Fr. Enrico dal Covolo - Fides-8

The encounter of faith and reason in the Fathers of the Church

Fr Enrico dal Covolo, S.D.B.                                                     Reflections Index

The Encyclical Fides et ratio concentrates its references to the history of Christian origins and to the Fathers of the Church in nn. 36-42 of Chapter IV, where the most important moments in the encounter of faith and reason are explained.

The first encounter: Paul at the Areopagus

Paul's speech at the Areopagus—with which the Pope begins his historical reexamination—is in many respects the first "official occasion of Christianity's encounter with the philosophical currents of the time (cf. Acts 17:22-31).

The outcome of this speech is well known: "We will hear you again about this", is the ironic comment of the Athenians, who turn their backs on the speaker. Thus Paul's attempt remains isolated, at least at that stage of the beginning and development of the new religion which, in literary history, is called the Writings or Apostolic Fathers: Clement of Rome, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Letters of Ignatius, Polycarp and Pseudo-Barnabas.

At this point we could raise a question which appears banal, but in fact forces us to examine more deeply the question of the relationship between faith and reason at the Church's beginning, as we read nn. 36 and 37 of the Encyclical: When does Christian theology begin?

It is not easy to answer this question.

One thinks first of the early Christians' wariness of the term theologia, to their eyes so compromised by the cult of the gods that at the end of the second century Melito still preferred to call Christianity a philosophia ratherthan a theologia: "Our philosophia hasblossomed among the barbarians", begins the Bishop of Sardis in a celebrated fragment of his lost Apologia. Even without following the extreme positions of those who begin the history of theology by completely skipping the patristic age, it is essential to recognize that the most speculatively important origins should be sought on the margins of the institution, if it is true that the Gnostics were the leading intellectuals of Christianity at the time, from both the theological and the exegetical standpoint.

However, to phrase the question in a satisfactory way, we must explain the meaning of the "theology" to which we are referring.

If we do not prejudicially resort to a concept of learned, "scholarly" theology, which in any case came after the New Testament period, then we can say that Christian theology began with Christianity itself, and not after the New Testament and the apostolic age.

Actually, the original kerygma and its theological development appear inseparably interwoven in the canonical writings of the New Testament, as well as in the most ancient apocrypha and the Apostolic Fathers. Thus the "theological" was not added or juxtaposed to the "kerygmatic", but is inherent in it, so that there is no break between Revelation and theology.

The first Christians and the theological currents of their time

Therefore, from the very beginning Christian writers never shunned the methods of rational analysis common to the philosophers of their time. The Encyclical thus correctly describes as "unfounded and untrue" the criticism of the pagan Celsus who accused Christians of being "illiterate and uncouth", people (n. 38 and note 31).

However, to deal more thoroughly with the issue (which moreover is the subject of nn. 38-41 of the Encyclical), we should raise a second, equally demanding question: beyond (or "at the source of") this use of rational analysis, what was the early Christians' attitude to the philosophy of their time?

From the very start two different attitudes were found within Christianity.

One—of apparently total rejection—was most vividly expressed in some of the representatives of African and Syrian Christianity, that is, from the two farthest regions of the Hellenized world. Tertullian's exclamations, also cited in the Encyclical Fides et ratio (n. 41 and note 40) are well known: "What likeness is there between a philosopher and a Christian or between a disciple of Greece and a disciple of heaven?". And again: "What does Athens have in common with Jerusalem? The Academy with the Church?".

In fact, Tertullian's Apologeticum, addressed to the supreme authorities of the Empire about the year 200, reveals his rather complex attitude to the philosophy and institutions of Rome. Tertullian combined positive and conciliatory statements, for which he has been called a precursor of the alliance between Christianity and the Empire, with expressions similar to those cited—professing the radical incompatibility between "Athens and Jerusalem"—for which some have maintained his complete apostasy from the Roman world. For these reasons, contemporary criticism speaks of the ambiguity or the enigma of Tertullian in all aspects (primarily the philosophical, but also in the politico-institutional and linguistic-literary elements) of his dialogue with pagan traditions. In every case, his rejection does not only concern philosophy, but also saecularis litteratura, art, most of the trades and professions, including that of schoolmasters: in a word, the whole pagan culture and civilization.

The other attitude, however, was one of great openness and of critical and constructive dialogue with Greek philosophy. This is the attitude taken by Justin and developed by the Alexandrians, especially Clement (John Paul II illustrates this in n. 38 of the Encyclical with appropriate quotations: see notes 32-37). Here not only is Greek philosophy not rejected, but it is seen as a propaedeutic to the faith.

