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The Role of Philosophy in the Theological Method

Fisseha Tadesse Feleke


The aim of this paper is to examine the role of philosophy in theology. Situated as it was within the liturgical

life of the Church, theology in its origin was doxological. In the modern age, however, Christian scholarship in

the West has changed course and theology sought to secure a place within the academy; it became scientific.

Thus, like experts in other disciplines, theologians have ever since been pressed hard to follow certain methods

of inquiry that are dominant in the modern university; otherwise it would have been impossible for them to

converse with, and be accepted as scientists or scholars by, other members of the academy. Or so did they feel.

Underlying the modern scientific method, there have actually been certain principles that were meant to keep

the unity of all sciences inasmuch as they seemed to be accepted across disciplines, though not without debate

and always subject to revision. Such principles were supplied by philosophy.

One may ask, why should theology seek a place within the academy and be entangled with philosophy?

Moreover, besides this seemingly extraneous influence, philosophy has also played a role much more pertinent

to theology, namely, in defining and justifying the principles of its internal organization, the method it follows

and the presuppositions it should accept. However, there is no denying the fact that not a few theologians have

been wary of this.

In this paper, I want to touch upon the reason why theology needs philosophy in regard to its situation within

the broader academic community. More specifically, I would like to examine if and to what extent philosophy

can be intrinsically useful to (a genuinely theological) theology.

The Scientific Status of Theology

The status of theology as science has not been incontrovertible. Indeed “few theological issues have been

debated with as much academic and, more than occasionally ideological, fervour as the status of theology as

science or Wissenschaft” (Zachhuber, 1). Some advocates of theology’s status as science thought that it “would

concurrently. they understood theology as a critical discourse that can be communicated between . and their work. Zachhuber further describes this nineteenth-century project of theology “as the intersection of two problems of very different provenance. he says. after all? Ever since the dawn of Enlightenment. at the internal integration of historical and systematic disciplines within theology” (ibid. Indeed. they still can be considered rationalists in the broader sense of the term. This is not to deny Schleiermacher’s rejection of “the enlightened ideal of a rational religion in favor of historical ‘positive’ religions” (Zachhuber 11).). Who would in his/her right mind want that dreadful event to repeat itself.” while the second he holds to be “the need to classify theology within an overall system of knowledge institutionalized in the university” (2).” The first. so did Enlightenment thinkers supposed. is “the justification of modern theology as a critical discourse whose parameters are not automatically set by church doctrine or ecclesial tradition. It means only that modern theologians like Schleiermacher took the challenge to engage in rational reflection about the beliefs and practices posited by the historical religions they did as well as did not happen to be part of.” I think it suffices to recall the most destructive religious war that raged 17th Century Europe. there seems to be an inscription engraved at the entrance of the temple of reason: “No more religious war!” And if there needs to be no more religious war. theology then should become a rational enterprise to be done critically. admission into intellectually respectable places of learning” while opponents considered the adoption of modern ideas of science as “a grave danger to the proper pursuit of the discipline” (ibid. Kant.” Johannes Zachhuber notes that “their perception as scientific theologians is more than the product of clever self-promotion but hints at their strong commitment to a programme aimed at the integration of theology into the broader paradigms of contemporary academic work and.grant theologians. Although most important theologians like Schleiermacher resisted the total reliance on reason and gave a prominent place for non-rational sources of theology. without surrendering to rationalism in the narrow sense. One of the most influential exponents of the Enlightenment and the highly esteemed father of critical philosophy. In order to see the problem with “parameters automatically set by church doctrine or ecclesial tradition. there needs to be no element of Schwärmerei in any religion. dared thus to limit religion within the bounds of reason.). In his study of nineteenth century German scholars who were “particularly associated with the project of a science of theology.

