Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 26 January 2021


Abstract and Keywords

This introductory article begins with brief descriptions of the states of philosophical theology during the first and latter halves of the twentieth century. The first half of the twentieth century was a dark time for philosophical theology, with sharp divisions developing among philosophers over the proper aims and ambitions for philosophical theorizing and the proper methods for approaching philosophical problems. But there was a great revival of interest in the philosophy of religion in general during the second half, and, in its wake, in philosophical theology in particular. An overview of the five parts of the book is also presented, which covers five general topics: theological prolegomena, divine attributes, God and creation, topics in Christian philosophical theology, and non-Christian philosophical theology.

Keywords: philosophical theology, philosophical theorizing, philosophy of religion, theological prolegomena, divine attributes, God, creation

The first half of the twentieth century was a dark time for philosophical theology. Sharp divisions were developing among philosophers over the proper aims and ambitions for philosophical theorizing and the proper methods for approaching philosophical problems. But many philosophers were united in thinking, for different reasons, that the methods of philosophy are incapable of putting us in touch with theoretically interesting truths about God. To be sure, doubts of this sort never gained a sure foothold in Catholic universities, which maintained the theological focus evident from their founding. But, for a variety of reasons, the scholasticism practiced in these institutions went on in virtual isolation from the philosophical trends dominant at the great secular universities of Europe and America. There, doubt reigned about the possibility of fruitful interaction between philosophy and religion. Since philosophical theology (as we understand it) is aimed primarily at theoretical understanding of the nature and attributes of God, and God's relationship to the world and things in the world, the prevailing skepticism about our ability to learn about God through philosophical reasoning left philosophical theology on the wane.

A bit of history is needed to understand the genesis of this skepticism. It is common now to see the field of academic philosophy as divided broadly into two camps—‘analytic’ and ‘Continental’—and to locate the origins of the division somewhere in the first half of the twentieth century. The two camps elude precise definition and cannot plausibly be seen as encompassing all philosophical work. Furthermore, it is misleading at best to treat them either as wholly discrete from one (p. 2) another or as anything more than very loosely unified within themselves. Still, at the risk of dramatically oversimplifying, we offer the following characterizations. The analytic tradition has, by and large, treated philosophy as an explanatory enterprise aimed at analyzing fundamental concepts (‘person’, ‘action’, ‘law’, etc.), and at using this analytic method to clarify and extend the theoretical work being done in the natural sciences. The Continental tradition, on the other hand, has viewed philosophy as an autonomous discipline aimed, more or less, at exploring and promoting our understanding of the human condition in creative and decidedly non-scientific (and not even mostly explanatory-theoretical) ways.

As the division between the two camps was developing, the aboriginal figures of the analytic tradition leaned strongly in an empiricist direction. By and large, they thought, in the words of Wilfrid Sellars, that ‘science is the measure of all things: of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.’1 Indeed, the logical empiricists—figures such as Otto Neurath, Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, and, a bit later, A. J. Ayer—went so far as to say that statements that do not admit of empirical verification (i.e. statements where no observations would be sufficient to determine their truth or falsity) are entirely meaningless. Carnap likened metaphysicians to ‘musicians without musical ability’:2 not only are the noises they produce utterly devoid of propositional content, but the noises don't even manage to sound beautiful. Thus, since philosophical theology is a mostly non-empirical enterprise, the heyday of logical empiricism found philosophical theologians beating a hasty retreat.3 Moreover, even those in the analytic tradition who were unwilling to endorse anything resembling a verifiability criterion of meaning were nevertheless very suspicious of anything that looked like theory-building that wasn't somehow grounded in the natural sciences. In short, the analytic tradition generally proved to be an inhospitable climate for religious theorizing.4

Matters were not much better on the Continental side either. Among Continental philosophers, at least two strains of thought tended to choke out philosophical theology. Some were so gripped by the transcendence of God that they came to think that God was beyond all human categories, even Being itself. In the eyes of these thinkers, the project of trying to arrive at theoretical understanding of God is just hopeless. Indeed, more than hopeless—it might even be idolatrous, since what we would inevitably end up talking about in trying to discuss God in terms of human concepts would be a ‘simulacrum’ of human creation rather than God himself.5 On a closely related note, some were gripped more by human limitations, and came to despair of the possibility of arriving via philosophical methods at general, universally valid theoretical understanding of anything at all. The idea, roughly, was that our belief systems are so inevitably tied to our own very limited perspectives—perspectives conditioned by our biological make-up, our sociopolitical circumstances, our own particular experiences in life, and the like—that it is ridiculous (at best) to think that we might ever attain to any kind of undistorted ‘absolute’ knowledge or understanding that would be valid for all rational creatures from all points of view for all of eternity.6 Given the prevalence of (p. 3) both these strands of thought throughout the Continental tradition, it is no surprise that philosophical theology did not flourish there either.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, however, there was a great revival of interest in the philosophy of religion in general and, in its wake, in philosophical theology in particular. It is common to locate the origin of this revival in the publication of Alasdair Maclntyre and Anthony Flew's landmark anthology, New Essays in Philosophical Theology.7 In that volume, the main issues on the table were concerns about the meaningfulness of religious discourse and questions about the rationality of religious belief. In other words, the volume was oriented mainly toward objections to religious belief and discourse arising primarily out of the analytic tradition. These topics constituted a large proportion of the agenda for subsequent work in philosophy of religion for the next two or three decades.

