Tertulian and Clement - Athens and Jerusalem

            In our last issue of Connections Review, I talked about a funny thing that happened along the way to campus.  On the way to campus that day, I was thinking about changes in the style of ministry I had observed for many evangelical campus ministry groups over a period of years.  I decided it would be helpful for me and perhaps others to think about the underlying causes of some of those changes, so I did and decided to write.  The point of my last Connections Review op-ed piece was to suggest that over the last 30 or 40 years there have been significant changes in the way evangelical Christians engage with non-believers on campus and that these changes were worthy of further reflection.

            It was asserted that some of the change had more to do with matters of  preference, between some aspects of what we called a “youth ministry” style and a “campus ministry” style.  You can read that article here.  Other changes had to do more with engagement with non-believers and defending the truth of the gospel.  If the first had to do more with pragmatism and style, the latter had to do with things of a much deeper nature.  I would like to explore that latter part a little more.

A Further Exploration

            I ended the article by encouraging Christian scholars, especially at secular universities, to take seriously the vulnerability of their Christian undergraduates students to the influences of secular thought, and to take very seriously their responsibility for defending the rationality of the Christian faith.  After all, Christian professors are obviously among our best and brightest and, thus, most able to do so; and Christians have access to a long and distinguished tradition that well serves this contemporary project.

            With ancient luminaries like Augustine and Aquinas and contemporary lights like Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, Richard Swinburne and Bill Craig, to name only a few, we have many rich resources to tap into.  Surely there are things that can be learned.  In addition to protecting our (Christian) students there are more reasons for apologetic engagement. We have to do so because of the potential for our pervasive culture to capture even our own imagination; and, if it does it will likely stultify our natural desire for integrality of life and possibly lead us down the road of an intellectual and cultural incoherence. 

            In addition, each generation of Christians is both the recipient of their past inheritance and the progenitor of the legacy we leave for the future.  In this brief essay, I want to fill in a few more details of how we got to where we are today and how I think it is possible to improve our current situation.  I intend to do that by briefly pointing to the biblical text and a relevant debate that emerged in the early church. 

            Improving our corporate situation may increase the impact of the gospel and its flourishing in academe.  As it flourishes, so may we; and so may many other folk.  Since we have been entrusted to cultivate the life of the mind—by way of loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength—when we take that seriously we should a priori expect good things to happen to our community and us.

Our Legacy

            As evangelicals, we do not speak for the whole of the Christian faith, but our tradition has its own virtues and some frustrating foibles and yet, it is the largest and perhaps the most vibrant religious group presently in America.  However, our numbers are not well represented at the university, especially at elite universities.  Some of that is our own doing—we circled the wagons and largely retreated from the challenge of Enlightenment ideas in the 19th century.  In retrospect, that seems to have been a massive mistake.  It was not until the middle of the 20th century that we began to slowly emerge from the anti-intellectualism of the previous generation or two.  It seems we should have  kept the populist expression of our faith without abandoning our intellectual grounding.  What was at stake is how Christians would defend the truth claims of Christianity and how Christians would think about the achievements of secular thinking.

            Of course, we can harken back before that break.  In this case, we can harken all the way back to the mainstream of Christian faith that was “birthed” in what we presently call the Middle East.  It was then charged to expand and it did expand into a culture broader than just the Hebrew tradition.  It expanded into a sophisticated multi-culture of Roman and Greek influence.  From the beginning, Christians believed they had an immediate mandate to extend the influence of the gospel into that cultural and intellectual amalgamation and to defend its truth claims—that is, the parts of it that transcended culture. 

            Early on, serious Christians wrestled with the ideas from Greek and Roman philosophy and how Christianity related.  The book of Acts and the epistles document how the earliest followers of Christ began to work their way through the challenges that soon came.  Careful navigation through the Biblical text, because of its normative status—noting what is asserted as culturally and theologically normative and what is not—is the place to start.  However, such navigation will quickly reveal that a Sunday school understanding of the New Testament or the Bible as a whole will simply not do.

An Early Intramural Debate

            One relevant early intramural skirmish about these things is recorded in non-biblical literature.  It was between the ideas of Tertulian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, c. 155 – c. 240 AD) and Clement of Alexander (Titus Flavious Clemens, c. 150 – c 215 AD), both followers of Christ

            Tertulian, on the one hand is famous for the quote, “What indeed does Athens have to do with Jerusalem...?”  To give some context to that question, it might help to get the longer quote:

“What indeed does Athens have to do with Jerusalem, what concord is there between the Academy with the church, what between the heretic with the Christian? Our principles come from the Porch of Solomon, who himself taught that the Lord is to be sought in simplicity of heart. I have no use for a Stoic or Platonic or a dialectic Christianity. After Jesus Christ we have no need of speculation, after the Gospel, no need of research. Once we come to believe, we have no desire to believe anything else; for the first article of our faith is that there is nothing else we have to believe." (Prescriptions Against Heretics, 7)

            Tertulian’s stance on the topic was generally opposed to Greek philosophy (though recognizing some truth in it) and worldly wisdom and a suspicion of Greek philosophy because of its tendency to lead believers into heresies.  His theological justification might be thought of as straight from Paul in the book of Colossians—one’s affections shape what one learns and knows.  There is something of an “either/or” mentality or an “opposition" mentality that’s being expressed; what Tertulian was seeking was having a deeper understanding of the Christian faith—Fides Quaerens Intellectum—Faith Seeking Understanding.

