Theology and Philosophy

In an article discussing the theology of Albert Ritschl, Herman Bavinck writes that throughout history Christian theology “fashioned for herself a philosophy or appropriated an existing one such that as that of Aristotle as she had need of it and could use it without doing harm.”[1] The relationship of Christian theology to philosophy is a complicated subject. Both disciplines seek to answer the most significant of questions; questions regarding the nature of meaning, of life, value and ultimate reality, thus rendering the interaction of the two inevitable. Defining the precise character of that interaction, however, is the debated topic. More specifically, one must ask these questions: is Christianity more symbiotically connected to a particular existing philosophy, or is it indifferent to them such that a Christian theologian is free to adopt whichever philosophy he finds useful as long as it doesn’t contradict the main theological and soteriological content of the faith? Should Christianity be tethered to a philosophy at all—doesn’t Christianity provide a full-orbed alternative, as Bavinck says, with the capacity to fashion for herself her own philosophy, providing from its own internal resources a prescribed epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics? These questions control the history of the discussion, and thus three answers begin to emerge in answer to those questions.

The first option argues that Christianity not only requires a philosophical inheritance, but also that it is more organically tied to particular philosophies over others. One can trace this position back to as early as the 2nd century apologist, Justin Martyr, who argued that Christianity was the true philosophy, superior to but substantially in continuity with Platonism.[2] Likewise, contemporary examples of this kind of position abound. J.P. Moreland and Charles Taliaferro, to show a couple of cases, argue that Christianity ought to stand on “first philosophy,” which, for them, entails the validity of beginning with first-person commonsense intuitions that are justified prior to any argumentation.[3] This position claims that the epistemological priority of first-person phenomenology and the adoption of Common Sense Realism isn’t just an option that Christians are free to take, but rather that it is the philosophy that ought to be wedded to the Christian worldview. The claim also often involves the belief that Christian special revelation, the Bible, prescribes no explicit philosophy for Christians to adopt, and it is the task of reason to fill this lacuna. Reason, in turn, is normally associated with the category of general revelation: Special revelation tells us theological truths, and reason, as a function of general revelation, provides the broader metaphysical and epistemological framework that confronts the truths of special revelation. Here reason and Scripture play as dual authorities in two respective realms.

The second option agrees with the first that it is the role of reason to discern a philosophy which complements that which is found in special revelation, but is indifferent to which philosophy fits Christianity best. Though some accounts of philosophy can be ruled out with urgency, by and large under certain restrictions, the philosophical position one adopts on, say, the question of knowledge is an open one. One representative of this sort of position is Paul Helm, who argues that, relative to epistemology and Reformed orthodoxy, “any epistemology that [is consistent with Scripture] warrants uses of our senses and intellect, and any account of such a warrant that is not at odds with reliance upon the senses and intellect, will do.”[4] So,

. . . though we may rely proximately on some philosophy, such as Scottish Common Sense Realism, the epistemology of the Stoics, or of Aristotle, or of modern externalism, for the articulating and expressing of epistemological realism presupposed in Scripture, ultimately our reason for endorsing it (apart from its indispensability in life) is that though there is no revealed epistemology, some account is presupposed or implied in Scripture itself, in its testimony to the objectivity of the created order, including human writings, and their success in being able to gather reliable information from such sources.[5]

Helm himself ultimately endorses a form of realism, but allows, also, the possibility of Christianity identifying itself with versions of idealism, commending both Jonathan Edwards and Robert Adams in this regard as viable options.[6] Again, a dualism is assumed: reason has the freedom to construct and select an existing philosophy, because Christian special revelation, as far as Helm is concerned, says nothing about epistemology or metaphysics per se. The difference here, from the first position, is that no particular philosophy, whether realism or idealism, has a more organic connection to Christianity, so long as the philosophy in question warrants the use of our intellect, and conceives of external reality as epistemically accessible.

The third option maintains that Christianity possesses a complete alternative. Though Christianity may plunder other philosophies for tools and insights, and though Christianity may pose answers that show a formal similarity with other philosophies, Christianity has the sufficient internal resources for the construction of a complete worldview. This position, thus, takes shape in two ways. The first holds that because Christianity provides a unique worldview that cannot subsume alternate philosophies without compromising its substance, Christian theology must coin new conceptual terms and tools in order to convey its content. T.F. Torrance, for example, holds to this position:

Knowledge of new realities or events calls for correspondingly new ways of thinking and speaking, in which new concepts and terms have to be coined, or in which ordinary forms of thought and speech have to be stretched, adapted and refined and to make them appropriate to the new realities to which they are intended to refer.[7]

Coupled with the above positive prescription is a negative assessment of Thomas Aquinas, who, in Torrance’s view, has a position “in which the doctrine of the One God was divided from the doctrine of the Triune God, as though the doctrine of the One God could be set out rationally by itself, while the doctrine of the Triune God could be accepted only on the ground of divine revelation.”[8] Torrance critiques that strand of Christian-theism which holds that Aristotelian realism is somehow closer to Christianity than other forms of philosophy, as if a continuum exists between the two. For Torrance, Christian theology deals with a distinct subject matter—a subject matter that finds its ground, authority, and intelligibility on its own terms.

