St. Paul’s Encounter with the Areopagus
“What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?
-Tertullian, Church Father (circa. 155-220)
After his 51 A.D. encounter with the Greek philosophers at the Areopagus, the Apostle Paul would probably have answered the above question with, “Not much.” Up until this time, Hebrew faith and Greek philosophy had been developing on parallel paths – separate by culture. It seems as though they had nothing in common. After all, the Greeks were the philosophical people and the Jews were the people of faith. Obviously, this is an oversimplification, but you get the point.
But here was the one chance for the two to come together – faith and reason in tandem. The Apostle Paul would bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures to the Greeks, the primary purveyors of philosophical ideas in the ancient world. With the meeting of the two, faith would have the philosophical language by which to express itself, and reason would have the revelation it needed in order to reason rightly.
Well, it didn’t quite happen that way. Paul preached on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a central tenant of the Christian faith, and received a tepid response at best. According to the account in Acts 17, when Paul mentioned the resurrection, some began to scoff at him while others asked him to return so that they could hear more. He ultimately left with only a smattering of converts. What happened?
Greek Philosophy in Decline
Philosophy, at this time, was at its nadir.1 It was a pale reflection of the heights that it attained during the time of Plato and Aristotle. The rich meaning of much of Aristotle’s writings would not be unpacked and understood until the Middle Ages. For the interim, Aristotle had left the Greek world with a transcendent “unmoved mover” that was completely uninvolved in an increasingly chaotic world.
Greek philosophy, therefore, had degenerated into magic, superstition, and sophistry. Instead of seeking virtue as the earlier Greeks had done after Socrates, many of them pursued a life of pleasure and debauchery. That is why St. Paul warned the Colossians not to be taken captive by “philosophy” (Colossians 2:8). This is the type of philosophy he was talking about, not that of Plato and Aristotle.
Nevertheless, the people still hungered for the divine, for the unknown god who was not only transcendent, but was immanently involved in their world. This is why the Stoics developed more of a pantheistic approach. The world, according to the Stoics, was infused with God. Everything was God. He was the soul and the universe was his body. A city full of statues of gods and temples indicated the Athenians’ desire to find God. That is why they had the reputation of being the most religious city in the ancient world.
The Athenians: A People of Religion and Philosophy
Despite the decline of Greek philosophy, Athens still retained its prestige as the home of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who had lived several centuries prior.2 Athens stood foremost as one of the most respected and revered cities of the ancient world. A visit to Athens in Paul’s time would be similar to a visit to Rome or Florence today. One would encounter a once-great culture whose grandeur was still shining through, despite its degradation.
Even though philosophy in first century Athens paled in comparison to Plato’s Academy, the Athenians still had philosophy in their genes. Because of this, the Greeks still put an emphasis on rationality as the preeminent trait that separated humans from all other creatures. This was their heritage; it was who they were.
With their penchant for religiosity combined with their emphasis on rationality, one would think that Paul would have had an easier time in Athens. But this wasn’t the case. He tried his best, becoming all things to all men that he may win some to the faith. To the Greeks, he became like a Greek, quoting poets of Greek philosophy like Epimenides and Aratus, with which they were familiar, instead of Hebrew Scriptures.
The Athenians had a reputation for being a religious people, and Paul acknowledged this by calling them “superstitious.”3 He used more of a generic, ambivalent Greek word that could mean “religious” or simply just “superstitious.” He wanted to acknowledge their religiosity without complementing them, since it was forbidden to flatter the court of the Areopagus! One simply had to state their case to the court without saying anything positive about those who were presiding, lest it be construed as flattery.
Paul’s Failure in Athens
Things seemed to be going quite well until he got to the part about the resurrection. The account says, “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer.” This seemed to be the deal breaker. Faith and reason were off to an awkward beginning. Part of the reason for the Greeks’ revulsion at the idea of the resurrection was the dualism that they inherited from the earlier philosophers, especially Plato. The Greeks had a propensity to see the spiritual realm as good, while the physical was bad in comparison to the non-material.
In addition to that, one of their own playwrights, Aeschylus, has no less than the god Apollo in one of his plays saying,
“Once a man dies and the earth drinks up his blood, there is no resurrection.”4
Now if Paul would have stressed the eternality of the soul, he might have gotten somewhere. Since the body is made of inferior matter or “stuff,” then what benefit would a resurrection be? What good would there be in returning in a material body to a material world? When Paul spoke of Christ, he spoke about “the man that God had appointed to judge the world who returned from the dead.” Again, they probably wondered why this judge had to return from the dead. Why would he return to the inferior status of having a human body?
