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Sunday, May 19, 2024 - 03:34 PM


First Published in 1994


Theology is the application of reason to theological data, the data of revelation. Philosophy is inquiry into the nature of ultimate reality, the application of reason to the data of reality to determine the most fundamental or ultimate causes and ends. And reality, in its entirety, consists of the Uncreated Creator God and His creation. (Philosophy's inquiry into ultimate causes and ends covers the full range of its sub-disciplines, which include metaphysics (being), epistemology (knowledge), logic (reasoning), aesthetics (art and beauty), rhetoric (persuasion), and morals and politics (the Good).)

As Father Copleston notes in his learned and influential history of philosophy: "Christianity came into the world as a revealed religion: it was given to the world by Christ as a doctrine of redemption and salvation and love, not as an abstract and theoretical system, and He sent His Apostles to preach, not to occupy professors' chairs." The doctrine was set forth providentially over centuries, not as a philosophical dialogue or discourse or treatise, but as a Scriptural web of sacred history and stories, genealogy, wisdom, testimony, prayer and Divine exemplarism and commandment suffused with the relation of miracles, a Holy web authored by God Himself through the medium of select saints, all culminating in the incarnation of His Son to save the elect and judge the reprobate.

Upon its appearance in history, Christianity, echoing its Founder, declared itself 'the Way', the only way to the one and only true (Triune) God, and not one more false religion or one more philosophical system added to the religions and systems and schools of antiquity. So "the Apostles were bent on converting the world, not on excogitating a philosophical system."

But, as Christianity took root and spread, it aroused suspicion and hostility, both among carnal or unbelieving 'Judaic' Jews and among pagan-Gentile intellectuals and writers. Unable to quash the new and hardy creed with lesser weaponry, carnal, unbelieving reasoners escalated to attacks on philosophical grounds. The Christian response to these philosophical attacks issued from an internal debate among Christians about the providential role of philosophy itself, a debate that continues in somewise to this day among the followers of Tertullian and the followers of Clement of Alexandria, the rejectors and embracers of philosophy respectively.

As the magnum corpus of mediaeval and reformed philosophical theology attests, the followers of Clement have predominated. In the process of argument and definition with pagan professional philosophers, Christian scholars borrowed concepts and categories from philosophy. But the drive among Christians to employ philosophy -- or philosophical argumentation, methods and other tools -- stemmed from more than just the felt self-defensive needs of Christian apologists parrying deadly ideational thrusts with a hostile, lost and uncomprehending world.

Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Through His Apostle (2 Cor. 5:10) He declares of His followers: "We tear down arguments and every presumption set up against the knowledge of God; and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." So, over time, what began as isolated and improvised philosophical elements in the writings of early Christian apologists and Fathers would develop into the great "neo-Platonic" system of Augustine, and then into the grand theological-philosophical cathedrals of the High Middle Ages, penned by Aquinas, Bonaventura and Duns Scotus.

So over the centuries, the more intellectual Christians have "naturally felt the desire to penetrate, as far as it was open to them to do so, the data of revelation, and also to form a comprehensive view of the world and human life in the light of faith." Crowning the imperative to defend the faith and the intellectual-erotic drive to penetrate (short of comprehending) revealed mysteries came the settled epistemological recognition famously encapsulated as Credo, ut intelligam (I believe, so that I may understand).

But, to the learned and erotically sufficient Christian, philosophy is more than a parrying or penetrating tool. Philosophy, understood properly as inquiry into the nature of ultimate reality, is, like its sister theology, a high human convention — a flower of the image of God -with a dignity and realm of its own. As such, philosophy is more than a useful arsenal or storehouse, and more even than a providential preparation for Christianity or a handmaid to theology.

In modern times, David Hume has argued that Christianity in its philosophical or theological forms is eo ipso both false philosophy and false religion because it is somehow fatally and hypocritically detached from that pre-reflective order of custom and tradition and mores Hume calls the common life. As an unbeliever, a wielder of carnal and unregenerate reason, lacking the light of faith, Hume fails to see how the revealed moral law is the perfection of natural law for a fallen world. Author of a heavy treatise on human nature, he fails to see the fallenness of human nature and the unregenerate barbarism of all common life devoid of Christian revelation.

