The Impact of the Christian Response [to Pagan Philosophy]

Christianity has had an interesting relationship with philosophy ever since the two confronted each other in the Areopagus in the first century (Acts 17:19-33). Christians today point to this encounter between the apostle Paul and the greatest thinkers in Athens as an example of the “apologetic encounter.” Paul matched his theology against the philosophy of the Greeks, defying their paganism and claiming that they knew God, but glorified him not, professing to be wise, but were fools (Romans 1:21). For the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God (1 Corinthians 1:20). It was for this reason that Paul declare to the church in Colosse: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Colossians 2:8 KJV). But if Paul decried all philosophy then why the rich heritage and tradition it has enjoyed in the Christian faith? Why did such giants as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas take up the issue with such fervor if apostolic tradition denounced it? Perhaps there is more said on the issue than just the verse cited in Colossians. After all, Paul spoke of “philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” If to be Christian is to be “of Christ” then it appears Paul stands in approval of Christian philosophy—for “whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17 KJV). What, then, was Paul’s philosophy?

Paul was, of course, a determinist. Many who have come since have tried to deny that Christianity is a deterministic system, but its Scriptures clearly assert as much. Paul argued that determinism, rather than adversely affecting the will and responsibility of human beings, is actually the basis for Christianity’s particular theistic foundation. With this, he also asserts the sovereignty of God and his compelling and uncompelled rule over all things, doing as his pleases when he pleases; and all for his own glory. Paul realized how odious this doctrine must seem to those hostile to his religion. He rhetorically raises a number of objections in the ninth chapter of Romans. He speaks of Isaac being loved and Esau being hated, even before the two were born and had done anything right or wrong (Romans 9:11, 13). He quips, “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid” (Romans 9:14 KJV). And in regards to God’s mercy: “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy . . .” (Romans 9:18 KJV). And sensing the objection that a sovereign God necessarily means that man does not have free will, which necessarily means that evil is caused by God, which seems to necessitate that man should not be held responsible for his faults, he interjects on behalf of his naysayers, “Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?” (Romans 9:19 KJV). His reply has disappointed all but the ardently faithful. It is worth quoting in full.

Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory. (Romans 9:20-23 KJV)

Paul learned well from Job’s trials that man could say nothing to God. Job suffered greatly for the glory of God, but thought to protest that he, a righteous man, should have to suffer so. He thought to question God for his purposes, but repented in sackcloth and ashes when the Almighty answered out of the whirlwind and said, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me” (Job 38:2, 3 KJV). Even more, Paul had previously elucidated earlier in the same epistle that the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden was by design: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12 KJV), and this was done that “. . . all the world may become guilty before God” (Romans 3:19 KJV). This doctrine has become the most hated and most despised of all Christian doctrine throughout the ages. It is so repulsive that most nominal Christians do not even believe it, instead dogmatically asserting that man is indeed free: free to choose God or free to not choose God. But this is not the position Paul taught: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8 KJV). We see then that Paul’s philosophy was a dogmatic, deterministic, theistic system that placed all faith and all authority in God alone. Over the years, this would gain disfavor from subsequent saints, but these foundational beliefs live on in what is now known as “Calvinism.” While we shall not cover that doctrine here, it shall arise again in the future.

Chronologically, Augustine is next in our survey of significant Christian influences on philosophy. Theologically speaking, Augustine was also closest to Paul’s strict deterministic theism. He is claimed (by Protestants) to be the first saint of the post apostolic era to have fully grasped the biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty in election (that is, the choosing of those persons elected to salvation by God). Many theologians find shades of the doctrine in earlier saints, but most agree that Augustine was the most lucid and complete writer on the matter. Augustine was a prolific author. Volumes upon volumes of his works have been published, but volumes and volumes remain yet unpublished. He was particularly voluminous in his writing against the British monk, Pelagius. Augustine’s dedicated attack on Pelagius’ doctrine finally resulted in said doctrine being declared heretical. Ultimately, Augustine’s disciples would lose the fight against the doctrine of free will in the church, which would come to grip it for nearly a millennium. Before converting to Christianity, Augustine was a Manichean, and we find many dualistic tendencies in his early writings. Later in his life, however, Augustine’s philosophy took on a distinctly Platonic flavor. Probably more so than any other work of his, De Magistro is overtly Platonic: drawing heavily upon Plato’s theory of Ideas and man’s a priori knowledge thereof, coupled with existentially triggered reminiscence. Of course, Augustine put a decidedly Christian spin on the doctrine, asserting that Jesus Christ alone is the true teacher and that our knowledge consists in his knowledge, albeit only partially. He taught that no one is ever “taught,” but only inspired to remembrance. As one might expect, he was most definitely a rationalist (but, inconsistently, had some faith in the senses). He also conclusively demonstrated that truth is transcendent and eternal in the Confessions (VI, VII, XI) after casting off Aristotelian empiricism and embracing Neoplatonism. He would influence the field of rational metaphysical and epistemological inquiry for centuries to come. To this day, his influence remains great. The late Dr. Gordon H. Clark considered himself an “Augustinian” in that he was an epistemic scripturalist (which he simply deemed, Dogmatism). This brand of epistemological foundationalism asserts that only propositions found in the Bible or propositions that are validly deducible from the Bible are objects of human knowledge. Augustine did not concur with this denial of empiricism in toto, but the influence he had on later thinkers cannot be denied. While Augustine presented no formal arguments for the existence of God, his argument for the transcendent eternality of truth serves as a strong argument for the impossibility of empirical data and leads the believer to look for truth solely through theology. This author has elaborated a similar argument, finding empiricism to be untenable for the Christian theist, and elaborating an argument from Scripture that establishes epistemic Scripturalism as the sole consistent Christian worldview. This Augustine-inspired rationalism is not confined to the last century, however.

