Beyond Reason

Philosophy & Theology, Part 2

Posted in Faith by Abigail on December 14, 2006

All right! Finally coming back to the set of questions I raised a while back (and trying to ignore the fact that, in the meantime, I’ve posted about a statue, an encyclopedia, and my Firefox menu bar). Here’s what I’ve got.

First, is it fair to say theology is a form of philosophy?
  I would love responses on that.

Second, here are the questions I have been trying – and failing – to ask. They have formulated themselves very slowly.

  1. What part does theology play in my salvation? If my salvation is based on theology, wouldn’t my faith then be from men?
  2. How can/do men and God work together, considering God is omniscient/omnipotent and man is supposedly free?
Third, I need to correct an error I made.
  My Mom pointed this out to me. Theology has nothing to do with my salvation. Let me explain a little. Ray got me going on this when he said: “How much of doctrine is inference?” He’s right that much doctrine is inferred but my Mom made the extremely obvious point that not ALL doctrine is inferred. Some parts of doctrine require no inferring – they are simply statements that you accept at face value and believe through faith. The truisms leading to salvation are of this type. So, my faith is not based on theology (human effort to infer from statements to conclusion) and is therefore not from men (I’ve already assumed the Bible to be from God). It can take me a LONG time to get to super basic truths.Any thoughts on this one?

Fourth – that second question up there – I recognize I couldn’t have opened a bigger Pandora’s box, and in the past I have always laughed at this debate. Seriously. When someone would bring it up I would snicker inside and think why don’t you go home? Why? It’s unanswerable and I hate wasting time. But, since then I’ve decided I was wrong. While it may be unanswerable, exploring the question can clarify other issues.

Way back when, in my very first nerdy post on “theology” and things I shouldn’t be getting into, I mentioned the “tandemnness” that exists between God and man inside of Christianity. While philosophy attempts nothing more than an understanding of the universe, theology attempts the same BUT tacks on the phenomenal claim that its explanations are sourced in God Himself – divine backing for an argument. This requires God telling man something and man being able to understand, and not pervert, that message. In other words, this is God and man working together which does nothing more than raise the age old question – how can men with free will co-exist with a God who is both omniscient and omnipotent?

In one sense, there is no “tandemeness,” no “working together,” if man has no free will. In that case, God is directly responsible for all our actions and beliefs. However, if we truly have free will (which needs to be defined – perhaps someone can do that for me?), we are responsible and, as I’ve been implying all along, theology can only be partially trusted. Theology immediately becomes suspect (for the same reason philosophy is suspect) because it is not direct word from God. But even that makes me think of the Bible. In a very real sense, the Bible is not “direct word from God,” because those words must go through my brain before I accept them. I have the ability to convolute, misunderstand, pervert, and manipulate anything. And – according to my perspective – I have free will.

From the free will perspective, God is clearly willing to let us make mistakes, kill each other, and suffer all the other necessary consequences to abandoning the source of life. So, if He’s willing, how can I trust theology (a partially human endeavor)? What will God “let us do?” This is a question of wills.

These are a lot of philosophical questions with only limited value. I hope no one thinks I’m questioning God – I’ve already made “the leap” to trust Him. But I am very curious and a verse I refer to is Proverbs 25:2. Also, while I love philosophy, it is dangerous because it requires self-reliance to some degree (hence my question of wills – somehow God and man work together). I need to point out that I’ve been trusting myself this whole time – to develop these questions – and even that should be questioned to some degree. And, I recognize that the ultimate answers to these questions is faith. God doesn’t owe me an explanation but I think also we’re meant to understand some things – we just don’t always know which is which.

Fifth, I must thank my wonderful friends for posting! You kids make me happy.  🙂  I couldn’t have been more pleased with the responses to the several questions I asked. Starting a blog, I wasn’t sure how many people, other than me, would actually pay it any attention. I mean, I like what I have to say…

So, Joel – you had some practical answers (as opposed my philosophical nonsense). Thanks! Forgiveness, yeah. There are hardly words to communicate the beauty of that. Certainly we are allowed to make mistakes and then God forgives us. I am now curious about the “we are allowed to” part – was I free to do that, or not? But that’s philosophical also – a little bit of “in the sky kind of stuff.” Thanks for bringing up the extremely practical side. Enough can’t possibly be said about forgiveness.

