The Discipline of Theology: An Analysis from Kant

In this post I hope to deal with German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Lectures on Philosophical Theology [1] with an analysis on his section ‘What is Theology?‘. This interesting lecture, where he often gave many others at the University of Königsberg, is an insight to Kant’s successful ability to mark definitive and concise accounts on many subjects about our knowledge of God, positive and negative theology, the practical nature of theology, and many other subjects pertaining to the nature and function of theology. Theology which, he defines as “the system of our knowledge of the highest being” [2].

Reading this lecture I was quite interested in the definition he chose. Theology in a preliminary sense has always been defined as “the study of God”, stemming from the two Greek words Θεός and λόγος (“study of”). However, at face value the case of this definition would understand theology as God the subject, while perhaps some theology primer would follow from that subject. Also though, regarding the definition of theology as “the study of God” more implications of that discipline happen to follow more than merely studying the character of God. We are concerned with our knowledge of God, since, as the nature of God seems to be case, even the most exhaustive cases of revelation could not paint a fair picture of God [3].

Kant’s Analysis of Knowledge and God

Theology, as some may be unaware, has an epistemic function like that of the concerns science and philosophy also happen to have. However, hierarchically theology has been understood to be the discipline from which all knowledge from all other disciplines happen to be even possible. This means (simply) that historically theology has always addressed the most particular questions by coming to very particular conclusions. This is due to the infallible knowledge available to us, since, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16, NIV).

However, as said before, no matter how exhaustive this revelation is on the nature of God, we will always be deficient. Kant recognizes that the system of the knowledge of God itself is not a system with a complete structure containing full understanding on the nature of God. But rather, that this system refers to “what human reason meets with God” [4]. He differentiates this kind of knowledge into two types: theologia archetypa and theologia ectypa. The two are vital in our Creator/Creature distinction. The former, simply can be defined as “theology in its proper sense being the same as the infinite wisdom of God concerning himself and his works as they are necessary to him and ordered by him in a perpetual relationship according to his infinite reasons” [5].

In other words, the “knowledge of everything in God” [6]. The latter thence, is from our creaturely perspective. Ectypal theology is “the wisdom creatures in their way have concerning God, and about the things that are ordered towards God, communicated by him” [7]. Otherwise stated, “the system of knowledge of that part of God which lies in human nature” [8]. Ectypal theology since it is knowledge from a “bottom-up” perspective is rather more defective in light of our finite capacities to understand the infinite. It is why we are led to say that (see cited works below) that “The sum total of all possible knowledge of God is not possible for a human being, not even through a true revelation. But it is one of the worthiest of inquiries to see how far our reason can go in the knowledge of God” [9].

However, what form does the connection from God to us take? Not in the sense that I am asking “How do we intelligibly speak about God?”, but rather, “how is our knowledge of God conveyed?” This is where positive and negative theology come in. These two are quite easily distinguishable and lack no simplicity in understanding them. Positive theology on the hand, is the knowledge we have of God in affirmation of some predicate. For instance, “God is X”, where “God” is the subject and “X” is some predicate that is associated with God (such as Creator, Healer, Redeemer, etc.). The latter however is more exhaustive in our knowledge (in a very small sense) than positive knowledge – which Kant says “is not greater than ordinary knowledge” [10].

Negative theology is our knowledge of God in negation of some predicate. For instance, “God is not X”, or “God cannot X”, would be instances of negative theology. “Common practice” Kant says, “does not see the sources from which it creates knowledge. It is thus uncertain whether there are more sources from which more knowledge could be created” [11]. Common practice is something we can otherwise understand as experience. Mere experience according to Kant, does not see the very foundation from which it creates more knowledge about things. Therefore, we are simply unable to know if there are more foundations from which we could create knowledge. All this,  is due to “the fact that common practice is not acquainted with the boundaries of its understanding” [12].

Concluding Thoughts

Though Kant was rather critical of natural theology and respects of transcendent metaphysics seen from the scholastics and the rationalists, “he remained quite sympathetic to traditional theology on many points” [13]. This is usually an often misunderstood point in terms of Kant’s views on theology. Though in this post I did not deal with an exhaustive exposition or even critique of Kant’s lectures on philosophical theology, his discussion on the nature of theology and our knowledge of God is something of much merit for our consideration.



  • [1] Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Philosophical Theology, trans. by Allen W. Wood and Gertrude M. Clark (Cornell University Press: 1978)
  • [2] Ibid. p. 23
  • [3] This is a point Kant recognizes in his lecture as well. In the beginning of What is Theology?, he writes: “The sum total of all possible knowledge of God is not possible for a human being, not even through a true revelation. But it is one of the worthiest of inquiries to see how far our reason can go in the knowledge of God” (Ibid. p. 23).
  • [4] Ibid. p. 23
  • [5] Willem J. Van Asselt, “The Fundamental Meaning of Theology: Archetypal and Ectypal Theology in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Thought”, (2002) pp. 319-35
  • [6] Kant, p. 23
  • [7] Van Asselt, p. 322
  • [8] Kant, p. 23
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Kant, p. 24
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] from Allen W. Wood, Translator’s Introduction, p. 10

One response to “The Discipline of Theology: An Analysis from Kant

  1. Pingback: Science and Wisdom | Consilient Interest·

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