Theory and Theology

William Young

“Theory and Theology” was delivered on April 8, 1968, at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, as part of the annual Harry A. Worcester Lectures. Editorial revisions by Sherman Isbell of this lecture and of its footnotes are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission of Sherman Isbell.

An ancient, though erroneous, etymology of the word theoria viewed it as a derivative of theos. Although this etymology has been shown to be untenable, the word has both a background and a usage permeated with religious significance. A theoros was one who consulted an oracle or was present as a spectator at a religious feast. Theoria in the sense of philosophical contemplation or vision was cultivated by the Pythagoreans as a religious way of life. Plato uses the term to refer to metaphysical vision of the eternal forms in which mathematical order is fused with religious aspiration. Aristotle represents theoria both as the goal of human life and as that in which God’s own blessedness consists.

In modern thought the conception of theory may appear less closely related to religion than theoria was for the Greeks. Though the word theory has a variety of distinct though related senses, it has come to be used most characteristically in connection with the natural sciences. And the natural sciences are commonly regarded by modern men as autonomous disciplines, independent of philosophy and above all of religion.

Experimental and mathematical work may no doubt be done and done well by a scientist without reflection upon the foundations upon which the scientific enterprise rests. But once such reflection is initiated, one is engaged no longer in positive science but in philosophy. Even the most stubborn positivist will recognize the legitimacy of reflection upon the foundation of logic and scientific method, however averse he may be to anything that savors of metaphysics or theology.

We will not confine ourselves to an identification of theoretical thought with the natural sciences, but will count all systematic inquiry including philosophy and theology as falling under the concept of theoretical thought. This broad view of the scope of theoretical thought leads to a consideration of the relations between theory and theology.

A twofold relation between theory and theology may be noted. 1. Theology is a branch of theoretical thought. Consequently, general considerations of the theory of theory will have special applications to theology. In this connection we may consider the question of the role of reason in matters of faith and in particular the relation of theology to philosophy. 2. Reflection on the foundations of theory leads to a consideration of the religious factor in the foundations of theoretical thought, as Professor Herman Dooyeweerd has so impressively called to our attention in his monumental work.(1) Can a transcendental critique of theoretical thought provide a substitute for apologetics, as Dooyeweerd’s work may suggest? Or can the theologian, by giving an account of the religious foundation of theory, provide a justification for theoretical thought? A possible interpretation of Dooyeweerd’s somewhat obscure position may reject this division of the issue, although he evidently viewed his transcendental critique as philosophy and not theology. In private conversation, he stated to me that Christian philosophy rules out apologetics and theodicy.

A sound view of the role of reason in matters of faith will avoid extremes on two sides: the overestimation of reason or theoretical thought at the expense of faith, and the underestimation of reason or theoretical thought in the supposed interest of faith but actually at the expense of faith. The first extreme, which may be called philosophical rationalism (but not in the sense of rationalism as opposed to empiricism in epistemology), views reason or theoretical thought as the supreme or even the sole norm in matters of faith and religion. All truth, consequently revealed truth, must on this view be capable of rational demonstration. If an article of faith does not lend itself to such demonstration, it is rejected as irrational. No rationalist has more passionately proclaimed his allegiance to reason than Spinoza in the following passage of the Theological-Political Treatise, chapter 15: “Moreover, I may ask now, is a man to assent to anything against his reason? What is denial if it be not reason’s refusal to assent? In short, I am astonished that anyone should wish to subject reason, the greatest of gifts and a light from on high, to the dead letter which may have been corrupted by human malice; that it should be thought no crime to speak with contempt of mind, the true handwriting of God’s Word, calling it corrupt, blind and lost, while it is considered the greatest of crimes to say the same of the letter, which is merely the reflection and image of God’s Word.” All truth for Spinoza belongs to the sphere of reason. Theology occupies the sphere of piety and obedience. Spinoza professes to do justice to both spheres, but in fact misinterprets Scripture by representing it as teaching salvation by man’s own obedience. Despite the profession of separate spheres, Spinoza makes human reason the sovereign and Scripture the subject.

