Interaction between religion and philosophy: a look at the subject from the patristics

By: Belkis García Hernández

But it would be a mistake to believe that Christianity is a philosophy; it is a religion, a very different thing: one cannot even speak strictly of Christian philosophy, if the adjective Christian is to define a character of philosophy; We can only call Christian philosophy the philosophy of Christians as such, that is, that which is determined by the Christian situation from which the philosopher starts ”.1


Christianity has been considered one of the three great monotheistic religions of the world, its origins were very mixed with ancient Hebrew traditions. To make a correct understanding of this religion we have to frame it in time and geographically. The land that today is called Palestine was the scene of the new awakening of faith in the God of the great patriarch Abraham, 2 better known as the father of faith. From the periphery of the Roman Empire, the Christian faith burst forth, born in the bosom of Judaism and announced by a carpenter from Nazareth. Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary. Christianity, from its beginnings, has been an intellectually inclusive religion, of the learned and the unlearned, where the latter, in fact, became geniuses of the most sophisticated philosophical apologetics of patristics.

At the time, Christianity responded – and categorically – to many of the approaches that previous philosophers had developed. The Greeks, for example, always remained open to religious thought: Empedocles was a priest, Plato discussed piety, Aristotle wrote about prayer. However, there is no defined theological thought in them, their premises were philosophical. Let us remember that the word theology has come to our language from the union of two Greek words, θεός (theos) and λόγiα (lodge), God and message or word. We can define that theology is a message about God, whose fundamental premises would be the subjective factor, that is, the ideas that start from Revelation, the Christian tradition and, last but not least, the historical-social experience, lived by Christian communities throughout history. That is why theology, in the first place, cannot be a philosophy, since it does not find foundations; the center of his reflection is God and his multiple interventions in the history of the Hebrew people, of which Jesus of Nazareth becomes the advent and fulfillment of the ancient Scriptures. For the rest, God was for Christians much more than an idea: he was the Supreme Being, spiritual and eternal, cause and origin of all things. This being did not despise matter, because he was its Creator; and he did not hesitate to take human form, entering into relationship with man. The Logos, meaning and end of the universe, was not a simple abstraction, it was made concrete in the person of Jesus Christ, God manifested in flesh.

But what can we say about Christian ethics? It was never the fruit of speculation about virtue, its foundation was the commandments dictated by God, collected in the Hebrew traditions and that constituted the basis on which the existence of man would develop. Instead, Greek fatalism denied God’s providence. Still, we must recognize that in the Christian mindset God is the infinity that ancient philosophers speculated so much about. Therefore, we can say that Greek philosophy became an instrument for the defense and support of Christianity. When men formed by Greek culture swelled the ranks of Christianity, many philosophers privileged the Christian faith using speculation.

Another new phenomenon appears to question the foundation of Christianity: the nature of Jesus Christ. Here is the great confrontation and the latent danger of the reciprocal influence between theology and philosophy. The Gnostics were a potential danger to the Christological dogma, their literary production became so vast that they have not ceased to inspire more than one film production.3 The Gnostics wanted to understand Christianity from their philosophical perspectives. Nicolás Abbagnano already said it: “it was the first philosophical investigation of the most Christian”, 4 it turned out to be a mixture of mythical, Christian, Neoplatonic and oriental elements.

The so-called gnosis, according to these heretics of lofty mysteries, had some points of contact with the theological positions of the Fathers of the Church, for whom philosophy did not represent a threat to their Christian convictions. On the contrary, it was the saber that delivered the most accurate blows to heresy. Ireneo de Lyon assures: “the true gnosis is the one that the apostles of the Church have transmitted to us, any other gnosis is false, because the true one is attainable by the human mind.” As for God: we cannot say that it can be thought by the finite human mind. He is the understanding; but it is not similar to our understanding ”. Irenaeus of Lyon, considered one of the pioneers of apologetics, alludes to revelation to reach the knowledge of the Divine.

Throughout the history of Christian thought we also find the dichotomy between theology and philosophy, depending on the possible access to the depths of faith. Certainly, it is possible to defend certain truths of the Christian religion with philosophical terms, but the divine mysteries can never be deciphered in the language of men, because faith is not reason, religion cannot subscribe to the mere exercise of rhetoric; In the latter case, it is the virtue of any man or woman who believes with his heart in Christ, it does not matter if he is intellectual or illiterate, here what counts is not knowledge, but disposition.

