Church History Snapshot: “What Indeed Has Athens to Do With Jerusalem?”
The relationship between the world and the church has continually been one of the most controversial points within Christian thought. There have been rough periods of indistinguishability between the church and the world, and there have also been great times when Jesus might describe the church as being like the unhidden city on a hill–shining its light brilliantly towards the people and reflecting the light of the Father. Throughout all these times, the constant question has been how Christians should balance theology with Greek philosophy. Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian of Carthage possessed opposite opinions on this matter. Both Clement and Tertullian believed and practiced Christian theology as truth, but they each approached the involvement of pagan philosophy in Christian theology in completely different ways.
Tertullian’s opinion on theology is often represented by his famous rhetorical question, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” At the time of Tertullian, Athens referred to the Platonic Academy–science and philosophy–and by extension all of Greek philosophical thought and belief. Jerusalem refers to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Tertullian concluded that the former did not require additional sources than what was within the Christian faith and belief. In other words, Tertullian allowed questioning and seeking within the boundaries of apostolic succession and the apostolic rule of faith. Outside sources used for supplementation, and especially interpretation, of the witness to the truth of Christ–truth that transcends all human inquiry and investigation–was reserved for divine revelation alone. Tertullian believed Athens (Greek philosophy) should have nothing to do with Jerusalem (Christian theology).
Tertullian’s goal in dividing Greek philosophy from Christian theology was to produce a purely Christian system of belief that remained untainted by pagan or secular modes of thinking. The truth, he would argue, does not need lies to help it be explained or supported. He drove home his point that the most important knowledge is consistent with and in conformity to the apostolic message of Christ. Tertullian rejected the practice of explaining Christian theology by using foreign philosophical ideas, writing, “The Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed because it is absurd. And he was buried and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible.” According to Tertullian, science and philosophy could not lead one to religious faith.
However, Tertullian was not quite an anti-intellectual, and as an early contributor to the doctrine of the Trinity, he did not shy away from explaining theological answers speculatively. Nor did he believe the Trinity without any speculative thought or examination. Known theological historian Justo González accurately states of Tertullian, “He rather believes unrestrained speculation can lead far afield, and that the actual revelation of God is what is really important to the Christian.” To Tertullian, this unrestrained speculation of the philosophical was what created heresy. He believed heretics encouraged and perpetuated thoughts that were independent from Christ. The Scripture was all the Christian needed to receive divine revelation that made understanding possible.
Clement, who opposed Tertullian’s thoughts on this subject, could be defined as a liberally-minded intellectual and philosophical Christian. Clement differed from Tertullian by attempting to synthesize Christian belief with Greek culture, namely Platonism. He focused primarily on appealing to the truth that was found in Platonic interpretation in order to connect it to Christian theology. Although he still appealed to divine revelation as being a source of understanding, Clement proposed the concept of harmonizing divine revelation with philosophical ideas. However, Clement was no advocate for reducing Christian thought to that of mere philosophy or lifestyle to make it more appealing or acceptable to the culture. His point was that of analogizing philosophy to a puzzle with a missing piece; the gospel of Christ was what the pagans were missing, and prompting them towards that conclusion was Clement of Alexandria.
What about Platonism did Clement find so appealing and conductive towards the understanding of Christian truth? Unlike the early pantheonic Greek system of belief, Platonism rejected the idea of a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Instead, they focused on a singular and ultimate spiritual reality. To Clement, the right kind of philosophy was a work of Divine Providence, or the truth revealed to those who did not have the methods to acquire the answers that Jerusalem had. Clement’s perspective proposed that philosophical thought was God’s way of preparing the Greeks for Christ, just like the Old Testament Law for the Jews. In the best of Greek interpretive philosophy, Clement found the echoes of Christian truth that could lead philosophical minds to Christ.
To this day, neither perspective on the matter rings more true than the other. In their fullest capacity, they can both become helpful and harmful to the face and fact of Christianity. To be in the world is to know its own values and philosophies. To be of the world, however, is to adopt those values along with the Christian theological values. There is a fine balance between the two that was not practiced perfectly by Clement or Tertullian. Tertullian, who attempted to protect the Christian faith, shut himself off from the rest of the world. He didn’t utilize the surrounding culture as a way to gauge if his thinking was reasonable. On the other hand, Clement, in his attempt to synergize the philosophical with the theological, allowed the truth unrelated to Christ to change his theological interpretations and teachings.
The city on a hill that cannot be hidden is supposed to protect itself, but not at the expense of shutting out the surrounding people. It is supposed to synthesize itself with the people, but it should not surrender its values in consequence. An excessive amount of fortification against culture puts the basket over the light, extinguishing it, and too much accommodation of culture begins to reflect the light of the culture rather than the Father. There comes a state of vigilance to maintain the balance between the two opposite ideals. Protect yourself from the infiltration of unbiblical values, but don’t hide your light. Administer yourself to the culture that surrounds you, but don’t allow that culture to introduce improper interpretations of what we believe to be true. A proper combination of both paradigms allows us to live in the world, and yet remain unstained by it.