God, Revelation & Authority Vol. 1, Chapter 11

Posted: February 2, 2011 in Uncategorized

William P. Alston contrasts the two disciplines (of philosophy and theology) this way: Philosophy of religion, he writes, “is distinguished from theology by the fact that it takes nothing for granted, at least nothing religious; … it takes the liberty of calling anything into question. Theology, in the narrow sense of that term, sets out to articulate the beliefs of a given religion and to put them into systematic order, without ever raising the ultimate question of their truth” (6:287). This halts short of stating that theology centers in unreflective commitment; it calls to mind, nonetheless, the claims of logical positivists who debunked all metaphysics, theology and philosophy of religion alike, as nonsense. Yet Alston clearly implies that philosophy has crown rights to reason and truth and that theology thrives in a climate of unreasoning prejudice.  Carl F.H. Henry p. 181-182.

Theology and philosophy have had a long and complicated relationship.  Recently, neo-orthodox theologians like the highly influential Karl Barth have disparaged philosophy as nothing but a vain human attempt to reach truth that belongs exclusively to the divine like the builders of the tower of Babel. 

Historically there have been three approaches to philosophy by theologians set by Tertuallian, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.  Tertullian viewed blazed the trail adopted by Barth, viewing reason as nearly opposed to faith.  Aquinas, on the other hand, arguably elevated reason above divine revelation while Augustine sought a middle-ground where revelation is given the priority but is more fully informed by logic. 

Aquinas’ legacy is a mixed one–his elevation of reason above revelation eventually led to the dismissal of revelation all together.  Following in Aquinas’ wake, Renee Descartes, apparently with the best of intentions, shifted the mediation of truth from revelation to the mind and empirical observation.  Philosophers like Spinoza and Hegel emerged claiming that reason would explain what religion had unduly romanticized even though the latter wanted to save Christianity from the attacks of the enlightenment.  Like Aquinas and Descarte, however, Hegel gave away so much that it took little for philosophers like Comte to reject it all in favor of “science.” 

After Comte, came Kant (confused yet?) who dismissed more than a thousand years of Christian doctrine with a brush of his hand arguing that our inherent desire for justice and other moral beliefs could justify a person in claiming a god existed but could not argue rationally for the existence of the divine. 

Following Kant, the very influential thinker Freiderich Schleiermacher argued that “knowledge” deals with observable phenomenon but that religion is purely subjective.  The next truly influential theologian Karl Barth cast a pox on all philosophers arguing that their faith in reason or subjective emotion had proven disastrous in the wake of the corpse filled trenches of World War I. 

Barth argued that God truly had revealed Himself in Scripture and that it is pure arrogance to elevate reason above revelation. Yet, Barth cut such a fissure between revelation and reason that his proposed “dogmatics” had nothing to say outside the church and could not answer the aggressive challenge of atheist thinkers.  Moreover, as anyone who has read Barth knows, his thinking is barely intelligible even to those inside the camp. 

All of this may be confusing to those who have not studied the history of philosophy with the zeal of raging geeks with no life like me but, at the end of the day, Henry’s point is that both the paths set by Aquinas and Tertullian were errant.  It is foolish hubris to believe that our limited reason should be set above divine revelation and it is equally arrogant to assume, as Barth does, that God is not powerful enough to reveal Himself in ways that are intelligible even through the imperfect tool of human language.  Philosophy is a helpful aid to fully comprehending God’s revelation but the servant is not above its master.  When man has elevated reason above the dictates of his very creator, the results have been disastrous but when man has ignored reason the results have been sectarian and muted the church even in the face of evil such as Nazism. 

Tomorrow, Henry asks the question, “Is Theology a Science?”  Stay tuned my friends.

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