Tensions Between Philosophy of Religion and Theology

A number of felt difficulties with the whole project must be considered and discussed before we get down to business. In the first place, it has to be admitted that philosophical analyses, and even defences, of Christian doctrine are often not welcomed with open arms by systematic theologians in theology departments or Church seminaries. At times, the latter suggest, in the spirit of Blaise Pascal, that the God of the philosophers has little or nothing to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Theologians voice the suspicion that the philosophers are applying their analytic tools to an idol, a reification of their own construction. Conversely, they hold the living God simply not to be susceptible to analytic scrutiny. The mystery of God, as worshipped and adored in the community of faith, is beyond the capacity of the human, philosophic mind to analyse. This tension has been noted between the theologians and the philosophers in Oxford and in Notre Dame, and I have witnessed it myself at the American Academy of Religion, where outright hostility was expressed to members of the Society of Christian Philosophers.

Two recent published instances of this tension may be cited. A debate took place between 1989 and 1995 in the journal Faith and Philosophy, initiated by the liberal theologian Gordon Kaufman, over just this question of whether theologians should take any notice of, or show any interest in, the work of philosophers of religion such as Plantinga, Wolterstorff and Swinburne. Philosophers working on the meaning and truth of Christian doctrine, so Kaufman avers, are simply presupposing traditional theistic conceptions and formulations. They lack sensitivity to the significance of religious pluralism, to the symbolic and culturally relative nature of all talk about the mystery of God, and to the at least partial responsibility of traditional Christianity for the great evils of the twentieth century. The philosophers appear to be just fiddling while Rome burns.12 In their reply,

Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, while repudiating the last of these claims, point out the inconsistencies in Kaufman's dogmatic espousal of pluralist, relativist claims. Questions of rationality and truth are implicit in Kaufman's own agnosticism. So Stump and Kretzmann urge the liberal theologians to return from their wanderings and take seriously the traditional doctrines of the Christian faith.13 James Keller responds with a defence of Kaufman, urging the practical priorities of Christian faith, and defending the theologians' right to concentrate on how religious belief contributes to the transformation of life rather than on the details of Nicene trinitarianism or Chalcedonian Christology. William Hasker replies to this defence by pointing out how Christian understanding of such transformation ('salvation') is itself bound up with Christian doctrine and cannot escape the questions of truth and rationality that exercise the philosophers. He also comments on the fact that many centres of theological study are dominated by the more liberal types of theology, while the Christian philosophers tend to be more orthodox.15 To this comment we shall return. James Keller returns to the fray with an eirenic defence of the theologians' right to focus on how people live as Christians.

An English version of this tension is to be found in chapter 8 of Maurice Wiles's book, A Shared Search. The chapter is entitled, 'The Reasonableness of Christianity'. It articulates Wiles's perplexity about how work in the philosophy of religion and work in theology ought to be related. One aspect of the philosophical approach criticized by Wiles — and this is the aspect of particular concern to us here — is the excessively rationalistic approach of writers such as Swinburne. Swinburne is accused of an over-literal approach to the doctrine of God, a failure to do justice to the analogical nature of all talk of God and to its rootedness in long traditions of experience and interpretation.

We need to be aware that Wiles, like Kaufman, is a liberal theologian, though not such an extreme one; and it might be thought that the tensions under review are felt most strongly by theologians who have come, for a variety of reasons, to adopt a revisionist approach to the traditional doctrines ofthe Church, as both Wiles and Kaufman have done to the doctrines ofthe Trinity and Incarnation. Equally we might suppose that the early Swinburne (and Wiles considers here only his The Coherence of Theism and Faith and Reason) is at the extreme end of the spectrum of rational approaches to the analysis of Christian doctrine. In his later philosophical theology books, Swinburne shows a greater sensitivity to history and tradition and to the analogical nature of religious language, as we shall see. Again, we note that Wiles speaks much more warmly of the work of Basil Mitchell, the philosopher of religion with whom Wiles held for many years a seminar in

Oxford on the relationship between philosophy and theology, and also of the work of Keith Ward, the philosopher of religion who succeeded Wiles as Regius Professor of Divinity in Oxford. Mitchell's own view on the relation between theology and philosophy will be considered later in this chapter; and, in the next, we shall be examining the debate between Wiles and Mitchell over whether Christianity needs a revelation. The work of Keith Ward will also feature prominently in the surveys of philosophical reflection on Christian doctrine that form the bulk of this book.

But it would be a mistake to suppose that the tensions between philosophy of religion and theology are most acutely felt by liberal theologians. As Hasker notes, the dominance of liberal theology in centres of theological education is on the wane. Recent decades have seen a marked recovery of traditional trinitarian theology in both Catholic and Protestant schools. But this has not led to much in the way of a rapprochement between the philosophers and the theologians. This is largely due to the influence of Karl Barth, the recovery of whose powerful, revelation-based, theology lies at the heart of recent developments. Barth's strong opposition to natural theology and to any 'points of connection' between theology and philosophy has reinforced and sustained the theologians' suspicion of the Christian philosophers, even where they share a commitment to mainstream Christian doctrine. This comes out most clearly in the influential work of Thomas F. Torrance, the Scottish Barthian dogmatician, who, in his Theological Science, insists that a theology that is true to its proper object — God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ — will have its own logic, inaccessible to the natural human mind.18 But this is an extreme position. It is one thing to insist that the nature ofthe object under discussion be allowed to determine our approach to it and to control our knowledge and experience of it. It is quite another to suppose that, in the case of our knowledge of God, this means a private logic internal to the response of faith. Theology cannot be protected from debate and criticism in this way. However much we must indeed respect the mystery of God, what theologians say and what creeds affirm are expressed in human language and are the result of human rational reflection. As such, they can and ought to be discussed, as Wolfhart Pannenberg puts it, 'without reservation, in the context of critical rationality'.19

So, while philosophers of religion must indeed be careful to do justice to what theologians say about the context and the traditions out of which their doctrines come and about the special nature of their primary subject matter, God, theologians, for their part, must be prepared to listen to and argue with philosophical comment on, and critique of, what they say. A major purpose of this book is to encourage both sides to respect each other and learn from each other.

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Responses

  • Tim
    What is the tension between philosophy and theologians?
    2 years ago
  • ruaraidh hill
    How to resolve tension between philosophy and religion?
    2 years ago

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