Wednesday, April 07, 2004

The Use of Philosophy by the Early Church Fathers 

Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: …
1:18a KJV

Christianity was born into a world vastly different than our own. Society was group oriented, rather than oriented towards individualism as we are today. Honor was the overriding social value, and elaborate honor tests and challenges were commonplace interactions among all classes of people. Stereotypes, considered rude by modern standards, defined a person’s place within the social hierarchy. Gossiping about your neighbors was not only acceptable, but required behavior to keep social order.

A person’s value as a human being was determined by their dyad, or group affiliation. This is why both the Biblical texts as well as the writings of pagan historians referred to individuals by what city they were from or what school they belonged to. When Paul said in Acts 21:39 “But Paul said, I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city…," he was giving his credentials and establishing his authority to speak and be taken seriously. Family, city, national identity, clan affiliation, job description and patronage determined a person’s worth, and how they would be treated.

In addition, age and tradition were revered. Religions and philosophies were measured not on their teachings, but on how far back into antiquity they traced their origins. Judaism was considered a superstition by the Romans, and Jews were thought of as atheists because they did not treat all of the pagan gods with the same respect they gave their own God, but they were tolerated by the Hellenistic world due to the fact they traced their traditions back into antiquity. Anything “new”, particularly religious beliefs, were immediately considered dangerous and contrary to the order of society. Philosophical beliefs were subject to this “age of tradition” criteria as well.

Christianity stood contrary to the established order. Christian minister and apologist James Patrick Holding, in an article that has been widely debated in academic circles entitled The Impossible Faith, or, How Not to Start an Ancient Religion, makes the case that there were 17 different factors in which Christian beliefs and practices would have been objectionable to the established social order in Roman times, and that any one of these factors should have been enough to kill off Christianity in it infancy were it not for some factor strong enough to overcome those objections. These elements gave rise to the various stereotypes Romans believed about Christians. Professor of Church History at Baptist Theological Seminary, Richmond VA, Dr. E Glenn Hinson writes:

Roman absorptionism and Christian exclusivism made a clash between Christ and Caesar inevitable. Non-Christians--relying usually on hearsay, often about heretical sects, for their understanding--found a variety of Christian ideas and customs offensive. Christianity sundered families and discouraged marriage, they claimed. Some Christians espoused voluntary poverty and community of goods and sowed seeds for the decay of slavery. They held “secret” meetings at nighttime and spoke of “eating the body” and “drinking the blood” of Christ or exchanging “the kiss of peace,” customs that invited pagan charges of cannibalism and incest. The very best of Christian intention turned against them in the dark imagination of pagan minds. Some supposed that Christians took unwanted infants, deposited along with human excrement to die, chopped them into pieces, and ate their bodies and drank their blood. Others claimed that in their nocturnal assemblies Christians gorged themselves with food, turned dogs loose to scramble across the tables and turn over lamps, and then engaged in sexual orgies (Tertullian Apol. 7). Christian martyrdom was construed as a perverse “obstinacy”; their refusal to hold public office, serve in the army, or attend public games acts of disloyalty; their breaking away from customs of Jews or Romans impiety; and their abandonment of altars, images, and temples “a sure token of an obscure and secret society” (so Celsus).

Some of these objections were purely social, but some had strong philosophical elements behind them, such as Jesus’ physical Resurrection, the concept of which would have been horrendous to most Romans who saw the flesh as something evil to be shunned. Indeed, Platonic thought surmised that all matter was evil. From early on the Church Fathers preached of a physical resurrection in direct contrast to Platonic assumptions, citing Christ‘s return from the dead as proof of Plato‘s philosophical error. Justin Martyr wrote:

Why did He rise in the flesh in which He suffered, unless it was to demonstrate the resurrection of the flesh?

This idea of a physical Resurrection was so unsettling to the Hellenistic mind, that persecutions were started against Christians over it. When Irenaeus became Bishop of Lyons, he was replacing another Bishop who had died in a pogrom which had as one of its stated reasons the Christian belief in a physical resurrection. Letters from those times describe how Christians were burned alive and their ashes scattered as a means of insuring that a material, physical resurrection would not occur.

Christians appealed to Roman authorities to stop the persecutions, usually with little success. Apologists attempted to explain Christian beliefs to the authorities, including contrasting the philosophical similarities and differences between the official Pax Romano and Christianity. Given the rise of heretical movements, and how many Roman subjects were misinformed about Christians as a result of exposure to those movements, many of the Early Fathers took an anti-philosophy stance. Tertullian believed that philosophy was at the heart of the heretical movements. He wrote:

Heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy.

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What agreement is there between the Academy and the Church? … Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!

And much more sarcastically, Lactantius wrote:

It has been handed down to us in the sacred writings that the thoughts of philosophers are foolish. … Therefore, there is no reason why we should give so much honor to philosophers.

One reason that was important in the Christian attitude toward philosophy was the earliest exposure to it was in the form of heretical movements, particularly Gnosticism.

Gnosticism was not limited to Christianity; there were Jewish and pagan Gnostics. Gnosticism was marked by a metaphysical dualism that was suggested due to the Platonic notion of the evil of matter. Since matter was evil, God (who, being purely good, must be a purely spiritual being) could not have created the physical world. Thus what we see and hear in the physical world must have been created by a second deity, known as the Demiurge, who built reality around concentric circles or orbs in order to separate the physical world from the spiritual world and protected each orb with demons. Passage from one realm to another required shedding the physical body. But the preparation of the soul required the learning of “secret” knowledge about the spiritual realm, and in Christian Gnosticism this was what Jesus brought to Earth. Jesus was thought to have been spirit only, but gave Himself the appearance of flesh in order to impart His knowledge to the world.

