In attempting to wrap my mind around the basic vocabulary, concepts, and methods of philosophy, I find myself wondering what the difference is between a philosopher and a theologian.

Theology (link to definition in Wikipedia) can have two meanings:
1. Theology is a rational study of the existence of God/gods and the nature of religious ideas.
2. Theology is simply a study of a particular religion (or all religions), really more the practice than the theory, but maybe a mixture.

It seems from an immediate reading that definition 1 would lead to the conclusion that a theologian is a philosopher (perhaps that theology is a branch or subset of philosophy), but definition 2 appears to be rather unphilosophical in nature.

So, how does philosophy answer this question?

  1. Is theology considered a proper subset/branch of philosophy overall?
  2. Does it depend entirely on which of the above 2 definitions of theology fits a particular theologian as to whether he is a philosopher or not?

I think this answer is simple and fairly self-evident, but somewhere in my gut I feel like I'm missing something. Is there a treatment of this question in the literature?

Edit: the answers so far seem to want to redefine theology or other terms - that is fine, but please be clear that you are redfining them, and provide, if possible, sources for why the term should be different than given (support from historical works, other sites, etc.).

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    Theology was a part of western philosophy until Kant (metaphysica specialis theologica). Kant clearly stated that this was not philosophy in a correct understanding at all. A more modern approach to theology in philosophy could be an analyzation of the use of the concepts of theology (subject is a fact in the world), which is quite a difference to the metaphysical speculation theology consist in (subject is a metaphysical entity).
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 17:26
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    In the East there is not much difference between the two. Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 4:11
  • One of the best expositions I've read: Paul Tillich books.google.com.ar/…
    – leonbloy
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 4:47
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    Where Theology is a process of rational analysis I would include it in philosophy. Any metaphysical theory will also be a theological theory.or at least have profound implications for theology.and vice versa.
    – user20253
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 13:49

5 Answers 5


As Nelson Alexander mentions, philosophy encompasses far more than just philosophy of religion, but I assume that's what you mean when comparing the two.

Theology and Philosophy (of Religion) are two different disciplines, that none the less have historically had significant overlap. For a long time it was hard to distinguish the two. In India, philosophy was discussed within the context of Hindu and Buddhists beliefs, and in the West it was taken for granted that theologians such as Augustine of Hippo were also philosophers. Since Philosophy is described as being "the love of wisdom", any form of knowledge was considered a branch of philosophy. Hence philosophy also encompassed math, biology, physics, etc...For this reason, theology was viewed as 'naturally' being part of philosophy, and all theologians were philosophers by definition.

There was also a sociological reason, in the fact that often the only (or most) literate people in a given society were priests and monks, and so there was a strong selection bias, in that the people who practiced philosophy were also the most religiously inclined.

The two start to be viewed as separate first in the Islamic sphere with Al-Ghazali (circa 1100), who wrote "The Incoherence of the Philosophers" arguing that the rules of logic and reason can not be applied to matters of faith and belief. For Al-Ghazali any attempts to do so would inevitably lead to incoherence, and eventually atheism. He doesn't want to become an atheist, so instead he concludes that theology has to remain separate from all other sciences. This was later picked up in the West during the enlightenment, for example in Kant's analysis of arguments for God's existence, or more dramatically as viewed by Hume in his famous fork. The invention of the printing press also helped, with the fact that more and more laymen were able to read, leading to the gradual increase in secular scholarship.

Despite the historical overlap, a clear distinction can be made between the two:

  • Theology starts from a position of absolute certainty. A certain number of facts about God (the 'theos' in theology) and revelation are taken for granted, and the theologians task is then to analyze and elaborate the consequences of those facts. A theologist might use philosophical arguments and methods, but he/she is applying them to a set of presuppositions about God and the world. In this sense the relationship between theology and philosophy is similar to the relationship between physics and math or economics and math. A perfect example of this are the various approaches (for example by theologians such as Augustine or Aquinas) to solving the problem of evil: It is a fact that a) God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent and b) that there is evil in the world. A theologian then tries to reconcile the two facts, and might (or might not) use tools from Philosophy in doing so. A "true" philosopher on the other hand, would, given the problem of evil, simply dismiss (one or all of) the initial premises about God, instead of trying to reconcile them with the existence of evil in the world.

