Church Fathers

Justin Martyr Describes His Philosophical History

From Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho:

Being at first desirous of personally conversing with one of these men, I surrendered myself to a certain Stoic; and having spent a considerable time with him, when I had not acquired any further knowledge of God (for he did not know himself, and said such instruction was unnecessary), I left him and betook myself to another, who was called a Peripatetic, and as he fancied, shrewd. And this man, after having entertained me for the first few days, requested me to settle the fee, in order that our intercourse might not be unprofitable. Him, too, for this reason I abandoned, believing him to be no philosopher at all. But when my soul was eagerly desirous to hear the peculiar and choice philosophy, I came to a Pythagorean, very celebrated–a man who thought much of his own wisdom. And then, when I had an interview with him, willing to become his hearer and disciple, he said, ‘What then? Are you acquainted with music, astronomy, and geometry? Do you expect to perceive any of those things which conduce to a happy life, if you have not been first informed on those points which wean the soul from sensible objects, and render it fitted for objects which appertain to the mind, so that it can contemplate that which is honourable in its essence and that which is good in its essence?’ Having commended many of these branches of learning, and telling me that they were necessary, he dismissed me when I confessed to him my ignorance. Accordingly I took it rather impatiently, as was to be expected when I failed in my hope, the more so because I deemed the man had some knowledge; but reflecting again on the space of time during which I would have to linger over those branches of learning, I was not able to endure longer procrastination. In my helpless condition it occurred to me to have a meeting with the Platonists, for their fame was great. I thereupon spent as much of my time as possible with one who had lately settled in our city,–a sagacious man, holding a high position among the Platonists,–and I progressed, and made the greatest improvements daily. And the perception of immaterial things quite overpowered me, and the contemplation of ideas furnished my mind with wings, so that in a little while I supposed that I had become wise; and such was my stupidity, I expected forthwith to look upon God, for this is the end of Plato’s philosophy.

Nebridius Praises Augustine for Teaching Platonism

In a letter to Augustine, Nebridius praises Augustine for teaching Platonism:

To Augustine Nebridius Sends Greeting.

1. Your letters I have great pleasure in keeping as carefully as my own eyes. For they are great, not indeed in length, but in the greatness of the subjects discussed in them, and in the great ability with which the truth in regard to these subjects is demonstrated. They shall bring to my ear the voice of Christ, and the teaching of Plato and of Plotinus.

Answered Questions – Boyd’s Early Church Influences

From a Reddit Question and Answer with Greg Boyd:

Hey Greg Boyd! Love your work!
In what ways do the early church fathers influence your theology? Do you have particular church fathers you read that help you?
Also, I host a podcast from Theologues.com. Would you be willing to come on?
God bless!

Greg responds:

GREAT question! I love the theology of pre-Constantinian fathers. They SO got cosmic spiritual warfare and how it affects this earth. And they ALL emphasized free will. Irenaeus used to be my favorite, but over the last view years I’ve been into Origen. My approach to violent portraits of God in the OT has been influenced by him.

Apologetics Thursday – Greek Influences in the Church

By Christopher Fisher

Arbour and Blount argue that Open Theists just assume that the church fathers rejected face value readings of the Bible in favor of Platonism. From The Camel’s Nose: Open Theism and Biblical Interpretation – Benjamin H. Arbour and Douglas K. Bloun:

Now Adolf Harnack and Wolfhart Pannenberg not withstanding, we doubt that the tradition’s interpretive approach has been as heavily influenced by Greek philosophy as open theists suggest. Sadly, however, we cannot entertain open theists’ arguments to the contrary for the simple reason that they have put forward no such arguments.21 That traditional Christian readings of scripture have been unduly influenced by Greek philosophy is not a conclusion for which open theists argue but rather an assumption from which they argue. So, for instance, Sanders—who proclaims the point persistently and pointedly—does nothing to show that the tradition has been so influenced; he also does nothing to show which Greek philosophical doctrines are problematic for Christian theology, not to mention why they are so. Apparently, he takes the point to be beyond dispute; it is not.