Reactions to the Gnostics was swift and harsh, as the early Church Fathers recognized the potential seductiveness of the movement. Its basis in Neo-Platonic thought gave it a familiarity in the Hellenistic world which the Church Fathers thought would lead others from the true faith. Hegesippus wrote:

When the sacred band of apostles had in various ways completed their lives’ work, and when the [next] generation of men had passed away (to whom it had been vouchsafed to personally listen to the godlike wisdom), then did the confederacy of godless error take its rise through the treachery of false teachers. For upon seeing that none of the apostles were living any longer, they at length attempted with bare and uplifted head to oppose the preaching of the truth by preaching “knowledge falsely so called.”

The Gnostics also dismissed the doctrine of the Trinity, and much effort was spent defending the doctrine from heretical attacks. But the doctrine also proved to be a stumbling block to the Hellenistic world in general, despite the fact that many modern philosophers and historians believe the Trinity to be a product of Hellenistic thinking. Philo, the Neo-Platonic Jewish historian, seems to make the case for a Triune Godhead while examining Genesis 18:2:

...the one in the middle is the Father of the Universe, who in the sacred scriptures is called by his proper name, I am that I am; and the beings on each side are those most ancient powers which are always close to the living God, one of which is called his creative power, and the other his royal power. And the creative power is God, for it is by this that he made and arranged the universe; and the royal power is the Lord, for it is fitting that the Creator should lord it over and govern the creature. Therefore, the middle person of the three, being attended by each of his powers as by body-guards, presents to the mind, which is endowed with the faculty of sight, a vision at one time of one being, and at another time of three..."

The case can be made however that the doctrine of the Trinity had as its origin the Jewish principle of hypostasis (a kind of anthropomorphism in which attributes belonging to God occupy a position between personalities and abstract beings). The Wisdom of God is described in this way in Proverbs 8, Psalms 58 and 107, and Job 11, and also in extra biblical works like the Wisdom of Sirach. Note the similarity between the following passages:

Matthew 11:29-30 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Sirach 6:19-31 Come to (Wisdom) like one who plows and sows. Put your neck into her collar. Bind your shoulders and carry her...Come unto her with all your soul, and keep her ways with all your might...For at last you will find the rest she gives...Then her fetters will become for you a strong defense, and her collar a glorious robe. Her yoke is a golden ornament, and her bonds a purple cord.

The same way in which Wisdom is addressed in these passages is the way John addresses Jesus as Logos in John 1:1-18. Irenaeus seems to be defending this position when he wrote:

I have largely demonstrated that the Word, namely the Son, was always with the Father. Now, that Wisdom also, who is the Spirit, was present with Him before all creation. He declares by Solomon: “God by Wisdom founded the earth, and by understanding He has established the heaven. By His knowledge, the depths burst forth, and the clouds dropped down the dew.” And again: “The Lord created me the beginning of His ways in His work. He set me up from everlasting, in the beginning, before He made the earth.” …There is therefore one God, who by His Word and Wisdom created and arranged all things.

And Athenagoras wrote:

We acknowledge a God, and a Son (His Logos), and a Holy Spirit. These are united in essence--the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Now the Son is the Intelligence, Reason and Wisdom of the Father. And the Spirit is an emanation, as light from a fire.

Later Church Fathers adapted Greek philosophical arguments to explain the Trinity, and by the time of Augustine had all but given up explaining the concept in anything but Hellenist terms. But as these quotes show, the doctrine originates with Jewish thought and theology, and was defended as such against philosophical and theological rivals.

Not all of the Church Fathers saw philosophy as rivals for the souls of men. A few saw Greek philosophy as being emanated from God as a precursor to the revelation of Christ to the Greeks and Romans. Justin Martyr wrote:

Do not the philosophers turn every discourse on God? Is this not truly the duty of philosophy, to investigate the Deity?

And Clement of Alexandria wrote:

Before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness. And now it becomes conductive to piety. It is a kind of preparatory training to those who attain to faith through demonstration. …Perhaps, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, until the Lord would call the Greeks. For this was a pedagogue to bring “the Hellenic mind” to Christ, as the Law did to the Hebrews.

The beginnings of the attempts to explain Christian doctrines in Hellenistic terms then dates from very early in Church history. This began as simply pointing out places of agreement between the philosophers and Christian theology; Dionysius of Alexandria writes:

Is the universe one coherent whole? It seems to be in our own judgment, as well as in that of the wisest of the Greek philosophers--such as Plato, Pythagoras, the Stoics and Heraclitus.

Even those Church Fathers who were most hostile to philosophy appealed to philosophical teachings and personalities in a positive light when appropriate. Tertullian writes of Plato:

I may use, therefore, the opinion of a Plato, when he declares, “Every soul is immortal.”

In later Church Fathers, the appeal to use Greek and Roman philosophical ideas may have been motivated by evangelistic concerns. Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 to be all things to all people in order to best present the Gospel surely would have motivated the more philosophically minded Church Fathers to explore philosophical arguments as a means of evangelism. That this later grew into a whole new intellectual tradition, providing the framework by which most of Western civilization is based, surely would have amazed them.



Neyrey, Jerome H., Ed., The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation, (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers 1998)25-66

Pilch, John J. & Bruce J. Malina, Ed., The Handbook of Biblical Social Values, (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers 1998) 54

Hinson, E. Glenn, The Early Church: Origins to the Dawn of the Middle Ages, Nashville, TN, Abingdon Press 1996) 71

Bercot, David W., A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers 1998) 560

http://www.tektonics.org/nowayjose.htm 6

http://trisagionseraph.tripod.com/philo.html (On Abraham, XXIV, 121-122).



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