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.

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