Blog Archives

A Theological Critique of Philosophy

Many thanks to Ben Myers for pointing out that John Milbank’s 2011 Stanton Lectures, “Philosophy: A Theological Critique,” will be made available on the ABC Religion & Ethics site.

This should be a fascinating lecture series worth following. As, Milbank explains:

This series of lectures will not be concerned with either the philosophy of religion or philosophical theology. Instead, they will be about the relationship between philosophy and theology.

Here’s the outline (I’ll try to remember to update this as each lecture becomes available):

19 January: The Return of Metaphysics in the 21st century

26 January: Immanence and Life

2 February: Immanence and Number

9 February: Transcendence without Participation

16 February: Participated Transcendence Reconceived

23 February: The Habit of Reason

2 March: The Realism of Feeling

9 March: The Surprise of the Imagined

On the value of reading Thomas Aquinas

This past Fall semester I took an independent study class on Church History in the Middle Ages as both an overview of the period but also a chance to study one of the greatest theological minds in Thomas Aquinas. At this same time, I was taking a philosophy class and little did I know how much these two classes would be intertwined. This was also the first time I have ever studied Thomas Aquinas extensively so I was in for a treat.

Aquinas has become one of my favorite people to study in church history. One of the things I learned the most about Aquinas is that he had so much to say that helped theology. I valued his insight he gave to theology in his Summa Theologica. I wrote my paper on the development of the Trinity in his Summa. And one of the main points for Aquinas in differentiating between the Persons of the Trinity was his doctrine of Word and Love. I really liked his definition of the Son being Word and the Spirit being Love and how he used these to explain procession and relation in the Trinity.

Another key point that I learned from Aquinas was the interrelation of philosophy and theology. The whole first question of his Summa Theologica is used to defend the superiority of theology over philosophy but that philosophy does have a part to play in the discussion/interaction. This is where Aquinas develops his “handmaiden” view of philosophy. That theology is to be the topic that is to be studied but when needed philosophy can come beside and help theology say things it otherwise would be unable too.

For being a church history fan, I really enjoyed seeing how Aquinas used the early church fathers in his writings. He seemed to rely heavily on Augustine, especially in developing his Trinitarian theology. But Aquinas was not afraid to question and correct what he thought someone from before his time said. His basis for correcting was that there was more revealed information now then they had back then so it was proper for him to reinterpret them. He did this when he questioned Augustine’s understanding of essence but what was funny was he used Augustine to prove his point of reinterpretation. So he question Augustine, interpreted Augustine his way (that is Aquinas), then backed up his interpretation with Augustine.

Finally, and this goes for the study of church history as a whole I have truly come to value history as it pertains to my beliefs. I find it amazing to see where the beginnings of my beliefs came from and how they moved throughout church history. The development, questioning, and acceptance of different theological points throughout church history are fascinating. This is something that I feel is lacking in much of ministry. We fail to explain the history behind some of our beliefs. Yes, I understand not all people are fans of history but I have come to the belief that it is important for those in the church to understand where their beliefs came from. We are great at explaining and defining different theological terms but that is where it is left. There is no discussion of how we got to this point in our theological development. History is important to understand where we are today, especially church history for the church!

For those who feel Aquinas is beyond their understanding I would challenge them take up and read and see how easy Aquinas is to understand. His way of writing is very structured and thorough and thus easy to outline and read (again personal preference). I would recommend a little understanding of philosophy. I believe I would not have understood some of what I read if it was not for the philosophy class, I was taking. I would say to stop waiting and read Aquinas though; he is such a great read!

Flotsam and jetsam (10/26)

Is Buddha really any worse than Aristotle? Why shouldn’t a theologian from Korea or Taiwan seek to use Buddha or Confucius where the language is suitable and doesn’t contradict the gospel?  In this case Moore’s criticism may be spot on. I don’t know. But I do know that we need to realize our own hybridity is as much a concern as someone else’s.

And, much if not most of the New Testament, develops its theology of Jesus within a framework of low Christology. Low versus high Christology is one of the points of genuine theological diversity in the New Testament, with the Synoptic Gospels in particular (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) telling stories of Jesus as a specially empowered man whom they do not simultaneously depict as God incarnate.