or science has historically been a by-product of this institutional setting. namely. and rightly so… (63). in its answerability! For. Rationality is extremely significant in theological method as such. as the methodical interpretation of our ultimate concern. he asserts: Theology is the rational ‘word’ about God. It does not give the content. it is important to note that the main reason for theology to situate itself within the overall system of knowledge may not necessarily come from without. but also in dealing with its own subject matter. But it gives the form… (23). historically. it is the methodical interpretation of our ultimate concern. The rational element is not a source of theology. Paul Tillich lists three elements of theology: the positive. In an article entitled The Problem of Theological Method. Elaborating on the rational element. while the content is posited by faith. the rational and the element of immediacy. To be sure. of the university. Tillich admits that the relation between form and content is extremely . But. when he says: Christian theology’s truth-claims must be brought into some kind of relation to what is sought and studied as truth elsewhere in the manifold intellectual life of the contemporary university… And if theology attempts to reinvigorate claims to be some kind of Queen of all sciences without engaging in such work—meeting historians on the ground of historical research or moral theorists on the ground of moral theory—then they are likely to be regarded with derision by colleagues in this other disciplines. the Apostle Peter instructs believers “to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you” (1Peter 3:15).” that is. According to Zachhuber. “the very question of theology’s character as an academic discipline. already in the beginning of Christianity. That may be so. George Pattison nicely captures the consequences of theology’s institutional dependency on the university. its form. it lies in its own very nature. The rational element gives theology.scholars of various confessional stances--and this sits well with their conception of science as a social pursuit that can thrive only under the condition of freedom. scientia. Reason as Tool in the Theological Method Theology relies on rational and critical reflection not merely in its interaction with other academic disciplines. on the other hand.

Whether this would create a conflict with philosophy. Also equally important is the fact that.N.complex. reason’s role is portrayed “not so much as a source as an interpretative tool” (89). 28.17). upon which he builds the method of correlation. if ever. Williams takes reason to be more akin to operating system than a databank. or elaborated philosophical terms” (25). he makes a distinction between two types of theology: the kerygmatic and the apologetic. and how so. preach. becomes clear from the following pages. pre-philosophical. reason functions as a tool in the interpretation of scripture and tradition” (79). This is nicely summed up in his analysis of Gregory of Nazianzen’s position: “the tool with which we think theologically. More now on the use of reason in theology. if it does. Williams. mirroring the qualities of its two chief subjects. “the kerygma is related to the pre- philosophical and the philosophical interpretations of reality” (24). Nazianzen's theology does not turn on the opposition of nature . A. and the criticisms directed against. Tillich sees here an intimate connection between the positive and the rational elements. to which reference can be made because it is acknowledged by both sides” (ibid. appealed to reason as a warrant. “The method of correlation is especially the method of apologetic theology. Having examined a range of works from early Church Fathers to modern theologians.). rather. claims that “as long as theology remains a form of discourse. instead of confirming to the opposition often made between reason and grace. In his careful analysis of this complex relation. “Theological arguments have rarely. and divine in its origin. is the acknowledgement of theology as “a form of double mimesis in its rationality and relationality. implied in man’s existence. and asked in primitive.” Tillich says. For Tillich. he depicts reason itself as a gift. genuinely ours. System and Ratio. and this likeness is therefore itself a divine gift. The element of human nature that resembles God is the mind (nous. Not unlike Tillich.” he further explains that such an answering “is possible only if there is a common ground between the one who asks and the one who answers” (ibid. in his The Architecture of Theology: Structure. “In the apologetic type. One of the merits of his study. a concrete religion. Maintaining that theology as an apology “makes answer. Tillich claims thus: “Apologetic theology presupposes the idea of universal revelation. God and humanity” (1).). it must employ human reason” (7).” that it “answers the questions asked of. I think. he observes. Question and answer must be correlated in such a way that the religious symbol is interpreted as the adequate answer to a question. and contemplate is human.

