Here's a possible essay question for my Patristics final tomorrow: Discuss Natural Theology, its possibilities and limiatations, in the Fathers of the first three centuries.
This is actually a topic I am highly interested in--mainly out of my encounter with Protestant Christians who tell me that the study of philosophy or philosophy in general is contrary to the Bible, or even contrary to Jesus.
Where they got this idea from is beyond me. And it couldn't be further from the truth.
Philosophy, or natural theology, is the study of God (who is Truth and Wisdom), through the use of man's reason. It is study of what can be known naturally, while theology is the study of what is known supernaturally through revelation.
In his enyclical Fides et Ration, John Paul II writes, "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves."
It has also been said that philosophy is the handmaid of theology. This is true because philosophy serves theology. While philosophy is very important, it is limited. Where philosophy ends, theology begins. In fact, faith is the apex of reason. (Father Giussani) But the Faith and faith in general, must be reasonable or it is not true. It is, after all, our reason which makes us like God--we are made in His image and likeness. (Genesis 1:26)
Further, philsophy or natural theology is an excellent and persuasive way to evangelize to non-believers, especially to athiests. I do not mean to reduce its importance to merely evangelistic purposes, but it is worth mentioning.
The greatest pre-Christian minds, Aristotle and Plato, both believed in God. Through reason alone man can know that God exists and that if God exists what His attributes would be: omnipotent, infinite, spiritual, etc. We do not know these attributes through revelation or through the Bible, but through logical reasoning. In fact, one ignorant of philsophy or sound reasoning could very well read the Bible and deem God as fickle, jealous, and many other erred attributes.
St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans 1:19-20, writes, "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made."
St. Paul is appealing here to natural theology. Of course, he is appealing to the pagans to go a step further and recognize the truth of the Gospel. In the first century, St. Justin Martyr argues that by means of the rational faculty (which is God's gift to us, no other material creature has an intellect of this kind), God leads us to faith. (Simply, life does not make any sense without God!) However, St. Justin rightly argues that reason is insufficient. Reason can lead you to belief in God, but it does not tell you WHO this God is.
In the second century, St. Irenaeus (the most important Father of the second century) writes "all do know this...there is one God and Lord of all, because the reason implanted in their minds moves them and reveals it to them." Reason then is a foundational preparation for revelation. The Bible alludes to this in the coming of Christ being "in the fullness of time." (Hence, when we had enough prep work!)
In the third century, Lactantius implores the believer to take seriously the inquiry into religious truth! (A.K.A. Just because your pastor says something doesn't mean you are exempt from using your brain!) If you are not serious about truth, you can easily be led into error, he writes, "It is necessary, therefore, especially in that matter on which hinges the whole plan of life, for each one to have confidence in himself, and to rely on his own judgment and individual capacity for investigating and weighing the truth, rather than to be deceived by believing the errors of others, as if he were utterly lacking in reason. God gives to every man a proportionate share of wisdom..."
There is so much to be said here. The point is, reason is a gift from God, the Faith is reasonable and while it has its limitations, it is precisely our reason which can and must lead us to faith, to the truth of the divine and wonderful things which have been revealed!