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Patristic Philosophy


"Patristic philosophy" is the term used to refer to the philosophical presuppositions, motifs, and structures in the writings of the early Christian apologists and Church Fathers. These writers were essentially theologians rather than philosophers, for their starting point lay in God and his self-revelation. Their use of philosophy can be divided into three periods: (1) the beginnings (roughly the first and second centuries CE), in which ideas derived from Platonism, Stoicism, and (to a lesser extent) Skepticism were employed chiefly for apologetic purposes, largely under the influence of Hellenistic Judaism; (2) the early Alexandrian period, during which Middle Platonism and Stoicism were dominant, especially in the thought of Clement and Origen; and (3) the development of Christian Neoplatonism, first under the influence of Porphyry and later under that of Proclus. The influence of Philo of Alexandria may have been felt during the first period and certainly was an important factor in the second.


the new testament

In the New Testament, as in the Apocrypha (for example, in the Wisdom of Solomon), there are ideas that are at least latently philosophical. As early as Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (8:6), the Christian faith was being formulated with the use of prepositions that in Greek philosophy indicated causal relations. For Christians there was "one God the Father, from whom is everything and for whom are we, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom is everything and through whom are we." The Father was thus represented as the first and final causes (see Romans 11:36, a doxology), the Lord as the instrumental cause. Such an analysis was presumably derived from Hellenistic Judaism; Philo spoke thus concerning God and the Logos. In Romans 1:1921 Paul discussed the primal knowledge of God's eternal power and deity, which he revealed by means of what he created. Men capable of receiving revelation knew God but turned away to worship the creation instead of the Creator (Romans 1:25; cf. Philo, De Opificio Mundi, Bk. 7). The theme of a revelation implicit in the structure of the created world is further developed in sermons ascribed to Paul in Acts 14:1517 and 17:2231 (the setting of the latter sermon contains reminiscences of the charges brought against Socrates and other philosophers at Athens), and in Colossians 1:1520 the causal functions of Christ are further elaborated. The idea of the Logos, or creative Word of God, in John 1:114 is not necessarily philosophical either in its origin, which is probably not Philo, or in its expression. Later Christian theologians, however, interpreted it as philosophical, thus creating a bridge between Christianity and philosophy. These later theologians may perhaps have relied on Philo.

second-century christianity

In the apocryphal Preaching of Peter, God is described by means of adjectives clearly philosophical in origin. God is uncontained, without needs, incomprehensible, eternal, imperishable, and invisible. These negative adjectives reflect ideas current not only in the Platonism of the time but also in Hellenistic Judaism. They are close to later Gnostic developments, and it has been suggested that both are derived from a rather fully developed doctrine of God current in early second-century Christianity. This view is confirmed by what Ignatius of Antioch (early second century) says of Christ as God and man: "the timeless, the invisible who for us was visible, the intangible, the impassible who for us was passible" (Polycarpi 3.2). Ignatius is obviously employing current language about God to describe Christ. About 140 the doctrine was more fully expressed in the Apology of Aristides (Ch. 1). God is the unmoved mover and ruler of the universe, for "everything that sets in motion is more powerful than what is moved, and what rules is more powerful than what is ruled." God is eternal, without beginning (what begins also ends) or end (what ends is destructible); he is therefore ungenerated, uncreated, immutable, and immortal. He has no defects or needs; he is not contained or measurable but contains all; he is immobile (he could not move from one place to another); and he is positively Wisdom and wholly Mind. According to Philo and others, God has no name, form, or parts.

A problem arose when such negative attributes were combined with traditional Jewish and Christian ideas about God as the Creator active in history. Basilides, a Christian Gnostic, tried to avoid any kind of analogical statement by arguing that the doctrine of emanation would make God spiderlike, whereas the doctrine of creation would make him anthropomorphic. Basilides claimed instead that originally there was absolutely nothing, and then the nonexistent God made, so to speak, a nonexistent universe out of the nonexistent. Like certain Middle Platonists, Basilides held that God was completely transcendent, since "the universe cannot speak of him or contain him in thought"; he cannot even be called ineffable.

