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Christian philosophy is a term to describe the fusion of various fields of philosophy with the theological doctrines of Christianity.


Reconciling Christianity with philosophy

As with any fusion of religion and philosophy, the attempt to reconcile Christianity with certain philosophies is difficult. Classical philosophers start with no preconditions for which conclusions they must reach in their investigation. Classical religious believers have a set of religious principles of faith that they hold one must believe. Because of these divergent goals and views, some hold that one cannot simultaneously be a philosopher and a true adherent of a revealed religion. In this view, all attempts at synthesis ultimately fail.

Others hold that a synthesis between the two is possible. One way to find a synthesis is to use philosophical arguments to prove that one's preset religious principles are true. This is known as apologetics and is a common technique found in the writings of many religious traditions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Another way to find a synthesis is to abstain from holding as true any religious principles of one's faith at all, unless one independently comes to those conclusions from a philosophical analysis. However, this is not generally accepted as being faithful to one's religion by adherents of that religion. A third, rarer and more difficult path is to apply analytical philosophy to one's own religion; In this case a religious person would also be a philosopher.

The above outlines how some Christian philosophies conceive their task. Others do not conceive the task of Christian philosophy in this way. For instance, some think that proving the existence of God is a meaningless endeavor since God's existence is not put in question by Christian faith, but assumed. A Christian philosophy which does not seek to prove the existence of God, but assumes it as an ultimate out of which it forms its specific logic and interest, is more apt to address a far different set of tasks in order to reflect on the God-provided creation structures of existence in their diachronic processes of change over time. For such Christian philosophies, most of the questions above belong instead to theology (if legitimate at all), whether the subdivision of theology involved is philosophical theology or apologetics. Neither of these are disciplines of philosophy proper, even though they may borrow methods from outside theology as such. Those Christian philosophies that prioritize creaturely existence with its God-lawed modalities and societal spheres for daily life, do not accept the idea of separate fields "religion" vs "philosophy" that then must be "reconciled." On this alternative view of the Christian philosophical task, philosophy is just one activity among many in a differentiated society, an activity that is entirely appropriate to creaturely human existence, and it may be pursued directly out of the depth of the Christian religion without the mediation of some extraneous reference. All religions, including the atheisms, have ultimate values and therefore a religious depth-dimension of their own. The problem of philosophy arises for them as something other than a task given by God in Christ to humanity, and so theirs is the problem of reconciling their activity as a deontological imperative insofar as they deny that philosophy is inherent in the creational ensemble as one task-activity among the many given by God.

Interaction between Christian and non-Christian philosophers

There has been considerable interaction between Christian philosophy, Jewish philosophy and Islamic philosophy. Many Christian philosophers are well read in the works of their Jewish and Islamic counterparts, and arguments developed in one faith often make their way into the arguments of another faith. For example, Christian philosopher William Lane Craig is a popular proponent of the Islamic Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God.

Some modern day Islamic philosophers explore issues in common with modern Catholic philosophers. Reformational philosophy dialogues across acknowledged differences with many other approaches to philosophizing—with Christian synthetist views of many kinds, also with some Jewish schools of philosophical thought, as well as some secular philosophies such as Neo-Marxism along with other atheist philosophical schools; whereas the dialogue with Islamic philosophies is just beginning.

It's important to note there is not one single philosophy embraced by all philosophers in any of the great religious traditions, not all are dialogical, and atheist-humanist schools are as much in conflict among themselves as are Christian and other self-acknowledged religious schools of philosophizing.

Origins of Christian philosophy

In the case of Reformational philosophy the law-idea of Creation in relation to Fall and Redemption clarifies the understanding of the exceptional role of Jesus the Christ in Creation through the law-modalities that set the conditions of existence for all creatures. There is no record of any writing by Jesus, nor of any systematic philosophy or theology in the formal sense. Several accounts of his life and many of his teachings are recorded in the New Testament, and form the basis for some Christian philosophies.

  • St. Paul: Saul of Tarsus was a Jew who persecuted the early Christian church and who helped to facilitate the martyrdom of St Stephen, a Greek-speaking Jewish-Christian. Saul underwent a dramatic conversion. He became a Christian leader who wrote a number of epistles, or letters, to early churches, in which he taught doctrine and theology. In some ways he functioned in the manner of the popular marketplace philosophers of his day (Cynics, Skeptics, and some Stoics). A number of his speeches and debates with Greek philosophers are recorded in the Biblical book of Acts. His letters became a significant source for later Christian philosophies. See also Paul of Tarsus and Judaism.

