The God of the Philosophers

Controversy has erupted in the comments to the post “Oncertainty” over whether the God described by classical philosophy is the same as the God of the Bible. Commenter Ilion maintains that they are different because, for example, the God of classical philosophical theism is impassible (i.e., not affected by anything in the created realm), whereas the God of the Bible loves his children and sent Christ to atone for their sins. Others have seconded Ilion. And Proph and Kristor have responded by defending classical philosophical theology

I just want to add one crucial point. The philosophers probably have good reason for their counterintuitive claims about God; for example, that He is simple (not composed of parts) and unchanging. But the Bible is the supreme authority on the nature of God. And if the Bible says that God loves His children and hates sin, then God does hate sin and love His children, and any valid philosophical system will need to acknowledge this.

I don’t know exactly how divine impassibility can be reconciled with God loving and hating, or how divine simplicity can be reconciled with the Trinity of the Godhead. I presume Christian philosophy knows how to do this. But one thing I do know: the Bible tells the truth about God, and any philosophy that does not agree with biblical teaching is mistaken and in need of correction.

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51 thoughts on “The God of the Philosophers

  1. Alan: totally agree with your crucial point. In connection thereto, I think it is important to emphasize that my assertion in the Oncertainty comments was, not that the God of the Philosophers and the God of the Bible are *just the same,* but rather that the two conceptions can be *reconciled.* The God of the Bible subsumes the God of the Philosophers without contradiction, as revelation and inspiration subsume and transcend mere ratiocination, without contradicting it. If somewhere the two conceptions are indeed found to be irreconcilable, the Bible trumps the philosophers, who must then go back to their drawing boards.

    Most such apparent contradictions, in my experience, are resolved by the recognition that in thinking about God (whether the God of Aristotle or of Abraham) we naturally and habitually use concepts in the way that life has trained us to use them – i.e., in the way that they most usefully apply to life on Earth as finite beings with physical extension and embodiment. We are not limited to such habitual usages, but they are extremely difficult to break out of.

    All that said, I am in no position to start on this project of reconciliation right now. It will take a deal of writing.

  2. It should be emphasized also, come to think of it, that so great is the transcendence of inspired revelation over ratiocination, that in comparison to the former, the latter is, as St. Thomas said, no better than straw.

    But straw, too, has its place in the Great Chain of Being. There is a proper role for the philosophical attempt to comprehend God. Yet strawmongers who have had religious insight have been the first to insist that it is fatally sinful to idolize straw.

  3. How can Bible be supreme authority on the nature of God when the Trinity itself is not made explicit in the Bible and was only inferred over a period of hundreds of years.

    It is the Church who is supreme authority here. The Christians are not book-worshippers

    • vishmehr24,

      Your claim that the Trinity was not made explicit in the Bible is mistaken. The Trinity Doctrine, by definition, is the following three assertions:

      One, that there is only one God.

      Two, that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are all God.

      Three, that the names listed in assertion two are not three names for the same being, but are in fact three separate persons.

      All of these claims are made in the Bible, albeit not worded exactly as above.

      It’s true that the Trinity Doctrine was only articulated explicitly and clearly in the early Fourth Century, at the Council of Nicaea, as a necessary response to the widespread popularity of the heretical teachings of Arius. But the Doctrine of the Trinity is taught in Scripture.

      True, the formulation “God is one substance and three persons” does not appear in Scripture. This formulation is an attempt to articulate one possible way for the Trinity Doctrine to avoid a formal contradiction on the order of saying 1=3. As such, it is not scriptural, but it is consistent with Scripture.

      You also say, “It is the Church who is supreme authority here.” I disagree. Since the Bible is God’s words, it outranks any human institution.

      And to acknowledge the Bible as the supreme earthly authority is not to “worship a book.” God is the supreme authority, and to be worshipped, but the Bible is the highest earthly authority on every subject about which it speaks.

