I don’t post here often these days. But I’ve noted from a peep at a thread here that Christian Platonism has been under discussion in a certain sense. I also note that in her most recent video interview with Peter Hiett, Professor Illaria Ramelli stresses the continuities between the Church Fathers who taught the doctrine of Apocatastasis with the tradition of Hellenistic philosophy (as well as looking at some of the discontinuities). And I started asking myself exactly what these continuities and discontinuities are? And what is a ‘Christian Platonist’? I’m no great expert in anything – and I’m certainly not a Classics scholar or a Biblical scholar. However, I’ve some idea of the territory here, but I feel the need to clarify this and make some connections that I’m a bit ‘iffy’ about so that I can properly follow Dr Ramelli’s train of thinking.
I thought the process of me trying to do this might be of interest to come here. I’m not seeking to make points in a theological argument one way or the other. I’m simply trying to think about what the basis of early Christian philosophy with its Platonist elements is all about – in a non specialist way - and to describe.
Please do comment if you know of any historical details that might be interesting.
My first post is about how the Christian philosophers justified drawing on classical philosophy in their theological reflections (rather than what specific ideas they found useful and drew upon). There are a couple of pages from a book by an American scholar Leo D. Lefebure that I’ve found useful in their clarity. So rather than reinventing the wheel I’ve used these but added a number of my own thoughts and bits and bobs that I’ve squirreled from reading the Christian Classics scholar Rev. M.A. Screech.
Here, we go
‘’Justin Martyr (c.100 – c.165 AD) was the first Christian philosopher whose writings are extant. He taught in Rome and was finally martyred there with some of his students in 165 AD.In relating to Hellenistic society, Justin Martyr proposed Christian revelation as the true philosophy, the answer to the search of the ancient philosophers. He hailed Socrates as a model and stressed that Christians are like Platonists. Everything about Hellenistic culture was affirmed and accepted and related to the Logos. Justin and other apologists stressed the possibilities of integrating Christian revelation into Hellenistic thought and culture.
Justin wrote that -
‘’But lest some should, without reason, and for the perversion of what we teach, maintain that we say that Christ was born one hundred and fifty years ago under Cyrenius, and subsequently, in the time of Pontius Pilate, taught what we say He taught; and should cry out against us as though all men who were born before Him were irresponsible — let us anticipate and solve the difficulty. We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious.” (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 46).
“Our doctrines, then, appear to be greater than all human teaching; because Christ, who appeared for our sakes, became the whole rational being, both body, and reason, and soul. For whatever either lawgivers or philosophers uttered well, they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Word. But since they did not know the whole of the Word, which is Christ, they often contradicted themselves. (Justin Martyr, Second Apology, 10).
Note from the latter quotation that Justin, the forerunner of Patristic philosophy, was inclusivist in his understanding of the Logos. However, he was not suggesting a syncretism between Christianity and ancient philosophy. He acknowledged that the philosophers ‘did not know the whole Word’ and therefore could and did err in many ways. However, he affirmed that the ideas of the philosophers that accorded with the full revelation of the Logos in Christ Incarnate were actually inspired by the Eternal Christ/Logos.
Clement of Alexandria who taught at the Cathecetical School Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 AD - ) also argued that the Logos enlightens all people: ''No one is a Cimmerian (in Greek mythology this people lived far in the north where it was always dark) in respect of the Word’’ (Exhortations to the Greeks 9.72). Clement exhorted the Greeks: ‘’ But there was of old implanted in man a certain fellowship with heaven, which thought darkened through ignorance, yet at times leaps suddenly out the darkness and shines forth,’’ and he proceeded to quote verses out of the Greek tragedian Euripides as examples (Exhortation 2.21). Thus all people know something of God, and pagan philosophy can be instructive. Philosophy was give by the Greeks as a preparation for the gospel. Human reason is itself a gift from God and can know something of God from reflecting on the universe itself. Moreover, the Logos has inspired some Greeks to speak in a manner analogous to the Hebrew prophets: ‘’The Greeks spoke as they were moved’’ (Miscellanies 22.214.171.124). God guides some leaders from other nations with a special inspiration so that they can help the multitudes.
