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Monday, November 24, 2008


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.

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