Conversations about the relationship between theology and philosophy are often confusing. Some people pit them against each other, while others blend them together in unhelpful ways. From a Christian perspective, it is possible to see theology and philosophy functioning in harmony. Philosophers deal with subjects related to ontology, epistemology, teleology, meaning, ethics, aesthetics, and numerous other aspects of life. These are the same questions and concepts confronted by theologians. The collaboration between theology and philosophy is inescapable. The crux of the discussion boils down to the nature of their relationship.
The Greek term philosophia simply means love of wisdom. Throughout the Bible, God calls Christians to be “philosophers,” that is, seekers and lovers of wisdom (cf. Prov. 16:16; 19:8; James 1:5). From a Christian standpoint, philosophy is the pursuit of truth. It is an effort to make sense of the world, bring order to ideas, and seek the nature of reality, knowledge, and meaning about all things in light of God. From a secular perspective, philosophy is an attempt to understand self, people, and the world, often apart from God, using only our faculties.
Like philosophy, theology is an all-encompassing discipline. Theology is the study of God, who reveals Himself clearly in both the Scriptures and creation (Rom. 1). As such, theologians must consider not only the written Word but also natural phenomena. Although natural revelation does not yield saving knowledge of God, truth may be found as we rightly participate in the study of the created order. Christians appeal to the clear and true message revealed in creation so that no one will be able to plead ignorance of God’s existence on the day of judgment. The truthfulness of the revelation of God in both nature and the Bible forces theologians to interact with philosophy.
Philosophy interacts with diverse ideologies and their implications, provoking serious reflection and clarifying the philosophical challenges facing theology today. As Christians we are not only children of God but also children of the times. To understand today’s culture and to engage unbelievers and believers alike, we should have a grasp of the philosophies that shape our lives. The Apostle Paul sets an example of this when he quotes poets and philosophers as a springboard to proclaim the gospel to the Athenians (Acts 17:22–31).
We are inclined to forget that the source of reality and all truth is the infallible God. He is the perfect teacher, which means there is nothing wrong with truth in nature or the Bible. There is something wrong with the viewer and reader, though. The issue ultimately is not in the fields of philosophy or theology; the problem is in fallen humanity, with our muddled interpretations, inductions, and deductions. Although the conclusions to which finite humans come with respect to reality and truth are often incorrect, God’s common grace allows for objective truth, insight, and guidance to shine forth. When unregenerate people speak truth, we should not discard it simply because it is truth spoken by an unbeliever. But when falsehood that directly contradicts Scripture is alleged, then Scripture must take precedence. Objective reality and the truths of the Christian faith go hand in hand. The true, good, and beautiful God is the key to all knowledge. Christian philosophers are on passionate quest for wisdom. This quest is achieved not by appealing exclusively to the human mind and nature but rather ultimately to God through His written Word and the evidence of creation. At every juncture of this pursuit, we humbly depend on His illuminating Spirit and grace to guide us in the truth.
Igor Kolesnikov is a senior at Reformation Bible College.