So it was an awkward first date, to say the least, between faith and reason. But like many awkward first dates, it would turn out to be a match made in heaven. It is true that the city of Athens would not embrace Christian theology and convert to Christianity for another 500 years, but the influence of the Greek language and philosophical ideas would start to impact Christianity almost immediately.5
St. John and the Synthesis of Christian Theology with Greek Philosophy
Where Paul failed, St. John the Apostle succeeded. John, rather than discussing who Jesus was historically, in chapter 1 of his Gospel explained who Jesus was metaphysically, for the Greeks were not interested in history as much as philosophy and metaphysics. When John said in his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Logos,” he brought faith and reason together.6 For the word Logos (translated “Word” in English) was a Greek philosophical word brimming with meaning. To the Greeks, the word Logos was the universal ordering principle of the universe. It had rich layers of meaning. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent word in English. “Word” is the best we have and it fails to adequately capture the meaning of the Greek word Logos. For a complete exposition of what the term “logos” meant to the Greeks, please see the following posts:
- 32. Heraclitus of Ephesus
- 33. Heraclitus and Logos
- 34. Logos and Heraclitus
- 35. Logos: From Heraclitus to the Stoics
- 36. Logos: From the Stoics to Philo of Alexandria
- 37. Logos: From Philo of Alexandria to St. John the Apostle
E. Michael Jones, the author of Logos Rising, states that when John used the Greek term Logos, he baptized philosophy. He thus sanctified Greek philosophy for use in Christian theology, bringing the two together.7 It wouldn’t be long before the church fathers started borrowing terms from Greek philosophy and language in order to attempt to explain different aspects of Christian theology, such as the Trinitarian nature of God, the nature of Christ, the identity of Mary, and so forth. This is when the foundational theology of the Christian Church was developed in what was called the Patristic Era.8 The Patristic Period, starting around 100 AD, included seven church councils spanning from the first council of Nicaea in 325 and ending with the second council of Nicaea in 787.
The Church Wrestles with Christian Faith and Greek Philosophy
During this time that the Church was laying a sound theological foundation, there seemed to be more of an emphasis on theology than philosophy. There were many exceptions, of course, like the development of Neoplatonism by Ammonious Saccas (175-241) and Plotinus (205-270).9 The church father Origen (185-254) blended Neoplatonism with Christianity. The philosopher Pophyry (233-305) was a non-Christian who actually wrote polemics against Christianity. He was one of the first Neoplatonists who allowed Aristotle to be taken seriously by combining elements of Aristotelian thought with Platonism. By doing this, he made Aristotle “safe” for Platonists to study. He saw Plato as superior, but many of his readers and followers shifted their allegiance to Aristotle.
The world was dominated by Greek thought until the time of Christianity. With the advent of Christianity, there were now two competing, but not mutually exclusive, systems of thought in the ancient world. The operative question in that time among thinkers was how these two systems fit together. What was the relationship between faith and reason, or Athens and Jerusalem? In later posts, we will study the above characters – Plotinus, Origen, and Porphyry – to get an idea of what was going on in the dynamic between Ancient Greece and Christian thought at the beginning of this process. Needless to say, there was a lot of back and forth during this period as people were trying to work out the relationship between faith and reason.
St. Augustine Reframes Philosophy in the Context of Christian Theology
By the time we get to St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), some of the dust had started to settle, but there was still a long way to go. Augustine was a Catholic theologian and philosopher who served as Bishop of Hippo in Northern Africa.10 He became a Platonist and remained one to the end of his life, although not an unqualified one. He credited Platonism with leading him toward the truth of Christ, but he was willing to modify aspects of his Platonic belief in order to conform it to his Christian beliefs. He took from Plato a particular outlook as opposed to a rigid set of beliefs, and even interpreted Scripture in terms of his Platonic perspective. But he never compromised his faith for the sake of his philosophy.
Augustine used the analogy of the Exodus to explain how Christians should interact with philosophy.11 He pointed out that when the Israelites left Egypt, they plundered the silver and gold, but left the idols behind. So too, he said, we should take from pagan philosophy anything of value, and leave the idolatry. It’s similar to the concept of “leave the gun, take the cannoli.” After all, truth is truth wherever it may be found.