  • Philosophy has to start from a position of radical skepticism, even if it eventually arrives at a position of knowledge or certainty. Consider how Socrates (or Plato) in the Meno discusses virtue, but starting from a position that he doesn't know what virtue is. This is probably why "true" philosophy is considered to have started with the Greeks. The classical Greeks were the first to start from positions of questioning all existing assumptions, especially religious ones. Another good example is Descartes: Although he ultimately arrives at positions that are in perfect accord with religious doctrine (i.e. that souls and God exist), he only does so after starting from a position of total doubt. Compared to solutions to the problem of evil, arguments for God's existence are "inherently" philosophical, since they have to start from questioning basic assumptions.

Despite this clear distinction, even today people still tend to confuse the two terms, and I've seen several sources use "Philosophy of Religion" and "Theology" interchangeably. Again a certain selection bias applies here: People who study philosophy of religion are also more religiously inclined (a credit to Virmaior for this link). This is probably why many sources (including wikipedia), still include the problem of evil under the heading of philosophy of religion, when it should be properly included under the heading of theology.

Finally, an interesting case is that of Apologetics. Apologetics gets a bad rep because of its association with the Christian fundamentalist and Creationist crowds and explicitly Christian educational institutions (at least here in the US), but it is actually starting from a position that is more sound than that of mainstream theology (as taught in mainstream religious studies and divinities departments). Apologists do concede that while they believe, their presumed target audience has good reason to doubt religious dogma, and then proceed to try to convince them of their views. This strikes me as a more philosophical approach than theology qua theology, even if comes from dubious sources.

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    I like your distinction between Philosophy of Religion and Theology - I'm not sure I agree with it, but it is an excellent delineation. I must say your description of apologists is essentially the position that I believe all "good" theologians should and do take.
    – LightCC
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 22:43
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    I had never assumed one must take God as a "fact" to practice theology. I would define it as a discipline, not a state of belief, so that nothing prevents an atheist from being a "theologian." But I am really not sure about that or how theologians self-identify. If you teach theology but lose your faith, are you no longer a theologian? Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 23:40
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    @NelsonAlexander I guess it is theoretically possible for a scholar to be a theologian for a specific faith without personally buying in to it themselves. But on a second level, I don't see how it would work? Could someone who hates Jazz ever be a Jazz critic? I feel (pun intended) that you have to get the 'qualia' of a given belief system to be able to speak about it the way theologians do. But then again, there's this clergyproject.org and Dennett and LaScola's "Caught in the Pulpit". Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 0:28
  • @LightCC Which part do you disagree with? Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 0:30
  • @AlexanderSKing. I certainly agree, as noted, that most theologians would probably be believers of a sort, Elaine Pagel being a good case. But I don't know if this defines "theology," though perhaps it might. Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 1:22

Aristotle when writing his First Philosophy or Philosophy of Nature wrote on the First-Mover; it's his definition of God.

Plato in the Republic, says that the aim of philosophy is the knowledge of the Forms; and the highest Form is the Good, which shining forth makes all things visible in their true sense - this is his theology.

Spinoza, who I took to be a rationalist in the secular sense, begins with the neccessary Beings, and show that there can only be one - again this is his definition of God.

Philosophical theology is distinct from Western religous theology; where rituals and revelations are important, as well as a pantheon of saints or sages; but the distinction shouldn't be taken as some essential difference, but a porous or dialectical difference.


Theology is different from philosophy. No one is a subcase of the other.

Theology is the systematic explanation of a certain religion. Hence theology always lives inside the scope predefined by the religion in question. Theology employs philosophical methods like hermeneutics but also historical studies. Theology in general presupposes belief in the religion under study. Hence theology is not open-ended as philosophical investigations are.

On has to discern theology from the discipline of Religious Studies. The latter studies the phenomen of religion itself, without giving precedence to one distinguished religion. Religious studies employ results from sociology and psychology.

