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Philosophy in the Eyes of Theologians: Friend or Foe? (Part 1 of 3)


NOTE: Today we begin a three part series from Tamer Nashef on the relationship between philosophy and theology. Tamer's previous piece at Strange Notions, titled "I’m a Muslim But Here’s Why I Admire the Catholic Church", remains one of our all-time most popular posts.

This three-part essay sets out to explore the complex yet fascinating relation between Christianity (particularly Catholicism) and faith on the one hand and reason and philosophy on the other. It is commonplace to view this relation as adversarial or even bellicose. According to conventional wisdom, Christianity and Catholic theology are founded on irrational superstition, blind faith, rigid dogmatism, and unreason. It is also a widely held view that Christian theology is devoid of reasoned argumentation and that the Catholic Church, especially during the “Dark Ages,” sought to stamp out Classical knowledge and to curb the use of reason.

However, contrary to these grossly inaccurate conceptions, many Catholic theologians, including in Late Antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages, exalted the powers of reason and stressed that reason and revelation are in harmony rather than in conflict. They also advocated the use of Greek philosophy and philosophical methods to enhance understanding of the Bible and defend the articles of faith. The first part of the essay will focus on the views of the Church Fathers of Late Antiquity.

There are several reasons why Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular adopted a favorable and accommodating view of Greek philosophy. First, Edward Grant, the highly acclaimed historian of science, has pointed out that a “notable feature of the spread of Christianity was the slowness of its dissemination” (Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages 2). Christianity became a legal religion only in A.D 313 when Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, and towards the end of the fourth century, namely in A.D 392, Emperor Theodosius banned pagan worship, turning Christianity into the only legal faith. In other words, it took Christianity almost four centuries to become the dominant and exclusive religion in the Roman Empire. The slow and gradual process by which Christianity was propagated enabled the faith to adjust to its pagan surroundings, come to terms with Greek/pagan philosophy, and incorporate some of its elements into theology.

Second, Toby Huff, another distinguished historian of science, has noted that unlike the other two Abrahamic religions (Judaism and Islam), Christianity had emerged in a Greco-Roman environment and as a result it was infused with Greek philosophical concepts and notions from its inception (“Science and Metaphysics in the Three Religions of the Book” 179-81). We should keep in mind that the Gospels were written in Greek and that the New Testament contains Greek philosophical terms, such as Logos. St Paul was influenced by the Stoic concept of Synderesis, a term referring to man’s innate capacity to make moral judgements, reach moral truths, and distinguish between good and evil without the aid of revelation (Rise of Early Modern Science 105-8). In addition, Christian theologians endorsed the Platonic view (expounded in a treatise entitled Timaeus) that the universe is the purposeful creation of a divine intelligence or Demiurge. This creation is rationally designed and governed by “necessity,” “causation,” reason, but also chance (the “Errant Cause”). The Demiurge conferred sight and reason on man and thus human beings possess the capacity to observe the workings of nature, including the movement of the planets and celestial bodies, and ultimately to unveil its secrets. The investigation of nature led human beings to come to know the concept of time and numbers, as well as philosophy, “than which no greater boon has ever come or shall come to mortal man as a gift from heaven” (Huff’s “Science and Metaphysics in the Three Religions of the Book” 176-7).

Third, Christianity in its initial phases appealed mainly to the poor and underprivileged classes of society, but as time passed on, members of the higher and educated classes started converting to the faith as well. Many of those converts had received pagan education and had been steeped in the classical tradition. Therefore, they were able to tap into their pagan background to defend the Christian faith and to devise philosophically sophisticated arguments to prove the tenets of their new religion.

Fourth, the nature of the Christian faith may have played a role in encouraging Christian scholars to have recourse to Greek philosophy. These scholars found Greek philosophical concepts useful tools to explicate the complex articles of faith, such as the Eucharist, Trinity, or Incarnation. In this regard, Grant says: “Certain aspects of their religion may also have drawn Christians to Greek philosophy. One example is the problem of the Eucharist, with its difficulties about the nature of substances and their attributes. Adoption of a Trinitarian position placed enormous metaphysical burdens on Christianity. Once Jesus was perceived as the Son of God, the problems of expounding the nature of the Godhead were formidable indeed. To help explain theological difficulties, scholars deemed the concepts and terminology of Greek metaphysics essential. Logic was also considered important” (Foundations 183).