Arbour and Bloun might be unfamiliar with the extent of documentation of the early Church’s reliance on Platonism. Augustine, the most influential Christian writer, literally stated that he believed the Bible was absurd before Simplicanous told Augustine to read the Bible in light of Plotinus. Augustine admits it plainly. This is in the same work which Augustine shows utter contempt for those who read the Bible on face value:

6. I rejoiced also that the old Scriptures of the law and the prophets were laid before me, to be perused, not now with that eye to which they seemed most absurd before, when I censured Your holy ones for so thinking, whereas in truth they thought not so; and with delight I heard Ambrose, in his sermons to the people, oftentimes most diligently recommend this text as a rule—The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life; while, drawing aside the mystic veil, he spiritually laid open that which, accepted according to the letter, seemed to teach perverse doctrines— teaching herein nothing that offended me, though he taught such things as I knew not as yet whether they were true…

Notice, the Bible was “absurd” to Augustine during his face value readings. And what was absurd? In Chapter 11, Augustine mocks those who think God is in time and spoke as Jesus was being baptized. In Augustine’s commentary on Genesis, he does great damage to the text. Augustine makes the “original sin” as sex between Adam and Eve, as well as other affronts to the face value reading. As soon as Augustine was given license to reinterpret the text spiritually, dumping the face value reading, that allowed him to convert to Christianity.

26. But having then read those books of the Platonists, and being admonished by them to search for incorporeal truth, I saw Your invisible things, understood by those things that are made; [Romans 1:20] and though repulsed, I perceived what that was, which through the darkness of my mind I was not allowed to contemplate,— assured that You were, and were infinite, and yet not diffused in space finite or infinite; and that Thou truly art, who art the same ever, varying neither in part nor motion; and that all other things are from You, on this most sure ground alone, that they are. Of these things was I indeed assured, yet too weak to enjoy You… Upon these [books by the Platonists], therefore, I believe, it was Your pleasure that I should fall before I studied Your Scriptures, that it might be impressed on my memory how I was affected by them… For had I first been moulded in Your Holy Scriptures, and had Thou, in the familiar use of them, grown sweet unto me, and had I afterwards fallen upon those volumes, they might perhaps have withdrawn me from the solid ground of piety; or, had I stood firm in that wholesome disposition which I had thence imbibed, I might have thought that it could have been attained by the study of those books alone.

Notice, Augustine praises the books of the Platonists. Augustine then says his Platonism made the Bible repulsive. Augustine then says that once he used Platonism to understand the Bible, he accepted the Bible. And to top it off, Augustine runs a hypothetical: if Augustine first accepted the Bible and then came across the books of Platonism, Augustine would have converted away from Christianity to Platonism. Christianity, Augustine explicitly says, is Platonism plus charity.

In Confessions, Book 8, Simplicanus lets Augustine into a secret: All the Church Fathers were engrained in Platonism. Simplicanus told Augustine that all Augustine needed to do was import Platonism into Christianity to make Christianity believable:

But when I mentioned to him that I had read certain books of the Platonists, which Victorinus, sometime Professor of Rhetoric at Rome (who died a Christian, as I had been told), had translated into Latin, he congratulated me that I had not fallen upon the writings of other philosophers, which were full of fallacies and deceit, after the rudiments of the world, [Colossians 2:8] whereas they, in many ways, led to the belief in God and His word.

When Arbour and Bloun claim that it is only assumed that the Church Fathers read the Bible in light of Platonism, they are very mistaken. They might be unfamiliar with Early Church writings, but it is not a contested point. It is well documented that not only were the Church Fathers hardcore Platonists, but that they would reject Christianity if they believed the face value text of the Bible. Platonism was their mechanism to conforming Christianity into something they could accept. This is not assumption (as Arbour and Bloun label it); it is explicitly stated in essay format by the Church Fathers.

