[New lecture, May 20, 2011.  This material is well covered in the Dulles book, pp. 38-46 and  62-72]


With some exceptions

Apologists like Tatian and Tertullian launch long diatribes against pagan ideas and practices—often amusing diatribes, always instructive.  Tertullian’s “On Spectacles,” for instance, is a fascinating condemnation of Roman taste in entertainment with lots of insights into human psychology and the way in which our tastes in entertainment affect us.  Partly, what we get in Tatian and Tertullian is the quite natural reaction to persecution.  See your favorite teacher killed by a “philosopher” emperor and you’re not going to be too impressed with philosophy.  But there is something else going on as well.  Tatian and Tertullian are thoroughly educated within the pagan philosophical tradition, and their anger in part, is the anger of disillusionment and disappointment in a set of ideas that had once been their own.  Notice that these apologists all have an exceptionally strong will to truth, a will to truth that led them to an intense study of philosophy before their conversion to Christianity.

But conversion can mean various things.  It can be a complete turnaround, a complete rejection of one’s previous ideas.  But, more often, conversion involves a rejection of only partly a rejection of former things and may mean even a deeper affirmation of parts of one’s former tradition.  The Apostle Paul’s conversion involved a major transformation: but it was by no means a complete rejection of his Jewish heritage.

For the intellectuals of the Roman Empire, conversion to Christianity necessitated an abrupt break in some areas of their lives: no more visiting temple prostitutes (if they had done so before), no more pagan sacrifices or blowing kisses at images of Serapis.   But how deep would be their break with the intellectual and literary tradition of the Greeks and the Romans?  Some passages in both Tatian and Tertullian would suggest that there would have to be a complete break: What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?

But while condemning many if not most of the philosophers, there seemed to be within the philosophical tradition exceptions to the general rule that philosophy was worthless.  The most important of these exceptions: Socrates and Plato.  Some of the followers of Plato, too, felt to some Christians like fellow-travelers along the road to truth, particularly Plotinus (c. AD 204-270) one of the founders of what comes to be called Neo-Platonism.

Origins of Christian Platonism

The tendency to fuse Christian teaching with Platonic comes in part, perhaps, through the influence of Philo, a Jewish writer who lived in Alexandria around AD 20-50.  Philo had developed an allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament that fit very nicely with the idea of Plato in works like the Timaeus and with important ideas from the Stoic philosophers as well.  For Philo, the idea that God spoke the world into being fit very nicely with the philosophers’ idea that the divine logos was the intermediary between the transcendent God and the created world. The fact that the Gospel of John uses and extends this idea (in the beginning was the word [logos] and the word was with God and the world was God) made it easier for Christians to justify the retention of at least some ideas from the philosophers.  Ultimately, the synthesis of  Christian ideas with Platonic philosophy and a bit of Stoic thinking becomes what we call Christian Platonism—a major ideology not only in the ancient world, but into the middle ages, through the Renaissance and Reformation, and into the modern period with writers like C.S. Lewis.

Who knows what lurks in the heart of man? Clement of Alexandria knows

The first great Christian Platonist was Clement of Alexandria (c.150 - c. 215).  He wrote a great trilogy of apologetic works which we generally call the Exhortation to the Heathen, The Instructor, and Stromateis.  It surprises me somewhat that there the Bush anthology doesn’t include any selections from Clement, but Clement of late has fallen on somewhat hard times among the few contemporary scholars who even know who he is.  I suspect that this is partly because Clement’s ideas on the differences between men and women are out of sync with the spirit of our age.  Not his comments on beards:
 "How womanly it is for one who is a man to comb himself and shave himself with a razor, for the sake of fine effect, and to arrange his hair at the mirror, shave his cheeks, pluck hairs out of them, and smooth them!...For God wished women to be smooth and to rejoice in their locks alone growing spontaneously, as a horse in his mane. But He adorned man like the lions, with a beard, and endowed him as an attribute of manhood, with a hairy chest—a sign of strength and rule."
"This, then, is the mark of the man, the beard. By this, he is seen to be a man. It is older than Eve. It is the token of the superior nature....It is therefore unholy to desecrate the symbol of manhood, hairiness."
"It is not lawful to pluck out the beard, man's natural and noble adornment."

Clement has been blamed as a major contributor to a legalistic tendency within the Catholic and Orthodox churches. This seems to me a misunderstanding—or, perhaps, the natural reaction of those for who Clement’s ideas call for a bit of flesh-burning. Clement’s short treatise “Who is the Rich Man that can be saved?” is not going to make wealthy people comfortable.  But Clement isn’t trying to make them comfortable!  He’s trying to make sure they are saved!

Clement’s main apologetic themes are similar to those we have looked at already, and, once again, what makes him significant is his arrangement and presentation of these themes. What he’s up to is somewhat clearer if, rather than using what have become the standard English titles of the three-part work mentioned, we use more literal translations of the Greek and Latin titles.  Our three volume series: The Preceptor, the Pedagogue, the Instructor.  Each volume marks one step along the road to conversion.  The first points to the folly of worship idols and reminds the Greeks and Romans of what their own poets have said about the gods and their behavior:

This is Jupiter the good, the prophetic, the patron of hospitality, the protector of suppliants, the benign, the author of omens, the avenger of wrongs; rather the unjust, the violater of right and of law, the impious, the inhuman, the violent, the seducer, the adulterer, the amatory. But perhaps when he was such he was a man; but now these fables seem to have grown old on our hands. Zeus is no longer a serpent, a swan, nor an eagle, nor a licentious man; the god no longer flies, nor loves boys, nor kisses, nor offers violence, although there are still many beautiful women, more comely than Leda, more blooming than Semele, and boys of better looks and manners than the Phrygian herdsman. Where is now that eagle? Where now that swan? Where now is Zeus himself? He has grown old with his feathers; for as yet he does not repent of his amatory exploits, nor is he taught continence. The fable is exposed before you: Leda is dead, the swan is dead. Seek your Jupiter. Ransack not heaven, but earth. The Cretan, in whose country he was buried, will show him to you,--I mean Callimachus, in his hymns:  "For thy tomb, O king, The Cretans fashioned!"