      • 1) Church is not a human institution, merely.
        2) Having Bible as Supreme Authority has given 10,000 sects. How does one decide among them?.
        3) You need to analyze in what sense of the word “Authority” applies to Bible that is not a person but merely a book that contains some stories, histories and a collection of Hebrew fables and poetry.

    • Vishmehr24:How can Bible be supreme authority on the nature of God when the Trinity itself is not made explicit in the Bible and was only inferred over a period of hundreds of years. … It is the Church who is supreme authority here. …

      Alan Roebuck:Your claim that the Trinity was not made explicit in the Bible is mistaken. … True, the formulation “God is one substance and three persons” does not appear in Scripture. This formulation is an attempt to articulate one possible way for the Trinity Doctrine to avoid a formal contradiction on the order of saying 1=3. As such, it is not scriptural, but it is consistent with Scripture. …

      His claim-and-argument appears to be worse than mistaken, it appears to be incoherent. He seems to be asserting that the doctrine of the Trinity is extra-Biblical, and thus that the very existence of this critical doctrine of Christianity is in itself proof that the Bible is not the “supreme authority on the nature of God“.

      For, IF it were true that the doctrine of the Trinity is extra-Biblical, and IF it were true that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity expresses an essential truth about the nature of God, and IF it were true that the doctrine of the Trinity were an invention of the Church, THEN it would be true that the Bible is not the “supreme authority on the nature of God” — and, removing the second premise still leaves us with that it would be true that Christians cannot logically hold the Bible to be the “supreme authority on the nature of God” .

      However, the first premise of the argument is false. Consider again the lynchpin of the argument: “… the Trinity itself is not made explicit in the Bible and was only inferred over a period of hundreds of years.” Overlooking that there appears to be some equivocation going on in that statement (*), what the statement says is that the doctrine of the Trinity is implicit in the Biblical statements about God (**) — which is to say, this argument both asserts and denies that the doctrine of the Trinity is extra-Biblical.

      (*) including that the formulation of the doctrine as we now express it was not achieved for some hundreds of years is not the same as the belief having been absent at the beginning of the era.
      (**) and you have already explored how the doctrine is made explicit from these statements.

      • Given that the Bible never says it’s the supreme authority, one would think that fatal enough to the case.

        To say it is implicitly in the Bible hits the little problem that it’s implicitly there for those who find it there. We well know that many do not find it, but we appeal to the Tradition of the Church to say that those who find it are in the right.

      • Mary Catelli:Given that the Bible never says it’s the supreme authority, one would think that fatal enough to the case.

        Really! I would have expected better of you than this.

        When one come to us, claiming to have for us a message/revelation from God, what does the Bible command us to do with regard to this alleged revelation? It commands us to test it. Test it how, by what means, by what instrument? Test it against Scripture, which is to say, against the Bible.

        It is the Bible which sets the parameters of Christianity, not some bureaucrats in Rome or Canterbury.

      • “we appeal to the Tradition of the Church to say that those who find it are in the right.”

        Great — now what do you appeal to in order to justify the Tradition of the Church? If you say the testimony of the Holy Spirit, that gets you nowhere, because even lone ranger ‘me and my Bible’ Protestants can claim the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Please, I’ve had enough of these standard-issue Catholic talking points. They’re bullshit, plain and simple.

      • Nonsense. You would object to an appeal to the Gospel of Peter, but you have no grounds to reject except that the Church says so.

        Besides, you are the people who deliberately censored the canon of the Bible in order to win theological arguments. If there’s one school of Christianity that claims above all others that they judge the Bible not the Bible judges them, it’s Protestantism with its truncated Bible.

      • The grounds for objecting to spurious Gospels is the imprimatur, or lack thereof, of apostolic authority. This was the same grounds from which the Church determined the canon in the first place — read the Muratorian fragment, the oldest known list of the Christian canon, which denies The Shepherd of Hermas a place in the canon because its apostolicity is belied by its late date of composition.

