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Fictional Foundations of Trinitarian Thought
This is the first of three related articles taken from Fictional Foundations of Trinitarian Thought. The first article is: The Influence of the Post-Apostolic Church on Doctrinal Beliefs Today . The second article is titled: Philosophy, and its Influence on the Church.
The Background and Doctrine of the Post-Apostolic Church Leaders
Excerpted and revised from Fictional Foundations of Trinitarian Thought
Keith G. Morehead
It may appear in this article that I am attempting to characterize the Church fathers as villains, or pagans, or perhaps even servants of the devil. Be assured that is neither my goal, nor my desire. I look upon the doctrine of the Trinity as a mistake, a grievous mistake, but it was a mistake made by men attempting to do what they believed God would have them do. I make no attempt to judge their actions or condemn their motives; I merely want to illustrate the overpowering influence of pagan Grecian philosophy that was implemented during the development of Christian theology. This influence, which far outweighed the influence of the Bible, has been denied and ignored by the orthodox Christian Church. It has been taken for granted that the foundation of Church doctrine laid down by the Church fathers was accurate, therefore exempting it from any thorough examination in the light of the Bible. This is a more serious error than that of the Church fathers.
Concerning the post-apostolic church fathers, Schaff makes the following comments:
This class consists of Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, and in a broader sense, Hermas, Papias, and the unknown authors of the Epistle to Diognetus, and of the Didache.
Of the outward life of these men, their extraction, education, and occupation before conversion, hardly anything is known….But the pious story of the martyrdom of several of these fathers, as their entrance into perfect life, has been copiously written. They were good men rather that great men, and excelled more in zeal and devotion to Christ than in literary attainments. They were faithful and practical workers, and hence of more use to the church in those days than profound thinkers or great scholars could have been ( Schaff, Volume II, p. 633).
I have not included Barnabas in this discussion because the epistle that is assigned to his authorship has been determined to be spurious by most authorities. I have also not included a discussion of the unknown authors referred to for the obvious reason. On the other hand, I have included other post-apostolic leaders because of their contribution to the development of church doctrine. Another title, possibly more accurately descriptive of these leaders, would be ante-Nicene fathers.
Clement of Rome
Remember this quotation as the information concerning Clement is read: “What we know with certainty is only this, that he stood at the head of the Roman congregation at the close of the first century” (Schaff, Volume II, p.638). Clement was a disciple of Peter and Paul and after their deaths he later became bishop of the Church in Rome. His writing is compared to that of Paul in its style, similar to the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Schaff asserts, “Clement bear clear testimony to the doctrines of the Trinity (“God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, who are the faith and the hope of the elect”)…” (Ibid., Volume II, p. 643) but he also says “Clement is the only one of the apostolic fathers, except perhaps Polycarp, who shows some conception of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith.” “All” (the saints of the Old Testament), says he, ” became great and glorious, not through themselves, nor by their works, nor by their righteousness, but by the will of God. Thus we also, who are called by the will of God in Christ Jesus, are righteous…” (Ibid., Volume II, p. 644).
It is very unclear whether or not Clement taught a particular doctrinal position and would be unwise (for either camp) to make any conclusions on the limited and sketchy evidence supplied.
It is accepted that Clement died a natural death.
? –A.D. December 20, 107
Our knowledge concerning Ignatius is primarily received from the writings of Polycarp, Irenæus and from his epistles (the authenticity of which are widely disputed). The one point of interest from my historical sources is that “he believed Jesus was God incarnate.”
No further explanation is given nor should one be necessary. But in today’s theological circles of Trinitarianism, God does not mean GOD (all Deity), it usually means God the Father. If that was the case then Ignatius would be a heretic also; because he believed, as I do, that God, the father of Jesus Christ was incarnate in flesh and His name was Jesus Christ. My speculation cannot be substantiated, but it is personally encouraging that he believed Jesus was God incarnate.
Ignatius was almost eager to suffer martyrdom and was thrown to the beasts in the Coliseum of Rome.
Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John, the friend of Ignatius and the teacher of Irenæus. Very little is known of his life beyond that. The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians has been preserved and is generally considered legitimately authored by him. The Epistle makes no clear statement concerning Polycarp’s belief concerning the nature of God or the Divinity of Jesus Christ. Polycarp was burned at the stake at the age of eighty-six because he would not deny his King and Saviour when ordered to swear by Cæsar. It is said that he stated, “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me wrong: how then can I revile my King and my Saviour?”( McClintock and Strong, Volume VIII, p. 362). He willingly went to the stake, refusing to be fastened with nails by saying, “Let me remain as I am; for he that has enabled me to brave the fire will so strengthen me that, without your fastening me with nails, I shall unmoved endure its fierceness” (Ibid., Volume VIII, p. 362).
Summary of Post-apostolic Fathers.
Very little information has been offered concerning the post-apostolic fathers beyond what Mr. Schaff has said concerning them being “good men rather that great men, and excelled more in zeal and devotion to Christ than in literary attainments.” No definite conclusion can be made concerning the influence of philosophy in their lives or what doctrinal position they held concerning the nature of God.