Although my driving question right now is obviously the philosophical end of the whole deal. Perhaps it’s not worth as much…

Brad – your point that “the Bible was not meant to be a Theological document full of logical syllogisms” and that it’s purpose is to “bring you to an encounter with God” helped me immensely! It’s very easy for my thoughts to get confused. (Although, obviously, here, I am accepting man’s words – yours – to help me understand God’s. Is that fair?)

You said, “At the end of the day I think we try to systematize God” for various self-centered reasons. I agree except for one thing – hasn’t God made us rational? I believe, we try to systematize because we are made to systematize, name, label, categorize, and thus “understand.” Certainly we’ve corrupted that good thing, along with every other good thing. Any thoughts on that?

Chris, thanks for your point on theology informing philosophy. From that perspective, there is no disagreement between philosophy and theology. If, by faith, you have already determined that a being created the universe, that He is the one we see in the Bible, that Jesus is that God, etc, then philosophy poses no threat to Christianity. I was referring to philosophy in its purest form where you begin with no assumptions or faith (which is actually impossible but it is a desired goal) and in which you use your own reason to locate “truth.” This certainly leads to a thousand different conclusions (and definitely excludes the need for God). This was the tension – and potential direct opposition – I was referring to before. A Christian philosopher has already addressed and answered all the big questions that philosophy attempts to answer.

Theology – which appears to me to be a form of philosophy – depends on… that tension between God’s will and man’s? And direction from God (Joel started talking about this). I don’t know. That’s the next question I’m coming to…

If ANY of you read all the way through my post, you are beautiful! You are the bomb. And, uhm, you deserve a cookie. And maybe a bag of chips.

As always, any thoughts?


6 Responses to 'Philosophy & Theology, Part 2'

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  1. Chris said,

    Hi Amanda,

    Thanks for the message. Theology is indeed a branch of philosophy (I would say). All theological questions are metaphysical in nature, but not all metaphysical questions are theological (such as in an atheistic presupposition).

    Theology I would say does play a role in our salvation. If my theology doesn’t include that fact that Jesus is the Messiah = I have bad theology = I’m not saved. Same for the deity of Christ, justification by faith, etc. There are “flex doctrines,” but having good theology is inexplicably bound to our eternal destiny.

    For the freedom issue, look for theological compatiblism or “soft determinism.” You can also read on it.

  2. Brad said,

    Let me try to tackle two things first and then come back to the other questions some other time.
    Let me answer your first question and your questions about my earlier responses. Is it fair to say theology is a form of philosophy?

    It is fair to say that Theology has been USED as a form of Philosophy, but I think that always ends a little disastrously. Philosophy used to be about the love of wisdom. It used to be about questioning things that we normally take for granted. What is wisdom? What do I mean when I say “I know”? What does it mean to be a human? How do humans differ from animals? How do things differ from other things? I answered one of your posts earlier with a broad overly simplified explanation of Pre-Socratic Philosophy. What I think I meant to say was this. When you live in a world where every cause of every effect is attributed to a god or a demon your first (and correct) response would be to question conventional wisdom. But the schools of Philosophy began to collapse on themselves when they then (in the tradition of the Cynics) began to question the existence of actual constituent parts of reality. This is the tendency of thinking. When thinking looks in the mirror it sees nothing. Thought objects (concepts if you will) exist potentially in my mind. Things exist actually in the world (reality). This is one of the only truly important conclusions of Philosophical inquiry.
    I think Philosophically. Philosophy is empty. I am not empty because I am. It is empty because it is not. Theology is empty. It is empty because it is not. God is not empty Because HE IS.
    As long as Philosophy maintains that balance of questioning “what” things are instead of “that” things are it is healthy. And as long as you are evaluating your own process of coming to mental conclusions it is healthy. This is what is meant by the philosophical directive “Know Thyself”. But when the process becomes reality for you or when you begin to question the existence of things in reality then you have just (in today’s language) jumped the shark.
    Theology doesn’t properly ask these questions about my thought processes. It assumes some things that Philosophy does not. But this is not to say that Philosophy is before Theology or superior to it. Philosophy assumes nothing. Philosophy questions my assumptions. But that is not because my assumptions constitute reality. The only thing that my assumptions constitute are my assumptions.