Hellenistic Christian philosophers

Hellenism is the traditional designation for the Greek culture of the Roman Empire in the days of Jesus, Paul, and for centuries after. Classical philosophies of the Greeks had already expired and diluted beyond recognition except for small bands of continuators of the traditions of the Pythagoreans, of Plato, and Aristotle (whose library was lost for centuries). The new philosophies of the Hellenistic world were those of the Cynics, Skeptics, and increasingly the Stoics; it's these thinkers and ranters who bring us into the world of Hellenistic philosophy. Slowly, a more integral and rounded tendency emerged within Hellenism, but also in certain respects in opposition at times to it in regard to one philosophical problem or another, or an ensemble of problems. Here are some of those thinkers most closely associated with Hellenistic Christian philosophies, listed more or less in chronological order:

  • Tertullian: Tertullian was a philosopher before he converted to Christ; after that change of direction he remained a prolific writer in the second century A.D., and is commonly called the "Father of the Western Church." He developed the doctrine of traducianism, or the idea that the soul was inherited from the parents, the idea that God had corporeal (although not fleshly) existence, and the doctrine of the authority of the gospels. He fought voraciously against Marcionism, and considered Greek philosophy to be incompatible with Christian wisdom. Toward the end of his life, he joined the heterodox sect of Montanism, and thus has not been canonized by the Catholic Church.
  • Irenaeus of Lyons: Irenaeus is best known for his writings arguing for the unity of God, and against Gnosticism. He argued that original sin is latent in humanity, and that it was by Jesus' incarnation as a man that he "undid" the original sin of Adam, thus sanctifying life for all mankind. Irenaeus maintained the view that Christ is the Teacher of the human race through whom wisdom would be made accessible to all.
  • Clement of Alexandria
  • Origen: Origen was influential in integrating elements of Platonism into Christianity. He incorporated Platonic idealism into his conceptions of the Logos, and the two churches, one ideal and one real. He also held a strongly Platonic view of God, describing him as the perfect, incorporeal ideal. He was later declared a heretic for subscribing to the "too Platonistic" doctrine of the preexistence of the soul.
  • Augustine of Hippo: Augustine developed classical Christian philosophy, and the whole of Western thought, largely by synthesizing Hebrew and Greek thought. He drew particularly from Plato, the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, and Stoicism, which he altered and refined in light of divine revelation of Christian teaching and the Scriptures. Augustine wrote extensively on many religious and philosophical topics; he employed an allegorical method of reading the Bible, further developed the doctrine of hell as endless punishment, original sin as inherited guilt, divine grace as the necessary remedy for original sin, baptismal regeneration and consequently infant baptism, inner experience and the concept of "self," the moral necessity of human free will, and individual election to salvation by eternal predestination. He was a key influence in the development of Western Catholic theology as well as Protestant Reformed theology, particularly that of French theologian, John Calvin.
  • St. Athanasius of Alexandria: father of trinitarian orthodoxy involved in the formation of the Nicene Creed, who vehemently opposed Arius, the unitarian bishop of Alexandria, and his following.
  • St. John Chrysostom
  • The Cappadocian Fathers: Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Basil the Great.

Medieval Christian philosophers

  • Anselm of Canterbury: Anselm is best known for the Ontological Argument for God's existence, i.e.: God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. But to exist is greater than not to exist. If God does not exist then he wouldn't be "that than which nothing greater can be conceived." Therefore, God exists. Anselm was one of the first western thinkers to directly engage the reintroduction of Aristotle to the West. However, he didn't have all of Aristotle's works and those he had access to were from the Arabic translations.
  • Thomas Aquinas: Aquinas was the student of Albert the Great, a brilliant Dominican experimentalist, much like the Franciscan, Roger Bacon of Oxford in the 13th century. Aquinas reintroduced Aristotelian philosophy to Christianity. He believed that there was no contradiction between faith and secular reason. He believed that Aristotle had achieved the pinnacle in the human striving for truth and thus adopted Aristotle's philosophy as a framework in constructing his theological and philosophical outlook. He was a professor at the prestigious University of Paris. Thomas Aquinas was a contemporary of St Bonaventure, a Franciscan Professor at the University of Paris whose approach differed significantly from Aquinas'.
  • John Duns Scotus: John Duns Scotus is known as the "subtle doctor" whose hair-splitting distinctions were important contributions in scholastic thought and the modern development of logic. Scotus was also a Professor at the University of Paris, but not at the same time as Aquinas. Along with Aquinas, he is one of the two giants of Scholastic philosophy which led to:
  • William of Ockham

