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Monday, November 24, 2008

In drawing attention back to the nature and necessity of symbols in Christian initiation, we cannot fail to draw valuable resources from the scriptures, both old and new, so as to be able to place the origins of such symbols (Old Testament) and their relevance or significance in the Church (New Testament).

Having been of great concern to both the Eastern and Western Church, symbols have come to us, due principally to their ability to undergo a lot of growth and still remain unchanged through many cultures which it has encountered. But this is not to say that in handing it down, it has not been altered in some degree for it is a fact that while some worth in it has been stored, a great deal of their value has been lost due to abuses and other accidents of history. To this effect, it is noteworthy that Vatican II strongly suggested that the church go back to the underlying meaning of her ritual and sacramental symbols, and in the process do away with all that was added to them which impinge on their meaning.

It is quite sad that the very essence of liturgical symbolism has lost its meaning especially in the Western Church. This is even so when noted that symbols have on many occasions been reduced to mere signs. This is worrisome taking into account the fact that while symbols are a physical manifestation of that which they represent, signs are just pointers to the reality but bear within them no real intrinsic efficacy of the reality they point to. It is, in fact, in making a clear distinction between sign and symbol that the Church is able to safeguard the efficacy of the Sacraments and indeed all ritual actions for on the level of symbols, both sacraments and ritual actions are the same. The above anomaly of which we speak of can be traced back to the scholastics who in a bid to explain the faith made it into an abstract and other-worldly thing, stripping the symbols of their meaning as far as being physical manifestation of the spiritual realities and hence reducing them to mere pointers (signs) of the realities.

Symbolism in the church plays a far greater role than can be envisaged. It is known for a fact that there is no religion without symbols. In fact the very etymology of the word attests to this for symballo (Greek) means to cast together or unite. Thus symbols are one of the principal agents in building up and uniting a community of believers and secondly fulfilling the desire of each individual in building a union with God.

In reflecting on rite and symbol it is found out that they are complimentary in usage. A rite can be said to refer to a group of actions, words and gestures which have come down to us in celebrations and considered binding based on the traditions that established them. Seen as such we find out that rites depend on symbols for their value in that what is sought for by the rite is present in the symbol, which makes present the spiritual reality of the faith. Now this has a direct influence on the liturgy for rite and symbol are quite intrinsically bound up in the liturgy of the Church, properly seen as the public worship sanctioned by the Church for the glorification of her God and the sanctification of her members. Thus in making present the realities of what they represent, symbols ensure that the Church receives those graces which her Lord promised her upon the establishment of those symbols which could in the proper sense be categorised under rites, for they have become binding based on the tradition that established them. In reducing symbols to signs, the Church simply loses sight of the inherent graces gained from her rites immediately they are performed, so much so that these same ritual acts tend to be monotonous, repetitive, pointers to the realities she expects from her Lord, though in fact already received yet unknown.

Signs cannot be discounted as entirely unnecessary. To do that would simply make it close to impossible for the faithful to practise their [royal] priesthood. I say so because of the distinction between sign and symbol I gave above. We also know that in the liturgy, it is Christ who acts in His proper role as High-Priest, though through ordained ministers of the Church. So we say the priest acts in persona Christi. This is where the whole efficacy of the minister’s activity, both rite and symbol, lies. Apart from that they are just plain signs. But signs help the Church to, as it were, give the opportunity to her members who are not ordained, yet priests by virtue of their baptism, to live in the hope which their baptism entails. The signs which, in this context would be the many aids to holiness found in sacramentals, are not entirely without any graces, but they properly serve as pointers to the symbols which in turn make actually present and physical the spiritual reality. This is because Christ is able to work backwards, through the instrumentality of the symbols, to give to the signs a desired and fruitful fulfilment based on what particular thing the signs may represent. Hence, there is the need for the Church to sanction signs by encouraging her clergy to get involved in popular devotions and be ever more willing to part with blessings whenever necessary upon the faithful. The need for signs is also further strengthened by the fact that it is the ordained ministers who consecrate these signs before their usage, just like that done for symbols for liturgical worship, though less ritualised. But above all, signs help us understand better the impact and value of the symbols in that in pointing towards the efficacy inherent in the symbols, signs raise the level of appreciation for the sacraments carried out through the symbols and rites of the liturgy.

