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Philosophy and Theology


INTO CONTEMPORARY THEOLOGICAL thought there has penetrated the view that Christian dogmatic theology should be supplemented, made "fruitful," enlightened by a philosophical foundation, and that it should accept philosophical conceptions into itself.

"To justify the faith of our Fathers, to raise it to a new degree of rational awareness" this is the way V.S. Soloviev defines his aim in the first lines of one of his works, The History and Future of Theocracy. In the aim thus formulated there would be nothing essentially worthy of blame. However, one must be careful not to mix together two spheres-dogmatic learning and philosophy. Such a mixture is liable to lead one into confusion and to the eclipsing of their purpose, their content, and their methods.

In the first centuries of Christianity the Church writers and Fathers of the Church responded broadly to the philosophical ideas of their time, and they themselves used the concepts which had been worked out by philosophy. Why? By this they threw out a bridge from Greek philosophy to Christian philosophy. Christianity stepped forth as a world-view which was to replace the philosophical views of the ancient world, as standing above them. Then, having become in the fourth century the official religion of the state, it was called by the state itself to take the place of all systems of world-views which had existed up to that time. This is the reason why, at the First Ecumenical Council in the presence of the Emperor, there occurred a debate of the Christian teachers of faith with a "philosopher."

But there had to be not simply a substitution (of Christian philosophy for pagan). Christian apologetics took upon itself the aim of taking possession of pagan philosophical thought and directing its concepts into the channel of Christianity. The ideas of Plato stood before Christian writers as a preparatory stage in paganism for Divine Revelation. Apart from this, in the course of things, Orthodoxy had to fight Arianism, not so much on the basis of Sacred Scripture as by means of philosophy, since Arianism had taken from Greek philosophy its fundamental error-namely, the teaching of the Logos as an intermediary principle between God and the world, standing below the Divinity itself. But even with all this, the general direction of the whole of Patristic thought was to base all the truths of the Christian faith on the foundation of Divine Revelation and not on rational, abstract deductions. St. Basil the Great, in his treatise, "What Benefit Can Be Drawn from Pagan Works," gives examples of how to use the instructive material contained in these writings. With the universal spread of Christian conceptions, the interest in Greek philosophy gradually died out in Patristic writings.

And this was natural. Theology and philosophy are distinguished first of all by their content. The preaching of the Savior on earth declared to men not abstract ideas, but a new life for the Kingdom of God; the preaching of the Apostles was the preaching of salvation in Christ. Therefore, Christian dogmatic theology has as its chief object the thorough examination of the teaching of salvation, its necessity, and the way to it. In its basic content, theology is soteriological (from the Greek soteria, "salvation"). Questions of ontology (the nature of existence), of God in Himself, of the essence of the world and the nature of man, are treated by dogmatic theology in a very limited way. This is not only because they are given to us in sacred Scripture in such a limited form (and, with regard to God, in a hidden form), but also for psychological reasons. Silence concerning the inward in God is an expression of the living feeling of God's omnipresence, a reverence before God, a fear of God. In the Old Testament this feeling led to a fear of even naming the name of God. Only in the exaltation of reverent feeling is the thought of the Fathers of the Church in some few moments raised up to beholding the life within God. The chief area of their contemplation was the truth of the Holy Trinity revealed in the New Testament, and Orthodox Christian theology as a whole has followed this path.

Philosophy goes on a different path. It is chiefly interested precisely in questions of ontology: the essence of existence, the oneness of existence, the relation between the absolute principle and the world and its concrete manifestations, and so forth. Philosophy by its nature comes from skepsis, from doubt over what our conceptions tell us; and even when coming to faith in God (in idealistic philosophy), it reasons about God "objectively," as of an object of cold knowledge, an object which is subject to rational examination and definition, to an explanation of its essence and of its relationship as absolute existence to the world of manifestations.

These two spheres-dogmatic theology and philosophy-are likewise to be distinguished by their methods and their sources.

The source of theologizing is Divine Revelation, which is contained in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. The fundamental character of Sacred Scripture and Tradition depends on our faith in their truth. Theology gathers and studies the material which is to be found in these sources, systematizes this material, and divides it into appropriate categories, using in this work the same means which the experimental sciences use.

Philosophy is rational and abstract. It proceeds not from faith, like theology, but seeks to base itself either on the indisputable fundamental axioms of reason, deducing from them further conclusions, or upon the facts of science or general human knowledge.

Therefore one can simply not say that philosophy is able to raise the religion of the Fathers to the degree of knowledge.

However, by the distinctions mentioned above, one should not deny entirely the cooperation of these two spheres. Philosophy itself comes to the conclusion that there are boundaries which human thought by its very nature is not capable of crossing. The very fact that the history of philosophy for almost its whole duration has had two currents- idealistic and materialistic-shows that its systems depend upon a personal predisposition of mind and heart; in other words, that they are based upon something which lies beyond the boundaries of proof. That which lies beyond the boundaries of proof is the sphere of faith, a faith which can be negative and unreligious, or positive and religious. For religious thought, what "is above" is the sphere of Divine Revelation.

In this point there appears the possibility of a union of the two spheres of knowledge, theology and philosophy. Thus is religious philosophy created, and in Christianity, this means Christian philosophy.

But Christian religious philosophy has a difficult path: to bring together freedom of thought, as a principle of philosophy, with faithfulness to the dogmas and the whole teaching of the Church. "Go by the free way, wherever the free mind draws you," says the duty of the thinker; "be faithful to Divine Truth," whispers to him the duty of the Christian. Therefore, one might always expect that in practical realization the compilers the systems of Christian philosophy will be forced to sacrifice, willingly or unwillingly, the principles of one sphere in favor of the other. The Church consciousness welcomes sincere attempts at creating a harmonious, philosophical Christian world view; but the Church views them as private, personal creations, and does not sanction them with its authority. In any case, it is essential there be a precise distinction between dogmatic theology and Christian philosophy, and every attempt to turn dogmatics into Christian philosophy must be decisively rejected.

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