I wish I could conclude that that the very absence of a definite Trinitarian position on the part of the post-apostolic fathers indicates that Trinitarian doctrine did not exist in their lifetimes. I also wish I could conclude that the absence of documentation of their refined philosophical education, indicates they were not influenced by philosophy. These conclusions on my part would be as unjustified (in light of the facts) as a Trinitarian drawing conclusions that the post-apostolic fathers were grounded in Trinitarian dogma.
The following is a quotation from an authority who titled this subject matter: “The Apologists.”
Faced with divergencies within the Christian world and, above all, with the attacks of the pagans, the Apologists carry on a strong defense of Christianity. The two most important Apologists are Justin, who suffered martyrdom and was canonized, and Tertullian. Later and less important Apologists are St. Cyprian, Arnobius and Lactantius, who lived in the third to fourth centuries. Justin wrote in Greek; Tertullian wrote in the Latin of Carthage, in Romanized north Africa, as did St. Augustine later. There is a profound difference between Justin and Tertullian in their attitude toward Greek culture and, especially, philosophy.
Justin came out of that [Grecian] culture; he knew it and studied it before his conversion to Christianity. He uses this background in his exposition of the truth of Christianity, making constant reference to Hellenic ideas; he tries to show that these ideas are in agreement with Christian revelation. Therefore there is evident in Justin’s writings an acceptance of the pagans’ rational methods of thought which contrasts with Tertullian’s hostility to those methods.
Tertullian….was a passionate enemy of Gnosticism and the entire pagan culture, including the very concept of rational knowledge. In his attacks on the Gnostics, who resorted to philosophic methods, he attacks philosophy itself. There is a whole group of famous sayings of Tertullian that affirm the certainty of revelation on the very basis of its incomprehensibility, its rational impossibility….But this opinion , strictly examined, is inadmissable in Christian thinking….All things considered, despite Tertullian’s vehement opposition to Hellenic speculation, he is greatly indebted to it, and his writings are permeated by the influence of the Greek philosophers (Marias, p 110).
Also known as “Justin the Martyr” and “Justin the Philosopher”
Justin was raised under the influence of the philosophies of his time. He traveled down all the avenues of consideration, but he was satisfied by none of them. He sat under the influence of the Stoics, Pythagoreans, Peripatetics, Platonists, and finally Christianity. He was converted to Christianity, by a man attempting to convince him of the shortcomings of Platonism. He was encouraged to search the scriptures and pray ( McClintock and Strong, Volume I, p. 194-237) .
After his conversion, he continued to preach and teach in the robe of a philosopher. He was also unable or unwilling to shed the influence that Platonism had on his life.
He is the first of the Church fathers to bring classical scholarship and Platonic philosophy in contact with the Christian theology [emphasis mine]. He found in Platonism many responses to the Gospel, which he attributed in part to the fragmentary, germ-like revelation of the Logos before the incarnation, and in part to an acquaintance with the Mosaic Scriptures. With him Christ was the absolute reason, and Christianity, the only true philosophy (ibid., Volume IV, p. 1109).
This is the point where a staunch Trinitarian may accuse me of taking this information out of context. They will say that Justin was orthodox in his Christology and in his Christianity. I do not expect agreement, but the facts stand alone. Justin was deeply influenced by philosophy and this influence remained with him throughout his life. Though he may discredit philosophers in some aspect of their teaching, he promotes philosophical teaching by believing the philosophers are influenced by the prophets of the Bible.
And so, too, Plato, when he says, “The blame is his who chooses, and God is blameless,” took this from the prophet Moses and uttered it. For Moses is more ancient than all the Greek writer. And whatever bother philosophers and poets have said concerning the immortality of the soul, or punishments after death, or contemplation of things heavenly, or doctrines of the like kind, they have received such suggestions from the prophets as have enabled them to understand and interpret these things (Ante Nicene Fathers, Volume I, p. 177).
No author will discredit Justin because he promoted the doctrine of the Trinity and they are all in agreement with him. In this case, on this earth, the majority rules. In God’s court, God rules, and truth reigns.
Born between A.D. 115 and 225?
192 (last heard of), 202? (proposed death)
We know little about the life of Irenæus, and that which is known is learned primarily from his own writings. Irenæus was very fortunate to have as his teacher Polycarp of Smyrna, who was a student of the Apostle John. This would indicate that of all the Church fathers, we should be able to expect more apostolic teaching from Irenæus; I state this with skepticism because Schaff reports that he had a Greek education.
On the one hand we read:
Irenæus is the leading representative of catholic Christianity in the last quarter of the second century, the champion of orthodoxy against Gnostic heresy, and the mediator between the Eastern and Western churches….Irenæus is an enemy of all error and schism, and, on the whole, the most orthodox of the ante-Nicene fathers…Irenæus is the first among the patristic writers who makes full use of the New Testament (Scaff, Volume II, pp. 750, 751).
