memory's sacred domain

moments mundane and magical

Between theology and philosophy

leave a comment »

ImageThere’s been some interesting discussion recently on ThinkNet on the age-old debate on the relationship between theology and philosophy. For the uninitiated, ThinkNet is a mailing list of people from various disciplines interested in the reformational school of Christian philosophy (often identified by the shorthand — for good or ill — as the “NeoCalvinist” movement. But for insiders, it is a philosophical movement inspired by Abraham Kuyper but brought to fruition by the legal philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd and his brother-in-law, D.H.TH. Vollenhoven).

On this point I have found useful Dooyeweerd’s introduction to his philosophy, In the Twilight of Western Thought, which has a chapter on theology and its relation to philosophy. One of his students, Johan P.A. Mekkes, also has a nifty volume on the topic, recently translated into English as Creation, Revelation and Philosophy

I present below snippets of the discussion, with some editing on my part:


James W. Skillen ( author, most recently of  The Good of Politics):

One, is it not possible when we write or speak and we know that those reading/listening will think that any reference to a Christian, biblical perspective means “theology,” that we can simply explain that in one respect we are simply talking about finding our place in the ongoing biblical drama of life in Christ–finding our place in the history of God’s work in Jesus Christ that continues by his Spirit today?  When we are reading or referring to the Bible or the Christian life in that way we are not doing what specialized theologians do in turning parts of that story into particular “problems for thought” or “topics for systematic attention.” In this sense, I still can’t see why many Christian thinkers, such as N.T. Wright, insist that Paul is doing “theology,” a word that began to be used ambiguously/equivocally only with the adoption of Greek questions and terminology by early and later Christian fathers. It seems to me that Paul, for example, is working to explain how God’s covenant drama with Israel is now being fulfilled in the revelation of Jesus Christ and how Paul himself was caught up into that drama by a calling from the Lord and how, for example, it is the case now that the divide between Jews and Gentiles has been overcome in Christ. Paul didn’t arrive at any of this by doing “theology” and it is not “theology” that he is passing on, proclaiming, teaching to his audiences. To different groups of disciples in different settings he is, in his letters, following up on (or anticipating) his times of preaching and teaching in their midst, sending pointed summaries, extensions of what he already told them, and opening new vistas that they might now need. He is communicating by living letters about the life they share in Christ by the ongoing work of the Spirit.

Two:  isn’t there some help even from Dooyeweerd in his essays on theology and philosophy in “In the Twilight” where he explains that Augustine used the word “theology” in two different ways? And those two different ways represent essentially the distinction many of us are trying to make. So rather than fight the word “theology”, why can’t we in many situations simply acknowledge at the outset of a conversation or an article that the word is equivocal and has been for centuries. In doing so, we might simply offer a preliminary explanation, when relevant, we are going to use the word “life of faith” instead of the word “theology” when meaning one thing, and using the word “theology” when referring to the other thing. I find myself preferring, increasingly, to use the phrase “the Christian way of life” when referring to Christian discipleship in all of life and to state that Christianity is a way of life and not only a way of worship. When relevant I then may speak of the work of Christians who take up the intellectual task of doing “theology.” That work, in contrast to the work that other Christians may pursue as special vocations does not generate Christian faith or way of life, but rather arises from the faithful way of life in Christ.
…. I tried to keep my book on “the good of politics” at a single level of telling the story of political responsibility from inside the viewpoint of those who confess that they are followers of Jesus Christ. That story is highly complex because of so many confusions, syntheses, and divides among Christians about what that responsibility means, so it takes quite a bit of telling. But I’m trying to explain and interpret the Christian struggle with this matter rather than turning every aspect of political life and history into an object of theoretical analysis. The multiple issues of political philosophy and “science” in in this regard I hope to take up in another volume, and that’s where I plan to engage in the theoretical enterprise that includes multiple“-ologies”  It may well be the case…. that many readers will think that the first part of my book is biblical theology and the second “secular” history mixed with “church” history, and that the third part is practical politics with too much “theology” and “philosophy” thrown in here and there. But if those are their categories of prejudgment they will miss much of the meaning of the book or get it wrong (wrong, that is, from my point of view).
Admitting to the fact that the word theology is used in all kinds of ways, which constantly need qualification or explanation, is not unlike the equivocal use of a word like “politics,” which can mean/refer to “political life as a whole” “dirty dealing,” “actions of government” (but not citizens), or the “actions of citizens and interest groups outside government.” In the political arena we simply need to find ways of explaining and making distinctions, which I do in my book to some extent. Almost all of the words we use about political life today derive from either Greek or Roman languages and culture and that makes it difficult to put before citizens who may read a picture of the biblical drama as it pertains to political life. Such a picture at first must seem like a fantasy, but I am simply unable to write like C.S. Lewis and other good story tellers. Thank goodness the word “justice” has a long biblical history and use and is not only a Greek and Roman history. 

