Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition

Henry Chadwick has a good book on Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition. It is exactly what I want because it explains how the two gradually came together in the first five centuries. He studies Justin Marty, Clement & Origen of Alexandria

Justin Martyr is where Chadwick starts. He thinks Justin could explain Plato as well as anybody else around–not everybody’s take on Justin is as high. Justin studied philosophy and was keen to use it. What Chadwick points out is that he didn’t do it uncritically. This is important.

Here is a contrast that shows the importance: one of Justin’s contemporaries despaired of reconciling all the philosophical schools. This chap believed there was too much to understand, that the contradictions were irreconcilable, that in fact nothing could be known. Pessimistic. Another chap was optimistic: the various schools could be reconciled, a synthesis produced, they were all basically right and you just needed to work at it hard enough (interestingly, Chadwick finds this attitude similar to that of the Gnostics). Justin, in contrast, was critical. He believed there was truth and there was error in the classical tradition, and his criterion was the Christian tradition. He used what he was certain about to go into Greek philosophy and harvest it, but not without rejections.

Apologists were getting started: Christianity was unofficial and it was criminal to be a Christian. Should it please the authorities to act on it, they usually were not inclined, they could. The situation was unreasonable, and the apologists start apologizing to point this out. They reason reasonably, show comparisons from other legal contexts, bring in arguments made by pagan philosophers, etc. Justin kicks it off.

Celsus was incensed. He was a pagan. His attitude was: you can’t split pagan philosophy from pagan religion–as if what Justin did was some form of intellectual theft. Celsus’ position, however, was shaky ground because the philosophers had always been critical of their own pagan religion. Celsus also accused Christians of being dumb and their feeble attempts at intellectual respectability of being poor and monstrous use of pagan thought.

Celsus’ accusation seems to have provided motivation for Clement. He did what Justin did: tour the ancient world looking for a good teacher to help him go deeper. He ended up in Alexandria and helped to further the growing relationship between Christianity and philosophy. He was critical too, but didn’t say with Justin that Plato plagiarized Moses. He said, I’ve read, that just as God made a covenant of law with Israel, he made a covenant of reason with the Greeks. Sunny Clement. Apparently in second-century Alexandria the line between Christians and Gnostics was blurred (all lines were blurred, according to Gonzales); Clement went to work to make sure the lines Christians were drawing were clear.

Clement is called a liberal puritan by Chadwick. Clement was pretty keen, as Justin had been, on Stoic ethics, which are strict, while he rejected the pantheism and fatalism and whatnot else accruing. And Clement was fine with making grand use of philosophy. Why should not Christians think? Paul had warned against being deceived by philosophy, but not against making proper use of it. Origen, whom Chadwick calls an illiberal humanist, was a bit more in conflict about using philosophy, though he did it lavishly–it was a deeper part of him than he realized. At one point he got rid of the fine library of pagan thought he’d collected. It reminds me of Jerome dreaming of Christ accusing him of being Ciceronian and not Christian, or of Augustine confessing the vanity of the learning which makes his Confessions timeless.

Origen was always a student of Scripture (and though he was not tortured to death, he died of being tortured for his faith, never recanting). Origen ended up having flights of speculation that would in subsequent generations get him in trouble (Chadwick’s explanation of Origen I think favors Origen more than perhaps it should. But it is a very hard thing to tell: there are wild extremes when it comes to views on Origen and one being ignorant of most of the primary materials . . .), but that was done to show what thinking could do. His speculations seem to have been done without the benefit of the right genre–if only he had given himself to Science Fiction! I read Perelandra and I think, O Origen! If only you had given yourself to this. Perhaps he was not only the George MacDonald of his age, he was meant to be the C.S. Lewis too. Everybody wanted his commentaries, his influence was immense, he was an original and neo-platonic thinker. Other great minds would come, but Origen was a bright beacon in the early darkness. Once he opened the gates wide, philosophy came to stay, and just in time for the great controversies in which the church found itself during the fourth and fifth centuries.


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