Review of Winfried Corduan’s Handmaid to Theology: An Essay in Philosophical Prolegomena

by John M. Frame


[This review appeared originally inWestminster Theological Journal 45:2 (Fall, 1983), 441-448. Used by Permission.]


Winfried Corduan: Handmaid to Theology: An Essay in Philosophical Prolegomena. Foreword by Norman L. Geisler. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981. 184. $7.95.


In my review of Biblical Errancy, edited by Norman Geisler, I noted a recent renascence of interest in philosophy in fundamentalist circles. Geisler’s writings and Biblical Errancy are examples of this trend, and now alongside these we have Corduan’s book, subtitled An Essay in Philosophical Prolegomena. Corduan holds the Ph.D. from Rice University, is associate professor of philosophy and religion atTaylor University. He is one of the essayists in Biblical Errancy (he wrote the piece on Hegel), and he has published in the Harvard Theological Review and the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Like Geisler, to whom he expresses particular indebtedness (p. 12), Corduan is evangelical in theology, Thomist in philosophy. (I realize of course the difficulty in trying to separate philosophy from theology in such a neat way; that, indeed, is one of the problems in the book. Still, I think this simplification represents accurately Corduan’s intention.)

Corduan seems a bit embarrassed about exhibiting his Thomism to an evangelical readership so explicitly. Both he (pp. 10f, 53f) and Geisler in the preface (p. 7) remind us that his regard for Thomas Aquinas is not uncritical, and he urges us not to dismiss the book “simply because of the general category into which it falls rather than because of the specific points it makes” (p. 11). Such a request, of course, ought to be respected. Still, when an author defends Thomistic positions on the human soul (pp. 44ff), the faith-reason relation (pp. 72ff), analogy (pp. 109ff), God’s existence and attributes (pp. 113ff), God as “pure act” (pp. 143ff), the incarnation and trinity (pp. 153ff), it is a bit difficult to avoid writing him off as “just another Thomist.” The only criticism of Thomas I could find in the book was to the effect that his view of human depravity was inadequate (p. 174), a significant point, to be sure, but not enough (in comparison with all the other points) to remove our suspicions that Corduan is a party-liner. Karl Rahner, himself influenced profoundly by Aquinas albeit with a modern slant, is the only other figure acknowledged as contributing in a major way to the argument, and his only contribution is the concept of potentia obedientialis. All of this leaves the reader rather doubtful about Geisler’s reference to the book’s “pacesetting insights” (p. 8). Indeed, the book, so far as I can see, does not even contain any significant new interpretations of Thomas, new clarifications or defenses of Thomas’ arguments, or new interactions with critics of Thomism. And Corduan says very little about other philosophies which have had great influence on evangelical thought: Ramism, Scottish realism, cosmonomic philosophy are not mentioned; Van Til and Clark are mentioned only in passing. We are left in doubt as to Corduan’s view of the widespread “evidentialist” school of apologetics (Montgomery, McDowell, et al.) which makes many theologically significant philosophical assertions. There are some (quite concise) critiques of modern liberal approaches: Barth, Tillich, Bultmann, Moltmann, Cobb get some space, but they are not much more than foils for Thomas and Corduan.

