JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl

Patristic Philosophy of the Ante-Nicene Period. Preliminary Remarks.

1. The attacks and misrepresentations to which the faith was subjected by pagans and heretics made it incumbent upon the Christians to adopt the weapons of science in defence of their belief. But to undertake a defence of the faith, they were first obliged adequately to penetrate its meaning, and to attain such speculative knowledge of its truths as the human reason could obtain. Thus much they were obliged to by the needs of the defence they were forced to undertake. A further incentive to this study was supplied by the character of the truths of faith themselves, so comprehensive and so lofty; for the human mind is formed for truth, and the more truth manifests itself in its brightness, the more strenuous will be the effort of the mind to enter into its light.

2. It was to be expected, then, that the Christian speculation of the Ante-Nicene period, which at first was apologetic and controversial, should, as time went by, become more and more a study of Christian truth for its own sake. At a comparatively early period we find Christian schools cultivating science after the Christian fashion, as a means to a deeper knowledge of the truths of faith, and this in the service of the Church, The most remarkable of the Christian teachers and writers of the Ante-Nicene period belong to the schools of Edessa, of Antioch, and more especially of Alexandria. These schools were modelled upon the imperial schools of Rome, and in them were taught scientific theology, scriptural exegesis, philosophy, rhetoric, physics, astronomy, &c. Philosophy was made the basis of speculative theology; it was not employed in the hope of adding to the sum of revealed truth, but only to aid towards its speculative development.

3. Christian philosophy, being employed as an aid to Christian faith, was permeated throughout by a spirit of lofty morality. The Christian teachers were deeply imbued with the spirit of Christianity, and the earnest Christian spirit of their lives reflected itself in their scientific teaching. Before the tribunals of the pagan magistrates and in presence of the horrors of the gibbet they gave evidence of the supernatural energy of Christian faith and Christian morality by which they were animated; the same spirit of faith and moral rectitude was manifested no less unequivocally in the monuments of Christian thought which they reared.

4. We begin our sketch of the period with the Apologists who defended Christianity against paganism; we shall then notice the opponents of Gnosticism and Monarchianism, and lastly we shall pass in review the thinkers who cultivated Christian speculation for its own sake, apart from the needs of controversy.


§ 65.

1. In the writings of the Apostolic Fathers -- the Fathers who were the immediate disciples of the Apostles -- we find no traces of a philosophy, in the strict sense of the term. These writings are valuable chiefly as evidence of the early Christian traditions, and belong, therefore, to the history of religious dogmas rather than to the history of philosophy.{1} But in the writings of the Apologists philosophy is a prominent feature. It is, no doubt, employed chiefly for the purpose of controversy against the pagans, but it is employed in all thoroughness. The first of the Apologists was:

2. Flavius Justinus, a native of Flavia Neapolis (Sichem) in Palestine. (A.D., 100-160.) While yet a youth, he occupied himself with the great problems regarding God, the immortality of the soul, &c., and, as he tells us himself (Dial. c. Tryph. c. 2, 8) turned to the schools of the philosophers in the hope of finding a solution of them. He first tried a Stoic, then a Peripatetic, next a Pythagorean, lastly a Platonist -- the last of whom afforded him, he thought, the satisfaction he desired. While he was in the midst of his speculation, he one day, during a walk by the sea-shore, encountered an old man, with whom he entered into conversation. The old man, by his arguments, made a speedy end of the hopes Justin had conceived, and then advised him to address himself to Christianity for the solution of his difficulties. Justin followed the advice, and found at length what he had been seeking -- the only true philosophy. He became a convert to Christianity, and defended his new faith against Jews, pagans, and heretics. He died a martyr's death at Rome. Of the treatises composed by Justin, the principal which have reached us are the Dialogue uith the Jew Trypho, and the Greater and Lesser Apologies.{2} The genuineness of the Cohortatio ad Graecos has been called in question in modern times, but only on intrinsic grounds which are by no means decisive.

3. Justin will not exclude the ancient philosophy from the economy of Redemption. In the Christian system the Divine Logos has manifested Himself in the flesh, and, therefore, we possess in Christianity the fulness of truth. But even in pre-Christian times the Logos was not wholly unrevealed. He was revealed as the omnipresent logos spermatikos, as well in the works of creation as in human reason, which is reason only in so far as it participates in the Divine Logos. This Logos enabled the philosophers and poets of antiquity to attain knowledge of the truth. Whatever of truth they possessed and set forth in their writings they owed to the Logos. The measure of their knowledge was determined by the measure of their participation in the Logos; hence their knowledge of truth was only partial, and they were frequently involved in self-contradictions. The fulness of truth was revealed only in the Incarnate Logos.