Rudolf Bultmann gives a contemporary expression to the same rationalist attitude when he asserts: “Man’s knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world – in fact, there is no one who does.”(2) Bultmann’s ignorance of the existence of the people of God is matched only by his arrogance in elevating human science and technology to the position of judges of the Word of God, and by his naiveté in supposing that Heidegger’s existentialist ontology can be identified with the content of the teaching of the New Testament. Bultmann’s rationalism is less pure than Spinoza’s, for it makes not the eternal truths of reason but the historically-conditioned and consequently relative and unstable state of science in the mid-twentieth century the supreme norm. His rationalism respects only the location of religious authority in the human mind rather than in divine revelation. His view of the contents of the mind is radically relativistic and anti-rational.

There is a tendency, not so radical but no less rationalistic in principle, that has pervaded much of the development of Christian thought. It is the tendency to regard a philosophical system or method as providing the framework within which Christian theology may or even must be developed. It may not be claimed but rather emphatically denied that all or even any of the contents, i.e. the doctrines, of theology are to be deduced by reason from its own forms or from the data of human experience. The authority of divine revelation and particularly of Holy Scripture may be admitted to furnish the theologian with all the materials of his science. But these materials must be organized in a framework by certain methods applied according to explicitly-stated principles or tacitly-assumed presuppositions. The methods, principles and presuppositions of the scientific organization of theology are viewed as provided by philosophy. So far as there may seem to be nothing more involved than the employment of indispensable procedures of formal logic and scientific method, such a use of philosophy or simply of reason may appear innocent and salutary. But it has proved extremely difficult in the history of theology to keep method separate from metaphysics.

Two factors may be distinguished as contributing to the metaphysical element so prominent in much theology. One is the difficulty, if not impossibility, of developing a purely formal logic, free from metaphysical elements. A formalistic calculus can be developed just like a game with no meaning beyond itself. But if interpretation and applications are sought for even such a calculus, and one has a logic suited to test arguments about real things and actual facts, there the metaphysical question of the relation between logic and the world becomes a burning issue. Logicians split into two camps, realists and anti-realists. The realist-nominalist issue has haunted the history of Christian doctrine. The Trinity, Christology, original sin, atonement, the ordo salutis, church and sacraments have all provided matter of controversies with this basic cleavage of philosophical logic in the background. A second factor, perhaps even more important, though not entirely independent, is the crucial role played by metaphysical terminology in the creeds. We must not, with Harnack, ascribe this feature of the language of the creeds to a secularizing or Hellenizing of the gospel by the influence of Greek philosophy. The use of Greek philosophical terms in the service of erroneous interpretation of biblical teaching necessitated the orthodox to use such terms in order to negate the errors. The use of homoousios in opposition to Arius is the most striking case. But the explanation of homoousios requires an account of ousia. The distinction between ousia and hupostasis, substantia or natura and persona involves the adoption of a position as to the relation between individuals and universals. Thus the Cappadocian father Gregory of Nyssa had recourse to Platonic realism in order to escape Tritheism while emphasizing the distinction of hypostases or persons in the Godhead.

The history of theology provides repeated instances of the adoption of philosophical concepts, theses, arguments and methods in the exposition and defence of orthodoxy, no less than heterodoxy. Thus arises the temptation to subscribe to a philosophical system or to adapt a non-Christian system by modifying those parts of it seen to be inconsistent with Christianity. There is always the danger that what is not obviously in conflict with revealed truth will escape notice, especially if it is closely associated with elements of the system which are being utilized in the service of Christianity. The only precaution that will be apt to prove effective is for the Christian theologian to become himself a competent philosopher. Anselm and Aquinas best exemplify this development in medieval scholasticism. Anselm stands out as a genius whose contributions to both philosophy and theology are penetrating and permanent. Aquinas represents the high point of systematic comprehensiveness and detail, with the corpus of Aristotelian philosophy and natural science skillfully integrated into a synthesis with supernatural theology, even turning the most unfavorable theses – of the eternity of the world and the dependence of the soul on the body – into arguments for creation and the resurrection.

