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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

The Dance of Philosophy and Theology

St. Anselm of Canterbury begins his significant philosophical text, the Proslogion, with a prayer. In it, he reveals his desire to see and know God and asks God to reveal Himself to him [1]. After asking for God to reveal Himself, he prays: “I long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe,-that unless I believed, I should not understand” [2]. For St. Anselm, reason will not lead him to faith or to what is true. Only faith can open him to the truth. Reason is a tool which can aid his faith in the pursuit of truth. It can help him understand what he believes.

St. Thomas Aquinas, writing a century and a half after St. Anselm, makes a similar point. Before disclosing five works of God which reveal His existence, Aquinas writes, “If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections-if he has any-against faith” [3]. The five ways will not prove God’s existence to one who does not believe in God’s existence. They are designed to bolster the faith of those who do believe in God by providing further proof for the mind. Philosophy and reason serve the tasks of theology: they will not lead to faith without recourse to revelation.

With Descartes, the relationship begins to reverse. For Descartes, a person cannot simply assume the presuppositions of faith. He cannot even be sure the physical world around him is real. For all he knows, he could be dreaming [4]. Instead, he seeks to disprove everything he knows [5] until he finds a truth he cannot doubt [6]. In Descartes, everything must be accepted and proven based on reason. Reason is how he knows the truth and he can only believe in God if reason proves His existence [7].

Prof. Gayle Doornbas of Calvin Theological Seminary, in the lecture, “Philosophy for Understanding Theology”, describes how, from the Enlightenment on, “theology dances to the tune of philosophy” [8]. From here on out, theologians will be reacting to the work of philosophers. Friedrich Schleiermacher will reinterpret theology to fit the needs of 19th-century Romanticism. Rudolf Bultmann will change biblical hermeneutics to fit the needs of Existentialism. The significant theological tasks of the past two or three centuries have shifted from “faith seeking understanding” to “understanding seeking faith”. Rather than using philosophy as a tool, it has set the agenda for the task of theology.

[1] Allen, Diogenes, and Eric O. Springsted, eds. Primary Readings in Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Milton Keynes UK: Lightning Source UK, 2010, pp. 84-85.

[2] Allen and Springsted, p. 86.

[3] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I. Q1. A8.

[4] Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy. Translated by Donald A. Cress. Third ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993, pp. 14-15

[5] Descartes, p. 13.

[6] Descartes, p. 8.

[7] Descartes, p. 25.

[8] Doornbas, Gayle, "Philosophy for Understanding Theology," unpublished 2019.

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