmenides posed the monistic view that all reality is one since being only differs by non-being. He rightly divided being and nonbeing into separate categories, but he erred in concluding that all being is identical. However, other philosophers such as Leucippus, Democritus, Plato, and Aristotle sought a counter argument to monism. They believed that things differ either by absolute nonbeing, relative nonbeing, or simple being. Yet it was Thomas Aquinas who articulated in depth that things differ as complex beings.[8] Hence, God is simple and indivisible as opposed to His creatures that are complex and divisible. If the believer were to provide a sufficient answer to the philosophical assumption of monism then he or she would agree with Aquinas that God is one kind of being while angels, man, and animals are different kinds of beings, just as the Scriptures teach.

Moreover, Aquinas’ metaphysical argument states that all finite effects have causes, and no finite effect can actualize itself, for it needs a cause to exist. And this is the essence of the statement that “something cannot come for nothing,” for nothing cannot produce something.

“Therefore, every being whose essence is not to exist must be caused by another. That is, every being whose essence is distinct from its existence is caused by another. For if it is not of its very essence to exist, then it could not exist. But whatever exists but could not exist does not account for its own existence. It needs another to ground its existence.”[9]

Hence, there must be an uncaused First Cause. No being that is composed of potentiality and actuality can be the reason for its own cause; it necessitates a Pure Act, a Being who has no potentiality but all Actuality, to be the reason for the actuality of all contingents.

In summary, Thomas Aquinas advanced his natural theology argument for God’s existence in five different themes. The first is from Motion. Motion is the most obvious form of change, but motion cannot actualize itself nor can there be an infinite series of actualizers, so there must be a First Actualizer. The second is from Efficient Causality. Similar to the first argument, there cannot be an endless series of efficient causes since nothing can be prior to itself. Therefore there must be a First Efficient Cause. The third is from Contingent beings (described above), which argues that beings that can exist or not exist (potential) are grounded only in a Necessary Being who caused their existence. The fourth is from Gradation of Perfection. The fact that perfection can be understood in degrees suggests that there is a standard of perfection by which all grades of perfection can be measured against. Otherwise there would be no standard for the referent. The fifth is from Design. Aquinas’ development of the teleological argument is based upon the final end of the natural agent, which is guided by the intelligence of the Being.[10] Studying Aquinas’ natural theology demonstrates how immense and far-reaching his contributions have been to Christian theology, for he has provided ample material to respond to the secular world’s objections to theism.

Linguistic Precondition – Speaking of God in Analogous Terms

The second precondition to consider is that of language. Using limited, finite human language to describe an unlimited, infinite God presents obvious language barriers. While univocal language attempts to describe exactly how He is, and equivocal language attempts to describe God completely different than He is, it is analogical language that more accurately attempts to describe God in similar ways. Analogical terms helps to bridge the gap between the restraints of man’s finite language and God’s infinite nature. It is because man’s understanding and language is limited that univocal language is non-attainable to speak of God in exact terms. Sure, “we can have univocal concepts, but they must be applied to God in an analogical way.”[11] The reason is that any qualities man shares with God exist only in intimations, whereas those qualities are inherent and originate in God. And on the contrary, equivocal predication leads only to Skepticism because it claims that nothing can actually be known about God. However, knowledge of God has been clearly revealed in nature and in Scripture, so there are things that can be known about God. Geisler adds, “We do know many things of God; the question is how we know them.”[12] Which leaves the inquirer with the only viable means to understanding God in the best way, and that is through analogous language.

Analogous language is rooted in Causality, that is, there is an analogous relationship between God as the Efficient Cause and His finite creatures (effects). Analogous language is clearly used throughout general and special revelation even though apprehension is not always gained. It is argued that God is the only Uncreated Being (Pure Act) that can possibly exist and if He were to create then those creatures could only be “actuality with potentiality.” This difference in existence lends itself to similarities rather than exactness of nature. So then, “God is not like his creatures in their potentialities but only in their actuality,” hence the argument via negativa.[13] As Dr. Geisler asserts, “We have no positive concepts in our experience that can express the transcendent dimension of God’s unlimited metaphysical characteristics. Therefore, the analogy with which we speak of God will always contain an element of negation” (e.g., man is caused, God is Uncaused; man is finite, God is Infinite, man is temporal, God is Eternal, etc.).[14]

As a result of Efficient Cause, the analogy of intrinsic attribution is used to communicate the similarities of God and creatures in order that man may know something about God. That is, His creatures possess characteristics He possesses but in a similar, though finite way, much in the same way heat produces heat in an object. This is how man is able to understand God in his finite way. Geisler further illustrates this crucial point in writing,

