Prophets and Philosophers
A top-ranking savant from the East recently made the observation to this speaker, that the unique thing about Mormonism is that it is a nonspeculative religion in a world of purely speculative religions. That remarkable characteristic establishes at once the identity or kinship of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the original, primitive Christian church, which in ancient times also had the unique distinction of being a nonspeculative religion in a world completely "sold" on philosophy.
During the course of these discussions, we have touched lightly, if often, on the subject of philosophy. It is a theme with which we are not competent to deal, but what we can do is to indicate the attitude of the early Christians to the philosophers. This is a very significant thing in any consideration of the gift of prophecy, for the early Christian Apologists were fond of contrasting the certainty and concreteness of their revealed prophetic religion with the vagueness and disunity of the philosophers; that was one of their favorite talking points, as we have indicated before. So deeply rooted in the Christian teaching was the complete antithesis between philosophy and true religion that, to quote Gilson, "even in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the terms philosophi and sancti signified directly the opposition between the views of the world elaborated by men devoid of the illumination of the faith and those of the Fathers of the church speaking in the name of Christian revelation."1 That is, in Christian traditions, philosophy is the opposite of revelation. But to avoid the charge of philosophizing, speaking in the name of revelation is not enough: one must speak by revelation, and this the Fathers could not do.
One of the most arresting and convincing stories that has come down to us from the earliest days of the Christian church is the account of the conversion of Clement in the first part of the Clementine Recognitions. The so-called Tübingen School regarded this text as the most valuable single record of life in the primitive church outside the New Testament itself. Its value has been raised or lowered by various schools and scholars in proportion as the text has confirmed or weakened the position of their various churches. The piece is devoid of any trace of exaggeration or partisan pleading. Indeed, Rufinus of Aquileia, who translated it into Latin at the end of the fourth century, said that it was full of queer and puzzling things that no one in the church of his day understood, and that it preached doctrines, especially concerning the nature of God, which were totally strange to the church of Rufinus' day. 2 This is very strong evidence that we have here a genuine old Christian text, for this was not the sort of thing that anybody would forge, and numerous papyrus fragments discovered in the last fifty years fully bear out the picture that Clement has given us in the first part of the Recognitions. If the least be said for it, the story is Christian and very early Christian. It merits its place in the first volume of the Patrologia. Quite recently R. M. Grant has described the Clementine Recognitions as "a favorite piece of 'Sunday afternoon literature'" among the orthodox church members of the second century.3
Clement tells us that he was a very serious-minded child, perplexing himself at an early age about the great questions of life: whether he would live after death; whether he existed before his birth; whether, as he puts it, the immensity of time had ever been for him just a vast oblivion and silence in which he never was and, hereafter, never would be (put in those terms, incidentally, the question is a very moving one). "But this also was being ever turned over in my mind," he writes, "when was this universe (mundus) made? Or, what was there before it existed? Or, has it really always existed? For it seemed certain, that if it was created it must surely in time be dissolved again, and if it was to pass away, what would be then? Unless only complete oblivion and silence should ensue, there would have to be something else totally beyond the present comprehension of the human mind." Clement was no fool. "Therefore," he said, "since I was from my earliest youth engaged in such searchings of the mind, eager to learn something, I attended the schools of the philosophers,"—they being the people who are supposed to answer such questions. In an earlier talk we told what Clement found there: "Nothing at all," in his own words, "but an endless asserting and refuting of opinions (dogmatum)—formal disputations, artfully constructed syllogisms, and subtle conclusions. And whenever the argument in favor of the soul's immortality won the day, I congratulated myself; but whenever it was maintained that the soul was mortal, I left the room with a heavy heart. But neither side ever brought forth a proof that really convinced me, because the statements and definitions of things passed as true or false not from the actual nature of things or the real truth, but always according to the skill and cleverness of the people putting them forth."4
So the philosophers did not satisfy him, but they did scare him: "According to the conclusions (sententias) of some of the philosophers," he writes, "I would be put into the fiery stream of Pyriphlegethon or into Tartarus (the fiery lake), to suffer, like Sisyphus or Tityus or Ixion or Tantalus, eternal torments in hell (in inferno)."5 This, he says, worried him greatly, not because he was convinced that it was true, but because the probability of the thing constantly rankled. It is interesting here to note in passing that this boy was kept in line by some of his teachers by threats of hellfire; the fiery inferno (the word Rufinus actually uses) appears here as doctrine of the pagan schools before Christianity was heard of in Rome.