  4. Since this subject now has its own thread, I’ll post this here:

    Proph:The idea that the “God of the philosophers” cannot in principle be reconciled with the “God of the Bible” would be shocking news to the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, and others, men of extraordinary holiness and intelligence who had no problem whatsoever achieving this synthesis.

    Kristor:The only gap between the God of the Philosophers and YHWH is that the Greeks were not the first beneficiaries of the Revelation by which the doctrine of God after which they – and, for that matter, the Hebrews – had been groping was completed. They recognized that Revelation, when they received the Gospel, as the fulfillment of their hopes, and of Greece herself.

    Which is to say, the God of the Philosophers is NOT the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.
    If I write and compile a computer program, and then make so minor a change to the source-code as merely correcting a misspelled word in a literal string, and recompile the program, I now have a different program than I originally did, no matter that I may call it by the same name.

    Similarly, in the very act of trying to acheive a synthesis between “the God of the Philosophers” and the Biblical conception of God, whether or not they did acheive it, they were no longer employing the pagan philosophical conception of God.

    The pagan philosophical conception of God was incomplete, to be sure; but it wasn’t *merely* incomplete: it was also wrong. I’ve mentioned two of the ways in which it was wrong — they conceived of God as ‘impassive’ in a way that cannot be reconcilled with the Biblical Revelation; they conceived of God as ‘impersonal’ in a way that cannot be reconcilled with the personal God who reveals himself in the Bible and in Christ.

    • they conceived of God as ‘impassive’ in a way that cannot be reconciled with the Biblical Revelation

      … nor with reason (absent Revelation), once one notices and acknowledges the flaw-in-reasoning they’d made due to an unrecognized cultural assumption.

    • The Philosophers correctly recognized that God can not be personal in the same way as man is-this is what is meant by impersonal though trans-personal would be a better word as CS Lewis observed.
      Similarly they were correct that God can not suffer the same way man suffers (i.e. God is impassive and immutable). God does not suffer by anything external to him. If he suffers, he suffers of his own will. The love pangs noted in Bible are created in him by himself.
      What is more, Bible is directed to salvation- and thus is directed to conscience and will and not primarily to intellect.

      CS Lewis had comments about how the negative insights of mystics (God is not this, God is not that) should be properly understood and not taken too literally.

    • You’re equivocating between two distinct uses of “not the same thing.” That they aren’t exactly identical in every respect doesn’t mean they’re completely unrelated.

      Whether or not these things are in principle irreconcilable is exactly what’s under discussion here, so repeating the assertion that they aren’t simply isn’t helpful. Again, much smarter and holier men than you didn’t seem to think they were. So with due respect, who the hell are you and why should I listen to you and not a sainted genius who dedicated the whole of his life to prayerful contemplation of God, with the benefit of both a highly-developed reason and access to the fullness of revelation?

  5. There is certainly no obstacle to prevent the radical liberal from reconciling the God of Philosophers and the God of the Bible. The radical liberal can simply apply the radical liberal formula where A=B such that:

    good = evil
    man = woman
    heterosexual = homosexual
    God of Bible = God of Philosophers

    His claim to a desire to reconcile these “gods” is disingenuous. He believes in neither the conception of God through reason nor the revelation of God in the Bible.

    Where the radical liberal would usually seek to automatically transgress, i.e., seek to equate unequal entities, in this case the “equivocation” WOULD BE TRUE and so necessarily destructive of the radical liberal worldview.

  6. I am troubled by the assertion that it is known rather than merely believed that the Bible is an incorrigible authority on the nature of God and His intentions, and as such is indubitable.

    As vishmehr24 has already pointed out, Christians hold a number of doctrines (some by inference) for which there is scant if any scriptural warrant. There are a number of marvels attributed to divine intervention in the Old Testament, that I do not find it possible to believe.

    • Alex,

      Traditional Christian doctrine holds that the Bible is not just the words of men, but that they wrote exactly what God wanted them to write. If this is not correct, then of course the Bible is not the supreme earthly authority on the nature of God.