Part of the problem, I think, is the fundamentalist tendency to write on all subjects for popular consumption, rather than for specialists. The strength of the fundamentalist movement has always been its remarkable ability to popularize. The Scofield Reference Bible, whatever one may think of its theology, was a masterpiece of theological merchandising. People with high school education or even less were able, after, say, six months of careful study, to discuss fairly difficult theological topics. There are dangers, of course, in creating instant theologians: dangers of pride, of overestimating one’s own knowledge, of underestimating the complications of the issues. But the Scofield editors got many of us started on the business of serious Bible study. In that respect I admire and envy the fundamentalist tradition; I devoutly wish there were a Reformed Reference Bible. Reformed writers and speakers need to give greater heed to the importance of communicating fruits of our research to those without technical training. In fundamentalist literature, however, everything seems to be directed to the general public. Theology, apologetics, biblical studies, books on psychology and counseling—and now philosophy. I thought thatBiblical Errancy, e.g., would have been a stronger book if it had presupposed a basic knowledge of philosophy and spent more time arguing its controversial assertions, rather than trying at the same time to give all its readers an introductory course in the history of philosophy. The present book of Corduan is a somewhat strange mixture. It is not, by any estimation, a popular book, even to the extent that Biblical Errancy is. No one will understand it very well unless he has had at least several courses in philosophy, or equivalent. Still, I almost get the impression that Corduan is trying to popularize his material. He cuts his argumentation to the bare bones, frequently oversimplifies issues. An author with his credentials certainly should know that a book like this will carry little weight with philosophical or theological professionals. But for whom else could this book have been written? Who, other than theologians and philosophers, would be interested in “prolegomena to theology”? I think that if the fundamentalist philosophical renascence is to continue and to gain the respect it deserves, it will have to reconcile itself to the fact that some studies should be written with specialists in mind. That doesn’t necessarily mean adoption of a stilted, abstract, academic style (Plato and Kierkegaard show that philosophy and theology do not require anything like that). It does mean clear uses of terms, careful arguments, anticipation of objections, dealing with questions at the level of sophistication at which they are asked.

Is there, then, any value at all in this book? Yes, in several ways: (1) It provides us with a very simple, straightforward exposition of basic Thomism. At a number of points, especially the discussion of analogy (pp. 109ff), Corduan manages to get across the basic idea with remarkable ease, free from all the excess technical terms and needless sophistication that one often finds in the standard sources. (2) The book presents some ideas worth discussing (though I think ultimately wrong) on the nature of prolegomena to theology. Corduan’s approach here is a genuine stimulus. (3) He offers a list of areas within evangelical theology where some philosophical problems need more careful attention. In the remainder of this review I shall make some further remarks concerning (2).

Prolegomena, in Corduan’s view, is a philosophical discipline which bears some important relationships to theology; thus his argument requires careful definitions of theology, philosophy, and prolegomena in relation to those. His definitions of theology and philosophy are really too casual for his purposes. On p. 14, he notes within parentheses, “By ‘theology’ we mean here the exposition of divine revelation. ‘Philosophy’ in contrast refers to all forms of rational analysis and speculation.” Later he adds that theology “in its most technical sense” means “a cohesive reflection on Christianity” (p. 18). This is not at all equivalent to the earlier definition, but I assume that he means us to combine them, i.e. “a cohesive reflection on Christianity by means of the exposition of divine revelation,” else Freud’s Future of an Illusionwould be theology. He distinguishes between exegesis, biblical theology, and systematic theology. Exegesis deals with particular passages of Scripture; biblical theology relates these passages to the books in which they are found and to Scripture as a whole; systematic theology “takes the biblical theology and appropriates it to his own contemporary context” (p. 20). In my view, this analysis ignores the extent to which exegesis and biblical theology also constitute contextualizations of Scripture. However, I am happy to see here the recognition that systematics, at least, is an applicatory discipline, bringing Scripture to bear upon our situation.

Now philosophy, in the above definition, is “all forms of rational analysis and speculation,” which seems rather broad for Corduan’s purposes. Since theology engages in rational analysis, this definition would seem to make theology itself a form of philosophy; but that would render unintelligible what Corduan calls his “main theme,” namely “the inevitable reliance of theology on certain philosophical concepts” (p. 9). If theology is a form of philosophy, then the reliance of theology upon its own concepts would instantiate Corduan’s theme, and that would reduce the theme to a truism. Also, this broad definition would define all other rational enterprises—history, science, engineering, medicine, etc.—as “philosophy.” Such a wide use of the term does have historical precedent, but it can hardly serve the purposes of Corduan, who insists that philosophy has an importance for theology that these other disciplines do not have (p. 22). His definition of philosophy, therefore, is not very helpful. If we ask how heuses the concept, however, we might make more progress. To Corduan, philosophy seems to be a method of inquiry distinct from both theology and science, based on general rather than special revelation (though special revelation has a veto-power—cf. pp. 11, 13, 15f, 36, 38, 41). It treats certain questions that science is incapable of handling and concerning which special revelation gives no answers (or inadequately precise answers—see pp. 43f).