Renaissance and Reformation Christian philosophers

  • Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536, originally of Rotterdam, Netherlands) was not a philosopher strictly speaking. Indeed, he wrote excoriatingly about the whole span of them. He consolidated the space of "Humanist" in the late Medieval scholarship of letters, and came to represent the acme of such writing and scholarship up to his time. Thus, it's better to say he was a leader of the development of the humanities, which became a full-fledged department of European scholarly activities. As such he bent his studies to profound recovery and exegesis of the Hebrew Bible's ancient language/s and began building the first critical text, as well as of the Greek sources upon which the New Testament became also a formal scholarly text. He wrote astutely about a number of vital issues relevant to the squalor of the Church and its ignorance. He spent six years in an Augustinian monastery; he was a joyful satirist; and became most famous for his book The Praise of Folly.
  • Martin Luther (1483-1546, Augustinian monk, later of Wittenburg) -- nor was Martin Luther a philosopher, altho he knew something of Occam and his Razor ("I'm of Ockham's school" of nominalist epistemology), from an earlier era of European thawt. He also had studied some philosophical materials of Saint Augustine, and did not follow Saint Thomas with whom the Church had largely displaced Augustine. More importantly, Luther followed Erasmus in developing a critical text of the Biblical manuscripts. He deserves the career-appellation of "Humanist" just as much as his mentor (who broke with Luther over the project of the Reformation, choosing to remain Catholic, but only succeeded in becoming Roman Catholic with the majority of the church). Luther went a step beyond Erasmus in actually translating the entire Christian Bible into the vernacular of his time and location, for the people. His next step was to encourage universal literacy in the Lutheran kingdoms. Luther's German Bible had a tremendous impact on the development of the German language and its literature.
  • John Calvin (1509-1564, the year William Shakespeare is said to have been born; Paris, Strasbourg, Geneva). Le pasteur grise was not a philosopher; he was a dogmatician (systematic theology) as exhibited in his Institutes (several original editions were published before his death), and an exegete who over time translated all the Bible from the "original languages" in the form of his grand series of Commentaries on all but one of its Books (the Book of Revelation which provided a problem to him in its metaphory, not yielding robustly to his formula of letter and spirit (for Calvin this phrase was a logical binomial: either literal, or figurative). He courageously tried to avoid allegorizing, which had had, of course, a long history ever since the Jew of Alexandria, Philo, had interpreted "The Book of Moses" (Pentateuch) in much of an allegorical fashion that de-literalized and over-metaphorized (into symbolic systems) many passages of the ancient manuscripts of the Bible (now and developingly a critical text itself). Calvin tried to distance himself from the allegorical method that had played such a strong role across the whole history of Christian interpretation of the Bible, attempted distance certainly from the method's primacy, while constantly having to face in the Gospel's "the parabolic message of the Cross" (Leon Morris, etc). Certainly, Jean Cauvin was one of the most celebrated Reformers, even 500 years later (2009). But, again, Calvin was no philosopher. Nevertheless, he did have a unique impact on the quest for a Protestant philosophy (see Jacob Klapwijk, "John Calvin" in the volume he edited with Griffioen and Groenewoud, Bringing into Captivity Every Thought (Eng trans 1991; pp 241-266). The considerations set forth by Klapwijk establish a non-philosopher's quest for and impact upon later philosophy, of a kind the Roman Cathlic Church and its antecedants had suppressed. Cauvin's was perhaps a proto-philosophy that had to survive Roman Catholic philosophy, Protestant reversionist philosophy to Scholasticism, and the Enl+tenment's attempt to drown out the emergence of all particularist philosophies that openly presuppose some religious stance . This has since proven to be faux-universalism of the Kantian kind. And despite Richard Rorty's recidivism, a new day has dawned in philosophy. Among other matters, Cauvin's seed begat a Protestant philosophy 450 years after he planted. It is alive and well.
  • Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531, Zurich), likewise, was no philosopher, but was indeed a leading Reformer who was influenced by a party in his church congregation to most-radically de-metaphorize the understanding of the Lord's Supper into a memorial only (no real presence, and no communion of saints, therefore no eschatological community of saints composed of the believers at the Communion Table).

Of course, it is possible for a trained philosopher with much historical acumen to go thru the works of all these scholars to pick out scraps of philosophical quotes and scribbles; but this does not make the authorities thus cited into philosophers. In most cases, the writers are referencing something in some philosopher somewhere before them, but they are adding nothing creative to the ongoing problem-historical shape of Western philosophical knowledge.