In this unhappy state of doubt and perplexity, Clement began to pay some attention to growing rumors of strange happenings in far away Judaea, and then one day he happened on a Christian street meeting being held by the local branch in Rome: "There was a man standing in a very much frequented part of the town," as he tells it, "calling out to the people and saying: 'Hear me, Romans, the Son of God is in the Judaean country, promising eternal life to all who will hear him, provided they will do certain things conformant to the will of Him who sent him, namely God the father. . . .' Now this man who was telling these things to the populace, was an easterner, a Jew by nationality, whose name was Barnabas. He declared that he was one of that man's disciples, and had been sent out by him for the express purpose of making these things known to any who wanted them. When I heard that much, I decided to stop and join the crowd that was listening to him, to hear what he had to say. For I could see right off that there was nothing of the dialectical art in the man, but that he spoke simply and without the slightest trace of affectation fucus, reporting the things he had heard from the Son of God, or what he had seen. He did not support his assertions with skill of argument, but called up out of the people who were standing about many witnesses to the words and miracles which he was reporting.
"Well, the people began to give a favorable hearing to things spoken in such sincerity and to receive the simple sermon. But there were those present who seemed to be educated men or philosophers who began to laugh at the man and check him, throwing out the snares of syllogistic arguments like irresistible weapons against him. But he, unperturbed and acting as if he considered their sharp attacks as not worth noticing, didn't even bother to give them an answer, but went right on fearlessly giving the discourse he had promised." But there was one clever fellow in the crowd who kept interrupting with the same question over and over again: "Why was a gnat, tiny thing that it is, created with six feet and wings to the bargain, while an enormous elephant has no wings and only four legs?" This man made so much noise that Barnabas finally addressed him: "We come here under a mandate of Him who sent us to announce to you his marvellous words and deeds. And in support of what we say we do not produce carefully worked out arguments, but call up witnesses from among your own number."
Note that this is a sort of testimony meeting: not only do the Apostles and disciples of Christ bear witness to what they have seen and heard, but the simple members of the branch are called upon to do the same. They are all witnesses, not arguers. This impressed and amazed Clement, for this was not the sort of thing they did in the schools. "I recognize standing right here in the crowd," Barnabas continued, according to Clement, "quite a number whom I remember to have heard what we have heard and to have seen what we have seen. Now it is entirely in your power to receive or reject our message. But we cannot keep back those things which we know will be for your good, for if we are silent, the condemnation will be ours, but if we speak and you don't receive it, the loss will be yours. As for your ridiculous propositions, we could answer them easily enough, and we would if you were asking them in a sincere desire to know the truth—I mean all that stuff about the difference between elephants and fleas."
