History of Early Christian Thought

I dipped into the first few chapters of Etienne Gilson’s monumental History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (1955). The title is somewhat misleading since the work actually begins with the Christian thinkers of late antiquity. Nevertheless their story is necessary to understanding the achievement of later medieval philosophers. Gilson is a scholarly but lucid writer. In that respect I think his style is much superior to that of his contemporary Jacques Maritain. Even in the first fifty pages or so one comes across any number of interesting and quotable passages.

For example, in discussing the career of the apologist Tatian (c. 120-180 A.D.), the author opines that “it is significant for the history of Christian thought that this arch-enemy of Greek philosophy died out of the communion of the Church, whereas he [Justin] who had claimed for Christianity the benefit of all that was good and true in Greek culture had died a martyr and a saint.” He makes the same point about the rigorist Tertullian (c. 160-225), the brilliant but wayward North African author who was the forerunner of “Latin Christianity” yet who eventually embraced the Montanist heresy.

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – 215) was one of the first to introduce the nuanced theme of “preparation of the Gospel” by the Greek poets and philosophers. Gilson summarizes it in this way: “God was not speaking directly to the philosophers; unlike the prophets, the philosophers received from God no special revelation; yet, since natural reason itself is a divine light, it can be said that, through it, God was guiding the philosophers toward truth. To deny this would be to deny that the divine providence takes care of historical events…. God has certainly created reason to some useful purpose.”

In his chapter on the writings of Origen (185-254) on grace and free will Gilson explains: “The only way for a man to turn a received gift into a personal property is to accept it. Freedom was precisely this power either to accept the gift of God, or to turn it down.” Grace could not be “earned” but it was nevertheless within our power to use (or misuse) it. Though Origen indulged in much speculation that was later abandoned or refuted by later theologians this insight part of official Church teaching.

Faith must ultimately be a joyful and liberating thing for the intellect. In the section on Minucius Felix (fl. 200 A.D.), Gilson paraphrases the fictional dialogue between a Christian and a pagan:

[T]here is no reason why truth should remain the exclusive property of the happy few instead of belonging to all. It is not easy to imagine the feeling of liberation which pervaded the minds of many men when they were told, for the first time, that the ultimate truth about man and the world had been revealed to all. What philosophy had not been able to give to the most learned intellects, that is, a complete explanation of the world, Christianity was offering to the millions.

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