Christians: Grammarians or Philosophers?

In honor of St. Justin the Philosopher‘s feast day today, I wanted to ruminate on the difference between two types of Christianity. The difference, as I will put it, is that between grammarians and philosophers.

I draw the distinction this way. A grammarian is concerned with texts, propositions, logic, doctrinal formulas, systems, and canons. A grammarian’s faith is oriented around exegesis and history as text. A grammarian is concerned, to be sure, with application. His is not necessarily, though most often is, the rational quest as an end in itself. But such application always serves the text; or, at least, what the grammarians strives to do with the text. The grammarian is rarely, if ever, surprised by the logic of his application, because such logic derives from his interpretation. Because the grammarian is primarily oriented toward exegesis, he is fundamentally concerned with tradition as datum, as evidence for or against his argument. For him, tradition lives insofar as it bears on the text. If it does not have to do with the text–even if that text is history–or if he cannot see the relation, then it is negligible, irrelevant.

Akin to the grammarian is the theologian. The theologian is concerned with God in the abstract. His god is the god of concepts and theories. The distilled god, separable from revelation, contemplated outside the context of contrite worship and the broken heart. His is the Babel god, the god of the tower, whom human reason may reach and describe.

A philosopher, on the other hand, is concerned with the divine formation of the soul, with disciplines and spiritual exercises, with history as a lived and living tradition. A philosopher knows that texts and canons and creeds are necessary to his faith, and he does not reject them or denigrate them, but he also knows that their value and purpose is precisely in and for the salvation of his soul. A philosopher may be, indeed, must be, rationally precise and cogent, but such rationality is not an end in itself but serves an end, which is theosis. If reason stumbles, the philosopher is not surprised or very concerned, for he knows that the God who gave reason cannot be circumscribed by it. If exegesis seems inconsistent, the philosopher is not worried overmuch. He is content to live that which has been passed down to him from living witnesses, themselves passing on what was lived for them, on back down the ages to the very day of split-fire and the restoration of tongues. The philosopher seeks theoria, but only through praxis, through the mortification of the flesh. The philosopher has no interest in expounding the meaning of virtue, except to point to the act and say, “Look.”

Akin to the philosopher is the fool and the monk. The fool and the monk both live by way of revelation, the ongoing moment-by-moment personal experience that has been lived in uninterrupted transmission from creation. Both testify to the hidden God who has made himself known on this very day in the active word that generates life and makes things happen. The fool and the monk both know and witness to the inescapable reality that we know God only through brokenness and the death of self. They know the Cross is the midwife of the soul.

The temptation at this very point, of course, is to detail who are the grammarians and who the philosophers. But this is very grammatic. Instead, we ought seek out the fool, the monk, the philosopher, and live as they live. This is essentially philosophic and will be enough for us.

3 thoughts on “Christians: Grammarians or Philosophers?

  1. At the risk of being grammatic — and correct me if I’m wrong here — I understand theologians in the Eastern Christian tradition (as contrasted with and even opposed to the West) to be those who strive for a personal experience with God. They who have as their end theosis and who seek theoria through the practice of the virtues are true theologians. St. John the Beloved, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and St. Simeon the New Theologian come to mind.

  2. Clever:

    The terminology I’m using comes from a reference I came across in Simplicius. He uses the terms grammarian and philosopher. I added in theologian and fool and monk.

    In some sense, the terminology itself is negligible. We are all familiar with the notion that a “theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian.” So the way I’m using these terms is not meant to be normative.

    That being said, however, in late antiquity/early Christianity the term theologian was not usually applied to Christian thought and life. A la St. Justin and others, Christianity was the true philosophy, while theology was more reflective of the pagan myths and poets.

    That, of course, changed; although even so theology was still a more technical term for actual discourse about the Godhead, than the more general way we use it today, and philosophy was the broader term encompassing all of Christian life and thought.

    But as I said, my mapping of terms and concepts on to one another here is not meant to be codified.

  3. Clifton:
    A helpful and important distinction, although I would have reversed the terms philosopher and theologian, particularly as post-enlightenment has focused purely on rational speculation apart from an embodied life of worship of the true God. (A salient point would be that many or most theologians in the West have done this, too, since the Enlightenment, particularly those influenced by Germany — not as much in Britain or Catholic countries.)

    I take the distinction we would both want to make — regardless of specific terms — to reflect, in ways, the distinction St. Basil of Caesarea makes between “theology” and “technology” (in “On the Holy Spirit”, I believe), where the latter term corresponds with your “theology/grammar” and my “philosophy”.

    I suspect that the great saints really don’t fit into our choppy tight categories anyway. Mystics were theologians, theologians were pastors, pastors were Biblical exegetes, Biblical exegetes were bishops, bishops were professors, professors were mystics, and so on. We think of Aquinas as a systematic theologian sometimes and a philosopher other times, yet he wrote a great deal of Biblical commentary, and was a member of a religious order. Similar things could be said for the Cappadocians, Chrysostom, Augustine, Anselm, Jerome, you name it, up to and through the Reformation. The idea that rational speculation about God could be done apart from the life of worship, and all the other practices of the Christian life just didn’t make sense before a certain time — and I don’t think it should make sense to us now.

    (I realize that the East may not have come under the sway of the Enlightenment/Modernity as much as the West, so there may well be Eastern-influenced exceptions to my “up through the Reformation” line.)

    Anyway, a great point made, Clifton, which I just wanted to amplify.

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