Augustine coined the Latin phrase crede ut intelligas, which means “believe that you may understand.”12 In his perspective, the relationship between faith and reason could be summed up in the phrase “faith seeking understanding.” According to Augustine, in order to understand, to have enlightened reason, we must first believe. We moderns demand “evidence” in order to believe, whereas Augustine reversed the order – believe that you may understand.
Faith Seeking Understanding
About 250 years after the close of the Patristic era, after the second council of Nicaea, an Italian named Anselm was born in the city of Aosta in the Holy Roman Empire.13 Aosta is still a city in Northern Italy. Anselm became a Benedictine monk, abbot, and Catholic philosopher and theologian. He also served as the Archbishop of Canterbury, England from 1093 until his death in 1109.
With Anselm, we see the beginning of medieval philosophy, also called Scholasticism.14 The medieval philosophers were armed not only with Greek philosophy, but with 800 years of robust Catholic theology. Anselm’s philosophical career started in 1078 when he became abbot of the monastery of Bec in Normandy. Under Anselm’s tutelage, Bec became the foremost center of learning in all of Europe.
The exact phrase, fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding) was introduced by Anselm in his work entitled Proslogion.15 It is similar to Augustine’s crede ut intelligas. Anselm’s phrase really sums up the entire endeavor of the medieval philosophers – to discover the relationship between faith and philosophy. It was as if they had been handed the entirety of Greek philosophy and Christian faith (specifically, Catholicism) and it was up to them to put the pieces together. They had been handed the raw materials and they took it on themselves to create something that was both beautiful and useful. And that they did, approaching that task with a rigor unmatched before or since. They paid attention to the smallest details while at the same time keeping the big picture in view. These were the Scholastics of the Middle Ages.
It would have seemed very odd to them to separate faith and reason like we do today. In fact, they would have been aghast at the thought of doing so. In the minds of philosophers during this time, there wasn’t a division between theology and philosophy – or faith and reason. Many of the medieval thinkers that we will study were theologians and philosophers simultaneously. They considered philosophy to be the “handmaiden of theology”. This maxim of the medieval scholastics was stated as sophia theologiae ancilla.16 Theology was the queen of all the sciences. It held the superior status, but philosophy was likewise important for understanding and elucidating faith. Philosophy provided the proper tools by which theology could be understood and explained. Christian theology provided truth that could not be obtained through human reason alone, like the doctrine of the Trinity. Yet at the same time, reason was valuable so as to defend the doctrine of the Trinity.
They viewed the relationship between faith and reason as a harmonious relationship that reflected the relationship between God and man, a delicate dance that was both beautiful and illuminating. Through faith seeking understanding, man was acting as a coworker with God, as St. Paul states in one of his epistles, in order to build His church.17 The great Gothic cathedrals are just one example of the fruit of such endeavors – the beauty of the cathedral representing the reality of the living Church, the people of God.18
Besides, reason itself is the main characteristic that sets us apart from all other earthly creatures and why we alone have the distinction of being made in the image of God. By using our minds to understand the Truth, we are merely giving back to God what He has given to us and thus glorifying Him in the process. By not using our minds, we are failing to act as His image bearers and thus failing to glorify Him.
So the Scholastic thinkers were all in agreement in the matter of faith seeking understanding.19 This was their common theme. They all believed that philosophy could and should be used in order to defend the faith, to establish the Truth of Christianity, even using non-Christian philosophers like Plato and Aristotle to do this.
This brings up the point that they were all accommodating to pagan philosophers.20 After all, truth is truth wherever it may be found. They would be perplexed at the bifurcation that exists today between faith and reason – secular philosophers and scientists who reject faith claims and people of faith who reject philosophy because it is too “secular.” Unfortunately, this is one of the bad fruits of the so-called Enlightenment.
The Rediscovery of Aristotle
Despite these similarities, they also had their differences. A lot of this depended upon which Greek philosophers where in vogue at the time. Platonism dominated from the early Christian era well into the 12th century.21 Because of Muslim philosophers like Avicenna (980-1037) and Averroes (1126-1198) who translated Aristotle into Latin, Aristotle was then reintroduced into Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. By the middle of the 13th century, the complete works of Aristotle were available.
