Christian philosophy

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Christian philosophy is a term to describe the fusion of various fields of philosophy, historically derived from the philosophical traditions of Western thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, with the theological doctrines of Christianity. Christian philosophy originated during the Middle Ages as medieval theologians attempted to demonstrate to the religious authorities that Greek philosophy and Christian faith were, in fact, compatible methods for arriving at divine truth.

Reconciling Christianity with philosophy

As with any fusion of religion and philosophy, the attempt to reconcile the two is difficult. Classical philosophers start with no preconditions for which conclusions they must reach in their investigation. Classical religious believers have a set of religious principles of faith that they hold one must believe. Because of these divergent goals and views, some hold that one cannot simultaneously be a philosopher and a true adherent of a revealed religion. In this view, all attempts at synthesis ultimately fail.

Others hold that a synthesis between the two is possible. One way to find a synthesis is to use philosophical arguments to prove that one's preset religious principles are true. This is known as apologetics and is a common technique found in the writings of many religious traditions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but is not generally accepted as true philosophy by classical philosophers. Another way to find a synthesis is to abstain from holding as true any religious principles of one's faith at all, unless one independently comes to those conclusions from a philosophical analysis. However, this is not generally accepted as being faithful to one's religion by adherents of that religion. A third, rarer and more difficult path is to apply analytical philosophy to one's own religion. In this case a religious person would also be a philosopher, by asking questions such as:

  • What is the nature of God? How do we know that God exists?
  • What is the nature of revelation? How do we know that God reveals his will to mankind?
  • Which of our religious traditions must be interpreted literally?
  • Which of our religious traditions must be interpreted allegorically?
  • What must one actually believe to be considered a true adherent of our religion?
  • How can one reconcile the findings of philosophy with religion?
  • How can one reconcile the findings of science with religion?

The above outlines how some Christian philosophies conceive their task. Others do not conceive the task of Christian philosophy in this way. For instance, some think that proving the existence of God is a meaningless endeavour since God's existence is not put in question by Christian faith, but assumed. A Christian philosophy which does not seek to prove the existence of God, but assumes it as an ultimata out of which it forms its specific logic and interest, is more apt to address a far different set of tasks in order to reflect on the God-provided creational structures of existence in their diachronic processes of change over time. For such Christian philosophies, most of the questions above belong instead to theology (if legitimate at all), whether the subdivision of theology involved is philosophical theology or apologetics. Neither of these are disciplines of philosophy proper, even though they may borrow methods from outside theology as such. Those Christian philosophies that prioritize creaturely existence with its God-lawed modalities and societal spheres for daily life, do not accept the idea of separate fields "religion" vs "philosophy" that then must be "reconciled." On this alternative view of the Christian philosophical task, philosophy is just one activity among many in a differentiated society, an activity that is entirely appropriate to creaturely human existence, and it may be pursued directly out of the depth of the Christian religion without the mediation of some extraneous reference. All religions, including the atheisms, have ultimate values and therefore a religious depth-dimension of their own. The problem of philosophy arises for them as something other than a task given by God in Christ to humanity, and so theirs is the problem of reconciling their activity as a deontological imperative insofar as they deny that philosophy is inherent in the creational ensemble as one task-activity among the many given by God.

Interaction between Christian and non-Christian philosophers

There has been considerable interaction between Christian philosophy, Jewish philosophy and Islamic philosophy. Many Christian philosophers are well read in the works of their Jewish and Islamic counterparts, and arguments developed in one faith often make their way into the arguments of another faith.

Some modern day Islamic philosophers explore issues in common with modern Catholic philosophers. Reformational philosophy dialogues across acknowledged differences with many other approaches to philosophizing—with Christian synthetist views of many kinds, also with some Jewish schools of philosophical thought, as well as some secular philosophies such as Neo-Marxism along with other atheist philosophical schools; whereas the dialogue with Islamic philosophies is just beginning.

It's important to note there is not one single philosophy embraced by all philosophers in any of the great religious traditions, not all are dialogical, and atheist-humanist schools are as much in conflict among themselves as are Christian and other self-acknowledged religious schools of philosophizing.

Origins of Christian philosophy

  • Jesus: The life and teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels form the basis of Christianity.

