A theological critique of modern and postmodern philosophy?

by Mark D Thompson

The relationship between theology and philosophy has been one fraught with danger from the time of the early church. We do not have to buy into Ritschl and Harnack’s assessment of the development of dogma to realise that many early theologians were wrestling with how to expound Christian doctrine in the context of very powerful philosophical trends. Tertullian famously asked, ‘What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ (On Prescription against Heretics, vii) Aquinas, alongside so much of high and late medieval thought, was powerfully influenced by the recovery of Aristotle’s writing in the thirteenth century. Yet Luther famously declared ‘the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light’ (Disputation against Scholastic Theology, thesis 50). The list could go on.

The question of critical interaction between the two disciplines was raised for me again when I read recently this intriguing paragraph from John Webster:
Modernity is commonly reputed to have laid in ruins the account of Christological reason just outlined. It did not, in fact, do so; it simply installed in the centres of greatest intellectual prestige (the research universities) one contingent version of instrumental reason to which most Protestants and, later, some Roman Catholic, theologies found themselves hard put to respond by anything other than concessions. The failure to respond and the readiness to make concessions were rooted in internal failures in Christian theology in the post-Reformation (and possibly the early modern) periods, notably the reluctance to deploy primary Christian doctrine (Trinity, Christology, pneumatology) in criticism of philosophical teaching, and the assumption that methods of inquiry are content-neutral. (Word and Church, pp. 124–5)
Two questions that come to mind are ‘Who are the best (most persuasive, most intellectually rigorous) voices actually doing today what we failed to do in the past? Who has or is deploying primary Christian doctrine in criticism of modernist (and postmodernist) philosophical teaching?’

Do you have any suggestions?


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