Philosophical theology is a branch of theology in which philosophical methods are utilized to arrive at a clearer understanding of divine truths. There is debate as to whether or not theology and philosophy must both be involved in man’s effort to arrive at the truth, or whether divine revelation can, or should, stand on its own. Over the centuries, there have been several different theories as to how extensively philosophical systems should be applied to theological concepts. Some say that the two must be absolutely separate, that they have nothing to do with one another. Others say that philosophy and reason are necessary if man is to rightly understand divine revelation. Still others take a moderate approach, saying that philosophy is a useful tool but not to be relied on utterly.
Philosophical theology came into existence in the 18th and 19th centuries when positivist, modernist, and Enlightenment thinkers attacked Christianity. Theologians wanted a way to explain and defend their beliefs and found they could use philosophical methods to defend divine revelation. The use of philosophy to analyze and explain theology was not without precedent. Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and other early theologians had used the ideas of Aristotle and Socrates in their writings in an effort to think through and understand the concepts presented in the Bible. Many modern apologists still use philosophical arguments; for example, the teleological and ontological arguments for God’s existence are rooted firmly in philosophical theology.
The Bible says that seeking out a matter, or searching for truth that God has concealed, is glorious (Proverbs 25:2). We have been given the ability to reason, and there is nothing wrong with studying philosophy. At the same time, we must be cautious. There are many spiritual dangers in the study of philosophy. God warns us to “turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Timothy 6:20). Man-made theories and human speculation can add nothing of value to God’s Word, which is sufficient to equip us “for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Job and his three friends attempted to understand God’s ways through human reasoning and failed. In the end, God told them that they were obscuring revelation by “words without knowledge” (Job 38:2).
Philosophical theology is a tool that can be used in a right way or a wrong way. It is a question of motive and priority: if we attempt to understand God’s ways and thoughts by relying on man-made constructs, we will be disappointed. Man has been trying to prove his ability to reach up to God ever since the tower of Babel. But if, motivated by love and a desire to know God, we use our minds to better understand His Word, our study will be rewarded. Philosophy is not truth itself but is subservient to the truth. Philosophy can become a tool for better grasping the truth. The inspired, inerrant Word of God is of supreme importance; any human philosophy must take a secondary place. The Bible is the judge of our philosophies, not the other way around (see Hebrews 4:12).