    If you think that you are trusting my words (or believing them) to help you understand things then congratulations. But if these things are true then you could just as easily have reached those conclusions on your own. But some things are not just the product of our philosophical examination of reality. Here is a theologically significant example…the Bereans. They examined the scriptures to see if these things were so. Oooo I love the depth of the meaning of that tiny little phrase. The Bereans were doing something very important. They were drawing a Spiritual conclusion about reality based on what God has to say about historically real events. Only God can provide the spiritual truth and significance to reality. But that doesn’t mean that real things are happening about which non-spiritual things can be truly said. You can accurately say (without theology or the Bible) that Jesus was a teacher, that he was crucified and even that he rose again without understanding the spiritual significance of it all. To get that you must examine scripture (and the truth about who Jesus was had been hidden in the Old Testament for hundreds if not thousands of years).
    I think that we see this lack of spiritual understanding (the Bible calls it blindness) and take it to mean that any and all kinds of knowing have been corrupted. But doesn’t Paul assume that understanding is necessary to saving faith when he says “they cannot believe if they do not hear and they cannot hear if there isn’t a preacher and there isn’t a preaher unless they are sent.”

    About systematizing… Any time you try to systematize (Mentally containerize) a thing it dies. This is the tendency of “ologies” We could start a school of Amandaology but even if we knew every possible fact about you it would still only be that…facts. It wouldn’t be you. If this is what you mean by God creating us as rational beings then yes it is true. We have the ability to more fully experience reality through memory and mental manipulation of objects. But mental experience of things is still different from actual experience of things. Theology takes a sharp right hand turn from any “ology” because the object of Theological study is the only one which exists necessarily. What is different about studying God and abiding with Him. Only you can answer that question. You know whether or not you are in fellowship with Him or you’re just by yourself. And I hope its the first one.

  3. Jai said,

    Part 0 – Amanda, I thought you should know that your blog is now on google… I searched for the title and it popped up… Also, please don’t hold it against me, but I think that I need to go “back-and-forth” a few times with these quesitons with you to really develop the answers into things that make sense. I hope that this is a decent first draft.

    “First…” the short answer is that it depends on your motive for and definition of theology. Practically speaking, theology can be a tool to help you get to know God better, but otherwise is futile.
    Theology means literally “discourse about God” or spiritual things usually applying the rules of logic to try to understand God or religion (from here on out I will use theology to mean Christian Theology and assume the practitioner is a born-again believer in Jesus Christ). Philosophy means “love of wisdom” and attempts to make sense of the “why” of the world. If you take that theology as an attempt to explain God, then you could say that theology is a branch of philosophy. On the other hand, you could use relate it in a different sense because Proverbs says that “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” could mean that you could take philosophy as a branch of theology. The important thing to note here is, are you talking about Christian theology as simply an attempt to explain God, and the way God works, or is it also an attempt to apply the rules of logic to understand more about who God is in terms of a reslationship with him (in order to better know him). So, perhaps the point is that the motive of your theology is important. If it is simply an attempt to explain God in terms of logic and human understanding, then it is simply a derivative of basic philosophy, and also dependent on man’s frail wisdom. If on the other hand, you study theology in an attempt to have a better relationship with God instead of a petty academic understanding (which in general is not very useful), then you could say that your theology (and worldview) will drive your philosophy so, on the personal level, philosophy will be a derivative of theology. Since its done in an attempt to have a better relationship with God, scipture says that God is a rewarder of those who dilligently seek him, then God will through the Holy spirit strengthen your understanding of him and keep you from error, then theology becomes not simply a search for knowledge’s sake, but a tool to enhance our relationship with God.