Brown on the Origins of Double Predestination

From The Cruciform View:

The overall thrust of this chapter in Cary’s monograph is that Augustine’s idiosyncratic formulation of election and predestination (which would later influence Calvin and Luther’s own idiosyncratic neo-Augustinian versions of the doctrine) was influenced by Platonic and Neo-Platonic thought patterns of grace that differed significantly from the Pauline and Hebraic concept of grace, which is given to one (Israel, Christ, the Church) for the benefit of others rather than merely and arbitrarily given to one instead of another, which as Cary rightly says, leads logically to the “outright disaster” of Augustine’s (and later Calvin’s) doctrine of double-predestination.

Aquinas on Immutability

From Summa Theologica:

On the contrary, It is written, “I am the Lord, and I change not” (Malachi 3:6).

I answer that, From what precedes, it is shown that God is altogether immutable.

First, because it was shown above that there is some first being, whom we call God; and that this first being must be pure act, without the admixture of any potentiality, for the reason that, absolutely, potentiality is posterior to act. Now everything which is in any way changed, is in some way in potentiality. Hence it is evident that it is impossible for God to be in any way changeable.

Secondly, because everything which is moved, remains as it was in part, and passes away in part; as what is moved from whiteness to blackness, remains the same as to substance; thus in everything which is moved, there is some kind of composition to be found. But it has been shown above (Question 3, Article 7) that in God there is no composition, for He is altogether simple. Hence it is manifest that God cannot be moved.

Thirdly, because everything which is moved acquires something by its movement, and attains to what it had not attained previously. But since God is infinite, comprehending in Himself all the plenitude of perfection of all being, He cannot acquire anything new, nor extend Himself to anything whereto He was not extended previously. Hence movement in no way belongs to Him. So, some of the ancients, constrained, as it were, by the truth, decided that the first principle was immovable.

Clement of Alexandria on Predestination

In Stromata, Clement claims that God has no sensory perceptions, knows the future as if it were the present, and makes all things happen:

God is not, then, possessed of human form, so as to hear; nor needs He senses, as the Stoics have decided, “especially hearing and sight; for He could never otherwise apprehend.” But the susceptibility of the air, and the intensely keen perception of the angels, and the power which reaches the soul’s consciousness, by ineffable power and without sensible hearing, know all things at the moment of thought. And should any one say that the voice does not reach God, but is rolled downwards in the air, yet the thoughts of the saints cleave not the air only, but the whole world. And the divine power, with the speed of light, sees through the whole soul. Well! Do not also volitions speak to God, uttering their voice? And are they not conveyed by conscience? And what voice shall He wait for, who, according to His purpose, knows the elect already, even before his birth, knows what is to be as already existent? Does not the light of power shine down to the very bottom of the whole soul; “the lamp of knowledge,” as the Scripture says, searching “the recesses”? God is all ear and all eye, if we may be permitted to use these expressions.

TC Moore on Greek Influence

From TC Moore’s post on immutability:

Just that easily, the royal announcement of a crucified God, the Lord Jesus of Nazareth, foolishness to Greeks and a scandal to Jews, was transformed into a “respectable doctrine.” Tired of being labled “babblers” (as Paul was called in Athens) or “atheists” as the Roman Empire considered them, or other ignoble epitaphs, Christians began to compromise the Gospel in a quest for legitimacy and respectability.

Pinnock on I AM

From The Openness of God:

A striking example of this is the way they distorted the divine self-ascription “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex 3:14). This text, which points to the living God of the exodus, was transmuted into a principle of metaphysical immutability, as the dynamic “I AM” of the Hebrew text became the impersonal “being who is” of the Greek Septuagint (LXX), enabling theologians like Philo and Origen to link a changeless Greek deity with the God who acts in history.