Clement, clearly echoing Paul in Galatians 3:24 (the laws of Moses was ‘ our pedagogue to bring us to Christ’) actually wrote in several places of his belief that the best of Greek philosophy had been inspired in terms of it being a ‘‘pedagogue to bring the Greek mind to Christ, just as the Law had brought the Jews’’. The term ‘pedagogue’, which the Authorised Version translates as meaning ‘school master’, does not actually refer to a teacher. In the classical world the pedagogue was often a slave and his work was to guide and protect a boy on the journey to and from school holding the lamp in the dark early mornings, walking in front of the boy to prevent any attackers; and to sit behind the boy with a long stick during lessons and administer a sharp thwack if the boy slacked or misbehaved. In this vein, the Church historian Eusebius Pamphilus( c.265 – c. 340 AD) wrote of Plato in his ‘On the Preparation for the Gospel’ as being the ‘The Attic Moses’.
However, the inclusiveness of Clement is balanced by a sharp critical judgement. Clement is fierce in his polemics against the licentiousness and the violence of the Greek gods and goddesses: ‘’Your gods are inhuman and man hating demons, who not only exult over the insanity of men but go so far as to enjoy human slaughter’’ (Exhortation to the Greeks 3.36). Clement warns against the immoral example of the Greek deities: ‘’Cease the song Homer. There is no beauty in that; it teaches adultery’’ (Exhortation 4,52) [Here Clement is alluding to the central story of Homer’s Illiad – the abduction of Helen the Queen of the Greek King Menelaus by the Trojan Prince Paris. This is the occasion for the terrible ten year war between the Greek confederation and the City of Troy in modern Turkey – which Homer celebrates as glorious and spurred on by rival elements in the High Council of gods, but which Clement viewed as an enormity]. Clement understands the Psalmist to be condemning the Greco-Roman gods: ‘’With the utmost plainness and brevity the prophetic word refutes the custom of idolatry when it says, ‘All the gods of nations are images of daemons’’ (Exhortation. 4.54).
Like Clement, Origen (184/185 – 253/254 AD), who was Clements’s successor at the Catechetical School of Alexandria but who was probably never Clements’s pupil, combined trust in the universal working of the Logos with a polemic against the violence and idolatry of other religions. Responding to the pagan polemicists Celsus, who argues that each nation should follow its own customs of worship, Origen drew out the consequences of accepting all traditional l religions because they are old and established: ‘’It follows from his view that the Scythians do no wrong because they indulge in cannibalism according to natural customs’’ (Against Celsus 5.36). In contrast to … Celsus, Origen stresses that it is precisely the violence of concrete religion that forbids acceptance of all religious customs. If custom is king, as Celsus urges, then there is no basis for rejecting the practice of child sacrifice.
When Celsus mocks the claim of the Jews to be chosen by God, Origen defends the claim by pointing to their manner of life. Their rejection of idols and the ethical ideals that they proclaimed and lived distinguished them from other nations (Against Celsus 5. 42043). Origen also proposed a critical appropriation of elements of other religions and cultures based on their coherence with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He praised Plato and used Platonic though extensively in the constructing his own system of theology.
Of course the tradition of Christian Philosophy was not loved by all early Christians. It had a notable detractor in Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240 AD - the Christian leader from the provinces in North Africa. Thus Tertullian wrote -
“Writing to the Colossians, he [Paul] 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!” (Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, 7)
I can think of how the Christian philosophers would have answered his accusation – but will save this for another post. Obviously Tertullian is the bad boy for Universalists; an unmerciful Father, the originator the abominable fancy – that the elect will look down and relish the torments of the damned. However for the moment I simply observe that Tertullian’s tirade contains a pretty paradox – in no way did he transcend classical culture. He was trained as a Roman lawyer – and he learnt his ideas of church discipline from Roman law, as he learnt his skills of sarcasm, his invective and his need to annihilate any opposition with his words. He never appears to have reflected on this. Roman law was at this time extremely adversarial .Not long before Tertullian’s time, in a way that still influenced the forms of legal proceedings, the prosecuting council that lost the case was in danger of having a large ‘K’ for ‘Kalumniator’ (‘slanderer’) branded on his forehead. So the stakes were high and the need to annihilate opposition had a sharp and painful focus. Tertullian, at first the defender of orthodoxy in violent polemic, in the end joined the heretical Montanist group and then proceeded to turn his invective against the Orthodox Church as ‘nothing but a club run by a bunch of Bishops’.