Christian Thought

Christian thought is rooted in the teachings of Jesus, and in the central documents of the Church: the (Hebrew) Old Testament and the (Greek) New Testament. These documents present a sacred history, proclaim the Christian “good news” of salvation, and give counsel and admonition on how a Christian ought to live. In character, they are decidedly not theoretical in tone – that is, they do not set out a systematic philosophy or theology or political theory – and were viewed both by the early church and by the surrounding society as sacred texts specific to the Christian sect (sometimes regarded as a sect within Judaism in the 1st century), and not as contributions to the broader Greco-Roman high intellectual culture. By the 2nd century, however, Christian writers were clearly engaging with other Greco-Roman intellectual movements. And from the years following the Emperor Constantine’s establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire in the fourth century, through the Middle Ages and Modernity, Christian thought became thoroughly interwoven with the intellectual mainstream in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

Late Antiquity

Christianity emerged in a context that was politically Roman and culturally Hellenistic. Alexander’s Hellenistic empire had allowed the interchange of philosophical, religious and scientific ideas from Egypt, Greece, Persia and even India, the easternmost limit of Alexander’s campaigns. An educated person in the Roman empire of the early first millennium might well be trained in mathematics and astronomy as well as Greek or Latin letters, would be aware of, if not trained in, one or more philosophical schools (Platonic, Aristotelian, Epicurean, Stoic), and would be aware of some portion of the many religious sects spread throughout the empire.

Many of the Christian writers whose work is still preserved from the first through fourth centuries received classical pagan educations; many, like Origen and Augustine, received formal training within one of the Greek philosophical traditions, such as Middle and NeoPlatonism. Their conversion to Christianity presented them with both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge was to discern how (or indeed whether) it was acceptable for a Christian to appropriate intellectual tools from “pagan” thought. Some writers (e.g., Tertuallian) came to the conclusion that Christians ought to stay away from pagan learning of all sorts in the same way they ought to avoid pagan religious practices. (As Tertullian famously put it, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”) Others (e.g., Origen) believed that some of the classical intellectual projects (particularly Platonic and Stoic philosophy) could be a useful preparation for a Christian, and that the kinds of technical tools available in Greek philosophy and science could be put to work in clarifying Christian doctrine and exploring Christian views on a variety of topics. Some even went so far as to speculate that some of the great classical thinkers had been inspired by the Holy Spirit, as had the Hebrew prophets, or that they had had access to the Books of Moses. For Christians who took such views, the rich Hellenistic intellectual heritage provided a set of resources for transforming early Christian texts, beliefs and practices into a more comprehensive worldview on a par with those of the Greek philosophers or the religious philosophies (such as Manicheanism and Zoroastrianism) of the Near East.

Early Christian thought includes a number of different strands. One such strand, found from the beginning of the second century, consists of discussions of what attitude a Christian ought to take towards various sorts of life choices. (E.g., ought Christians form insular communities or live “in the world”? Is it permissible for a Christian to serve in the armed forces, or must Christians be pacifists? How ought the Christian to handle civic duties that involve actions inappropriate for a Christian –such as worshipping the emperor as a god?) A second strand consisted of intellectual engagement with non-Christian (mainly Jewish and pagan) thinkers, particularly in the form of apologetics: that is, documents arguing for the claims of one party and against those of the other. A third strand was devoted to debating more exact and comprehensive formulations of Christian theology and philosophy. This third strand was to a large extent driven by the development of competing schools of interpretation of the teachings and the person of Jesus. Neither the teachings of Jesus nor the documents of the Apostolic church took the form of systematic philosophical or theological treatises, and the central formulations of the early church (e.g., the claim that Jesus was “the son of God”, his identification with the “word” (logos) which existed “with the Father” “in the beginning”, “was God”, and “became flesh and dwelt among us”) admit of a number of conflicting philosophical interpretations. (E.g., Are Father and Son two distinct beings of the same divine type? Two modal manifestations of the same numerically identical being? Was the historical Jesus a God who appeared to be human? A man who became untied with the godhead? Fully human and fully divine?) Many such issues turned out to have important hidden implications for a Christian’s view of God, of salvation, and of human beings. But settling such issues required Christians to deploy subtle intellectual tools that were not part of the formulations of primitive Christianity. And hence, in the course of the doctrinal disputes that led to the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon, and to the Creeds of the Church, Christianity became a more philosophical and theological religion.

