Greek Philosophy & Christian Theology
29 SEP 2017
Christian theology is inextricably linked with ancient hellenistic philosophy. Although the very earliest beginnings of Christianity were not related to Greek philosophy in any substantial way, by the time Christianity became a fully institutionalized religion, Greek philosophical concepts had integrated almost fully with Christianity.
1 Christianity Before Greek Philosophical Influences
The apostle Paul speaks widely against Greek philosophy in the Bible. The book of Acts records his interaction with a group of Epicureans and Stoics, and in 1 Corinthians 1:22 and Colossians 2:8, Paul warns vociferously against Greek thought entirely. It wasn’t until Christianity had spread a bit more during the Apostolic Age that Greek philosophy would take hold of the religion.
However, the time before this Hellenistic turn was not, as some early historians thought, a time of pure Christian thought. Instead, those early Christians mostly did without philosophizing at all. It wasn’t until Greek influences took over that any of Christianity’s serious adherents spent time working out what exactly the gospels meant. By that point, most academic Christians were well trained in Hellenistic philosophy.
2 Early Hellenistic Influences
By the second century, the more learned apostles of the church had already started to combine Greek methods of thought with Christian theology. Clement of Alexandria even explicitly mentions in AD 203 in his Stromata that hellenistic philosophy, by virtue of being true, must have been deliberately handed to the Greeks as a primer before Jesus came to walk on Earth. Clement supposes that it is through Greek thought that we should view all of Christianity.
By AD 313, this idea had spread to nearly every part of Christendom, which the early Christian historian Eusebius records in his Praeparatio evangelica. Eusebius considers Christianity and Greek philosophy so closely linked at this point that his book on teaching pagans about Christianity includes several passages of ancient Greek philosophy.
3 Augustine of Hippo
The integration of Greek philosophy and Christian theology was complete once Augustine of Hippo came onto the scene around AD 375. Saint Augustine wrote systematic treatises that fully fleshed out Christian theology in Greek terms. This Hellenistic context of Christian thought is finally set in stone by Augustine’s writings, and remains so to this day. For Augustine, the truth of Christianity comes first, but understanding that truth requires that people have the proper tools, such as Greek philosophy, at their disposal.
4 Thomas Aquinas
If Saint Augustine firmly established the connection between Hellenistic philosophy and Christian theology, it was Saint Thomas Aquinas who constructed the edifice upon that early foundation. Saint Aquinas turned Augustine’s model on its head, freeing philosophy from the bounds of Christianity while maintaining the ultimate truth of both.
For Aquinas, neither is subject to the other, and both are true. Aquinas taught that people come to learn about the world through different starting data; in the case of philosophy, that data is what people sense directly, such as what they see and hear. In the case of theology, that data is the biblical revelations that come from God. Both are worthy of study and both give people insight into the truth of the world as it is.
Aquinas insists that any contradictions between what philosophy seems to say and what theology claims to say must be apparent only, and not fundamental, since both the world and the divine text are ultimately from God and thus must agree at an elementary level.
- 1 Roger D. Cook at Brigham Young University: Hebrew, Early Judaic, and Early Christian Thought
- 2 Bible Gateway: Acts 17:18
- 3 Clement of Alexandria: The Stromata or Miscellanies
- 4 The Tertullian Project: Praeparatio Evangelica
- 5 Catholic Encyclopedia: Saint Augustine of Hippo
- 6 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Philosophy and Christian Theology