Lesson 1: Into the Christian Era

A Disturbance in Palestine

In its beginnings Christianity hardly registers in the records of the then mighty of the world. Scholars have found a few references to early Christians in Roman literature, but of course there was no sense at all that something had begun that would alter the course of history. Pope John Paul II cites these references in Toward the Third Millennium. Christianity turned ordinary human criteria of importance upside down. The humble of this world were chosen to disseminate through the world a commission they could scarcely have understood when they were given it. The Incarnate God neither flaunted his divinity nor took on the pomp and panoply of worldly importance. But Christianity was destined to transform the culture as well as the lives of its adherents. The confrontation of philosophy with the Gospel was not initially promising.

Porphyry, the student and biographer of Plotinus, editor of the Enneads, was a vocal foe of the new religion, championing in its stead the paganism that was losing its hold. Gnosticism, the notion that there is an esoteric doctrine of salvation knowable only by a few, may seem a reaction to Christianity's universal embrace of humanity. Nero was one of the first to find Christians a convenient scapegoat. Later, during Augustine's lifetime (354-430), the Christians were accused of bringing disaster on the empire because of their abandonment of the traditional gods. The sprawling City of God was a response to this.

Philosophy and the Faith

Figuring out its relationship to philosophy and vice versa was not high on the agenda of Christians at the outset. To believe is to respond, under the influence of grace, to the good news preached by Jesus, to live accordingly and in the confidence that one possesses the truth, not by any personal merit or effort, but as a revelation from God. But already in St. Paul we find references to the natural human effort to know God. In Romans 1,19-20, addressing the pagan Romans and enumerating their many sins, Paul tells them they are inexcusable. Why? Because from the things that are made they can come to knowledge of the invisible things of God. Such knowledge has moral import and, accordingly, the misbehavior of the pagans is inexcusable. It is also true that, in Colossians, Paul warns Christians to beware lest they be led astray by philosophy. These two passages may be taken to sum up the tension that has, does, and will always exist between Christianity and a secularized philosophy. This tension is felt acutely today, but one of the advantages of studying the history of philosophy, not least of medieval philosophy, is that one understands the origins and betrayals of modern philosophy. Philosophy as it is engaged in today stands willy-nilly in a tradition that stretches back to the Greeks and which cannot be understood if one bypasses -- as many historians have sought to do -- the philosophy of the Middle Ages.

Reflection on the relationship between the truths they accept on faith and those attainable by them and anyone else by the use of reason almost characterizes a certain kind of believer. Perhaps in some form it is a factor in the thinking of any believer, but those aware of the more sophisticated efforts of human reason can scarcely avoid comparing such knowledge with their faith.

The Fathers of the Church

The rapid spread of Christianity during the first century, thanks to the heroic efforts of the Apostles, has rightly been seen as a sign of the divine institution of the Church. Moving toward Alexandria on the south coast of the Mediterranean, the main thrust was along the northern coast to Greece and on to Rome. Nero's persecution of the Christians dates from 64 A.D. Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome in 67, and imperial persecution becomes a tradition as emperor follows emperor. Under Marcus Aurelius, 161 A.D., Christians were persecuted by a philosopher.

The Apostolic Fathers -- The Didache, the teaching of the apostles, dates from 60 A.D. It is a precious source of information on the doctrine and liturgy of the early Church. St. Clement of Rome, third successor to Peter, lived in Rome during the last decade of the first century. The soon-to-be-martyred bishop Ignatius of Antioch, in a series of seven letters written during the journey when he was taken in chains from Syria to Rome, dispenses pastoral care and counsel. The role of the bishop in the community is stressed and dissension lamented.

Tertullian (c. 160 - c. 240) was one of the first Christians to present his thought in Latin, and what he thought on our issue is that philosophy is the locus of error and Christianity the summation of truth. Their relationship, consequently, was one of opposition. A more irenic attitude was expressed by Eusebius (c. 265 - c. 339) when he referred to the pagan philosophical effort as a praeparatio evangelica, a preparation for the gospel. The idea is that philosophy is an effort to attain a truth that can only be found in its fullness in Christian revelation. Already in the second century, St. Justin Martyr (c. 100 - 164) espoused this view; St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 - c. 219) was another. St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 - c. 395) was yet another. Of course, while expressive of a genuine interest in philosophy, this attitude suggests that the philosophical efforts of the Greeks occupied an historical moment that has been surpassed by Christian revelation.

Those who adopted this view can be grouped as follows:

The Greek Apologists -- Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus (born about 126) and Hippolytus, who died about 236. These writers sought to explain the faith to critics and defend it against attack. Irenaeus a native of Smyrna, was bishop of Lyon where terrible persecutions took place and where he confronted the threat of Gnosticism, a spiritual movement among Christians that posed a great threat to Christianity. Gnostics saw the soul as having been put into the body as punishment for some primordial fault; the human task is to return to the soul's original state by rejecting the body and the material world. Gnosticism seems to mimic Christianity -- the need for salvation, the mission of the Savior, the function of the community. Humans were divided into the pneumatics (the elect), the hylics (those destined to be damned), and the psychics, an intermediary group. The Savior comes, not for all, but for a few; his incarnation is apparent not real, and the truth is passed on secretly and is distinct from apostolic teaching. It was against these heresies that Irenaeus wrote. Of interest here is Irenaeus' judgment that heresy is the corruption of the Christian message by the influence of pagan philosophy.

The Catechetical School of Alexandria -- Clement of Alexandria is the most important personage here, with Origen (c. 185 - 254) runner-up. Alexandria was the second most important city of the empire, after Rome, and it gave birth to Gnosticism and, in response, to the Didaskaleion or school, whose function was to state and defend the truth. Clement, probably an Athenian, born about 150, had acquired human culture and knowledge in all its amplitude. After his conversion, he undertook to put his learning at the service of evangelizing the pagan world of Alexandria, beginning with its intellectuals. Origen's Against Celsus is an extended response to the criticisms of a philosopher.

The Latin Apologists -- Besides Tertullian, there was Arnobius (c. 260 - c. 327) and Lactantius (c. 250 - c. 325).

Of the later Fathers, we should at least mention St. Athanasius (+373), St. Gregory of Nazianzus (+390), St. John Chrysostom (+407).

Salient features

Justin Martyr is in a sense the historical process writ small. As a young man he went to the philosophers in the hope that they would speak to him of God, and he was disappointed by the Stoic, Pythagorean and Peripatetic he encountered. When he came into contact with a Platonist he felt for the first time that he was being introduced to immaterial things, and when he concentrated on the Ideas he half expected to see God. Then he met a Christian who cast doubt on features of Platonism -- the nature of creation, the soul and its immortality -- and spoke with such assurance that Justin wondered whence came this knowledge. He was directed to the Scriptures. This inflamed his soul and he thought he had finally reached the philosophy he sought. He goes on to point out certain agreements between Plato and Scripture. The reason for this convergence, he felt, was that the Platonist had borrowed from the Jews.

Clement of Alexandria held that philosophers were influenced by the divine Logos in somewhat the same way as Moses and the prophets had been in the Old Law. Given this common origin, philosophy may provide an instrument for throwing light on the faith. It is not that the mysteries can be understood by such arguments; their role is rather oblique and negative.

Certain themes which will characterize Christian thinking on such matters are thus opened by the Fathers. Without doing them injustice, we can view them all as precursors of Augustine of Hippo, to whom we now turn.

Writing Assignment

On the basis of the account in one of the general histories listed above, or an encyclopedia article, write a summary paragraph or two on St. John Chrysostom or St. Gregory of Nyssa.


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