Apologetics,  Philosophical Theology,  Philosophy of Religion

Delineating Disciplines

What is the difference between Philosophy of Religion, Philosophical Theology and Apologetics? Academicians,  as a part time hobby, attempt to mark out territory. Students, on the other hand, usually don’t care about the boundaries and lump disciplines into one coherent stream. I’m afraid I am of the latter persuasion. Hence, my undergraduate degree was in Philosophical Theology and Apologetics and my graduate studies are in Philosophy of Religion. Through it all, I maintained an apologetic, and ministry, focus. My dual goals were to better root and establish believers in the Christian faith and better communicate the gospel in our culture. 

Okay, so my aims do not sound grandly philosophical and required the twisting of certain topics to my aim (and reliance on the grace of certain professors). However, I do recognize the distinction in the three disciplines. Here is what I think they are: Philosophy of Religion is a branch of philosophy concerned with religion in general. It examines religious experience, epistemology and metaphysics. Philosophical Theology is concerned with the use of philosophical method within the discipline of a particular theology. An apologetic is a defense or explanation a believer gives to an unbeliever for his or her faith (1 Pet 3:15).

There is much overlap between the disciplines as you can see, but, if you are not always fighting to distinguish disciples for academic clarity, then there is no reason why one might not study religious epistemology for Christian apologetic purposes or read the works of apologist, Cornelius Van Til, to gain an understanding of religious epistemology.

I am not alone in thinking some cross disciplinary work is possible. Helen Cruz recently argued that Philosophy of Religion can be an avenue for apologetics and proselytism (read her article here). Cruz notes that the passion for theistic belief is usually accompanied, to some extent, by a passion to publicly defend those beliefs. She writes:

A passion for mathematics, an interest in science, a love of art, can be great motivations to engage in the philosophy of mathematics, science or art, respectively. But philosophers who engage in apologetic/proselytizing PoR clearly go beyond that. They are not only driven by a personal passion, but by a will to effect real-life changes in the world. In particular, I think it is plausible that they want public opinion to be more favorably disposed towards the religious beliefs they are propagating.

Cruz notes that most students of PR are theists and most believe that their beliefs are rational. But this passion is also to propagate those beliefs among others. And, says Cruz, there is nothing about PR that precludes a person with such a passion. I am grateful for Cruz’s remarks. During my studies I have often had to make my own path in a discipline for the sake of an apologetic goal. During my studies on the metaphysics of the mind I was probably supposed to just focus on the problem and come up with a workable solution. However, I worked on the thesis that self consciousness presupposes God-consciousness. I am not sure I succeeded (judge for yourself here), but my aim was toward an apologetic.

Perhaps I could annoy an academic or two by suggesting that we need a few more passionate, proselytising  apologetic-focused Christians in PR classrooms. I think that those who are passionate about their faith and convinced of the truth of scripture would be a great help to those struggling with what they believe. And PR appears to be the default degree for a Christian struggling with doubt. Often, since the Bible is barely touched in a PR class, an apologist can help give, well, an apologetic for the Christian faith. Conversely, passionate people, focused on apologetics, sometimes need to be helped to think clearly about a subject and not merely to be scrounging for apologetic material. The rub can be fruitful.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.

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