DFM Strauss (South African philosopher and author most recently of Philosophy: the Discipline of Disciplines):

1) The question what theology is, is not a theological question since it belongs to the domain of philosophy (of ). The  discipline “Encyclopaedia of Theology” does not mention itself as a theological subdiscipline – thus illustrating the  fact that it is philosophical in nature. This applies to all the special sciences. For example, saying: “mathematics studies algebra and topology” produces a statement which is not a part of algebra or topology – it talks about mathematics without becoming mathematics. The statement “botany studies plants” is not itself a plant that can be investigated by botanists.

 2) Dooyeweerd does not hold that a special science studies one or another aspect – and therefore also does not defend the view that theology studies the faith aspect of creation. Theology merely studies concrete reality as it functions within the faith aspect. Looking through the glasses of an aspect at reality does not entail observing the glasses themselves. Dooyeweerd writes: “But in this investigation it [the special sciences] does not focus its theoretical attention upon the modal structure of such an aspect itself; rather, it focuses on the coherence of the actual phenomena which function within that structure” (Collected Works, B Series, Volume 13, “Christian philosophy and the meaning of history”, page 11).

3)   Calvinism/ Calvinistic. On page 1 of the just quoted Volume Dooyeweerd explains: “The term can only be explained historically by the fact that this movement originated in the calvinistic revival which toward the end of the previous century, led to renewed reflection on the relation of the Christian religion to science, culture, and society. Abraham Kuyper, under whose inspiring leadership this new reflection took place, pointed out that the great movement of the Reformation could not continue to be restricted to the reformation of the church and theology. Its biblical point of departure touched the religious root of the whole of temporal life and had to assert its validity in all of its sectors. Kuyper found that insight into these implications had been best expressed by Calvin, and so for lack of a better term began to speak of “Calvinism” as an all-embracing world view which was clearly distinguishable from both Roman Catholicism and Humanism.” However, subsequently Dooyeweerd rejected the use of this term. Close to the end of NC-I one finds a heading explaining why he rejects the phrase Calvinistic philosophy.

4)    Thomas Aquinas “hijacked” Christian intellectual endeavours for theology by assuming that whenever something is considered in respectu Dei (in relation to God) such an activity is theological in nature. Philosophy aims at an account of the totality of creation. Stoker employed this view to distinguish between theology, philosophy and the special sciences. Discovering and analyzing numerical laws for arithmetic, spaitial laws for spatial configurations, kinematic laws of motion, physical laws for material things, and so on, while acknowledging then as God-given laws, then will immediately turn maths and physics into theology. The same implication is valid regarding whatever is subject to God-given creational laws, because the moment they are related to and understood as conforming to God-given laws (consider their law-conformity), the will equally turn the special sciences involved into theology. [Compare the words used by Jim Skillen: “So everything we do as Christians should breathe the spirit of our relation to God.”]

