The Origins of Bad theology

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Part II

Read Part I Here

In the 2nd century, a Christian author named Tertullian asked the famous question “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”… and philosophy and ethics professors have been asking this question ever since.

Shout out to Lauren Sawyer, my amazing prof!!

People have used this question to think about the relationship between reason and faith, the church and the academy, the Christian and the heretic. I will use it this way….  what does philosophy have to do with theology?

In this video, I share five thoughts that came up for me as I tackled this question.

1. Philosophy and theology came from the same place

Both philosophy and theology ask deep questions about life, reality, and existence. As humans started to wonder about the universe, they looked up. Their views of God were mixed with what they thought about the natural world…and Philosophy was born.

Philosophia: a love of wisdom is found in both theo and philo.

All areas of thought were at one time considered philosophy; Mathematics, science, theology, logic, biology, physics, poetry political science, astronomy. These are now broken into sub-disciplines, but it is philosophy that gives them a connecting point to talk to each other. They may come to different answers, but often they intersect and crisscross and inform one another.

As a would-be theologian I feel I can’t, and don’t want to, try and separate them

2. Tertullian presents a false dichotomy

Tertullian lived about 150 years after Jesus when the Christian community was fragile in terms of numbers and political power.  He was understandable zealous about making sure Christians had a right relationship to truth. Using the apostle Paul’s admonition from Colossians, he hoped to persuade his readers to stay away from heresies.

. .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” (1)

Unfortunately, his rhetorical question is a device to control what people read and thought. Like Aquinas would do centuries later, fear and shame kept curiosity in check. Like Aquinas would do centuries later, fear and shame kept curiosity in check.

In doing so he set up a false dichotomy of truth/heresy, biblical truth /worldly truth, right/wrong, ignorant/learned and pitted them against each other. Scripture was fixed and authoritative and contained all truth…so obviously, the Scriptures and the teachings of philosophy are incompatible.

For Tertullian, Christ is all the knowledge we need. To him, truth and wisdom are heavenly, clear and wholesome; revealed by the lord.

“After Jesus Christ we have no need of speculation, after the Gospel, no need of research. When we come to believe, we have no desireto believe anything else; for the first article of our faith is that there is nothing else we have to believe.” (2)

Tertullian also pushes back against questioning and curiosity. Since to be a Christian is to accept the teachings of Scripture once you find it there is no reason to keep looking.

“Since finding was the object of your search, and belief the result of your finding, your acceptance of the faith bars any prolonging of seeking and finding I have no patience with the man who is always seeking, for he will never find. He is seeking where there will be no finding. I have no patience with the man who is always knocking, for the door will never be opened. He is knocking at an empty house. I have no patience with the man who is always asking, for he will never be heard. He is asking one who does not hear” (3)

Clearly, there is so much that is problematic here. It is precisely this type of thinking that has stunted the growth of centuries of people and kept them from stepping into their full flourishing. It also prompts us to wield our truth as weapons over others.

Clement, a contemporary of Tertullian’s looked at the search for truth differently. He felt that truth can be found anywhere and if there is an absolute truth, to find it is the journey of a lifetime, not a destination…so I need to search everywhere. Clement came to a similar conclusion about the philosophers as I have come to feel about the church fathers. They are just dudes. “He does not place them on a pedestal and recognizes their moral failings”.He does not idolize them as the font of all and only wisdom and clarity”. (4)

They provide pieces in the big puzzle we are all trying to solve. Looking at truth this way helps us to hold it lightly, knowing tomorrow we might change our mind!

3. Christianity was crafted in & through Greek thought

Tertullian’s false binary between biblical wisdom and ‘worldly’ does not take into account that scripture was formed in and through greek thought. The role of Greek thought on Christianity is foundational and without question.

Though Tertullian paints the biblical account as pure and perfect, and tradition tells us that men were inspired by God to write a sacred, true and unchangeable account…there is nothing pure about it.  All interpretation is mediated. At every step of the journey, the story was told and interpreted through lenses embedded in the very philosophies he rails against. 