The monsters of the undead embody our fears of death. In agrarian eras we confronted death more directly. Nowadays we have to wait for the dead to come to our door once a year at Halloween. Or we can go to zombie movies. Either way, we feel a need to use monsters to confront our bodies, their gooshy vulnerabilities, and their ultimate demise. Monsters are existential.

  • On a similar note, John Byron points out an important new scholarly work for understanding the Matthean tradition – a webcomic called Zombie Jesus. How is it that no one has written on this vital subject before?

The comic will tell the story of the 48 hours following the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, in which a horde of zombies attack Jerusalem in search of the messiah’s body.

Predestination, as normally taught by all the venerable reformed divines, both past and present, is unstable and unhelpful. In the past, I and everybody else that I have read got around this by employing the very useful term ‘mystery’ to cover the internal contradictions that rip the doctrine apart.

The church, or I should say, church people, must quit adding the word “but” to the end of our sentences about grace. Grace plus is no longer grace. Grace minus is no longer grace. We are afraid people will abuse grace if presented in its purest form. We need not fear that, we should assume that. Religious people crucified grace personified. Of course grace will be abused. But grace is a powerful dynamic. Grace wins out in the end. It is not our responsibility to qualify it. It is our responsibility to proclaim it and model it.

Funny (in)formal fallacies

You’re probably familiar with most of the standard logical fallacies: false dichotomy, is/ought, affirming the consequent, etc. But, Ed Feser wants to alert us to a number of other very important fallacies that you’ve probably committed even though you’ve never heard of them. My favorite are the first three. Check out the post for the rest.

  • Post doc, ergo propter doc: The delusion that a Ph.D. confers wisdom, or even basic competence. Example: “Of course the medievals thought the earth was flat. It says so in the book! Who’s the professor here, anyway?”
  • Red hair-ing: Believing that something is true simply because a really hot redhead said it. Example: “Omigosh, Christina Hendricks is so hot. I would totally believe anything she says.”
  • Appeal to minority: The smug presumption that popular opinion, tradition, and plain common sense are always likely to be wrong. Often committed in conjunction with the Post doc fallacy. Example: “Of course, this goes against everything your parents, your pastor, and pretty much everyone else have always believed. So it must be true!”

HT

Communicating with Academics: A Guide

HT

 

Hegel’s Logic as Metaphysics

[This is a post by Keith Mitchell.  It is part of the continuing series on Philosophy and Theology that current ThM students are entrenched in.  Enjoy!]

There are three common areas in philosophy that we have already discussed. Metaphysics asks, “what is?” Epistemology, “how do you know about what is?” and Ethics, “what should we be doing about it?” For Hegel the Metaphysical question of “what is?” can ultimately be understood as The Absolute Geist (aka Spirit or Mind). The essential stuff of what exists—the Geist—is non-material. The Geist got separated from itself and is now working back toward itself through history (this view of history retains a familiar Judeo-Christian progressive linearism).  What is more tangible than all imminent idea moving history forward?

The process the Absolute Geist takes through history is dialectic; working in the same manner as a rational and productive conversation (Hegel is all about synthesis whereas Kant was fine with the dualism). The interaction (between the thesis and antithesis) makes for clarification on a deeper level (synthesis), verses impasses and compromise. The result is a resolution to a higher place, not just another place.

But what gives the dialectic momentum and energy for movement? Because for something to be ultimate reality (the Absolute Geist), it must be self-sufficient, we cannot be responsible for dragging it along. This is where Hegel’s logic comes in. By logic I do not mean syllogistics, but the reason for a thing; in this case the reason for the dialectical movement of what ultimately is.

For Hegel there is no logical concept of ‘being,’ without ‘not being.’ Thus, A cannot be ~A (the little symbol just means “not”). But, and this is key, A can become ~A. For Hegel then, becoming is a more fundamental reality than being. Thus any given idea needs its opposite in order to first exist, and then to evolve. Each idea is not complete; having within it the potential for inherent contradictions.  All incomplete ideas give rise to an antithesis, which resolve into a synthesis. These contradictions are self-perpetuating. Thus, becoming is a dynamic process that works of its own accord and moves toward becoming more universal and concrete.