In conclusion, I would like to say that the very essence of the church as the kingdom of God, House-hold of faith, the Mystical body of Christ and the Bride of Christ, though designating titles, also makes the church a symbol. It is a symbol in that when we say, for instance that the church is the Mystical body of Christ, we are not just giving vent to a pious thought (a sign) but we are stating the fact that Christ has indeed and in fact taken the Church unto Himself for He wrought her salvation through His death and resurrection, establishing her as His legacy to the Father, who pre-destined this from of old. The Church thus becomes a sacrament for her presence makes manifest in actuality that which she represents, the community of Christ.


It is a known fact that in some quarters, theology and philosophy are seen as two irreconcilable disciplines of human endeavour. This assertion appears to be true when taken lightly into consideration, the areas of specialization and interests and approaches in methodology used in the studies of their individual subject–matter. But this is not the case, as this essay would show. Philosophy and theology can and indeed, have had long standing and fruitful relationship in the past, and in our day, re–vitalised. But before I set forth on drawing a relationship between the two, theology and philosophy, it is worth–while to try to give some basic explanations regarding the meaning and interests of these two disciplines.


In its very simplified sense, theology can be said to be God–talk. In actual fact, it is a very hard endeavour to try to stipulate a definition for the term, theology, which may be acceptable to all concerned and indeed capable of capturing the entire scope of theology. Alszeghy and Flick say thus:

It is not possible to answer the question [of what theology is] on the basis of etymology by saying that theology is the study or discussion of divinity. In this perspective, theology would not be distinguishable from theodicy, theosophy or other mental activities that no one today would call theological. It is clear that in the course of history, the term “theology” has received a specific meaning that does not come solely from the philological roots. [1]

But for the purposes of this essay, I will rely on the classical definition given by St. Anselm that theology is “faith seeking understanding.[2] What then is faith?

Faith is said to be a divine gift.[3] But not only is it a divine gift, it has a human side to it in that it entails a human effort in the form of a response to this free invitation to acceptance of the divine gift.[4] Faith presupposes the event that God has revealed Himself in human history. This event is held and presented in the form of a set of beliefs. Trust in, and acceptance of this set of beliefs is what is known, in other words as faith. Thus, not only is faith a divine gift, it has to be consciously accepted.


Philosophy can simply be said to be love or pursuit of wisdom. But, like theology, it is quite a difficult task to find a definition that encompasses all that philosophy entails. This is basically because it has changed forms so much in its historical development. Formerly, every aspect of human endeavour that had to do with a quest of knowledge was a part of philosophy. Pope John Paul II talks of its development and value in his encyclical, Fides et Ratio (FD3&4) in these terms:

Born and nurtured when the human being first asked questions about the reason for things and their purpose, philosophy shows in different modes and forms that the desire for truth is part of human nature itself. It is an innate property of human reason to ask why things are as they are, even though the answers which gradually emerge are set within a horizon which reveals how the different human cultures are complementary.[...] Through philosophy's work, the ability to speculate which is proper to the human intellect produces a rigorous mode of thought; and then in turn, through the logical coherence of the affirmations made and the organic unity of their content, it produces a systematic body of knowledge. In different cultural contexts and at different times, this process has yielded results which have produced genuine systems of thought.

In its historical development it gave rise to many other disciplines including science itself.[5] In finding a universal definition for philosophy, we may think of philosophy as the science that is brought about by philosophizing.[6] Doing philosophy means “investigating the facts in search of a primal truth within them. Philosophical thought is hence characterised by dynamic openness, which of itself precludes any conclusion, claiming to be accepted as definitive.”[7] In relation to its object of investigation, philosophy is characterised by the universality with which it formulates its findings. Thus “[f]or homo religiosus, [the religious man] even the experience of the sacred and the reaching toward the absolute belong to the sphere of philosophical enquiry.”[8] This brings me to the main question of this essay; does theology need philosophy?

Many are the views which perceive the relationship between philosophy and theology as one between faith and reason. But this is not always true, as I share with Fisichella, for we cannot reduce the whole discipline of theology to a matter of faith, neither can we do same by equating philosophy to reason.[9] To do that would be over-simplification of the two disciplines, though faith is an integral part of theologising and so is reason in relation to philosophy.