The rediscovery of Aristotle had helped solve problems yet also created new ones. It helped solve philosophical problems because it provided an entirely new body of work that contained more material as well as a fresh perspective by which to approach philosophy. But since some of Aristotle’s views, like Plato’s, didn’t comport with Christianity, 13th century philosophers had to figure out how to integrate this material in a way that was useful and beneficial but without compromising the revealed faith.22
For example, St. Bonaventure (1221-1274), a mystic, theologian and philosopher, saw pagan philosophy as incomplete.23 He quoted from Aristotle probably more than anyone else at the time, but cautioned against the overutilization of pagan philosophy. He saw all of philosophy as in service to Christian theology. He said that philosophy could not properly function without the light of faith.
Albert the Great (1200-1280)24, on the other hand, embraced Aristotelian thought more fully. He did more than other philosopher in making the study of Aristotle respectable, and even systematized his theology based on Aristotelian philosophy. Along with St. Bonaventure, these two men are just two examples of the wide variety of approaches to faith and reason present in the Scholastic period despite their common belief that there was no incompatibility between the two.
St. Thomas Aquinas, the High Point of Scholasticism
Albert the Great had a student who had been nicknamed the “dumb ox” because he was a big lumbering character who never spoke.25 Albert recognized him as a genius, and said about him, “Once this dumb ox starts to speak, his bellowing will be heard throughout the world.” That student was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). St. Thomas represents the high point of the Scholastic period. He was responsible for the near-perfect synthesis of faith and reason as he combined Aristotelian thinking and Catholic theology in what we know as the Summa Theologica. There has not been a clearer integration of the two before or since St. Thomas.
Ironically, shortly after Aquinas died, his ideas fell out of disfavor.26 Nevertheless, philosophers continued to work out the relationship between faith and reason, but from a different angle. The philosophical landscape was changing. The death of the philosopher William of Ockham (famous for “Ockham’s Razor”) in 1347 seems to have marked the end of an era.
The Decline of the Pursuit of Faith and Reason
With Ockham’s passing, the Aristotelians in the universities seemed to lose their passion for working out the relationship between faith and reason.27 There were many reasons for this. One being the increasingly pressing questions of law and authority in the church and the state that were arising due to various controversies. Because of this, political philosophy became more of an emphasis at the expense of faith and philosophy discussions. Discussions of faith and reason were seen in the rearview mirror as ideas of political philosophy moved the world forward toward the modern age.
Eventually came the Reformation and the Enlightenment, and with that, the modern age. Faith and reason were torn asunder. One was pitted against the other in an antagonistic manner and they remain that way today.28 On the reason side, we have “evidentialism,” and on the faith side we have “fideism.” Scientists and philosophers are often viewed as faithless and Christians as irrational.
It is the purpose of this blog to seek to understand where we have come from and where we went wrong. The conversation between faith and reason was left unfinished in the 14th century. What is left is not to return to and relive the past, but to pick up where the philosophers of old left off, and to continue to build upon the structure that they started – to rediscover something old, and to create something new out of it. In order to do that, we will have to recover the presuppositions of the past that allowed faith and reason to flourish together and reject the modern ones that foster antipathy between faith and reason.
It took decades and even centuries to build the great Gothic cathedrals of old. In order to rebuild true and sound philosophy and Christian theology, it will take the same determination and patience exhibited by those master builders.
Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 1, 5) said:
“Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a schoolmaster to bring “the Hellenic mind,” as the law, the Hebrews, “to Christ.” Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ.“
Be the first to start the conversation on this post. Please leave a comment below. Thank you!
- http://rugwig.blogspot.com/2015/08/st-augustine-on-spoils-of-egyptians.htmlJones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, pp. 200-201, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020
- Bruce, F.F., The Book of Acts, p. 329, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Revised ed. edition, June 30, 1988
- Bruce, F.F., The Book of Acts, p. 335
- Bruce, F.F., The Book of Acts, p. 343
- Ehrlich, Blake and Vanderpool, Eugene. “Athens”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 28 Jan. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/place/Athens.
- Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, pp. 212-213
- Kelly, John N.D., “Patristic literature”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 Aug. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/patristic-literature.
