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Further Reading

Department: Archives

Philosophy Saved

What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem?

by Cameron Wybrow

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 31

What is the relationship between philosophy and Christian faith? Are the two entirely in harmony, in partial conflict, or irreconcilably opposed? On this question the old books disagree.

In his Prescription Against Heretics, Tertullian (a.d. 160–225) inveighed against the effect of philosophy on the Church. He saw philosophical speculations about nature, the soul, and God as food for heretics such as Valentinus and Marcion (De Praescriptione Haereticorum, ch. 7). When Christians imbibed philosophy, the result was "a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition." Thus, to his own rhetorical question, "What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" Tertullian's answer was "Nothing." Faith has no need of philosophy (ch. 7).

In contrast, Justin Martyr's answer to Tertullian's question would have been "A lot!" Justin (a.d. 100–160) saw a profound harmony between Christian faith and the teachings of several philosophers; he accounted for the harmony in part by suggesting that the philosophers were illumined by the divine Word (Logos) which shaped the cosmos and the human conscience; they knew of the Word what could be known of it without biblical revelation (Second Apology, chs. 8,10,13).

Amid ongoing disagreement, the dominant view in Patristic and Medieval times was that Greek philosophy perceived much truth, albeit truth needing to be supplemented by revelation. With the Reformation, however, a Tertullianesque attitude resurfaced, reaching its peak in twentieth-century calls to abandon "Greek" ideas and return to an allegedly original, "purely biblical" theology. We see such calls in the works of Edwin Hatch, Michael Foster, Anders Nygren, and Thorleif Boman.

In this context, let us look at an old book by St. Augustine. In Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans (a.d. 426), he denounced the religion and ethics of the Roman world, yet said this about the Platonist philosophers:

Thus there are philosophers who have conceived of God, the supreme and true God, as the author of all created things, the light of knowledge, the Final Good of all activity, and who have recognized him as being for us the origin of existence, the truth of doctrine and the blessedness of life. They may be called, most suitably, Platonists . . . we rank such thinkers above all others and acknowledge them as representing the closest approximation to our Christian position. (City of God, VIII.9)

Augustine is aware of Paul's warning regarding philosophy, but sees in Paul's own words a distinction between good and bad philosophy:

[The Christian] is put on his guard by the Apostle's injunction . . . "Take care that no one leads you astray by philosophy and useless misleading teaching, based on the elements of the world." However, he is prevented from regarding all thinkers as belonging to this class, when he listens to the Apostle's remarks about some of them. "What can be known of God has been revealed among them. God in fact has revealed it to them. For his invisible realities, from the foundation of the world, have been made visible to the intelligence through his created works, as well as his eternal power and divinity." And in his speech to the Athenians, after uttering that great saying . . . "It is in him that we have our life, our movement, and our being," Paul goes on to say, "as some of your own writers have also said." (VIII.10)

Augustine doesn't give Platonism a free pass. In The City of God he refutes the theological beliefs of several Platonists. But in showing how Platonism falls short of Christianity, he never makes Platonism the foe of Christianity, an invader that must be repelled lest faith be corrupted. He thus lays the groundwork for that fruitful cooperation between Christianity and classical philosophy that will create the universities of Europe, give birth to natural law theory, and establish the intellectual climate necessary for the rise of modern natural science. "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" For Augustine, the answer is "A fair bit." 

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