Is there a task for philosophy? Many Christians have argued that it ought not to have a place? We think they are wrong – I am going to try and show why they are.We should not overlook the historical conditions at the end of the first and the beginning of the second century AD.
The writings of the apostolic fathers, Polycarp, Clememt of Rome etc. right after the close of the canon of scripture are very interesting. Lightfoot has an excellent edition.
Strange position as we see clearly the influence of Greek philosophy in its Hellenistic phase in the positions these authors develop. They are using it even though they argue against it.
The philosophy they knew was Greek in its Hellenistic form, particularly Gnosticism. Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis .
Gnosticism is among a list of dualistic movements. Characteristic of dualism is that there are two worlds, a higher and a lower world. These have been bought together in this present world.
In this world they are close but not fused. Dualism begins with two things which are utterly unlike, hence they can’t be fused or intermingled. They can only come close be juxtaposed, they don’t become a unity.
The higher world is the world of light/ good; the lower world is the world of dark/ evil.
The soul is good the body is evil; there can’t be a unity. There is no hope for man except in final separation. Death becomes a liberation.
Dualism is used in many senses – it is used here in the way Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven use it in its vertical sense and not in a horizontal sense. It shouldn’t really be used in the horizontal sense.
The eschatological hope is death. The Greeks speak of the immortal soul rather than the resurrection of the body.
By being surrounded by Gnostic philosophy, which they sensed as the enemy of the Christian faith – it was a very grave threat to the church. Hence they felt philosophy had no place.
See that no one take you in carry you off as booty …
Paul is warning against a very particular philosophical movement. This will lead the leaders of Colossae astray, because it is a thought system ‘according to the traditions of men and elements of the world’ and not according to Christ.
Evidently, they had recommended certain ascetic practices, the reasons for which were explained in a theoretical view. That theoretical view was dualism; the practical measures were depriving self, disciplining self to get rid of sinful material elements, refraining from certain foods, refraining from sexual intercourse and so on.
According to dualism it was necessary to struggle free of the material world and of the spiritual powers which were in this world by means of recommended ascetic practices – to lighten the soul. It was out of a cosmology that these ascetic practices were derived.
These teachers wnet on to say, by following there procedures a depth of epignosis , a fullness of insight or knowledge would be promised to the believer, to raise them to a height that could not be obtained as a result of the work of Paul. They placed themselves over and against Paul; they tried to estrange Colossae from apostolic teaching.
Christianity is not dualism.
What does Paul do? Paul puts Christ in the centre – there is no fullness of insight or knowledge that we don’t possess in Him. At least latent, the potential.
Paul opposes this particular philosophical movement, because it does not proceed from a recognition of the central place and importance in our lives and world of Jesus Christ, the lord of creation and mediator of our redemption.
This does not mean we can know or say on the basis of this text alone that Paul assigns the pace of philosophy in the life of the Christian. We can’t use it to say Christians may not work at philosophy.
He is not talking about a structural problem here – ie about structural relations in the created order. This text – the only occurrence of philosophia in the NT – opposes a philosophy that is not according to Christ.
It is the religious direction of a certain philosophical movement that is being judged. Nothing is being said or implied here about – it is outside the universe of discourse – the legitimation of philosophy structurally within the lives of those for whom Christ is central.
The Church Fathers
The term ‘Church Fathers’ is a technical term meaning something definitively. The Church Fathers were during the 3-6 centuries (ie AD 200-500).
In the time of the Church Fathers we also encounter the view that it is the sacred writings (the prophets and the apostles) that we have a Christina philosophy. One of the prominent fathers, adopting a way of speaking that gies back to Justin Martyr (d AD 165), says it I this way the Greeks had their Heraclitus, their Parmenides, their Plato and Aristotle; but we have the writings of Paul: these are ‘nostra philosophia’ (our philosophy).
This was a common way of speaking. You might conceivably argue from this statement that here too Christians are taking the position, philosophy is not for them, the inscripturated word of God takes the place of philosophy.
This interpretation comes down to the position that philosophy is off limits. This I not what the Church Fathers meant. (Though there are differences from one church father to the next.) The view of most representative of the Patristics is that where mention is made of nostra philosophia , reference is to anything that gives expression to the Christian mind, whether that be (i) the canonical writings of prophets and apostles as (ii) the church’s creedal statements or (iii) philosophical and theological elaboration and exposition of and wrestling of these (i) and (ii).
Both Latin and Greek Church Fathers engaged in philosophising a great deal as well as theology.
They were living through a crucial turning point in the world – there were the awful persecution of Christians, then the sudden conversion of Constantine which saw changes in Roman law. Pagan cathedrals were now taxed and the Christian churches not. The Empire had become ‘Christianised’.
A novel ‘Julain the Apostate’ tells the story of a boy raised by bishops who talked tp the pagans and got into the emperor’s seat and tried to redirect the Empire against Christianity.
The Roman senate – the most conservative of bodies – retined belief in Roman gods and they struggled with what to do with the ‘Altar of Victory’.
It was not certain whether Christianity of ancient paganism would direct the life of the Roman Empire.