On the Earliest Christian Understanding of the Faith as Philosophia

I have, in my previous posts, been assuming a self-understanding of early Christianity as a philosophia, a way of life similar in many respects to the ancient philosophiai of the Six Schools (Platonism, Aristotelianism, Cynicism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism). But while this makes sense in an intuitive way, it may well be helpful to provide some evidence for this assumption. That is the purpose of this present post. I will here demonstrate that the earliest understandings of ancient Christianity, dating from the second century, is that the Faith was a philosophia, indeed, the only true philosophia, containing the whole of that Truth of which the other rival philosophiai possess only parts.

It seems perhaps likely that the early Christians who spoke of the Faith as a philosophia derived their notions not only from the ancient schools of philosophy but from their Jewish predecessors, Philo of Alexandria (20 BC-AD 50) and Josephus (AD 37-100). Two texts from Philo will be illustrative for us. The following, from the Life of Moses, is perhaps clearest of all.

[F]or it was invariably the custom, as it was desirable on other days also, but especially on the seventh day, as I have already explained, to discuss matters of philosophy; the ruler of the people beginning the explanation, and teaching the multitude what they ought to do and to say, and the populace listening so as to improve in virtue, and being made better both in their moral character and in their conduct through life; in accordance with which custom, even to this day, the Jews hold philosophical discussions on the seventh day, disputing about their national philosophy, and devoting that day to the knowledge and consideration of the subjects of natural philosophy; for as for their houses of prayer in the different cities, what are they, but schools of wisdom, and courage, and temperance, and justice, and piety, and holiness, and every virtue, by which human and divine things are appreciated, and placed upon a proper footing? (Life of Moses 2, 215-216)


He also speaks of the Essenes in terms of philosophia in On the Contemplative Life.

[B]ut the deliberate intention of the philosopher is at once displayed from the appellation given to them [the Essenes]; for with strict regard to etymology, they are called therapeutae and therapeutrides, either because they process an art of medicine more excellent than that in general use in cities (for that only heals bodies, but the other heals souls which are under the mastery of terrible and almost incurable diseases, which pleasures and appetites, fears and griefs, and covetousness, and follies, and injustice, and all the rest of the innumerable multitude of other passions and vices, have inflicted upon them), or else because they have been instructed by nature and the sacred laws to serve the living God, who is superior to the good, and more simple than the one, and more ancient than the unit . . . . (On the Contemplative Life 2)

Josephus speaks in two parallel passages from the Antiquities and the Wars of the various sects of Judaism as different though related sorts of philosophiai.

The Jews had for a great while had three sects of philosophy peculiar to themselves; the sect of the Essens, and the sect of the Sadducees, and the third sort of opinions was that of those called Pharisees . . . . But of the fourth sect of Jewish philosophy, Judas the Galilean was the author. (Antiquities of the Jews 18.2, 6)

For there are three philosophical sects among the Jews. The followers of the first of which are the Pharisees; of the second, the Sadducees; and the third sect, which pretends to a severer discipline, are called Essens. These last are Jews by birth, and seem to have a greater affection for one another than the other sects have. These Essens reject pleasures as an evil, but esteem continence, and the conquest over our passions, to be virtue. They neglect wedlock, but choose out other persons children, while they are pliable, and fit for learning, and esteem them to be of their kindred, and form them according to their own manners. They do not absolutely deny the fitness of marriage, and the succession of mankind thereby continued; but they guard against the lascivious behavior of women, and are persuaded that none of them preserve their fidelity to one man. (Wars of the Jews 2,8)

Whether or not Philo and Josephus had any direct influence on the early Christian writers who also conceive of Christianity as philosophia is perhaps impossible to determine with certainty. But that the understanding of Christianity as philosophia was widespread can be seen in the number of authors who do so. I begin first with St. Justin the Philosopher (AD 100-165).

But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and whilst revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher. (Dialogue with Trypho 8)

St. Justin, in fact, is depicted in icons wearing the philosopher’s robe, a distinctive form of dress that marked out his way of life.

Tatian (AD 110-180), too, though posthumously condemned as a heretic, understood Christianity as a philosophia, indeed as the way of life more ancient and true than all the other rival philosophies.

But now it seems proper for me to demonstrate that our philosophy is older than the systems of the Greeks. (Address to the Greeks 31)

Tatian makes this claim on the basis of much personal exploration and investigation.

The things which I have thus set before you I have not learned at second hand. I have visited many lands; I have followed rhetoric, like yourselves; I have fallen in with many arts and inventions; and finally, when sojourning in the city of the Romans, I inspected the multiplicity of statues brought thither by you: for I do not attempt, as is the custom with many, to strengthen my own views by the opinions of others, but I wish to give you a distinct account of what I myself have seen and felt. So, bidding farewell to the arrogance of Romans and the idle talk of Athenians, and all their ill-connected opinions, I embraced our barbaric philosophy. (Address to the Greeks 35)

That “barbaric” philosophy, of course, was the non-Greek philosophy derived from the Jews. St. Clement of Alexandria will say more for us about that below. But in commending the Christian philosophia, Tatian notes that it is a particular way of living, not just a set of intellectual data.