On the other hand we read:
He united a learned Greek education and philosophical penetration with practical wisdom and moderation…He is familiar with Greek poets (Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Sophocles) and philosophers (Thales, Pythagoras, Plato) whom he occasionally cites….With all his zeal for pure and sound doctrine, Irenæus was liberal towards subordinate differences [emphasis mine]…
Though he is the most orthodox of all the ante-Nicene fathers, “we must except [take exception to] his eschatology (ibid., pp. 747-756).
Irenæus is reported to be inconsistent in his subordination of the Son to the Father. “In expressions such as ‘My Father is greater than I’ which refer to the Christ of history, he refers also, like Justin and Origen, to the eternal Word” (ibid., p. 554). He has been accused of leaning towards the beliefs of the Patripassianists and Sabellians, and both the Arians and Socinians have sometimes claimed him as a supporter(ibid., Volume IV, p. 649-651). It is very difficult to determine the amount of influence that philosophy had on Irenæus.
Patripassian means “the Father suffered.” It was a monotheistic view, believing that the Father lived in Jesus and suffered with him. Sabellians also possessed a monotheistic belief that “the one divine substance simply assumes three forms (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost) in its threefold relation to the world (ibid., Volume IX, p. 203). Arians believed in the absolute monotheism of God and “taught that Christ, while he was indeed the creator of the world, was himself a creature of God, therefore not truly divine” (Schaff, Volume III, p. 620). Socinians deny “the doctrine of the Trinity, and positively assert that the Godhead is one in person as well as in essence. Socinians not only deny the proper divinity of Jesus Christ, but positively assert that he was a mere man–that is, a man, and nothing else or more than a man” (McClintock and Strong, Volume IX, p. 844).
150?–220 or 240 A.D.
Tertullian was born in Carthage, Africa. Little is known directly about his life other than he was the son of the captain of a Roman legion. He received a Græco Roman education, acquainting him with the philosophical, poetic, and literary arts. He followed Christianity after living “in heathen blindness” for thirty to forty years (Schaff, Volume II, pp. 819, 820).
The coining of the name “Trinity” has been credited to Tertullian.
Among the terms introduced in the discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity during this period the following are the most common, viz. (1.) Triaz [emphasis mine], introduced by Theophilus of Antioch in the 2d century, and often used by Origen in the 3d century. Tertullian translated it into Latin by the word Trinitas [emphasis mine] of which the English word is an exact rendering (McClintock and Strong, Volume X, p. 553).
Tertullian was a spokesmen for the post-apostolic church, and in that role he took an active part in defending what he thought to be the orthodox view of God. His role led him to oppose a man named Praxaes, who was a Monarchian (one King) and labeled a patripassian (the father suffered) heretic.
Monarchians denied a distinction of separate persons in the nature of God by insisting on an absolute “Oneness” of God. Praxaes was declared to be a patripassian because if Jesus was to be God manifest in the flesh, it would mean that the Father of Jesus suffered on the cross. This was totally unacceptable to post-apostolic theologians because they believed that God could not suffer, He was impassible. This belief is a sign of the influence philosophy had on the doctrinal belief of the Church fathers during the post-apostolic period.
There were instances of Monarchians straying from the truth as shown in the case of Sabellius; but it seemed their primary motivation was to preserve the monotheistic view of God which, in their eyes, the Trinitarian influence was destroying. It is difficult to determine if Praxaes was guilty of any crime beyond his belief that God was Jesus Christ Himself. We know very little of his teaching or doctrine beyond what was written about him by Tertullian due to the destruction of his writings by his opposition.
Schaff describes his theology as follows:
Praxaes, constantly appealing to Is. 45:5; Jno. 10:30 (“I and my Father are one”), and 14:9 (“He that hath seen me hath seen the Father”), as if the whole Bible consisted of these three passages, taught that the Father himself became man, hungered, thirsted, suffered, and died in Christ. True, he would not be understood as speaking directly of a suffering (pati) of the Father, but only of a sympathy (copati) of the Father with the Son; but in any case he lost the independent personality of the Son. He conceived the relation of the Father to the Son as like that of the spirit to the flesh. The same subject, as spirit, is the Father; as flesh, the Son. He thought the Catholic doctrine tritheistic (Schaff, Volume II, p. 577).
The fact of whether or not God, the father of Jesus suffered is not explicitly discussed in scripture. However, it is safe to assume that since Jesus and the Father were one (John 10:30) and the Father was living in Jesus (John 14:10) that the Father understood what suffering was. A portion of Tertullian’s written opposition against Praxaes is reproduced below:
In the course of time then, the Father forsooth was born and the Father suffered,- God Himself, the Lord Almighty, whom in their preaching, they declare to be Jesus Christ. We, however, as we indeed always have done (and more especially since we have been better instructed by the paraclete, who leads men indeed into all truth), believe that there is one only God, but under the following dispensation or oikovouia, as it is called, that this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made and without whom nothing was made. Him, we believe to have been sent by the Father into the Virgin, and to have been born of her – – being both God and Man, the Son and the Son of God, and to have been called by the name of Jesus Christ; we believe Him to have suffered, died, and been buried, according to Scriptures, and, after He had been raised again by the father and taken back to heaven, to be sitting at the right hand of the Father…. in the case of this heresy, which supposes itself to possess the pure truth, in thinking that one cannot believe in One Only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost are the very selfsame Person…..The simple, indeed, (I will not call them unwise and unlearned), who always constitute the majority of believers [emphasis mine], are startled at the dispensation (of the three in One) on the ground that their very rule of faith withdraws them from the world’s plurality of gods to the one only true God;….they are constantly throwing out against us that we are preachers of two gods and three gods, while they take to themselves pre-eminently, the credit of being the worshippers of the One God (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume III, pp. 598, 598).
