JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl

First Section. Patristic Philosophy.

General View and Division.

§ 56.

1. The age of the Fathers was the age which gave birth to Christian philosophy. When we speak of the birth of Christian philosophy we do not mean to imply that this philosophy was in its origin wholly independent of the philosophy which had preceded it. The life of humanity is continuous. A complete break with the past is impossible. The human mind cannot, even if it would, withdraw itself from the influence of the past. Christian philosophy, in its origin, was connected with the older philosophy; whatever of truth the latter contained was adopted by the Christian thinkers, made subservient to, and given a place in, the body of their teaching; they rejected only that which could not stand the light of Christian truth, or hear the scrutiny of the reason which that truth had enlightened.

2. We notice, however, even in the first beginnings of Christian philosophy, the appearance of those two divergent lines of thought to which we have called attention above. Some thinkers in the construction of their systems gave the first place to the older philosophy, made if their rule of guidance, and interpreted the doctrines of Christianity in accordance with its requirements. This method gave rise to the heretical systems which encounter us in the history of the first centuries of Christianity. An analogous method had already been followed by Philo the Jew, in his attempt to reconcile the religion of the Jews with Greek philosophy. What Philo had done in the case of Judaism, the heretics did in the case of Christianity. A distinctively rationalistic character was thus the essential feature of the heretical systems of early Christian times, the feature in which they contrasted most strongly with positive Christianity.

3. Other thinkers, again -- and these represented the true Christian philosophy -- accepted the ancient philosophy as an aid to Christian speculation, but they made the positive truths of Christianity their highest and guiding principles, and utilised the ideas and doctrines of the ancient philosophy in their speculations only so far as these were found in accord with Christian truth. In this method the positive faith of the Christian became the criterion of speculative knowledge; philosophical opinions were not the standard which determined the articles of faith, that is to say, fixed their meaning. This was the position taken up by all the Fathers of the Church, and to this method we owe those brilliant speculations in which their works abound.

4. Holding these principles, the Fathers of the Church, nevertheless, acknowledged the worth and the importance of the pre-Christian philosophy, and recognised the utility of the study of the philosophy of the Greeks. They had, it is true, no hesitation in exposing the errors of Greek philosophy, and the mutual contradiction of its various systems, and some thinkers -- Tertullian, for example -- did much effect to this. But this was not done with the purpose of entirely discrediting the ancient philosophy, or of denying its claim to the possession of a certain sum of truth; the design of the writers was to prove that philosophy, of itself, is not all-sufficient, that only the Incarnate Son of God and His Church are in possession of the fulness of truth.

5. The chief aim of the Fathers and writers of the Church in their scientific labours was, on the one hand, to defend the Christian doctrines against attacks and misconceptions, and on the other to develop and support as far as possible, on speculative grounds, the truths of revelation. It was for this purpose only that they made use of the ancient philosophy: it was to defend and establish by speculative theories the articles of the Christian faith that they employed it. In its characteristic features the patristic philosophy is a philosophy of religion. The heretical systems were not purely philosophical, they claimed to be philosophies of religion: in the same way, the speculations of the Fathers of the Church have in every case a scope which is religious as well as philosophical.

6. The central doctrine of this religious philosophy was, as might have been expected, the doctrine of the divine Logos: what He is in Himself, how He became man, and how He redeemed mankind. The notion of a divine Logos we have met with frequently in the pre-Christian philosophy. But philosophy was incompetent to give definiteness and completeness to this notion; for in its completeness this notion supposes the idea of the Trinity. Philo, who wrote under the influence of the revealed doctrines of the Old Testament, makes the Logos a kind of personality; but in his theory this personality is not something within the Godhead, it is something extraneous to it.

7. In the great dictum: Hen auchê \^en ho logos, kai ho logos ên ton Theon, kai Theos ên ho logos. Christianity on the one hand confirmed the truth of the notion, and on the other gave completeness and definiteness to the conception. It asserted the personality of the Logos, and at the same time declared this personality to be intrinsic to the Godhead. This was a great step in advance. The idea of a personal Logos -- the Son of God identical in nature with the Father -- spread light where darkness had hitherto prevailed; and the doctrine that the Logos had become man in order to bring mankind from darkness into light and from death to salvation, made the Incarnate Logos the centre of human history and the spring of life to humanity. It is not then to be wondered at that the whole religious philosophy of the Fathers seems concentrated upon this central point of doctrine.

8. Thus much may be stated regarding the patristic philosophy in general. We may, however, distinguish in the creation of Christian philosophy during the patristic age two well-marked periods. We have remarked that a twofold purpose is observable in the Fathers and Christian writers of the first centuries -- one to defend the doctrines of Christianity from assaults and misconceptions, another to develop and establish the Christian truths by speculative inquiries, conducted under the guidance and control of the Christian revelation. This twofold purpose is manifest in all the representatives of patristic philosophy, but in the earlier centuries, that is, up to the Council of Nicaea, the former purpose -- the defensive -- is the more prominent, whilst in the post-Nicene period the effort to give speculative development to Christian truth becomes the primary end aimed at. We may thus describe the ante-Nicene period as the Age of the Apologists, the post-Nicene as the Age of Positive Speculation.

9. Following the lines here indicated, we will treat the history of patristic philosophy on which we are about to enter in the following order:

(a.) The heretical systems of the period; after which we will proceed to the patristic philosophy proper, which we may divide into:

(b.) The ante-Nicene philosophy, which is chiefly apologetic in character, and

(c.) The post-Nicene philosophy, in which positive speculation is predominant.


1. We do not undertake the task of giving a detailed account of all the heretical systems which appeared during the patristic age; we confine our attention to those which were philosophical in character others, which were exclusively dogmatic, belong to the history of religious dogmas. Among the heresies of more or less philosophical character, the first to claim our notice are Gnosticism and Manicheism, systems which, under the influence of Hellenic, Philonic, and Parsee notions, established a dualism between God and Matter, and which, carrying this antithesis out of the sphere of metaphysics into the domain of ethics, gave this notion its most exaggerated development.

2. Gnosticism called forth as an opposite extreme the system of Monarchianism. The teaching of the Gnostics involved a sort of polytheism. To bridge over the chasm between God and Matter, and thus to account for the existence of the world, they assumed the existence of a number of intermediate beings, which emanated from the Supreme God, and to which, therefore, a certain divine character was to be attributed. The reaction against this polytheism took the form of Monarchianism -- an extreme theory in the opposite sense. Monarchianism denied the existence of any distinctions whatever in the Divinity, even the existence of those distinctions which the doctrine of the Trinity involves, and held fast the doctrine of fixed abstract unity.

3. Last in order came Arianism, with its offshoot, Apollinarism, theories which embodied elements of Gnosticism and Monarchianism, and in which the doctrines of the two opposing heresies were blended. In historical order, Arianism follows the two other heresies; it follows them also in the order of theoretical development.

4. We will treat, then, in the first place, of Gnosticism, in the next, of Manicheism, then of Monarchianism, and lastly of Arianism and Apollinarism.

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