Skip links

Of Secular and Sacred Wisdom

"What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, the Church with the Academy, the Christian with the heretic?" A sanctifying bridge between theology and philosophy.

Throughout Christian history and even today, philosophy has been met with mixed emotions, whether it was measured a lower form of theological corruption, proof of God’s natural revelation, a tool of dogmatic refinement, or esteemed a servant of sanctity, even inspired to a lesser extent. From the apologetics of Justin Martyr, Aristides, Athenagoras, Origen and Clement of Alexandria to theological giants of Augustin, Aquinas, Scotus, and Calvin, and not to mention the renaissance of Christian philosophy in the latter half of the twentieth century, all of whom look fondly upon the ancient Greek philosophers presiding before the advent of Christ—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus—other early Church Fathers such as Tertullian, Tatian, Irenaeus, and Basil, just like Fundamentalists and Evangelicals today, are far less impressed for its naturalistic priority and phenomenological approach, considering its focus on dialectic aptitude and metaphysical reasoning to explain ultimate reality without God or Scripture to be a lesser revelation of knowledge and fruitless for the Christian way of life[1]. So, to the latter, why even give it light to grow? A contemporary question with historical grounds and Scriptural warrant.

In the infancy of Christian influence, heralding from a syncretistic culture with eclectic musings, it was none other than the apostle Paul who first drew a strict line between early Christian doctrine and its contemporary philosophies, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8) This anti-syncretistic, Spirit led theology was famously championed by the imposing rhetoric of Tertullian (AD 155–240), “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Church with the Academy, the Christian with the heretic?” he exclaimed, “Our principles come from the Porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that the Lord is to be sought in simplicity of heart. I have no use for a Stoic or a Platonic or a dialectic Christianity. After Jesus we have no need of speculation, after the Gospel no need of research.”[2] Knowledge was complete in Christ—the truth, the way, the life—just as Paul advocates (Colossians 2:8-10,15,18-23).

Nearly one hundred years after Tertullian, Christianity was legalized under Emperor Constantine and quickly became the dominant and oddly fashionable religion of its day. For the next millennia, the institutionalized Christian world championed Theology as “Queen of the sciences” (from Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”), which inevitability rendered the doctrinal depths of sacred Scripture as the necessary bridge for true knowledge (doctrine from Latin docere, meaning “teaching”). For it is by the Spirit that true knowledge is revealed, and Scripture written (John 16:13). Without the Spirit and Scripture, any epistemological aims would simply miss the mark. But with the revitalization of Aristotelian philosophy among prominent medieval scholastics, predominantly Thomas Aquinas, the line drawn between these two disciplines—theology and philosophy—would wash away. We see this accretion very vividly with Roman Catholicism’s integration of Aristotelian metaphysics in Eucharist dogma, transubstantiation. Aristotle and Christ are synchronized as incontrovertible saving truths of the faith. The Spirit offered more than just theological inspiration, it empowered philosophical inspiration, too.

“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit…

Colossians 2:8

By the turn of the sixteenth century, the tides of theology began to radically shift from theocentrism toward anthropocentrism, a tide that still turning today, which places a stronger, if not, central emphasis on humanity’s role in the formation of the Bible. At the time however, it would have seemed as though the world was splitting apart: Leaders of the Reformation contended that the Church was too syncretistic, accumulating a significant number of doctrinal accretions that were not Scriptural enough (sola Scriptura), Catholicism contended that they were schismatics against the Spirit of the Church, while humanism continued to rise to the surface under everyone’s feet.

Over the next few centuries, the proverbial storm against theology sweeping down from Enlightenment and its philosophical pretensions no doubt caused an unprecedented wave of polarization, insecurity, and theological complacency among professing Christians. Its rhetoric has forced some to impulsively pit faith against reason as incompatible ends, even leading others to discredit reason itself, contrary to its own self-defeating accusation. So much so that in recent years theology has been met with skepticism, reproach, and antipathy by many Evangelical communities, non-denominational offshoots, and the notorious Progressive Christians. Accused of either succumbing to a liberalized pursuit of academic achievement or being stuck in its own tracks from short-sighted, high-brow dogmatism. The general consensus among laity is hardly desirable. It is perceived now that by intellectually exploring the depths of Christian theology for knowledge, classical or otherwise, or even by trying to piece together a sensible Christian worldview, it will inevitably dig holes of unanswered questions that will deteriorate the bedrock of their faith, leaving nothing but a pretentious know-it-all in its wake. While a steady stream of reports indicate that theology and religious studies continue to drop at alarming rates[3], there has been a gradual renaissance of Christian philosophy. But to some, this is hardly good news.

There seems to be a strong albeit understandable hesitation by many Evangelicals and Fundamentalists to welcome philosophy in a normative Christian setting, as if it were mingling sheep with goats (even though majority seem content to mix science, or natural philosophy as it was once known, with Christian doctrine). After all, to call mainstream philosophy secular is an understatement. It has all but forsaken the classical notion of a relational, lawmaking God in public disputes as plausible, and has longed for His body to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, even so far as for some to distance themselves from Aristotelian ethics entirely as a potential hidden corridor leading unsuspecting pedestrians back to Christianity! A pretext couldn’t be more prejudicious for the freethinking variety. It also gives the impression of overwhelming intellectual demands that rest beyond the scope of the gospel and everyday discourse, so most people do not see the need to engage in it because they either feel incapable to meet some pre-set standard for handling controversial arguments, feel that discovering new questions may cast doubt on their faith ,which can further lead to renunciation or deception (Colossians 2:8), or even feel that focusing on such topics puts greater emphasis on things below rather than on “things above” (Colossians 3:1-3). For any Gospel-minded man, however, this ought to flick on the switch.

