Western Philosophy through the Ages and its Influence on Theology, by Pr. Rossow

Over the years I have sketched several outlines for a book on this topic and so I was pleased when BJS Editor Joshua Scheer asked me to write a series on the topic.image

In this series we will start with the ancient Greeks and work our way through the history of Western thought to the current generation. We will explore how the following questions were answered through the years:

  • What is Real? (Metaphysics)
  • How do we Know Reality? (Epistemology)
  • How should we Act in this Reality? (Ethics)

We will also ask these questions of Luther. (The answers are very enlightening and are not in keeping with traditional assertions about Luther and philosophy which tend to be unhelpful caricatures and/or wax noses which are bent according to theological bias.) We will also conclude each section by asking the most important question:

  • What Influence has this Era of Philosophy had on Christian Theology?


Theology and Philosophy

The point is not to study philosophy to know theology. Theologians study philosophy to sharpen their ability to think, to learn how to get to the foundation level of thought and mostly, to be able to recognize when philosophy has tainted confessional theology.

Philosophy is basic and necessary. It gets us to the root of thought and reality. It strips away all bias and affectation. (Of course, there are late modern and post-modern philosophies such as existentialism, which are based on affectation. They are rational aberrations but they do at least attempt to be consistent which gives them some standing as “philosophy.”)

Because philosophy cuts through the emotional trappings of thought, being philosophical can get you in trouble. Socrates was one of the most reasonable of all homo sapiens and where did it get him? The democracy of Athens made him drink the hemlock for stirring up the youth. People don’t like to be reasonable, they like to be emotional and think with their bellies and hearts (Romans 16:18, Philippians 3:19, Colossians 2:21). It does not take too many years of being a pastor to teach you that people do not want to think with their brains.

But, of all Christians, confessional believers are the most naturally “philosophical” in their approach to truth and life. Confessional theology lends itself well to a philosophical approach because it is based on the truth and speaking the truth straight-forwardly.

Jesus made me a philosopher. I read, marked, learned and inwardly digested the Gospels when I was in junior high and high school. Jesus told it like it is. He got down to first principles about God, man, sin, death, and salvation.

By the time I got to Concordia, Seward, I had enough of a hunch about philosophy that I took Phil 101 as soon as I could. I thank Rev. Professor David P. Meyer for introducing me to the world of thought in that class and for introducing me to a little book that I still use today and I recommend to you: Honer and Hunt’s Invitation to Philosophy (Wadsworth, 1973). It was still being printed in the mid 1980’s when I used it as a text for the Introduction to Philosophy class that I taught for a couple years as a Teaching Fellow at St. Louis, University. For a short and unbiased history of philosophy I recommend Erich Stumpf’s “Socrates to Sarte.” The best history of philosophy is Frederick Copleston’s multi-volume “A History of Philosophy.” It is more comprehensive than Stumpf and so would be a good second step. Both are still available in reprints and various used copies.

Jesus made me a philosopher but Christian theology is not philosophy and one does not need to know a lick of philosophy to receive the gift of faith from the Holy Spirit or to master the Scriptures He inspired. But once you start reading theology from secondary sources, you will encounter philosophy whether you know it or not and it is better to know it and recognize it. This is not only true for systematic (doctrinal/dogmatic) theology but also for exegetical theology. Because of their devotion to the text and original languages exegetes like to think they are above first principles of thought but I have experienced some of the worst and most harmful philosophical biases sitting at the feet of exegetes or reading their works.

Two of the worst examples came from our own beloved professors. (They are indeed beloved. I am a child of theirs and I owe a great debt to them for the gift of theological knowledge but that does not mean that where they have erred I will be silent, even if it means I must drink the ecclesiastical hemlock.) One was a disaster of a post-modern reader/response hermeneutic published by our own CPH and written by a Concordia professor. Thankfully it is mostly ignored in the synod. The other example is the use of Aidan Kavanaugh’s work to teach the liturgy. He has much good to say about the liturgy but his thought is rooted in an unacceptable philosophy of dialectical pragmatism. This leads him to assert absurdities. For instance, in one of his works he claims that the liturgy is primary theology and dogmatics is secondary theology and this error has been openly at one of our seminaries. (He wrongly places experience and practice above knowledge. I will share more on that error when we get into the 19th and 20th centuries.)

Hopefully this series will equip you to think more clearly, better understand the role of philosophy in Christian theology and recognize errors that creep into it.

In addition to David P. Meyer, I want to credit a few other people for whatever I get right in this series: Rev. Dr. Alan Borcherding (currently serving as staff for the BHES in St. Louis) and Rev. Stephen Googins, both of whom know more philosophy than I will ever hope to know. I also thank Dr. Nagel and his love for Werner Elert’s “philosophical” expression of Lutheranism and for Dr. Nagel’s keen ability to use philosophy only when helpful and to separate out bad and unwanted philosophy from the pure theology of the Holy Spirit.

