One of These Things Is Not Like the Other: Philosophy vs. Theology

Philosophy. An evil and corrosive influence that led Christian theology astray almost from the very beginning? A useful way of thinking that helps Christians understand their beliefs and the world more clearly? A little of both? Something else?

What exactly is the relationship between theology and philosophy?

I don’t know if philosophers wrestle with the question too much, but theologians certainly do. And we have a really hard time coming up with a good answer. One of the reasons that we struggle with with this so much is that we’re actually not sure how theology and philosophy are different. Until you know what makes two things distinct, it’s almost impossible to figure out how they’re related.

So let’s lead with this question: What makes theology and philosophy different? In the next post, we can tackle the question of how they are related.

Imagine that you have two tables: the “theology” table and the “philosophy” table. Sitting around the theology table, you have a bunch of people wrestling with questions about who we are, why we’re here, what we’re supposed to be doing, and what this goofy universe is all about. But over at the philosophy table, you have a different group of people wrestling with exactly the same questions. What makes the two tables, the two groups of people, and the two conversations different?

Theology Is/Isn’t Like Philosophy Because…

1. Nerds vs. Geeks

Maybe the two are different just because they involve different groups of people. They’re like two cliques at lunch. They may do many of the same things, but they sit at different tables simply because they are distinct groups.

This was probably the most common way of drawing the distinction in the early church. Early thinkers did not distinguish between theology and philosophy as disciplines. For them, the real distinction was between Christians and non-Christians. A pagan philosopher may be asking the same questions as a Christian theologian, and she may even be trying to reach answers in much the same way, but she is still different from the theologian simply because she isn’t Christian. If it’s not Christian, it’s not really theology. simple as that.

That probably explains much of Tertullian’s famous “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” question. He wasn’t denying that Christians often think philosophically (as we use the term). But he was saying that those two cities represent two radically different groups of people. And that’s what distinguishes theology from philosophy.

There is something about this approach that I like. In many ways, philosophers and theologians are like two distinct cliques sitting at separate tables. But that alone isn’t enough. We’re trying to figure out why they are different groups. Or, more precisely, why we think that they are different. And unfortunately, we can’t draw the line as simply as they used to. Today we have Christian philosophers and non-Christian theologians. So there must be something else going on.

2. Christiany Things vs. Not Christiany Things

I realize that “Christiany” isn’t the most precise term. But what I’m getting at here is that maybe the two conversations are different because of what the people are talking about. Their subject matter is different. Theologians talk about things of relevance to Christians; philosophers talk about other stuff (whatever that might be).

I could be wrong, but I think this is one of the main ways that the two disciplines are distinguished at the popular level. People aren’t really sure how the two are different, but surely they at least talk about different things.

The problem is that this doesn’t appear to be the case. Both theology and philosophy spend much of their time wrestling with precisely the same issues: nature of humanity, nature of God, what’s wrong with the world, how it should get fixed, etc. Granted, it sure sounds like they’re talking about different things at times. For example, when philosophers discuss concepts like “supervenience” and “the principle of identity,” it doesn’t sound like they’re talking about anything of interest to theologians. But once you realize that those concepts are directly relevant to issues like relationship of the soul to the body and the continuity of a person through death and resurrection, then you begin to see that theologians and philosophers are wrestling with many of the same things.

Different language, same issues.

3. Faith vs. Reason

Another way of drawing the line is to say that the conversations taking place at the two tables begin at very different places. At the philosophy table, the conversation begins with what we can work out by the power of our intellect. I don’t start with the Bible or any other faith proposition; I begin with what I know or can work out on the basis of what I know. At the theology table, on the other hand, I begin with faith: the incarnation, the Trinity, the authority of the Bible, etc. My reason can kick in after that, but the conversation starts with what I believe, not what I can demonstrate rationally.

But philosophers actually begin with faith just as much as theologians do. After all, they didn’t derive everything that they know through the power of their own reason. They take much (most?) of it on faith as knowledge received from others (family, philosophical community, etc.). They may come to question some of that eventually, but that doesn’t change the fact that their starting point includes quite a few faith elements. And theologians use a lot of reason, even at the beginning. To the extent that they understand anything about what they believe, their faith is “rational.”

So it would seem that both philosophers and theologians begin with faith and move forward with reason. That is Anselm’s famous “faith seeking understanding.” But, since they both operate this way, it’s difficult to see how this can serve as a way of distinguishing them.

