between God
and Being

Ancient philosophy
and Christian theology

Thomas Masini

     Between the II and V century A.D. there was a period of great settlement between the declining Paganism[1] and the consolidation of Christian religion. Similarly, during the same period, there is the meeting-collision between ancient philosophy – centred on epistemology – and Christian theology – that places the truth of biblical revelation and faith as its foundation. It was certainly not a peaceful meeting in the beginning, actually, it was quite the opposite. Both sides harsh criticism was not spared, not only from a rationality of the contents point of view, but also from a morality point of view of both doctrines and the individuals involved.

    On the one hand, Pagan intellectuals looked at this new ‘religious philosophy’ with suspicion, as it was led by a Jew tortured and killed in the most dishonourable way by the Romans (crucifixion was a form of torture used for criminals and seditious people). They, therefore, saw nothing else but a new dark religious sect born within the Jewish people. The first Christian thinkers, for their part, criticised Pagan customs and traditions harshly, invoking a cultural and religious revolution necessary to bring morality and truth back into society – while awaiting the second arrival of the Messiah and the end of days.

[…] but the truths they manifest are such, not because their denial reaffirms them, but because they are the word of God.

     During the II century A.D. philosopher Celsus wrote Alethès lògos (The True Word), a work not unique in its kind but certainly the first organic response from the Pagans to the emerging Christians, and which we possess thanks to the fragments preserved from the work Against Celsus, by Origen. In addition to a philosophical critique of the concepts of ‘messiah’, ‘resurrection’, ‘apocalypse’, ‘incarnation’ and other Christian dogmas; the passages in which Celsus makes a kind of sociological and anthropological critique of the way in which Christians act in society and towards the dominant Pagan culture are interesting. In one passage he writes:

     A teacher of their doctrine says, “Wise men reject what we say, being led into error, and ensnared by their wisdom”. The ambassador of Christianity relates ridiculous things; no wise man believes the Gospel, being driven away by the multitudes who adhere to it. The teacher of Christianity acts like a person who promises to restore patients to bodily health, but who prevents them from consulting skilled physicians, by whom his ignorance would be exposed. They seek after the unintelligent, with their vulgar discourses. A Christian teacher said to my acquaintances, “I alone will save you.” They warn that those who really are true physicians destroy those whom they promise to cure.
Their teacher acts like a drunken man, who, entering a company of drunkards, should accuse those who are sober of being drunk. Such a one, their teacher, amongst a company of those who are afflicted with ophthalmia, accuses those who are sharp-sighted of being blind. These charges I have to bring against them, and others of a similar nature, not to enumerate them one by one, and I affirm that they are in error, and that they act insolently towards God, in order to lead on wicked men by empty hopes, and to persuade them to despise better things, saying that if they refrain from them it will be better for them. Thus, they are won over through vain hopes.[2]

For Celsus, rejecting the teachings of the Ancients in their entirety, claiming to sweep away centuries of culture and turning mainly to young people, fools and sinners (which he calls ‘wicked’) are the actions of those who know they are in the wrong, and have more of a fraudulent intent than a cultural and spiritual one. At the same time, however, similar and just as antithetical are the words that Paul of Tarsus uses to describe the Pagans to his brethren:

     For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:
because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.[3]

According to Paul it is the Pagans who are at fault, because their wisdom ignores revelation and is therefore only knowledge of earthly things, but without any relation to the Divine; this intellectual lack generates moral impurity as a consequence. One should be aware that this clash is not to be imagined as uneven, nor in favour of the Christians based on the historical course of events and the disappearance of many texts that sided with Paganism. If, however, Paul’s words may seem more ‘true’, this is due to the fact that today we are immersed in at least one thousand five hundred years of Christian culture; in fact Pagan positions are just as strong and rationally valid, but in order to be fully understood, we are required to immerge ourselves in a mentality that is now very far from us. This task cannot be accomplished here, but certainly an attempt of this kind can lead to astonishing discoveries.

     What I would like to underline, and what emerges also from the passages quoted, are fundamentally three incompatible conceptions that distinguish Christian theology from the Pagan epistemology.