Tertullian claims that he was above the belief that Jesus was GOD in flesh because he was instructed by the paraclete. He admits to all history that this belief of Praxaes “constitutes the majority of believers” during his era and he ridicules Praxaes and the “majority of believers” for being simple (mentally deficient). The significance of this quotation is overwhelming and very encouraging to me personally, because it substantiates the fact that absolute monotheism was the only accepted belief in the early church. This view was never eradicated but only lost its prominence as a result of persecution.
185- 254 A.D.
Origen was born in Alexandria, Egypt. He is credited with qualities of piety, integrity, great knowledge and having an impact on future teachings of the Church. He had a depth of knowledge in the Scriptures, Hebrew and Greek languages, philosophy, heathen literature, mathematics, rhetoric and music.
Origen studied Grecian philosophy under the guidance of Ammonius Saccas (a Neo-Platonist) in the company of Plotinus. His teachings reflect his Platonistic background and this is considered one of his weaknesses as described in the following quotation:
His leaning to idealism, his predilection [bias] for Plato, and his noble effort to reconcile Christianity with reason, and to commend it even to educated heathens and Gnostics [superior spiritual knowledge] led him into many grand and fascinating errors (Schaff, Volume II, p. 791). [
Later in life he opened a philosophical and theological school of his own in Caesarea. Respect was granted to him by Christians and pagans alike.”Before Origen, there existed no system of Christian doctrine.” He believed that Jesus was subordinate to the Father, and the Spirit was subordinate to the Son. This subordination progressively lead to Arianism which was later linked to the teachings of Origen” (McClintock and Strong, Volume VII, pp. 429-435). “Origen’s greatest service was in exegesis. He is father of the critical investigation of Scripture, and his commentaries are still useful to scholars for their suggestiveness” (Schaff, Volume II, p. 792).
Athanasius the Great
296?-May 2, 373
Athanasius was born in Alexandria, educated with aspirations to a Christian ministry by the bishop of Alexandria. He accompanied his bishop to Nice as a young deacon in the year 325, attending the Nicene Council. He solely opposed the Arian heresy much to the dismay of the crown and church leaders. This dismay was due to the fact that the council was convened to bring unity to the Church, ultimately unity to the empire by settling the doctrinal disputes within the church. The council attendance was anything but overwhelming and the attitude was not one to promote doctrinal excellence. The council was attended by three hundred eighteen bishops of the approximate eighteen hundred in the entire empire. The council was convened by the emperor to obtain secular peace and not by the Church to seek doctinal clarity (McClintock and Strong, Volume VII, p. 44).
Athanasius could not sit still to watch heresy obtain a foothold so he singlehandedly defended the truth as he understood it. His motives and convictions are exemplary and admirable. It is no wonder he became so famous and powerful.
His doctrine was not without its philosophical influences and resulting mistakes.
Did the Logos dwell in an individual man, or in collective humanity, a sort of Platonic idea of Man? Athanasius certainly did not have the sort of interest in the concrete and historical situation of Christ’s earthly life which a modern investigator has. Details of Christ’s life appear in his writings only because of their soteriological [pertaining to the doctrine of salvation through Jesus Christ] significance: he wept and was afraid in Gethsemane in order to prove that he had really taken a human body and really bore our weaknesses. Besides, there are many passages which seem to suggest that the incarnation automatically sanctified human nature as a whole. On the other hand, in some passages, he certainly does not describe an automatic transformation; it depends on the individual’s participation in the Logos through the Spirit, on being ‘created in him’. This may not seem far from the Pauline conception that Christians are ‘in Christ” and die and rise with him, crucifying the old self and accepting new life; but even the language of participation has Platonic overtones, and the most satisfactory understanding of Athanasius’ viewpoint is in terms of such philosophical presuppositions – – by this time they were common currency in intellectual circles, so that their use implies no great philosophical sophistication [emphasis mine]. The humanity of Christ in Athanasius’ thought is certainly not quite ordinary humanity, if only because its relation to our humanity is different from that of any other man.
On many occasions, Athanasius’ exegesis is virtually docetic [a Gnostic sect which taught that the body of Christ was not real flesh and blood] and seems to us forced and unnatural. All is subordinated to the purpose of showing that the Logos in himself had the attributes of divinity, e.g. impassibility [emphasis mine], omniscience, etc. The texts implying weakness or ignorance he explains as merely referring to the incarnation-situation (Young, p. 74).