Tracing this relationship down the course of history, we find different high and low points in this relationship of which we speak. In the early church, believers did not always see their new found faith as a new philosophy, though they usually contrasted it with the philosophy of the day; they thus compared the wisdom of the Gospel with the wisdom of the world, as evidenced in Paul’s letters (I Cor 2: 1–16)[10]. It is later on, especially among the Patristics that reflections first surface as to the actual role of philosophy in relation to the Christian faith. It was to help in better making the content of the kerygma more understandable to pagans or further strengthen the faith of people who already believed, though it should be said that this was not a general consensus among the Church fathers as regards the importance of philosophy.[11]

In St. Augustine, we perhaps, find the first ever shaping of the relationship between theology and philosophy. This is understandably so when we look at what influenced him during his years of conversion at Milan. Bokenkotter says:

Augustine’s circle of friends at Milan introduced him to the Neo-Platonic movement, which attracted many Christian intellectuals of the day. They found in this system a remarkable affinity with their faith. He studied Plotinus intensively and was able thereby to shake off a lingering materialism and to reach the concept of a purely spiritual reality.[12]

Coming to the Scholastic age, Abelard can be said to be a strong defender of philosophy in theological reflection. Bokenkotter says of him;

It was the fascinating, stormy, and tragic Abelard who did the most to popularize these logical studies at Paris; he pioneered in using Aristotelian categories of thought in order to reach a deeper understanding of the Christian dogmas. He took a carefully reasoned approach to theological questions, not denying the role of authority but making every allowance for rational objections and natural human feelings.[13]

But Thomas Aquinas is, perhaps the most important figure of this era, seeing that he baptised the philosophy of Aristotle in the deep waters of the faith found in the Gospels. This is principally the era of the Summa, where theological questions were put forth and answered by use of philosophical argumentation, thus tending to be propositional.[14] But this era is characterised by a very rationalistic view of theology which nearly robbed it of its spiritual dimension. This was the trend even through the reformation and only ended with the Second Vatican Council

In conclusion I would like to state that trends have changed considerably in Catholic theology currently. Pope Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris marks a definitive turning point in Church thought of the relationship between theology and philosophy today. He is of the view that ‘“putting philosophy to good use is required in order that theology may acquire and be invested with the nature, the character, the natural disposition of a true science’.”[15] The relationship between theology and philosophy is not, from the Church’s perspective, one of equals. Priority is given to theology due to its divine end while philosophy is seen as a collaborator. Theology on the other hand is not to be viewed as a self-sufficient discipline for without the critical focus of philosophy, theology is bound to be limited in its delivery of sound and valid results. In keeping theology and philosophy as collaborators, the Church keeps a legacy of her past, that of the doctors of the medieval era who are, on the whole, responsible for the many rich insights of the faith which have guided the Church even until this day.[16]


Alszeghy, Z. and Maurizio F., Introductory Theology, London; Sheed and Ward,


Bokenkotter, T., A Concise History of the Catholic Church (rev. ed.), New York:

Image Books Doubleday, 1990.

Carey, J.J., “The New Dialogue between Philosophy and Theology” by J.A.

Martin, Jr., JAAR 35 4 (1967), , 04/11/2008.

Charlesworth, M., Philosophy and Religion, Oxford: Oneworld Publication,


Dulles, A., The Craft of Theology: From Symbol To System, Dublin: Gill and

Macmillan, 1992.

Fisichella R., “Theology and Philosophy” in Dictionary of Fundamental Theology,

ed. R. Latourelle, London: St Pauls, 1994, 1075-1078.

Mcbrien, P.R., The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, New York:

HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1995.

Mulcahy, E., “Introduction to Theology”, Class notes, Tangaza College – Catholic

University of Eastern Africa, Nairobi 2008.

“Philosophy”, EB XVII, London: William Benton, 864-882.


DFT Latourelle, R., ed., Dictionary of Fundamental Theology, London: St Pauls, 1994

EB Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago- London- Toronto, 1973

Etc. et cetera (and so forth)

JAAR Journal of the American Academy of Religion, London: Oxford University Press

[1] Cf. Z. Alszeghy – M. Flick, Introductory Theology, 12.

[2] E. Mulcahy, Lecture Notes: Introduction to Theology, 11.

[3]Cf. P.R. McBrien, The HarperCollins Encyclopaedia of Catholicism, 510.

[4] Cf. E. Mulcahy, Lecture Notes: Introduction to Theology, 9.

[5] Cf. “Philosophy”, 864-882.

[6] Cf. R. Fisichella, “Theology and Philosophy”, 1075

[7] R. Fisichella, “Theology and Philosophy”, 1076.

[8] R. Fisichella, “Theology and Philosophy”, 1076.

[9] Cf. R. Fisichella, “Theology and Philosophy”, 1075.

[10] Cf. R. Fisichella, “Theology and Philosophy”, 1075.

[11] Cf. R. Fisichella, “Theology and Philosophy”, 1076.

[12] Cf. T. Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church, 71.

[13]T. Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church, 144.

[14] Cf. T. Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church, 141.

[15] R. Fisichella, “Theology and Philosophy”, 1077.

[16] Cf. A. Dulles, The Craft of Theology, 128.