Philosophical vs. Natural Theology

David Burrell begins his “Creation and ‘Actualism’: The Dialectical Dimension of Philosophical Theology,” with a discussion of the difference between philosophical theology and natural theology. The expression “philosophical theology” has its origin in the title of a 1960s collection of essays (edited by Anthony Flew and Alisdair MacIntyre) “which meant to bring the tools of analytic philosophy to bear on topics long recognized to be theological in character.” Since its delineation as a distinct enterprise, accordingly, the purview of philosophical theology has not been limited to “the traditional ‘preambles to faith’ that had become the stock in trade of a discipline called ‘natural theology’: the existence of God, the possibility of divine revelation, and the capacity to discourse at all about such transcendent objects.” Natural theology as it is at least commonly conceived and practiced   involves the deployment of reason “to establish the truth of certain claims that were deemed to be presupposed to a reasonable assent of faith.  And since reason was supposed to function with evidence available to all, its deliverances were considered ‘natural,’ while those of faith were ‘supernatural,’ indicating that something more than evidence was at work in the assent of faith.” Philosophical theology, by way of contrast, has sought instead to “expand the range of theological topics available for philosophical inquiry,” and in doing so, “to intimate a new model for the relation of reason and faith. Rather than a stepwise pattern that suggested a foundational approach to matters of faith, we [practitioners of philosophical theology] preferred to direct our attention to the tradition of Christian theology, as one in which the community had availed itself of reason from the outset in the elaboration of its faith and its own self-understanding.”

In summary, then, whereas natural theology is actually a branch or sub-discipline of philosophy–a putatively pure (i.e., neutral, non-committal and hence unprejudicial) use of reason in the investigation of those claims thought to be presupposed by the Christian faith (e.g., the existence of God)–philosophical theology is in fact a sub-discipline of theology, inasmuch as it presupposes the truth of the faith in its effort not to prove but to provide a rationally cogent explication of its primary doctrines. As Burrell goes on to imply, however, although philosophical theology in some ways is a new enterprise, in another respect it represents merely the recovery of what natural theology originally was: “Moreover, there are convincing hermeneutic arguments that the medievals never considered the discussions involving the ‘preambles to faith’ to be foundational in character, but rather to be a retrospective inquiry into the presuppositions required for any consideration of the truth of the articles of faith.” Put differently, where “natural theology” is modern, “philosophical theology” is both pre- and postmodern.

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