- Gress Ph.D., Carrie, Lecture 10 “Dawn of the Christian Era,” from the course “A Survey of the Philosophy of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful,” Master of Sacred Arts Program, Pontifex University, https://www.pontifex.university
- Tornau, Christian, “Saint Augustine”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/augustine/.
- Adamson, Peter, “First Believe, Then Understand, Peter Adamson reviews the relation between reason and revelation,” from Philosophy Now Magazine, https://philosophynow.org/issues/133/First_Believe_Then_Understand
- Williams, Thomas, “Saint Anselm”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “1.Life and Works”, (Winter 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/anselm/.
- Kemp, John Arthur. “Saint Anselm of Canterbury”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 17 Apr. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Anselm-of-Canterbury.
- Williams, Thomas, “Saint Anselm”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/anselm/.
- F.J. Clemens, De scholasticorum sententia philosophiam esse theologiae ancillam commentatio e miinster, 1856; Clemens was one of the first scholars to trace the maxim back to Philo. Since then, this origin has become well known: cf. e.g. E. Norden, Antike Kunstprosa II, LeipZig/Berlin 1918, repro Darmstadt 1958, 670-79 as cited in a paper by Henrichs, Albert, “Philosophy, the Handmaiden of Theology, http://chartes.it/images/attachment/Henrichs,%20Philosophy.pdf
- 1 Corinthians 3:9
- Simson, Otto Von, The Gothic Cathedral, Bollingen Series, expanded edition, pp. xvii-xxiii, Princeton University Press, New York, 1989
- Williams, Dr. Thomas, Reason and Faith in the Middle Ages, p. 1, The Great Courses, The Teaching Company, Chantilly, VA, 2007
- Gress Ph.D., Carrie, Lecture 19 “Non-Christian Influence: Avicenna, Averroes, and Maimonides”
- Gress Ph.D., Carrie, Lectures 21-22 “Bonaventure (1221-1274 -The Seraphic Doctor
- Gress, Ph.D., Carrie, Lecture 23: “St. Albert the Great (Albert (Albert Magnus, c. 1200-1280)”
- Gress, Ph.D., Carrie, Lecture 24: “St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) -The True”
- Williams, Dr. Thomas, Reason and Faith in the Middle Ages, 91-93
- Sala, Fr, Giovanni B., “The Drama of the Separation of Faith and Reason,” Catholic Culture, 2021, https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=953
I was inspired, in part, to start this blog after listening to the following from Great Courses. I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in Western philosophy:
Williams, Dr. Thomas, Reason and Faith in the Middle Ages, The Great Courses, The Teaching Company, Chantilly, VA, 2007
Bibliography and Sources:
Agbaw-Ebai, Maurice Ashley, Light of Reason, Light of Faith: Joseph Ratzinger and the German Enlightenment, St. Augustine Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2021
Albert & Thomas, edited by John Farina, The Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press, New York-Mahwah, 1988
St. Anselm, Anselm of Canterbury, the Major Works, edited by Brian Davies, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York, 1998
Aquinas, St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, Christian Classics, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1948
St. Augustine, The Confessions, translated by Maria Boulding, New City Press, Hyde Park, New York, 2002
Faith and Reason, Philosophers Explain Their Turn to Catholicism, edited by Brian Besong and Jonathan Fuqua, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2019
Bruce, F.F., The Book of Acts, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Revised ed. edition, June 30, 1988
Copleston, S.J., Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book One, An Image Book, Doubleday, New York, 1985
Dawson, Christopher, Progress & Religion, An Historical Inquiry, The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1929, 2001
Eliade, Mircea, A History of Religious Ideas, From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries, translated by Willard R Trask, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1981
Greg, Samuel, Faith, Reason, and the Struggle for Western Civilization, Gateway Press, Washington, D.C., 2019
Hollis, Christopher, Noble Castle, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1941
Holzner, Joseph, Paul of Tarsus, Scepter, London, 2008
Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020
William of Ockham, Philosophical Writings, edited and translated by Philotheus Boehner, O.F.M., Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1990
Long, A.A., editor, The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1999
Simson, Otto Von, The Gothic Cathedral, Bollingen Series, expanded edition, pp. xvii-xxiii, Princeton University Press, New York, 1989
Swindal, James, Faith and Reason, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/faith-re
Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 2: The World of the Polis, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018
Vost, Kevin, St. Albert the Great, Champion of Faith and Reason, Tan Books, Charlotte, N.C., 2011