In the case of Reformational philosophy the law-idea of Creation in relation to Fall and Redemption clarifies the understanding of the exceptional role of Jesus the Christ in Creation through the law-modalities that set the conditions of existence for all creatures. There is no record of any writing by Jesus, nor of any systematic philosophy or theology in the formal sense. Several accounts of his life and many of his teachings are recorded in the New Testament, and form the basis for some Christian philosophies. This was one of his greatest failings for if He had written his view of reality in His own words as a separate volume it would have been possible to review history from his perspective and gain a greater understanding of his intellectual dimension of understanding. In some senses it is almost inconceivable that no such document was created because with his standard of forethought to the realisation path of those in his wake it should surely have been of benefit. Alternatively though he was a man who put himself through the extremes of challenges and set ups just to feel the accelerated sense of being alive. To feel a true emotion if you like. He spent so much time thinking from the point of others that own emotions passed through him in advance and only for fleeting moments. He was never truly at one with the world in its embrace and this was to be the greatest of His challenges. He would realise first what they were to realise only later and rarely did they exist in the same moment. Having proven a standard of divine love what was to remain but the challenge to come back again and raise that standard again for real. He had always gone through the extremes of worst first as if it were the end of the continuum of infinity. He could then come back from that and be headed in the direction of the ultimate of heavenly expression and so that was what he chose as a challenge to himself to create.

  • St. Paul: Saul of Tarsus was a Jew who persecuted the early Christian church and who was responsible for the martyrdom of St Stephen, a Greek-speaking Jewish-Christian. Saul underwent a dramatic conversion. He became a Christian leader who wrote a number of epistles, or letters, to early churches, in which he taught doctrine and theology. In some ways he functioned in the manner of the popular marketplace philosophers of his day (Cynics, Skeptics, and some Stoics). A number of his speeches and debates with Greek philosophers are recorded in the Biblical book of Acts. His letters became a significant source for later Christian philosophies.

Hellenistic Christian philosophers

Hellenism is the traditional designation for the Greek culture of the Roman Empire in the days of Jesus, Paul, and for centuries after. Classical philosophies of the Greeks had already expired and diluted beyond recognition except for small bands of continuators of the traditions of the Pythagoreans, of Plato, and Aristotle (whose library was lost for centuries). The new philosophies of the Hellenistic world were those of the Cynics, Skeptics, and increasingly the Stoics; it's these thinkers and ranters who bring us into the world of Hellenistic philosophy. Slowly, a more integral and rounded tendency emerged within Hellenism, but also in certain respects in opposition at times to it in regard to one philosophical problem or another, or an ensemble of problems. Here are some of those thinkers most closely associated with Hellenistic Christian philosophies, listed more or less in chronological order:

  • Tertullian: Tertullian was a philosopher before he converted to Christ; after that change of direction he remained a prolific writer in the second century A.D., and is commonly called the "Father of the Western Church." He developed the doctrine of traducianism, or the idea that the soul was inherited from the parents, the idea that God had corporeal (although not fleshly) existence, and the doctrine of the authority of the gospels. He fought voraciously against Marcionism, and considered Greek philosophy to be incompatible with Christian wisdom. Toward the end of his life, he joined the heterodox sect of Montanism, and thus was not sainted by the Catholic Church.
  • Irenaeus of Lyons: Irenaeus is best known for his writings arguing for the unity of God, and against Gnosticism. He argued that original sin is latent in humanity, and that it was by Jesus' incarnation as a man that he "undid" the original sin of Adam, thus sanctifying life for all mankind. Irenaeus maintained the view that Christ is the Teacher of the human race through whom wisdom would be made accessible to all.
  • Clement of Alexandria
  • Origen: Origen was influential in integrating elements of Platonism into Christianity. He incorporated Platonic idealism into his conceptions of the Logos, and the two churches, one ideal and one real. He also held a strongly Platonic view of God, describing him as the perfect, incorporeal ideal.
  • Augustine of Hippo: Augustine developed classical Christian philosophy, largely by synthesizing Hebrew and Greek thought. He drew particularly from the Greek pagan thinker Plato, neoplatonism, and stoicism, which he altered and refined in light of divine revelation of Christian teaching and the Bible.