4. The truth which was taught by the ancient philosophers and poets is to be ascribed to that Logos who was manifested in the flesh in the fulness of time. If this be so, then the truth taught by the philosophers and poets of paganism is essentially Christian, and, as such, belongs to Christianity. It follows also that those who, before the Incarnation of the Logos, lived according to reason, i.e., according to the law of the Logos, which manifests itself in reason, were Christians, even though they may have been esteemed atheists by their contemporaries. Such were Socrates, Heraclitus, and others among the Greeks, and Abraham, Ananias, Azarias, Misael, Elias, and others among the outer nations. But these were only privileged individuals: the knowledge of God and of His law was first made general by the Incarnate Logos.

5. Besides the inner connection thus established between Greek philosophy and Christianity, Justin holds that there existed also an external bond of union. He maintains that the Greek philosophers for the most part had knowledge of the teaching of Moses and of his writings, and that they drew from this source. "The doctrine of free will," says Justin, "Plato borrowed from Moses, and he was furthermore acquainted with the whole of the Old Testament. Moreover, all that the philosophers and poets have taught regarding the immortality of the soul, punishment after death, the contemplation of things divine and kindred subjects, was derived, in the first instance, from the Jewish prophets; from this one source the seeds of truth (spermata tês alêtheias) have been sent forth in all directions, though at times being wrongly apprehended by men they have given rise to differences of opinion." (Apol. I. 44.)

6. God is the Eternal, the Unbegotten, the Unnameable. The idea of God is implanted by nature in the mind, in the same way as the idea of the moral law. But along with (para), though subordinate to (hupo), God the Creator, we must admit another God (heteros Theos), through whom God the Creator reveals Himself, and who became man in Christ. This is the Son of God. In proof of this, Justin, in his controversy with the Jew Trypho, who insisted on the doctrine of the unity of God, appeals to the Old Testament. He cites as establishing the existence of "another God," the divine apparitions (theophanies) of the Old Testament. It cannot, he holds, be God the Creator who is referred to in these scenes, for it would be a contradiction to admit that the Creator of heaven and earth should quit the super-celestial region, and manifest Himself on a small point of the earth's surface. Justin also appeals to those passages of Scripture, in which "Lord" is opposed to "Lord" and "God" to "God."

7. The question now suggests itself: In what relation does this "other God" stand to God the Creator? Justin answers this question as follows: As a beginning (or first principle), God, before things created began to exist, produced from Himself an intellectual power (dunamin tina logikên), which in the Scripture is variously named "Glory of the Father," "Son," "Wisdom," "Angel," "God," "Lord," and "Word." This Logos is that "other God" who must be assumed to exist as a being different from the Creator. This Logos had existence with the Father antecedently to the existence of created things, and as Son of God was eternal and without beginning. When God wished to create the world, He, by a new generation, made the Son in a certain way extrinsic to Himself, that the Son might act as an instrument and servant of the Father in the creation of the world. Justin then assumes a twofold generation of the Logos, an intrinsic and an extrinsic; the former occurs within the Godhead, and is properly the eternal generation of the Son by the Father; the latter is connected with the revelation of the Son of God as the Logos in the creation of the world.

8. The generation of the Logos by the Father, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, does not mean that the Logos acquired an existence apart from the Father. This generation must be understood in a sense analogous to the production of the spoken word by man, or of the light by the sun. In these cases the thing generated does not separate itself from the generating principle, but remains intimately identified with it. In the same way the Logos was not, in the act of generation, separated from the Father, He continued still to be one with Him (in being.) Thus the generation of the Logos has not any parallel in the procreation of created things; it is essentially different in kind. When, then, Justin asserts that the Logos is subject (hupo) to the Father, he must he understood to mean a subordination of a personal (hypostatical) kind, not of being or nature. The same is true of the Holy Ghost, who is described by Justin as the third member of the Divine Trinity.

9. God, as has been said, created the world through the Logos. He has furnished man with a free will, which enables him to decide for good and for evil. The same Logos, by which the universe was created, became man for the salvation of the world. He abrogated the Old Law, and proclaimed a New Law. He is then the New Lawgiver (ho kainos nomothetês). The soul of man does not perish at death, it enters on a new life where eternal happiness or eternal punishment awaits it. The dead rise again to life. The first resurrection is for the just only, and occurs at the second coming of Christ. Thereupon, follows the reign of Christ on earth with His elect, for a thousand years (Chiliasm.) At the termination of this period, the general resurrection takes place, and the Last Judgment is held; after which each man receives, according to his works, eternal reward or eternal punishment.