      But if this Christian doctrine is correct, they my claim does follow. And if it is correct, then it follows that the marvels of the Old Testament did happen, and you will need to adjust your beliefs. It would also follow that disagreements among Christians are not evidence against Biblical authority.

      And, of course, if God does exist, then He is certainly capable of producing a Bible that contains only the words He intended.

      • Alan: It is true that if it is known that the Bible is an indubitable exposition of the nature of God, then your claim does follow. I contend that the words of the Bible in the respects we’re talking about are not known to be true, but many believe they are true. I do not think this is a trivial distinction.

        It appears this distinction accounts for many of the differences of religious opinion that the sects of Christianity are prone to.

      • The Bible is the Word of God, even though you do not acknowledge it. And it can be known to be the Word of God.

        Confusion is only to be expected among those who do not acknowledge Revelation.

    • Alex:I am troubled by the assertion that it is known rather than merely believed that the Bible is an incorrigible authority on the nature of God and His intentions, and as such is indubitable.

      Fortunately, we can know — via reason alone and without reference to the Divine Revelation recorded in the Bible — most of the God’s qualities as recorded in the Bible. And we don’t have to make the same cultural mistakes the philosophers made.

      Alex:There are a number of marvels attributed to divine intervention in the Old Testament, that I do not find it possible to believe.

      Really? So what? Others are supposed to be impressed that you irrationally believe that He Who Makes All That Is is limited to by his creation? Others are supposed to be impressed that you irrationally refuse to believe that He Who Makes All That Is can change What Is?

      I have an old post that would bet exactly addresses you (pseudo-)skepticism.

      • I’m not trying to ‘impress’ anyone – least of all you. I merely admitted that I could not believe, let’s say for example, that the story of Noah as recorded in Genesis is true. (I could make a list, but one will suffice.)

        That you should pretend my reservations are ‘irrational’ and refer to my ‘pseudo-skepticism’ with a mechanical sneer, implies that you believe your premises are impervious to doubt.

        I know very well that reason can justify belief in the existence of God and we can make reasonable inferences about His nature. What I cannot believe is that every word in the Bible, without exception, is the word of God. And despite your exclamation of So What ?, that is not an intrinsically irrational point of view.

      • “I know very well that reason can justify belief in the existence of God and we can make reasonable inferences about His nature. What I cannot believe is that every word in the Bible, without exception, is the word of God.”

        The precise opposite is true for me. Imagine if aliens from another world landed on earth after a nuclear apocalypse, discovered the bombed-out ruins of human cities, and deduced that a race of intelligent beings had been responsible; the hypothesized race would nevertheless be nothing more specific than a category with certain attributes, and the alien visitors would have no justification for identifying this category with the human race as such. It is the same with God. If we concluded that a certain X with attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and so forth was responsible for creating the universe, this still does not grant us grounds to identify X with God. At the most we can say that this X is a category of deity, but God is no such thing. God is the personal and transcendent sovereign of historical revelation. He is not a generic term or category.

        So I don’t think reason can ever justify belief in the existence of God as such, and this is precisely because I believe that ‘every word in the Bible, without exception, is the word of God’ — there is no possibility of knowing God apart from the special revelation recorded in Scripture.

      • Kirillov:So I don’t think reason can ever justify belief in the existence of God as such, and this is precisely because I believe that ‘every word in the Bible, without exception, is the word of God’ — there is no possibility of knowing God apart from the special revelation recorded in Scripture.

        Oddly enough, the Bible says that men can acquire some knowledge about God via reason, apart from the special revelation recorded in Scripture.

    • “Oddly enough, the Bible says that men can acquire some knowledge about God via reason, apart from the special revelation recorded in Scripture.”