Medieval Christian philosophers

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  • Anselm of Canterbury: Anselm is best known for the Ontological Argument for God's existence, i.e.: God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. But to exist is greater than not to exist. If God does not exist then he wouldn't be "that than which nothing greater can be conceived." Therefore, God exists. Anselm was one of the first western thinkers to directly engage the reintroduction of Aristotle to the West. However, he didn't have all of Aristotle's works and those he had access to were from the Arabic translations.
  • Aquinas: Thomas Aquinas was the student of Albert the Great, a brilliant Dominican experimentalist, much like the Franciscan, Roger Bacon of Oxford in the 13th century. Aquinas reintroduced Aristotelian philosophy to Christianity. He believed that there was no contradiction between faith and secular reason. He believed that Aristotle had achieved the pinnacle in the human striving for truth and thus adopted Aristotle's philosophy as a framework in constructing his theological and philosophical outlook. He was a professor at the prestigious University of Paris. Thomas Aquinas was a contemporary of St Bonaventure, a Franciscan Professor at the University of Paris whose approach differed significantly from Aquinas'.
  • John Duns Scotus: John Duns Scotus is known as the "subtle doctor" whose hair-splitting distinctions were important contributions in scholastic thought and the modern development of logic. Scotus was also a Professor at the University of Paris, but not at the same time as Aquinas. Along with Aquinas, he is one of the two giants of Scholastic philosophy which led to:
  • William of Ockham

Renaissance and Reformation Christian philosophies

Modern and Contemporary Christian philosophers

An alphabetical listing:

  • Karl Barth: A Swiss theologian, he wrote the massive Church Dogmatics (germ. Kirchliche Dogmatik)—unfinished at about six million words by his death in 1968. Barth emphasized the distinction between human thought and divine reality, and that while humans may attempt to understand the divine, our concepts of the divine are never precisely aligned from the divine reality itself, although God reveals his reality in part through human language and culture. Barth strenuously disavowed being a philosopher; he considered himself a dogmatician of the Church and a preacher.
  • John D. Caputo: American Catholic deconstructionist theologian.
  • G.K. Chesterton: A British Christian author, he applied Christian thought in the form of non-fiction, fiction, and poems addressing a variety of theological, moral, political, and economic issues, particularly the importance of seeking truth, resistance to Eugenics, and Distributivism.
  • Jacques Ellul

  • Etienne Gilson, who wrote such works as The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, The Spirit of Thomism, Being and Some Philosophers, and many other works. In the field of Thomism he is considered one of the main figures credited with starting the movement within Thomism known as Existential Thomism, which emphasis the primacy of the act of Being (Esse) in understanding everything else that is.
  • Herman Dooyeweerd, who wrote the monumental trilogy, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought
  • Immanuel Kant
  • Søren Kierkegaard, the father of existentialist philosophy and particularly the school of Christian existentialism.
  • C.S. Lewis (-) was a literary critic of the first order, a mythographer in his children's fantasies, and an apologist for the Christian faith to which he adhered in the latter half of his life. He claimed not to be a philosopher, but his apologetics are foundational to the formation of a Christian worldview for many modern readers.
  • Knud Ejler Løgstrup
  • Bernard Lonergan
  • Gabriel Marcel
  • Jacques Maritain
  • John Henry Newman
  • Pope John Paul II, who wrote Fides et Ratio
  • Josef Pieper, a German Roman Catholic philosopher orientated particularly on Plato and St Thomas Aquinas
  • Alvin Plantinga Plantinga is one of the key figures in the movement of Reformed Epistemology, which synthesizes Analytical Philosophy and Christian philosophical concerns; he teaches at Notre Dame University
  • Egbert Schuurman is the leading philosopher of technology who actively espouses a Christian philosophical approach.
  • Melville Y. Stewart
  • Paul Tillich Rather than beginning his philosophical work with questions of God or gods, Tillich began with a "phenomenology of the Holy." His basic thesis is that religion is Ultimate Concern. What a person is Ultimately Concerned with in regard to their Ultimate meaning and being can be understood as religion because, "There is nobody to whom nothing is sacred because no one can rid themselves of their humanity no matter how desperately they may try" (Young-Ho Chun, Tillich and Religion, 1998, pg. 14.
  • Peter van Inwagen
  • Cornelius van Til
  • D. H. Th. Vollenhoven: Vollenhoven's Calvinism and the Reformation of Philosophy (Dutch, 1933) launched a philosophical movement that, after the massive re-inforcing effect of his brother-in-law Herman Dooyeweerd's first trilogy, Philosophy of the Law-Idea (1935-36), led to the formation of the Association for Calvinist Philosophy in 1936. For decades, Vollenhoven served as president of the aforementioned association, which has become the Association for Reformational Philosophy / Vereniging voor Reformatorische Wijsbegeerte (VRW), still based in the Netherlands but with ever-enlarging interest in the rest of the world. It can be debated whether Vollenhoven's, his colleague Herman Dooyeweerd's, and many among the subsequent generations of philosophers in the Reformational philosophy movement are best described as "modern" or "postmodern," since they anticipated numerous themes that resurfaced in postmodernism, yet remain steadfastly and would-be distinctively Christian and non-Roman.

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