In his treatise, though, the unbelieving Hume, by God's grace, expounds a dialectic of true and false philosophy worthy of close study. Whatever his errors, Hume rightly (but without fuller understanding and realization) warns against the susceptibility of the fallen and therefore fleshly and disordered human mind to hyper-abstract reasoning. More recently, a Christian Michael Oakeshott, like a Christian Edmund Burke before him, warned us of the catastrophic Jacobin destruction and misery entailed for humanity in applying such hyper-abstract reasoning to all subjects, including especially philosophy itself, theology and politics. (It remains for a future Christian philosopher, working in the light of faith, to methodize and correct the deficiencies out of Hume's dialectic, and to clearly outline how true philosophy can stem only from Christian revelation.)

So the world from the Fall to Judgment is a theater and graveyard of false philosophies pnd false religions, the products of fallen human reason and imagination. True philosophy, made possible only by Christian revelation and the spiritual regeneration of the philosopher, is part of a general Christian wisdom. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but His Word, His Logos, endures, as He is Himself the Word, the Truth, the Logos, the Way, the Life. And true philosophy and true theology, as glorious providential conventions of man, the imago Dei, are gifts to the elect — and the dread of the reprobate -- from a loving God Who, in His Word, set down the terms of true religion.

In the Western philosophical-theological tradition, it is in the works of St. Bonaventura (1221-1274), in his Breviloquium, De Donis and In Hexaemeron, and not in Hume (1711-1776), that we find a deeper and more solid account of the nature of philosophy, in its true and false forms.

The pagan philosophers of antiquity were unable to formulate a satisfactory philosophy because they did not possess the Christian revelation. Reprobate philosophers after the revelation, cogitating outside a state of grace, are likewise denied epistemic access to a fuller understanding of all things, including God, life and man. Bonaventura, the fiery or Seraphic Doctor, insisted that the Christian philosopher must see the world in its relation to the creative Word. Working in the light of faith and revelation, this philosopher sees actual historical man as he truly is -- not for example as an attenuated and deracinated Rawlsian "rational" agent in some hyper-abstract original position -- but as created man, steeped in Humean common life and conditioned by concrete intermediate institutions including the family, with a supernatural vocation and trajectory, and with access to revealed truth and God if elect.

It is precisely the faith of the Christian philosopher -- who philosophizes in the light of that faith -- that helps him to ask the right questions and to avoid untrue conclusions. Every independent philosophy — every philosophy apart from orthodox Biblical faith -- is bound to be deficient or erroneous. Rejecting shallow atheist-Satanic propagandists like the Enlightenment philosophes, including Hume, who would co-opt and enslave philosophy while insulting and deriding theology, the true Christian philosopher sees how the phenomena of philosophy and theology are inextricably intertwined, so he understands how philosophy and theology, properly understood, butt up to and interpenetrate one another.

Bonaventure makes clear that the man who is simply a philosopher and who rests in philosophy alone, apart from faith and theology, will be convinced that God is one in Nature and not three in Persons. Bereft of revealed truth by faithlessness, the independent philosophy of the unbelieving philosopher fails to remain open and thereby concludes or closes in error about God and the world. It is faith by grace that keeps the true philosopher open to the truths of revelation and true theology and thereby keeps him true as philosopher and his conclusions more in line with Truth.

To crown all, the true Bonaventurian philosopher understands how the Maker determines in His making what can make the made-man happy — namely, only God Himself. So when a fallen man seeks happiness in this life (as all men naturally and inexorably do), while denying God's existence, he is guilty of a contradiction that is both self-denying and self-destroying.


Winston McCuen, an unreconstructed South Carolinian, is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Furman University, holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Emory University and is a John C. Calhoun scholar. A former Latin teacher, he also holds multiple welding certifications and is a senior certified metallurgical welding engineer.