Calvin Jongsma (professor emeritus of mathematics):

Developing a theology of X is rampant among scholars who desire to advance a Christian perspective of X – even when X is mathematics or logic.  So where have reformational thinkers explicitly countered this trend by distinguishing between foundational pre-theoretical religious beliefs/commitments and the basic insights of Christian theology?  Many will say it’s just a matter of terminology – reformational thinkers talk about a philosophy of X based on certain religious doctrines, whereas most Christians talk more directly about a theology of X; but both are seeking the same thing.

I think more than terminology is at issue, and practice often shows this, but where has this matter been explicitly addressed from a reformational viewpoint and in a way that communicates cogently to those who think they’re essentially the same thing?


Ponti Venter (another South African philosopher):

We now have a neo-liberal New Scholasticism. This expansion of Theology to include all of human life has a number of contemporary sources:
1. The initial reintroduction of ‘theology’ after Calvin – and reading Calvin as a ‘theologian’ which he himself said he wasn’t.
2. The two world wars. A few natural scientists became aware of the ‘ethical’ implications of their work, and in stead of rethinking their bases, they ran to a few theologians to ask for discussion. The most prominent of these ‘theologians’ became pantheists.
3. The marginalising of theology and religion in a secular society. In my own environment theology has been using this secular natural science-theology debate to annihilate reformational philosophy for the sake of their own financial survival. We now have a huge faculty of theology, catering for every possible discipline and church, while the quality of ministers that is produced is weak, and every year fewer Reformed students report to study for the ministry. There are as many vacant pulpits in the Church as professors of theology who do weak research for the University, there and there are less students in the pipeline than professors.
4. The style of today: today’s lifestyle is Hobbesian: one’s lives for power, honour and glory. Theologians are not happy anymore to do what is necessary for the chiurch.
5. Neo-pragmatist scientism – or new old Scholasticism. The intellectual with his scientific techniques has to enlighten and govern. Only they can tell you what the connection between Genesis and DNA ought to be. The Bible is not a scientific textbook anymore; natural science is a hermeneutic for the Bible. But only theologians understand this, and only theologians can do execute it. If they tell you Genesis 1-10 is myth, then please be quiet … they know what is good for everybody … Neo-pragmatism is one of the worst forms of authoritarian elitisms I have ever come across. Theologians do not explicitly adhere to it; they internalise it via management styles.
Rudi Hayward ( doctorate student):

You are probably aware of Calvin Seerveld’s attempt to dissuade people of the “theology of arts” approach.  At one point (see Normative Aesthetics p.277fn.22)  he writes: “I am at a loss at how to argue that promotion of a general spiritualization of art, or a liturgical cast to art, or an evangelizing requirement for art, as the most Christian task misses, I think, the grounding biblical insight that art as normal creatural service can be a restored and redemptive, holy act, so artistry does not need an “extra,” theologically explicit insignia to be truly full-fledged service by Christ’s body-at-large.”  Nevertheless he does give it a go in other places (see Cultural Education & History Writing pp.14-20 esp.17ff on Jeremy Begbie & van der Leeuw and pp.44-45 see below)


Kerry John Hollingsworth (Director, the Reformation Publishing Project):

Much of this discussion devolves on the treatment of terms and expressions as things that are then applied to this that or whatever. The Philosophy of The Cosmonomic Idea has provided us with a way to see that theoretical analysis (including theological analysis) does not give structural form to human experience within the creation, but rather unpacks the structural order of and for the creation that is part of God’s “Let there be . . ”    Demanding that theological analysis is the ground from which all truth is to derived is simply another form of scientistic modernity, or if you wish, just another form of reductionism. Until we get used to the idea that ALL forms of analysis simply represent points of entry into the wholeness of concrete experience we will continue to play these reductionistic games of whose the baddest of them all, philosophy, theology, numericality, physics, biology etc. etc. Surely after a hundred years of these games it is time to move on to something a bit more productive.


Written by Romel

May 29, 2014 at 3:25 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: