What is the use of philosophy in relation to Theology?

The Theology working group at the Assembly in Elspeet raised a question that is frequently in our minds: what is the place of philosophy, or the uses of philosophy in relation  to Theology?

Some Aspects of the Question.: An Overview

In the Epistle to the Colossians, 2.8, Saint Paul warns the faithful against those who would seek to corrupt them through ‘philosophy and vain deceit’. Almost all seventeenth-century philosophers accepted Paul's words as authoritative, but there was little agreement about how they should be understood. Indeed, the history of the relation between philosophy and theology in the period might be written in terms of contrasting responses to this one text. For many thinkers, the message was clear: Paul wished to warn Christians against Aristotle and his legacy, but he did not mean to impose a total ban on the use of philosophical arguments. On the contrary, when purged of scholasticism, philosophy had a major role to play in the service of Christian theology. Other thinkers drew a more radical moral from the same passage in favour of ‘revealed’ as opposed to ‘natural’ theology. They saw Paul's words as an indication that Christian theology must be purged of the whole taint of Greek influences; indeed, the Pauline text became a rallying-point for those who were hostile to the very pursuit of natural theology, the appeal to natural reason in support of theological conclusions. Yet, at a deeper level, conservatives and radicals were often engaged in a common enterprise; they both sought to find a way in which theology and the ‘New Philosophy’ could co-exist.

(CF. Online, Series The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century PhilosophyNicholas Jolley: Volume 1:The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy, Chapter  13: The relation between theology and philosophy. Pub.1998)

Augustine: De doctrina Christiana

Chapter 40.—Whatever Has Been Rightly Said by the Heathen, We Must Appropriate to Our Uses.
Ch. 60. Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also,—that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life,—we must take and turn to a Christian use.
Ch. 61. And what else have many good and faithful men among our brethren done? Do we not see with what a quantity of gold and silver and garments Cyprian, that most persuasive teacher and most blessed martyr, was loaded when he came out of Egypt? How much Lactantius brought with him? And Victorinus, and Optatus, and Hilary, not to speak of living men! How much Greeks out of number have borrowed! And prior to all these, that most faithful servant of God, Moses, had done the same thing; for of him it is written that he was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. And to none of all these would heathen superstition (especially in those times when, kicking against the yoke of Christ, it was persecuting the Christians) have ever furnished branches of knowledge it held useful, if it had suspected they were about to turn them to the use of worshipping the One God, and thereby overturning the vain worship of idols. But they gave their gold and their silver and their garments to the people of God as they were going out of Egypt, not knowing how the things they gave would be turned to the service of Christ. For what was done at the time of the exodus was no doubt a type prefiguring what happens now. And this I say without prejudice to any other interpretation that may be as good, or better.

To ask what the use of philosophy is is like asking what the use of understanding is. One answer is that understanding is something that we very often seek for its own sake. As Aristotle said long ago: “All human beings by nature desire to understand.” We are curious if nothing else, and it is one of the more admirable traits of human beings. We like to know what is going on and why. The relation between theology and philosophy Even though basic beliefs on ethics, politics and religion do not require prior philosophical justification, they do need what we might call “intellectual maintenance,” which itself typically involves philosophical thinking.  Religious believers, for example, are frequently troubled by the existence of horrendous evils in a world they hold was created by an all-good God.  Some of their trouble may be emotional, requiring pastoral guidance.  But religious commitment need not exclude a commitment to coherent thought. For instance, often enough believers want to know if their belief in God makes sense given the reality of evil.  The philosophy of religion is full of discussions relevant to this question.  Similarly, you may be an atheist because you think all arguments for God’s existence are obviously fallacious. But if you encounter, say, a sophisticated version of the cosmological argument, or the design argument from fine-tuning, you may well need a clever philosopher to see if there’s anything wrong with it..

The Uses if Philosophy

In addition to defending our basic beliefs against objections, we frequently need to clarify what our basic beliefs mean or logically entail. So, if I say I would never kill an innocent person, does that mean that I wouldn’t order the bombing of an enemy position if it might kill some civilians? Does a commitment to democratic elections require one to accept a fair election that puts an anti-democratic party into power?  Answering such questions requires careful conceptual distinctions, for example, between direct and indirect results of actions, or between a morality of intrinsically wrong actions and a morality of consequences. Such distinctions are major philosophical topics, of course, and most non-philosophers won’t be in a position to enter into high-level philosophical discussions.  But there are both non-philosophers who are quite capable of following such discussions and philosophers who enter public debates about relevant topics.

The perennial objection to any appeal to philosophy is that philosophers themselves disagree among themselves about everything, so that there is no body of philosophical knowledge on which non-philosophers can rely.  It’s true that philosophers do not agree on answers to the “big questions” like God’s existence, free will, the nature of moral obligation and so on.  But they do agree about many logical interconnections and conceptual distinctions that are essential for thinking clearly about the big questions.   Some examples: thinking about God and evil requires the key distinction between evil that is gratuitous (not necessary for some greater good) and evil that is not gratuitous; thinking about free will requires the distinction between a choice’s being caused and its being compelled; and thinking about morality requires the distinction between an action that is intrinsically wrong (regardless of its consequences) and one that is wrong simply because of its consequences.  Such distinctions arise from philosophical thinking, and philosophers know a great deal about how to understand and employ them.  In this important sense, there is body of philosophical knowledge on which non-philosophers can and should rely.