Christians, like other inhabitants of the Roman empire, tended to be separated from one another by linguistic and cultural differences. In the western part of the empire, the predominant language was Latin, while in the eastern part (including Egypt and other parts of East Africa, which whose closest overland connections were with the Middle East) it was Greek. This division was to become more pronounced after the division of the empire. But even during the Council of Nicea in the fourth century one can discern important differences in Western and Eastern Christian thought—in particular, that the Eastern Christian writers tended to come from a more subtle intellectual tradition which incorporated more (particularly Platonic) philosophy. One of the great centers of Greek-speaking Christianity, after all, was Alexandria, Alexander’s capital and the intellectual center of the Roman empire, and it is little accident that many of the most important thinkers of the third and fourth centuries came from or spent much of their lives in the small region encompassing Alexandria, the Egyptian Desert (the home of Christian monasticism), the Holy Land, and areas of the eastern Mediterranean that had been important early sites of apostolic teaching (such as Syria and Turkey).

Both Eastern and Western Christianity, however, were shaped by a number of common influences. The most important of these were a common grounding in the person of Jesus as passed through the Apostles, a similar set of sacramental and liturgical practices (such as baptism and the eucharist), and a shared set of sacred texts. The major creeds of the church (the Nicene and Apostle’s creeds) were also formulated before the Greek- and Latin-speaking churches began to drift apart. Likewise, the beginnings of organized Christian spiritual practice in the monastic movement predates the split, and provides a common heritage, albeit one that was developed in different directions thereafter. And finally there is an important point of commonality in that the most important formulations of Christian thought in Late Antiquity were all heavily shaped by being cast in an intellectual framework derived from Middle and NeoPlatonism. In the Latin west, this is true of the most important Western writer, Augustine of Hippo, through whose influence all subsequent Latin theology was shaped. In the Greek east, it is true of almost all of the influential thinkers, beginning with Origen, and passing through the Cappadocians.

The Decline of Rome and the “Dark Ages” in Western Europe

Christianity was spreading in the Roman Empire at about the same time that the Western Empire was beleaguered by a series of barbarian invasions. Augustine himself lived through barbarian invasions of Northern Africa (perhaps then the intellectual center of the Empire and of Christianity), and by the sixth century the Western Empire was largely a memory, though its legacy was appropriated for centuries to come by rulers who were to style themselves “Czar,” “Kaiser” or “Holy Roman Emperor.” Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, makes a case that the rise of Christianity was one of the factors leading to the demise of the empire, though that claim is contested.

The stability of the Empire had allowed for the flourishing and transmission of many forms of classical learning, and with it, Christian thought as this developed. Much of this might have been lost except for the fact that Christian monks had taken on the task of collecting, preserving and copying manuscripts. In particular, this task had been taken on by monks in Ireland, which lay outside both of the Roman Empire and of the barbarian conquests. In the sixth through ninth centuries, these Irish monks (whose ancestors had all been pagans at the time of the Council of Nicea) became itinerants upon the continent, bringing both the orthodox interpretation of the Gospel and what was preserved of classical learning to barbarian-controlled regions of (what are now) France, Germany and Italy, which had reverted largely to pagan and Arian forms of religion. (This story is told in an engaging and popular way in Ignatiev’s How the Irish Saved Civilization.)

This period is sometimes referred to as the “Dark Ages”, a phrase that connotes a number of features of the period: particularly the decline of higher learning, the loss of the technological benefits of the Roman empire, and the political uncertainty occasioned by the lack of a large and powerful centralized government. There are important thinkers during this period (e.g., Abelard), but on the whole it was a time in which older learning was carefully conserved behind cloistered walls.

The High Middle Ages

Unlike the Dark Ages, the high Middle Ages saw the development of a new high culture in a Europe that, while politically divided, viewed itself as “Christendom”. While the monastic orders were no longer the guardians of endangered knowledge, they were still the main locus of intellectual activity throughout the Middle Ages. And this period witnessed the growth of expressions of Christian understandings of life and the cosmos in music, art, poetry, literature, philosophy, theology and the sciences.

