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Patristic philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B089-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 18, 2024, from

Article Summary

Early Christian writers used terminology and ideas drawn from Graeco-Roman philosophical literature in their theological writings, and some early Christians also engaged in more formal philosophical reflection. The term ‘patristic philosophy’ covers all of these activities by the ‘fathers’ (patres) of the Church. The literature of nascent Christianity thus contains many concepts drawn from Graeco-Roman philosophy, and this early use of classical ideas by prominent Christians provided an authoritative sanction for subsequent philosophical discussion and elaboration.

Early Christians were drawn to philosophy for many reasons. Philosophy held a pre-eminent place in the culture of the late Hellenistic and Roman world. Its schools provided training in logical rigour, systematic accounts of the cosmos and directions on how to lead a good and happy life. While philosophical movements of the period, such as Neoplatonism or Stoicism, varied widely in their doctrines, most presented accounts of reality that included some representation of the divine. These rationally articulated accounts established the theological and ethical discourse of Graeco-Roman culture. As such, philosophy had a natural appeal to Hellenistic Jewish and early Christian thinkers. It provided a ready language in which to refine ideas about the God of the ancient Hebrew scriptures, and to elaborate the trinitarian God of Christianity. It also helped to bring conceptual coherence to the ideas found in the scriptures of both religions. Finally, it provided the common intellectual discourse that those communities required in order to present their central tenets to the majority culture of the Roman empire.

To a considerable extent, the notion of ‘philosophy’ suggested to the ancients a way of life as much as an intellectual discipline. This too drew Christians to the teachings of the philosophers. While there were doctrines and prescriptions of behaviour specific to the major schools, philosophers in general tended to advocate an ethically reflective and usually rather ascetic life, one which conjoined intellectual with moral discipline. This ethical austerity was prized by early Christians as an allied phenomenon within Graeco-Roman culture to which they could appeal in debates about the character of their new movement. The tacit validation that philosophy offered to the Christian movement was thus multifaceted, and, while it was sometimes thought to be associated with unacceptable aspects of pagan religious culture, philosophy provided some educated Christians with a subtle social warrant for their new life and beliefs.

It should be noted that ancient Christianity was itself a complex movement. Like Graeco-Roman philosophy, Christianity included a broad spectrum of beliefs and practices. Thus those early Christians who developed their beliefs with reference to philosophy endorsed a wide range of metaphysical and ethical doctrines, ranging from materialism to extreme transcendentalism, from asceticism to spiritual libertinism. Yet, while diversity is evident, it is also true that the Christian movement came to develop a rough set of central beliefs and some early forms of community organization associated with those beliefs. This incipient ‘orthodoxy’ came to value some sorts of philosophy, especially Platonism, which seemed best suited to its theological agenda. This tacit alliance with Platonism was fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty, and it was never a reciprocal relationship. Nonetheless, in the second and third centuries a type of Christian philosophical theology emerged which owed much to the Platonic school and became increasingly dominant among orthodox Christian authors. It was this trajectory that defined the character of patristic philosophy.

Early Christian thought had its origins in Hellenistic Judaism, and its initial character was defined by the dominant patterns of that tradition. This early phase extended through the first half of the second century ad, as Christianity began to define its distinctive themes associated with the nature and historical mission of Jesus Christ. Throughout the second century, Christianity became increasingly a movement made up of gentile converts; some of these new members had educations that had included philosophy and a few were even trained as philosophers. Thus Christian thought began to show increased contact with the Graeco-Roman philosophical schools, a trend no doubt reinforced by the critical need for Christians – as a proscribed religious minority – to defend their theology, ritual practices and ethics in the face of cultural and legal hostility.

This so-called ‘age of the apologists’ lasted throughout the second and third centuries, until Christianity began to enjoy toleration early in the fourth century. However, it would be a mistake to consider Christian philosophical thought in that period as primarily directed towards the surrounding pagan society. In many respects philosophy, as the intellectual discourse of Graeco-Roman culture, offered gentile Christians a means to clarify, articulate and assimilate the tenets of their new faith. This process of intellectual appropriation appears to have been of considerable personal importance to many Graeco-Roman converts. Christian philosophical theology helped them to recover ideas familiar from their school training and to find unfamiliar concepts defended with the rigour much prized within Graeco-Roman culture.

After Christianity became a licit religion in the fourth century, philosophical activity among Christians expanded. The task of theological self-articulation became increasingly significant as Christianity grew in the fourth and fifth centuries towards majority status within the Empire, with imperial support. In this later period the range and sophistication of Christian thought increased significantly, due in part to the influence of pagan Neoplatonism, a movement that included a number of the finest philosophers active since the classical period of Plato and Aristotle. Later patristic philosophy had a defining influence upon medieval Christian thought through such figures as Augustine and Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite, establishing both the conceptual foundations and the authoritative warrant for the scholasticism of the Latin West and Greek East.

Citing this article:
Kenney, John Peter. Patristic philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-B089-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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