10. With Justin we must associate his pupil Tatian. An Assyrian by birth, Tatian made acquaintance with every branch of Greek literature, and studied the wisdom of paganism in all its forms. But his inquiries left him unsatisfied. The corruption of the pagan world inspired him with horror; even the morals of the philosophers themselves he regarded as degenerate, and he is severe in his reprobation of their shortcomings. At length he found in the Christian system the satisfaction he sought. Under the instruction of Justin he became a convert to Christianity (A.D. 162.) His excessive rigorism involved him later in error, and he became the head of a Gnostic sect -- the Encratites, who condemned marriage and the use of flesh and wine as sinful. He has left a work with the title Oratio contra (ad) Graecos.

11. In his teaching regarding the Divine Logos, Tatian follows Justin. Before creation God existed alone, but with Him and in Him, in virtue of His attribute of intelligence, subsisted (hupestêse) the Logos. This Logos proceeded from the Father, not by separation, but by participation, and in thus proceeding from the Father became the Creator of the world. Here again, we have the distinction between the intrinsic generation of the Logos and the extrinsic. In his further exposition of this view, Tatian adduces the analogy of the internal and external word in man, and remarks at the same time, that the Logos, while proceeding from God like light from light, becomes the first-begotten work of God (prôtotokon ergon Theou), but is not, for this reason, a creature, inasmuch as He is not separated from God. God is not only the cause, He is also the hypostasis of the universe -- that by which the continued existence of the universe is conditioned.

12. The entire universe is animated by one vital spirit, which manifests itself in the several beings in a manner peculiar to each. We must distinguish in man the soul from the spirit (psuchê kai pneuma); the latter is the image and likeness of God. He who possesses this spirit is the true pneumatist, the mere psychicist is distinguished from the brute by the faculty of speech only. The soul is mortal; it is the spirit alone that can make it immortal. Man lost the pneuma by sin; only a glimmering of the divine light is left in him; he is the slave of matter. To rise to spiritual life he must despise matter, and free himself from its dominion; he will thus conquer the demon who makes use of matter to seduce the soul.

13. Athenagoras of Athens, an adept in Greek and more especially in Platonic philosophy, was at first a supporter of paganism. He is said to have read the Scriptures for the purpose of making an attack on Christianity, but to have been himself converted to Christianity in consequence of this study. His work as a Christian writer is said to have been carried out between A.D. 177 and A.D. 180. He has left two treatises: an apology addressed to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius under the title Legatio pro Christianis, and a treatise De Resurrectione Mortuorum. In the former work he defends the Christians against the triple charge of atheism, of lewdness, and of feasting on the flesh of children. In the latter he endeavours to prove the resurrection of the dead from reason.

14. In his defence of Monotheism, Athenagoras introduces an argument which we meet here for the first time in Christian literature. If there be several Gods, he says (Leg. c. 8), they must either be all like to one another, or they must be different. Neither alternative is admissible. Not the former, for, as uncreated beings, these Gods could not be subordinated to the higher archetype to which all should conform. Not the latter, for in this case they should exist in different places, and there is no place for a second God, since the space without the boundary of the world is occupied by that one God who is a supramundane being.{3} For this reason the Greek poets and philosophers taught the unity of God, but a clear and certain knowledge on the point was not attained till God's revelation was made to the prophets.

15. We hold, then, continues Athenagoras, the unity of God, but admit also the existence of the Son of God. This Son of God is, according to us, the Logos of the Father in thought and actuality (en idea kai energeia) inasmuch as everything has been created after Him as archetype, and through Him as instrument. Father and Son are, however, one. The Son is indeed the first offspring (prôton gennêma) of the Father, but not in the sense that He ever began to be, for God possessed the Logos within Him from eternity, God being logikos from eternity. The term only means that the Logos came forth from God to be the ideal element and the source of energy for all material things (Leg. c. 10.) Further, we have the Holy Ghost, who proceeds from God like a ray of light from the sun. Who then would not wonder to hear those described as atheists who acknowledge God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, who assert their power by maintaining their unity, and maintain a distinction by establishing an order of procession!

