I first became acquainted with Paul Helm through a Philosophy elective I took at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I thoroughly enjoyed the course. Helm is stellar academically, a true gentleman in conversation, and a faithful Christian. He is also one of the few Baptists in academia in the UK. Thank you Professor Helm for your grace, your steadfastness, your willingness to invest in Christ’s church, and your unwavering commitment to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints. Also, thank you for participating in this interview.
Paul Helm was educated at Worcester College, Oxford, and was for many years a member of the Philosophy Department of the University of Liverpool. From 1993-2000 he was the Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London. In 2001 he was appointed J.I. Packer Chair of Philosophical Theology at Regent College, Vancouver. He is presently a Teaching Fellow there.
1. Jared Moore: “What is Philosophical Theology?”
Paul Helm: First, thanks very much for your invitation. I’ll do my best to answer your very clear questions. So here goes:
However high our view of Scripture, we all use our own words, those of the culture, in communicating it, preaching and writing, for example. We do this to make our message easier to understand, and also to engage with people at their level. But sometimes the Gospel needs to be distinguished from false teaching. This attempt to engage the culture is inevitable, but it’s also risky. Risky because if we are not careful we surrender the distinctives of the Christian faith to the culture.
Philosophical Theology (rather a grand title!) is the systematic, concentrated study of this relationship. We need to distinguish it from the Philosophy of Religion, which is the study of human religious states and experiences. Why ‘philosophical theology’? Because of the way in which philosophy from time to time has invaded Christian theology, and so requires evaluating, but also because of the way in which philosophy can help in our understanding of theology.
Let us note some examples that are of interest to the philosophical theologian: God is outside space and time; he speaks to us. Jesus is the eternal Logos taking on human nature. The Trinity is one God in three persons.
What do these italicized sentences mean? How do they help our understanding of the faith? Attempting to answer these questions takes us into the territory of the philosophical theologian.
2. Jared Moore: “Is Philosophical Theology important for the church today? Why?”
Paul Helm: It’s important that those who have responsibilities in the church should reflect on what they say, link it to the great Christian tradition of the relationship between church and culture. Otherwise we make mistakes, we unintentionally might talk nonsense. (‘At the Cross, God died’; ‘I prayed so hard, and God changed his mind’.) We need to know what our message means, and also what it does not mean. This requires continuous Bible study and theological reflection, but we also need to reflect on our theology. Theology is not just a game, but a serious business. For all these tasks some understanding of philosophical theology can help.
3. Jared Moore: “Concerning Philosophical Theology, what issues face the church today? What are some potential answers to these issues?”
Paul Helm: As I say, one general danger is that the distinctives of the faith get lost in the culture. Another is the general pragmatic mind-set of the church, concerned not with truth but with what works. And the relativism of the culture, any opinion being regarded as valid as any other. Another is to fudge difficult questions. Yet another one is the tendency we have to think of God’s good news in our terms, what we gain, rather from God’s point of view. I think it’s fair to say that the Christian tradition has, by and large, taken a more God-centred view of things. A jab of philosophical theology will not necessarily inoculate you against these tendencies, but it will sharpen your awareness of them, and of what is implied in calling the Christian faith true.
4. Jared Moore: “Who are some philosophical theologians you would recommend?”
Paul Helm: Well, to begin with I would recommend acquaintance with systematic theology. Systematic theology seeks to link up the various aspects of our faith in a way that is consistent and coherent. Paul writes of the ‘form of sound words’, the ‘faith once delivered’ and so on, and systematic theology aims to display this faith coherently, as a ‘body of divinity’ So it frequently uses (or should use) the tools of the philosophical theologian, logic, clear definition, the implications of one doctrine for another, in doing so.
Of course we have good examples of this already in the New Testament, in Paul’s letters, especially. Think of his discussion of the resurrection and the resurrection body in I Corinthians 15, and of justification in Romans. It is very important that Christian philosophical theology is carried on in submission to Christian theology.
So my first answer is to familiarise yourself with a good systematic theology, such as Charles Hodge, or John Gill, or (to go to the fountain head!) John Calvin’s Institutes, particularly the first three Books. You’ll find some philosophical theology in all these books, enough to whet your appetite, perhaps. It is very important not to forget that the Christian faith was not invented yesterday, or even the day before, but that there is a rich tradition of the faith beginning with the Church Fathers, such as Augustine, the medievals, such as Thomas Aquinas, and the Reformers, especially Reformed Orthodoxy.
5. Jared Moore: “What are some books our readers might find helpful in understanding Philosophical Theology?”
Paul Helm: Some philosophical theology is very philosophical! Having become something of a systematic theologian, an interested reader might look at A Reader in Contemporary Philosophical Theology ed. Oliver Crisp (T & T Clark), which contains extracts from contemporary philosophers on topics such as revelation and scripture, the trinity, incarnation, sin and the atonement. No doubt some of these writers will appeal more than others, and some topics likewise.
Another approach is more historical. If you have never read Augustine’s Confessions then you ought to. It is interesting for many reasons, and contained in it are discussions of God’s immutability, and evil, and God and time, and the Creation. My own Faith and Understanding (Eerdmans) is an approach to philosophical theology with several historical case studies, Augustine, Anselm, Jonathan Edwards.
I hope that the intending philosophical theologian would find something in these sources to interest them, and which they could follow up.
Resources from Professor Paul Helm:
Books: 1. Eternal God: A Study of God without Time, 2. The Providence of God (Contours of Christian Theology), 3. Calvin at the Centre, 4. Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed (Guides For The Perplexed), 5. John Calvin’s Ideas, 6. Faith and Reason (Oxford Readers), 7. Last Things, 8. Callings: The Gospel in the World, 9. Calvin & the Calvinists, 10. Beginnings: Word and Spirit in Conversion, 11. The Secret Providence of God, 12. The Trustworthiness of God: Perspectives on the Nature of Scripture
Free Online Articles: Monergism Links
Thank you again Professor Helm for participating in this interview.