But how could Christianity defend itself against the powerful critical influence of ancient philosophy? To cite just one example, the Neoplatonists, with their illusory way of identifying the Christian faith, did not hesitate to propose that Christianity was a vulgar form of philosophy, they identified philosophy with faith and highlighted the superiority of philosophical over religious thought. It was necessary to formulate a series of theoretical and methodological assumptions that would mark the difference between Christian faith and philosophy. Philosophy was considered by many believers to be incompatible with faith. In other words, when the philosopher is born, the man of faith dies. Tertullian of Carthage makes the following statement: “What is similar to the philosopher and the Christian, disciple of Greece and the other of Heaven, negotiator of fame one and of life the other, operator of the word the one and the other, the one builder and the other destroyer, the one forger of the truth and the recuperator of it, the one who steals the truth and the one who keeps it ”.5

Not all these teachers of the faith were radical, since others were the measure and the bridge between these beautiful knowledge that are philosophy and theology. Enlightened Christians inheritors of apostolic traditions made use of philosophy in the art of apologetics, marking an important stage in the history of Western thought. For enlightened Christians, there were two parallel lines between faith and philosophy, although the first represents the imperishable and the other the temporal, they could coexist in harmony in any apologetic discourse of the first centuries of Christianity. This position has become known as influence. It could be affirmed that the conciliatory attempt between both disciplines gave rise to Christian philosophy, making use of terms such as αργή (argé) and λόγος (logos), principle and word, through which the mystery of the Divine was exposed. It was an attempt to explain the Christological dogma in understandable terms for the time.

Justin, known as the Martyr, trained in the Greek schools, used Greek thought to expose Christian doctrines and his position contrasts with that of Tertullian of Carthage, a man with a solid legal training. Both opened the cycle of the Apology. No less important was the contribution of Clement of Alexandria, who argued with the Gnostics, but as a common element we will find that both one and the other reasoned based on faith and believed a priori in the existence of the personal God of the Bible.

Some scholars have argued that the Platonic philosopher’s system has marked Western philosophy, and if it can be demonstrated in anyone, it is in Saint Augustine, who sees faith as the condition for research. You have to investigate because faith is at the end of the investigation. The investigation itself approaches the truth and is consolidated in the man who triumphed over doubt. This truth is totally evangelical and is in harmony with the revelation of the Gospel insofar as it is: “Way, Truth and Life” .6 Therefore, to seek it is to find the true way, life and all truth. Not only the mind needs the knowledge of the truth, but the whole man. But, in matters of truth, he concludes that it is God, the fundamental principle of his theology. How does this great of all-time thought make the distinction between theology and philosophy? The truth is that God has revealed himself to man and has illuminated human reason with his light and endows him with judgment. This Logos or Word of God has been revealed to man, but man must immerse himself in the search for the divine, only in this way will he be able to find it. The subject of his research, more than a philosophical one, is a theological treatise where the center is the soul and God. The philosophical effort is truncated, because it is dressed in religious humility. Over and over again he is passionate about the mystique that his own faith engenders. Here we meet again with our previous approach: philosophy cannot find in the thought of Augustine of Hipona a firm essence that validates it as the essence or premise for faith. When Augustine clarifies that man is the image and divine creation, he affirms that his starting point is none other than the Revelation of the Scriptures.

We must not rule out that the philosophy in Saint Augustine is very fruitful and that his great work was The City of God, where we find signs of Platonic philosophy. The constant duality present in the life of the individual man is dominated by a fundamental alternative: “live according to the flesh, or live according to the spirit. The same alternative dominates the history of Humanity. ”7 The constant struggle between two worlds: one spiritual and the other earthly.

Plato is the starting point of the thought of Saint Augustine, who considered that in this philosopher there was a lot of information that had interesting points of contact with the Christian faith, but he did not fail to recognize that his condition as a Greek and living in a polytheistic society, it had limited it. However, the good of him has to be taken advantage of. Finding, finally, the coincidences between Platonic and Christian doctrine, Augustine examines the first and completes it with the truths of the Gospel. In that same direction are the writings of Plotinus. This philosopher, by showing the doctrine of the Word, presents its theological limitations, but nevertheless, it converges with the teaching of the writings of the Apostle John. In the Johannine writings it is stated that God became flesh.