Now Corduan defines his central concept, “prolegomena,” as follows: “it examines the presuppositions underlying (systematic) theology. It is a transcendental enterprise in that it asks the question, ‘What are the philosophical conditions which make theology possible?’“ (p. 13). On this definition, prolegomena would seem to be a vitally important discipline. The “presuppositions” of theology would seem to be something very basic, that bedrock objective truth underlying all theological discourse, far more certain than any mere doctrine of theology could be. The “conditions which make theology possible” would seem to be something terribly fundamental: although we might consider revising this doctrine or that, we could never consider any revision of a doctrine on which the very work of theology depends. Thus we understand when Corduan speaks of “the inevitable reliance of theology on certain philosophical concepts” (p. 9) and tells us that “philosophy permeates systematic theology” (p. 10). We are not at all surprised to hear that prolegomena “may delimit the extent and kinds of conclusions that can be reached” by theology (p. 13) and that it supplies “the philosophical presuppositions and categories which go into determining the content” of theology (p. 14). Prolegomena even tells us “how it is possible that we can talk about” God (p. 101).

On the other hand, Corduan sometimes backs away from the implications of this notion; he is not blind to the dangers of philosophical imperialism. He responds sharply to the process theologians with the statement, “Philosophy may never dictate theological content” (p. 139). We are bewildered. If prolegomena determines the very presuppositions of theology, how could it avoid determining content? Didn’t he admit as much in the statements quoted in our last paragraph from pp. 13-14?

In his anti-imperialistic mood, Corduan paints a somewhat different picture of prolegomena. In that picture, the philosophical concepts underlie, not revelation itself, but “our appropriation of special revelation” (p. 17, emphasis mine). They are the concepts “which the theologian uses in clothing the truths of revelation” (p. 22, emphasis mine), in order to communicate them to his culture (cf. p. 11). “Prolegomena provides the human tools for handling divine revelation…. Prolegomena does not define revelation; it enables the theologian to encounter it” (p. 36). “Our project is the quite modest one of discovering the conceptual hermeneutic of theology” (p. 38, cf. pp. 27f). Thus he can speak of “the contingency of all philosophical formulations” (p. 11).

Perhaps we need to distinguish here between two senses of “presupposition,” between the presuppositions of Scripture itself and the presuppositions which we bring to Scripture in our study and teaching of it. The doctrine of the trinity would be a presupposition of Scripture itself: it is not taught explicitly in Scripture, but many biblical teachings presuppose its truth; thus the doctrine of the trinity may be seen as the basis for many other biblical teachings. An example of the second kind of presupposition would be Copernican cosmology. Most all theologians presuppose Copernicanism, and therefore they interpret figuratively those Bible passages which seem to suggest a flat earth or geocentrism. Other such presuppositions are more controversial: Bultmann’s views on what modern man can believe, assumptions of pastoral counselors about “mental illness,” Chomsky’s transformational grammar. Presuppositions in the first sense are discovered theologically—on the basis of special revelation. They are “good and necessary consequences.” As such, they have all the authority of Scripture itself, though of course we may err in identifying them. They may be so “basic” as to underlie the very possibility of theology. Presuppositions in the second sense are of different sorts—cosmological, scientific, psychological, theological, philosophical, etc. They have no authority comparable to the authority of Scripture, and they must be critically scrutinized. All of us have such presuppositions, and they do have some influence on the formulations of our theology. Probably, then, theology could not be done without them; but it would be very misleading to say on this account that such presuppositions “make theology possible.” Now I think that Corduan generally has the second concept of presupposition in mind. But all the transcendental talk about “making theology possible” seems to assume a concept more like the first. Hence confusion.