For Zeus is dead, be not distressed, as Leda is dead, and the swan, and the eagle, and the libertine, and the serpent. And now even the superstitious seem, although reluctantly, yet truly, to have come to understand their error respecting the Gods.
The 2nd Volume, the Instructor, offers detailed instruction on basic Christian lifestyle.  And then there’s the final book—on to Christian perfection.

Like Kierkegaard (intentionally) in Either/Or and Pascal (accidently) in Pensees, Clement abandons the idea of logical structure to present a series of idea and images.  The central question: who is the true knower, the true Gnostic.  Partly, of course, this a deliberate contrast to the gnostic heretics.  But it is also an appeal to philosophers to see following the Gospel as the ultimate path to truth.

Can you read this? Origen  

Ultimately, the works of men like Justin, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement meant that the equivalent of the academic community of the time, the schools of the philosophers, could no longer ignore Christian teaching or rely solely on the kind of superficial and erroneous challenges made by men like Crescens.  Toward the end of the 2nd century (Bush estimates AD 178) a Neo-Platonist philosopher named Celsus wrote a book “On the True Doctrine” attacking Christianity.  This time, the man launching the attack new what Christians actually taught, so his criticisms were, potentially, a lot more damaging to Christianity and, particularly, to the spread of Christianity among the philosophers.

Celsus’ work was popular enough among a certain segment of the pagan philosophical community, but the Christians soon blew away his arguments. Or, rather, one Christian in particular blew away his arguments: Origen.

Origen, unlike most of the other apologists, was born into a Christian family. His father Leonidas was martyred c. 202 when Origen was a boy. He would have followed his father, but mom, not willing to lose both husband and son, hid his clothes so he couldn't go out and boldly declare his faith in Christ.

And it was a mighty good thing for the church that Origen did survive. He was one of the most brilliant of all church writers. At the age of 18, he was in charge of a philosophical school, teaching logic, dialectic, natural science, geometry, astronomy, ethics, and theology.

He was an incredibly prolific writer. He is supposed to have written some 6,000 works. We know titles of 800, and many volumes of his writing have survived. He wrote so much that a later church writer asked the question "Who could read all Origen wrote?"

But Origen was impressive, not just for quantity, but for the quality of his work. Most historians would agree in calling him the greatest thinker of his day, perhaps one of the greatest thinkers of all time.

Against Celsus is really not Origen at his most interesting—certainly not his most interesting to us. Origen here follows a point by point refutation of each idea Celsus brings up, following (apparently) Celsus’ order rather than any system of his own.  And while some of Celsus’ criticisms of Christianity are very similar to those of the academic opponents of Christianity today, most of his objections would seem to us pretty trivial.  

One Origen expert says this in his introduction:

The rule which Origen prescribed to himself, of not allowing a single objection of his opponent to remain unanswered, leads him into a minuteness of detail, and into numerous repetitions, which fatigue the reader, and detract from the interest and unity of the work.

I entirely agree: but I also agree with this same writer’s view that, when it comes to rigorous argument, Origin has managed to dot every “i” and cross every “t”.  Or, maybe not quite.

Eusebius of Caesarea

Continuing the debate between Christian and non-Christian Platonists (and arguing for the pagan side) was a man named Porphyry (c. AD 234-305).  Porphyry was a versatile scholar: a fine mathematician and an expert in logic.  He also wrote a, now lost, treatise against Christianity. By this time, though, the Christian intellectual community was so strong that Porphyry’s work was challenged by several writers almost immediately.  Among those to answer Porphyry, Eusebius of Caesarea.

Eusebius eventually wrote the most lengthy and exhaustive of all the Christian apologetic works, a two part work which we generally call the Demonstration of the Gospel.  In the first volume (the Preparation for the Gospel), Eusebius makes extensive use of Greek philosophers, arguing that much of what the philosophers had said points to Christian truth.  It’s a very impressive compendium of philosophical wisdom, and there are many philosophers whose work would be gone entirely, who we might not even know about, had they not been quoted by Eusebius.  The 2nd volume, The Proof of the Gospel, is an exhaustive analysis of Old Testament prophecies fulfilled by Christ.

So what’s it all about?

In all of this give and take, argument and counter-argument, it’s easy for a modern reader to get lost in the details, often details we don’t care very much about.  And it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees.  What is the forest here, the big picture?  The fact that the Christians *were* arguing these points and arguing minutely.  This did not have to be.  Christianity might have become what many if not most religions are: a set of unquestioned and unquestionable doctrines.  Notice that, while the Moslem world preserved a great deal of philosophical writing that was, for a time, lost in the west, and, for a time, produced a few great experts in “falsafah” the Moslems ultimately only focused on parts of  philosophy that didn’t touch on religious/theological issues, e.g., the teachings of Aristotle on science and mathematics.

The Christian world might well have done the same thing.  We’ve found the truth: conversation closed.  God said it, I believe it, that settles it.  For good or for ill, in the Christian world the conversation about religious and theological issues would go on—and on--despite the many, many who would have wanted it to go no farther.