Anselm of Canterbury was a rationalist in the Augustinian tradition. While he had abandoned the soteriological position of Augustine, he embraced many of the philosophical principles of his predecessor. Anselm was the first to posit what has become the notorious ontological argument for the existence of God, or “ontological argument.” It is a rather ingenious argument all things considered. The validity of it has been hotly contested by theists and atheists alike. First argued by Anselm, it was soon after countered by the monk, Guanillo. Guanillo’s refutation was found to be quite equivocal, however, and the argument lived on, but was soon replaced by the Aristotelian cosmological argument (or argument from first cause) in its multi-faceted forms as enumerated by Aquinas—more on him later. When Kant came along and presented his refutation of the ontological argument, it was thought finished; however, his student Hegel resurrected it and even to this day, its validity is not so much questioned as his phenomenology and the disassociated and individuality-destroying worldview that he deduced from it. The critical flaw is not that the ontological argument is invalid in and of itself. The problem is that trying to infer the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the “god” proven by the ontological argument is impossible. It is at the same time an affirmation of the consequent and an equivocation to argue that the ontological argument proves the existence of the God of the Bible. The reason Anselm’s argument was “successful” for the period of time that it was is Europe was largely a Christian continent. The education level of the people was extremely low, as well. They probably had no concept of formal validity, much less the tools to evaluate the argument within the appropriate context. Instead, the Catholic doctrine of implicit faith encouraged them to not think about the argument and simply believe its conclusion, moreover, to simply believe the Church. Anselm helped to demonstrate how strict rationalism was incapable of inferring God. Even though his argument was valid, it did not prove enough. This inspired Aquinas to take a different approach to the problem. Aquinas was an Aristotelian. Though more than a millennium and a half separated him from Aristotle, Aquinas was remarkably faithful to the empirical philosophy of the Greek. Aristotle was also a theist, though not a Christian theist. He believed in a god of motion: a single motion, actually. Aquinas claimed that he had found Aristotle’s enigmatic “First Mover.” It was the God of the Bible. Even more, he was completely sure that this was “evident to the senses.” His cosmological argument has become a standard weapon in the hands of many Christian apologists since, much to the chagrin of more learned individuals, and to the frequent embarrassment of those who employ the argument. Lest we should become bogged down in a critique of the cosmological argument and lose sight of the present topic, we shall avoid the issue and simply point out that the argument hinges on an egregious petitio principii. Instead, we return to Aquinas and his influence on philosophy, especially Christian philosophy. Aquinas’s legacy endures to this day as most apologists subscribe to the method called, Evidentialism. It is believed that Christians must start at neutral grounds, a position or proposition that both the believer and unbeliever trust as reliable. From there, the Christian presents empirical evidence of the general reliability of the Bible, from which he infers that it is completely reliable, from which he can infer the existence of God. This was Aquinas’s method and it survives not only in Catholic circles, but in evangelical circles as well. It bears mentioning that this type of apologetic represents a radical shift away from Paul. As the survey in Romans showed, Paul presupposes the existence of God and deals only with theological matters. Augustine similarly presupposed God’s existence. In Anselm, we saw a rational explanation for the a priori idea of God (God was most certainly a priori to Anselm for all but “the fool”). Aquinas has done away with this aprioristic assumption and taken instead as his fundamental assumption the senses and the a posteriori perceptions they cause. Not only would this change the face of Christian apologetics, but also it would similarly influence later scientific thought. Today’s philosophy of science begins with the presupposition that everything has a natural explanation. Supernatural phenomena are ruled out from the very beginning. The human sense organs are capable of discovering truth about the world and the nature of it. A large deal of the credit for this worldview is owed to Thomas Aquinas.

We have thus seen how the chronological distance separating Christianity from its roots has furnished a great deal of change and departure from the historical foundations of the faith. Paul was strictly deterministic and adamantly presumptive in his theism. Augustine was similarly so, but also explained a number of key philosophical issues within a loose framework of Neoplatonism. Anselm saw merit in employing Augustine’s rationalism to formally prove the suppositions of those saints come before him. Aquinas embodied the departure from orthodoxy and placed his faith in the secular arguments and suppositions of a pagan, Aristotle. Since then, Christian philosophy made little progress between Aquinas and the 20th century. Recently developments have greatly helped to reverse the damage done, but secular philosophy has now greatly outpaced the religion that once fostered and nurtured it during the darkest ages of the European continent. Already the presuppositional apologetic approach advocated by Van Til and Clark has made its presence known in the halls of academia worldwide. It remains to be seen how much of an influence this modern rebirth of Christian philosophy will have.

Soli Deo Gloria


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