In reply to this, all the smart boys guffawed and yelled, trying to drown Barnabas out and make him stop talking, calling him a crazy barbarian, for he spoke with an accent. At that point, Clement himself, animated by that zeal for fair play which characterizes all the first part of the Clementine Recognitions but soon disappears from Christian writing, leaped into the melee and addressed the crowd with great boldness: "Most rightly, I said, has the omnipotent God hidden his will from you, knowing you to be unworthy from the first—as should be clear to any thinking person from your present behavior. For when you see preachers of the will of God coming to you, if their speech displays no familiarity with the grammatic art, but instead they tell you God's commands in simple unpolished phrases, so that anyone who hears them can follow and understand what they say, you make fun of these ministers and messengers of your salvation, forgetting . . . that a knowledge of the truth may be found among rustics and barbarians; yet you won't accept it unless it comes by one of your town and in your vernacular; and that is proof enough that you are not friends of truth and philosophers [seekers after wisdom] at all, but the dupes of men with big mouths, babblers yourselves, who believe that truth must dwell not in simple words but in shrewd and clever language." This sort of talk on Clement's part led to a near riot, and he and Barnabas had a narrow escape.6
It appears here that at this early day, Christianity and philosophy are on opposite sides of the fence, as Gilson indicated—but it was not to be so for long. S. V. McCasland has recently noted that "the older unspeculative conception of the creation of man in the image of God" was the original Christian doctrine, as witnessed "by unambiguous passages in the Clementine Homilies," which show us how early that doctrine fell into disrepute. 7 Still more recently, J. Morris has written, "In the half-century from 130 to 180 a succession of university teachers published elaborate and elegant Apologiae for Christianity [the very type of thing, incidentally, that Clement had condemned in the pagans], which tended to emphasize the Holy Spirit or Logos." He notes that at that time Theophilus of Antioch "altogether avoided mentioning that God had a son [just as still earlier Churchmen avoided mentioning that he has a body], let alone that a Crucifixion was involved." 8 "With perfect impunity and the greatest of ease they proceeded to do violence to the scriptures," writes Eusebius of the period, "blithely disregarding the original teaching. . . . They never consulted the scriptures, but busily worked out elaborate structures of syllogisms. . . . They deserted the holy scripture for Euclid, Aristotle, and Theophrastus. . . . They cultivated the arts of the unbelievers and took to hair-splitting discussions about the once simple faith of the Holy Writ."9 They became imitators of Seneca, whose specialty, as Cochrane describes it, was "clothing in scintillating phrases the commonplaces of a shallow optimism, the beautiful day-dream of human perfectability and brotherhood under the Caesars"10—later, we might add, under the imperial church.
Justin Martyr, though he recognized the superiority of prophecy to philosophy, never gave up his philosopher's garb, of which he was very proud, and went all out to show that Plato, after all, taught no differently than Moses and Christ, that Heraclitus taught the same morality as Moses, and even that Plato's areté is nothing other than the Holy Ghost!11
At the same time, Irenaeus accused the Gnostics of dragging philosophy into the church. Their works, he says, "read like a patchwork made up from the philosophers as all those call themselves who do not know the true God, piecing together a doctrine from philosophical shreds and tatters with high-sounding eloquence." All the attributes of God, he notes, they derive from the philosophers, "and they hold forth with hairsplitting subtlety on philosophical questions, introducing, as it were, Aristotle into the faith."12
"O miserable Aristotle!" cried Tertullian shortly after, "who taught them [the Christians] dialectic, the art of proving and disproving, the cunning turn of sentences, forced conjectures, tough arguments, contrary even to itself."13 All heresies are suborned by philosophy, he says: from the philosophers they get the idea that the flesh is not resurrected—a thing on which all philosophers agree; hence, too, they get the doctrine of the baseness of matter and such set questions as whence is evil and why?—old chestnuts in the schools. Paul knew philosophy at Athens, Tertullian observes, and was not impressed by it. "What have Athens and Jerusalem in common?" he asks in a famous passage. "What the Academy and the Church?"
