Bruce Marshall on theology and philosophy

Bruce Marshall on theology’s use of philosophy

In his quaestiones on Boethius’s De Trinitate Aquinas asks, as he does on several occasions, whether “philosophical arguments and authorities” can be used in theology – “faith’s science about God.” One of the objectors observes that in scripture the wisdom of the world is often represented by water, and the wisdom of God by wine. But scripture also condemns those who mix water with wine. So we should scorn those teachers who dilute the rich wine of theology with the tepid water of philosophy.

Thomas begins his reply by seeming to refuse the objector’s gambit. A trope, even from scripture, is no basis for an argument. But never mind. Thomas finds just the right scriptural twist for his objector’s metaphor: the wedding at Cana. A mixture alters the nature of both the items mixed. But it does not count as a mixture when one of the items comes under the control of the other. “Hence those who use the works of philosophers in sacred doctrine so as to bring them into the obedience of faith do not mix water with wine, but transform water into wine.”

Thomas is a master, perhaps the master, at changing the water of worldly wisdom into the pure wine of Christian theology – bringing the best philosophy he knew into epistemic line with the Christian confession of the Trinity and the cross of Christ. But the best philosophy available to us in the year 2000 is far different, and in countless ways better, than the best philosophy available in the mid-thirteenth century. We cannot do theology in the spirit of Thomas if we use the philosophy he used. We couldn’t do so even if we though we had the wit, or the need, to make better theological wine of Aristotle and Neoplatonism than he did. We have to make our own wine out of our own water.

Of course most theologians long ago stopped thinking that Aristotle and Neoplatonism were their main philosophical challenges. Whether they have generally managed to do more with a long line of successor philosophies than produce an undrinkable mixture of water and wine is another matter. In any case the analytic tradition now dominates world philosophy. Yet against this water theologians have usually been quite reluctant to test their powers of alchemy. We prefer to perform tricks we know, on water we have brought with us to the wedding feast, whether left over from the thirteenth century or direct from the salons of Paris. The enormous stone jars the host provides we try to ignore.

One motive for the typical theological aversion to analytic philosophy no doubt lies in the suspicion that analytic philosophy is indifferent or hostile to the convictions which matter most to theologians. The philosophy we use in theology ought to have a sense of the transcendent, of ultimate meaning, of beauty, or at least ought to disdain naturalism, scientism, semanticism, or whatever. But the best philosophy is not the one which is most attractive to, or attracted by, a Christian view of the world. It’s the one with the best arguments on the matter at hand. So Thomas thinks, at any rate. He did not undertake the huge labor of turning Aristotle’s water into theological wine because he thought it the philosophy most susceptible of Christian use. On a number of crucial points – creation in time, the immortality of the soul, the freedom of the will – it seemed opposed to central Christian convictions (witness the condemnation of 1277) and apparently more attractive to a rival religion (Islam). But it usually had the best arguments. The theologian’s job, he thought, was to come to grips with this philosophy, not to seek refuge in others more yielding to Christian transformation.

from “Theology after Cana,” Modern Theology, vol 16, no 4, (2000): 525-6.

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