Philosophy is a cultural enterprise to gain knowledge about our world simply by thinking and to argue for these thoughts. Philosophy can be a purely secular enterprise.

Added due to one comment of @LightCC:

Referring to theology I take the definition implicit in "Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae". He uses the Latin terms sacra doctrina and sacra scriptura as synonyms for theology. The first question of the first part deals with the characteristics of sacra doctrina. In part I, q.1 a3 Thomas says, see e.g., http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/17611/pg17611-images.html:

Therefore, because Sacred Scripture considers things precisely under the formality of being divinely revealed, whatever has been divinely revealed possesses the one precise formality of the object of this science; and therefore is included under sacred doctrine as under one science.

Because Thomas presupposes the divine revelation as starting point of theology, the result of theology cannot be open-ended.

I am aware that quoting Thomas Aquinas speaks for Christian theology only.

  • So, you would say that someone who studies the general question of the existence of God and truth claims of various religions is not involved in theological study (it must be a particular religion)? That seems like a contortion of the term, at least in common usage. I agree with your last statement that Philosophy can be a purely secular enterprise, but I don't see an argument in your response for why you leave theology out of the philosophical realm - it appears you have simply defined it to be out. Can you clarify your reasoning or quote any sources?
    – LightCC
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 21:17
  • @JoWehler. I tend to think, as noted above, that the discipline of "theology" did evolve out of philosophy and could be seen as a limited, specialized area of what had once been philosophy and metaphysics.Or perhaps vice versa. I'm really not sure, but I don't imagine there were "theologians" in Aquinas's day, as they were not "physicists" per se. On the other hand, there were not "philosophy" departments except by schism with "divinity" departments, often as late as the late 18th century. Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 21:48
  • @LightCC I added a remark to my answer that theology is not open-ended as philosophy is. Hence I do not consider theology a subdiscipline of philosophy. - The discipline of religious studies does not investigate the existence of God: First, different religions have different gods. Secondly, assessing the truth claim of the various religions is not an issue of this discipline.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 22:21
  • @JoWehler Okay, I get your point - but by only analyzing philosophy and theology as full disciplines and trying to determine if they are subdisciplines of each other, this answer misses the spirit of the question. In essence, you are redefining theology from what my question does - what is your support for doing so? Is this a commonly-held view - any sources I can follow up with for that?
    – LightCC
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 23:04
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    @Nelson Alexander Yes, Aquinas distinguishes theology from philosophy. Or - as he sometimes says - faith and reason. His aim was to show, that both do not contradict each other. But faith gets more, because faith has access to revealed knowledge which cannot be derived by reason, e.g., the incarnation of God in Jesus. - Broadly speaking, according to Aquinas theology uses the revelation as the premiss and employs philosophical reasoning for deriving the conclusions.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 0:08

Philosophy has no particular subject matter, only its own history and methods of rational inquiry.

So there can be, and indeed are, tomes on "Philosophy of Religion," "Philosophy of Art," or "Philosophy of Science," etc. Nothing prevents the philosopher from also being a cleric, artist, or scientist. But the more specific disciplines tend to separate themselves from philosophy per se. In modern times, what had been philosophy evolved into such disciplines as physics, history, psychology, sociology, or theology.

Theology would generally limit itself to the studies you mention, the beliefs, texts, ideas, history, and perhaps,to certain extent, the practices of religions, though the latter would verge into history and anthropology. Like all disciplines theology will have its generic terminology, journals, peer review, syllabi, key texts. As far as I know "theology" has a European, Judeo-Christian basis centered upon modern monotheism. The study proceeds by rational methods and has nothing to do with whether or not one professes belief in a God, but it tends to attract thinkers who do. So its subject is the internal "logic" of monotheism and, as Philip Klocking says, analysis of the concepts represented in religious texts.

One could also study religion under history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, or philosophy. The latter would presumably undertake a much broader, critical study of the concepts of religion in light of their validity, logic, or truth value, where the concept of God would generally be reduced to a question of speculation and faith beyond the scope of critical-rational inquiry. Philosophy does not exclude any of the subject matter of the other disciplines, assuming the preposterously grand burden of their interrelated totality.

