Patristic Philosophy

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Patristic philosophy can be considered from the point of view of the history of Christianityand it is then part of the science of patristic studiesor from the point of view of the history of philosophy that began outside, and before, the Christian community. The point of view of this article is the history of philosophy.

The history of Western philosophy has three periods: ancient, medieval, and modern. The medieval is the period of the religious philosophies: Jewish, Christian, and Mohammedan. Though "medieval" designates the European period of the 11th to the 14th centuries a.d., the history of christian philosophy comprises the two periods of patristic and scholastic philosophy. The patristic period extends from the beginnings of Christianity to the 8th century (or from St. justin martyr, c. 100164, to St. john damascene, d. c. 749) and is limited to the Mediterranean basin. The development of patristic thought begins with the apostolic Fathers and continues with the Apologists and the beginnings of theology and philosophy to the golden age of the 4th century (Nicaea, 325 to Chalcedon, 451); the final period concludes with Damascene.

The idea that patristic thought belongs to the history of philosophy except for its extrinsic influence has been challenged. The rationalist philosophers (E. Bréhier) maintained that patristic thought is not philosophy because it depends upon a revelation that cannot be questioned. Scholastic theologians have said that the Fathers did not adequately distinguish philosophy and theology and consequently their work was properly theology (P. Mandonnet). In response, some have admitted the actual fusion of philosophy and theology in the Fathers, but have maintained that the distinction was made in principle and that true philosophical work was done that prepared the way for scholastic philosophy (B. Geyer). Others have defended an intermediate concept of "Christian philosophy" and argued that though precisions were

made later, there was a properly Christian philosophy in the Fathers as well as in the scholastics (É. Gilson).

On the other hand, rationalist historians have argued that the more philosophical of the Fathers (Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine) were not authentic Christians but really Gnostics or Neoplatonists. There is as a result an extensive literature studying the question, and in each case it has been resolved in favor of the Christianity of the patristic writer.

General Movements of Patristic Philosophy

Not all the patristic writers were philosophers. Some were exegetes, preachers, poets, or theologians in the technical sense. Though there were some elements of philosophy in the apostolic Fathers, Justin was the first Christian "philosopher"not only because he professed philosophy before his conversion and called himself a philosopher as a Christian, but especially because he made the basic distinction between the logos of revelation and the logos of Greek philosophy or of reason.

Greek. But the dominant and almost exclusive philosophical tradition among the Greek writers is that which originated with the school of clement of alexandria (c. 150219) and origen (c. 185254). In the 4th century it moved to Cappadocia principally in gregory of nyssa (c. 335395), and then to Athens (?) with pseudo-dionysius the Areopagite (c. 500). There are other figures of philosophical importancesuch as nemesius of emesa (c. 400), whose De natura hominis was mistakenly attributed to Gregory of Nyssa in the Middle Ages, and Damascene, who is important principally as a summist and transmitter of patristic teaching to the scholasticsbut the Alexandrian tradition is the mainline of Greek patristic philosophy.

Latin. In the beginning Greek was the language of the writers in the Roman world also, but Latin began to be used toward the end of the 2d century by minucius felix (c. 180) and tertullian (c. 155245). However, though a certain amount of philosophy came to the Christians by way of Cicero and Varro, for the most part the development of philosophy among the Latin Fathers was the result of the influence of the Greek writers, both Christian and pagan. In the Roman spirit Tertullian and St. ambrose contributed to the development of moral philosophy, and Tertullian made some important beginnings in the definition of theologico-philosophical concepts. By far the most important Latin Father philosophically, however, was St. augustine. Augustine was an original thinker and the history of his doctrine followed the itinerary of his development from Manichaeism, through skepticism and Neoplatonism, to Christianity. But since the strongest philosophical influence on him was that of porphyry, plotinus, and the Greek Fathers, he may be assimilated to the Alexandrian tradition in philosophy.

Second in importance to Augustine is boethius, a layman. Though Augustinian and Neoplatonic at base, his thought is not as mystical and spiritual. His Consolation of Philosophy presents an example of lay philosophy, though he also wrote theological treatises that are philosophically important. He is especially significant for his effort to make both Plato and Aristotle available to the Latin world, and particularly for introducing Aristotelian logic into European philosophy. The work of translation of the Neoplatonists into Latin had been begun much earlier by marius victorinus.

Nature of Philosophy in the Fathers

In the Western world philosophy means the type of rational understanding developed by the Greeks. For this reason the history of philosophy is in large part the history of the influence of Greek philosophy.

Influence of the Greeks. The influence of Hellenism on Christian origins is discernible in the Old Testament, e.g., in the Book of Wisdom. Greek influences are recognizable also in the New Testament, in John and Paul. But the first major effort to unite Greek speculation with the Bible was made by philo judaeus (c. a.d. 40). gnosticism likewise had much to do with initiating the movement among the Christians, since it professed to be able to discern in the Scriptures a secret, saving doctrine that had large elements of Greek philosophy in it. One of the motives of the Alexandrian school was to develop a true Christian Gnosticism, though Origen was undoubtedly stimulated also by the beginnings of Neoplatonism in which he seems to have taken part.

The history of pagan philosophy at the time of the beginning of Christianity is not very well known. It was a period of syncretism, not only between philosophies but also between religions, and there was no dominant school. Plotinus (d. a.d. 270) presented the first strong new philosophy since Stoicism and Epicureanism. The first Christians therefore tended to be eclectic. Plato (Timaeus ), however, seemed closer to Moses (Genesis) than the others, while Epicurus and Aristotle were considered the most incompatible with Christianity. Even skepticism was significant, not only in the development of Augustine's thought, but also in provoking arguments for the necessity of faith. Once Neoplatonism developed, however, it had a preponderant influence on the Christians (Plotinus and Porphyry on Augustine, Proclus on Dionysius).

Concept of Philosophy. The distinction and meanings of theology and philosophy as used in the postscholastic world were not operative in the patristic period. Among the pagans philosophy was a general term for the doctrine and way of life of a particular group of men. Theology meant simply the part of philosophy that treated of God. The patristic philosophers compared Christianity to the pagan philosophies, much as Christianity and communism might be contrasted. They distinguished between "our philosophy" and the philosophy of "those outside." Thus, philosophy could be considered as a way of human beatitude (Augustine), or a way of salvation through higher, speculative knowledge (Gnosticism), or a way of Christian perfection by the elevation of the mind of God (Alexandrians).

Thus the movement of philosophy among both the pagans and the Christians was toward beatifying knowledge. The Christians, however, insisted that the goal could not be achieved by finite reason alone. Faith is necessary from beginning to end. Thus the process goes from simple faith in revelation, through the hierarchy of human and divine sciences, to mystical contemplation and union with God. This process involves a dialectic of faith and reason that recognizes the validity of human reason proceeding from an analysis of creatures to the Creator (Wis 13; Rom 1.20; Greek philosophy) but considers this insufficient. Faith and reason are interrelated as teacher and pupil in the natural process of human learning (Augustine).

The desire for God did not exhaust all the causes of philosophical reasoning among the Christians. Philosophy was needed to meet the challenge of the pagans (e.g., celsus) and to clarify the meaning of the Christian revelation in the face of heretical views within. Moreover, philosophers such as Justin, when converted, could not resist philosophizing within Christianity. Neither did the intellectual mystical tradition present the only view of Christian perfection. There were those such as Basil and Ambrose who stressed the Biblical service of God and the life of the moral virtues.

General Synthesis Of Patristic Philosophy

A catalogue of the philosophical opinions of the individual patristic writers taken chronologically can be found in the Catholic histories of Christian or medieval philosophy (Gilson, Copleston). Some general lines of doctrine are sketched here.

When patristic philosophy is seen from the viewpoint of the history of philosophy, it is generally considered as a correction and development of Greek philosophy. Though there are merits in this procedure, it gives a false perspective. Patristic philosophy began with the Hebrew tradition and the Bible. Greek philosophy entered this tradition and taught the patristic philosophers how to develop the philosophical elements in revelation rationally (cf. C. Tresmontant). But the patristic philosophers also saw themselves as different from the Jews, who held strictly to the Old Testament. The difference, of course, was Christ, and though the mystery of Christ took them beyond the realm of rational understanding, nevertheless the theology of Christ forced a reconstruction of philosophy that can be called specifically Christian, at least in the historical sense.

Trinitarian Doctrine. Christ meant first of all the doctrine of the Trinity, the mystery of one divine nature but three Persons. This was anathema to the Jews, who saw it as a species of polytheism; but philosophically speaking, it forced against the Arians a distinction between generation (the Son) and creation that sharpened appreciably the notion of creation out of nothing derived from the Old Testament.

Creation and Divine Ideas. The Fathers found it easy to adapt the myth of Plato's Timaeus and understood God as an omnipotent artist who freely willed the world in time out of nothing according to patterns that He contemplates in His divine mind. But the break was made with Greek philosophy both by denying any kind of dualism of matter that is coeternal with the Creator and is shaped by Him, and by denying any kind of generationism whereby creatures proceed from God's substance in some way. To the Platonic division between the intelligible and the sensible a more embracing and radical division was addedbetween Creator and creaturein such a way that the division of creature contained the division of spiritual and material.

The nature of this last division was not always clear to the Fathers, and a certain reality was sometimes attributed to the divine ideas distinct from the being of God, as though God first created the intelligible world that the material world imitated, in a Platonic fashion. The Platonic myth of the fall of man into the body was also sometimes used, as in Gregory of Nyssa. But the ultimate pattern that prevailed was that of Dionysius, who made every creature apart from God a substance and made the intelligible creation the orders of the angels (as against the hypostases of Plotinus and Proclus). The question whether the angels were able to contribute to the creative process was asked but not definitely answered. They were granted some gubernatorial functions in the universe, which was conceived as one whole under God.

After Origen's thesis of multiple worlds, the patristic doctrine settled in the direction of one single creation in time, which, however, went through gradual stages of development until man appeared and the history of civilization began. Here the harmonization between Genesis and the Timaeus is again apparent. Augustine followed Gregory of Nyssa in making use of the theory of seminal reasons to explain how it was possible that the whole of creation was produced "at once" (as they understood Sir 18.1 to teach) but nevertheless went through the stages of the six days. The theory of an eternal world was constantly rejected as contrary not only to revelation but also to Plato. The possibility of distinguishing between the conclusions of reason (which might leave the question of eternity open) and the affirmations of revelation (which does not) did not occur to the Christian world before maimonides suggested it in the 12th century. Hence, time and history were primary categories of patristic thought, and the world scheme of the Fathers came closer to the 20th-century evolutionary and historical world view than did that of the scholastics.

Psychology of Person. Another great influence of the Trinitarian doctrine on philosophy came in the development of the psychology of the person. It was principally Augustine who reconstructed the Greek psychology into a new Christian synthesis. Christ is the Word of God. This teaching enabled the Fathers to join the Platonic and Stoic theories of the logos. In Augustine the interior word became the middle term of a process that came out of memory and completed itself in love. Plato's theory of reminiscence was changed into a doctrine of divine illumination, which formed at once the basis for absolute knowledge and the ascent of the mind to God. Taken objectively as being, truth, and goodness, the triad joined the ontology of the Greeks and became a Christian doctrine of participation whereby all things descend from, and exist by, the One Being who is the cause of all.

In patristic philosophy there are, then, two forms of participation, that of exemplarism, or participation in the creative ideas by imitation, and an ontological participation whereby creatures derive from the Creator in descending grades of perfection. At the heart of this philosophy is the principle enunciated by Boethius that the imperfect presupposes the perfect (Consol. phil. 3.10).

Knowledge of God. The mystery of the Trinity brought forth yet another theme of patristic philosophy, the knowability yet incomprehensibility of God. The Arian, eunomius of constantinople, had attempted to apply univocally to God the Aristotelian categories taken from the sensible world. It became clear in the debate that this could not be done, and the beginnings of the doctrine of analogy were shaped. Moreover, though it is true that reason can apply names from creatures to the Creator in a transcendent manner, nevertheless God still remains incomprehensible and a mystery. This is the constant theme of the Greek Fathers. The negative theology of Dionysius is perhaps their strongest statement about God, though it is mitigated by Damascene's position that God is naturally and readily known by a kind of instinctive ascent from creatures to the Creator.

Teaching on the Incarnation. Christ also means the incarnation, that is, the mystery of the assumption of human nature by a divine Person so that the Second Person of the Trinity is both God and man. This forced the Fathers to establish their understanding of the human nature that the Word assumed. Christ did not assume a soul without a body, or a body without a soul; He had all the powers and faculties of man. In terms of the division of creatures into spiritual and material, it became clear that man was a composite of both "natures" and mediated between both worlds. It was possible, then, with Gregory of Nyssa, to define him both as a rational animal and as a corporeal spirit.

Spirit. The notion of spirit and of the spirituality of the human soul did not come easy for the early Fathers. Stoicism and Manichaeism had a developed materialism that included God and held thinkers such as Tertullian and Augustine in its grasp for a while. Scripture itself, especially the Old Testament, was not clear and forceful on this point. Thus it was probably Neoplatonismin part a reaction to the materialism of Hellenistic philosophy that did most to clarify the spiritual nature of the soul. But this left the Fathers with a certain dualism in man of soul and body that was not completely overcome. The soul was not conceived in a simple undifferentiated way, however, but rather as a hierarchy of powers and functions that stretched between the poles of spirit and matter. As the soul became more interior, it became more spiritual and also the center wherein God dwelt. This psychology was intimately connected with the theory of mystical contemplation, itself the Christian response to the immanentist doctrine of Plotinus. Within the Alexandrian tradition, at least, the ascetical and moral teaching of the Fathers was worked out from the point of view of this mystical psychology. Thus the life of virtue was structured toward union with God. The view of man's nature as composite made it relatively easy to defend the immortality of the human soul, though it was not as helpful regarding the question of the resurrection of the body.

Person and Nature. The Incarnation and the doctrine of the Trinity both forced a distinction between person and nature, though from opposite directions. The Incarnation presented an instance of one Person but two natures; the Trinity of one nature but three Persons. This led to new precisions about the Aristotelian category of substance, but particularly it made important the problem of universals and individuals. The question that Boethius bequeathed to the Middle Ages in his commentary on Porphyry's Isagoge was not merely a speculative question that intrigued the scholastics; it was very closely bound up with the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. The solutions of the Fathers tended to be a modification of Platonism and Stoicism and to stress the unity of a nature in all men that was nevertheless possessed by different individuals or persons. When their views were repeated in the early Middle Ages, they came under the sharp criticism of abelard, and the problem came into greater prominence.

Role of the Redemption. Christ finally also means redemption. This immediately engages the problem of evil, which was probably the most absorbing problem in the syncretic period of the beginning of the patristic age. All the dualistic religions of the East and the Hellenistic philosophies revolved around the mystery of good and evil, the freedom and determinism of man, the providence of God. It is in this context that the historical significance of Christianity can best be understood. Because of the patristic doctrine of creation of all beings by God, who is Being, any kind of absolute dualism had to be rejected. There is nothing that did not proceed from God. In this there was a parallelism with the Plotinian doctrine of the emanation of all from the One. Because God is good only, everything He made was good, even matter, and in this the Plotinian doctrine was modified. But perhaps the greatest impulse toward the recognition of the goodness of matter came from the doctrine of the Incarnation; for it was early established against docetism that matter was assumed also by the Son.

Freedom. Consequently, the Christians moved in the direction of explaining evil metaphysically in the Platonic sense of nonbeing, but morally as having its possibility in the freedom and finitude of man. The Fathers worked hard, therefore, to defend human freedom against Manichaeism. On the other hand, the mission of Christ as redeemer also taught them to fend off Pelagian optimism. Man's freedom, then, was seen in an ambivalent position, as drawn to determinism in the physical world and as elevated to freedom by the grace of Christ. The same dialectic that was mentioned above regarding faith and reason was operative also between grace and freedom. These questions absorbed much of Augustine's time, but Nemesius, and especially Damascene, worked to clarify the psychology of choice. In this area the positive help of Aristotle was finally apparent.

Image of God. The doctrine of redemption in patristic thought is closely related also to the doctrine of man as the image of god. This doctrine was derived from Genesis, but it also fitted well with the Platonic scheme. For the Christians, however, the image of God meant the image of the Creator, and so it was the freedom of man and his position as lord of the world that characterized man's likeness to God. This position, developed by Gregory of Nyssa and others, was to be repeated by St. thomas aquinas. It is this image that was dimmed by the Fall, that was brought back to its original intention by the redemptive grace of Christ, and that was given a new goal by the new reality of the Son of God made man. Thus, though the Christian doctrine of the Fall and Redemption resembles the Platonic cycle, the patristic doctrine of image also lays the theoretical foundations for man's creative and productive function in history and civilization. He is to be a second creator.

But because men are ultimately free, they are divided into two camps: those who struggle with Christ to redeem the world and those who do not. There is then a dualism of spirits in history, but it is the result of the freedom of creatures and not of two absolute and independent sources. This is the theme of Augustine's great City of God, which furnished the blueprint for the Christian Middle Ages.


Patristic philosophy is not a single tradition, nor is it a separate science apart from the totality of developing Christian life. It did not answer definitively all the questions it raised, but it did explore most of them and set themes and directions that formed the bases not only for medieval philosophy but for much of modern philosophy as well.

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[r. f. harvanek]