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Fall 2001    Vol. 30 No. 2    pp. 199–210 

The Idea of Christian Philosophy

Ryan Topping

Those concerned with the creation or sustenance of a Christian college or university are faced with a problem. How can such an institution, which is devoted to the scholarly acquisition and teaching of knowledge, claim to teach “public” knowledge if committed to certain nonchallengeable religious commitments? The heart of this difficulty involves the proper relationship between faith (theology) and reason (philosophy). 1

The medieval position is antagonistic to our own because it is an affirmation of the power of natural reason to know metaphysical truth with certainty.

Many in today’s Christian church have inherited an erroneous understanding of this relationship. That understanding—where faith is conceived primarily in terms of an activity of the will—destroys the integrity of Christian belief. If the theological virtue of faith is divorced from the faculty of natural reason, then the hope of a Christian practice of philosophy is unfounded.

In this essay, I defend the possibility of a distinctively Christian practice of philosophy in which faith and reason are united. The argument proceeds as follows. First, I present the rational method introduced and developed by Greek philosophers, and the distinction between philosophy and theology. Next, I consider some objections to a synthesis of faith and reason. Third, I note some historical precedents to a medieval {200} Christian synthesis, beginning with the early church. Finally, I argue for the coherence of the idea of a distinctively Christian practice of philosophy, taking as my model the integration envisioned by the medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275).

PHILOSOPHY AND THEOLOGY

In defending a “Christian practice of philosophy,” what is the activity of philosophy which the designation Christian is meant to qualify? Etymologically the term is composed of two Greek words which together mean the love of (philos) wisdom (sophia). Greek philosophers understood their identity to be those who are concerned with knowing the good of the whole, and knowing the good of each thing in relation to the good of every other thing. This is in contradistinction to the Sophists, those ancient rhetoricians, who concerned themselves only with knowing what was expedient for achieving particular and often dishonest ends. 2 The philosopher Socrates (469-399 B.C.), on the other hand, spent his days engaging Athenians in conversation about the most important questions, questions concerning the nature of the cosmos, human virtue, justice and piety, and the existence of the gods.

Socrates’ method of seeking this knowledge concerning the goals and ends of human life began with the admission of his own ignorance. Thereafter this ignorance would be substituted only by those opinions for which a reasoned account could be given. No doctrine which rested on mere personal feeling or tradition was to be admitted. What resulted from Socrates’ search for justified true opinion was the realization that his fellow citizens were ignorant about what they, in fact, had judged themselves to know. This discovery by the philosopher brought philosophy into conflict with the political opinions then reigning, as it has ever since.

Thus the philosophical alternative which Socrates offered to Athens, and which is still offered to us, is neither a dogmatic acceptance of the reigning political doctrines, nor a method of negating those opinions in favor of apathy or agnosticism. To state it positively with Socrates’ student Plato (427-348), the essential task of philosophy is to cultivate a human community which is based upon the search for knowledge about “the greatest things” (Apology 22e). 3 And these greatest things that philosophy seeks to know are nothing less than the first principles and primary causes of everything that it is possible for humans to wonder about. 4 Seeking to know the first causes of things and the good of the whole, particularly as it concerns the goals and ends of human life, is the unique contribution that philosophy has been entrusted to offer. {201}

Although the aims of philosophy share affinity with Christian theology, a distinction is required. Revealed theology is that branch of human wisdom which receives its principles directly from God through Scripture. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, revealed theology treats chiefly “those things which by their sublimity transcend human reason.” Whereas philosophy reasons about God to the extent that he can be known through his effects, Christian theology studies the Creator “so far as He is known to Himself alone. . . . . . .” (Summa Theologica I.q.1, a.5).

In this way the central task of revealed theology is to interpret faithfully the writings of the prophets and the apostles for the benefit of the church and for the salvation of the world. This conception of the distinct orders of philosophy and revealed theology may not immediately appeal to us. Nonetheless, this is how the best theologian of the medieval church articulated the division of the two orders of knowledge. 5 It must be born in mind as we attempt to represent in outline the medieval understanding in its own terms.

THE SUPPOSED DIVORCE BETWEEN RELIGION AND RATIONALITY

To make the medieval Christian understanding of the relationship between faith and reason intelligible, we must respond first to a common objection. It is a widely-held belief—or at least suspicion—that the very notion of a Christian philosophy is impossible. Religion and any rational science are considered to be so essentially at variance that little if any collaboration between the two is possible. 6

Some would suggest that Scripture itself supports this belief, since Paul warns, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Col. 2:8 NIV). Should Paul be interpreted as warning against interaction with education and learning outside of the church? Such a division between church and academy has found credibility among people both inside and outside of religion. Tertullian (160-222) is a prominent example among the early church fathers, and the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a popularizer of this idea in his day.

Those within the Anabaptist tradition have historically been most comfortable within the boundaries of a more literal understanding of the Scripture with an emphasis placed on the necessity of practical discipleship. 7 Formulating how the church ought to interact with the liberal arts and sciences, particularly when much of the results of that learning seems to contradict their reading of the Scripture, has been a formidable {202} task. Yet it is a necessary task, as necessary for our time as it was for those in the thirteenth century. It will be helpful to uncover some roots of the present state of affairs.

OUR INTELLECTUAL INHERITANCE

Those living at the beginning of the twenty-first century have inherited an intellectual tradition which divorces the realm of facts from that of values. That is to say, we are committed to the belief that reason can neither articulate nor defend any public conception of a good life. For many, pronouncements from the scientific community are afforded the authority of public truth, while discussions of ethics and the nature of human values are relegated to private or spurious preferences.

This opinion, although it has come to us in a radically modified form, has its theoretical origins in Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). In his Critique of Pure Reason, he argued that the speculative exercise of reason is unable to provide any knowledge of supersensible reality. 8 The radicalized postmodern conclusion has been that reason is unable to discern any knowable human good or final purposes of human life. Thus within political discourse in the West it has become increasingly difficult to engage the question of human ends and goals outside of economic terms. Material prosperity and the affirmation of human freedom—without judgment on what that freedom ought to be used for—seem to be the only defensible public goods within modern liberal democracies.

Separating human values from the authority of reason means that good and evil from now on will be judged by other, nonrational human standards. Reason, which was for other ages the mistress of theology, is now a prisoner of human will (of which the various and destructive technologies of the last century bear testimony). For us she is merely a factfinder, clarifying language and identifying inconsistencies but able to say little about the ends toward which human freedom ought to be directed. As a consequence of this annulment, it is common for people of our time to conclude that reason can be used just as well to justify one moral opinion as another. Which in effect means that reason is at a loss to justify any moral opinion as truth.

FAITH AS AN ACT OF WILL

All of this upheaval, of course, has repercussions for our understanding of the theological virtue of faith. Realizing the long-awaited implications of skepticism concerning the now sadly-dimmed “natural light of reason,” it was inevitable that faith, along with reason, would be demoted within the modern consciousness to fundamentally an action of the will. 9 {203}

Admittedly, this type of faith in its multiple varieties has its advantages, as certain thinkers of the nineteenth century foresaw. Most significantly it is impervious to skeptical assault. The most important theologian of that century, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), attempted to ground theological statements about reality neither in speculative reason nor by direct appeal to the authority of Scripture. Schleiermacher’s innovation was to identify faith not with reason, but with a variety of feeling experienced by the religious self-consciousness of the Christian community. 10

Unfortunately if our faith can speak only to the realm of values, and fails to argue with equal cogency for the truth of its convictions in the public domain (as a scientist would for facts about the universe that she believed she had discovered), then our faith will have suffered the same fate as our reason. It will be little more than a private affair, even if shared among friends. And the separations made within both the modern and postmodern worldviews of church from state, of science from religion, of beauty from art, and of sex from love, are each, in part, consequences of that divorce of reason from the world of facts and faith from its foundations in reason.

A REVEALED RELIGION

We turn now to trace some precedents in church history to the medieval idea of Christian philosophy. Since the time of Jesus, his disciples have understood the euangelion (gospel, or good news) to possess both a story and a revealed interpretation of that story which uncovers the significance of the life of Christ. The gospel is an account of Jesus which is at the same time good news because it announces the revelation that God in Christ, as St. Paul says, is “reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19 NIV). In its beginnings, Christianity presented itself not as a philosophy but as a revealed religion. The message of the good news that was proclaimed by the apostles was not a method of knowledge but a way of salvation.

The story of salvation entrusted to the Christian church came into effect by an act of revelation when, as St. John writes, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14 RSV). What the pagan (and especially Greek) philosophers had sought in their quest for wisdom and a knowledge of the end of human existence had now been made available to all by divine self-disclosure. To the early Christian community, Christ was understood to be the fullness of the wisdom of God, and his life was the event by which all history was to be understood. He was the one true mediator who made reconciliation between {204} the divine and the human possible. Given this new reality, every thought and every rival “history” was to be “taken captive” and reinterpreted in the light of the revelation of Jesus in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17 NIV).