The philosophical presuppositions held in Athanasius’ theological viewpoints were common in his day, or could I say, taken for granted. The very fact of his commitment to the impassibility of God shouts of philosophical influence. We shall read more of Athanasuis when we discuss the creeds and councils of the Church.
Athanasius was punished five times by exile for reasons of jealousy, anger and political rulings, as a result of the prominence and influence that he exercised during his battle against the Arian heresy. He died in peace before the battles against the Arians were completely won.
November 13, 354–August 28, 430
Augustine was born in the province of Numidia, North Africa. He received part of his education in Madaura and Carthage where he became familiar with philosophy and Christianity. He traveled to Rome several times before returning to Africa in 391 and being chosen presbyter of the church of Hippo Regius where he presided for thirty-eight years, until his death. During this period he was both the physical and intellectual leader of the North African and entire Western church.
Schaff makes the following statements concerning Augustine:
Augustine, the man with upturned eye, with pen in the left hand, and a burning heart in the right
(as he is usually represented), is a philosophical and theological genius of the first order (emphasis mine), towering like a pyramid above his age, and looking down commandingly upon succeeding centuries. He had a mind uncommonly fertile and deep, bold and soaring; and with it, what is better, a heart full of Christian love and humility. He stands of right by the side of the greatest philosophers of antiquity and of modern times (emphasis mine). We meet him alike on the broad highways and the narrow footpaths, on the giddy Alpine heights and in the awful depths of speculation, wherever philosophical thinkers before him or after him have trod (emphasis mine). As a theologian he is facile princeps , at least unsurpassed by church father, scholastic, or reformer. With royal munificence he scattered ideas in passing, which have set in mighty motion other lands and later times. He combined the creative power of Tertullian with the churchly spirit of Cyprian, the speculative intellect of the Greek church (emphasis mine) with practical tact of the Latin. He was a Christian philosopher and philosophical theologian to the full (emphasis mine)….He always asserted, indeed, the primacy of faith….But to him faith itself was an acting of reason, and from faith to knowledge, therefore, there was a necessary transition (Schaff, Volume III, pp. 997, 998).
He developed the Nicene dogma of the Trinity, completed it by the doctrine of the double procession of the Holy Ghost, and gave it the form in which it has ever since prevailed in the West, and in which it received classical expression from his school in the Athanasian Creed (ibid., p. 1017).
This is not the opinion of an anti-Trinitarian author; this is the opinion of a Trinitarian, unaware of any controversy with his doctrinal stand. It is obvious that Philip Schaff held Augustine in high regard and was unconcerned with the influence that philosophy had upon him. I find it difficult to believe, and harder to accept, that philosophical thought was allowed to gain such a foothold in the Church. Worse yet, the Church of today is unwilling to “clean house” with an evaluation of biblical vs. philosophical influence on its doctrine. The Bible does not endorse philosophy and philosophy should not be used in interpreting the message of the Bible. Yet this is exactly what occurred throughout the history of the Christian Church and this is exactly what the foundation of modern theological standards are based upon.
The following excerpt is taken from Max Fishler’s What the Great Philosophers Thought About God .
Augustine was a product of Platonic rationalism and Plotinian mysticism (emphasis mine), to which he added his Christian indoctrination. His entire mental life was a perpetual struggle with the problem of the nature of God: the three persons in the One God. So that, both as rationalist and Christian mystic, Augustine’s chief task was to make clear the nature of God–to himself and to the world (emphasis mine).
When still a young man, he came under the influence of neo-Platonism. This turned out to be of immense significance in his life; and it was an epoch-making event in the Western world, the first important contact between Christian religious belief and Greek philosophic thought.
Augustine had already embraced Christianity when he came across the Enneads of Plotinus. What did he find there, in Plotinus and neo-Platonism, that so entranced him? The “Idea of the Good”, of Plato, had been transformed by Plotinus into the principle of the One. Plato himself must have had an inkling of important change from the Idea of the Good to the Principle of the One, when he said: “If the one is not, nothing is.” The One is that without which nothing else could be. The existence of everything depends upon this eternally subsisting Unity.
This One, however, must not be confused with the numerical one. It is not just another number! It is that Unity from which all multiplicity flows.
From this one, ever-creative and ever-creating, a second principle arises. And the name of this second principle? “The Intellect”–begotten of the One and its only offspring; closer, therefore, to the One that anything else in all creation, and the cause of all the diversity of created things. Plotinus called this, Nous, Mind or Intellect (pp.86-87).
Augustine could find no rest until he would achieve the great transformation: from Plotinus to Christianity. How, he asked himself, could the God of Christianity be expressed in terms of the Plotinian philosophy?
For many years he labored on this problem. The clue came at last: the three persons of the Christian Trinity were all contained herein: the Christian God with all His essential attributes–God, the Father, (the One), the Word (the Intellect), and God, the author of all creation [emphasis mine]!
Plotinus had expressed the perennial way in which reason grapples with the problem of divinity, or the being of God. Augustine’s task was now clearly mapped out before him: to give this Plotinian theology Christian form (p. 88).