    1. What part does theology play in my salvation? If my salvation is based on theology, wouldn’t my faith then be from men?
    First, See previous discussion for thoughts on the definition of theology. Taking the relationship-pursuit view, theology is simply an attempt to explain something that has already happened. Salvation does have elements of it that are not possible to understand, not because they are irrational (although there is some of that there), but because we as humans are finite. Theology pursued with the correct motive (to enhance one’s relationship with Christ), is an attempt/tool to enhance the experience of one’s faith, and not simply a pursuite of knowledge. Belief (faith) can come from increased knowledge and understanding, however faith is not based solely (or even largely) on knowledge, simply put, faith is a choice to believe something (perhaps from knowledge, perhaps not). Pursuit of knowledge (theology) might lead one to make the choice, however the choice itself is not in and of itself dependent on knowledge. Someone might criticize you as uninformed if you make a choice without research (i.e. what kind of car to buy), but there’s also an emotional component too (i.e. I like the Nissan 240sx). In either case, informed or uninformed, the choice has been made, and salvation is a result of that choice and Christ’s work on the cross, therefore theology doesn’t necessarily play a part in the work of your salvation (although God may use it to lead you to salvation). The question about if faith itself is a work of man (mine) or of gift of God is something that is waaaayyy beyond what I feel competent to discuss. You could also possibly say that faith is the result of the choice in which case, even if knowledge/theology led you to make a certain choice, your faith results on the choice, not on the the theology itself. If you gain more knowledge later, it doesn’t negate a choice you made (i.e. Nissan 240sx’s are expensive to maintain), it simply calls into question if you were correct or not in making the choice in the first place. For instance, if evolution is somehow proven in a lab, does that negate my faith in Christ and therefore my salvation? I would say no.

    2. How can/do men and God work together, considering God is omniscient/omnipotent and man is supposedly free?
    Practical answer: since I don’t know, I should be seeking the things I know God wants me to do (Eph 2:10, 5:17).
    Shortened answer. I personally think that God has specific things that he “forces” for each Christian, and certain things he “desires” for each individual Christian (good works created in advance). I wouldn’t say they are all the same things for every person (both forced and desired actions). A separate argument is if each Christian’s salvation is a “forced” action. Also, is each “forced” action forced on the spot, or is it something that God designed into the universe? I don’t know the answer to either of these questions either. I would say for the non-Christians, that God ran through all possible universes before the creation of the world, and there were some people who *always* chose to reject him (the same person in all possible universes and their choices are the only things that change). This doesn’t mean that I believe God is impersonal, but that choices we make are more often than not “free”, but God has a few things that He wanted me to choose ahead of time, so He only allowed this universe to exist. I think that God has good works created in advance for me to do, but that I don’t always do them. I think God is powerful enough that He could design a universe where every person ever to exist could choose things freely, but that the overall outcome would have everything God wanted done to happen. I think that he only chooses salvation for those who would believe in *any* possible universe, and by doing so, the only people who will go to hell are those who continue to reject Him in every universe.

    Longer but incomplete answer (I wrote this to develop the “shortened answer”):
    First off, does God himself have free will? Presuming the character of God is a constant (that God would never act out of character with Himself), wouldn’t omniscience negate omnipotence? Knowing the outcome of any decision I made would tend to limit the decisions I make pretty quickly, maybe to only a single “obvious” right choice. That would mean that there really wasn’t any free will, but by knowing how all of my decisions affect the future would “lock” me into a future. You could also say that that omniscience would be ultimate omnipotence because I would know how any of my choices would affect the outcome, so I could execute the choice that would lead to my desired outcome. I’m taking all of this after reading the Dune sci-fi series by Frank Herbert. The main character in the book would know the future, specifically of the actions he took, but knowing the future of his choice locked him into that future, so there was never any real “choice” in the matter therefore no free will. Now take into account that God can also alter reality, so omniscience becomes a result of His omnipotence, in other words, He chooses whatever future He desires and foreknowledge is simply a byproduct.
    Now as humans we tend to try (often without meaning to) bring God down to our level. So, simply because GOD can choose whatever future He wants, it must somehow negate my freewill. Or, I can somehow choose something that would “wreck” God’s design on the unverse (or even my life). Does that mean that I no longer have free will? Nope, I still am free to choose (individual actions) how I see fit and God has already chosen the end result He wants (for the Universe). Can’t a being that powerful design a universe (or choose a universe) where His design for that universe is maintained, no matter what each other being in that unvierse chooses? Or, couldn’t God solve the logical conundrum that leaves the choice of each person in the universe as a variable, and still maintains his universal design? Couldn’t he further choose certain specific things (left unknown to us) that each person would do, and design a universe where circumstances (or other influences) would lead each person to choose those certain things of their own free will (i.e. put the same person in two different universes and choose to build the one where they will make the choice He wants).
    Ok, so the question was how does God and men work together? I would say first, that for each one of us (I’ll limit the us to Christians for now), he has certain things he wants each of us to do/choose, for certain, and maybe some certain things he would *like* for us to choose, but that we may or may not choose (good works He created in advance for us to do). Lets say that these things he wants us to choose for certain are not always the same items for each person (although salvation would obviously be included on that list since we’re talking about Christians). Now the set of possible universes that exist only include those where I will choose to do the things He wants me to do for certain, and where I could choose or not choose the things he would like me to do (and therefore sin, or don’t do something good I should have done). God already knows the end state (i.e. the only true universe that will exist in the end), but I think that the design of our universe has many possibilities, except for those things God has for certain for us to do. Since we don’t know the outcomes of our decisions, we have an illusion of *completely* free will (that I can somehow violate the will of God), but since the univese exists already, there might or are things that I might not have a choice in that God designed into the present universe. You can discuss separately if God has salvation as a “certain” thing he wants every Christian to choose, or if that’s left up to the individual (eternal security, irresistable grace, etc.).