So it should be a fun ride over the next few months, at least for me. You will probably be bored out of your gourds but that is the Editor’s fault. It was his idea.

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Western Philosophy through the Ages and its Influence on Theology, by Pr. Rossow — 31 Comments

  1. Dear Pastor Rossow,

    Thanks for taking on this daunting task! You have had some great influences, with Dr. David P. Meyer, and the books you mention.

    It is interesting that you point out the problems between exegetical theology and philosophy. It is also a problem between exegetical theology and systematic theology, and for the same reasons. It is more of a problem today than in the past, partially because the 19th century was averse to systematic theology.

    This is seen in the aftermath of 19th century theology, when Adolf von Harnack intended to demolish all dogmatic systems, on the basis of history and exegesis. But then his student, Karl Barth, ended up writing a systematics that rivals the Summa of Aquinas in length, if not in consistency or internal clarity. It is also seen in the Wauwatosa Theology that intended to put exegetical theology on the throne vacated by systematics, and then in the 1960s faculty at Concordia, Saint Louis.

    I prefer to see the theological faculties in harmony, and they can work that way when they are working at their best.

    The chief problem that we conservative Lutherans have is that we are “ignorant of our philosophical presuppositions.” This is not just a problem in the exegetical faculties, it is a problem all around. So I commend you for attempting to heighten our philosophical consciousness. This is a good start!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  2. I have a very hard time imagining getting bored with this series, Pastor Rossow. This is the kind of stuff I read blogs for!

    Question: If I’m understanding this correctly, it sounds like Aidan Kavanaugh’s err that you mention is a popular one-directional view of “Lex orandi, lex credendi” that is common in Anglicanism (and in their churches shown to be untrue).

    In the opening chapter of “Gathered Guests,” Dr. Tim Maschke takes the approach that the “orandi” and “credendi” are two way streets, with both having significant potential to impact the other. The implication being that it is not enough to correct problems or strive for purity in the one and leave the other to work itself out, but rather, both disciplines must be diligently maintained for the purity of the church’s confession. Do you think this is a better perspective on the relationship between liturgics and dogmatics?

  3. Miguel,

    I am not sure it is a matter of the “lexes.”I think the “lex” thing says that if your liturgy does not match your theology you won’t have to wait too long before you lose your theology. It will be overcome by how the people are worshiping. I agree with that totally.

    The proper conclusion then is to make sure that your liturgy is correct. The way you do that is to check it against correct theology which we find in confessional dogmatics. Thus, it is inaccurate to say that liturgy is primary and theology is secondary. Liturgy is to be normed by theology.

    As best as I can tell, Kavanagh has some weird ontology working that is based on practice and experience. Reality is wrapped up in what we experience. We shall see a few posts down the line that this grows out of Plato’s weird participation ontology. Being a modern, Kavanagh throws in a little Hegelian/Marxist dialectical ontology into the Platonic pot and you end up with a really weird soup.

    I think I am agreeing with you that Kavanagh’s err is that he makes it a one way street in the wrong direction. I am sure that Maschke makes a good point, but I would say it is a one way street in the other direction.

    I love art and poetry so I would like to see it be a two way street. I suppose you could say that it is like a paraphrase of a Scriptural text. Some paraphrases get at a Scriptural truth really well, maybe even better than a more conservative translation but if that is actually the case (I am not sure it ever is) then I would simply say that the poetic, nuanced meaning that arose from the paraphrase, was already there in the text and so again, dogmatic theology is primary and the poetic is secondary. In a world in which there is truth and words carry meaning, dogmatics will always be primary.

    BTW – I am glad you are looking forward to the rest of the series. That will put a spring in my fingers as I type the rest of the posts. Blessings to you, wife and children.

  4. Well, well – aren’t we going to bite the big apple! Well, being the sinner I am, count me among the shipmates on this ark. If you make to to Jean Paul, I’m outta here – had enough of him in the 70’s at MooU (besides, any “philosopher” who declares on his death bed his “philosophy” is untenable ain’t toooo bright. But I promise to hang in here through Kant.

  5. Glad to have you on board Dennis.

    Kant’s epistemology is very difficult but once you understand it, it makes perfect sense. I took an entire course devoted to his Critique of Pure Reason. It is the most difficult 700 pages in all of Western history to wade through. Fortunately I had a professor who was brilliant and also unbiased and he guided us into the depths and we came out with a clear understanding of brilliant Kraut. I can’t wait to get there.

    We won’t spend too much time on the Existentialists. If you stick it out though, the reward is a chance to make what little sense you can of the linguistic philosophers and more importantly the post-moderns.