if theology is possible. part of what enabled metaphysics to be a legitimate science has been the notion of grounding. What supports the whole edifice of theology? In what is theological knowledge. . “The central theme of the Barth/Plantinga proposal is. “(and every other discipline for that matter) should readily and without anxiety concede that the skeptic’s burden of proof cannot be met” (168). The dilemma. it means human knowledge of God is possible. However.” he says. “even if God's existence were demonstrable on purely rational grounds (and is not merely rationally plausible). an additional gift. “its theo-foundational epistemology. theology cannot aspire to certitude. Diller claims to have advanced a better proposal that he develops in light of the thoughts of two intellectual giants. Nevertheless. however. This tangled situation leads precisely to what Kevin Diller describes as “theology’s epistemological dilemma”. Neither is he compelled to follow some form of “non-realism” to adjust what is meant by the truth of such knowledge. as Williams rightly observes. namely with metaphysics. is this: “Defending theological knowledge by providing a noncircular demonstration of its grounds is not a human possibility. So reason for Williams is nothing but gift. one in Christian theology and the other in Christian philosophy—Alvin Plantinga and Karl Barth. most of the remainder of Christian theology is not” (13). so for him there is no tension in speaking of a natural gift” (134). as Diller puts it. and grace. for. On the other hand. as much later theology does. Christian theology confesses that the knowledge of God—as God really is—is a human possibility” (167). Diller is not convinced by the arguments of natural theology that seek to meet the skeptic’s burden of proof. Question of Foundation A question arises.” as Diller develops it. as to how far human reason may reach and to what extent the knowledge it acquires can be certain. Instead. Nevertheless. or human knowledge of any kind for that matter. grounded? On the one hand. the acknowledgement of human epistemic limitations does not force Diller to go all the way down with the skeptics and reduce or remove the commitment to knowledge altogether. in which the triune God is the ground of the warrant for our knowledge of him” (294). In metaphysics. and grace too is gift. The whole question of ground is in fact tied up with a form of philosophy. No doubt. there indeed is a distinction between the two. “Christian theology.

which “does not solely lead to its ‘end’ but also to its transcendence. is doubtful. transcendent in every sense. namely. “purus actus non habens aliquid de potentialitatae” for St Thomas Aquinas. but according to that of the donation” (ibid. The question that has brought metaphysics to life and has sustained it ever since is best expressed by Leibniz: why is there something rather than nothing? Now what knocks down this famous question is “the question that asks in return ‘Why ask why?’” As thinking about universal grounding. for Marion. If things are to be revealed according to the aspect of donation. Specifically. Marion believes that phenomenology can go further than this. “sufficient reason of the universe” in Leibniz” (284).God has been assimilated into the function of final ground. Acknowledging the absolutely dominating effect of such a state of affairs even “as an overwhelming event. Marion asserts. emphasis mine). Yet. At this point some would think that they are left only with “a choice between philosophical silence (291) and unreasoning faith” (290). With it. from metaphysics to phenomenology. would not therefore appear” (290). as Marion rightly observes. if ever he will have one? Given the phenomenological reduction. in order to reveal them no longer according to the aspect of the ground. then. which is “the suspension of all transcendence.” that is. the replacement of metaphysica specialis (to which theology belongs) by phenomenology is. Marion is making here a move from one form of philosophy to another. “a handing-over: returning to things themselves. But whether “the overthrow of such metaphysics – which is also the overthrow of secularity. a theology that is built upon such a metaphysical grounding must also fall. And.” Marion observes. in philosophy. metaphysics “cannot but collapse. when the obvious necessity of there being a grounding of being turns out to be thrown into question” (283). The “end of metaphysics” brings about the “death” of “God” conceived as effective ground. that “‘God’ in his very dazzlingness . which he praises for its “transparent method and naked thought” (289).” Marion speaks nonetheless of the transitivity of metaphysics. and possibly to the same things. through all the stations of the history of philosophy this ground has been interpreted “from the stand point of effectivity or actuality: τη ουσια ων ενεργεια in the words of Aristotle.” amounts to an announcement of “the project of postmodernism” (xxiv). causa sui according to Descartes. of ‘God’ as the effective ground” (283). where will then the place of God be. “’God’. he thinks namely. as Graham Ward wishes to argue. a “transcendence of onto-theology [which] becomes the condition for going beyond the naming.