            Compare that to a somewhat more opaque quote that is typically construed as reflective of Clement’s take on the Christian faith’s relation to Greek philosophy:

“… [I]nto all human beings whatsoever, but especially those who are occupied with intellectual pursuits, a certain divine effluence has been instilled; wherefore, even if reluctantly, they confess that God is one, indestructible, unbegotten, and that somewhere above in the tracts of heaven, in His own peculiar appropriate eminence, He has an existence true and eternal from whence He surveys all things…”  (Exhortation to the Heathen, VI)

            Clement did not put Greek philosophy on a pedestal, but asked what was said, not who said it.  He thought Greek philosophers had some truth, maybe not the most important truth, but Christians did not have all the truth either.  There was a Clementian tendency to read Greek philosophy in terms of it being a precursor to Christianity—with a sort of, ‘here’s what they meant’ way of description and an incorporation of their ideas into Christian thought.  His theological justification was along the lines of “Seek and ye shall find.”  You might summarize his view this way: the gospel superseded Greek wisdom (as the most important truth) and Greek thought was to be incorporated into Christianity as an antecedent.

            So, who is right?  Did they both get it wrong?  On the other hand, were they both right in some aspects and wrong in others?  Maybe the most important question is what methodology of research do we take with us as we enter into these questions.

            All that is eminently debatable.  The Yale emeritus professor of philosophy and an important contemporary Christian thinker, Nicholas Wolterstorff, thinks that Tertullian got it right in the manner in which he understood Greek philosophy.  For instance, Wolterstorff thinks Plato’s system had a contour in and of itself that is different from Christianity and different from Aristotle

            If that is correct than a simple incorporation of Plato’s or Aristotle’s work on metaphysics or ethics into Christian thought may set us in a wrong direction.  Nonetheless, is it still possible we can learn things from Platonic and Aristotelian thought that can help us understand our faith more deeply…without necessarily leading us into heresy?  I can see you are already taking sides. 

            The subject of Christianity’s relation to culture and secular thought is still a buzzing controversy in our own time.  It’s a question that gets at the core of how the Christian faith is proclaimed, understood and defended in academe.  It is a question that takes a lot of work just to ask the right questions about that question.

            Sadly, much of present day “populist” evangelicalism (present company excluded) is playing catch-up on discerning many of these sorts of issues.  That is, because much of evangelicalism historically emerged from fundamentalism—with its unfortunate anti-intellectual stance and extra cultural baggage that developed in the 19th century—there has been a lot of intellectual catch-up for us to do since the middle of the 20th century.  That’s not true for all evangelicals, there are notable exceptions. The good news is that there has been significant progress, not all of it from evangelicals, that populist Christianity can profit from. 

           My own take is that Christians can learn from secular thought…but at the same time we need to be careful.  Further, I think we have something to offer in terms of intellectual diversity and insight to the Academy, even if we do not bow the knee at moral or cultural relativism nor succumb to the attractions of total skepticism (and thus adopt the strains of the most severe postmodernism) or a secular dogmatism.  A key will be navigating the treacherous terrain of metaphysics, epistemology and moral theory…how does our Christian faith inform these categories discipline by discipline?  Most relevant to the task of defending Christianity’s truth claims is coming to grips with those same issues. Our answers in those basic categories will define whether we become “evidentialists” when it comes to justifying our beliefs, or some other version of epistemic justification.

           Next time we publish Connections Review I want to say some more about how many educated evangelicals can catch up faster than they might ordinarily without sacrificing the necessary gestation time it takes for reflection.  The goal is to produce a new generation of Christians who have vibrant Christian faith coupled with intellectual depth.  It could—and I think would—provide clarity at the deepest levels and enable the broadest engagement of apologetics and Christian scholarly efforts at integration.  Would not that be a valuable legacy?  Let’s get to work.

~Editor


Additional On-Line Reading Resources (note inclusion does not mean endorsement):


Translation of Prescriptions Against the Heretics

Another On-Line Translation of Tertulian’s Prescription Against Heretics

On-Line Summary of of Tertulian’s Prescription

Patheos Blog: What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?

“Tertullian’s Enduring Question," Nicholas Wolterstorff

Clement of Alexandria - Exhortation to Heathen (translation)

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