“Faith Seeking Understanding” (Part I): Patristic and Early Christian Touchstones

Christianity entered the Greco-Roman world as a religion of the incarnate Logos – word or reason – of God. With such a message and with the growth of conversions from the educated Hellenized culture, Christian theologians were compelled early on to reflect upon the “ways of knowing” – that is, questions of epistemology.

The mainstream of the Church almost from the beginning, and especially in the age of the 2nd and 3rd century apologists, resolved upon the presentation of Christianity as rational faith, a “religion of the Logos.” This presented a challenge and certain problems vis-à-vis the world of Hellenistic philosophy and its conceptions of reason. In the second book of his Republic, Plato had presented reason as concerned fundamentally with being. All that pertained to the world of becoming – ta gennomena, events and happenings – was for Plato solely the province of doxa, opinion. Faith (pistis), for Plato, fell into this sphere of doxa. Yet the Christian message concerned a Logos which had entered time in a unique event. And further, faith in the New Testament was presented as a kind of certitude, and indeed even a grasp of future realities – “the evidence of things not seen,” “the substance of things hoped for” (Hebrews 1:1). The fundamental dualism between the world of being and that of becoming, the chorismos between the kosmos noetos and the kosmos aisthetikos, as projected by Pythagoras and classically expressed in Plato’s Timaeus, was a problem for early Christian thought. It was a presupposition that had already deeply affected the meeting of biblical faith and Hellenistic philosophy found in the great predecessor of Christian theology, Philo of Alexandria.

One of the first theologians to venture upon a presentation of the rational character of Christian faith was Justin Martyr, a converted philosopher. For Justin, Christ is the Logos that “enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world.” This is expressed by him especially by reference to an adaptation of the Stoic idea of the logos spermatikos. There are seeds of the Word scattered throughout creation and history, beyond the confines of the covenants with Israel. However, Justin’s doctrine of the logos spermatikos concerned less an idea of the universality of reason than in fact the universality of revelation. This is borne up by his introduction of the idea, also found in later apologists such as Theophilus of Antioch, Clement, and Origen, that Greek philosophy and in particular Plato had been inspired by Moses. Here Justin was reliant on the apocryphal tale of Plato’s journey to Egypt.

Justin’s concept of Logos, while different from that of later post-Nicene theology, is also not exactly that of Stoic monism, according to which the Logos was thoroughly immanent in the cosmos. Already in Justin we see a challenge to the Greek doctrines of the eternity of the world and the natural immortality of the soul. Anyone who reads Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho with its great compendium of biblical typology can see that Justin is no simple Hellenizer. All the same, Justin was also concerned to claim in his First Apology that Christianity is in accord with universal reason. Those who oppose the faith are driven by an irrational impulse (hormē alogos) and under the sway of irrational passion (pathē alogos). Justin, however, did not develop his epistemology much beyond.

Apart maybe from the skeptics, Hellenistic philosophy in the 2nd century was almost universally agreed that knowledge depended upon some use of canon of judgment. Epicurus in his work, Kanon, had argued that growth in knowledge required a canon as kriterion. This idea of canon was absorbed by Stoicism and then caught on in second century Christian thought, where it became crucial to theological epistemology and method. The classic presentation is in Irenaeus, who in spite of all his apparent simplicity is of great interest as regards theological epistemology.

Probably the first great principle of Irenaeus’ epistemology is that God alone can reveal God; without God, God cannot be known: aneu theou mē ginoskesthai ton theon. Irenaeus places great emphasis on the limitation of the human intellect and the condescension of God necessary for human beings to know God. Here the notion of Christ as mediator is crucial to Irenaeus’ entire doctrine of divine knowledge. Irenaeus more than once repairs to the statement of Jesus which appears in Matthew and Luke: “No one knows the Father except the Son” (Matt. 11:27; Lk. 10:22). For Irenaeus, the incarnate Son is the “visible” of the invisible Father, the “infinite” revealing himself in our finite condition. More directly, Irenaeus tells us, “The Son is the knowledge of the Father.” Irenaeus understands the Christian life as an entry through faith and baptism into the relation between the Father and the Son – by way of adoption. This entry does not exclude knowledge.