Perhaps the most significant intellectual development of this period was the rediscovery of Aristotelian philosophy and science, which, unlike its Platonic counterpart, had largely disappeared in the West. It was re-introduced by way of Islamic philosophers such as Ibn-Sina and Ibn-Rushd and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides. Through these philosophers, Aristotelian thought was taken up by philosophers of the later Middle Ages, notably Thomas Aquinas, and became the mainstay of what was to be called Scholastic thought. Aristotle’s thought provided new modes of argumentation and analysis, and also quite significantly included several empirical sciences. The cosmology of the late Middle Ages is largely Aristotelian in inspiration. Aristotle’s approach to philosophy and science emphasized teleological explanation, and each type of substance (humans, animals, plants, even the primal elements) had its own individual telos (purpose, or end) that it strove to fulfil. Such a view almost cries out for the idea of a thoughtful creator who endowed each thing with purpose and set the universe in order according to a plan, and hence there was a natural match between Christian theology and Aristotelian cosmology. In the resulting Scholastic picture, human beings and the Earth itself are indeed an almost infinitessimally small part of creation (the Scholastics were not ignorant of astronomy), but within this portion of creation, things were ordered with the end of human salvation and sanctification in mind.

The Renaissance, Reformation and Scientific Revolution

The middle centuries of the second millennium were a time of tempestuous changes for Christian thought. The Renaissance brought a much more comprehensive revival of classical ideas than had the Aristotelian revival. Classical art, literature, and oratory were revived in ways that caused Christians to reassess the Medieval views of the world. (See section on Christianity and Visual Art.)

The Reformation caused both political and theological upheaval within the Western church, and prompted a broadening of the scope of theological argumentation and of the availability of the sacred Christian texts, now being translated for the first time into local languages and mass printed for the literate public. Christian themes that had fallen out of mainstream discourse were revived and brought to the fore in different Protestant sects: individualism (Luther), a retrieved teaching on the Kingdom of God (Calvin) and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (the radical reformers). Additionally, any of the Protestant churches were or became national churches, aligned with the authority of the local political powers, prompting a new wave of political thought, including but not limited to considerations of the relationship of church and state (Hobbes).

Around 1600, European thinkers also began to seek alternatives to the Aristotelian/Scholastic ways of understanding the physical world, a movement known in retrospect as the “scientific revolution.” Many of these scientific innovators (e.g., Boyle, Descartes, Newton) were guided and motivated by their theological beliefs to explore the world in a new way—e.g., to seek rational order in the created world, to understand the providential intentions of God through the study of creation, or to promote experimentation on the grounds of the contingency of creation. For others, however, the mechanical view of the world (popular in the 17th century) and later the Darwinian explanation of biological diversity (in the 19th) left progressively less of a role for God in our understanding of the cosmos, leading to several rival interpretations: (1) the Deist view that God created the world like a giant machine and then left it to run on its own without further interference (Leibniz), (2) the materialist view that the material world is all that there is, and that God is an unnecessary hypothesis (Laplace), (3) that there is a contradiction between theological and scientific understandings of the world, and that the Christian ought therefore be suspicious of modern science, or (4) that the Rationalist, mechanist view of the world is in fact a bad interpretation of science, overestimating the power of human understanding and underestimating the marvels of creation (Newton).

Christianity and Secularism in the West

The twentieth century saw the decline of Christian thought and culture as the intellectual lingua franca of the Western world. While the signers of the two Humanist Manifestoes of the early 20th century may have been viewed as radical at the time, by the end of the century secularism was the common baseline in academic and intellectual circles. This is, in part, an effect of the decline in religious belief among Americans and Europeans generally, but also tracks the increasing professional specialization of academic discourse, in which disciplinary work (be it in the physical or social sciences or in the humanities) became increasingly disengaged from dialog with a broader cosmological, ethical or philosophical worldview. In particular, the academic study of humans and human society in departments of psychology, neuroscience, sociology and anthropology was increasingly modeled upon the physical sciences, increasingly specialized, and increasingly shielded against religious and ideological interpretations that were regarded as having no place in scientific study.

