Valuing wisdom from non-Christians
The early church in its first few centuries had to wrestle with the issue of the relation between faith and reason, between knowledge from the biblical revelation and knowledge from the ordinary world or from the Greek philosophers. Most argued for consonance, but a few argued for conflict. Justin Martyr said, “Whatever all people have said well belongs to us Christians.” Clement of Alexandria thought that “philosophy acted as a schoolmaster to bring Greeks to Christ” as if it were a preparation for Christ. Augustine taught that if the pagan philosophers “have said anything which is true and consistent with our faith, we must not reject it, but claim it for our own use.” See their full quotes below:
We have been taught that Christ is the firstborn of God, and we have proclaimed that he is the Logos, in whom every race of people have shared. And those who live according to the Logos are Christians, even though they may have been counted as atheists—such as Socrates or Heracleitus, and others like them among the Greeks …Whatever all people have said well belongs to us Christians. For we worship and love, next to God, the Logos, who comes from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since it was for our sake that he became a human being, in order that he might share in our sufferings and bring us healing. (Justin Martyr, Apologia, 2nd Century)
Thus until the coming of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness. And now it assists those who come to the faith by a way of demonstration, as a kind of preparatory training for true religion. For “you will not stumble” (Proverbs 3:23) if you attribute all good things to providence, whether it belongs to the Greeks or to us. For God is the source of all good things, some directly (as with the Old and the New Testaments), and some indirectly (as with philosophy). But it might be that philosophy was given to the Greeks immediately and directly, until such time as the Lord should also call the Greeks. For philosophy acted as a schoolmaster to bring Greeks to Christ, just as the law brought the Hebrews. Thus philosophy was by way of a preparation, which prepared the way for its perfection in Christ. (Clement of Alexandria, Stomata, early 3rd century)
If those who are called philosophers, particularly the Platonists, have said anything which is true and consistent with our faith, we must not reject it, but claim it for our own use, in the knowledge that they possess it unlawfully. The Egyptians possessed idols and heavy burdens, which the children of Israel hated and from which they fled; however, they also possessed vessels of gold and silver and clothes which our forebears, in leaving Egypt, took for themselves in secret, intending to use them in a better manner (Ex. 3:21-22, 12:35-36) …In the same way, pagan learning is not entirely made up of false teachings and superstitions … It contains also some excellent teachings, well suited to be used by truth, and excellent moral values. Indeed some truths are even found among them which relate to the worship of the one God. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and their silver, which they did not invent themselves, but which they dug out of the mines of the providence of God, which are scattered throughout the world, yet which are improperly and unlawfully prostituted to the worship of demons. The Christian, therefore, can separate these truths from their unfortunate associations, take them away, and put them to their proper use for the proclamation of the gospel. (Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Doctrine, around 397 AD)
In contrast to the above, Tertullian of Carthage (in On the Rule of the Heretics, early 3rd century) asked the rhetorical question: “What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem?”
For philosophy provides the material of worldly wisdom, in boldly asserting itself to be the interpreter of the divine nature and dispensation. The heresies themselves receive their weapons from philosophy … It is the same subjects which preoccupy both the heretics and the philosophers. Where does evil come from, and why? Where does human nature come from, and how? … What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem? Between the Academy and the church? Our system of beliefs comes from the Porch of Solomon, who himself taught that it was necessary to seek God in the simplicity of the heart. So much the worse for those who talk of a “stoic”, “platonic”, or “dialectic” Christianity.
Tertullian saw much of the philosophical wisdom of the day as worthless. Such a question continues to resonate today in modern culture: do faith and secular reason, faith and science, have anything to do with one another? The mainstream answer articulated by Justin, Clement, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas is a most definite “yes.” But it is subtle, never a matter of all-or -nothing, either-or. It is a matter of both-and, making a proper discernment where our minds need to trust yet critically judge what they know from the Scriptures and the world in the light of one another. Not all philosophies or worldly perspectives are equally true or worthwhile: some thinking is to be rejected as inadequate to the goodness, truth, and beauty of Reality, the grandeur of Creation revealed in Christ.
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