But philosophy itself has inevitably become specialized as well. So even as I tap out these lines I feel a bit bogged down. There is probably very little real difference between philosophy of religion and theology.The disciplines tend to diverge and evolve around canonical texts, thinkers, and questions within the sociology of the university systems.... under the selective pressures of departmental funding and the whims of philanthropists. So, yes, one might call theology a subdiscipline of philosophy limiting itself to the canons of monotheism. Posting, but not very satisfied with my own answer. You can probably just wiki a better one.

  • Sorry to say, but though trying to answer the question, there are no references, sources or even named philosophers in here, so it might not fit into the conception of this SE.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 20:17
  • @PhilipKlöcking sometimes the answers are basic enough that sourcing them is not really required. Does anyone answering a question in StackOverfolw have to provide a source for the concept of "for loop"? Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 20:45
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    @LightCC. I really don't know, just a surmise. I am informed, for example, that Shintoism has no counterpart of theology. There is a lot of textual study in Buddhism, but I don't think that is distinct from the study of and practice of Buddhism itself. I am guessing that theology arises out of the hermeneutics tradition in Judaism and evolved sociologically out of the universities when philosophy, science, and religion began to diverge. I'm happy to be corrected. Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 21:30
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    @PhilipKlöcking. Guilty as charged. I tend to answer very quickly off the top of my head. I'll try to note more references in my answers, but I'd have to "research" to differentiate particular theologians or iffy classifications like Berkeley, Buber, Niebuhr, Levinas. Even as I was writing, I began to see I knew less about it than I thought. Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 21:39
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    @NelsonAlexander I understand your point. I suppose I inherently take the opposite view that theology involves any investigation into God/gods, their existence or non-existence, including any specific connection between the nature of existence related to any religion. If there is better and agreed-upon terminology then I'm happy to adopt it, especially if you have some sources to improve your answer with. Don't be afraid to add sources after posting with edits, by the way!!
    – LightCC
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 23:19

I too am interested in the lineage and evolution of theology, mythology, philosophy, science, etc. And like you, I think it all boils down to semantics. And by semantics I'm simply referring to the meaning of words, terms, text, or script. So if theology is defined as (the study of the nature of god and religious belief.) and mythology is something like (Mythology (from the Greek 'mythos' for story-of-the-people, and 'logos' for word or speech, the spoken story of a people) is the study and interpretation of often sacred tales or fables of a culture known as 'myths' or the collection of such stories which usually deal with the human condition, good and evil, human origins, life and death, the afterlife, and the gods. Myths express the beliefs and values about these subjects held by a certain culture.)

Myths tell the stories of ancestors and the origin of humans and the world, the gods, supernatural beings (satyrs, nymphs, mermaids) and heroes with super-human, usually god-given, powers (as in the case of Heracles or Perseus of the Greeks). Myths also describe origins or nuances of long-held customs or explain natural events such as the sunrise and sunset, the full moon or thunder and lightning storms. And science is (The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.) To me these all sound like a continuation of the same thing. I mean, one is clearly a derivative of the other. To me it's obvious that if you go far enough back in time the field of Psychology was called Philosophy, and if you go even farther back in time Philosophy turns into Mythology and Mythology was once Theology. To me, it all sounds like speculations about the nature of existence and reality. However, we broke the cycle when we developed modern science. Unlike the previous fields, modern science is based on research, evidence, and peer review, and finally we're seeing accurate results.

  • I see two problems with this answer: First, it is unclear what mythology and science would have to do with the question as asked. In the same vein, one can question the implication that philosophy has ever been mere speculative musing without reference to research and evidence. Second, this site is supposed to be a knowledge database in Q&A format. All you deliver here are your personal definitions and thoughts. How is this presenting verifiable knowledge in the field of philosophy instead of opinion?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 10:11
  • It is good to have references for any claims one makes. This gives the reader someplace to go to get more information and it makes the answer less of an opinion and more a reporting of what others believe to be true. Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 11:59

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