4. Book vs. Brain

So maybe we need to draw the line somewhat differently. Maybe it’s that theologians refer to the Bible as their source of authority in the conversation, whereas authority for the philosopher is grounded primarily in their own reason. If I want to “win” an argument as a theologian, I simply demonstrate that the Bible is on my side. But, as a philosopher, I have to demonstrate that my argument fits better with the standards of rationality. So the distinction isn’t so much about the starting point (#2 above) as it is about authority.

Anyone who has participated in theological discussion, though, knows that this is too simple. If theological discussions could be resolved simply by pointing to some verse in the Bible, we would have far fewer theological discussions. The real work in theology involves issues that defy such easy resolution. Theologians will still see the Bible as their ultimate authority (hopefully!), but their arguments will actually appeal to the standards of rationality in a way that is virtually indistinguishable from philosophy.

And I’m not convinced that philosophy should get off the hook so easily either. Listening to philosophers argue, it seems clear to me that they have their own authoritative texts. Otherwise, why refer to Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas as much as they do? Granted, those texts may function as authorities in a different way than the Bible does for theologians, but it still means that philosophers have some kind of authoritative texts.

5. Me vs. Them

This is possibly the least satisfying of all the options. People often view philosophy as something done primarily by the individual person. As a philosopher, I don’t have to worry too much about what other people think. I just need to satisfy the demands of my own inquiring mind. If others don’t agree with me, tough.

Theology, on the other hand, is usually viewed as something done within a particular community. (Granted, modern theology has tweaked this a bit. But I think the basic idea still holds.) So theologians have to work within, and answer to, their religious communities.

The problem with this one, of course, is that both theologians and philosophers operate in community. If philosophers were truly concerned only with satisfying the demands of their own minds, they wouldn’t bother writing, teaching, and arguing as much as they do. Every philosopher operates within some community (historical and present). And philosophical conversations are guided by the needs and standards of that community.

No philosopher is an island.

5. My Peeps vs. Your Peeps

One of the things that makes differentiating philosophy and theology difficult is that we focus exclusively on what is happening at the two tables, forgetting the rest of the cafeteria. Keep in mind that no teenager sits at a table in a cafeteria without being aware of the broader “audience.” They know full well that people are watching. So their “performance” at the table has as much to do with this broader group as it does with the others at the table.

If this is true, we need to define philosophy and theology at least partly in terms of the two audiences for whom they are performing. And any performance is shaped by its audience. How I speak, what issues I address, the way I shape my arguments, and other issues will all be determined by my audience. And I think this is clearly at work in theology and philosophy. Each uses the kind of discourse, language, and argumentation most meaningful to their audience. And that’s why they can sound so different even when they’re addressing exactly the same issues.

So are they different or not?

As you can see from all of this, distinguishing philosophy from theology is not that easy. Rather than two distinct groups sitting at separate tables having very different conversations, they are more like people at a party who freely mingle with each other and move in and out of various, similar conversations. But each of those conversations will still probably be a little different depending on what things are taken on faith at the outset, which authorities are in view, and who is listening. Although this is not as clear cut as we might like, I think this picture gives us enough to recognize some of the important differences, even while realizing that philosophy and theology overlap significantly.

What do you think? Have I missed anything? Are there other factors that help distinguish philosophy from theology? Or would you argue (as some do) that there really is no difference between them at all?




  1. says

    I want to say that theology is philosophy with the important presupposition that a god/deity has something to do with each question and answer. So a theologian and a philosopher could ask, “What is a human?” A philosopher could answer without reference to the particular god of a tradition. So Alvin Plantinga may be a “Christian” philosopher, but he could address this question without referencing the Christian God or he could limit himself to speaking of the generic “deity” of natural theology (which doesn’t include language regarding a Trinity, an incarnation, etc). If a theologian answers the question part of the definition of being a theologian is that the answer must be influence by one’s view not of a vague deity, but a particular god. So a Muslim theologian would have to think about anthropology in the context of how Islam speaks of Allah. A Christian would do the same with the Triune God in mind.

  2. J says

    I’ve never understood why an unbeliever would want to be a theologian…what an exercise in futility.

    This may be too simple a contribution but it challenges me:

    “It is said proverbially in Orthodoxy that “one who prays is a theologian and a theologian is one who prays.” This intends fully to say that an unlettered peasant may be a greater theologian than someone who holds many degrees and can offer page after page of published articles. There is only one reason this is so: theology is about God as reality and not God as a concept. Subtlety was an ascription given of the serpent, not applied particularly to God. That which is difficult about God is in the human heart. We find God difficult to know or understand because our hearts are hard. “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Father Stephen Freeman

    • says


      I don’t think it would be an “unbeliever” who would be identified with being a theologian, but someone of a different faith–like a Jew or Muslim.