It comes down to our understanding of Paul. Philosophy, in part, was never forbidden outright, nor was it discouraged by the apostles. In fact, it was often used as an evangelistic tool and catalyst for the gospel in history and Scripture. In Acts 17, Paul evangelizes to the Athenians with a soft syncretistic appeal by citing philosophical/cultural norms, albeit judiciously selected, likening the altar “to the unknown god” (v.23) to the one true God of sacred Scripture, so no false parallels could be drawn (as opposed to, say, Zeus or Poseidon, wherein false parallels would be drawn). He does so by referencing philosopher poet Epimenides of Crete, “In him we live and move and have our being,” and then by quoting Aratus’s famous poem, Phainomena (Appearances), “For we are indeed his offspring” (v.28) as a way to demonstrate that God is not only his God but God of all, in more than just sovereignty, too; the appeal attempts to further the notion that all people everywhere, although unknown by name, implicitly and subliminally know of God in some way, shape or form because all people were made in His invisible image. He uses philosophy, which is no doubt mixed with a religious heritage, and natural revelation as common ground and leverage to present the gospel in hope that all would come to repentance (v.30). He temporally binds interreligious thought, human history, and our mutual essence/existence to forward the gospel—natural revelation, therefore, is integral to the gospel.

Given this, how could Paul believe there is no shred of truth in these philosophies if the truth of his own argument depended on these philosophers having true implicit knowledge of God, however suppressed or subliminal? How could Paul, then, also consider all philosophy “hollow and deceptive” and then use such tools of trickery in evangelism if he acknowledges that the Greek philosophers implicitly knew of God by nature, and to prove such he points to the iconic writings Athenians would all know? Well, he couldn’t. He doesn’t. His whole appeal depends on there being some truth, however incomplete, in philosophy. It was not that all philosophy is deceptive and hollow, rather it is that there are kinds of hollow and deceptive philosophies and self-made religions based upon “human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world”. Philosophy can be dangerous if left unbridled and untethered to God. Consider the fuller context of Paul’s concern:

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority…. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him…. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:8-10,15,18-23)

Take notice that the “deceptive philosophy” Paul refers to is, in principle, not the same philosophy employed by Christian philosophers today, which is simply, in my words, thinking things through thoroughly (and it is notably this ‘thorough’ aspect that separates professional from amateur), or loving God with “all your mind” (Mark 12:30), rather Paul’s philosophy implies a self-made religion, human tradition, or asceticism based on “the elemental spiritual forces of this world,” from which Christians are liberated. But like all religions, there is a philosophical edge to it. Therefore, Paul is also not making a case for total syncretism or religious pluralism—all religions and philosophies being equal. At the Areopagus, he is making a case for redemption, to sanctify and restore the lost and broken images of God. That is to say, there is some truth in pagan philosophy when extracted from its broader religious context that can be redeemed when contextualized by the truth of God because truth—and subsequently reason, conscience, and discernment—is integral to the natural revelation of God in all people, so that all may come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Philosophy is common ground, but not sacred ground.

It is the bridge between those grounds—theology and philosophy—that apologetics finds its dominion, as a subdiscipline of evangelism. Yet the issue remains a matter of border control: When is that line crossed? And how is it crossed? The meaning of philosophy is so promiscuous and self-reflexive, it is no wonder there is so much disagreement among believers. So for those who remain unconvinced of its necessity or relevancy, or perhaps are legitimately concerned with a forced marriage, it might be reassuring to know that long before the elemental spiritual forces of humanism infiltrated Christendom by Trojan horse, before Tertullian penned those words and Paul addressed the Areopagus, at a time when sacred and common ground were kingdoms apart, when the world around Jerusalem was held captive by the forces of darkness, the bridge between those grounds was always intact––founded in wisdom. Wisdom that was, and still is, integral to evangelism as well as philosophy, which means, quite literally, “the love of wisdom”. For this reason, a greater understanding of wisdom, secular and sacred alike, is warranted not only for its necessity in contemporary apologetics, a quality lacking in cultural dialogue, but for its relevancy in evangelism of the gospel. Lest I inflate the trepidation even more, it is the two great opposites of Western intellectual tradition that I turn to first: the lowly Athenian gadfly and the extravagant philosopher king.

Continue Reading >

Matlock Bobechko is the Chief Operating/Creative Officer of Bible Discovery. He is an eclectic Christian thinker and writer, award-winning screenwriter and short filmmaker. He writes a weekly blog on theology, apologetics, and philosophy called Meet Me at the Oak. He is also an Elder at his local church.

[1] Roy Kearsley, Faith and philosophy in the early church. The Gospel Coalition. Themelios: Volume 15, Issue 3.
[2] Tertullian, “Prescription against Heretics,” trans. Peter Holmes, in Ante- Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody, MA: Hen- drickson, 1994), 3:249. Accessed in Jay Green, An Invitation to Academic Studies, pg. 8.
[3] Camilla Turner, Theology and Religious Studies risk ‘disappearing’ from universities, report warns, Published on The Telegraph and The British Academy, 23 May 2019.