Christian philosophers, and theologians using philosophy, should be careful to avoid deducing theological consequences from philosophical principles, even from the principles of a philosophy that claims to be Christian. For example, if one is convinced that in a genuinely Christian philosophy there is no place for a concept of substance, one is still not entitled to reject or to reinterpret the Nicene doctrine that the Son is homoousios with the Father. The Christian theologian must insist that any philosophical doctrine that entails the denial of a doctrine of the Christian faith is not acceptable, whatever pretensions it may make to be scriptural, Christian or Reformed. In reality, such an application of philosophy to theology would be rationalistic and destructive of fundamental truth of revelation. I have invented a hypothetical case of an extreme character to emphasize the danger that resides in a possible misapplication of Christian philosophy in the way of criticism of the concepts embodied in the historic creeds of Christendom. In fact Dooyeweerd commits this error in his attack on the concept of “rational soul” in the Westminster standards. Our Christian philosophies are tentative proposals, subject to continual criticism and revision. The doctrines of the Christian faith are settled, and are to be expounded by the Christian theologian on the basis of the revealed data of Scripture and in agreement with the creeds of the church. Philosophy can contribute to the clarification of theological concepts, but may neither create nor destroy them.

We stressed the dangers of overestimating the role of reason in matters of faith, and particularly the dangers of an improper influence of philosophy on theology. We must now call attention to the danger of underestimating the role of reason in matters of faith. Man has been created a rational being, as Scripture emphasizes in many passages, especially in the books of wisdom. The human mind, though darkened by sin, is addressed in Scripture. Though Scripture contains “some things hard to be understood,” it is designed to be understood. Understanding the Scripture involves the use of our rational powers, including the power of drawing inferences according to the laws of logic. The Westminster Confession of Faith gives a high place to logic in admitting not only what is expressly set down in Scripture, but also what may be deduced from Scripture by good and necessary consequence, as belonging to the whole counsel of God.

The enemies of an inerrant Scripture sometimes allege that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is rationalistic. In the sense of ‘rationalism’ that we have discussed, this is palpably untrue. But the doctrine is rational. It rests on the recognition of the distinction between truth and error, a distinction foreign to the mentality of modern irrationalistic and relativistic theologians. When inerrancy is seen to imply freedom from contradiction among the statements asserted or implied by Scripture, the logical law of non-contradiction is recognized as applying in faith and in theology. Systematic theology must aim at consistency as well as at comprehensiveness in presenting the doctrinal content of Scripture as a well-ordered system of truth.

Theological concepts should be clearly defined, doctrines precisely stated and defended by valid argument. Fuzzy theological thinking and inconsistent teaching may not be concealed or justified by pious appeals to mystery and paradox. The clearer the concepts are, the sharper will the mystery appear. When the doctrines of free and sovereign grace are defined in the sharpest terms, those who object must be reminded: “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?”, while those who believe and understand will exclaim: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past finding out!”

A competent theologian should be well trained in logic. As languages are an indispensable tool for exegetical work, and rhetoric for homiletics, so logic is a sine qua non for every scientific study, and, in theology, especially for systematics and apologetics. A theologian ought to be able to test by the application of formal rules the validity of any argument he uses. To do this, he should have at least some basic training in formal logic, including the elements of modern symbolic logic. Contemporary discussions of the theistic proofs, as a matter of fact, involve arguments involving modal concepts such as possibility, necessity and contingency. Such arguments as the ontological proof and the proof from the contingency of the world require the mastery of an elaborate, technical logical apparatus, if they are to be stated, defended or criticized effectively. I cannot here enter on a discussion of the validity of these proofs. I wish only to point out that whether the theologian judges the theistic proofs to be valid or invalid, he must be competent in handling techniques of formal logic if he wishes to enter into dialogue with philosophers who are willing to argue the question.