Surely, despite all of the above, some Christian theologians and Church Fathers viewed secular literature and Greek philosophy with suspicion and as potentially dangerous and subversive to the faith. Tertullian (155–240), for example, a Christian author from Carthage, found Christianity and Greek philosophy to be diametrically opposed and irreconcilable, wondering: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians?” (Grant’s Science and Religion 104). John Chrysostom (349–407), Archbishop of Constantinople and an early Church Father, urged believers to "[r]estrain our own reasoning, and empty our mind of secular learning, in order to provide a mind swept clear for the reception of divine words” (Watson 244).

However, these views were the exception rather than the norm. Many Church Fathers saw philosophy and science as “handmaidens to theology” (Grant’s Foundations 3). In other words, the study of secular disciplines was legitimate insofar as they threw light on the Biblical text and led to conclusions in agreement with Christian truths. Anti-Catholic critics might respond that the theologians’ attitude toward the philosophical heritage of the pagans was selective, as they accepted philosophy only to the extent that it served their faith. Even if true, such a particular and selective approach is a far cry from outright rejection of philosophy and wholesale reliance on faith– an allegation often hurled at the Catholic Church. Rather than view pagan philosophy as a cancer that needed to be excised from Christian theology, theologians sought to benefit from philosophy and utilize its tools for the advancement of Christian studies. They were also confident that there were no necessary contradictions between many of the truths of philosophy and those of Christianity.

Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria (150-219), whom Pope Benedict XVI has hailed as “one of the pioneers of the dialogue between faith and reason in the Christian tradition” (16), deemed the study and use of Greek philosophy not only permissible but necessary. He advanced the interesting argument that the Greek philosophers had been divinely inspired to ensure that humanity had reached a state of intellectual maturity by the time of Christ’s arrival (Kenny 95). In fact, these philosophers had arrived at many truths because they had been inspired and guided by the divine logos (Grant’s Science and Religion 107). Clement went as far as saying that the philosophers had borrowed many of their ideas from the Old Testament – hence the harmony between Scripture and Greek philosophy (107).

On the role of philosophy, Clement wrote: “…before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness. And now it becomes conducive to piety; being a kind of preparatory training to those who attain to faith through demonstration” (107). He continued: “Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ” (107). Against those suspicious of philosophical ideas, Clement stressed: “Philosophy is not, then, the product of vice, since it makes men virtuous; it follows, then, that it is the work of God, whose work it is solely to do good. And all things given by God are given and received well” (107). On whether the study of philosophy was legitimate or not, his conclusions were unequivocal: “…if we are not to philosophize, what then? (For no one can condemn a thing without first knowing it): the consequence, even in that case, is that we must philosophize” (107-8).

Church Father, philosopher, and apologist Justin Martyr (100–165) regarded Christianity as the best philosophical system. At the same time, he had a positive attitude toward Greek philosophy, viewing Socrates as a Christian before Christ. He also believed that Greek philosophy and Christianity were compatible and suggested that the philosophers had been influenced by the Old Testament (106). In his view, the divine Logos had revealed itself to the Hebrews and “in seeds of truth” to the Greek philosophers. In other words, both the Old Testament and Greek philosophy (or at least many of its truths) were two paths leading to Christ. Therefore, Justin encouraged Christians to learn from other traditions, arguing that “whatever things were rightly said among all men are the property of us Christians” (Pope Benedict 9).

Rather than turn his back on Classical heritage and cut himself off from his pagan surroundings, Justin employed the terminology of Greek philosophy to make the tenets of Christianity palatable and sensible to pagans, especially those with a philosophical bent. Scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch states that Justin “was concerned to explain his newly acquired Christian faith to those outside its boundaries in terms that they would understand; he was chief among a series of ‘Apologists’ who, in the second century, opened a dialogue with the culture around them in order to show that Christianity was superior to the elite wisdom of the age. In particular, he was happy to explain the mysterious relationship of Jesus Christ to God the Father in terms which would make sense to intelligent Greeks puzzled by Christian claims. He deployed one of the commonplace terms used alike by Platonists, Stoics and Hellenized Jews…: Word (Logos)” (142).