Sanders on Philo and Repentance

From The Openness of God:

Philo is well aware of the many texts that say that God repents (changes his mind) or feels anger. In Philo’s mind such texts are not to be taken literally; rather, they are anthropomorphisms for the benefit of the “duller folk” who cannot understand the true nature of God. “For what greater impiety could there be than to suppose that the Unchanging changes?” Philo leans on Numbers 23:19, which in the Septuagint reads: “God is not as man.”39 Because God is not like us, he cannot change his mind. Moreover, since God foreknows all that will happen, divine repentance is impossible. Consequently, though Philo struggled against a static conception of immutability, in the end, the Greek metaphysical understanding of divinity ruled his interpretation of the biblical texts that describe God as genuinely responsive.

Thomas on Clement

Rod Thomas of Political Jesus writes an article entitled Open Theology, Clement, Stoicism, and Prevenient Grace. An excerpt:

Not only is the Exodus Creator God willing to demonstrate God’s holiness through acts of self-giving and self-revealing acts, God is awesomely generous. God’s grace, as the Gospels say, is like the Sun, that shines on the just and unjust. For Clement, Truth has revealed himself in the Logos. Speaking to the “Greek preparatory culture” since Clement was located in Alexandria, the Greek speaking city of Roman Egypt, Clement compares the salvific work of the Good Shepherd who not only takes “care of sheep, but the care of herds, and breeding of horses, and dogs, and bee-craft.” While all of these philosophies differ, they can be useful for life. Now, question is how does Clement define “philosophy.” They are in his words “whatever has been well said by each of those sects, which teach righteousness along with a science pervaded by piety,” and more importantly, Clement stresses, “But such conclusions of human reasonings as men have cut away and falsified, I would never call divine.”

Gonzalez on Immutability

TC Moore quotes extensively from Justo Gonzalez on immutability:

Therefore, when Christians, in their eagerness to communicate their faith to the Greco-Roman world, began interpreting their God in Platonic terms, what they introduced into theology was not a sociopolitically neutral idea. What they introduced was an aristocratic idea of God, one which from that point on would serve to support the privilege of the higher classes by sacralizing changelessness as a divine characteristic. Yahweh, whose mighty arm intervened in history in behalf of the oppressed slaves of Egypt and of widows, orphans, and aliens was set aside in favor of the Supreme Being, the Impassible One, who saw neither the suffering of the children in exile nor the injustices of human societies, and who certainly did not intervene in behalf of the poor and the oppressed. It would be possible to follow the entire history of Christianity to see how this God functioned in favor of the privileged precisely by condemning change and sacralizing the status quo.”

For full post, click here.

Fisher Describes Augustine’s Conversion

From Craig Fisher of Will the Real God Step Forward:

If one is to take Augustine’s words seriously, one must recognize this conversion was not in terms of a Protestant born again experience, but this conversion was a purification resembling the Neoplatonic purification: “The effect of your converting me to yourself was that I did not now seek a wife and had no ambition for success in this world.” To “not seek a wife” is a commitment to celibacy not an admission of guilt, repentance toward God, and belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Augustine’s autobiography, Confessions, may be described as a manual on Platonic purification. The first seven chapters represents the struggle against sexual desire, the nemesis of Platonic purification. Chapter eight is the accomplishment of his goal. The final chapters are his self-congratulation on his success.

The goal of purification is to become like God in order to see God. The practitioner expects to see God in his mind at the end of the ascent. The ascent is a meditative process, removing oneself from the distractions of physical life and seeing God with you mind. The name ascent refers to the Platonic metaphysical system of the pagan philosophers. God is at the top of the “ladder”, all creation is an ordered descent from the top. In order to reach God, it is necessary to ascend the ladder. Ascent is only possible through a process of purification.

For full post, click here.

Clement on Simplicity

Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 5:12, 208 AD

No one can rightly express him wholly. For on account of his greatness he is ranked as the All, and is the Father of the universe. Nor are any parts to be predicated of him. For the One is indivisible; wherefore also it is infinite, not considered with reference to inscrutability, but with reference to its being without dimensions, and not having a limit. And therefore it is without form.