“As Plotinus correctly observed, God cannot possess perfections the way created things possess them; in this sense God does ‘produce what he does not possess’… because God doesn’t really possess the finite characteristics found in His creation. God does not have being and wisdom; God is being and wisdom. Hence, whatever limitations are found in creaturely perfections must be completely negated of God, since He is unlimited (infinite) in His being.”[15]

To personalize the principle of via negativa and to put it simpler terms, the reader can track this example. Since man’s experience of certain attributes provides, at best, a skewed understanding of them, he can only express an analogy with limitations. For example, if a person were to say, “God loves me like I love my child,” that person is aware that his love is imperfect and even though he loves his child indescribably it is still an imperfect love. As comforting as it may be that God’s love for him is like the his own love for his child, it would be discomforting to think God’s love falls short at times, as the his often does. So then, via negativa will allow the man to communicate what God’s love is not when compared to his own love. To further clarify this example, consider that man’s love can get impatient, but God’s love does not, it is long-suffering; man can get frustrated, but God does not get frustrated; man can lose his temper, but God does not lose His temper; etc. In this way, by describing what God’s love is not like, a clearer picture emerges of what it is like—perfect.

By now the reader should understand that the metaphysical and linguistic preconditions of the Christian faith are best explained through various philosophical methods. Aquinas’ Ontological deliberations provide answers for the cumulative evidence for God’s existence. And analogy is the optimal approach to answer the philosophical dilemma of religious language.

In conclusion, does Athens have anything to do with Jerusalem? Much in everyway! Even the Apostle Paul seized the opportunity to meet the philosophers at their level when he was passing through Athens. The seventeenth chapter of the Book of Acts records his evangelistic sermon in which he quoted a Greek poet and philosopher to reinforce the Biblical truth he wanted to proclaim. He quoted Epimenides of Crete declaring, “‘In him we live and move and have our being.’” He also quoted Aratus’s poem Phainomena shouting, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’” Paul was no stranger to Greek philosophy and secular thought; otherwise he would not have been able to skillfully apply their teachings into his sermon. To Paul, philosophy was a tool to proclaim the gospel and he most definitely used it as a schoolmaster to bring the Hellenistic mind to Christ. This is because general and special revelation are not contradictory and are subject to the laws of logic as anything else is. Consequently, when the theist employs his God-given reasoning abilities he will discover how he knows God’s revealed truth. Furthermore, he can also use special revelation to correct the errors of false and vain philosophy. In this way, one can view philosophical theology as global reasoning within the Christian context.

There is one last point the reader should consider. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, He responded by saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37, emphasis added). God commands man to love Him with everything he has, and this includes his mind. This author believes that God desires His saints to discover the depths of knowledge concerning the faith, “Because,” as Harold Brown bluntly asserted, “the sacrifice of the intellect is a violent affront to the integrity of one’s soul, it is always dangerous and certainly is a poor way to begin to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind.”[16]

 

References

 

Brown, Harold O.J. (1988) Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church. Baker Book House Company.

Geisler, Norman L. (2011). Systematic Theology In One Volume. Bethany House Publishers.

Geisler, Norman L. (2003). Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal. Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Taliaferro, Charles; Draper, Paul; Quinn, Philip L. (2010). A Companion To Philosophy of Religion, Second Edition. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 

[1] William J. Wainwright. A Companion to Philosophy of Religion; Christianity, pg. 63

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. pg. 64

[4] Scott MacDonald. A Companion to Philosophy of Religion; The Christian Contribution to Medieval Philosophical Theology, pg. 92.

[5] Prolegomena is the need to make introductory explanations or remarks prior to expounding on the issue at hand.

[6] See Norman Geisler’s treatment on the metaphysical, supernatural, revelational, rational, semantical, epstiemological, oppositional, linguistic, hermeneutical, historical, and methodological preconditions of evangelicalism in volume one of his Systematic Theology.

[7] David Burrell. A Companion to Philosophy of Religion; The Islamic Contribution to Medieval Philosophical Theology, pg. 103.

[8] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, pg. 19-20.

[9] Norman Geisler, Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal, pg. 121.

[10] See this post on the evidence for God’s existence.

[11] Norman Geisler. Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal, pg. 137.

[12] Ibid. pg. 138.

[13] Ibid. pg. 141.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Chapter 9, pg. 106-7.

[16] Harold O.J. Brown. Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church, pg. 152.

Featured Image courtesy of: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Areopagus_sermon

 

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