    Third, I need to correct an error I made.
    Truisms would be the knowledge leading to a choice (see answer to the very first question – marked “First”).

    Amanda, I would encourage you that you should never stop being curious, and never stop questioning. Some of my favorite people in the world are the 4 year olds who always ask “Why?” God loves children, and those who come to him with a childlike faith. Even if you come with lots of questions, he will either answer them, or give you the faith to trust him without an answer. The only thing he can’t tolerate is unbelief (not the same as momentary doubts), and from everything I can see, you’re not there. As far as what will God “let us do”? I don’t know the answer to that question… there may be things that he doesn’t (or won’t) let anyone do. There may be things he only won’t let me do. For instance, I have definately wanted to be married now on the order of like 10 years. No matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t able to find someone who would be willing to put up with me… Part of what *I* want has limited that choice (I won’t settle for just *anyone*), but at the same time, there’s a definite sense of “NO” attached to that whole area for me up until now. As far as “how” I think that works, please see the nonsensical previous answer to the second question (#2) about multiple universes existing at once and such.
    Doctrine, theology, etc. are all our attempts to put logic to the something infinite (but I think largely rational) person of God and his work in our lives, sure, it can be flawed, but its worth the effort (if done for the right motives and for the effort to know God better) and helps us to approach God. Just make sure that the pursuit of knowledge about God never outweighs your pursuit of God.

    I made it all the way through the post (hopefully making some bit of sense). So… I’m going to bomb someplace, and get a cookie and I’m all that and a bag of chips? (..”You are the bomb. And, uhm, you deserve a cookie. And maybe a bag of chips.”..)

  4. Oleg said,

    Hey, I’ve actually read through all those posts. Do I deserve a box of cookies now? I’ll need some sugar for my brain to digest all that.

  5. amandalaine said,

    Well, it appears that collectively we’re writing a book on this topic… and including asides like cookies, chips, bombs, and multiple universes.

    First, not surprisingly, several of you brought up ideas I’ve never seen before. Ever. So, I have no response. I’ve got to do some thinking (it’s so sad how everyday life interferes with thinking – I’ve got to eat, sleep, work, and talk to people).

    Second, Joel had an amazing response he just emailed me… which I highly encouraged him to post, but, maybe he won’t. I know he’s real busy right now.

    Third, Oleg, you do deserve a box of cookies. Chocolate chip as ordered.

    Fourth, some substance (past all the fluff of social etiquette and other such nonsense). There’s too much here to respond to. I will pick and choose and quote you so you know what I’m responding to. Have you helped me? Yes, immensely!! Thanks for your clear answer Chris. Thanks for the philosophical end you can provide Brad (did you go to school for philosophy? I can’t remember). Jai – thanks for taking on every single question in my post.

    More to come later. (It’s going to take me a while to process all this.)

  6. Brad said,

    Wow these posts are getting longer all the time. Yes Amanda I have a great affinity for philosophy (I studied in grad school and on my own), but an even healthier respect and love for God’s command through Paul to avoid “empty” (vain) philosophy. I feel the tension in your posts may be related to the desire to avoid vain philosophy yourself. Keep questioning and seeking and knocking and loving God with ALL of your mind.

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