These things, O Greeks, I Tatian, a disciple of the barbarian philosophy, have composed for you. I was born in the land of the Assyrians, having been first instructed in your doctrines, and afterwards in those which I now undertake to proclaim. Henceforward, knowing who God is and what is His work, I present myself to you prepared for an examination concerning my doctrines, while I adhere immoveably to that mode of life which is according to God. (Address to the Greeks 42)

The saintly bishop of Sardis, Melito (d. AD c. 180), similarly describes Christianity as a philosophia. In his letter to the Stoic Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, he writes:

For our philosophy formerly flourished among the Barbarians [i.e., the non-Greeks]; but having sprung up among the nations under thy rule, during the great reign of thy ancestor Augustus, it became to thine empire especially a blessing of auspicious omen. For from that time the power of the Romans has grown in greatness and splendor. To this power thou hast succeeded, as the desired possessor, and such shalt thou continue with thy son, if thou guardest the philosophy which grew up with the empire and which came into existence with Augustus; that philosophy which thy ancestors also honored along with the other religions. (cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.26,7)

Near the end of the second century, or the beginning of the third, St. Clement of Alexandria (d. AD c. 215), tutor of Origen, wrote his Miscellanies (or, Stromateis), a great portion of the first book of which sets out to explicate the nature of true Christian belief and life. To do so, he is at pains to show both the preparatory nature of Hellenistic philosophy and its consonance with that which fulfills it, the Christian philosophy divinely revealed in the Logos, Christ.

Accordingly, before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness. And now it becomes conducive to piety; being a kind of preparatory training to those who attain to faith through demonstration. “For thy foot,” it is said, “will not stumble, if thou refer what is good, whether belonging to the Greeks or to us, to Providence.” (Pro[verbs] 3:23) For God is the cause of all good things; but of some primarily, as of the Old and the New Testament; and of others by consequence, as philosophy. Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a schoolmaster to bring “the Hellenic mind,” as the law, the Hebrews, “to Christ.” (Gal[atians] 3:24) Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ. (Stromateis I.5)

The saint recognized that these ancient schools each had portions of the truth, but that only in the Christian philosophy would the mature Christian (i.e., in St. Clement’s terms, the true Gnostic) find the whole truth.

Since, therefore, truth is one (for falsehood has ten thousand by-paths); just as the Bacchantes tore asunder the limbs of Pentheus, so the sects both of barbarian and Hellenic philosophy have done with truth, and each vaunts as the whole truth the portion which has fallen to its lot. But all, in my opinion, are illuminated by the dawn of Light. Let all, therefore, both Greeks and barbarians, who have aspired after the truth, – both those who possess not a little, and those who have any portion, – produce whatever they have of the word of truth. . . . For we shall find that very many of the dogmas that are held by such sects as have not become utterly senseless, and are not cut out from the order of nature (by cutting off Christ, as the women of the fable dismembered the man), though appearing unlike one another, correspond in their origin and with the truth as a whole. For they coincide in one, either as a part, or a species, or a genus. . . . So, then, the barbarian and Hellenic philosophy has torn off a fragment of eternal truth not from the mythology of Dionysus, but from the theology of the ever-living Word. And He who brings again together the separate fragments, and makes them one, will without peril, be assured, contemplate the perfect Word, the truth. . . . He who is conversant with all kinds of wisdom, will be pre-eminently a gnostic [i. e., the mature Christian](Stromateis I.13)

Though Lactantius (AD c. 250-325)–himself a terrible theologian, more often inadvertently heterodox perhaps than sound–brings us into the third century, he echoes St. Clement’s comments:

But different persons brought forward all these things, and in different ways, not connecting the causes of things, nor the consequences, nor the reasons, so that they might join together and complete that main point which comprises the whole. But it is easy to show that almost the whole truth has been divided by philosophers and sects. . . . But if there had been any one to collect together the truth which was dispersed amongst individuals and scattered amongst sects, and to reduce it to a body, he assuredly would not disagree with us. But no one is able to do this, unless he has experience and knowledge of the truth. But to know the truth belongs to him only who has been taught by God. For he cannot in any other way reject the things which are false, or choose and approve of those which are true; but if even by chance he should effect this, he would most surely act the part of the philosopher; and though he could not defend those things by divine testimonies, yet the truth would explain itself by its own light. . . . [N]o philosophy existed which made a nearer approach to the truth, for the whole truth has been comprised by these in separate portions. . . . Therefore the philosophers touched upon the whole truth, and every secret of our holy religion; but when others denied it, they were unable to defend that which they had found, because the system did not agree with the particulars; nor were they able to reduce to a summary those things which they had perceived to be true, as we have done above. (Divine Institutes 7.7)

From the above, then, it is absolutely clear that among the earliest self-understandings of Christianity was that of a, or rather the, philosophia. A set of beliefs that were true in a perfect way, and a way of life conducive to piety, or respectful concourse with God.

This understanding of Christianity (or as in some writers monasticism), as philosophia seems to have carried over into later Christianity (especially among St. John Chrysostom and the Cappadocians). But the point is this: early Christianity knew itself as a way of life similar, though superior, to any of the ancient philosophical schools.