The final stage of the dialectic for the Geist is self-awareness. At this stage the Absolute will have no more antitheses inherent in it. All that exists will be harmoniously at one with itself. Individuals will finally experience true freedom since there will no longer be any areas of conflict. With it, there will be an end to the pattern of change. Hegel’s view is called “Absolute Idealism;” “Absolute” because it is encompassing everything, and “Idealism,” because the essential stuff of what exists (Geist) is non-material.  For Hegel, reality is rational and this is its logic.

Does Justifiable Belief Exist? (Reloaded)

[This post is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

It seems my first post (Does Justifiable Belief Exist?) misfired. This is a reworking of the same tale to achieved more clarity.

This post is a Christian response to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article, “Epistemology.”  Epistemology is the study of human knowing.  Epistemology generally breaks down knowing into few different categories: knowing how to do something, knowing a person, knowing a place, and knowing propositions.  The Stanford article deals only with the knowledge of propositions.  All of the positions in the Stanford article agree (even the skeptics) that propositional knowledge exists.  Since they are in agreement on this point, their arguments are centered on the existence of justifiable belief, not belief itself.  This is my main concern for this post, do justifiable beliefs exist?  Traditionally justifiable beliefs are those ideas that cannot be false, cannot be doubted, and cannot be corrected.  Can humans have justifiable belief?

I’ll summarize the article in brief starting with Foundationalism, the idea that our justified beliefs (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected) rest upon basic beliefs.  Basic beliefs are justifiable beliefs that don’t need justification from other beliefs.  According to Foundationalism, “I think therefore I am,” is a basic belief.

Coherentism breaks down Foundationalism, fundamentally disagreeing with its premise.  According to Coherentism, all beliefs depend on other beliefs for justification; there are no self-justifying beliefs. To the Coherentist, justifiable beliefs are those beliefs that are held up by web of interconnected beliefs. Justifiable beliefs properly fit within the web, they must be included in a coherent system and cannot contradicts themselves or the web. (It is important to note the moderate [modern] versions of Foundationalism and Coherentism have moved away from a strict definition of justifiable beliefs and have since redefined themselves accordingly.  I’m sticking with the classical forms of these positions because they were concerned with a hard definition of justifiable belief – cannot be false, doubted, or corrected.)

Skeptics do not hold to justifiable belief. They attempt to prove justifiable belief doesn’t exist by claiming something fantastic like, “You can’t know that you have feet.”  They base this on the possibility of radical deception; someone could be in the matrix or in a dream world, etc. and at the same time have no way of knowing they were in such a state.  Since you can’t know you’re not in that situation, you can’t know whether or not you have feet.

The skeptics could not be beat on their own terms.   After the skeptics, the definition of knowing changed.  Contextual knowing and fallible (arbitrary) knowing do not hold to justifiable knowledge as defined in this article.   Find the full discussion here.  If you have trouble following all the terms and positions visit, Wikipedia has a nearly identical summary with accessible resources.

Within the confines of this conversation, I am a skeptic.  I do not believe humans can obtain justifiable knowledge through their experience with the world or with themselves.  I’ll add my critiques to Foundationalism and Coherentism to explain my point.  On the one hand, Foundationalism’s strongest thought, “I think therefore I exist,” cannot be build upon without a myriad of presupposition beliefs about what it means to exist or to think. Foundationalism’s founder Descartes built upon this idea and somehow came up with Catholic Christianity. Anyone else who builds upon this idea will come up with something different based upon their prior beliefs.  In addition, the phrase adds nothing to the epistemological conversation.  The conversation starts with the belief in propositional knowledge which requires a belief in the ability to think and a belief in our existence.  Therefore, Foundationalism’s foundational belief does not lead us to even one justifiable belief.  Coherentism, on the other hand, creates a web of interconnected ideas that do not conflict, but there is nothing to say the entire web is right or wrong.  There is nothing to ground the web into justifiable belief.  Further, one cannot point to the boundary of the web.  The web itself would have to be infinite, stretching out in all directions forever.  If there are no boundaries to the web, how could we know the web is attached to reality?