Two later Dutch Protestants are mistakenly put in the foregoing philosophical "era" by some historically ignorant contributor to this page. Neither belong to this era. One was a stock-market speculator on ships' voyages to the Dutch West Indies, and led in the disruption of the Reformed Church of the Netherlands over an inflated and misformulated Protestant Neo-Scholastic theory of "free will" that produced as its counterpoint the reactionary Canons of Dordt (Arminius became part of the sect called "the Remonstrants"). The other belonged ruffly and belatedly to the same school but remained nominally Reformed, while producing a great body of scholarship on International Law, his writings ironically becoming influential in the predestinarian Scholastic circles of Scotland. But these were neither Reformers nor philosophers.

There's a tremendous diachronic difference in the last of the dates above (Calvin, really Jean Cauvin, died in 1564), and the first of the dates below (Arminius, whose real name was Jacob Harmenszoon, born 1560, only four years before Cauvin's death). This amount of chronicle time can constitute a huge differential in philosophical historiography. What historians of philosophy must deal with is a Post-Reformation philosophical development among Protestant thinkers of, strictly speaking, what is not Reformational philosophy but Protestant Scholasticism gerrymandered from various locii and authorities of the Western Middle Ages. It begins already with Luther's colleague, Philip Melancthon who blatantly turned from Luther's sola Scriptura to Aristotle > Aquinas > "Lutheran" philosophical theology; but Protestant Scholasticism's Reformed variants are much more variant among one another. And there were no real alternatives until Herman Dooyeweerd and D T Th Vollenhoven in the last century critiqued the Scholastic concept of "substance" and the Scholastic problem of "the physical" vs "the spiritual." In short the series on the epochs of Western philosophy, needs to cut the false tie-in of Renaissance with that of Reformation. And Erasmus can be treated as the pivotal figure of transition between the two epochs. Unfortunately, the state of the art on these topics has not yet been translated into English, altho a critical text has been produced in Dutch by K.A. Bril and P.J. Boonstra: D.H.Th. Vollenhoven, Schematische Kaarten (De Zaak Haes, Amstelveen; isbn 90-805180-2-6).

  • Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609, the Netherlands). A preacher, theologian, and church court operative.
  • Hugo Grotius (1583-1645, the Netherlands). It coud be said of Grotius that he somewhat philosophized a discipline. But there's a world of difference in the West between philosophy and the philosophy of a discipline, which latter may have a certain purity of philosophical presupposition and yet not itself constitute a philosophy as such. His early work on the law of the seas was outdistanced by On the law of war and peace (1625).

Even more serious a problem in this history of philosophy section, erroneously entitled "Renaissance and Reformation Christian Philosophy" is the lumping together of the Renaissance with the Reformation. This lumpen-historiography of philosophy has no place in the historical evaluation of Western philosophy's periods, continuities, discontinuities, re-emergences, twists, turns, and recurring problems traceable to a finite original number (Vollenhoven, Wolters), that arguably have simply exfloriated over the centuries. There were many Renaissance thinkers of importance, some definitely philosophers, who are not mentioned at all by previous contributors to this page. Absolutely inexcusable. So, the erroneous heading itself obscures epochal differences (Vollenhoven), while at the same time Desiderius Erasmus Roteradamus is never branched off from the Renaissance thawt to his own lone stance of textual critique and satire of church, state, and ranks of society; but it was he, if any one person, who moderated between the two conflated zeitgeists, and synchronic but alternative types of Christian philosophy. Yet was himself no philosopher.

Modern and Contemporary Christian philosophers

An alphabetical listing:

  • Karl Barth: A Swiss theologian, he wrote the massive Church Dogmatics (German, Kirchliche Dogmatik)—unfinished at about six million words by his death in 1968. Barth emphasized the distinction between human thought and divine reality, and that while humans may attempt to understand the divine, our concepts of the divine are never precisely aligned from the divine reality itself, although God reveals his reality in part through human language and culture. Barth strenuously disavowed being a philosopher; he considered himself a dogmatician of the Church and a preacher.
  • Joseph Butler
  • John D. Caputo: American Catholic deconstructionist theologian.
  • G. K. Chesterton: A British Catholic author, he applied Christian thought in the form of non-fiction, fiction, and poems addressing a variety of theological, moral, political, and economic issues, particularly the importance of seeking truth, distributism, and opposition to eugenics.
  • Gordon Clark: American Calvinist philosopher and defender of Platonic realism. He developed one variety of philosophical apologetics known as presuppositional apologetics.
  • William Lane Craig
  • Herman Dooyeweerd, who wrote the monumental trilogy, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought
  • Mary Baker Eddy: Author of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Eddy's "Christian Science" teaching is described in the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy as a renewal of ancient Oriental panpsychism, the most radical form of philosophical idealism.
  • Jacques Ellul
  • John Frame: American Calvinist philosopher in epistemology and ethics
  • Etienne Gilson, who wrote The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, The Spirit of Thomism, Being and Some Philosophers, and many other works. In the field of Thomism he is considered one of the main figures credited with starting the movement within Thomism known as Existential Thomism, which emphasis the primacy of the act of Being (Esse) in understanding everything else that is.
  • Luigi Giussani, an Italian priest of 1922-2005, who wrote the Why the Church?
  • Francis Hutcheson
  • Immanuel Kant
  • Søren Kierkegaard, the father of existentialist philosophy and particularly the school of Christian existentialism.
  • Peter Kreeft, at Boston College
  • C. S. Lewis, a literary critic of the first order, a mythographer in his children's fantasies, and an apologist for the Christian faith to which he adhered in the latter half of his life. He claimed not to be a philosopher, but his apologetics are foundational to the formation of a Christian worldview for many modern readers.
  • Knud Ejler Løgstrup
  • Bernard Lonergan: He was a Canadian Jesuit. Lonergan Institute is a center specializing in his works.
  • Gabriel Marcel
  • Jacques Maritain
  • John Henry Newman
  • Pope John Paul II, who wrote Fides et Ratio
  • Josef Pieper, a German Roman Catholic philosopher orientated particularly on Plato and Thomas Aquinas
  • Alvin Plantinga. one of the key figures in the movement of Reformed Epistemology, which synthesizes Analytical Philosophy and Christian philosophical concerns. He teaches at Notre Dame University.
  • Egbert Schuurman, the leading philosopher of technology who actively espouses a Christian philosophical approach
  • Melville Y. Stewart, editor, author of books in philosophy of religion, and a Series on Science and Religion 科学与宗教 (5-volume Series in Chinese, and 2-volume Series in English). Visiting Philosopher at various universities in China.
  • Paul Tillich Rather than beginning his philosophical work with questions of God or gods, Tillich began with a "phenomenology of the Holy." His basic thesis is that religion is Ultimate Concern. What a person is Ultimately Concerned with in regard to their Ultimate meaning and being can be understood as religion because, "There is nobody to whom nothing is sacred because no one can rid themselves of their humanity no matter how desperately they may try" (Young-Ho Chun, Tillich and Religion, 1998, pg. 14.
  • Richard Swinburne
  • Peter van Inwagen, who is one of the leading figures in contemporary philosophy of religion
  • Cornelius Van Til: Dutch-American philosopher, who contributed especially in epistemology and developed one variety of philosophical apologetics known as presuppositional apologetics.
  • D. H. Th. Vollenhoven: Vollenhoven's Calvinism and the Reformation of Philosophy (Dutch, 1933) launched a philosophical movement that, after the massive re-inforcing effect of his brother-in-law Herman Dooyeweerd's first trilogy, Philosophy of the Law-Idea (1935-36), led to the formation of the Association for Calvinist Philosophy in 1936. For decades, Vollenhoven served as president of the aforementioned association, which has become the Association for Reformational Philosophy / Vereniging voor Reformatorische Wijsbegeerte (VRW), still based in the Netherlands but with ever-enlarging interest in the rest of the world. It can be debated whether Vollenhoven's, his colleague Herman Dooyeweerd's, and many among the subsequent generations of philosophers in the Reformational philosophy movement are best described as "modern" or "postmodern," since they anticipated numerous themes that resurfaced in postmodernism, yet remain steadfastly and would-be distinctively Christian and non-Roman.
  • Ravi Zacharias: He is one of the more prolific Christian apologists, with many years on record. He is currently the president of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, an apologetic evangelistic ministry that reaches out mainly to intellectuals and university students. His method is mildly presuppositional, his style conversational.
  • Dallas Willard: Notable Christian philosopher at the University of Southern California. Willard has written extensively in philosophy but also in practical Christian theology with an emphasis in Christian spiritual formation.

See also


  • Baird, Forrest E.; Walter Kaufmann (2008). From Plato to Derrida. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-158591-6.  

External links



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