However, it would be a mistake to think that the true dividing line between the "yes" and "no" to philosophy were geographical and environmental, or that it divided Latin and Syrian Christianity from the Alexandrian. Actually, it is far deeper and broader, and is found in each Christian thinker, since in each author two souls live together as it were: the Christian, full of reservations about a philosophy permeated with paganism, and the Greek, which instead is dominated by it.

But on the whole—despite the variety of approaches and some intransigent, often heretical, positions—the pre-Nicene Church moves in the direction of harmony between philosophy and the Gospel message. "Christians are today's philosophers and philosophers were the Christians of the past", Minucius Felix can say on the threshold of the third century (Octavius, 20, 1).

This is precisely why it was urgent to ground pagan philosophy and justify its use.

There was a double answer.

The first seems insufficient and facile. According to this interpretation, the Greeks took some basic truths from the Bible, which is older than Plato (so wrote Justin, Clement and many other apologists following in the steps of Judaeo-Hellenistic apologetics).

The second argument, far more profound and original, is Justin's theory of the Logos spermatikos. Its meaning is well known: that Logos who manifested himself prophetically to the Jews in the Law (in figure), also manifested himself partially to the Greeks in the form of seeds of truth. Justin concludes that, since Christianity is the historical and personal manifestation of the Logos in his totality, it follows that "everything beautiful (kalos) that was said by anyone belongs to us Christians" (Apologia II 13, 4).

As we can see, Justin anticipates the idea of "anonymous" or implicit Christianity that people speak of in our day. Without any integralism, he respected the secular character of Greek philosophy, while contesting its inadequacies and contradictions, and thus found the way to direct everything to Christ by putting the Christian religion's claim of universality on a rational basis. If the Old Testament points to Christ as the figure (typos) points to its own fulfilment (aletheia), Greek truth also points to Christ and the Gospel, just as the part (meros) seeks to be joined with the whole.

For this reason Greek philosophy cannot be in opposition to Gospel truth and Christians can confidently draw from it as something of their own.

A new encounter: the 'Alexandrian school'

With these premises, a new counter of faith and reason occurred between the end of the second century and the first half of the third, after the "failure" of the Areopagus.

On the threshold of the third century, Clement of Alexandria took up the question of the faith-reason relationship and defined it in these terms: "Faith is [only] an elementary and summary knowledge of what is necessary. Gnosis however", (here Clement is alluding to the "faith that thinks"), "is a firm and certain demonstration of what has been received by faith ... and leads to unfailing intellectual possession" (Stromata VII, 10, 57, 3).

With Clement we enter a new phase of the faith-reason relationship and of "doing theology". However, it is especially with Origen that we see a theology which thinks, articulates and develops the clear affirmations of the creed, a theology which forges a coherent doctrine and is no longer limited to recounting and explaining the stages of the divine economy. Origen's method and doctrine were to mark the history of theology; and even if there is a tendency today to temper the judgement prevalent in the past—about the complete coherence of Origen's doctrinal construction, this in no way alters the fact that Clement and Origen, in meeting the Gnostic challenge, opened , a new way for theology. Take, for example, the development of the (originally Platonic-Stoic) idea of homoiosis theo ("assimilation to God and to the divine"). In Alexandrian theology, it grounds the various levels of knowledge and of progress in the perfection of the Christian life to the point of complete assimilation to the divine itself, the fruit of overcoming the obstacle of the letter in Scripture, of the flesh in morals, of the shadow—cast by created reality—in the contemplation of the transcendent mysteries".

Clement and Origen were vividly described as "the two-headed Janus of the 'Alexandrian school’". Indeed, Clement focuses on the culmination of the past, while Origen looks to a different future (but despite the different directions of their outlooks, the metaphor also suggests the substantial continuity and homogeneity between the two faces carved from the same stone). In particular, one can discern in the two Alexandrians a different (and in many respects complementary) way of understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology. For Clement, the Logos was also revealed, albeit imperfectly, in the Greek philosophical tradition, as he was in the Jewish law; this allows man to attain the "seeds" of truth (he even asserts that God gave philosophy to the Greeks "as their own testament" (Stromata VI, 8, 67,1). But for Origen, philosophy has a mainly instrumental function, providing the conceptual equipment for the development of theological and exegetical analysis, which must always be verified in the light of the canon of faith.