The church and academy have been so tightly intertwined that I don’t know how it is possible to say that there is a pure Christianity, unless one did believe the account fell from the sky. The authors wrote within a specific  Graeco-Roman framework built on the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, which influenced the way the text was written, constructed, and interpreted. 

Many of the Early Church Fathers including Origen, Clement, Augustine were all versed in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and Aristotelianism. These were instrumental in the crafting of the theology of the Trinity and the Nicene Creed. So even the scripture that Tertullian is defending has been informed and shaped by philosophical thought. EVEN Paul, who rails against philosophy in the book of Colossians, was undeniably influenced by the culture.

4. All philosophers are responding to theology 

Tertullian may have had a strong conviction about how Christians shouldn’t do too much thinking outside of scripture, but major western philosophers have definitely been impacted by “Jerusalem”. 

  • Some are categorized as both philosophers and theologians (Augustine and Aquinas)
  • Other’s work directly intersects their religious beliefs (Kant, Descartes and Pascal)
  • Still others process their religious upbringings and/or to push back. (Nietzsche, Foucault and  Sartre)

Examples of intersections of  philosophy and theology

Augustine laid the foundation for much of Christian doctrine and was heavily influenced by Neoplatonism, which he used to make sense of his spiritual journey. He writes from an early age to be “enflamed for philosophy”. Specifically, his reliance on dualistic language is prominent in his writings on sin and his seeming search to transcend himself and his sinful nature. In his writings in Confessions, philosophy and theological thought are tightly wound and almost dependent on each other. (5)

Aquinas draws heavily on philosophical thought, especially that of Aristotle, where he Aquinas ‘Christianized’ Aristotle’s thinking on virtue, ethics and purpose. He created a new way to bridge the gap between faith and philosophy which survived for centuries. The catholic church has lauded the central importance of Thomas’s theological and philosophical work. 

… it should be noted that different ways of knowing give us different sciences. The astronomer and the natural philosopher both conclude that the earth is round, but the astronomer does this through a mathematical middle that is abstracted from matter, whereas the natural philosopher considers a middle lodged in matter. Thus there is nothing to prevent another science from treating in the light of divine revelation what the philosophical disciplines treat as knowable in the light of human reason. (6)

Kant wrote about both theological and philosophical topics and his relationship with religion is debated heavily. His categorical imperative is a direct pushback on the historical importance religion played in the lives of most people. Though trying to remove the influence of religion on how we think about morality, it actually feels like a repurposing of the “do unto others” to a more rational-based way of thinking. (7)

Wollstonecraft  In her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft seeks to expand human rights to include women and was “The first internationally recognized philosophical treaties to analytically address women’s rights along the radical political questions raised by the French Revolution.” Throughout the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft uses arguments of the enlightenment philosophers to argue that women are also capable of rational thought. She also nods to the Church’s authority on gender roles and uses biblical stories in her narrative. (8)

Descartes For millennia, philosophical and religious ideas were intertwined and implied, but during this Age of Reason this was being questioned and these disciplines were beginning to be studied separately. Descartes’ thought is characterized by a tension between faith and reason with which the philosopher never fully comes to grips. In spite of his many criticisms of the tradition and his endeavor to proceed from entirely new, entirely rational foundations, Descartes appeals in a number of his writings to the importance of faith in human life and the inner compatibility between faith and reason. (9)

Pascal is an enlightenment thinker who does not try to separate his faith from modern reason. His Catholic faith was of great importance to how work and in his defense of Christianity in the Pensées, drew on philosophies of Pyrrhonism and Stoicism, specifically Montaigne. He holds a unique place among modern philosophers in that, though he accepts the idea of separation of church and state, he also believes that the church must be the ultimate authority. (10)

More coming soon.

5. Social issues are impacted by the connection

Family, marriage, sexuality, mental illness, politics, all become the battlefields for philosophical and theological ideas and they are often complicit with each other in oppression and injustice.


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