What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?


This famous question by Tertullian has long been understood to raise the issue of the relation between faith and reason.  It points to the issue of how the conclusions of philosophy, based upon mankind’s natural reasoning ability, should be considered in relation to the wisdom and insights revealed by Christ, insights and truths based on His divine authority which constitute the foundations of theology, faith, and Christian belief.

Tertullian, who lived from 155 to 220 a.d., is remembered as the “Father of Latin Christianity” and for his polemical writings against heresy during the early years of the Christian faith.  His rhetorical question was meant to challenge the tradition of Greek philosophy centered in classical Athens by suggesting that it could contribute little to the fullness of ultimate truth—about God, man, and the world—revealed by Christ and coming from the Judeo-Christian tradition of Jerusalem.  Heresy arises from those who judge their own thoughts and conclusions to be more trustworthy than the teaching of Christ, which as Scripture explains, confounds the presumption of the arrogant and “vain philosophy.”  Tertullian wrote extensively against the heretical tendencies of the time.

Being well-versed in the theological and philosophical traditions of the Church, Dr. Patrick addressed the issue by first rejecting the so-called “two truth” position, advanced notably by the Arabic philosopher Averroes, that opposed truths could both be true despite simultaneously asserting contradictory positions. This position is echoed today when some contend that “my truth” is different from “your truth.” Historically it was asserted when Copernicus advanced the helio-centric view of the solar system, some contending that scientifically the earth moves around the sun, but scripturally the heavens revolve around the earth.

Recalling Christ’s words that “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” believers rightly understand that all true statements are consistent with one another and that whatever is true is one field of study or according to one discipline of learning must be true universally.  This was Tertullian’s position that the “wisdom” of Greek philosophy could not be accepted and contributed little if it was in conflict with the manifest truth of revelation. His insight was absolutely correct that all knowledge is consistent with what is divinely revealed.  But in attacking the inaccuracies of mistaken views from the Greek philosophic tradition, he leaves the impression that all knowledge gained through natural reason is useless and unreliable.  He seems to assert that because the sublime truths of revelation constitute the pinnacle of what is important to know, all other knowledge is unimportant.

On the other hand, as Augustine saw, many insights of Greek philosophy were genuinely consistent with faith.  He showed that while many erred, others demonstrated the excellence of God’s gift of reason to mankind and how this give could arrive at great understanding through the principles of correct reasoning.  Augustine, for example, pointed to the ethical insights of Socrates and Plato regarding justice and the soul’s yearning for God and immortality.  He showed the inadequacy of skepticism and asserted that humans can indeed arrive at truth despite being oftentimes in error.  He disputed the Manichean world-view regarding the origin of evil, and he affirmed the reality of free will.   

One way to understand the development of thought after the coming of Christ is to understand that scholars sought to evaluate the truths of the new theology as compared with the established insights of the Greek tradition.  Christian thinkers undertook this task, but so, too, did Jewish and Islamic thinkers who asked about how their religious traditions should be understood in the light of natural reason. Early Islamic commentators raised the question of whether the teachings of the Koran were also validated by human reason, suggesting that the principles of natural justice as found in law and politics—principles that were commonly understood as the rational foundations of commerce, for example, — were codified in the Koran.  Similarly, they asked about issues regarding the relations between peoples, the obligations of rulers to those ruled, and ultimate questions about the origin of the world itself, showing that these could be illuminated by reason in addition to the teaching of the Koran. Some went so far as to suggest that reason should be used to exegete difficult passages in the Koran where competing interpretations had developed. Reason could help determine whether the meaning of a passage, for example, should be understood literally or allegorically.  In some parts of the Islamic world, a rationalistic understanding of Muslim spirituality emerged, but in others we find a violent and powerful rejection against any role for reason in understanding the Islamic faith.  While some, like Averroes, argued that faith and reason should be employed to gain a full understanding of Islamic thought, staunch religious leaders argued that since the Koran came directly from Allah via the archangel Gabriel it was perfect in every respect, contained all the principles of interpretation, and that it was human folly to think otherwise. The view developed that using reason to understand the Koran was counterproductive and that only trained religious scholars could comment on its proper meaning.

In Christian circles, the Platonic tradition was predominant in Augustine, Boethius, and Eriugena until late in the first millennium when discoveries of long-forgotten manuscripts in Greek monasteries and translations from Arabic sources in the Iberian peninsula began to expand knowledge of Aristotle’s thought for the Latin Christian west. Newly available Aristotelian works on metaphysics, politics, ethics, rhetoric, the cosmos, and the soul demonstrated a wealth of philosophic understanding that had not been available to Tertullian and the early Church fathers. With great insight and erudition, Thomas Aquinas undertook the task of evaluating how and whether Aristotle’s conclusions –based on reason alone without the advantage of revelation—were consistent with Christian thought. Aquinas’ master work the Summa Theologiae is heralded as the great synthesis of classical and Christian thought showing that the truths of faith and the truths of natural reason are never opposed and that while arrived at differently are complementary and mutually supportive.

For example, the Biblical account of the origin of the cosmos teaches that the eternal God created the world bringing it to be out of love and a benevolent intention.  This truth conveyed by scriptural tradition shows that the world had a beginning in time and that it came to be by a creative act.  In a similar way, Aristotle had maintained that by understanding how the things of the physical universal are contingent beings–things that do not have to exist, but which in fact do exist—their reality and actual existence can only be possible because they are brought into being by a necessarily existing being.  Hence he argued that reason teaches that there must exist a first cause or prime mover which alone can explain the factual existence of material universe, ourselves, and all therein.  In this way, what the believer accepts on the basis of faith in the testimony of scripture is also confirmed through reasoning powers of the human intellect.

In his work the Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas undertakes to show how natural reason supports the truths of the Christian faith, pointing out that arguments based on faith in the authority of Christ are rejected by believers from other faiths who do not accept the testimony of the scriptures.  He goes on to show that natural reason is a great ally of the faith showing that its conclusions and insights are not irrational or nonsensical.  Rather they support faith positions concerning the existence of God, the importance of virtue, and the elements of a happy life—not only because they are based on the teachings of Christ, but also because they are based on the intellectually luminous insights of logical thinking.  From this, we reach the great insight of the Scholastic tradition that faith and reason are compatible and never in opposition.  The believer can be re-assured that the articles of faith are never irrational or absurd, that they make sense, and that if the Church counsels them as worthy of belief, we can be confident that they affirmed both by the testimony of tradition and by right reason.

So to Tertullian’s question: What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? We see that the answer is everything.  Philosophical reasoning supports and deepens our understanding of the true faith.  It clarifies the errors and misconceptions of those attacking Christian tradition and demonstrates that we enjoy an enlightened understanding of our place in the universe. True philosophy undermines the erroneous contentions of materialism and the mistaken claims of evolutionary theories which posit the impossible development of life from the un-living or the personal from the impersonal. Similarly, it demonstrates that certain knowledge can be achieved not only in mathematics and logic but also with regard to ethics and metaphysics, 

These considerations led John-Paul II to remind the world of the importance of philosophy in his encyclical Fides et Ratio where he argues that faith and reason are like the two wings of a dove allowing it to take flight. Just as faith prevents philosophy from becoming self consumed (as Tertullian pointed out about some ancient traditions), so too does philosophy keep faith from devolving into superstition and fideism (the contention that faith alone teaches what is true). Regrettably, John-Paul wrote, the world has become overcome with self-absorption and relativistic theories which distort and undermine the inspiring truths of the faith. What is needed, he explains, is a renewed respect for philosophy as an autonomous science and an understanding of the genuine truths of metaphysics. 

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