Shortly after the death and resurrection of Christ, some in the ancient world who were philosophers also came to be Christians, while others who were Christians would eventually become philosophers. Already by the second century an attempt to reconcile Christian faith and pre-Christian learning had been undertaken. Church leaders such as Justin Martyr (executed in Rome, 165), Origen (who began his eight-volume apologetic work Contra Celsus in 246), and Gregory of Nyssa (ordained Bishop of Nyssa, 372) are examples of prominent thinkers who sought to understand the relationship between Christian revelation and Greek philosophy, and then to articulate in a unified formulation what the consequences of such an interaction might be.

The Christian Scripture, they argued, offered a rationally compelling understanding of the nature of divinity, the meaning of history, and the end of humanity in a way which surpassed any previous natural philosophy. In short, since the beginning of the Christian era some have been convinced that Christianity answers questions raised by reason, but more comprehensively than philosophy itself has been able to answer them. It was, however, during the Middle Ages that Christian philosophy found its most complete articulation. It is for this reason that we turn our attention to the way Christian philosophy was understood during the thirteenth century in the Latin-speaking West.

MEDIEVAL CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY

Christian thinkers within the Medieval Era rejected a divorce between reason and faith. We move now to offer a positive defense of their position in two steps. First, regarding the relationship between faith and reason in the Middle Ages we must note that none of the medieval philosophers ever held that one could start from belief and then somehow arrive at knowledge. 11 Conversely, none taught that one could begin at knowledge and end at faith. No theologian seriously contended there was such a thing as “Christian reason” or a mystical reason. 12 Rather, what the medievals did contend was that there could be a particularly Christian exercise of reason. Such an understanding still exists within Christian theology. As the Protestant theologian Thomas Oden has accurately written, “faith is a way of reasoning out of God’s self-disclosure, assisted by grace.” 13

This is not to say that medieval theologians had an impoverished view {205} of man’s natural powers of reason. Quite to the contrary. In their view God gave to all people the natural capability of acquiring a true, although limited, knowledge of the first principles and causes of things. Particularly, and importantly, the medievals argued in accord with the psalmist and the apostle Paul that the existence of God ought to be comprehensible by the powers of the natural intellect alone (cf. Pss. 14, 19; Rom. 1:20). 14

Further, from the time of Plato and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) to the Neoplatonists, to Jewish and Muslim philosophers of the tenth and eleventh centuries, to Descartes and Leibniz, to a growing number of philosophers of the twentieth century, there has existed a strong tradition within Western philosophy that has held the existence of a singular deity to be a matter provable by rational means. For those within this tradition, denying the existence of God shows itself to be irrational, a sign of an intellectual and moral deficiency and an offense against reason. Hence in Psalm 14 it is, finally, only the “fool” who can utter in his heart “there is no God.” All this is to say that for the medieval theologians the existence of God was not an article of faith but of rational demonstration. 15

The second idea which needs to be clarified is that the theologian-philosophers of the Middle Ages argued that the idea of receiving revelation was entirely rational. They argued that if an all-powerful and beneficent deity did exist, it would follow that it should be able to make its will known to human minds. The idea of receiving revelation, therefore, implied no contradiction. What the medieval philosophers found is that reason on its own account does not satisfy what reason requires. Reason cannot ultimately satisfy its own demands because it points to its fulfillment elsewhere. Our natural longings for unchanging happiness point toward the reality of an unchanging object of that desire. The human in this view is inexplicable in purely naturalistic terms. In other words, our greatest happiness can only be made intelligible in terms of a spiritual end, or union with the Divine. 16

The steps of the argument follow this sequence. First, in hearing the Word of God proclaimed, the intelligence considers the claims presented and finds that there are compelling reasons to accept the Christian Scripture as being of divine origin. For example, the internal consistency of the two Testaments, the medievals believed, could only be accounted for if the Bible was indeed divinely inspired. Second, the intelligence hears and, assenting to what it hears, believes by a reasoned act of the will that is assisted by grace. Finally, after accepting the testimony of Scripture, reason then reflects upon its faith and finds that its natural principles are satisfied and even furthered. Faith must be more than reason, but it can include nothing less. {206}

To state this in other terms, the medievals found that what was previously darkened by the limitations of human ignorance and error became illuminated and made intelligible in the light of God’s wisdom. Knowledge of the revelation increased the potential of human reason. This is what Aquinas means when he says that grace does not destroy nature but perfects it (Summa Theologica I.q.1, a.9.). As Anton Pegis has stated,

In short, Christian philosophy is more than a fact of history. In becoming Christian, philosophy has discovered (among other things) its own true nature. Far from losing that nature within the world of revelation, philosophy has purified and developed it under the positive influence of faith. 17

When the medieval theologian applied his mind to problems of philosophy, he understood himself to be engaged in a distinctive kind of philosophical activity to which the designation Christian ought to be applied. Though it is not the only available conclusion, the medieval solution to the problem of the relationship between faith and reason is particularly valuable for two reasons.