Let me suggest as an example of the use of formal logic in apologetics the following argument of a theist with an agnostic. The agnostic contends that the existence of God is open to question. The theist replies that if the agnostic’s contention is correct, the odd consequence follows that the agnostic’s contention itself is open to question. The consequence depends on the theist’s insistence that if God really exists, then his existence may not be held to be open to question. The nature of God as the origin of meaning renders meaningless any doubt as to the existence of God. By a law of modal logic it follows that if it is possible that God exists, then it is possible that his existence may not be held to be open to question. But the agnostic, in contending that the existence of God is open to question, admits that it is possible that God exists. He cannot then escape the consequence that it is possible that God’s existence may not meaningfully be held to be open to question. In other words, he must admit that his claim that God’s existence is open to question is a contention that is itself open to question. Discussion of such an argument can lead into a consideration of both formal and philosophical questions as to the logic of possibility and knowledge. In such an argument, “It is possible” may best be understood to mean “It is not known not to be true.” The argument can be shown to be formally valid by the application of rules of epistemic logic.

Philosophy as analysis of meaning is not simply a branch of theoretical thought, but is theoretical thought par excellence. Philosophy is theory of theory, whatever else it may be. Theology as a systematic philological and historical science of Scripture revelation is a branch of theoretical thought. If Scripture is not acknowledged by faith to be revelation, there is no point to speaking of theology as a science. There would only be room for unbelieving philological and historical criticism of the biblical literature, while systematic theology would have to be relegated with the historic creeds of Christendom to a museum of the pre-scientific beliefs of man not yet come of age.

The relation between theology as a science and the faith by which Scripture is acknowledged as the Word of God can be stated quite plainly. One need not be a philosopher, nor even a theologian, to believe that the Bible is the Word of God, nor does one rest this faith on the testimony of philosophers and theologians. Faith in the Word of God rests on God’s own testimony. The simple believer is taught by the Holy Spirit to see and to confess that it is God who has spoken in the Scriptures and who still speaks to the hearts of believers through the inspired Word. In this matter, the theologian and the Christian philosopher know no other teaching than this. The written Word is in human language and its meaning, when it is grasped, is grasped by our thought. The believer does not grasp this meaning by the unaided exercise of his sin-darkened understanding. He depends and must depend on a light from above, bestowed in sovereign grace as the only source of living faith and spiritual discernment.

But what is the meaning that the believer, whether or not he be a philosopher or theologian as well, thus apprehends and assents to? While readily realizing the riches of scriptural law addressed to the will and scriptural poetry captivating the affections, we must insist on the primary of scriptural doctrine addressed to the intellect, a doctrine at the same time grounding and pervading the affective or volitional aspects of revelation. Scriptural doctrine is truth expressible in propositional form. With Dr. Warfield, we endorse the Reformed maxim that the sense of Scripture is Scripture. Sense is propositional content, that from which good and necessary consequences, to use the excellent expression of the Westminster Confession, may be derived in accordance with the principles of logic.

The propositional content of Scripture is precisely what theology, and especially systematic theology, investigates. I do not find intelligible the claim that the Word of God as the central principle of knowledge cannot become the object of theoretical thought. The truth contained in the Word (not as if error were contained alongside of or mixed with that truth, but as the truth which is the whole content of the inspired Word) is not a so-called existential truth, devoid of or divorced from propositional content and exempt from conformity to the rules of reasoning. No man will cordially receive or even properly understand it except by the special grace of God. But it is this very truth received by the humblest saint that angels desire to look into and that theologians and Christian philosophers make the object of their loftiest contemplations.

The question of the foundation of theory may be put in terms of the justification of theoretical thought. The threat of vicious circularity immediately confronts us. Any justification of theoretical thought will itself be a theory and thus will be found in the awkward position of having to provide its own justification. Not only a philosophical justification such as Aristotle propounds for the principle of contradiction in the Metaphysics, book G, but also a theological justification of theory in terms of the counsel of God, the creation of man in the image of God, or the general testimony of the Holy Spirit, is exposed to this charge of circularity. Theology is also theory, and a theological justification of theoretical thought is not non-theoretical as to its methodology, even though it sets forth non-theoretical religious factors as the basis of theory. Theological justification thus involves the same problem of circularity as philosophical justification. Theology as a science presupposes the validity of theory and particularly of logical rules. What is to be justified is thus presupposed.

