Christianity and Philosophy

Christianity and Philosophy

Christianity is home to a long tradition of ethical and theological evolution. Throughout the course of the religion's history, the morals and concepts have advanced. The church held seven major councils to determine specifics on theology and ethics within the first eight centuries. The development of the ethics and ideologies of Christianity began long before the religion itself was formed. Many of Christianity's core ethical beliefs can be found centuries before the birth of Christ. Western philosophical thought contributed to Christianity's intellectual development. The use of ideas from western philosophy plays an essential role in Christian ethics and theological concepts.

The idea that philosophy should be ethical dates back over four hundred years before the beginning of Christianity. The origin of intertwining morality with philosophy is often accredited to Socrates. This tradition continues on through others such as Plato and Aristotle. Christianity takes many of its moral virtues for Judaism. The Ten Commandments are the basic principles for Judaism and are carried over into Christianity. The Ten Commandments were given by revelation to the people of Israel. Nine of the Ten Commandments were discovered through reason alone by philosophers in the west. This correlation of ideas would lead to the belief in a Natural Law. For the Christians, Natural Law is the law of God that is written on the heart of every human being.

For philosophers, it is the law that exists in nature that can be discovered through reason. This would help establish a long tradition of combining both faith and reason. The early Christians believed that revelation and reason must compliment each other because they are both given by God.


Plato is the Greek philosopher whose reasoning most aligns with Christianity. His ideas focus on metaphysics and the process of being. Plato is able to arrive at the conclusion that there is only one God. This God is being itself. Plato concludes that all humans have immortal souls or "psuche" and that all living things are obligated to preserve themselves. He also believes in an unseen realm of complete being and knowledge; this realm is reflected in the corporeal world we experience through our senses. Many of Plato's ideas were so aligned with Christianity that some early Christians believed Plato had come into contact with Judaism and its teachings. Plato's writings and teachings were near common knowledge in the ancient world. The first Christians were well acquainted with Plato and his ideas and this can be seen not only in early Christian thought but also in the writings of the New Testament.

The Gospels in the New Testament are written in Greek. The first three, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, focus on the divinity of Christ. The fourth gospel, the gospel of John, focuses on the bodiliness of Christ. John opens up his gospel using terminology used by Plato. In the opening of the Gospel of John, he is speaking about the Word of God. He uses the Greek word "logos". While "logos" can be translated to mean "word", it can also be translated to mean "reason". It is understood that John is speaking of Christ when he says "The Word (or Reason) became flesh". This would contribute to the idea that God is the essence of truth and is reason itself. The concept of being is another important facet of western philosophy and Christianity. For Christians, being is the central idea of grasping the existence of God. While all things that exist have to be, God is being itself. The closer things in existence are to God the more holy they are. A similar idea can be seen in Plato's world of being. For Plato, there is a world of being and a world of becoming. The world of becoming is the corporeal world we experience with our senses and is changing and temporary. The world of being in the realm of truth and the immortal soul and is permanent and unchanging. Early Christians found many similarities between Plato's world of being and heaven or the place where God dwells. The relationship between Greek thought and Christianity would propel ethical and theological development for centuries to come.

The connection between Christianity and reason as understood in the Greek tradition is evident from the very beginnings of the religion. The first Christians often used Western Philosophy as a tool to defend Christianity in its infant stages. Important Christian figures like Saint Justin and Origen defended this new religion against both the pagans and the Jews. Saint Justin, an Apologist, used Greek philosophy to combat pagan and Jewish thinkers who wrote against Christianity. Justin's writings emphasized the "logos" found both in Greek philosophy and also in the gospel of John. He claims that men like Socrates had obtained a part of the logos while the entirety of the logos was present in Christ. He also wrote in detail about the distinction between the logos, Christ, and the Father. Origen an Alexandrian scholar, confronted controversial arguments made by Celsus in his book Contra Celsum. He addressed topics such as the holiness of the Virgin Mary and the relationship between angels and demons. All these early Christian thinkers relayed ultimate authority to the Scriptures; yet, they used Greek philosophy as a tool to show outside proof of biblical text and ideas.