For Origen moreover—unlike Clement—the distinction between the levels of theological knowledge does not depend so much on intellectual as on moral and spiritual reasons, on a sort of tepidity of faith which prevents the gnoseological progress of intense faith. In brief, it is the extent of his "dedication to the faith" which, according to Origen, characterizes the Christian, and theology is dependent on (and not a cause of) this devotion.

In this case as in many others, Origen has a prominent place in the development of tradition. Quite rightly, then, the Pope says: "Christian thinkers were critical in adopting philosophical thought. Among the early examples of this, Origen is certainly outstanding" (n. 39). In fact, the Alexandrian proposes a spiritual journey in which faith and reason, knowledge, contemplation and the mystical experience of God are not divergent, but penetrate each and are continually offered to every Christian so that he can advance on the way of perfection.

Teaching of the Fathers on the faith-reason relationship

"Uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum".

Symmachus' aphorism in his famous controversy with St Ambrose (Relatio 10) prevents us from reducing the "theology of the Fathers" to a mere itinerary of the knowledge and contemplation of God. However, the same expression "theology of the Fathers" should be used with caution. It is necessary to go beyond the stereotype of patristic speculation as rigidly and solidly monolithic: the truth is that in the early centuries of Christianity various currents intermingle (the so-called schools of Alexandria, Antioch, Edessa ...), opening different paths to theological research (and thus to the faith-reason relationship).

To use the Encyclical's words, "there are many paths which lead to truth". However, what the Fathers—unlike the pagan Symmachus—never doubted is that "any one of these paths may be taken, as long as it leads to the final goal, that is to the Revelation of Jesus Christ" (n. 38). It is precisely here that the original, perennial teaching of the Fathers on the faith-reason relationship is found. John Paul II lucidly and concisely explains: "They fully welcomed reason which was open to the absolute, and they infused it with the richness drawn from Revelation. This was more than a meeting of cultures, with one culture perhaps succumbing to the fascination of the other. It happened rather in the depths of human souls, and it was a meeting of creature and Creator. Surpassing the goal towards which it unwittingly tended by dint of its nature, reason attained the supreme good and ultimate truth in the person of the Word made flesh. Faced with the various philosophies, the Fathers were not afraid to acknowledge those elements in them that were consonant with Revelation and those that were not. Recognition of the points of convergence did not blind them to the points of divergence" (n. 41).

Thus on the threshold of the Year 2000, our Fathers continue decisively to indicate the, way for those who wish "to give an account" of their faith in Christ: in a climate in which today's Catholicism is in danger of becoming too acquiescent in the current culture of values and human rights, often considered as changeable as the rules of a parlour game, recourse to the anthropology of the Fathers—where human dignity is firmly rooted in God's creation and the image of Christ—will help clarify the object and limits of a dialogue on values, however necessary.


We can conclude by quoting a brief comment by Cardinal Pio Laghi on the Instruction on the Study of the Fathers of the Church in Priestly Formation (10 November 1989:the same Instruction is also mentioned in the Encyclical Fides et ratio, n. 41, note 41). "In the Fathers", writes the Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, "who show they are full of reverence and respect for Sacred Scripture, making it the foundation of their theology, there is no divergence or contradiction between a religious and pastoral approach to the sacred texts and a speculative analysis of them. One can say that, in descending from Revelation to the philosophical currents of their times to purify them and harmonize them with the data of faith, they laid the foundations of Christian philosophy. Their thought is part of the perennially valid philosophical heritage, not only because of their use of philosophy in theology, but also for their appreciation of the latter's dynamism, since that doctrinal heritage is an expression of the continuity of the Church's faith life at particularly intense moments" (Per una cultura dell'Europa unita: Lo studio dei Padri della Chiesa oggi, Turin 1992, p. 82).

These words are food for thought. In other words, they say that the auditus fidei, i.e., the positive dimension of theological method, and the intellectus fidei, i.e., the systematic and speculative dimension, are perfectly balanced in the Fathers. This is the secret of their theological fruitfulness.

Thus the Fathers of the Church can also serve as an example to the theologians of our time, whom the Pope urges to "recover and express to the full the metaphysical dimension of truth in order to enter into a demanding critical dialogue with both contemporary philosophical thought and with the philosophical tradition in all its aspects". The intimate bond between theological and philosophical wisdom is, in fact, "one of the Christian tradition's most distinctive treasures in the exploration of revealed truth" (n. 105).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
17 March 1999, page 9

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