Christian thinkers, however, were generally less audaciously speculative. The apologist Justin Martyr (c. 160) wrote an account of conversion from Platonic religious philosophy to Christian truth. Justin had experienced the teaching offered by Stoics, Peripatetics, Pythagoreans, and Platonists but had little insight into any but the last. While a novice in Platonism he encountered a Christian whoapparently with Peripatetic argumentsdemolished his defenses of the innate immortality of the soul and its reminiscence of the eternal world. After his conversion Justin continued to quote from Plato's dialogues (which in his view were partly based on the Old Testament), although his position was now fully eclectic: "Whatever has been said well by anyone belongs to us" (Apologies, Bk. 2, Ch. 13). He criticized the Stoic doctrines about fate and the ekpyrosis (destruction of the cosmos by fire) but expressed his admiration not only for Heraclitus and Socrates but also for the first-century Stoic moralist Musonius Rufus. Justin's disciple Tatian was much less friendly to philosophers, although he tried to create a theology largely Platonic in inspiration. His incidental reference to "the God who suffered" suggests that at a crucial point he had to rely on paradox.

The writings of the later apologists show that philosophy continued to influence theology. In the Legatio of Athenagoras (c. 178), there is an important attempt to demonstrate the oneness of God and consequently an approach toward a doctrine of the Trinity. In another treatise the logical necessity of corporeal resurrection is upheld on grounds that are largely Peripatetic. About the same time, Theophilus of Antioch set forth the doctrine that God is known only through his activities, to which his attributes and appellations refer; God is without beginning because uncreated, immutable because immortal. The word theos is derived from verbs referring to his creative acts. His invisibility is explained by analogies to the soul, a pilot, the sun, and a king. God is not "contained" but is the locus of the universe. He is known only through his Logos, originally existing within him as reason (endiathetos ), then expressed as word (prophorikos ) at creation.

Philosophical ideas influenced not only the apologists but other Christians as well. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 185) was no philosopher, but in five passages he accepted a description of God originally derived from Xenophanes, "seeing entirely, knowing entirely, hearing entirely" (Fr. 24 in Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, edited by H. Diels and W. Kranz, 10th ed., Berlin, 1961) and amplified it, ascribing it both to "religious men" and to "the Scriptures." In three instances he added the Platonic phrase "the source of all good things."

During the crucial second century, then, Christian theologians generally shared their doctrine of God with Platonists. Their doctrine of the Logos resembled that of the Stoics, although Christian theologians believed in one Logos (as in Philo) rather than many. They used Skeptical arguments against the pagan gods. Their ethical teaching was often close to that of the Roman Stoa as represented by Musonius (and Epictetus). Like non-Christians of various schools, they tended to believe that there had once been a unified religious philosophy, Oriental in origin, from which later philosophers had deviated. This first philosophy, it was thought, had been based on the inspiration of the divine Logos or on borrowing from Moses, or on both. The views of the Christian theologians were thus close to the kind of Hellenistic Judaism represented by Philo. Few writers took up the philosophical problems presented by the Incarnation; several of them do not even mention Jesus.

The Christian Platonists of Alexandria

In the cultural center of Alexandria, Christian philosophical theology came into its own, first in the writings of Clement of Alexandria (late second century) and later in the fuller treatment of Origen. The rather disdainful attitude of both writers toward "simpler believers" illustrates the tension between traditional and philosophical theology in their time. Philosophy was often viewed elsewhere as a seedbed of heresy; such was the case at Rome with Hippolytus and at Carthage with Tertullian, even though both these writers used philosophical definitions and arguments. Clement and Origen made use of the writings of Philo and other Hellenistic Jews, although both were directly acquainted with most of the works of Plato, some Middle Platonic writings, a few Aristotelian treatises, and a great deal of Stoic literature. Clement's learning was both broader and more superficial than Origen's. His philosophical ideas apparently developed away from the boldness of his semi-Gnostic Hypotyposes (now lost) toward the greater caution reflected in the Stromata, in which philosophy became the handmaid of a theology traditional in essence if not always in expression.

The principal points at which the influence of philosophy is obvious are the doctrine of transcendence of God and the ideal world, analysis of the divine nature of Christ, divine impassibility as a model for human conduct, and Platonic and Stoic ethical conceptions. Following Philo, Clement made use of the allegorical method in order to relate his theology to the Bible. He was the head of a private philosophical school, training pupils to become Christian Gnostics. In later times he was far less influential than Origen, head of an authorized church school first at Alexandria and later at Caesarea. The ideas of both teachers, however, continued to create theological ferment as late as the sixth century.

Later Patristic Philosophy

We can hardly view Eusebius of Caesarea as a philosopher, but in the writings of the Cappadocian Fathers (especially Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa) technical philosophical arguments are frequently adapted for theological use, as they are throughout the patristic period. During the fourth century the attack upon Christianity by Porphyry was largely forgotten (a new attack was produced by the emperor Julian), and the logical rigor of his eclectic Neoplatonism was viewed as supporting theology. Extensive quotations from Porphyry and his master Plotinus appear in Eusebius's writings as well as in the later treatise Against Julian by Cyril of Alexandria. Toward the end of the fourth century, a faintly Christianized Neoplatonism appeared in the West in the commentary on Plato's Timaeus by a certain Calcidius, who relied primarily on Porphyry. Before being baptized, Marius Victorinus had translated one of Porphyry's works into Latin; he made frequent use of Porphyry's teaching in his later treatises On the Trinity. Both Ambrose and Augustine were deeply influenced by Porphyry, whose writings paved the way for Augustine's conversion. In the late fifth century the ideal world of the Neoplatonist Proclus was Christianized in the influential writings ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite.

See also Apologists; Origen.


For critical textual editions, the following two series:

Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum. Vienna: Kommission zur Herausgabe des Corpus der lateinischen Kirchenväter, 1864present.

Corpus Christianorum Series Latina. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 1953present.

For two series with translations of many complete works:

The Fathers of the Church. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1947present.

Roberts, Alexander, and James Donaldson, eds. The AnteNicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing. Many of these translations have been superseded, but there is some material available in English only in these volumes.

For a one-volume sampler of texts in translation that will serve the interests of many readers:

Bettenson, Henry, ed. and tr. The Early Christian Fathers. London: Oxford University Press, 1956.

For general studies, see the following three works.

Wolfson, Harry Austryn. Studies in the History of Philosophy and Religion. Vol. I. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.

Armstrong, A. H., ed. The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Gersh, Stephen. Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism: The Latin Tradition. 2 vols. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986. Vol. II is more relevant to the subject.

For recent studies on individual figures or themes mentioned in the original article:

Barnard, Leslie W. Athenagoras: A Study in Second Century Christian Apologetic. Paris: Beauchesne, 1972.

Barnard, Leslie W. Justin Martyr: His Life and Thought. London: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Cerrato, J. A. Hippolytus between East and West: The Commentaries and the Provenance of the Corpus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Cyril of Alexandria. Letters. 2 vols. Translated by John I. McEnerney. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1987.

Cyril of Alexandria. Select Letters, edited and translated by Lionel R. Wickham. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Goodenough, Erwin R. The Theology of Justin Martyr: An Investigation into the Conceptions of Early Christian Literature and Its Hellenistic and Judaistic Influences. Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1968.

Grant, Robert M. Irenaeus of Lyons. London: Routledge, 1997.

Hadot, Pierre. Marius Victorinus: recherches sur sa vie et ses oeuvres. Paris: Études augustiniennes, 1971.

Joly, Robert. Christianisme et philosophie: études sur Justin et les apologistes grecs du deuxième siècle. Bruxelles: Éditions de l'Université de Bruxelles, 1973.

Minns, Denis. Irenaeus. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1994.

Moorhead, John. Ambrose: Church and Society in the Late Roman World. London: Longman, 1999.

Morino, Claudio. Church and State in the Teaching of St. Ambrose. Translated by M. Joseph Costelloe. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1969.

Osborn, Eric. Irenaeus of Lyons. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Osborne, Catherine. Rethinking Early Greek Philosophy: Hippolytus of Rome and the Presocratics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

Ramsey, Boniface. Ambrose. London: Routledge, 1997.

Vallée, Gérard. A Study in AntiGnostic Polemics: Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius. Waterloo, Ont., Canada: Wilfrid University Press, 1981.

Wilken, Robert L. Judaism and the Early Christian Mind: A Study of Cyril of Alexandria's Exegesis and Theology. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971.

Robert M. Grant (1967)

Bibliography updated by William E. Mann (2005)

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