One of the greatest fathers of Christian thought and theology is Saint Augustine of Hippo. Born in North Africa, he was sent to Rome for education and came into contact with ideas found in Greek philosophy through Latin thinkers. He then dedicated his life to the search for truth. After being associated with a Gnostic group known as the Manicheans for several years, he met a bishop named Ambrose. Augustine had been exposed to Christianity by his mother earlier in his life. But, he had difficulty believing the Scriptures because of the fantastical stories told in the Old Testament. Ambrose taught that many of these stories were allegorical and had deeper meanings than their literal translations. This reckoning between reason and faith helped Augustine to convert to Christianity. Before Augustine became a Christian, he was first a philosopher, and this continual search for truth and knowledge carried over into his works on Christian doctrine, politics, and ethics. Augustine delves into topics from defining the term "thought" and actions of angels, to human deformities to the existence of evil. His most prolific work is the City of God. In the first books of this work, Augustine defends Christianity against the pagans who claim that the religion is the cause of the fall of Rome. The latter part of the book is dedicated to theology, politics, and ethics. The influence of Western Philosophy on Augustine can be seen in this work. Augustine, a Platonist, tends to focus on the concept of being throughout most of his works. Augustine uses the idea of being to explain how an all powerful and all loving God exists, yet we still experience evil. Things that may appear evil to us are actually divine judgment given by God. Augustine concludes that evil does not exist but is merely the absence of good. Because God is being, evil is the opposite which is non-being.

Created beings are holier when they are closer to God, who is being. The more being a substance possesses, the more good it becomes. This coincides with the idea of correct ordering seen in both Augustine and Plato. Augustine describes sin as a disordering of goods. Plato describes justice as the correct ordering of the soul. The correlation between the philosophy of the Greeks helps Augustine to plan important ideas for Christian thinking. Augustine also discusses ethical issues such as suicide. He argues that a Christian should never commit suicide under any circumstances. Any tribulation that the Christian faces on earth, they will be rewarded for in heaven. Augustine also talks about the Christian's responsibility in concern to politics. He believes the Christian has a duty to serve in politics, especially if the state contains unjust rulers. For Augustine, the state would be best ruled by a pious Christian leader. Plato states that the justest man should be allowed to rule a regime.

For nearly one thousand years, no other Christian thinker rivaled the eloquence and prestige of Augustine. In the thirteenth century, another great Christian doctor would emerge. Saint Thomas Aquinas, an Italian Dominican friar, lived during the 1200s and provided monumental contributions to Christian thought. He is considered by many to be the most intellectual Christian in history. His use of Greek philosophy to help develop Christian ethics and theology is unparalleled. His work Suma Contra Gentiles uses sole philosophy, for the majority of its content, to argue against and convert Jews and Muslims. Saint Thomas Aquinas sought out to join the monastic life as a young man against the wishes of his family. His parents attempted to push Thomas into the practice of law. Thomas fled his parents to become a monk but was captured by his own brothers and held prisoner. His brothers strived to corrupt Thomas by forcing prostitutes onto him; but, he remained chaste and was able to become a member of the Dominican order. In contrast to the Platonist views of Augustine, Aquinas took an Aristotelian position. The majority of Aristotle's works had been lost to the Latin-speaking world for over a millennium. They were rediscovered and translated from Arabic during a renaissance in the Islamic world, and introduced into the Christian world around the twelfth century. Just as Augustine had done with Plato, Aquinas was able to reconcile many of Aristotle's teachings with Christianity. Aquinas's writings on ethics are unparalleled in the Christian world to this day. Just as Aristotle teaches, Aquinas says that virtuous acts are sought out willingly and the virtuous man is the man who habitually does virtuous acts. This view adds on to the importance of the idea already expressed in the Scriptures, that the Christian wholeheartedly and continually seeks to please God. Christ proclaims, "because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spue thee out of my mouth". Aquinas agrees with the cardinal virtues of the ancient Greeks and adds on new virtues for Christians. The cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice, are binding on every person because they can be discovered by reason and thus all humans are capable of knowing these. Aquinas adds the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity, for the Christians. These virtues are given by revelation and are binding only to those who have accepted Christ. He distinguishes the virtues in two ways as either complete or incomplete. Aquinas says the pagan can have courage but it is a courage with temperance, this is an incomplete virtue. If a Christian possesses courage, it is done with charity; this is a complete virtue. Charity makes all virtues perfect because they are done in the honoring of God. Aquinas brings the aspect of mortal and venial sins to the Church, with venial sins being those lesser sins that only weaken the soul and mortal sins being ones that lead to loss of salvation. Aquinas also built upon some of Augustine's ideas of defense and developed the Just War theory. A war is only just when the purpose of the war is just, it is waged by a properly instituted authority, and its central motive is peace. An important aspect of Aristotle's teachings is the sociality of human beings. Aristotle believes humans are naturally social creatures and community is essential for living a happy life. Aquinas also adopts this belief and applies it to Christianity. The importance of community and socialization can be seen in early Christianity. The Church was intimate in the life of the community. The need for socialization can be seen in worship as well. The liturgy is not done in solitary but in the presence of all the members of the church. Communion, one of the Holy Sacraments, reinforces the importance of the unity and togetherness of humans with each other and also with God.