Cornelius Van Til coincidentally echoes this kind of position. In his critique of Bavinck, he endorses the position that only one principium must sustain all of the sciences, the principium cognoscendi of God’s revelation. So, “[I]t is difficult to see how dogmatics is to live by one principle if it is not the same principle that is to guide or thinking both in theology and in other science . . . we shall have to apply that principle when we work out an epistemology no less than when we are engaged in dogmatics proper.”[9] As an implication, in Van Til’s view, no “amount of trimming” can bring the substantial principles of Aristotelianism (or Idealism) “into shape for Christian use.”[10] Hence, Christian-theism forms a whole unit, not a composite of an alien philosophy and a set of theological propositions.

Nonetheless, Van Til poses a different fashion of applying this third position. In this second way, instead of coining new terms, following the Torrancean endorsement, Van Til sees value in using existing philosophical terms and refilling them with content grounded in divine revelation. In that way, Van Til was comfortable in, say, utilizing the language of limiting concepts, or a method of implication, and other distinctly idealist terminology in order to put them into use for Christian-theism, provided that we give them sufficient redefinition.

One might still wonder, however, if the decision to pour new content into old terms may render oneself unnecessarily vulnerable to misinterpretation. In an essay responding to Van Til’s theory of knowledge, Stoker critiques Van Til for his tendency to incorporate Idealist terms in his writing precisely because it might lend itself to serious misunderstandings, even while he notes that Van Til does redefine them biblically.[11] Knowledge of the history of interpretation of Van Til’s works vindicates Stoker’s concerns, Van Til has been accused of being a fundamentalist, on the one hand, and an idealist on the other hand—two mutually exclusive points of criticism.[12] The misunderstanding, of course, is because of that decision to utilize the language of a pre-existing philosophy.

In any case, both Van Til and Torrance hold to a view that, I think, presents a consistent approach despite the significant theological differences between them. For the two theologians Christian-theism is a unit that justifies itself, sufficient within itself, and potent by itself. In it one encounters the true Triune God, who has the authority and capacity to inform us that which we need to know about the world. Divine revelation is thus the norming norm for the pursuit of knowledge, most directly in theology, more directly in anthropology (and thus in philosophy and history), and, perhaps, a little less directly in all the other sciences. The distinction between general and special revelation, in turn, doesn’t entail an epistemological dualism. Christianity, again, isn’t a composite hybrid, but a consistent whole and must be treated as such.

So, I offer and collate here three views, at least, with regard to the relationship of philosophy to Christianity. A further question for more reflection could be this: underlying this debate is a more fundamental disagreement relative to the sufficiency of Scripture—in what way is Scripture sufficient, and how is it to be used as a norm in the fields outside the sphere of theology? Is Scripture’s referential application limited, or universal? That, perhaps, is the question to be answered.


[1] Herman Bavinck, “The Theology of Albert Ritschl”, The Bavinck Review 3 (Trans. John Bolt; 2012): 123.

[2] Christian-theistic Platonism still persists even today, though in a different form. See, for example, Keith Yandell, “On Not Confusing Incomprehensibility and Ineffability: Carl Henry on Literal Propositional Revelation,” Trinity Journal 35.1. (2014), pp. 61-74, and “God and Propositions,” in Beyond the Control of God? Six Views on the Problem of God and Abstract Objects (ed. Paul Gould; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), pp. 21-35.

[3] J.P. Moreland, “The Argument from Consciousness,” in The Rationality of Theism (ed. Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser; New York: Routledge, 2003), pp. 208-210. Charles Taliaferro, The Golden Cord: A Short Book on the Secular and the Sacred (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), p. 115.

[4] Paul Helm, Faith, Form and Fashion: Classical Reformed Theology and its Postmodern Critics (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2014), pp. 64-5. For his discussion on reason as a function of general revelation, and of its judicial role in “natural” matters, see pp. 57-9

[5] Helm, Faith, p. 65. (italics mine).

[6] “Such idealism has certainly not been a mainstream Christian view, which is that the external world is independent of our minds, both human and divine, but sustained by the immediate power of God. However, little that Christian theology claims is straightforwardly called into question by such receptive idealism.” Helm, Faith, p. 49. See also page 49, note 9.

[7] T.F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), p. 20.

[8] Torrance, Christian Doctrine, 10. Whether Torrance’s contention that this form of Thomism is wholly assumed by the Post-Reformation Protestants is right, however, is debatable.

[9] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrines of Revelation, Scripture, and God, 2nd ed. (ed. William Edgar; Philipsburg, P&R, 2007), p. 95. Emphasis mine.

[10] Van Til, An Introduction, p. 96. Van Til critiques Thomas Aquinas in a manner almost identical with Torrance when he charges Aquinas for being speculative, constructing a “half-Christian, half-Greek” position on page 98. See also Paul Maxwell, “The Formulation of Thomistic Simplicity: Mapping Aquinas’s Method for Configuring God’s Essence.” JETS 57 (2014), pp. 371-403

[11] Hendrik G. Stoker, “Reconnoitering the Theory of Knowledge of Prof. Dr. Cornelius Van Til,” in Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til (ed. E.R. Geehan; Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1971), p. 53.

[12] Stoker, “Van Til’s Theory of Knowledge” 54. Later on Stoker still admits the value of utilizing and redefining philosophical categories from a Christian perspective: “Your predilection for using these terms (giving them genuinely biblical meanings) is probably a result of your intensive and extensive knowledge of the philosophy of the absolute idealists and of your conviction of the necessity to criticize them. Your use of the terms expresses accordingly a fundamentally reformative (i.e., genuinely biblical) criticism of this philosophy.” Ibid. 55.


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