      I assume you’re referring to Romans 1:19-20. But what that verse tells us is that even general revelation cannot be had prior to special revelation — to quote Calvin:

      “In vain for us, therefore, does Creation exhibit so many bright lamps lighted up to show forth the glory of its Author. Though they beam upon us from every quarter, they are altogether insufficient of themselves to lead us into the right path. Some sparks, undoubtedly, they do throw out; but these are quenched before they can give forth a brighter effulgence. Wherefore, the apostle, in the very place where he says that the worlds are images of invisible things, adds that it is by faith we understand that they were framed by the word of God, (Heb. 11: 3;) thereby intimating that the invisible Godhead is indeed represented by such displays, but that we have no eyes to perceive it until they are enlightened through faith by internal revelation from God. When Paul says that that which may be known of God is manifested by the creation of the world, he does not mean such a manifestation as may be comprehended by the wit of man, (Rom. 1: 19;) on the contrary, he shows that it has no further effect than to render us inexcusable, (Acts 17: 27.) And though he says, elsewhere, that we have not far to seek for God, inasmuch as he dwells within us, he shows, in another passage, to what extent this nearness to God is availing. God, says he, “in times past, suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless, he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness,” (Acts 14: 16, 17.) But though God is not left without a witness, while, with numberless varied acts of kindness, he woos men to the knowledge of himself, yet they cease not to follow their own ways, in other words, deadly errors.”

      “we have no eyes to perceive it until they are enlightened through faith by internal revelation from God” — that is, it is only once we pass through the threshold of faith that the stamp of God on creation is truly revealed. The natural knowledge of God is ironically not available to natural man, but only to the man of faith.

      • Kirillov writes: I don’t think reason can ever justify belief in the existence of God as such, and this is precisely because I believe that ‘every word in the Bible, without exception, is the word of God’

        I should like to ask you this: Do you believe that every word in the Bible has been inspired by God and is the literal truth? (I’m asking in particular about the literal truth of every word in the Old Testament.)

        For instance: Do you believe that Balaam’s donkey saw an angel and then, after its mouth was opened by the Lord, spoke, presumably in the Hebrew language, about its ill-treatment? (Numbers 22:28-30)

        Of course you might have a figurative explanation for this unusual incident, but that opens the door to contradiction.

      • Alex, this isn’t the right question. It’s not as though God is less rhetorically capable than we are. He is not limited to literal speech. Like us, he can tell truths through allegory, metaphor, parable, synecdoche, poetry, proverb, history &c. Job for example may be more like the Morte d’Arthur than a straightforward history. This would not make it false. No one thinks the parables of Jesus are about real historical personages. The story of Balaam’s ass may be a fantastic parable.

      • “I should like to ask you this: Do you believe that every word in the Bible has been inspired by God and is the literal truth? (I’m asking in particular about the literal truth of every word in the Old Testament.)”

        I’m not a literalist because I hold, like Karl Barth, that to be a literalist is to disrespect the essential Otherness of the revealed text, and to conform it to commonsensical and empirical notions of truth, ala Charles Hodge (who once said that the Bible is nothing more than a ‘storehouse of facts’). But I do believe that every word in the Bible is inspired by God and is absolutely true — how it is true is another matter completely.

  7. The problem with classical philosophy is the presuppositions it has about what accounts for perfection. Part of this is attributable to a lack of an understanding of infinity, while part of this may have been a reaction to their lived experience. Divine impassibility is not a real option for biblical Christianity, and neither is an immaterial soul as described in platonic (and later Cartesian) dualism. Yet these are mainstays of classical philosophy. Instead, it may be helpful to examine more recent (post-Descartes) philosophies while nevertheless recognizing that our opinion of them (and their relation to the Christian God) may not be entirely unbiased. Only time will tell, and I’m not entirely sure we yet have enough historical distance.

  8. I agree with Ilion. The god of the philosophers was not the God Paul preached. The Athenians themselves testify to this.

    When Paul preached in Athens, he was provoked by all the idols there, and proclaimed a god unknown to them. Some dismissed him as a babbler. They saw he was preaching a divinity foreign to them. It was a new teaching, strange to them.