As a result, Christian intellectuals in the 20th century often gravitated towards one of two models: (1) compartmentalizing their intellectual life in a way that kept it separate from their religious identity, or (2) increasingly began to think of themselves as “Christian (Catholic, evangelical) intellectuals” and to write self-consciously Christian (or more narrowly sectarian/denominational) perspectives that were differentiated from mainstream secular views of culture, ethics, politics or science. Some (both from within the church and outside of it) see this as an attempt to preserve the worldview of a West in which culture, knowledge and Christianity were completely intertwined—a fight to maintain a majority Christian culture. Others see it as a return to an essential theme of early Christianity, in which Christians differentiate themselves from the secular world and are often cast in the status of a scorned minority. (There has always been a strand of Christianity that regards Constantine’s “Christianization” of the Roman Empire as the worst thing that ever happened to the Church, and decries the effects of the hybridization of Christianity with political or economic interests.)

Eastern Christian Thought

Western Christians are often unaware of the rich tradition of Christian thought in the churches that became known as “Eastern Orthodoxy”. Eastern Christianity, which never experienced a Dark Age, Renaissance or Reformation, has remained in closer contact with its roots in Late Antiquity. Indeed, Orthodoxy (which literally means beliefs (doxa) that line up correctly (orthos)) tends to test ideas by their compatibility with the sayings of the “Fathers”—i.e., the significant Christian thinkers of the early centuries of the Church.

Particularly important to Eastern Christian thought has been the appropriation of NeoPlatonic philosophical tools, which entered the tradition through Origen, the Cappadocian fathers, and such scholar/monks as Evagrius the Solitary and Maximos the Confessor. As in the Medieval West, Eastern Christian thought has often been centered in the work of such scholar-monks. However, Eastern Christianity if anything places an even stronger emphasis upon the relationship between spiritual practice and intellectual theory. This linkage is best understood by way of the particular strand of Christian NeoPlatonism found in Eastern Christianity.

Eastern Christianity’s understanding of the human person is rooted in the Johannine (i.e., from the Gospel and letters of the Apostle John) idea that the proper end of human existence is to gaze upon the face of Jesus and thereby to be transformed into his likeness. (This is also called, in Greek, theosis, a term indicating that one’s human nature is transformed by being taken up into the Divine life, a process perilously translated into English as “deification”.) Because Jesus is also the divine Logos, philosophical reflection and the study of the created world can be means towards this end, but its culmination is in the direct apprehension of God by that faculty of the human person called in Greek the nous. This term is sometimes translated ‘intellect’ in English, but that rendering is potentially misleading, as the philosophical understanding of nous is taken from a Platonic view of the person (initially formulated in the Republic) which contrasts nous (a faculty for directly apprehending uncreated and intelligible things) with another faculty responsible for merely calculating reason (dianoia), which corresponds better to the post-Enlightenment Western use of such terms as ‘reason’ and ‘intellect’. The Orthodox regard this point as significant, viewing the Western Enlightenment as in fact a “darkening” of the nous – i.e., turning away from a faculty that allows for the direct apprehension of spiritual things in order to apply calculating reason to the evidence provided by the senses in order to achieve one’s desires. In a Christian NeoPlatonic understanding of the person, this sort of “Enlightenment” really amounts to deadening the highest human faculty, which ought to rule over calculation, the emotions and appetites, and turning the lower faculties loose to do as they please without spiritual insight.

This theoretical view of the human person is viewed by the Orthodox as expressing the practical experience of the ascetic and mystical tradition springing from early Christian monasticism beginning in Egypt in the 4th century. Ascetic practice is viewed as a set of techniques for loosening the grip of the appetites (and the demons) upon the soul, and allowing God to re-awaken the nous and restore it to its proper position in the psychological economy. When this happens, the nous quite naturally grows in its spiritual understanding and in direct apprehension of God. And it is from this sort of noetic apprehension that the truest form of knowledge arises – that is, it is only the spiritual practitioner who is capable of seeing spiritual realities as they really are. Eastern Christianity thus rejects the Enlightenment view that there is any tension between faith and reason.