Therefore there is no reason to give philosophy the kind of prominence Corduan wants it to have. The presuppositions of Scripture itself can be discovered theologically, exegetically, like all other good and necessary consequences. Philosophy may help us to notice exegetical possibilities and may help us in analyzing the language of Scripture; but the method for discovering such presuppositions is theological, not philosophical in Corduan’s sense. Presuppositions in the second sense also bear a rather minimal relation to philosophy. These presuppositions are not any more often philosophical in character than they are scientific, theological, economic (cf. the emphasis of the liberation theologians), etc. I see no reason to suppose that the philosophical type of presupposition has, or should have, any more influence upon our theological formulations than the other types. And although philosophy may help us to identify and criticize these presuppositions, it does no more for us in this respect than the other disciplines do. I also resist Corduan’s suggestion that we need philosophy to clear up the meanings of biblical terms like “soul” and “spirit” (pp. 43f). He thinks it is immensely helpful for us to presuppose, for this purpose, the Aristotelian concept of the soul as the form of the body. I reply: (1) Granted that biblical terms are often used imprecisely; in such cases theology ought to seek, not to be more precise than Scripture, but to express clearly the imprecise concepts of Scripture itself. Only thus can it be true to Scripture. (2) Granted that the Aristotelian concept is true (which I doubt), it does add to our knowledge of the human constitution; and any such knowledge will help to some extent in the work of applying Scripture which we call theology. However, I don’t think that it would help very much. How, e.g., would an Aristotelian anthropology illuminate Luke 23:46? Other kinds of analysis—linguistic, historical, etc.—seem to me to be much more promising for such purposes.

Ali of this assumes that there is such a thing as philosophy in the sense that we have attributed to Corduan. If, as I suspect, such philosophy is merely secularized theology, then Corduan’s construction must be rejected even more decisively. But to go into that matter would prolong a review which is already longer than its subject warrants.

One moral for Reformed theologians: The concept of “prolegomena” has a history in Reformed thought. The introductory course in theology at Westminster Seminary was once called “prolegomena.” Louis Berkhof did not include, in his Systematic Theology, any reflection on the nature of theology or even on the doctrine of Scripture. He relegated these topics to his “Introductory Volume.” Herman Hoeksema’s Reformed Dogmatics also begins with the Doctrine of God, leaving out “introductory” matters. I have not studied the history of this procedure, but I am sure it bears some relation to the theory that one cannot discuss the basic principles of a discipline from within that discipline. Thus theology cannot describe its nature and basis. To describe those, we need a higher discipline—philosophy or metatheology or introduction or “prolegomena.” Why is such a discipline thought to be necessary? I have never understood this argument. I suspect it relies on metaphors. Some, e.g., say that one cannot survey a field to best advantage from ground level; to do that one must ascend a tower. But intellectual disciplines are not fields and meta-disciplines are not towers. The fact is that the doctrine of Scripture is as much a theological doctrine as is the doctrine of the divine attributes. Same is the doctrine of how we come to know and teach about God, the doctrine of theology. We reach conclusions in these areas by studying Scripture, just as we reach any other theological conclusions. The idea that some radically different method is needed for “introductory” matters is unwarranted and dangerous; dangerous because the only alternative to exegetical method is autonomous speculation. And if we allow such speculation at the “introductory” level, where very fundamental matters are discussed, that speculation will infect our entire system. Thus, in my view, the concept of “prolegomena” is just as confused and dangerous in the Reformed context as it is in Corduan’s Thomism; it ought to be consigned to the ash heap.

But we must conclude our discussion of Corduan. Were I to survey his discussions of the nature of man, the existence and attributes of God, etc., I’m afraid I would have to lead the reader through a number of other confusions as tangled as the ones already discussed. I sense that you have had your fill of this; I certainly have had mine. To summarize, then: This book offers some stimulus to those interested in confronting basic Thomism. But it is too confused to be used as a theological textbook, and it is not sufficiently original or cogent to be seen as a significant scholarly contribution.

John M. Frame
Westminster Theological Seminary
Escondido, California


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