In a recent essay, Nicholas Wolterstorff has argued persuasively that the revival just described was made possible within the analytic tradition by three major developments.8 First, there was the death of logical empiricism during the 1960s. Logical empiricism was responsible for much of the anti-metaphysical bias within the analytic tradition. Thus, with the death of logical empiricism came a revival of interest in metaphysics more generally, and a corresponding openness to the theoretical investigation of religious topics.9

Moreover, according to Wolterstorff, the demise of logical empiricism also brought about a loss of interest in general questions about the origins of our concepts and the limits of human thought and judgement. This was the second major development. Whereas the Continental tradition remained (like the modern period through Kant, and like the logical empiricists) rather preoccupied with the idea that human limitations might entirely close off certain avenues of inquiry or render impossible meaningful thought or discourse about certain kinds of topics, the analytic tradition seems to have left such concerns behind, thereby opening the door even wider to all sorts of metaphysical inquiry, theological and otherwise.

Finally, the third development was the flowering of meta-epistemology—explicit reflection on and evaluation of alternative theories of knowledge. One of the main developments within meta-epistemology was the rejection of classical foundationalism (the view, roughly, that a belief is justified only if it is indubitable, incorrigible, evident to the senses, or deducible from beliefs that are indubitable, incorrigible, or evident to the senses). Classical foundationalism was an epistemological theory that many modern philosophers implicitly took for granted; and it has been shown to lie at the heart of objections against the rationality of religious belief leveled by a variety of thinkers, including Hume, Freud, Marx, W. K. Clifford, and others. The collapse of classical foundationalism made room for the flourishing of alternative epistemological theories, including some that were much more friendly to the idea that religious belief might be perfectly rational.10

In sum, then, the analytic tradition seems to have moved beyond several important biases that placed obstacles in the way of the growth of philosophical (p. 4) theology. As Wolterstorff notes, however, the same sort of thing has not happened within the Continental tradition. Thus, though there has surely been some measure of philosophical theology done within that tradition, the field of philosophical theology has been dominated by figures writing within the analytic tradition. This fact goes a long way toward explaining why the present volume is oriented in that direction as well.

We said earlier that the agenda set for philosophers of religion for a couple of decades placed heavy emphasis on discussion of the epistemology of religious belief and the meaningfulness of religious discourse. There was also quite a bit of discussion of the divine attributes (omnipotence, omniscience, perfect goodness, and the like), of traditional arguments for the existence of God, and of the most widely discussed argument against the existence of God—namely, the problem of evil. Over the past twenty years, however, philosophers of religion have begun to focus more of their attention on theological doctrines apart from those concerning the nature, rationality, and meaningfulness of theistic belief. Thus, for example, a great deal of attention has been devoted recently to philosophical problems arising out of the Christian doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement; there has been an explosion of work on questions about the nature of divine providence and its implications for human freedom; and a fair bit of recent work has also been done on questions about the metaphysical possibility of the resurrection of the dead. Other topics are still ripe for discussion. For example, there is a (relatively) very small literature on the topic of divine revelation and the inspiration of Scripture, only a handful of works on the topics of prayer, original sin, and the nature of heaven and hell, and virtually nothing on the Christian doctrine of the Eucharist.

In the present handbook we have tried to provide articles covering most of the above topics. However, we have tried to avoid covering topics that have already been discussed in the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion. The most notable exceptions are in Parts II and III where we include chapters on omniscience, omnipotence, moral perfection, and the problem of evil. We include these topics for two reasons. First, we believe that readers of a handbook in philosophical theology would quite naturally expect to see these sorts of issues covered. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we believe that each of these topics deserves more extended and detailed treatment than it could sensibly have received in a more general philosophy of religion handbook. To take just one example: there is a vast literature on the problem of evil; but the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion devotes (sensibly) only one chapter to that issue. For our more narrow purposes here, however, we have seen fit to include distinct chapters on (a) the different versions and instances of the problem of evil (e.g. the logical problem, the evidential problem, the problem of divine hiddenness, and perhaps others), (b) the so-called ‘skeptical theist’ strategy for responding to the problem of evil, and (c) questions about the prospects for ‘theodicy’ (i.e. a response to the problem of evil that offers a complete story about why God in fact permits evil). Similar reasoning explains (p. 5) our decisions to include the few other topics in this handbook that have already received coverage in the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion.

The chapters that follow are divided into five parts covering five general topics:

  1. I. Theological Prolegomena

  2. II. Divine Attributes

  3. III. God and Creation

  4. IV. Topics in Christian Philosophical Theology

  5. V. Non-Christian Philosophical Theology

The chapters in the first part treat questions about the authority of scripture, tradition, and the church; the nature and mechanisms of divine revelation; and the nature of theology. We also include a chapter on theology and mystery, a topic that we think has not yet received its due in the analytic tradition.