But by the next century, Minucius Felix sees no difference between the teaching of the prophets and those of the philosophers and concludes "either that the Christians are now philosophers, or that the ancient philosophers were already Christians."14 And Clement of Alexandria sees in philosophy God's preparation of the human race for the gospel: "Philosophy prepares the work that Christ completes."15 Yet that work having been consummated, it is not philosophy but the gospel that bows out of the picture, for Clement himself never mentions the millennium, softpedals the second coming of Christ, and allegorizes the resurrection. In a new but already famous book on Clement of Alexandria, Walter Voelker writes: "In Clement of Alexandria, Stoic, Platonist, Mystic, etc., constantly shove against and overlap on each other and entangle themselves often in a narrow compass into a completely inextricable mess (Knäuel)."16 Origen was just as bad, completely rejecting the old faith, as Schmidt notes, in favor of philosophy. "In his way of life," wrote Porphyry of Origen, "he lived like a Christian, which was misleading, since in actual fact and in his teachings about God he was a thoroughgoing Hellenist."17 It was he who introduced logic and dialectic into the church—those two obsessions of declining antiquity of which the early church had so prided itself of being free. It was he, we will recall, who told the pagan Celsus that all Christians would do nothing but study philosophy if they did not have to take time off to earn a living. Step by step we can trace the infiltration of philosophy into the church, but that is another story.
Let us summarize briefly some of the objections of the early Christians to philosophy (the same objections, incidentally, which scientists today make to philosophy):
(1) The philosophers disagree constantly among themselves. "It is impossible to learn anything true concerning religion from your teachers," says Justin, "who by their mutual disagreement have furnished you with sufficient proof of their own ignorance."18 One of the very earliest Christian writers, Tatian, says, "Tear yourself away from the solemn conventions of these self-styled philosophers who do not agree among themselves." 19 Even the pagan Caecilius admits this in the Octavius of Minucius Felix, "One is confused by the numerous and reputable sects of philosophy that only show how far beyond human mediocrity the exploration of divine things really is."20
(2) This meant that there was no reliable norm in philosophy to which all men could be held. Reason should indeed qualify for the position but has a fatal weakness: "O what a powerful reasoner self-interest is!" says Tertullian.21 And modern psychology has shown us, as the study of literature and historiography have long ago, that when men have honestly thought themselves free of all prejudice, are perfectly detached and impersonal in their judgments and impartial in their conclusions, all their thinking has actually been not merely colored but predetermined by their conditioning. They cannot escape that.
(3) What they really deal with is not evidence but opinion. "They announce a doctrine as truth the moment it pops into their heads," says Tatian, 22 and though the statement seems exaggerated, yet a brief consideration will show that if the great maxims of philosophy can be proved, they certainly never have been: Panta Rhei (all things flow), Die Welt Ist Meine Vorstellung, Man is the measure of all things, Cogito ergo sum, etc. Did the men who expounded these famous doctrines even begin to exhaust the evidence necessary to prove them? On what do they rest? In the end, on their proclaimer's personal mental equipment!
(4) Hence, another constant objection to the philosophers, as Tatian states it: "They are full of mutual hatred and jealousy and ambition." A large literature has descended to us from antiquity on this theme. It is a case of man versus man. Recall Clement's experience in the schools: They would argue endlessly back and forth, he says, and the prize went not to the truth but to the man who was able to wear his opponent down. The ball was knocked back and forth, back and forth, and the game ended when one of the players had a lapse of memory, or got tired or rattled and was not able to come back with a quick answer. But that, as the early Christians observed, has nothing to do with truth. This disdain for evidence and passion for method guaranteed that the philosophers never got anywhere. Terrence and Galbunugus, we are told, argued for fourteen days and nights on whether ego has a vocative case. For every question there is an answer, the Arabs say, and if one cannot find the answer at the moment, he can always think of it later. And so the squirrel cage goes round and round. When Erasmus was being shown through the Sorbonne, his guide took him into a great hall and announced in an awed voice: "In this chamber the doctors of philosophy have disputed for four hundred years," to which Erasmus replied, "And what have they ever settled?"