    Acts 17:16-23

    Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

    So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

    • This evidence can’t, by its nature, convince anyone already not convinced. Nobody is arguing that it is self-evident that the God of the Philosophers is the same as the God of the Bible. Thus, the fact that the Athenians didn’t get it (assuming this is the import of that passage) is of no more relevance to the question than is the fact that Ilion doesn’t or you don’t.

    • I have always taken this passage as support for just the opposite point of view. The Athenians were already worshipping an unknown God when Paul arrived. They intuited that the pagan pantheon and theogony they had inherited were not the whole story. They intuited that there was something more to God than their philosophers had yet figured out. Paul spotted their altar to that unknown God and said, “I’m here to tell you about your unknown God.”

      And they listened. They found out that the Logos they had already apprehended is a person, who is coterminous with the divine being they had called the demiurge. And they found out that the demiurge had become incarnate to rescue his creation. They found out about the Trinity that Philo had already expounded to them as implicit in Platonic metaphysics, as well as in the Law and Prophets. They found out that the gods of their pantheon were – at best – mere angels (not that there’s anything ‘mere’ about angels!). &c.

  9. And yet the larger point is that this now inflamed discussion between believers in a Supreme Being was started with a discussion of what is a “liberal” and whether the liberal is simply one that denies the existence of a Supreme Being.

    Neither Revelation nor reason justifies the existence of God in the eyes of the radical liberal. But that matters not. The radical liberal can simply equate the two “unequal” entities just as he does over and over again all throughout reality.

    The problem is that in this particular instance this “equalization” is a sort of concession to the idea that one can conceive of a Supreme Being in some manner or another even if it’s only through the radical liberal process of equivocation. By equating, one concedes existence.

    Are liberals definitively known by their denial of the existence of a Supreme Being whether that Supreme Being was reasonably conceived or experienced through Revelation?

    I say that the real liberal is anti-Supremacy. That is his defining characteristic.

    • “I say that the real liberal is anti-Supremacy. That is his defining characteristic.”

      That isn’t too far off, actually. I can certainly live with it.

  10. onecertain cannot “equate” the God of the Bible with the God of the philosophers unless he wants to have to more vigorously defend his liberalism.

    Likewise, by feigning a disingenuous “inequality” between the two, he need not defend his liberalism (as a liberal, he cares not either way, equal or unequal).

    Instead, inflamed schism amongst faithful believers.

  11. Friends, not being a philosopher or being able to quote the Bible, I have an observation to make. After reading the Bible over the years I have come to the conclusion that the God of the Old Testament and God of the NT are not the same. They are not the same in tone, commands in the first person, and do not seem to lead to the same ends. Jehovah or Jesus, do they seem to represent the same reality?

    • In Luke 24, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus converses with two disciples, and says (verses 25—27):

      Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

      That is, Jesus showed how the Old Testament spoke of him. And, of course, Jesus affirmed that there is only one God, and he affirmed that he was God, as when he accepted worship (only God is to be worshipped) and forgave sins (only God forgave sins). And, of course, the Apostles taught that Jesus is God, as in Titus 2:13:

      …looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus…

      Since there is only one God, and Jesus is God, the God described in the Old Testament is the same as the one described in the New Testament.

      • And he explicitly said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall never pass away” — a claim of divinity.

        And he explicitly said, “I and the/my Father are one”, and “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” — claims of unity between the God of Abraham and himself.

    • “After reading the Bible over the years I have come to the conclusion that the God of the Old Testament and God of the NT are not the same.”

      Say hello to Marcion for me.