Scholar and theologian Origen of Alexandria (184-254) was fully aware of the points of disagreement between Christianity and certain aspects of philosophy, but saw the latter as a preparation for the study of theology, particularly “those parts of the philosophy of the Greeks which are fit, as it were, to serve as general or preparatory studies for Christianity” (Grant’s Science and Religion 108-9). Origen saw astronomy and geometry as “helpful for the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures” and philosophy as “ancillary to Christianity” (109).

Influenced by the way learned Greeks had read Homer and Hellenized Jewish scholars like Philo of Alexandra had read the Old Testament, Origen believed that the main significance of the Bible did not lie in its literal meaning (MacCulloch 151-2). Commenting on the Book of Genesis, he wondered: “[W]ho is so silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, planted a paradise eastward in Eden, and set in it a visible and palpable tree of life, of such a sort that anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life?” (151). Certainly, Origen accepted the scriptures in their entirety as the divinely inspired truth, but believed they had multiple layers of meaning and put forward allegorical interpretations of the Biblical text.

The philosophy of St Augustine (354-430) had exerted a tremendous influence on Western civilization and Latin Christendom for approximately a thousand years. His attitude toward the relation between reason and faith has been described as "very difficult to interpret, especially because his views apparently evolved over the years" (Craig 29). It is true that on the one hand he subordinated reason to faith, viewing the former as the “servant” of the latter (Stokes 45). It is equally true that he saw faith as superior to reason in the pursuit of truth. He also proclaimed the superiority of divine or inspired knowledge to philosophical or human learning, arguing that “all the knowledge derived from the books of the heathen, which is indeed useful, becomes little enough if it is compared with the knowledge of the divine scriptures” (Grant’s Science and Religion 113). He even feared that philosophy might foment heresy (Lindberg’s Beginnings of Western Science 149).

On the other hand, it should be made clear that Augustine did not call for abandoning reason or discarding its tools. On the contrary, he acknowledged that reason coupled with faith are "the two forces that lead us to knowledge" (Pope Benedict 109). Nor did he reject philosophy, as he urged Christians to embrace the findings of its practitioners: “If those…who are called philosophers happen to have said anything that is true, and agreeable to our faith, the Platonists above all, not only should we not be afraid of them, but we should even claim back for our own use what they have said, as from its unjust possessors” (113). Indeed, St. Augustine was heavily influenced by Platonic and neo-Platonic thought and was well-versed in pagan learning. He also used logic to resolve theological problems (Grant’s Foundations 183-4) and believed that scientific knowledge would contribute to the interpretation of the Bible and the development of Christian doctrine (Lindberg’s Beginnings 150).



Works Cited

Craig, Lane William. Reasonable Faith. 3rd edition. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. 2008. Print.

Grant, Edward. The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.

____________. Science and Religion 400 BC- AD 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2004. Print.

Huff, Toby. The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West. 2nd edition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

_________. 2000. “Science and Metaphysics in the Three Religions of the Book.” Intellectual Discourse 8, no. 2: 173-98. Print.
Kenny, Anthony. A Brief History of Western Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. Print.

Lindberg, C. David. The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450. 2nd edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. A History of Christianity. London: Penguin Books, 2010. Print.

Pope Benedict XIV. Great Christian Thinkers: From The Early Church Through The Middle Ages. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011. Print.
Stokes, Phillip. Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers. New York: Enchanted Lion Books, 2005. Print.

Watson, Peter. Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, From Fire to Freud. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.

Tamer Nashef

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Tamer Nashef is an Arab freelance researcher and translator from Israel. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in English literature from the University of Haifa. Nashef is interested in a broad range of topics, especially Western philosophy, intellectual history of civilizations, Christian and Islamic theology with particular emphasis on the relation between science/reason and faith, and English literature. He is planning to write a book on the intellectual, scientific, and legal developments in the Middle Ages that led to the scientific Revolution and the rise of the modern world, and on the status of reason in the Catholic tradition. Nashef speaks three languages: Arabic, Hebrew, and English.

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