What is the difference between religion, philosophy, and theology? Is philosophy something that Christians should avoid? After all, Colossians 2:8 says,
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, which are based on human tradition and the spiritual forces of the world rather than on Christ.”
Let’s review the meaning of religion, philosophy, and theology and the relationship between all three. How are they connected? Are they in opposition, or do they work together? Let’s find out!
What is religion?
When the New Testament uses the word “religion,” it comes from the Greek word thréskeia. To the ancient Greeks, this word meant “reverence or worship of the gods” or “worship as expressed in ritual acts.”
Religion is the belief in god(s) and how one should worship the god(s) one believes in. It informs a person’s basic understanding of right and wrong, life after death, and how to please one’s god(s).
Some Christians today tend to define religion as an empty ritual compared to active faith in God – an intimate relationship with Him.
Yet, the Bible uses the word “religion” to describe how true Christianity ought to be practiced.
- “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not bridle his tongue, he deceives his heart, and his religion is worthless.” (James 1:26)
- “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)
What is philosophy?
Our word “philosophy” comes from the Greek word philosophia, which means “friend of wisdom.”
Being a “friend of wisdom” or a “lover of wisdom” is a Biblical concept.
- “Know therefore that wisdom is sweet to your soul. If you find it, there is a future for you, and your hope will never be cut off.” (Proverbs 24:14)
Yet, it must be the right sort of wisdom, not the “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” wisdom of the world.
- “But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peace-loving, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere.” (James 3:15-17)
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, philosophy has several definitions, including:
- a search for a general understanding of values and reality
- an analysis of the grounds of and concepts expressing fundamental beliefs
Philosophy is often a search for the answers to questions like:
- Why do we exist?
- Is anything absolutely right or wrong?
- Is there a god?
- What makes humans different from animals?
These are great questions to ask and answer. Yet, we must go to the correct source for the truth: the Word of God!
What is theology?
In Greek, “Theo” means God, and “ology” means “the study of.” So, theology is the study of God. It covers areas like God’s nature and how He has acted throughout history. Christian theology means digging into the Bible to unlock what God says about Himself and our relationship with Him.
Theology answers questions like:
- How did God create the world?
- When the Bible says that God created men and women in His image, what does that mean?
- What is the “Fall of Man” and its implications for us today?
- How was God’s covenant with Abraham part of His master plan to redeem humankind?
- How did Christ’s substitutionary death change everything?
- What does it mean to be chosen by God?
- How does the church represent Christ? What is church leadership supposed to look like?
- What will happen at the end of the world?
Is Christianity a religion or a philosophy?
Christianity is a religion in the sense that it is all about the reverence and worship of God. Yet, Christianity is much more than religion, when compared to all other religions, because Christianity means a relationship with God. Christianity is the only religion where God desired a relationship with humankind so much that He sacrificed Himself to make atonement for sin and restore that relationship. Christianity is the only religion where God’s Holy Spirit lives inside each believer, equipping them for holiness and service.
Christianity is also a philosophy in that it answers the basic philosophical questions, such as, “Is there a god?” and “Why am I here?” Christianity provides a true understanding of values and reality. However, human philosophy tends to chase after abstract truth. It promotes the idea that “truth” depends on a person’s opinion and no absolute truth exists. Christianity teaches a truth that is objective, true for everyone, and absolute.
Is there a relationship between philosophy and religion?
Yes! Whether we recognize it or not, we all have an underlying philosophy. We all have a worldview – or basic concepts about the world, morality, and God – even though most people don’t think about it much.
All world religions have an underlying philosophy. Philosophy is the search for truth; most religions claim their teachings are truth.
Philosophy typically claims only to use “rational thinking” to arrive at “truth,” while religion involves belief. However, true religion, Christianity, involves both rational thinking and faith. The apostle Paul was well-versed in Greek philosophy and discussed some of that philosophy in his logical arguments for how faith works.