(5) A remarkable aspect of the undue prominence of personalities in what should be the impersonal search for truth is the wonderful way in which philosophers of every age, more than any other humans, display an irresistible urge to form themselves into schools. The fluidity of the open mind is a rare and momentary thing in the history of thought. As Rashdall says of the great philosophical movement of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: "The wild outburst of intellectual ardor cooled very rapidly as it crystallized into the institutional machinery of the university system."23 A John Dewey denouncing the tyranny of schools of thought promptly becomes a nucleus around which yet another school of thought—and a very stiff and orthodox one—crystallizes. More than any other profession, philosophers subscribe themselves in schools which they defend with passion and to which they subject themselves with unquestioned submission. Socrates made sly fun of the followers of some of his great Sophist friends for this, for this whole-souled worship of individuals and this alignment in schools is the last thing that a really open mind would ever be guilty of.
(6) But the main objection of the early Christians to the philosophers was simply that they were superfluous. "Since the word Himself has come down from heaven to us," says Clement of Alexandria, "there is no point in our traveling far and wide to attend the schools of men any more, or in our going to Athens or somewhere else in Greece or Ionia to study. . . . There is nothing which the Word Himself has not now taught us,. . . . answering the very questions that the philosophers have sought to answer all these years." 24 "Now either all these men . . . knew the truth or else they did not," says Irenaeus, speaking of the philosophers. "If they did, then the Savior's descent to the earth was superfluous; . . . if they did not, why do you . . . go to them for supernatural knowledge, since they do not know God?" 25 And Tertullian: "They indeed by a lucky chance might sometimes stumble on the truth, as men groping in the dark may accidentally hit upon the right path; but the Christian, who enjoys a revelation from heaven, is inexcusable if he commits himself to such blind and unreliable guidance."26 In other words, whatever merit philosophy might have in the search for God has been superseded by a revelation from heaven. One may not choose to agree with that verdict, but such certainly was the teaching of the early Christians. For them, the true religion of Jesus Christ could only be a nonspeculative religion; and what appears at first sight as an astonishing defect in the restored church is actually a wonderful vindication of its prophets.
1. Etienne Gilson, La philosophie au moyen âge (Paris: Payot, 1944), 15.
2. Rufinus of Aquileia, Preface to Clementine Recognitions, in PG 1:1205—7.
3. Robert M. Grant, Second-Century Christianity (London: SPCK, 1946), 10.
4. Clementine Recognitions I, 1—5, in PG 1, 1207—9.
5. Ibid., I, 4, in PG 1:1209.
6. Ibid., I, 7a—10, in PG 1:1210—12.
7. S. V. McCasland, "'The Image of God' According to Paul," Journal of Biblical Literature 69 (1950): 95.
8. John Morris, "Early Christian Orthodoxy," Past and Present 3 (1953): 9—10.
9. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History V, 28, 13—16, in PG 20:511.
10. C. N. Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture (London: Oxford University Press, 1944), 162.
11. Justin Martyr, Apology I, 59, in PG 6:416; II, 8, in PG 6:457; Cohortatio and Graecos 32, in PG 6:300.
12. Irenaeus, Contra Haereses II, 14, in PG 7:750—52.
13. Tertullian, De Praescriptionibus 7, in PL 2:22.
14. Minucius Felix, Octavius 19—20, in PL 3:204—312.
15. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata I, 5, in PG 8:717, 720.
16. Walther Völker, Der wahre Gnostiker nach Clemens Alexandrinus (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1952), 321.
17. The passage is given in Karl Heussi, Kompendium der Kirchengeschichte, 6th ed. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1928), 51.
18. Justin Martyr, Cohortatio ad Graecos 8, in PG 6:256—57.
19. Tatian, Orationes 3, in PG 6:812.
20. Minucius Felix, Octavius 5, in PL 3:251, paraphrased.
21. Tertullian, De Spectaculis 2, in PL 1:705, paraphrased.
22. Tatian, Orationes 3, in PG 6:812.
23. Hastings Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon, 1895).
24. Clement of Alexandria, Cohortatio ad Gentes II, in PG 8:229.
25. Irenaeus, Contra Haereses II, 7, in PG 7:754—55.
26. Tertullian, De Anima 2, in PL 2:689—91.