Chapters in the second part focus on philosophical problems connected with the central divine attributes: aseity, omnipotence, omniscience, and the like. These have traditionally been among the most widely discussed topics in philosophical theology.

In the third part, we take up questions about God's relationship to creation. The chapters in this part explore theories of divine action and divine providence; questions about the purpose and efficacy of petitionary prayer; problems about divine authority and God's relationship to morality and moral standards; and, finally, various formulations of and responses to the problem of evil.

In the fourth part, we turn to topics in specifically Christian philosophy. In recent years there has been a surge of interest in philosophical problems that arise in connection with the Christian doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, original sin, and resurrection. Other topics, the doctrine of Christ's real presence in the Eucharist, or the nature of heaven, are ripe for exploration but have not, as yet, received their due. Part IV provides coverage of all these issues.

Finally, in the fifth part, we have included three chapters on non-Christian philosophical theology—Jewish, Islamic, and Confucian. The vast majority of philosophers (in the English-speaking world, anyway) devoting their attention to philosophical theology tend to focus either on distinctively Christian doctrines or on topics that are common to all the theistic traditions. Thus, relatively few pay much, if any, attention to topics in philosophical theology that fall squarely outside the Christian tradition. Since the target audience of our handbook comprises English-speaking philosophers of religion mostly in the analytic tradition, it is appropriate that our handbook emphasize, as it does, topics that have occupied and will probably continue to occupy center stage in the major journals in the philosophy of religion. But we believe that it is both important and valuable more widely to expose precisely that group of philosophers to the work that is being done in philosophical theology outside the Christian tradition. Providing such exposure is the goal of our fifth part.11


(1.) Wilfrid Sellars, ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’, in his Science, Perception, and Reality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul), 127–96, at 173.

(2.) From ‘The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language’, English translation in S. Sarkar (ed.), Logical Empiricism at its Peak: Schick, Carnap, and Neurath (London: Routledge, 1996), 30.

(3.) We say only ‘mostly’ for two reasons. First, not everything that would count as philosophical theology is non-empirical. G. K. Chesterton famously remarked that the doctrine of original sin is the one doctrine of Christianity that admits of direct empirical verification. Or, more seriously, consider e.g. Richard Swinburne's defense of belief in the resurrection of Jesus in The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). Second, because even outside the aforementioned Catholic institutions, a number of scholars kept alive (though more in the popular than in the academic realm) the great perennial questions in philosophical theology, C. S. Lewis being the most prominent example.

(4.) Fuller versions of the brief account we have given here of the relationship between philosophical theology and analytic philosophy in the mid-twentieth century and before can be found in Alvin Plantinga's ‘Advice to Christian Philosophers’, Faith and Philosophy 1 (1984): 253–71 and, more recently, Nicholas Wolterstorff's ‘How Philosophical Theology became Possible within the Analytic Tradition of Philosophy’, in Oliver D. Crisp and Michael Rea (eds.), Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

(5.) Heidegger is one locus of such thinking; though here, we are effectively reading Heidegger through the eyes of such contemporary philosophers as Merold Westphal and Jean-Luc Marion. See e.g. Westphal's ‘Appropriating Post-Modernism’, ARC, The Journal of the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University 25 (1997): 73–84, and ‘Overcoming Onto-theology’, in J. D. Caputo and M. J. Scanlon (eds.), God, The Gift, and Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 146–69, both reprinted in Westphal, Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001), and Marion's God Without Being, trans. Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); ‘Metaphysics and Phenomenology: A Relief for Theology’, trans. Thomas A. Carlson, Critical Inquiry 20 (1994): 572–59; and ‘The Idea of God’, in D. Garber and M. Ayers (eds.), The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), i. 265–304. This strand of thinking has also influenced twentieth-century systematic theology (which, historically, has significantly overlapped what we are calling philosophical theology). See e.g. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), i., esp. 235 ff.

(6.) For fuller articulation and development of this line of thinking, see K. J. Vanhoozer (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), M. Westphal, ‘Taking Plantinga Seriously: Advice to Christian Philosophers’, Faith and Philosophy 16/2 (1999); ‘Appropriating Postmodernism’; and ‘Father Abraham and his Feuding Sons’, in Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001). A very useful collection of relevant primary sources is L. E. Cahoone (ed.), From Modernism to Postmodernism, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003).

(7.) London: SCM, 1955. Again, cf. Plantinga, ‘Advice to Christian Philosophers’.

(8.) ‘How Philosophical Theology Became Possible within the Analytic Tradition of Philosophy’.

(9.) For a discussion of this revival, see the Introduction to Michael J. Loux and Dean W. Zimmerman (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

(10.) Notoriously, postmodern philosophers have drawn very different lessons from the collapse of classical foundationalism. On this, see e.g. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1979), or, more recently and with specifically theological applications, Vanhoozer (ed.), Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, and Stanley Grenz and John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2001).

(11.) The editors would like to thank Claire Brown for her excellent work on the index to this volume. Her endeavours were supported by a grant from the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, College of Arts and Letters, University of Notre Dame.