16. The proofs adduced by Athenagoras to establish the resurrection of the body are as follows:

(a) Man is one being composed of soul and body. As such he is destined by God to a fixed end, which end is attained beyond the grave. It follows that he must attain that end as man, and this can be secured only by supposing the body to be united to the soul after death. Furthermore, (b) eternal life in God, eternal contemplation of divine truth, is the supreme good of man. In this supreme good, precisely because it is the supreme good of man, the body must have its share, and this again, is impossible without a resurrection of the body. Lastly, (c) it is not the soul only, but the man, as such, who does the good and the evil of this life; it must therefore be the man who receives reward or punishment in the life to come, and this again necessarily supposes the resurrection of the body. To assert that the resurrection is impossible, we must deny to God the will or the power to raise men from death to life. Such a denial is absurd. If God has power to create man, He has also the power to raise him from death; nor can He be wanting in the will to do so, for the resurrection of the dead is neither unrighteous in itself nor unworthy of God.

17. Theophilus of Antioch was, according to his own account, converted to Christianity by the study of the Sacred Scriptures. In his treatise, Ad Autolycum, composed soon after A.D. 180, he advises Autolycus to believe, in order to escape the eternal punishment of hell. In reply to the challenge of Autolycus: "Show me thy God," Theophilus writes (I. 1): "Show me thy man;" that is to say, Prove to me that you are free from sin, for it is only the pure can see God. To the challenge, "Describe your God for me," he replies (I. 3): "The being of God is not describable; His dignity, greatness, sublimity, power, wisdom, goodness and mercy, surpass human conception." He is the absolute, the ungenerated, the immutable, the immortal. He is known from His works, just as the orderly movement of a ship argues the presence of the pilot. He has called all things forth from non-being to being (ex ouk ontôn eis to einai) in order that His greatness might be manifested by the things which He created.

18. It was by means of the Logos that He created all things. Antecedently to all other existence, God had with Him the Logos; for the Logos is His Intelligence and His Wisdom. The Logos had an eternal existence (as logos endiathetos) within the being -- in the heart of God (en kardia Theou.) But when God wished to give existence to the things which He had determined to create, He brought forth the Logos from Himself -- logos prophorikos, as the first-born of all creatures, but not in such wise that He separated Himself from the Logos; the Logos though begotten remained still united to Him. Through the logos prophorikos He created the world. The three days which preceded the creation of light typify the Trinity which consists of God, his Word, and his Wisdom (Holy Ghost).

19. God who has created us can and will create us again at the resurrection. The titles of the gods of the Greeks are the names of deified mortals. The worship of the images of the gods is wholly irrational. The teachings of the heathen poets and philosophers are folly. The sacred writings of Moses and the Prophets are the most ancient of all, and contain the truth which the Greeks forgot or neglected.

20. Examining the teaching of the Apologists, regarding the Divine Logos, we notice that all of them distinguish a triple generation of the Word -- His generation within the divinity as a Divine Person, an extrinsic generation in order to the creation of the world, and lastly, His generation in the flesh or Incarnation. In their teaching regarding the intrinsic and extrinsic generations of the Logos, they adopt the distinction established by Philo between the logos endiathetos and the logos prophorikos -- expressions which we find in Justin as well as in Theophilus. Their modes of expression might at times appear to suggest the notion that they made the personal existence of the Logos to begin with His extrinsic generation. But this is not their meaning. The predicates which they attribute to the logos endiathetos prove convincingly, as we have seen, that they were far from ascribing to the logos endiathetos a merely impersonal existence, or from reducing the logos to a mere modality, or form of Divine power.{4}

<< ======= >>

{1} The Apostolic Fathers are St. Barnabas, one of whose letters is preserved; Hernias who has left us a treatise with the title Pastor; Clement of Rome, the author of two letters to the Corinthians; St. Ignatius, several of whose letters are extant; St. Polycarp, one of whose letters (to the Philippians) is preserved. We may also include in the number the unknown author of the Letter to Diognetus (which is sometimes attributed to Justin).

{2} The First or Greater Apology is addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, his two sons Lucius and Verus, the Senate and the Roman people, A.D., 139; the Second or Lesser to the Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Verus, and the Roman Senate, A.D. 162.

{3} It is possible indeed to suppose the second God existing in another world or beyond its periphery, but such a God would have no concern with us, and, moreover, being restricted as to the sphere of his existence and his action, he would not be really God at all.

{4} In addition to the Apologists named above, we may further mention: Quadratus, Aristides, Mileto of Sardis, who addressed an Apology to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (about A.D. 170); Apollinaris of Hierapolis, who also addressed a to the same Emperor in favour of the Christians, and who wrote Pros Ellênas suggrammata pente; Miltiades, a Christian rhetorician, who composed an Apology as well as logous pros Ellênas and pros Ioudaious (none of these writings are extant), and Hermias, whose work Irrisio Philosophorum Gentilium, is still preserved. Aristo of Pella in Palestine, a Jew by birth, like Justin in his Dialogue Cum Tryphone, composed a treatise against Judaism (about A.D. 140).