Humans cannot have justifiable belief about themselves or the existent world – through their experience with themselves and the world.  To state the obvious: galaxies, stars, planets, plants, animals and all physical elements can also have no justifiable beliefs about humans or the existent world.  If the physical world is all that exists, humanity has no possibility of justifiable belief.  If we are just talking about the physical world, I am a skeptic.  I, however, do not believe in the physical world alone.

Flotsam and jetsam (10/1)

Does Justifiable Belief Exist?

[This post is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with humanity’s inability to know. At least, this is my sarcastic conclusion after a brief educational survey of epistemology covered in Stanford’s encyclopedia of philosophy.  Actually epistemology covers a few different ways of knowing: knowing how to do something, knowing a person, knowing a place, or knowing propositions.  The Stanford article deals only with the knowledge of propositions.

I’ll summarize in brief starting with Foundationalism, the idea that our justified beliefs (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected) rest upon basic beliefs.  Basic beliefs don’t need justification from other beliefs. Coherentism disagrees, stating that every belief receives its evidence from other beliefs.  For instance, “I think therefore I am,” presupposes a belief that I think and a belief that I could exist.  Or, “I perceived the chair is yellow,” presupposes a belief in the existence of a chair, the belief in a personal ability to perceived, and the belief in the concept of yellow.  Coherentism is critiqued because one can never arrive at a belief; there is an infinite series of beliefs before that belief.  Skeptics jump all the way in and claim something fantastic like, “You can’t know that you have feet.”  They base this on the possibility of radical deception; someone could be in the matrix, or in a dream world, or similarly disembodied and at the same time being in the situation of radical deception would have no way of knowing they were in such a state.  Since you can’t know you’re not in that situation, you can’t know whether or not you have feet.  In order to defeat the skeptics, the definition of knowing underwent changes.  Contextual knowing and fallible knowing are put forth as potential skeptic killers.   Find the full discussion here.  If you have trouble following all the terms and positions visit, Wikipedia has a nearly identical summary with accessible resources.

Simply put, I’m a skeptic.  I found all the other positions too vulnerable to devastating critique.  Foundationalism’s strongest thought, “I think therefore I exist,” is perceptual knowledge based on existence can only be understood by appealing to someone’s perception of their own existence.   If we all believe that we exist, but we could all be wrong.  If no one existed, no one would know.  If we base our knowledge of existing on our perceived existence all we are left with is perceived existence not justifiable belief (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected).

Coherentism finds the truth but can’t accept it.  I believe Coherentism discovers the true reason why justifiable belief doesn’t exist, because belief is based upon belief to an infinite or at least unknowable/undiscoverable degree.  Coherentism wants to build justifiable belief on a web of interconnected ideas, only they missed the web and fell into a bottomless chasm.

Contextual knowing, in my mind, changes the whole topic of discussion.  We take the problem of the existence of justifiable belief (can’t be false, doubted, or corrected) as a universal human question dealing with propositional knowledge and instead ask, “Can we have justifiable belief in a smaller group of humans controlled by selective ignorance?”  In a group of similarly ignorant and mentally disabled patients there might be a belief that can’t be proven false or doubted within the same group.  However, that same belief has the possibility of being corrected.  Either way, we are no longer talking about universal human knowing; we are discussing group knowledge.  This group knowledge is only justifiable belief in propositional knowledge if it isn’t challenged.  I find this view ignores the fact that we live in the age of world-wide communication and information.  An argument starting with ignorance and ending with a positive result is a poor argument indeed.

Fallible knowledge is also not a response to the same question.  Fallible agrees with the skeptics, in so far as they agree infallible knowledge is impossible.  This is just another way of saying justifiable belief does not exist, but belief does exist.  They seek to have justified beliefs based on knowledge’s inability to be justified.  To believe in fallible knowledge is to believe in nothing more than the usefulness of belief itself.

