Athens and Jerusalem 1: Introducing Philosophical Theology
In the history of Christian thought, some have assumed philosophy has nothing to do with Christianity.
Writing in the 3rd century, Tertullian put it this way:
For philosophy it is which is the material of the world’s wisdom, the rash interpreter of the nature and the dispensation of God. Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy. From this source came the Aeons…and the Trinity of Man…[and] Marcion’s better god…The same matter is discussed over and over again by the heretics and the philosophers; the same arguments are involved. Whence comes evil? Why is it permitted? What is the origin of Man? And in what way does he come? …Unhappy Aristotle! who invented for these men dialectics, the art of building up and pulling down; an art so evasive in its propositions, so far-fetched in its conjectures, so harsh, in its arguments, so productive of contentions, embarrassing even to itself, retracting everything, and really treating of nothing!
Whence spring those “fables and endless genealogies,” and “unprofitable questions,” and “words which spread like a cancer? ” From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, “See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.” He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects.
What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.” Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our primary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides!
When Blaise Pascal experienced a 2-hour religious vision on the night of November 23, 1654, he described the moment as experiencing “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars.”
With perhaps a bit more charity toward philosophy, Origen claimed “philosophy itself” is “ancillary to Christianity”; It is acceptable, writes Origen, to use the “spoils of the Egyptians” (by which he meant the ideas of pagan philosophers) as addendum extras to help support Christian teaching or persuade people to its cause. Ultimately, however, Origen did not believe that Christian teachings should in any sense be grounded in philosophy.
For many, the God of mystery is always to be contrasted with a God who can be subjected to any kind of philosophical examination. Voices from the left, the right, and points in-between contrast Christianity’s own inner logic with anything philosophy can produce, analyse, or critique.
Philosophy in the Service of Theology There is a strong tradition in Christian thought that believes the truths of reason at work in philosophy are in harmony with the truths of Christian teaching.
There is a strong tradition in Christian thought that believes the truths of reason at work in philosophy are in harmony with the truths of Christian teaching.
But there is a strong tradition in Christian thought that not only finds value in philosophy (for defending and promoting Christian doctrine), but actually encourages philosophical exploration of Christian themes—believing that the truths of reason work in harmony with the truths of Christian teaching. The same St. Paul who was skeptical of certain kinds of philosophy (that denied God and Christian teaching), preached an entire sermon to the philosophers of Athens without quoting a single Scripture–though he did cite several Greek philosophers (Acts 17). In the early second century, Justin Martyr offered two Apologies (where we get the word “apologetics,” or “defense”) in which he speaks in glowing terms of Socrates and Plato for having provided a ground for the masses to appreciate the truths of Christ, since they reasoned correctly as far as they were able in ways harmonious with Christian truths. In the third century, Plotinus (204-270 AD) took up philosophical arguments to create Christian arguments about God, the world, and Christian teaching. His work deeply influenced all Western theology, including Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thought.
Augustine, at one point calling Plato an incipient “Christian philosopher,” employs sophisticated philosophical analysis in his sharing of Christian teachings, as does Boethius, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas.
You can trace a long line of Christian thinkers who “borrow” forms of philosophical thought. For these writers, the philosophical tradition is one lens through which we can gain insight into the truth, knowing that the ultimate truth is found most fully in Jesus Christ. For that reason, it is helpful to consider a number of key areas of study in order to better understand how philosophy can relate to Christian teaching. And this we will do in later posts.
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. Nathan lives in Searcy, Arkansas, where he teaches in the College of Bible & Ministry at Harding University.