Augustine was blessed with an inquiring mind: “my unquiet mind was altogether intent to seek for learning” (Confessions) especially in matters philosophical; so much so that he called Plato a “demigod” [a mythological being, part man, part God] (City of God), and even after he became a Christian, Augustine still revered his Platonic lineage; in fact, to the end of his days he remained a Platonist [emphasis mine]. Most important, however, for later generations, was the fact that the subtleties of Platonism, Aristotelianism and neo-Platonism so sharpened his mind that he could defend his Christian faith with a sublime logical eloquence. His classical Greek training thus made it possible for him to become the most convincing as well as the most subtle apologist for the Christian religion. Augustine died in 430 A.D. For a thousand years thereafter the energies of the best minds in the Western world were devoted to the construction of logical edifices to prove the existence of God.
But all of the subsequent proofs for God’s being find expression in this first great Christian philosopher (pp. 91,92).
Now, all of the rational proofs for the existence of God involve a transition from thought to reality, from idea to object; and, as if to forestall the modern arguments against such a derivation of the being of God from the idea of God, Augustine warns us that in all rational proofs for God’s existence faith is an essential prerequisite.
Reason alone is insufficient; and proofs by reason alone are inadequate. Reason can only demonstrate what faith has already accepted. Rational demonstration can only induce conviction when faith has already embraced as true what the demonstration seeks to substantiate.
In short, knowledge of God through reason must always be incomplete. Faith alone is sufficient; faith is sure; the way of faith is direct. Reason, by itself, may lead one astray; faith should precede reason, for, there is always the danger, in the case of reason, of distorted vision, through sin; but there is no conflict between the two, reason and faith [emphasis mine].
In fact, whoever has not found the way of faith must resort to reason; but it is a poor substitute for faith, thinks Augustine. On the other hand, when one first believes that God exists, then the rationality of that belief can be easily demonstrated (pp. 94,95).
The Triune God
Augustine’s main aim is to find a rational justification for the triune God of Christianity (emphasis mine). The mysteries of divine Being cannot be revealed through any corporeal or anthropomorphic notions. We can only know God as he really is through faith in the revealed doctrines of Christianity, and it is the Bible that contains these. The authority of the Scriptures therefore would suffice for a proper appreciation of the divine nature; but we find in the Bible many anthropomorphic expressions and corporeal figures of speech, such as: “I the Lord thy God, am a jealous God”. These anthropomorphic expressions are to be understood symbolically, not literally. From the material and human we must rise to the spiritual and divine. We must so purge our minds as to ” to be able to see ineffably that which is ineffable.” To this state we can be “nourished by faith….that we may be rendered apt and able to comprehend it.” (De trin.)
And so it is also with the divine Substance, which can only be understood by a transcendental leap beyond the letter the biblical account. The Bible tells us that God is a trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; these are three persons who are one and the same substance or essence. These are not three Gods, but One, since the three persons have “a divine unity of one and the same substance in a indivisible equality” (Ibid).
But the unity must not be so understood as to destroy the distinctions within the Godhead; “the Father is not the Son; and the Son is not the Father; and the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son Son but only the Spirit of the Father and the Son.”
Augustine’s interpretation of the trinity insists on three persons, each of whom may be distinguished from the others, but all of whom are inseparable because they have but one nature or essence. Thus we may call the trinity one essence or substance and three persons, or one essence and three metaphysical substrates–so long as the reality of the distinctions within the divine Being is expressed, while their unity, equality and inseparability is also acknowledged; so long, says Augustine, as it is realized that these names “did not intend diversity to be meant, but singleness to be denied” (Fishler, p.107) (Detrin.).
A corroborating quotation from another source.
St. Augustine adopts a number of Hellenic doctrines, especially those of the Neoplatonists Plotinus and Prophyry. His knowledge of Plato and Aristotle is very limited and indirect; he knows much more of the Stoics, Epicureans and Academicians and, above all, Cicero. This invaluable stock of Greek philosophy passes into Christianity and the Middle Ages through St. Augustine [emphasis mine]. But he generally adapts the contributions of the Greeks to the philosophic necessities of Christian dogma; this is the earliest instance in which Greek philosophy as such comes into contact with Christianity [emphasis mine]. Thanks to these efforts, the stabilization of dogma takes a vast step forward and St. Augustine becomes the most important of the Latin Church Fathers. His philosophical work is one of the major sources that later metaphysics drew upon.
….It is from St. Augustine that are ultimately derived the concept of the fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding) and the principle credo ut intelligam (I believe in order to understand)–a concept and a principle that are to have profound repercussions in Scholasticism, especially in St. Anselm and St. Thomas. The problems of the relationship between faith and knowledge, between religion and theology, are already posed in St. Augustine’s work.
St. Augustine adopts the philosophy of Plato [emphasis mine], but with important changes (Marias, pp. 115, 116).
Two things should become clear after reading and grasping the previous quotations. 1. There should be absolutely no doubt concerning the degree of influence that philosophy exercised over Augustine. 2. It should be easy to understand why condemnation is experienced whenever an attempt is made to understand the doctrine of the Trinity. Augustine expects faith to override any questions concerning God’s nature and expects one to accept the proposed doctrine at face value. Hence the statement: How can you a finite man expect to know God, an infinite being. You cannot know or understand the doctrine of the Trinity, you must accept it by faith.