First, on its own merits it represents the most original answer to the question of how these two modes of knowledge relate. Christian theology produced its most original solution because at that time it was faced with the most comprehensive formulation of the problem brought about by the introduction of many texts of Aristotle hitherto unknown. These texts, for the first time in the Christian West, presented a comprehensive view of the universe totally without recourse to revelation, and forced twelfth- and thirteenth-century theologians to reformulate the role of reason in faith.

Second, in relation to our present understanding of how theology can and cannot interact with the other sciences, the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas offers us a teaching fundamentally different from our own. Because it is such a foreign view, Aquinas’s position is able to provide us with an alternate standard by which we can judge our own conclusions.

CONCLUSION

We are ready now to say it: Faith, as the medieval theologians understood it, is the obedient exercise of reason that is confronted with the claims of revelation. Christian philosophy is a way of reasoning in which Christian faith and the human intellect combine in a common investigation into truth and a knowledge of the good of the whole. {207} The testimony of the history of medieval theology is that philosophy, like every other branch of human activity, can only find its true nature when it is brought into the service of God who revealed himself in Christ the king.

This notion of Christian philosophy, articulated by certain medieval theologians, is a view fundamentally different from our own. Happily for us, as with every discovery of a true alternative, it provides the possibility of further self-knowledge. And in this case the arguments for the medieval integration of faith and philosophy hold out to us the potential for gaining insight into the reasons why we in the present age, and with it the contemporary church, find this problem so riddled with confusion.

My hope is that this alternative will be recognized for what it is. The medieval position is antagonistic to our own because it is an affirmation of the power of natural reason to know metaphysical truth with certainty. On this basis rests the whole of Thomas Aquinas’s theological framework. It is, of course, fair to ask whether or not the medievals were right in holding such a position. But before we can dismiss the conclusions of our elders, we must first learn the reasons for their convictions.

