The Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy

"The Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy," Independent Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 3 (1979).


When we attempt to return to the roots of Western civilization , we observe soon that Western civilization has two r0ots which are in conflict with each other, the biblical and the Greek philosophic, and this is to begin with a very disconcerting observation. Yet this realization has also something reassuring and comforting. The very life of Western civilization is the life between two codes, a fundamental tension. There is therefore no reason inherent in the Western civilization itself, in its fundamental constitution why it should give up life. But this comforting thought is justified only if we live that life, if we live that conflict, that is. No one can be both a philosopher and a theologian or, for that matter, a third which is beyond the conflict between philosophy and theology or a synthesis of both. But every one of us can be and ought to be either the one or the other, the philosopher open to the challenge of theology or the theologian open to the challenge of philosophy.

There is a fundamental conflict or disagreement between the Bible and Greek philosophy. This fundamental conflict is blurred to a certain extent by the close similarity in points. There are, for example certain philosophies which come seemingly close to the biblical teaching – think of philosophic teachings which are monotheistic, which speak of the love of God and of man, which even admit prayer etc. And so the difference becomes sometimes almost invisible. But we recognize the difference immediately if we make this observation. For a philosopher or philosophy there can never be an absolute sacredness of a particular or contingent event. This particular or contingent is called, since the eighteenth century, the historical. Therefore people have come to say that revealed religion means historical religion, as distinguished from natural religion, and that philosophers could have a natural religion, and furthermore, that there is an essential superiority of the historical to the natural. As a consequence of this interpretation of the particular and contingent as historical, it came to be held, and that is very frequently held today, that the Bible is in an emphatic sense historical, that the Bible, as it were, discovered history (or the biblical authors), whereas philosophy as philosophy is essentially non-historical. This view is underlying much of present-day interpretation of biblical thought. What is called existentialism is really only a more elaborate form of this interpretation. I do not believe that this approach is very helpful for the understanding
of the Bible, at least as far as its basic parts are concerned; and as an explanation, I will suggest here
only one consideration: that these present-day concepts, such as History with a capital “H,” are very late concepts, very derivative, and by this very fact not as capable of unlocking to us early thought, thought which is in no way derivative, but at the beginning of a tradition.

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