Why God Is Not a Philosopher (and why Bavinck thinks theologians must be)

Discursive reason--our capacity to think things through, infer conclusions, offer logical explanations, and so on--enables us to argue a point, make judgments, criticize beliefs and actions, and, in a word, philosophize. Philosophers work with concepts and trade in arguments. Some who philosophize at least pretend to be professionals; mercifully, most of us do not. Either way, philosophizing, broadly construed, is a very human activity.

We all philosophize because, however quick we may be, we must think things through, learn in order to know, and build up knowledge bit by bit like children creating with Legos. That's not true of God. God knows himself fully and in knowing himself he knows all things possible and actual in a single, eternal, and simple act. He does not think things through to gain new insights or learn over time or build up his knowledge. He knows all things immediately and instantaneously; no one teaches him anything and he never discovers something he did not already know. He does not work with concepts or trade in arguments; God does not philosophize.

Perhaps I should say that differently. God does present us with arguments, invites us to think things over with him, and teaches us correct ways to think and speak about him and his works. But this is an accommodation he makes to our finite capacities. He is not a philosopher but can play the part for our benefit. We are the philosophers and he relates to us accordingly.

That God condescends to reason with us is a wonderful thing. This is what revelation is and it makes knowing God (theology) possible, establishing the necessary starting point for all theological reasoning or philosophizing.

We can only begin to philosophize once we have something to think about, however. Philosophy is ultimately dependent on other sources of knowledge such as divine revelation. For this reason, philosophy should not to be set against the sciences, whether natural, social, or theological. At its best, philosophy is the helpful partner of each of the sciences and the discipline that tries to knit all the others into a single tapestry of organized knowledge. (At its worst, it is something else entirely.)

It is precisely the quest for systematic coherence that transforms a body of knowledge into an organized science. As Herman Bavinck explains in rather strong terms, this is no less true of theology than it is of the other sciences:

Theology first arose in the Christian community after the naiveté of childhood lay behind it and the adult thinking mind had awakened. Gradually a need arose to think through the ideas of revelation, to link it with other knowledge and to defend it against various forms of attack. For this purpose people needed philosophy. Scientific theology was born with its help (RD, I:607).

He continues, defending the early church's use of pagan philosophy:

This did not . . . happen accidentally. The church was not the victim of deception. In the formation and development of the dogmas, the church fathers made generous use of philosophy. They did that, however, in the full awareness of and with clear insight into the dangers connected with that enterprise; they were conscious of the grounds on which they did it, and they did it with express recognition of the word of the apostles as the only rule of faith and conduct (RD, I:607).

Surely the quest for a coherent understanding of biblical teaching for didactic and apologetic purposes is a central concern of Christian ministry. This is, however, an inherently philosophical task even if the resources we employ and the content we develop are entirely theological. It should not surprise us to find at least heuristic help for the work in the field of philosophy, even the philosophizing of unbelievers. More to the point, however, if Bavinck is right then theologians (armchair or professional) must be philosophers in their quest to think God's thoughts after him, as some say.