The final entry concerning post-apostolic church leaders will concern three individuals that lived in the Asiatic province of Cappadocia. They are Basil (the Great), his brother Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, and their friend Gregory Nazianzen. They are esteemed as a group because of their relationship to each other on a social level, a geographical level, and on a chronological level.
Basil the Great was born about 329 in Cæsarea, the capital of Cappadocia with a heritage of martyrdom, piety and wealth in his family. He died in 379. Gregory delivered the eulogy at Basil’s funeral and died about 395. Basis was initially educated by his father and later sent to Constantinople and Athens for more extensive instruction in rhetoric, mathematics, and philosophy. Gregory was educated by his older brother Basil in his earlier years. It was in Athens where they met and befriended the man who was to become their lifetime friend, especially that of Basil.
Gregory Nazianzen (also called Gregory, the theologian) was born about 330 in Nazianzum. He was never as famous or as influential as his friends but indeed made a significant mark in the history of Christianity. He died in 390 or 391.
These three men were alive during the heat of the battle between the orthodox church and the Arians. Not only did they observe the battle, they actively participated and their lives were effected by the outcomes. But what of their philosophical background.
The very fact that they obtained a portion of their education in Athens, Greece should give strong clues to their respect for philosophy, as we understand Dr. Frances Young, a member of the theology faculty of Birmingham University, England. Her book From Nicaea to Chalcedon is an attempt to present a recent historical, biographical, literary-critical, and theological approach to this period.
When Basil was baptized and renounced the world, he at the same time renounced pagan culture. In accordance with Christian traditions, he denounced the philosophers. The same conventional polemic appears in the works of both Gregories. Dabbling in philosophy was the source of heresy. Grudging recognition might be given to Plato, but only if his dependence on Moses was stressed. In theory only the Bible pointed the way to truth.
Yet the value of pagan education could not be denied by its beneficiaries (emphasis mine). Basil claims to have given up cultural pursuits, but writes An Address to Young Men on How They Might Derive Benefit from Greek Literature. He accepts that training in pagan literature is a useful preparation for the difficulty of scriptural exegesis. Where there is an affinity with Christian values the two traditions should be set side by side; the fruit of the soul is truth, but ‘external wisdom” (that is, non-Christian wisdom) may adorn it…
In his Homilies on the Hexaemeron, Basil draws on the best of contemporary science; he considers the solutions of other philosophies to intellectual problems concerning the nature and origin of the universe; he argues the validity of the Christian doctrine of creation as a viable solution to these problems. The methods and questions of the philosophers are his presuppositions, and their examples, their illustrations, their suggestions provide much of his material (emphasis mine). He presents his hearers with a complete Christian philosophy, not just ethics but cosmogony [a theory of origin and development of the universe)] and physics. Yet here more than anywhere the tensions and contradictions are apparent. Basil is preaching to a congregation; he is the official representative of the orthodox church. He has to reflect the traditional attitudes. So he expresses contempt for the philosophers and scientists who busy themselves in vain with unanswerable questions, and produce solutions which are the arrogant demonstrations of human reason. Their mutual contradictions prove their folly. Their elaborately clever systems distract them from the one truth worth knowing. Christians do not need any information which is not provided by scripture, and they should avoid ‘busy-bodying’ curiosity about the universe, the shape of the earth, the number of the heavens. Scripture alone suffices. Yet even as he mocks the philosophers, he displays his own up-to-date knowledge of astronomy. There is a real sense in which the bishop tied to orthodox tradition breathes the Greek spirit of enquiry; the monk renouncing the world appreciates the natural order. By careful assimilation, Basil has in fact achieved a remarkable synthesis between biblical teaching and selected elements of the profane systems [emphasis mine].
…quite clearly Basil was capable of adapting his style and his approach to his audience, quoting only the Bible in his ascetical works, but being freer in his use of quotations and allusions in other literary genres. Even so, many of his compositions show a remarkable unselfconscious marriage of cultures [emphasis mine], which is perhaps especially well evidenced in the collocation of biblical and Hellenic motifs in his letter of consolation (Young, pp. 101, 102).
Regarding his conflict with Julian
…Gregory attacks the claim that the Greek language, mathematics, poetry, etc., belongs to paganism. No race or religion has an exclusive claim to culture, for culture has been derived from many sources. Julian had taken the Christians at their word: if nothing is required beyond orthodox faith, if the wisdom of the world is vanquished by God’s foolishness, if literature and philosophy are superfluous beside the scriptures, then it is inconsistent for Christians to be professional teachers of rhetoric. Therefore they were to be excluded from this profession. By this edict, Julian aimed to turn the schools into centres of pagan propaganda. If the pagan reaction had been stronger and more lasting than it proved to be, the church could have found itself deprived of educated leaders within a generation. Gregory may have criticized Gregory of Nyssa for adopting the profession of rhetor, but he knew that the church could not afford to lose the only intellectual tools available for the education of theologians and the development of apologetic argument [emphasis mine].
But Gregory’s anger was not merely academic; his emotions and personality were involved. In spite of some conventional polemic against literature and philosophy, he of all men could not disclaim the classical heritage. Athens, not Palestine, had held him in his twenties [emphasis mine]. In his epistles and poems, we see his real feelings, his genuine devotion to literature, philosophy and rhetoric. These he regarded as the auxiliaries of Christian doctrine. In him, more that in any other of the Fathers, accord between Hellenism and Christianity was realized [emphasis mine], concludes Fleury….Gregory was prepared to admit that Christianity owed much to “external wisdom”, since, for him, classical culture was an ancient and treasured heritage, a legacy to all men; indeed, culture was the foundation of human, as distinct from bestial, life. Pagan philosophy was only false because it tended to be distracted by beautiful discourse and inessential vanities; philosophy Christianized, however, related human logos to the divine Logos, producing practical virtue and contemplation, and so leading to the truth [emphasis mine] (Young, pp. 103, 104).
His charges against Eunomius
…As for his charges that Eunomius makes too much use of pagan philosophy and Aristotelian logic, there is in fact ‘not a little of these elements to be found in him’. He uses the Categories to refute his opponent, and is now widely regarded as one of the greatest philosophical minds of the early church. His Dialogue on the Soul and the Resurrection is a Christian Phaedo, a literary account of a conversation with his Macrina on the eve of her death, Macrina becoming Gregory’s mouthpiece as Socrates had been Plato’s. Both this and many of his other works reveal that Gregory knew the Platonic dialogues and was able to make a constructive adaptation of Plato’s reasoning. It is also clear that Gregory knew the works of the Neoplatonists, Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus, as well as the traditions of the contemporary Platonic school at Athens (emphasis mine). It is not at all clear where and how he acquired his philosophical education, but he certainly had it [emphasis mine] (Young, p. 105).
It is widely accepted that modern studies, largely initiated by Danielou, have established Gregory Nyssen’s originality and genuine philosophical ability [emphasis mine], and have rediscovered the fundamental importance of his mysticism for his theological thought (emphasis mine). That Gregory was no mere eclectic compiler of ideas but a Christian Neoplatonist (emphasis mine) who expressed his mystical experience through scriptural symbols allegorically interpreted, has become the standard judgment….the influence of Plotinus has been established, and one is probably justified in asking whether the pendulum has not swung too far. Philosophy in Gregory’s day was not a rational thought without presuppositions, but a way of life [emphasis mine] (ibid., p. 116).
In fact , the extant works of all three Cappadocians reveal how much they assimilated contemporary culture and philosophy. The roots of their education remained alive, even where they are unwilling to admit it. Rhetoric and philosophy are renounced for their own sake, but become the handmaid of theology [emphasis mine] (ibid., p. 104).
I have documented the fact that every significant church leader after Polycarp, was influenced by the principles of philosophy. Possessing a knowledge of Greek philosophy, literature, rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy and the sciences does not imply wrongdoing in and of itself. The implementation of this man made knowledge while attempting to interpret/understand scripture is wrong. The influence described not only distorted the truth of scripture, it resulted in scriptural truths being neglected. The doctrine of the Church fell from the view that God was One and ONE ALONE, as described by Tertullian, to a three in One. This was accomplished in order to rationalize the lack of understanding concerning the person of Jesus Christ and his Deity. The unquestionable accomplice in this slaughter of scriptural truth was the presupposition of, and preoccupation with, philosophical teaching.
Many if not all of the leaders condemned the implementation of philosophy in theological discussions. It has been stated in the quoted texts several times that they believed that scripture was all that was necessary to the development of accurate theology. But in practice, this is not what occurred. The statement made earlier concerning Tertullian is applicable to the other leaders of the early church in a modified form: despite their vehement oppostion to Hellenic speculation, they are indebted to it and their writings are permeated by the influence of the Greek philosophers .
The influence of philosophy, which was crucial to the development of the doctrine of the orthodox church, has been ignored if not denied. This refusal to re-evaluate the contribution of philosophy in church doctrine has caused the orthodox church to be orthodox only in a historical sense . It is orthodox because throughout history, it has been the church in power. However, the historic orthodox Christian church is totally unorthodox biblically when considering the doctrine of the Trinity . This unorthodoxy grows like a cancer and with time, causes further aberrations within the church, as will we will see.
1. Julian Marias, Translated from the Spanish by Stanley Appelbaum and Clarence Strowbridge, History of Philosophy. (Dover Publications Inc. New York © 1967)
2. Max Fishler, What the Great Philosophers Thought About God, University Book Publishers, Los Angeles, CA, © 1958.
3. John McClintock and James Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological , and Ecclesiastical Literature , (First published by Harper and Brothers, 1867-1887, Reprinted by Baker Book House Company, 1981).
4. Alexander Roberts, D.D., and James Donaldson, LL.D., Editors, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.).
5. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. © 1910, Reprinted February 1985.
6. Frances M. Young, From Nicea to Chalcedon, A Guide to the Literature and its Background (Fortress Press © 1983).
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