According to Saint Augustine, all ancient Greek philosophers have glimpsed, from a dark vision, the end of man, his heavenly homeland. The limitations of these philosophers lay in the fact that they failed to lead men towards the path of salvation, that is, towards an encounter with their Creator. From the perspective of patristics we can arrive at various criteria about the complex relationship between both disciplines. Some will tell me that Christianity is nothing more than a set of ethical standards, taught by its founder, Jesus Christ, and it may even be true. But if I define religion, I will find that beyond fulfilling precepts, the Christian faith in its daily praxis includes the performance of rituals, all considered praxis of faith. The Eucharist is one of them, a sacrament that is perceived as the act of participating in the body and blood of Christ. Unusual mystery to explain the Christian faith. There should be no doubt that explaining in terms of faith the essence of the Christian religion is very difficult, especially in the face of the mystique that engenders the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ.

By way of conclusion, we can affirm that both the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and the theology systematized by the first thinkers of the Christian Church, had several points of convergence. Namely: they coincided in the existence of a Divine and Infinite being and from which all things proceed. God has revealed himself through the Logos, the source of knowledge. The constant duality between the nature of the human being, flesh and spirit, is very present in the Pauline writings of the New Testament.

Considering that the idea of ​​a unique, Transcendent God is present, both in the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and in theology, it is necessary to clarify the following: for the Greeks that Demiurge from whom all things have emanated does not have a personal relationship with the created being. For Christian theologians, God the Creator has come to have a personal relationship with human beings through Jesus Christ (Incarnate Logo). The duality of the human being formed by flesh and spirit, presents similarities and divergences, because both anthropological views are very similar, but in their apology they differ. The fact that the Greeks saw in matter the origin of everything evil and sinful, turning the body into the prison of the spirit, keeps it from having a certain harmony with the vision that Christianity presents about the body as a temple of the Spirit of God. .

We can conclude by saying that words and philosophical arguments would not be enough to explain a mystery as great as that of faith in the Resurrection of Christ, the essence of Christianity. All of this constitutes a dogma that originally elicited the most dissimilar reactions, especially within Judaism itself, where it emerged as a new reading of ancient writings.

The task of Christianity was acquiring tenacity and urgency of reinterpretation in the face of the challenge of establishing two distinctions that would mark the future of the new faith, neither is it Judaism, nor is it simply philosophy: Christianity. All this, despite the fact that the Jews of the first century understood it as a heretical sect within Judaism. Even today it continues to be seen as a complex phenomenon that entails mistrust, sometimes stigmatized as a retrograde system of thought, but full of many enigmas and questions to be solved. Ω





[1] Salvador Dellutri: The adventure of thought, Editorial Unilit, Miami, 2002, p. 93.

2 First of the three patriarchs of Judaism. His story is told in all the sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions and plays an important role as an example of faith in Judaism.

3 Films such as The Last Temptation of Christ, The Da Vinchi Code, the latter based on a Gnostic gospel from the 2nd century AD. C.

4 Nicolás Abbagnano: History of Philosophy, Editorial Félix Varela, La Habana, 2004, t. I, p. 245.

5 Salvador Dellutri: The adventure of thought, Editorial Unilit, Miami, 2002, p. 89.

6 Gospels according to Saint John, chapter 16, verse 6. New International Version.

7 This fragment is taken from Nicolás Abbagnano: History of philosophy, t. I, Editorial Félix Varela, Havana, 2004, p. 245.





Abbagnano, Nicolás: History of Philosophy, t. I, Editorial Félix Varela, Havana, 2004.

Aland, Kart, Mathhew Black: The Greek New Testament, Barcelona, ​​2001.

De la Vega, Martha: “From Plato to Nietzsche: for a new direction of thought”, in Yachay magazine, No. 1016-8257, Cochabamba, 2009.

Dellutri, Salvador: The Adventure of Thought, Editorial Unilit, Miami, 2002.

Marías, Julián: History of Philosophy, Revista de Occidente, Madrid, 1974.

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