Athens and Jerusalem: A Quote and (Hopefully) an Article

On the 1139th anniversary of the repose
of St Cyril (in the world, Constantine
the Philosopher), Equal to the Apostles
and Enlightener of the Slavs.

April DeConick has called for a blog co-op today on the question of the relationship between Athens and Jerusalem. Being only slightly less lazy than Nick Norelli, I’ve decided to provide the passage where this fiery question occurs and then make some comments based on that, if only because the context of this question has all too easily faded from view as it has been asked from one generation to the next down the centuries. Our text comes from Tertullian’s De præscriptione hæreticorum VII.7-13:

Whence spring those “fables and endless genealogies,” and “unprofitable questions,” and “words which spread like a cancer?” From all these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names philosophy as that which he would have us be on our guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he 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! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides. (link)

Tertullian’s question (which in turn echoes St Paul’s question and argument to the Corinthians in a different, but in some ways related, context) concerns broadly the relationship between theology and philosophy, and more narrowly, between the faith of heretics, which is said to have been corrupted by the adoption of pagan teachings, and the faith of the Apostolic Church, which is said to have been derived from revelation (Plato’s “Academy” vs. “the porch of Solomon”). Of course, this raises the question of whether Apostolic Christianity itself did not succumb to the very same influence by paganism of which it accused others. This is an interesting (and vexing) question over which much ink has been spilled during the past two centuries; indeed, even our hero J. Gresham Machen dealt rather extensively with this subject as it relates to the Apostolic era in his 1921 Sprunt Lectures, published as The Origin of Paul’s Religion. But even if the foundational age of Christianity can itself be absolved from such a charge, could this still be claimed of Apostolic Christianity in the fluid second century, and even more, after Origen and Constantine? Did the Apostolic Church not fall prey then to the very kind of distorting pagan influence of which Tertullian earlier accused Valentinus and Marcion? Even Machen (!) seems to concede this point, citing a perceived “divergence” between the “Pauline doctrine of salvation” and the “Christianity of the Old Catholic Church” in the second century, an indictment that he extends to the Apostolic Fathers (OPR, pp. 6-7). For his part, von Harnack said regarding the Orthodox Church that she “is in her entire structure alien to the gospel and represents a perversion of the Christian religion, its reduction to the level of pagan antiquity”and, if I read him correctly, this on account of the perceived intrusion of pagan thought into the patristic Christianity of the III and IV centuries, to which that Church tenaciously clings. “Divergence,” “perversion”: is this truly the end result of any ingerence whatever of Athens in Jerusalem?

The answer, I think, is both “yes” and “no” because there are here truths held in tension by Apostolic and later Patristic Christianity. One the one hand, the content of pagan philosophical teaching is eschewed (“yes”) while on the the other its terminology and shape is retained (“no”); thus Tertullian is both right and wrong, whereas Machen and von Harnack are, I’m afraid, only wrong. As I once heard it put, the terms of pagan philosophy are like a vessel found in the mud and wholly defiled, which one then picks up and cleanses thoroughly in order to fill it with new content. But even this analogy falls short, because there is no adoption of philosophical categories in the Patristic tradition that does not involve a metamorphosis, a transformation, an adaptation that will make them suitable for a new purpose.

A superb article on this very subject, entitled “Comments on the Transformation of Hellenistic Philosophical Nomenclature in the Byzantine Patristic Tradition” and written by Orthodox scholars Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna and Hieromonk Patapios, was recently published in Glossa: An Ambilingual Interdisciplinary Journal (Vol. 2 No. 1, December 2006). It is unfortunately no longer available online, but I have requested permission from the editor to make it available here at least temporarily, since this new journal is as yet of rather limited circulation. This is a fine discussion of the relationship of Athens and Jerusalem in Patristic thought which will undoubtedly be of interest to many readers; and, if permission is forthcoming, I hope to upload the article for your reading pleasure early next week.

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