Western philosophy held a dichotomous aspect against Christian heresies. Throughout most of Christian history, almost all the heretical Christian orders came from the East. The Eastern world tends to produce more dualistic and mystic type religions. The main focus and end goals for many Eastern religions is non-existence. In contradiction, Western religions and philosophy tend to focus on being instead. The gnostic heresies prevalent in the East rarely ever held much relevance in the West. Whenever a heresy arose the Christian world would turn West to Rome for authority and clarification. Well educated and powerful popes would often call ecumenical councils to settle the disputes brought about by these heresies.

The ecumenical councils have been used by the Church since the reign of Constantine to dispute the uprising of heretical ideas within the Christian community. The first ecumenical council was called in 325 at Nicaea to refute the Arians, who claimed that Christ had been created by the Father and was not equal. The council adopted the Greek philosophical term "homoousios", of the same substance, to describe the relationship of being between the Son and the Father. The Nicene Creed was formatted at this council and is still an essential doctrine of the Church. The second council, the First Council at Constantinople in 381, dealt with the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The Christians created a term that is found nowhere in the Scriptures to describe the relationship between the three persons of God. The term "Trinity" was taken from the Platonic term "trias", meaning three part. Plato often used tripartite divisions in his writings and the Christians were able to use the similarities to define one of the most complex concepts of Christian dogma. The Council of Ephesus in 431 clarify the relationship between the Virgin Mary and Christ as well as the natures of Christ. The council decreed that although Christ was not a human person, he did have both a fully divine and human nature. The concept of a things nature is a common staple of discussion in Western philosophy. The Church held four more councils that dealt with similar issues, and often turned to Western thought along with the Scriptures, to defend and reiterate the orthodoxy of Christian theology.

Western philosophy played a key role in the preservation and the development of the early Church. Greek philosophical terms are found in the very Scriptures the Christians use for worship. The "logos" held with such high reverence by those like Plato is observed as Christ himself by the early Christians. The first theological and philosophical defenders of Christianity, people like Saint Justin and Origen, used Western philosophy to argue the validity of the Christian religion. It would have been impossible to convince non-Christians of the authority and truth of the Scriptures without an outside proof such as Greek philosophy to point towards. The greatest doctors of Christian theology were influenced by Western thinkers, Plato and Aristotle, as is evident in their writings on doctrine and ethics. The essential ideologies and concepts, like the Trinity, were dependent on philosophy from the West for their development. Without the foundation laid by the great Western thinkers, Christianity would not have been able to spread as far and quickly as it was able to; also, the religion would not have acquired such authority among non-Christians and held such a resilience against the theological and philosophical opposition.

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