  6. MBW,

    It was right there in your hometown that I learned philosophy. While at sem I would ride my bike through the central west end, past the cathedral and over to SLU a few times a week.

  7. @Pastor Tim Rossow #9

    Yes indeed! And if I identify a reference correctly, I attended many a very interesting Bible class by the unnamed author, where it seemed more and more urgent that one become an expert in Greek (which I didn’t). And there’s a member of the same congregation matching another name you cite positively w/r/t philosophy. Microcosm of the synod, I guess.

  8. Having had the pleasure? of hanging out with Pastor Rossow and Jim Pierce in Seattle, and the two of them getting into a deep existential conversation where I recognized every third or fourth word, I’m glad the “original editor” is taking the time to explain some of this stuff to the rest of us!

  9. @Scott Diekmann #11

    1: How do we know we are really here? What if we are just a figment or a dream?
    2: How would you be able to tell the difference?
    1: I don’t know.
    2: Then you can arbitrarily assume that it’s one way or the other. But think about your motivations for not wanting to be real. And anyway, even if you are only a figment, you’re a figment in someone or something’s mind. And since you can’t tell on your own, why not look for claims of “revelation” from outside this realm?
    1: I don’t believe in God.
    2: You’re stuck then.

  10. @mbw #13

    mbw, I’m actually not sure you exist. Perhaps I’m dealing with only an essence. Regarding your second question, “How would you be able to tell the difference?”, I could tell the difference between Tim and Jim, because the last time I saw Jim, he was somewhat skinnier than Tim. Of course, since these things are only accidens, it’s immaterial, so to speak.

  11. “…But that does not mean that where they have erred I will be silent, even if it means I must drink the ecclesiastical hemlock.” Well you’ve managed to avoid it so far, and I’ve seen your signature on a couple of things that might make the average Joe think you’ve got an ecclesiastical death wish!

  12. I hope I can follow along as I’ve had no formal training in philosophy or theology. Learning to sort through the differences will be a big help to my understanding, I trust.

  13. If you can follow along then I will count it a success Nate. I am trying to write this in such a way that a newbie will be able to get it. I am sure there will be some jargon that is new to people and sometimes, the very reason for philosophy is hard to grasp, i.e. why are they asking all these questions. If you have those moments please use this comment section to ask questions and I will try to clarify.

  14. @mbw #15

    I would say that Godel proved that there are certain limits to logic. Godel, Popper and others cast doubt on the validity of the scientific utopia that became known as logical positivism.

  15. With respect to Gödel, Lutherans should appreciate the essence of the Incompleteness Theorem. It states that any sufficiently robust system will have statements about which the truth value cannot be proven. I like to think of it as a philosophical argument against Calvinism (a very rational systematic theology) and for Lutheranism (allowing for tension and unanswerable questions). Theologically, it allows that God has many truths that we cannot know (e.g., how does the Real Presence work).
    I suppose it may just be my simple-minded way of seeing things…
    I am looking forward to the series, Pastor Rossow.

  16. In Reflections on Kurt Gödel (Hao Wang, MIT Press, 1987, p. 18), Gödel answered a questionnaire, which he never returned, that his father’s religion was Old Catholic, his mother was Lutheran, and that he was baptized Lutheran, but was not a member of any religious congregation. Later in life Gödel had some serious mental issues, including an obsessive fear of being poisoned. At five foot six, he weighed only 65 pounds when he died in 1978 from starvation after refusing to eat.

  17. @Carl Vehse #26

    Chesterton mentioned that only logicians and mathematicians go mad. He was right. There have been a lot of them living on the fringe of reality.

  18. @Jerald Truesdell #27

    From G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Chapter 2, The Maniac:

    Let us begin, then, with the mad-house; from this evil and fantastic inn let us set forth on our intellectual journey. Now, if we are to glance at the philosophy of sanity, the first thing to do in the matter is to blot out one big and common mistake. There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to man’s mental balance. Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it. Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity. Moreover, it is worthy of remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he was specially analytical.

    Coincidentally, Chesterton was, among other things, a poet.

    It’s also not clear how Chesterton distinguished between creative artists and mathematically creative artists. Perhaps it might be useful to compare the rate of insanity among the general population and that of an arbitrary list of the Hundred Greatest Mathematicians of the Past…. or, in attempting to stay on topic, the rate of insanity among the top 100 philosophers.

  19. Galois (13), Cantor (22), and Godel (37) could arguably be three of the most theoretical on the list, and they all suffered from various forms of mental illness. I would guess that a higher percentage of the foundations/logic/meta-mathematical types have serious issues, as opposed to the applied math/physics types.

  20. That’s a great idea Steve. Norm – is that possible?

    I have had a difficult time finishing up the Presocratics (the second post). I hope to get it on the site in the next day or two.

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