A way out of this impasse may be suggested by distinguishing the presuppositions of theory from the premises of an argument. Vicious circularity in argument arises from presupposing the conclusion, overtly or covertly, in the premises of the argument. But an argument presupposes not only premises, but also rules of inference. If fundamental rules of inference are to be justified, they must be presupposed in the reasoning by which they are justified. Thus the principle of contradiction must be presupposed in its justification, and its justification consists in showing that unless it is presupposed, predication is impossible. Vicious circularity is not involved, since the principle of contradiction is not used as a premise in the argument.

The theologian may also offer an account of the principle of contradiction as rooted in the nature of God and in the order of creation, including the mind of man created in the image of God. Here too there is no vicious circularity. The theologian reasons in conformity with the law of non-contradiction, but he does not employ it as a premise in his argument.

From the distinction between the premises of an argument and the presuppositions of a theory an interesting consequence may be drawn. If a theory has presuppositions that are inexpressible in language, these presuppositions may not be employed as premises of an argument in the theory itself or in a theory about the theory. What is inexpressible in language cannot serve as a premise from which conclusions can be significantly drawn. There is deep wisdom in the concluding aphorism of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” There is even something strange about saying that there is something which cannot be said. If there is anything completely inexpressible, the proper procedure would not be to say that it is inexpressible, but rather to say nothing at all about the matter, and only to expose the absurdity of all efforts to make such statements.(3)

If one wishes to affirm with Dooyeweerd that religious ground-motives are the presuppositions of theoretical thought, one should be prepared to give a clear formulation of the propositions involved and to deduce their consequences, or else one should say nothing at all about them and deduce no consequences whatever from them. To speak in a vague fashion of a ground-motive as something not subject to theoretical reflection and then to draw theoretical consequences from it is incoherent. This observation implies that a mere appeal to the operation of the form-matter, nature-grace or nature-freedom motives is insufficient ground for rejecting a philosophical thesis, and that an appeal to an alleged biblical ground-motive can neither establish nor refute a Christian philosophical or theological doctrine.

These considerations as to the danger of a loose use of the term ‘ground-motive’ suggest a closing word of caution against an intellectual form of Hyper-Calvinism in connection with the question of the autonomy of reason. The term ‘Hyper-Calvinism’ has been used and sometimes abused in connection with actual or alleged extremism in the presentation of the doctrines of grace. Permit me to suggest a parallel in connection with the Reformed philosopher’s attitude toward reason. The opposition between grace and free will has as its counterpart that between faith and reason. Zealous Calvinists have sometimes spoken of free will as the root error from which all heresies develop. Reformed philosophers have also spoken of the autonomy of reason as the root error from which all false theories spring. Beyond doubt the declaration of independence from God is the root of all error. Pelagianism and Kantianism have one and the same source. Nevertheless, the Calvinist should guard against a zeal without knowledge. The terms ‘free will’ and ‘autonomy’ can become slogans, thoughtlessly and irresponsibly paraded. Friends of truth and grace may be mistaken for enemies, and Calvinism itself will suffer from misdirected zeal by the obscuring of scriptural truth as to human responsibility and rational knowledge. In the early years of the Free University of Amsterdam, J. Woltjer warned that “One can also run the danger of wanting to be too Reformed, too Biblical, and thereby become un-Reformed and unbiblical.”(4) As the obscuring of human responsibility on the pretext of magnifying divine sovereignty is an un-Reformed and unbiblical extreme verging on antinomianism, so the disparaging of rational knowledge, of logical method and of scientific theory on the pretext of subjecting theoretical thought to divine revelation is an un-Reformed and unbiblical extreme verging on irrationalism. As the law is not made void but established by grace, so reason is by faith.


(1) Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, 4 vols., trans. David H. Freeman, William Young and H. de Jongste (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1953-58).
(2) Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. Hans-Werner Bartsch (London: S. P. C. K., 1957), p. 4.
(3) The above paragraph does not claim that there are presuppositions that are in fact inexpressible in language, but only draws a consequence from this claim viewed hypothetically. The purpose is to show the inconsistency of the procedure of deducing consequences from ground-motives supposed to be themselves incapable of propositional formulation.
(4) J. Woltjer, Verzamelde Redevderingen en Verhandelingen (Amsterdam: De Standaard, 1931), p. 239.

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