philosophy. if any. He indeed is one of the two founders of phenomenology. it is important to observe with Pattison. “Wege – nicht Werke” (Ways. not works!)—this was the motto Heidegger wanted to be used as a principle of editing his Gesammtausgabe. … “God” becomes invisible not in spite of his donation. …a donation by abandonment” (292). What is to be learnt from this is that when studying Heidegger’s view on any topic. In regards to the topic at hand. Apparently.shines by his absence. The difference between ontic sciences on the one hand and the ontological science. it was Heidegger who showed that metaphysics as onto-theology reached its positive conclusion in Hegel and its negative in Nietzsche. And so there exists an absolute difference between philosophy and non-philosophical sciences. his “Complete ‘Works’” (GA 1). that “the end of metaphysics is not a datable historical event” and that “Metaphysicians continue to exist” (65). Be that as it may. is possible only through a changeover of attitude. Heidegger considers philosophy as the only ontological science while he holds theology to be one of the many ontic sciences. he has assigned to philosophy in theology. but by virtue of this donation. philosophy on the other lies in this: ontic sciences direct themselves to something given but do not ask about their very givenness. it involves transposition. which “end” actually seem to cause many to jump in happiness but hardly any to mourn. the other one being his teacher Husserl. Yet what this end amounts to is far from obvious. i. they just presuppose the givenness of their objects--that beings are disclosed in one way or another enables a pre-scientific or scientific reference to beings. But the ontological science. . that is. In fact. that is..e. An ontic science is a science that deals with beings (entities) whereas an ontological science is a science that is concerned with being (in general/as such). It is thus important to examine what use. he is the one who announced the end of metaphysics. He specifies two basic possibilities of science: ontological and ontic. that Heidegger came to a “naked thought” through a “transparent method” of phenomenology is certain. the science of being. As is well known. one should not get into the habit of looking for a fixed Heideggerian concept but rather always pay attention to the change of perspectives in the various stages of his thought development and also to the provisionary character of the categories he employs. however. Heidegger views the relation between theology and philosophy as one between two sciences.

A speculative knowledge of God does not stem from the basic religious experience but rather attains its goal by way of explicating the idea of being. Again. Moreover. the idea of the divine does not grow out of the explication of what was accessed in the basic religious experience. der gekreuzigte Gott) (GA 9. 56). theology. In one of his early Freiburg lectures. human existence is put before God by God. The pre-theological disclosedness of this being distinguishes itself basically from all other pre-scientific availability of beings in that it takes the form of revelation that happens only in belief. In fact theology is knowledge of God. emphasis mine). and yet theological (revealed) “theology is not a speculative knowledge of God” (ibid. And belief for Heidegger is not merely taking sentences as true on the authority of others. 52). the specific historicity of which is testified “only for belief in the Scriptures” (ibid. the crucified God” (Christus. he . such way of existence is rather a gift. it is not possible for human beings to attain to such a way of existence on their own. The Crucifixion is a historical event. its positum. 49).In a lecture entitled „Phenomenologie und Theologie“ and was given in 1927. According to Heidegger. 59.). in another lecture of the same era. Heidegger asserts that “theology is a positive science and as such absolutely different from philosophy” (die Theologie ist eine positive Wissenschaft und als solche daher von der Philosophie absolut verschieden) (GA 9. has in no way God as its object. Heidegger thus points out: “There is the necessity of a fundamental confrontation with Greek philosophy and its disfiguration of Christian existence” (GA 59. 40). it is rather to be understood as “a way of existence of human beings” (eine Existenzweise des menschlichen Daseins) (ibid. In fact it is a positive theology of a unique kind. Oriented to the cross. because belief “can be won only through belief” (einsig nur durch den Glauben gewonnen werden kann) (ibid. the being that somehow already disclosed to it is “Christ. Furthermore. What theology is presented with. but Θειον is rather the expression for the highest character of being that emerges from the ontological radicalization of the idea of being-moved” (GA 62. Heidegger gives an example: “For Aristotle. is Christianity. 53).). It is important to note also that it is not the business of theology to ground and justify belief. 389). which literally means discourse about God. And the orientation of belief towards God as a way of existence is in essence a becoming changed over of existence (“Und so ist seinem Sinn nach… das Gestelltwerden vor Gott ein Umgestelltwerden der Existenz in und durch die glaubig ergriffene Barmherzigkeit Gottes”) (ibid.