    • says

      Brian’s right that I was primarily referring to theologians from other faiths. But there actually are those who would call themselves “theologians” (in the sense of studying the concept of god) who do not necessarily believe in the god they are studying. But I agree with J that this really isn’t theology (not as I want to use the term anyway).

  3. barobin says

    I think it also depends on what we mean by ‘philosophy.’ The ancient Greeks, at least Plato and Socrates, used philosophy as a way to bring about the ‘good life.’ Which that in itself may have a ‘religious’ nature.

  4. Joseph May says

    I think 2) is a dubious conclusion. I am inclined to say that the difference in the subject matter of Ancient Philosophy and Theology are about the same, the modern period (Philosophy post Descartes) began to move in a different direction. Some modern philosophers assumed the existence of God, but philosophers like David Hume were atheists, and all though he discussed morality, the existence of God no longer served as support for philosophers. With the advent of analytic philosophy topics such as the philosophy of language, logic, and mathematics became hot topics. These topics, including epistemology and metaphysics are now the kinds things philosophers study. It is important to note that the trinity, and the soul are barely mentioned by philosophers if at all.

    A further difference I would guess between philosophers and theologians is that the existence of God and the soul are the conditions under which the study is possible. The non-existence of God and the soul would be destructive to theology. Theology must presuppose the existence of God or the soul. Philosophers on the other hand do not need to presuppose the existence of God or the soul, and if they don’t, then philosophy wouldn’t suffer too much.

    • says

      The problem is that all of the “philosophical” issues you just mentioned are things that theologians want to talk about as well. So it sounds like your position is similar to the one that Brian mentioned above – i.e. theology and philosophy are basically the same except for the fact that theology requires faith in some deity and philosophy does not. And I think that’s a fine distinction, as long as we don’t turn it into the more generic idea that theologians begin with faith and philosophers don’t.

      But that’s not a distinction in subject matter. Even philosophers who don’t believe in God are perfectly willing to make the concept of god a matter of philosophical reflection. So it’s not the subject matter or the faith/reason starting point that makes them distinct, but whether any particular object of faith (i..e God) is necessary for the discipline.

  5. Bart Fowler says

    Thanks Marc for an interesting blog. It appears that both theology and philosophy are systematic studies of people’s essential questions about truth, existence, reality, right – wrong, causality and freedom. Theology is more specific in addressing these questions given its starting place of religious beliefs and/or presuppositions. It would seem to me, therefore, that a theologian may also be a philosopher, but a philosopher without faith (or a religious belief system) cannot be theologian. Another interesting question is: What makes it important to distinguish philosophy and theology?

    • says

      Your last question is a good one. My main concern is to talk about the relationship between the two. I’m not sure if that’s an issue for philosophers, but theologians do wrestle with how theology is related to philosophy and what role philosophy should play in theological discourse. And I couldn’t come up with any meaningful way of talking about their relationship without first discussing what distinguishes them (if anything). So that was my only purpose here. There may be other good reasons that it’s important to see the differences, but that’s all I’m after.

  6. says

    The difference is in the viewpoint that answers are supposed to be from. A philosopher asks about man, God, and the meaning of life etc. from the viewpoint of man (i.e. what these things mean to man). A theologian asks about man, God, and the meaning of life from the viewpoint of God (whether actual or a theoretical possibility.)

  7. Jerome Wernow says

    A late strange interjection. Could it be that theo-logy (a logic-izing’ of God) is a musing that is always done in some kind of philosophical construct? Perhaps we all, theologian or not, have been subtly taught our constructs mostly through our formation within family, culture, and educational frameworks which in turn came from their predecessors. I wonder if a significant number of ‘theologians’ have never really inspected the structures of their “crawl space” or “buttresses” in the attic of their theology to see exactly what material and formations frame their epistemology, ontology, and fundamental moral outworkings. On the other hand,-the left hand in the prophet Jonah’s sense, it seems that a number philosophers think they float in a superior ‘layer of ether’ free of any contingency attached to the Divine. The depths of bloviation may well be proportionate to the level of their anesthesia. If there be any warrant to such a musing then the separation of Athens and Jerusalem has two more road signs explaining an unnecessary distantiation 😉

  8. mrwormburn says

    You lost me at #3, “philosophers actually begin with faith just as much as theologians do.” This is in the vein of “atheism is a religion,” “atheism requires faith,” and other such doublethink nonsense.


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