  12. About a year ago, I wrote a paper concerning Metaphysics which argued that “pure philosophy” was not possible and was bound to be incoherent. I argued that experience (which I called “Natural Metaphysics”) and Divine Revelation must provide the grounds for a coherent belief in reality. Yet I also attempted to defend the role of philosophy in the search for Truth. My paper ended as such:

    Another quote from St. Clement will reveal the fullness of this approach:

    “As many men drawing down the ship, cannot be called many causes, but one cause consisting of many;—for each individual by himself is not the cause of the ship being drawn, but along with the rest;—so also philosophy, being the search for truth, contributes to the comprehension of truth; not as being the cause of comprehension, but a cause along with other things, and co-operator; perhaps also a joint cause. And as the several virtues are causes of the happiness of one individual; and as both the sun, and the fire, and the bath, and clothing are of one getting warm: so while truth is one, many things contribute to its investigation. But its discovery is by the Son…. But the teaching, which is according to the Savior, is complete in itself and without defect, being ‘the power and wisdom of God;’ and the Hellenic philosophy does not, by its approach, make the truth more powerful; but rendering powerless the assault of sophistry against it, and frustrating the treacherous plots laid against the truth, is said to be the proper ‘fence and wall of the vineyard.’”

    Seen here is a reasonable view as how to approach philosophy, with a person using all the tools at his disposal in the search for life and truth. Metaphysics combined with Divine revelation combined with Natural Metaphysics all coming together to strengthen a person’s search for life and find their use in a deeply personal search for truth. The starting point for St. Clement was “the Son,” the purpose and desire was life (not wisdom, which is what one seeks after desiring life), and it was only then that he could place philosophy in it’s appropriate position, as “the handmaiden of theology.”

    END OF PAPER

    So it seems to me that if we take St. Clement’s word for it, philosophy has a defensive role within the Christian religion. Good philosophy is useful against bad philosophy. It is always defensive, and never offensive. For example: Christian philosophy, all by its lonesome self, could never convince someone that humans are sinners in need of redemption. But it can be used demolish bad philosophy that says humans don’t need redemption. And indeed, it does not need to, since all people know this naturally, at least until they encounter bad philosophy that says otherwise.

    Now this would seem to indicate that in a completely Christian society, there would be no need for philosophy, at least not in its current formal and academic form. I am in some kind of agreement with this- but unfortunately, we are not in a completely Christian society, at least not until we reach the Kingdom of Heaven, and people do bring up disputes against the Lord through bad philosophy, and these must be answered.

    Mr. Roebuck brings up a good point earlier: while the Trinity was always believed to be true, it was only when opposition to it appeared through the Arians that it became necessary to hold a council (with St. Athanasius defending the true belief with Scripture, evidence, and philosophy) and come up with a formal creed.

    But of course, philosophy, as the handmaiden of theology, can never overstep its bounds and become a substitute for theological truths- these are given through Divine Revelation (The Bible and the Church).

    • FHL, this is well-put. Philosophy has its role to play, but it must acknowledge the supremacy of Revelation in order properly to contribute to wisdom.

  13. When Christians debate the relationship between philosophy and theology it is interesting to study how similar questions were handled in the Islamic world. While the Christians were essentially able to reconcile Aristotle and Plato into a coherent philosophy the Muslims seemed completely unable to do the same. This despite the fact that in many ways the Arabs inherited much of the best parts of the old Hellenist civilization. Ultimately the difference came down to the two society’s different conceptions of God. For Muslims God is not a rational being but a being of pure will. So for example it made little sense to study the physical laws of nature since if Allah should will it he could arbitrarily change such laws. Some link (I think rather tenuously) the West’s eventual quantum leaps in science and technology to this difference. Even the best Muslim “Aristotelian” Averroes- was a functional atheist. Avicenna was persecuted. Neither of these philosophies had any real staying power in the Islamic world.

    So really Christendom did quite well in the manner in which it handled the challenge of Hellenistic thought that was resurgent during the High Medieval period. Although much of this progress was, like so many things, completely blown to Hell in 1517. By the early 17th century the Church was wreaked by these events it lacked the strength to effectively challenge the rising rationalism in Europe.