All of the positions agree (even the skeptics) that propositional knowledge exists.  Since they are in agreement on this point, their arguments (in my mind) are centered on the existence of justifiable belief, not belief itself.  Can humans have justifiable belief?  I say no.  I say no with a caveat.  Humans cannot have justifiable belief about themselves or the existent world.  Galaxies, stars, planets, plants, animals and all physical elements can also have no justifiable beliefs about humans or the existent world.  If these things were all that existed, humans would have no possibility of justifiable belief.  I however, do not believe the above things mentioned are all that exist.  (I’m leaving myself an opening for later.)  Is your belief justifiable?

The Literal Grammatical Historical Hermeneutic and Modernity’s Voice

A guest post by Jerome Wernow.

I wonder if the literal-grammatical-cultural-historical hermeneutic used in current Evangelical exegesis is but a modernist construct arising from the fundamentalist-theological liberalism debates of the late 19th century like that of Charles Hodge’s common sense realism and Baconian inductivism. It seems to have gained traction and solidified in the early 20 century by particularly as advocated by J. Gresham Machen in the Princeton Theological Seminary debates. Here the philosophy wherein the method is structured is predicated upon a logical positivism similar to the early Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ordinary language philosophy. It is taken up by Bernard Ramm and later by Carl Henry’s propositional revelation notions.

My notion has been better clarified by my good friend R.T. Michener where he suggests that “fundamentalism and theological modernism are simply different sides of the same radical modernist coin. Both embrace the paradigms of Enlightenment empiricism and rationalism too seriously. The way I see it ( Hauerwas affirms this and I agree) is that theological liberalism tries to keep the faith by cutting out all the things that don’t fit into the empirical and/or rational modes, whereas fundamentalism tries to defend them using the tools of empiricism and rationalism to the nth degree. Both end up embracing rationalism and empiricism as the first order bases or “metaphysic” as such, upon which to build a worldview. This is what led the fundamentalist strain in evangelicalism, according to Hauerwas, to make “Sola Scriptura” equal to “Sola Text.” After pondering his clarification, I find myself in accord with his musings.

Further, I suggest mining the philosophical constructs of those who wrote grammar and hermeneutical textbooks used in Evangelical seminaries using ‘the method,’ as well as, the content of the books themselves. My counter to those who appeal to antiquity to demonstrate a golden braid free from modernity’s web is this. Could it be that the principles of the ‘the method’ found in antiquity are mere voicings of a Greco-philosophical rationalists’ strand of modernity that is critiqued by Heidegger and more properly Westphal, voicings that ‘became’ the univocity of modernity?

Now, one should not take my concord with the voices of Heidegger, Westphal, and R.T. ( he does not demean) as ultimately demeaning the method. For me, it is “one way of saying being” amidst many ways (William Desmond-Philosophy and Its Others). The method is useful and ready-in-hand as a tool to unlock one of the bolts in order to enter the ‘Doors of the Sacred ’ (to mine Moriah in Tolkien speak). It is not the only voicing needed to open that door, however. Exegesis emerges from a dynamic plurivocity where the Triune God conducts the voices from the middle (the metaxu to use William Desmond speak). He as Conductor leads to conscious emergence of exegetical significance and meaning.

Picture the plurivocity of voices in the narrative of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, Acts 8:25-39). Whatever hermeneutic was involved in the Eunuch’s ordinary language understanding would be but univocal in had he sat in his chariot alone with his text-in-hand. Other voices that are ‘saying being’ co-participated in exegetical emergence when he sought dis-closure-of-truth-in-text. It included the current community narrative of Philip, the Eunuch’s emotional emergence of spiritual consciousness in community worship, the salvation history of church universal in process, spiritual illumination by the Holy Spirit’s voicing, the voice of the angel, and perhaps others as well i.e. Candace.

Well enough, I must return to my exegetical tasks of the day – constructing the sermon…take a look and uncover my hypocrisy http://www.gracepointfellowship.org/
;-)