In the preface to his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, in discussing the importance of the kanon pisteos or rule of faith, Irenaeus cites a text which will be an important touchstone for further treatments of faith and knowledge, from Clement of Alexandria to Augustine. This text is Isaiah 7:9, based on the LXX version: “Ean mē pisteusēte, houde sunēte”: “Unless you believe, you will not understand.” This reading is also reflected in the Latin, and repeated as such by writers such as Hilary and Augustine: “Nisi credideretis, non intelligetis.” (The Masoretic Hebrew text translates as “Unless you have faith, you will not stand.”) Faith is necessary for understanding; it is the presupposition, the starting point or hypothesis, of all the “demonstrations” that are to follow.

The reason Irenaeus gives is profound in its epistemological import. God is “He who IS,” who revealed Himself to Moses as “He who IS,” says Irenaeus. And “faith rests upon things that are.” Thus we should keep the rule of faith in order that in “believing, we may believe what is, as it is.” In other words, faith and the rule of faith, as the hypothesis of theological reasoning, has an ontological reference. It is not only, as some recent scholars have suggested, a “grammar,” a second order discourse meant to regulate our speech about God. This ontological, semantic (not just syntactic or inter-textual) reference for Irenaeus is grounded in the very nature of Christian faith as a work of God: for “faith is produced by the truth,” Irenaeus says.

On the basis of the hypothesis of faith, Irenaeus produces his “demonstrations” from out of the Scriptures, the proper order and design to which faith is the key. The Scripture are a record of the divine oikonomia. This oikonomia has a rational design: it is marked by “proportion” and “measure” – important ideas for Irenaeus. Gnostics, he argues against Valentinus, are guilty of distorting this design to produce a wholly different picture: a mosaic of an ass instead of the mosaic of the king. They do not reason from the rule of faith. Rather than staying within their “measure” and obediently submitting to the knowledge of God given through the economy recapitulated in Christ, the Gnostics are guilty of projection. We cannot know God according to his “greatness,” says Irenaeus, but we can know him through his “love,” his condescension in Christ, which we apprehend through the obedience of faith (akouē pisteos).

Irenaeus does not have a very high view of philosophy, although he does not blame the philosophers for heresies, as Tertullian would do. As he says, if the philosophers knew “the truth,” then the coming of the Son would be “superfluous.” Put otherwise, the Son did not come simply to affirm people’s ideas of God as right. Knowledge of God comes solely through the Son, who is the God of both covenants, both Law and Gospel (contra Marcion). Knowledge of God is given in faith, and should grow through “demonstration,” study of Scripture, and understanding. Irenaeus places great emphasis on time and its “order” as regards growth in knowledge. In this life, faith, while it can grow to partial understanding, is never surpassed, and Irenaeus’ account is strongly conditioned by eschatology. Faith is itself a kind of visio. But the fullness of vision comes only at the end, in the form of the lux paterna shining on the resplendent flesh of Jesus. The incarnate Mediator, “the man Christ Jesus,” remains always unsurpassable on the way to the knowledge of God. Even in the eschaton, our knowledge of infinite God will be tied to created, empirical correlates: the historical flesh, the historical economy, now here presented in its final and complete recapitulation in Christ.

Shortly after Irenaeus, the paradigmatic example of early Christian “fideism” may be found in Tertullian. In his De prescriptione hereticorum, written around 200, Tertullian rejects rational inquiry and demonstration outright. “Seek and ye shall find,” Jesus said. Tertullian restates this: “Search and believe.” Searching, Tertullian argues, is only for those who do not yet believe. Once one has found and believed, then there is no more room for search and inquiry. Tertullian attributes the need for “demonstration” of faith to the corruption of the Hellenistic philosophy. The porch of the Stoa has nothing to do with the porch of Solomon. “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Tertullian asks famously. Ironically, however, Tertullian himself was deeply indebted to Stoicism, and is perhaps the one major Christian thinker to adopt the Stoic idea that God is a material substance. With all his famous words in rejection of philosophical reasoning, “ratio” remains a favorite word of Tertullian, and he himself engaged in “demonstration.”

The liberal Protestant historian Friedrich Loofs charged that the “rule of faith” in the early church essentially limited reason and rational inquiry. Here he probably had in mind Kant’s famous statement from the preface to the first Critique: “I had to deny knowledge to make room for faith.” While this may have been the case for Tertullian, it was not so for Justin and Irenaeus. And Tertullian’s way was not the path that the Church was to take in the next centuries.

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Fr. Matthew Baker is a priest of the Greek Orthodox…
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