Many philosophies are all about abstract ideas that aren’t especially related to real life. True religion is all about real life. True religion is not just abstract theology but a real relationship with a real God. True religion – Christianity – tells us how to live and how to obtain eternal life.
What is the difference between philosophy and theology?
Atheist or agnostic philosophers claim that philosophy is based on reason, while theology is based on faith.
Yes, theology is indeed based on faith, but that doesn’t mean reason isn’t involved. Christian theology isn’t built on blind faith but on God-given reason that reveals the reality and trueness of faith.
One might also question the so-called “reason” that supposedly underlies secular philosophy. Human “reason” that rejects God is “empty deception” based on human tradition. The Bible even says that it is demonic, and it certainly is if it blinds people to the truth. The Bible says that such philosophy takes people captive to lies. (See Colossians 2:8 and James 3:15-17)
- “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their reasonings, and their senseless hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:21)
How are theology and religion connected?
Religion is a belief system. Theology is the study of what a particular religion believes.
The Christian faith is the only true religion. Many Christians reject theology as unimportant to their relationship with God. And yet, the New Testament is full of theology as taught by Jesus and His apostles.
Think about it. If you were in a romantic relationship, wouldn’t you want to know everything about that person? How can you have a relationship with someone you don’t know well?
Theology deepens our knowledge of God. The better we know Him, the more we love Him.
The Bible tells us that we need to explain our faith to non-believers.
- “Always be prepared to give a defense to everyone who asks you the reason for the hope that is in you. But respond with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15)
How can we explain our faith to others if we don’t fully understand what we believe? Theology equips us to intelligently explain and defend our faith.
The study of theology isn’t just an intellectual pursuit. Theology informs us how to live our faith in real-world situations. It prepares us to walk in the steps of Jesus.
Is Jesus considered a philosopher?
Yes, many scholars, even non-Christian ones, say that Jesus was a moral philosopher. Moral philosophy deals with how one should live. It’s also called practical theology. Jesus certainly taught a lot about that. He taught us to be meek, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers. He taught us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, and to pray for our persecutors. (Matthew 5)
Most secular philosophy is disconnected from real life, but Jesus’ philosophy taught us how to live life. He was the greatest teacher of moral philosophy.
But Jesus didn’t only deal with moral philosophy in His teachings. He also taught metaphysics – the nature and structure of reality. He taught about how the Creator and the created can have a relationship. Jesus presented a philosophy – or a teaching of truth – for all of life – our hearts, minds, and behavior.
What is the right religion?
Our world has over 4000 religions, but only one is right and true: Christianity.
Some folks say that all religions lead to God or all religions have truth, but that is illogical. If the major world religions disagree on the basics – such as salvation – then they can’t all be true.
Jesus is the only religious leader who never sinned. His moral philosophy was completely different from any other. Who else taught us to turn the other cheek? Jesus was the only religious leader who died to bring people back into relationship with God. He is the only spiritual leader who came back to life. Muhammed, Buddha, and all the rest are still in their graves. Christianity is the only religion where the Holy Spirit indwells believers. What other religion can call their god “Abba” or Daddy? What other religion promises eternal life?
Religion, philosophy, and theology are all interconnected. Our religion – our faith – drives our philosophy. As Christians, the Bible teaches us everything we need to know about correct philosophy and a correct worldview. Theology is the study of what the Bible says about all aspects of life and religion.
Secular philosophers and Christian theologians both ask many of the same questions about the meaning of life, ethics, morality, and so forth. The secular philosopher depends on “rational thought” to come to conclusions on these matters. However, the answer is often, “It’s all relative.” In other words, “rational thought” doesn’t have the answers if it doesn’t acknowledge the Creator of rational thought. When one fails to recognize the Creator, one loses the ability to think rationally.
- “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from His workmanship, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and darkened in their foolish hearts. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:20-22)
Acknowledging God – believing in Him, glorifying Him, thanking Him – is imperative for rational thinking. When we have God-driven critical thinking skills, we can objectively analyze and evaluate issues to form correct judgments.