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Between Athens and Jerusalem
(Issue 2 / Oct. 25, 2023) Differences between philosophy and theology, and how they relate to each other.
Welcome back to the Little Free Seminary. And for those who are just joining us, welcome aboard. Come learn a little about theology and its impact on our society, culture, and politics. Like a little free library around the corner, it's open and free for all!
It used to be said in the olden days that there were four cities that defined Western Civilization: Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, and London. Each of these cities symbolizes one of the four roots of European thoughts and culture. Athens was known for Greek philosophy. Jerusalem represented the centrality of the Jewish and Christian faiths in European minds. Rome was the first great empire of the West and has been the seat of the Catholic Church. From London came the ideas of constitutionalism, limited government, individual liberty, and parliamentary democracy. Some people then add Philadelphia as the fifth city. (1)
“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” was a question one of the early Christian writers Tertullian asked in the year 200. “Or, the Academy with the Church?” (2)
You, too, may wonder what the connections between philosophy and theology – and how Greco-Roman thinkers influenced both Jewish and Christian beliefs.
This week, let’s dive into the differences and similarities between philosophy and theology, and then, the Hellenic roots of theology.
One description of philosophy by the American Philosophical Association goes like this:
“It is a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for understanding, a study of principles of conduct. It seeks to establish standards of evidence, to provide rational methods of resolving conflicts, and to create techniques for evaluating ideas and arguments. Philosophy develops the capacity to see the world from the perspective of other individuals and other cultures; it enhances one's ability to perceive the relationships among the various fields of study; and it deepens one's sense of the meaning and variety of human experience.” (3)
On the other hand, the Jewish Encyclopedia gives this succinct definition of theology (4):
“The science that treats of God and of His relation to the world in general and to man in particular; in a less restricted sense, the didactic representation of the contents and essence of a religion.”
In the modern Western sense, however, theology also:
“encompasses not just a detailed and systematic study of ‘the divine’ but of the whole philosophical network of a ‘worldview.’ But theology is, of course, principally concerned with the nature of the divine and with the way in which the divine relates to all other reality. And in the Christian tradition in particular, theology is the church’s exegetical and theological exploration, explication, and appropriation of the Bible at various times and in various places throughout its long history.” (5)
If theology also studies “the whole philosophical network of a worldview,” then wouldn’t that make it a subset of philosophy? After all, metaphysics and the philosophy of religion are traditional subfields of philosophy. (3)
The first known use of word theology dates back to Plato’s Republic in the fourth century B.C.E. It was not until the year 200 C.E. when Clement of Alexandria used the word theology in Christian writing. (5)
To Christian theologians, differences between philosophy and theology lie in their ultimate goals. While philosophy could influence politics, ethics, rhetoric, business management, and other “worldly” concerns, the chief ends of theology is to shape one’s faith and thereby deepening one’s walk with God. Of course this is rather oversimplified, but theology tends to begin and end with God while philosophy does not necessarily do so.
Although both Judaism and Christianity share common roots in the Hebrew Scriptures and the worship of God of Israel, much of theology was shaped by the Greek intellectual heritage.
To understand this, we must look into the Hellenic influences on Jewish people. Over three hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Alexander the Great conquered the Mediterranean world and Greece became the superpower. Along with the political and economic powers of the Greeks, Hellenic culture and arts came to the Near East. Jewish people began to synthesize Greek culture with their indigenous traditions. (6) Just as the worldwide Jewish community today is greatly influenced by the American culture and many Jewish books and websites are in English, Judaism of this period became “Greek,” although by no means the Jewish people uncritically accepted the Greek cultures and did indeed resist them from time to time. One of the most significant products of this Hellenization is the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures by a committee of Jewish elders for King Ptolemy. (7)
It was this Greek-Jewish background in which rabbinic Judaism emerged during the Second Temple era, and by extension, the first congregations of people later known as Christians. Paul of Tarsus, the author of many epistles in the New Testament, was without doubt exposed to Greek philosophy, being an educated Roman citizen.
Since Greek was the international language of commerce and politics of the day, the New Testament was written in Greek.
As Christianity transitioned from being a fringe Jewish sect to becoming a primarily gentile faith of the Mediterranean world, early theologians called “Church Fathers” emerged and began articulating and defending the nascent faith using the Greek language.
Clement of Alexandria (110-215 C.E.) and Origen of Alexandria (185-254 C.E.) were two of the early Christian scholars who fused their Greek education with their Christian faith. Later, Augustine of Hippo contributed to the development of Christianity by synthesizing theology with Plato. Centuries later, Thomas Aquinas combined Aristotle with the Christian faith.
To this day, philosophy and theology are inextricably related and complement each other. In particular, the emerging discipline of public theology locates itself at the nexus of Athens and Jerusalem. (8) They are not opposed to each other, and studying both of them enriches your worldview and how you live your life.
Tertullian. 200. De Prescriptione Haereticorum.