43 Important Philosophical Terms Christians Need To Know


By James Bishop| What follows are short definitions of 43 major philosophical doctrines that are almost all relevant to theology and theological truths in some way or form. They are either relevant in that they either propose views that are contentious to theological truths, possess similarities, or assist in clarification.

Irrespective of what relevance they have, they are important for Christian believers to at least be familiar with, even if that is limited to the definitions of the respective worldviews for now.

Atheism – Atheism can include the following:

  • Agnostic Atheism – An individual who claims that he does not to know whether or not God and/or the supernatural exists but decides to not believe in them.
  • Anti-Theism – The view that theism, religion, and belief in God must be opposed. The individual believes that religious belief is both dangerous and harmful. Anti-theists are often Strong Atheists.
  • Apatheism – The individual lives as if there are no gods and explains natural phenomena without invoking the divine. Typically the individual doesn’t care whether or not God exists.
  • Explicit Atheism – The individual makes a positive assertion regarding their lack of belief in God and/or gods.
  • Implicit Atheism – The absence of belief in one or more gods, without a conscious rejection of it.
  • Strong Atheism – The individual accepts as true the proposition that “God does not exist” (Also known as Positive Atheism).
  • Weak Atheism – The individual does not believe in a god but does not explicitly assert that there are none.

Agnosticism – The belief that the existence of God and/or the supernatural is unknown or unknowable. There are several different kinds of Agnosticism:

  • Agnostic Atheism – An individual who claims that he does not to know whether or not God and/or the supernatural exists but decides to not believe in them.
  • Agnostic Theism – The opposite of Agnostic Atheism in which the individual claims that she does not to know whether or not God and/or the supernatural exists but decides to believe in it and their existence
  • Strong Agnosticism – The individual does not know if God and/or supernatural exists but claim that no-one will ever know if God and/or the supernatural exists.
  • Weak Agnosticism – The individual does not know if God and/or supernatural exists but is open to the possibility that they might. This is arguably the most commonly adopted agnostic view.

Determinism – This can include (although not limited to) the following:

  • Philosophical Determinism – The view that human behaviour and thought is entirely accounted for by determining factors such biochemical processes, heredity, and environment.
  • Theological Determinism – The belief that all events that occur have been pre-ordained by God or a divine being.

Dualism – The view that reality consists of two components: the material and immaterial. The former is believed to be physical (consisting of atoms and molecules) while the latter is often thought of being supernatural and spiritual. This could include (although not limited to):

  • Property Dualism – The view that the mind is a group of independent properties that emerge from the brain, but that it is not a distinct substance.
  • Substance Dualism – The view that the mind exists separately and independently of the physical brain. Often connected with the soul.

Empiricism – The view that all knowledge is derived through sense experience, and that sensory perception plays an integral role in forming beliefs. This is not to be confused with the term “empirical,” which denotes research and observation employed in the sciences.

Existentialism – The view that emphasizes the individual person as a free agent who determines her own development through acts of the will. On this philosophy, human beings define their own meaning in life even though they believe that they exist within an irrational universe. Belief in God is also rejected, and life is typically believed to be absurd given that it ends in suffering and inevitable death.

Idealism – The view that the mind is all that exists, and that the external world is either than illusion created by the mind or is mental itself. Idealism is antithetical to Materialism (see below) that claims that only matter exists. Idealism is also opposed to realism which says that real objects exist in the world independent of an individual’s mind.

Intellectualism – The view that knowledge is wholly or mainly derived from pure reason, that the intellect is superior to the the individual’s will, and that the intellect is basis for human decisions and behaviour. Similar to Rationalism (see below), and opposed to Voluntarism (see below).

Fideism – The view that faith is independent of reason and that reason is unnecessary for the justification of religious belief. This is opposed to a more evidential based faith which seeks to provide arguments and justifications for belief in God through revelation and natural theology.

Materialism – The view that only material matter exists and that all things are composed of material interactions and phenomena. On this view the supernatural does not exist.

Monism – The view that everything is one. It is a view held by some in the philosophy of mind, namely, that mental states and the physical brain are one. It is also the religious doctrine that only one supreme being exists.

Naturalism – The view that only nature and the natural world exists. Arguably the majority of atheists (see above) are naturalists.

Nihilism – The view that life has no meaning, purpose, and value. Nihilists reject religious and moral principles. Moral Nihilism, moreover, is the ethical view that there are no objective moral facts, and that no act or behaviour can ever be declared good or bad.

Physicalism – The view that all that exists can be reduced to its physical properties or is nothing more that its physical properties. This view denies the existence of the supernatural given that it posits that the only existing substance is the physical.

Positivism – The view that the only knowledge is that which can be scientifically verified, and is capable of logical or mathematical proof. Often espoused in contemporary Scientism.

Rationalism – The view that knowledge is not only derived from observation but also through deductive reasoning and intuition.

Realism, Objective – The view that the external world exists independent of one’s own mind. Opposed to Solipsism (see below) and Idealism (see above).

Reductionism – The view that to understand complex entities one must reduce entities to their constituent parts. This is employed in two major ways. Firstly, science employs reductionism as a methodology to understand entities. As a philosophy, however, the proponents says that all objects and entities within the universe are reducible to their physical and atomic parts.

Relativism – The view that knowledge, truth, and morality is relative to culture, society, or historical context, and therefore not absolute. There are different types of relativism:

  • Epistemological Relativism – The view that the truth or falsity of a proposition and belief is relative to a social group or individual.
  • Moral Relativism – The view that either specific individual human beings or cultures decide what is moral as opposed to what isn’t. Morality has no objective basis and changes over time.

Theism – The belief that one or more gods exist, and that certain characteristics can be ascribed to certain concepts of theistic divine being(s). There are several types of theisms:

  • Classical Theism – Refers to the God concepts posited by the religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. These beings possess the characteristics of transcendence (existing outside and above creation), perfection, omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful), and omnipresence (all-present).
  • Deism – The belief that God exists but that this God does not intervene in the world or within the lives of human beings. God created the universe and left it to run like a machine operating on natural laws.
  • Dystheism – The belief in many gods, that these gods are not morally good, and that they are sometimes evil.
  • Exclusive Monotheism – The belief in one true God, and that other concepts of God and/or gods are false. Often overlaps with Classical Theism (see above).
  • Kathenotheism – The belief in many gods although only one deity at a time should be worshipped.
  • Monolatrism – The belief in many gods although worship is given to one deity as only one deity is seen as being worthy of worship.
  • Panentheism – The belief that God is greater than the universe and that the universe is contained within or joined to God.
  • Pantheism – The belief that God is nature or equivalent to the material universe.
  • Polytheism – The belief that many gods exist, or at least more than one god exists.

Skepticism, Philosophical – In philosophy, skepticism can refer to a number of views. First, it can refer to moral skepticism, namely, skepticism towards the idea of objective moral values. Further, it can simply mean to question alleged truth claims and seek to examine them in some more detail. Third, it can concern the limitations of knowledge and suggest that one must avoid making truth claims, and postulating final truths.

Solipsism – The view that the only thing that can be known to exist is the individual’s mind, and that the external world might not exist or that it is unjustified to believe that it exists.

Voluntarism – The view that the human will is superior to the intellect and emotion, and that this must form the basis for human decisions and behaviours. Opposed to Intellectualism (see above).

This article was originally featured on the website of James Bishop and was republished with permission.
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