     The first fundamental difference is methodological and theoretical at the same time. If Paganism – and what we mean by this term in large part ‘Pagan’ philosophy – recognises that Truth has epistemic value, for Christianity Truth is essentially divine revelation. Epistème is the knowledge that ‘stands’, that ‘sustains itself’, that it is true because it ‘manifests its own truth by itself’, and for this reason it is ‘incontrovertible’. Previously, we witnessed (with Parmenides, Plato and Aristotle) that the Truth is undeniable, unquestionable, and it must enumerate itself and not depend on anything else – remember what was said about the élenchos in the previous articles. Contrarily, the Truth for Christians is not a rational conquest, and does not find its own logical necessity: Truth is what God reveals to man through the texts of inspired authors and the words of Jesus Christ. In this sense, what Christians can ask God is the grace to be inspired in the righteous exegesis and deepening of the sacred texts, but the truths they manifest are such, not because their denial reaffirms them, but because they are the word of God. Therefore, if it is possible and, to a certain extent, lawful to apply human rationality to biblical exegesis. At the same time the ultimate and indisputable foundation of these truths is faith in the existence of God, in his manifestation through his Son and his prophets, and in the intelligibility of his words.

     Another fundamental difference concerns the doctrine of creation. The Greeks and Latins also possess a theogony and a cosmogony – just think of the famous Hesiod and his Theogony – but for them philosophically the principle ‘ex nihilo nihil fit‘ applies, that is: nothing comes from nothing. In fact, in religious theogonies in the beginning there is nothing, but kàos (disorder) which is transformed into kòsmos (order), and the divinities, like the first ontological principles, do not create, but ‘generate’, that is, they emanate something else from themselves. Moreover, matter – chòra – is always eternal, even if formless, and the ‘creative’ act with regard to materiality is nothing more than a shaping, a determination – think of Platonic ideas, the Aristotelian demiurge or Plato’s hypostasis. Being is forever and forever, while non-Being is not and cannot be. For Christians, on the other hand, the dogma of creation is valid, which can be summed up in the words of Augustine of Hippo: “Creatio est productio rei ex nihilo sui et subiecti“, which can be translated as “creation is the production of the thing from its non-Being and from the non-Being of every other preceding thing”. When God creates things of the universe, he creates them from absolute nothingness and from their particular nothingness, bringing them to the Being from non-Being. Obviously, it is to be understood that creation is not “ex nihilo causae efficientis et finalis“, since the efficient and final cause of creation is precisely God himself, who is eternal. Celsus points out in his work that one cannot speak of creation from nothing if God is something existing, but rather of generation from the Divine, which is more rationally comprehensible. However, Christianity is immovable on this point: everything that exists is created ex nihilo by God, and in only one case can we speak of generation, that is in the case of Jesus Christ: “the only Son of God, /     eternally begotten of the Father, / […]  begotten, not made, / of one Being with the Father “. However, for Pagan philosophers the idea of a creation from nothing, that is, of the transformation of the absolute non-being into Being, is simply irrational, incomprehensible and insane, and therefore not acceptable as truth.

     The third fundamental difference concerns a theme linked to creation, and it is the original freedom. For the Ancients there is a power in the cosmos, greater than any other, even greater than Zeus – father of the Gods – and the Moira – Goddesses of death and above all of the destiny of mortals -; this power is Ananke, that is to say, the Inflexible Necessity – in ancient times identified both as a Goddess and as the terrible supreme principle. Parmenides himself submits Being to this principle and writes in verses 30-31 of fragment 8 of his Poem: “For / mighty Necessity holds it – / holds it within the chains of her / bounds and round though secure it.”
Therefore, also the work of the divine is subject to Necessity, and therefore also generation is necessary, and not the result of a free decision. For Christians, however, God is absolute freedom, and creation is nothing other than the fruit of God’s free will: he either choses to create or not create, and in his inscrutable wisdom he acted in complete freedom. In this sense the famous ontological question “why Being instead of Nothing?” from the Christian point of view is meaningless: Being is because God has freely chosen to allow Being to be. The difference from the ancient viewpoint is obvious: if God’s thoughts are inscrutable, and it could not be otherwise for our finite minds, the only way to answer the fundamental questions is to wait for divine revelation, in the hope that it will be such that we can understand it.

     From Plotinus to Descartes, philosophy will substantially assume the role of ancilla theologiae, or maid of theology: her task will be to clarify theological dogmas as far as possible, but always and in any case to give way to it, because if they are in contradiction, faith in revelation and in the superiority of God’s word over human rationality must take over. Yet, it would be wrong to read in this brief outline a period of obscurantism or abdication of rationality: it is precisely in the very encounter between ancient philosophy and Christian religion that philosophers of the highest level will elaborate theories rich in wisdom and clarity, which will join the classical origins in forming that Western thought in which we still live today.

[1] The term ‘Paganism’ is radically incorrect, as it encompasses a wide range of very different ancient religions and beliefs. For the sake of convenience and insight we shall use this term which has now entered into common use, but which here is limited to indicate the opposition, in the religious and philosophical sense, to the Christian religion between the II-V century AD. 

[2] Celsus, The True Word.

[2]  St. Paul, Epistle to the Romans, version by the King James’ bible.