What is the difference between Philosophy and Theology?

  • In attempting to wrap my mind around the basic vocabulary, concepts, and methods of philosophy, I find myself wondering what the difference is between a philosopher and a theologian.

    Theology (link to definition in Wikipedia) can have two meanings:
    1. Theology is a rational study of the existence of God/gods and the nature of religious ideas.
    2. Theology is simply a study of a particular religion (or all religions), really more the practice than the theory, but maybe a mixture.

    It seems from an immediate reading that definition 1 would lead to the conclusion that a theologian is a philosopher (perhaps that theology is a branch or subset of philosophy), but definition 2 appears to be rather unphilosophical in nature.


    So, how does philosophy answer this question?

    1. Is theology considered a proper subset/branch of philosophy overall?
    2. Does it depend entirely on which of the above 2 definitions of theology fits a particular theologian as to whether he is a philosopher or not?

    I think this answer is simple and fairly self-evident, but somewhere in my gut I feel like I'm missing something. Is there a treatment of this question in the literature?


    Edit: the answers so far seem to want to redefine theology or other terms - that is fine, but please be clear that you are redfining them, and provide, if possible, sources for why the term should be different than given (support from historical works, other sites, etc.).

    Theology was a part of western philosophy until Kant (metaphysica specialis theologica). Kant clearly stated that this was not philosophy in a correct understanding at all. A more modern approach to theology in philosophy could be an analyzation of the use of the concepts of theology (subject is a fact in the world), which is quite a difference to the metaphysical speculation theology consist in (subject is a metaphysical entity).

    In the East there is not much difference between the two.

    Where Theology is a process of rational analysis I would include it in philosophy. Any metaphysical theory will also be a theological theory.or at least have profound implications for theology.and vice versa.

  • As Nelson Alexander mentions, philosophy encompasses far more than just philosophy of religion, but I assume that's what you mean when comparing the two.

    Theology and Philosophy (of Religion) are two different disciplines, that none the less have historically had significant overlap. For a long time it was hard to distinguish the two. In India, philosophy was discussed within the context of Hindu and Buddhists beliefs, and in the West it was taken for granted that theologians such as Augustine of Hippo were also philosophers. Since Philosophy is described as being "the love of wisdom", any form of knowledge was considered a branch of philosophy. Hence philosophy also encompassed math, biology, physics, etc...For this reason, theology was viewed as 'naturally' being part of philosophy, and all theologians were philosophers by definition.

    There was also a sociological reason, in the fact that often the only (or most) literate people in a given society were priests and monks, and so there was a strong selection bias, in that the people who practiced philosophy were also the most religiously inclined.

    The two start to be viewed as separate first in the Islamic sphere with Al-Ghazali (circa 1100), who wrote "The Incoherence of the Philosophers" arguing that the rules of logic and reason can not be applied to matters of faith and belief. For Al-Ghazali any attempts to do so would inevitably lead to incoherence, and eventually atheism. He doesn't want to become an atheist, so instead he concludes that theology has to remain separate from all other sciences. This was later picked up in the West during the enlightenment, for example in Kant's analysis of arguments for God's existence, or more dramatically as viewed by Hume in his famous fork. The invention of the printing press also helped, with the fact that more and more laymen were able to read, leading to the gradual increase in secular scholarship.

    Despite the historical overlap, a clear distinction can be made between the two:

    • Theology starts from a position of absolute certainty. A certain number of facts about God (the 'theos' in theology) and revelation are taken for granted, and the theologians task is then to analyze and elaborate the consequences of those facts. A theologist might use philosophical arguments and methods, but he/she is applying them to a set of presuppositions about God and the world. In this sense the relationship between theology and philosophy is similar to the relationship between physics and math or economics and math. A perfect example of this are the various approaches (for example by theologians such as Augustine or Aquinas) to solving the problem of evil: It is a fact that a) God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent and b) that there is evil in the world. A theologian then tries to reconcile the two facts, and might (or might not) use tools from Philosophy in doing so. A "true" philosopher on the other hand, would, given the problem of evil, simply dismiss (one or all of) the initial premises about God, instead of trying to reconcile them with the existence of evil in the world.

    • Philosophy has to start from a position of radical skepticism, even if it eventually arrives at a position of knowledge or certainty. Consider how Socrates (or Plato) in the Meno discusses virtue, but starting from a position that he doesn't know what virtue is. This is probably why "true" philosophy is considered to have started with the Greeks. The classical Greeks were the first to start from positions of questioning all existing assumptions, especially religious ones. Another good example is Descartes: Although he ultimately arrives at positions that are in perfect accord with religious doctrine (i.e. that souls and God exist), he only does so after starting from a position of total doubt. Compared to solutions to the problem of evil, arguments for God's existence are "inherently" philosophical, since they have to start from questioning basic assumptions.