Tertullian on Free Will

I find, then, that man was by God constituted free, master of his own will and power; indicating as by this constitution of his nature… you will find that when He puts before man good and evil, life and death, that the entire course of discipline is arranged in precepts by God’s calling men from sin, and threatening and exhorting them; and this on no other ground than that man is free with a will either for obedience or disobedience or resistance.

For context, click here.

Hill on Augustine and Scripture

From Bob Hill of the now discontinued Biblical Answers:

Augustine also explained the reasoning which allowed him to be converted to the Catholic faith:

For first of all the things began to appear unto me as possible to be defended: and the Catholic faith, in defense of which I thought nothing could be answered to the Manichees’ arguments, I now concluded with myself, might well be maintained without absurdity: especially after I had heard one or two hard places of the Old Testament resolved now and then; which when I understood literally, I was slain. Many places therefore of those books having been spiritually expounded.

What could Augustine not accept literally? One of them was the mutability of God, that God would change his will or purpose from one time to the next in order to adjust to a changeable mankind. In Confessions, Augustine explains which literal interpretations were unacceptable. Here is one of his statements:

And because God commanded them one thing then, and these another thing now for certain temporal respects; and yet those of both ages were servants to the same righteousness, whereas they may observe in one man, and in one day, and in one house, different things to be fit for different members, and one thing to be lawful now, which in an hour hence is not so; and something to be permitted or commanded in one corner, which is forbidden or punished in another. Is Justice thereupon various or mutable.

The Manichaeans believed God could not be mutable and retain his perfection. Augustine accepted this philosophy as true and attempted to prove this doctrine with Scripture.

In another writing, On the Morals of the Catholic Church, Augustine explained the doctrines of the Old Testament that were so absurd. In explaining his dispute with the Manichaeans we observe his agreement with them against the literal interpretation of the Old Testament.

We do not worship a God who repents, or is envious, or needy, or cruel, or who takes pleasure in the blood men or beasts, or is pleased with guilt or crime, or whose possession of the earth is limited to a little corner of it. These and such like are the silly notions . . . the fancies of old women or of children . . . and in those by whom these passages are literally understood. . . . And should any one suppose that anything in God’s substance or nature can suffer change or conversion, he will be held guilty of wild profanity.

Augustine agreed with the Manichaeans that a mutable God was totally unacceptable. In this conflict between the Platonic doctrine of immutability and the literal interpretation of Scriptures what had to change? Augustine’s answer was that the literal interpretation of Scripture had to change. For Augustine the plain narratives of Scripture had to be reinterpreted by spiritual or allegorical methods. The Manichaeans believed the Old Testament revealed a God who was mutable or could repent. Since the Platonists believed that God was immutable this idea of God repenting was a source of ridicule for the Catholic Church. Augustine was so embarrassed by these arguments that he chose to reinterpret Scripture rather than refute the Platonic philosophy.

Augustine and His Platonism

Excerpted from Christopher Fisher:

Simplicianus and Ambrose convinced Augustine that the Bible was to be taken figuratively. Notice how Augustine read the Bible on face value. Augustine called it “absurd”, he said “the letter kills”, he called it “perverse doctrines”, and he called it “offensive”. It was only through Simplicanus and Amborse spiritualizing the text in a Platonic sense that Augustine finally accepted the Bible. In short, Augustine was able to see the natural reading of the Bible, and Augustine rejected it because it was antithetical to Plantonism (that “god” cannot change)…

Augustine’s characteristics for the books of the Platonists are “pride” and “knowledge”. Augustine, even after becoming a Christian, held Platonism in high regard. This is in contrast to his disdain for the natural meaning of the Bible text, which he calls “absurd”, “killing”, “perverse”, and “offensive”. Biblical theology was to be rejected all except one point. The Platonists gave Augustine all Augustine’s theology except “charity”. In fact Augustine writes: “I might have thought that it could have been attained by the study of [Platonist] books alone.”

For full post, click here.