NOTES

  1. See George M. Marsden, The Soul of American University Education: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief, where he traces how the leading universities of the United States moved away from a Protestant heritage of religious belief to deliberately become secular institutions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). Also see Jaraslov Pelikan, The Illustrated Jesus through the Centuries (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), in which he dialogues with John Henry Newman’s The Idea of the University (Garden City, NY: Image, 1959 <1854>). Particularly notable is his second chapter in which he discusses the necessity of thinking in terms of first principles when approaching the question of what constitutes a university.
  2. Sophists of fifth-century Athens were traveling professors who earned their wage educating young aristocrats to be competent in the skills necessary for a successful political career. “The central subject of their courses was rhetoric, the art of persuasion by eloquent {208} speech, and they claimed to be able to teach their pupils to speak persuasively to any ‘brief,’ to argue both sides of any case.” See A. H. Armstrong, An Introduction to Ancient Philosophy (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1989), 23. Plato’s dialogue Gorgias is an extended argument between Socrates and a famous sophist (Gorgias) and his student.
  3. Four Texts on Socrates: Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito and Aristophanes’ Clouds, trans. with notes by Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984).
  4. Although Plato tells us that he has never committed to writing his most important teachings (Letter VII 341c), it is fair to say that Plato’s conception of philosophy is essentially Socratic in nature. With minimal qualification, the same can also be said of Aristotle. Plato’s best student believed that the universal human experience of wonder is the impetus of philosophy and the beginning of our search for a rational explanation of the cause and purpose of things. Near the beginning of his work on first philosophy, Aristotle states that “human beings originally began philosophy, as they do now, because of wonder, at first because they wondered at the strange things in front of them, and later because, advancing little by little, they found greater things puzzling—what happens to the moon, the sun and the stars, then how the universe comes to be” (Metaphysics 982b, trans. Terence Irwin and Gail Fine, in Aristotle: Selections [Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1995]).
  5. Regardless of the merits of Thomas Aquinas’s thought, I am meaning this judgment to be taken only as a representation of how the Roman church has understood its own intellectual development. It must not be supposed, however, that during the Middle Ages St. Thomas’s teaching was afforded the same position that it occupies today in the intellectual life of the Catholic church. Quite to the contrary. His thought represents only one of the solutions offered to the unique problems of the thirteenth-century confrontation with Aristotelianism.
  6. In this way Lesslie Newbigin comments how, because of the intellectual developments of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, “The catechism could no longer be part of the curriculum in the public schools. There could be what are called ‘religious studies’ because religion is a fact of human life. But the things which religious people believe are not facts in that sense. Only what can stand up to the critical examination of the scientific method can be taught as fact, as public truth; the rest is dogma” (5). For an interesting {209} commentary on the nature and possibilities of the proclamation of revealed truth within the context of a society committed to pluralism as a public dogma, see Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989).
  7. Cornelius J. Dyck, An Introduction to Mennonite History, 3d ed. (Waterloo, ON: Herald, 1993), 436-38.
  8. Kant believed this discovery necessary to “put an end for ever to all objections to morality and religion.” By disqualifying the power of reason to speak conclusively about the tenants of religion, one could effectively guard faith by “demonstrating the clearest proof of the ignorance of our opponents” (Critique of Pure Reason, in Lewis White Beck, ed., Eighteenth-Century Philosophy [New York: Free Press, 1960], 300).
  9. This new conception of faith was also, coincidentally, the faith encouraged by David Hume (1711-1776). For Hume, faith as the condition for belief in the miracles of the Christian religion is equivalent to a nonrational opinion. Further, faith as the foundation for religious belief is understood chiefly to be an activity of the will in the Christian which “subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to his understanding” (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Eric Steinberg [Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1980], 90).
  10. For this analysis of Schleiermacher, I am indebted to John Baillie, The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 1956), 10-15, and Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1970), 11-33. Also see Jaraslov Pelikan’s discussion of the intellectual and artistic responses which followed the eighteenth century’s attempt to identify Christianity with natural religion, in The Illustrated Jesus through the Centuries, 195-221.
  11. Prior to the introduction of Aristotle’s texts into western Europe, there existed no definitive demarcation between the realms of faith and reason in Latin Christian theology. St. Anselm (1033-1109) was the most prominent Christian theologian-philosopher of the twelfth century. His understanding of faith and reason represents an alternative to St. Thomas Aquinas’s division of the relationship between the two realms of knowledge. See G. R. Evans’ study, Anselm and Talking about God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978).
  12. By theologian I am referring to one who is, as Pelikan has argued, a spokesman for the Christian community and, more than the {210} philosopher, is one who understands himself to be “accountable to the deposit of Christian revelation and the ongoing authority of the church” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1971], 3). A notable exception in the thirteenth century is Siger of Brabant at the University of Paris who maintained that what was true according to philosophy need not necessarily be true according to revelation. Such a position was deemed to be utterly destructive to the integrity of Christian faith; it eventually resulted in a number of ecclesiastical bans on the use of Aristotle at the University. See E. Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (London: Sheed & Ward, 1954), 408.
  13. See Thomas Oden’s, Systematic Theology Vol. I: The Living God (San Francisco, CA: Harper SanFrancisco, 1987), 397.
  14. In Summa Theologica I.q.2.a.3, Aquinas offers five demonstrations which he thinks prove that God can be shown through reason. In his recent encyclical on faith and reason John Paul II writes, “Developing a philosophical argument in popular language, the Apostle declares a profound truth: through all that is created the ‘eyes of the mind’ can come to know God. Through the medium of creatures, God stirs in reason an intuition of his ‘power’ and his ‘divinity’ (cf. Rom 1:20). . . . . . . In philosophical terms, we could say that this important Pauline text affirms the human capacity for metaphysical inquiry” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio: On the Relationship between Faith and Reason, 15 October 1998, 2:22).
  15. See John Hick, The Existence of God: Readings Selected, Edited, and Furnished with an Introductory Essay by John Hick (New York: Macmillan, 1964). For a more detailed study, see William Lane Craig, The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz (London: Macmillan, 1980), where the author presents an historical account of the cosmological argument as given by thirteen philosophers, including pagan, Greek, Arabic, Jewish, and Christian thinkers.
  16. This is the theme and argument of the Confessions of St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430). Also, see Summa contra Gentiles III, 16-25 where Aquinas argues that an intellectual substance tends to the knowledge of God as its last end.
  17. Anton C. Pegis, in A Gilson Reader: Selected Writings of Etienne Gilson, ed. and intro. by Anton C. Pegis (Garden City, NY: Image, 1957), 15.
  18. A version of this essay was presented at Concord College, Winnipeg, Manitoba, March 2000, shortly after the announcement of the new Canadian Mennonite University.
    Ryan Topping recently graduated from Concord College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Christian Studies, and got his B.A. from the University of Winnipeg with a major in Philosophy. He serves as an intern pastor at the River East Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg, where he is a member, and hopes to begin graduate studies soon.

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