Friday, January 1, 2010

Robert Jenson on Philosophy and Theology

Robert Jenson, if I understand him aright, has something interesting to say about the relationship between theology and philosophy. Now, before we get on with his idea, let's look at some of the ways Christians (and especially Christian theologians) typically think about these things.

There are those who follow (in some vague sense):

Justin Martyr: Justin essentially says that the Greek Logos was identical with Jesus. So those of antiquity who were true to the measure of the Logos that they had received should be counted as Christians. This means that Socrates and Heraclitus are Christians (yes, Justin actually says this). Now these philosophers did not know the full revelation of the Logos which is fully present in Jesus Christ, but they were in some very real way acquainted with the Logos. It seems that Justin means to say that the Logos is present to all people in a very real way, and that the man Christ Jesus is the particular place in which this reality is most fully revealed. So for Justin, good philosophy is very seriously to be taken as divine revelation.

Clement of Alexandria: For Clement, philosophy performs essentially the same function for the Greeks as the Law performed for the Hebrews: it prepared the way for the revelation of Christ. I do not know enough of Clement to accurately expound his teaching on this matter, but I assume it would be something like this: the Law gave certain revelations of the nature of God, showed the people that God was holy, and led the people to see their need for God's redemptive work. In the same way, I assume he would say, philosophy proves the existence of God; shows us the holiness of God as we debate topics like justice, truth, goodness, and beauty; and finally, shows us even our own ultimate ignorance of the Logos or the deity and our need for further revelation. In Clement's mind, philosophy serves to lead a person to the place of receiving the revelation of Christ.

Tertullian: You have to admire Tertullian for going against the grain. Tertullian said that the use of philosophy within the church's theology could only lead to heresy. In his own words: "It is the same subjects which preoccupy both the heretics and the philosophers. Where does evil come from, and why? Where does human nature come from, and how?...What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem, between the Academy and the church? Our system of beliefs comes from the Porch of Solomon, who himself taught that it was necessary to seek God in the simplicity of the heart. So much the worse for those who talk of a "Stoic," "Platonic" or "dialectic" Christianity!"

Augustine: Augustine uses an Exodus metaphor for understanding the use of philosophy by Christian theology. He says that the Christian theologian can plunder pagan philosophy for what is useful in theology, while leaving behind that which is irredeemable. In de doctrina Christiana, he says "pagan learning is not entirely made up of false teachings and superstitions....It contains also some excellent teachings, well suited to be used by truth, and excellent moral values. Indeed, some truths are even found among them which relate to the worship of the one God....The Christian, therefore, can separate these truths from their unfortunate associations, take them away, and put them to proper use for the proclamation of the gospel."

Now, to use these four church fathers as representatives of modern approaches to this issue of theology and philosophy would obviously be somewhat simplistic. Nevertheless, I think it is a good starting point. I simply pulled these four out of Alister McGrath's The Christian Theology Reader and gave brief summaries of the extracts provided therein. Please correct me if I've misrepresented any of the four.

Now, I thought I'd include a fifth approach that I'm not sure fits in with any of the other four. I find this approach somewhat compelling and very interesting and I'm curious to hear what others out there have to say about it. This is the approach of Robert W. Jenson (at least as he goes about his business in Systematic Theology Vol. 1, "What Systematic Theology is About.")

Jenson analyzes the presupposition that, for most of theological history, has remained latent: the notion that philosophy and theology are different kinds of intellectual activity. He says that theology generally does one of two things with philosophy: tries to appeal to it "for foundational purposes" or "defend itself" against it as if it were being attacked. Jenson, it seems, wants to reject both approaches to this issue by rejecting the presupposition. He says the philosophy is not a different kind of activity than philosophy, but is pagan theology of a sort. It is the historically and culturally contingent attempt to talk about God and ultimate reality. In this way, Christian theology must be in dialogue with philosophy, must reason with it and talk with it and even be forever marked by the dialogue, but it cannot accept in any sense the notion that philosophy is somehow a "unilateral judge of the whole" and so it cannot be elevated as the prolegomena to Christian theology.

I'm not sure exactly what Jenson is doing and how this view actually plays out in the theological or ecclesiastical enterprise. I am not even sure if he is all that different from Tertullian, although it seems to me that there is some difference in this approach. One thing I find helpful and thought-provoking about Jenson's short section on this topic (pp. 7-11 in ST) is that he raises some important questions for further reflection:

1. Is philosophy a different kind of activity from theology?

2. Is there some sort of universal philosophy that can carry the day as the judge over the validity of what other disciplines are doing? (I wonder, what would a negative answer to this question mean for theology or for other disciplines?)

3. What would the conversation between theology and philosophy look like if we no longer tried to use philosophy to justify theology, nor did we try to separate the two and keep philosophy far away from theology, nor did we try to prove that all along philosophy has really been speaking about the divine reality manifest in Christ? What type of conversation would this be?

Any thoughts on any of this?

1 comment:

Ian Clausen said...

Nice post Matt. Very concise, and very informative!

I found it interesting to learn a few months ago that the majority of early Christian artwork, at least in the first few centuries, did not focus on the cross of Christ (as is typically what we associate with Christianity today) but rather with depictions of Jesus teaching. The early Christians, and especially Augustine, thought of Christianity not so much as 'religion' (though that word obviously applied) but also and more importantly as the 'one true philosophy' - Christ was the completion or coming to fulfillment of all the fragments of wisdom that went before (Augustine famously says that had Plato lived post-resurrection he would have been a Christian! which was hard to square with the swathes of Neo-Platonists who didn't give to Christianity one iota of interest).

Christ as the Wisdom of God held some decisive sway over it, and for Augustine at least, it answered the question that lay at the foundation of ancient philosophy, especially Platonism: namely, how can we mere mortals ascend to the truth? By Christ descending alone is that made possible. The Incarnation is an epistemological deliverance - what Plato and others have been pointing to and waiting for all along!

There's more complexity to it, naturally, but this much is quite striking. It shows at least that the distinction between philosophy and theology just does not exist for the ancients and Church fathers; when or how that split occurs, though, is up for debate - and I'd been interested to read up more on the history of it.

I haven't answered your questions, but I'll wait to hear some more replies. Any thoughts on the above though?