    • The ancient Israelites were commanded to keep themselves pure through separation and distinction from the gentiles; even the most trivial and prosaic of admixtures, such as that of linen and wool, or the yoking together of oxen and donkeys, were condemned. The Jewish tradition that was the most sympathetic to Christ, the Essenes, as well as the Sadducees to a lesser extent, considered mainstream Pharisaical Judaism to be much like the Catholic church of the late Middle Ages, that is, an impious yoking of Hellenistic speculation and divine revelation. “The Sadducees say: “We complain against you, Pharisees, for you say that the Holy Scriptures defile the hands, but the writings of Homer do not defile the hands,” as the Mishnah Yadayim records. Then there are the famous words of Tertullian: What hath Jerusalem to do with Athens? Then, further on, are Luther, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Barth, all of whom upheld the ‘offense’ of the Gospel against the rationalism of natural theology and the systematizing, concept-splitting speculation of the Scholastics.

      Of course, none of this will bother Catholic ‘traditionalists’, who are more concerned with preserving a specific ecclesial-cultural construct — Western civilization or what have you — than in revelation or theology per se.

      The fact is that the medieval church failed the ‘challenge of Hellenistic thought’, precisely because of the reconciliation you mention, and became more or less what Dostoevsky decries in the parable of the Grand Inquisitor, an empire of mere earthly ‘bread’ in the form of a truce with worldly wisdom. It took the Reformation to finally meet that challenge head on.

      • “It took the Reformation to finally meet that challenge head on.”

        And completely and utterly fail. Not only did it fail in this purported purpose it along with nominalism provided the flame and kindle of modern liberalism. We can thank all those wonderful liberal philosophers who all more or less pop up out of the Protestant milieus. Rousseau, Kant, Hobbes, Hume, Locke.

        Catholic traditionalists may need better discernment but “Protestant traditionalism” is a contradiction in terms.

  14. Kristor, in a comment on my inquiry (to Kirillov) about Balaam’s donkey, says that I haven’t asked the right question. Well, I referred to the possibility that there may be a figurative explanation for this fantastic tale – which I believe acknowledges God’s rhetorical capacity for teaching through allegory and the like. But figurative understandings could be completely subjective and so at odds with the claim that every word in the Bible is true in a literal sense – which I understood to be Kirillov’s belief.

    I guess it has been maintained that while every word in the Bible is inspired by God, if we seek every hidden truth we must sometimes, like Hamlet, by indirections find directions out.

    • In the Patristic and Scholastic exegetical traditions, there are (at least) four levels of interpretation that can be fruitfully applied – and that, therefore, ought to be applied – to each phrase of scripture:

      1: Literal or historical
      2: Allegorical
      3: Tropological or Moral
      4: Anagogical

      The last is the highest, fullest, truest form of interpretation. While the literal or historical interpretation was suitable for infants in the faith, the anagogical was for the adepts, advanced in wisdom and holiness. Anagogy is “leading upward.” It is the interpretation of Scripture in terms of the mystical ascent.

      Origen (fl. 184-253) – perhaps the greatest of the Patristic exegetes – insisted that the notion that there was a literal Garden of Eden somewhere around the springs of the Tigris, Araxes and Euphrates, with trees of knowledge and life, and walls with gates, was a story for children.

      Yet it is crucial to note that while Origen may have been completely correct about what it is really important for us to take away from the story of Eden, this does not mean there was no such place in real, concrete history – the history that includes Pol Pot and Elvis, and Caesar, and that itch you now feel. That a story is for children does not make it literally false. They used to say that Troy was a story for children, too.

      So, the story of Balaam’s ass is *important* because of what it tells us on levels 2 through 4. But this does not mean it did not happen just as Scripture said it did. Miracles are unlikely and hard to believe *by definition.* Yet to argue that they are impossible to the God who reiterates this whole cosmos at every single instant of its life, making up each one from absolutely nothing, would be foolish. God is making you happen, right now; a speaking ape, just think of it! How improbable is that? Why is a speaking ass then so incredible?

  15. Because after a very long process of evolution, the human descendants of apes learned to communicate in different languages is not a good reason why I should believe that Balaam’s donkey acquired the power of human speech.

  16. Pingback: The Simplicity of the Trinity « The Orthosphere

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