    Despite this clear distinction, even today people still tend to confuse the two terms, and I've seen several sources use "Philosophy of Religion" and "Theology" interchangeably. Again a certain selection bias applies here: People who study philosophy of religion are also more religiously inclined (a credit to Virmaior for this link). This is probably why many sources (including wikipedia), still include the problem of evil under the heading of philosophy of religion, when it should be properly included under the heading of theology.

    Finally, an interesting case is that of Apologetics. Apologetics gets a bad rep because of its association with the Christian fundamentalist and Creationist crowds and explicitly Christian educational institutions (at least here in the US), but it is actually starting from a position that is more sound than that of mainstream theology (as taught in mainstream religious studies and divinities departments). Apologists do concede that while they believe, their presumed target audience has good reason to doubt religious dogma, and then proceed to try to convince them of their views. This strikes me as a more philosophical approach than theology qua theology, even if comes from dubious sources.

    I like your distinction between Philosophy of Religion and Theology - I'm not sure I agree with it, but it is an excellent delineation. I must say your description of apologists is essentially the position that I believe all "good" theologians should and do take.

    I had never assumed one must take God as a "fact" to practice theology. I would define it as a discipline, not a state of belief, so that nothing prevents an atheist from being a "theologian." But I am really not sure about that or how theologians self-identify. If you teach theology but lose your faith, are you no longer a theologian?

    @NelsonAlexander I guess it is theoretically possible for a scholar to be a theologian for a specific faith without personally buying in to it themselves. But on a second level, I don't see how it would work? Could someone who hates Jazz ever be a Jazz critic? I feel (pun intended) that you have to get the 'qualia' of a given belief system to be able to speak about it the way theologians do. But then again, there's this http://clergyproject.org and Dennett and LaScola's "Caught in the Pulpit".

    @LightCC Which part do you disagree with?

    @AlexanderSKing. I certainly agree, as noted, that most theologians would probably be believers of a sort, Elaine Pagel being a good case. But I don't know if this defines "theology," though perhaps it might.

    @AlexanderSKing Looking at the end of your description of Theology, you make a very bold, and I believe completely untenable argument, that a theologian would try to reconcile the apparent contradiction, but a "real philosopher" would accept the contradiction. I don't accept that philosophers are so limited in scope. :)

    @AlexanderSKing I will also say that I am warming up to your distinction, still with a few quibbles. My innate tendency on how to define theology would _include_ philosophy of religion within the scope of theology rather than say they are separate disciplines. I do believe there are aspects of theology which involve understanding a given worldview/religion within a philosophical context and aspects which are not, and perhaps your definition of philosophy of religion is adequate to make that distinction.

    @LightCC "you make a very bold, and I believe completely untenable argument," ? Is is really that untenable? In any other field of inquiry, the problem of evil would be dismissed as a fallacy (one side of the equation has to be wrong). But is stands as a legitimate paradox only because theologians can't dismiss the "omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent" part. And they can't do so because they take revelation (or part of it) as a given.

    @LightCC "theology would include philosophy of religion within the scope of theology rather than say they are separate disciplines. " Well as I said in my answer. Philosophy is to theology what math is to physics. And just as theoretical physicists end up inventing new math (and being mathematicians themselves), so do theologians contribute new ideas to philosophy qua philosophy.

    @AlexanderSKing There are solutions to the problem of evil/suffering. I treat it here: http://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/30498/17967, but I'm certainly not the first... Although I've never seen anyone take it to the logical conclusion, which I find helpful (i.e. a world without evil is a world without love). Note also that logic can only tell us (positive or negative) about the omni-being if the definition is formulated correctly... that is treated here: http://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/30563/17967

    @LightCC See my comment for my thoughts on Plantinga's defense. Here I will say that for a long time I really bought into his argument, but eventually was unconvinced.

    After more thought, I think that Plantinga's defense is essentially philosophical in that he is really redefining what it means for God to be omnivolent, and my distinction between the two still holds.

    I think that's the core of the argument - what is the definition of good. I don't think he redefines it, instead he simply shows what good must be, given the assumptions inherent in the problem. This is why people can disagree (they don't think that fits their conception of good). That's okay, but then it is no longer the same problem - you are then defining good in a logically incoherent manner. But I just realized we are pretty off topic, I will move to chat or a new Q&A for anything further.

    HMM. Small point but I don't think Theology requires absolute certainty. For instance, Dawkin's book on the topic displays no certainty at all. We may do Theology in order to discern whether the idea of God makes any logical sense or even to disprove God. But in practice it does seem that most people who do it, whichever side they're on, do start out holding strong views.

    If you think that Alvin Plantinga is a philosopher, then philosophy doesn't start from a point of radical skepticism: Plantinga is a proponent of "properly basic beliefs". He says that belief in God is a properly basic belief (like, "my keys are in the top dresser drawer") and is "warranted" to the individual person prior to any critical hurdle. Then he says that if a properly basic belief is shown to be wrong (like if somebody else moved the keys), then oh well, that was a false belief. Plantinga doesn't place radical skepticism at the beginning of philosophy.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM