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Volume 16, Issue 4: Pooh's Think

Faith and Philosophy, Part 2

Michael Metzler

What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens? Tertullian asked this polemical question with the intent that the answer be inescapable. But Tertullian goes on to help the reader out: "A plague on Aristotle! Who invented for these men dialectics . . . embarrassing even to itself. For it considers every point to make sure it never finishes a discussion."

Revisionists of the "history of philosophy" make Tertullian out as representing a minority view based on little more than bad exegesis and hollow moralism. But in view of our current and unprecedented infatuation for philosophical language and vain reasoning, it would be very safe to say that Tertullian actually represents the majority view on `faith versus philosophy.' A fresh reading of history opens a flood gate of examples:
The genius of Origen delighted in the simplicity and power of the Word of God over wisdom of men; Augustine's devotion and personalism swallowed up his many syllogistic wanderings, and it was only a highly filtered Gregorian Augustinianism that survived until the rise of the universities. Church courts were always rightly suspicious of the pagan origins in the new fascination with dialect after Anselm's time. Tertullian could have foreseen the growth of heresy and the proud class of schoolmen that came with the new translations of Aristotle. Abelard, before he finally crawled into a monastery with his tail behind his legs, represents decline and not enlightenment. For Aquinas, when will we give up our modernist search for a rationalist hero from the midst of a Christian culture? His syncretism was not broadly appreciated during his own time, and his Summa was not authoritative until after the reformation.
This flow of history was not accidental, but the result of determined warfare with the old classical world. Paul gave the early church a battle plan, and they followed it faithfully to victory: "The word of the cross is foolishness to those who perish, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God . . . Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of the age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?"(1 Cor. 1: 18, 20)
Paul rejects the methodological stench of Greek philosophy and sophistry and contrasts them with the new way of salvation. I will call this Paul's eschatological epistemology. The wisdom of the world truly is wisdom, but only by the standards of the passing age; and the words of the cross truly are foolish, according to the old world; but according to the standards of the new age, the Messiah crucified becomes the very wisdom and power of God.
We see this everywhere in Paul's writing, but Paul's prayer for the church in Colossi is most explicit. He prayed that they would be "filled with the real knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, in order that they would walk in a manner worthy of the Lord" Why? For the Father "has . . . transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son . . . the first-born of all creation… he is the beginning, the first born from the dead." (Col. 1:18) Because of this, Paul is able to say that they were able to "proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom." (Col. 1:28) If there ever has been any sort of rational philosophical understanding, any true non-Christological method and love of sophia, it is now a foolishness that is passing away. Indeed, as is made clear later in Paul's letter to the Corinthians, all temporal "knowledge" will fade away altogether once we see Him face to face—in the age to come.
Those who followed Paul saw this eschatological epistemology as meditation for battle. As Origen noted, "the Church's doctors marched out to do battle with their enemies, when, armed with the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God, they went to overthrow the dogmas of worldly wisdom." "True philosophy" was commonly a phrase that referred to the successful rejection of classical philosophy. This was a strategy of renaming. We see all this as late as the 12th century. Lubac describes William of St. Thierry's position: "This is `the true philosophy': the life of charity within the Trinitarian life and in the image of the Trinitarian life; this is the wisdom that the `true Plato' teaches from the height of the cross" (Lubac, 101; William of St. Thierry, De contempl. Deo, c. xxv)
This has everything to do with current controversy. Logic is threatened by the real thing, and the need for reformation boils up in the same manner as it did in the sixteenth century. In debating with Luther over the freedom of the will, Erasmus took the non-Pauline approach, and Luther is clear about what he thinks of the role Erasmus' high view of philosophy:
These are arguments of human Reason, which has a habit of producing such bits of wisdom. We now have to argue with human Reason about an inference; for Reason interprets the Scriptures of God by her own inferences and syllogisms, and turns them in any direction she pleases…she talks nothing but follies and absurdities, especially when she starts displaying her wisdom on sacred subjects…
The reformation drew the same Pauline battle line regarding the antithesis of faith and philosophy, Scripture and dialectic; the same language, the same polemic: a recapitulation of the monastery versus the university, Bernard of Clairvaux versus Peter Abelard, and, in the words of Beryl Smalley, `"scholarship" scornfully rejecting "monastic practice." This same antithesis is as clear as ever in the developing contemporary debate over the biblical language respecting covenantal objectivity. Time again to draw that battle line.

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