). Concluding Remark: Safeguarding Mystery . Heidegger later came to believe that the religious way of existence was incompatible with that of the philosophical. Heidegger now thinks. its Christianity” but only in regards to its scientificity. but again uniquely restricted way” “nur in einer zwar grundsätzlichen. It is not the belief then. 66). but it needs philosophy “not for grounding and primary disclosure of its positivity. Why not? We may ask though with Gunther Polzner.” in which “God plays a role merely as epistemological auxiliary saint [Nothelfer]” (ibid. At this point. namely. was sich nach Heidegger nicht vereinen last: radikales Fragen und glaubigs Existieren”) (84).” And this for him precludes the possibility of Christian philosophy. and this it does only as a Christian philosophy (“Die Philosophie kann ihre korrektive (mitleitende) Funktion der Theologie gegenuber nur als christliche Philosophie ausuben”) (ibid. radical questioning and religious existence (“etwas in sich vereinen. aber doch eigenartig eingeschränkten Weise” (GA 9. he/she must be able to combine what according to Heidegger cannot be combined. and that again. When it is so.). which questioning Heidegger holds is not possible for a believer. that needs philosophy. the only problem Heidegger had was with that which was “wrongly called Christian philosophy. 61). The way to a primordial Christian – Greek-free [griechentum-freien] – theology” (ibid. Philosophy is free questioning of human existence left entirely to itself. In fact he considered the two ways of existence as deadly enemies to each other. the way of existence dedicated to philosophy is characterized as “existence turned solely on its own. philosophy can exercise a corrective (co-directive) function over against theology. “only in an in fact fundamental. In fact theology needs philosophy. 43) and not with Christian philosophy as such. Polzner believes that the religiously existing theologian can indeed—nay. Whereas the religious way of existence has no power of its own but is rather a donated way of existence. but the conceptual-scientific appropriation in the form of theology. Heidegger reminds us. Christian philosophy. must—question radically. would be „a wooden iron pure and simple“(ein ‚hölzernes Eisen‘ schlechthin) (GA 9. Christian not a label for a bad and epigonal Greek one.speaks of “The true idea of Christian philosophy.

and in that sense enigmatic” (6). of “The tendency of creation order thinking to see the ‘creational’ and the ‘normative’ as virtually synonymous” (16). thereby advancing a Greek-free Christian thinking that would safeguard “what is inherently mysterious. Recall that part of the problem with the metaphysical form of philosophy was its obsession with specific conceptions purported to correspond to certain permanent order of reality.By way of conclusion. biblical. or rather to obscure. wondrous.). a corrective resistance. and what went wrong with Christian philosophy was its assimilation of God merely as a guarantor of such an order of reality. two-realm split between facts and values. Recall also that the content of theology comes from belief in Scripture. What needs to be sought is thus not an outright rejection of philosophy but a recognition of the limit of its use. As he has succinctly concludes. his is rather a radical questioning. He therefore calls the whole creation order thinking to question. Now the language used by theologians to express. our celebration of the enigmatic gift and promise of existence and our academic insight into the order of and for creation may enrich one another” (19). But he goes on his part even further to relativize both reason and creation order. However. Nicholas Ansell ably shows how such a thinking would foreclose a genuine sense of the phenomenon and bring about the loss of “the enigmatic quality of experience” attested to in the wisdom literature as well as other parts of the Scripture (5). Bibliography 1 This reminds us of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s framing of reason within the bounds of religion! . However. Ansell’s is not a total rejection of order. they speak of creation order. let me give a perfect example of questioning that is compatible with the religious way of existence. of course. Ansell is quick also to point out that his “(ante-nomian) relativisation is not (anti- nomian) eradication” (ibid. as causa sui. the assimilation of metaphysical concepts may sound. as epistemological auxiliary saint (Nothilfer). in an article where he takes issue of doing theology ‘along certain lines. Ansell admires reformational philosophy for seeking “to counter the inflation of reason by saying that the normative order we need is more than-rational and that rational-conceptual knowing does not have the privileged access we think it has” (17)1.’ along Western metaphysical lines. “No longer separated by the dubious.

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