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History of Dogma - Volume II
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1. Introduction.340340Edition by Otto, 9 Vols., 1876 f. New edition of the Apologists (unfinished; only Tatian and Athenagoras by Schwarz have yet appeared) in the Texte und Untersuchungen zur altchristlichen Litteratur-Geschichte, Vol. IV. Tzschirner, Geschichte der Apologetik, 1st part, 1805; id., Der Fall des Heidenthums, 1829. Ehlers, Vis atque potestas, quam philosophia antiqua, imprimis Platonica et Stoica in doctrina apologetarum habuerit, 1859.

The object of the Christian Apologists, some of whom filled ecclesiastical offices and in various ways promoted spiritual progress,341341It is intrinsically probable that their works directly addressed to the Christian Church gave a more full exposition of their Christianity than we find in the Apologies. This can moreover be proved with certainty from the fragments of Justin’s, Tatian’s and Melito’s esoteric writings. But, whilst recognising this fact, we must not make the erroneous assumption that the fundamental conceptions and interests of Justin and the rest were in reality other than may be inferred from their Apologies. was, as they themselves explained, to uphold the Christianity professed by the Christian Churches and publicly preached. They were convinced that the Christian faith was founded on revelation and that only a mind enlightened by God could grasp and maintain the faith. They acknowledged the Old Testament to be the authoritative source of God’s revelation, maintained that the whole human race was meant to be reached by Christianity, and adhered to the early Christian eschatology. These views as well as the strong emphasis they laid upon human freedom and responsibility, enabled them to attain a firm standpoint in opposition to “Gnosticism”, and to preserve their position within the Christian communities, whose moral purity and strength they regarded as a strong proof of the truth of this faith. In the endeavours of the Apologists to explain Christianity to the cultured world, we have before us the attempts of Greek churchmen to represent the Christian religion as a philosophy, and to convince outsiders that it was the highest wisdom and the absolute truth. These efforts were not rejected by the Churches like those of the so-called Gnostics, but rather became in subsequent times the foundation of the ecclesiastical dogmatic. The Gnostic speculations were repudiated, whereas those of the Apologists were accepted. The manner in which the latter set forth Christianity as a philosophy met with approval. What were the conditions under which ecclesiastical Christianity and Greek philosophy concluded the alliance which has found a place in the history of the world? How did this union attain acceptance and permanence, whilst “Gnosticism” was at first rejected? These are the two great questions the correct answers to which are of fundamental importance for the understanding of the history of Christian dogma.

The answers to these questions appear paradoxical. The theses of the Apologists finally overcame all scruples in ecclesiastical circles and were accepted by the Græco-Roman world, because they made Christianity rational without taking from, or adding to, its traditional historic material. The secret of the epoch-making success of the apologetic theology is thus explained: These Christian philosophers formulated the content of the Gospel in a manner which appealed to the common sense of all the serious thinkers and intelligent men of the age. Moreover, they contrived to use the positive material of tradition, including the life and worship of Christ, in such a way as to furnish this reasonable religion with a confirmation and proof that had hitherto been eagerly sought, but sought in vain. In the theology of the Apologists, Christianity, as the religious enlightenment directly emanating from God himself, is most sharply contrasted with all polytheism, natural religion, and ceremonial. They proclaimed it in the most emphatic manner as the religion of the spirit, of freedom, and of absolute morality. Almost the whole positive material of Christianity is embodied in the story which relates its entrance into the world, its spread, and the proof of its truth. The religion itself, on the other hand, appears as the truth that is surely attested and accords with reason — a truth the content of which is not primarily dependent on historical facts and finally overthrows all polytheism.

Now this was the very thing required. In the second century of our era a great many needs and aspirations were undoubtedly making themselves felt in the sphere of religion and morals. “Gnosticism” and Marcionite Christianity prove the variety and depth of the needs then asserting themselves within the space that the ecclesiastical historian is able to survey. Mightier than all others, however, was the longing men felt to free themselves from the burden of the past, to cast away the rubbish of cults and of unmeaning religious ceremonies, and to be assured that the results of religious philosophy, those great and simple doctrines of virtue and immortality and of the God who is a Spirit, were certain truths. He who brought the message that these ideas were realities, and who, on the strength of these realities, declared polytheism and the worship of idols to be obsolete, had the mightiest forces on his side; for the times were now ripe for this preaching. What formed the strength of the apologetic philosophy was the proclamation that Christianity both contained the highest truth, as men already supposed it to be and as they had discovered it in their own minds, and the absolutely reliable guarantee that was desired for this truth. To the quality which makes it appear meagre to us it owed its impressiveness. The fact of its falling in with the general spiritual current of the time and making no attempt to satisfy special and deeper needs enabled it to plead the cause of spiritual monotheism and to oppose the worship of idols in the manner most easily understood. As it did not require historic and positive material to describe the nature of religion and morality, this philosophy enabled the Apologists to demonstrate the worthlessness of the traditional religion and worship of the different nations.342342That is, so far as these were clearly connected with polytheism. Where this was not the case or seemed not to be so, national traditions, both the true and the spurious, were readily and joyfully admitted into the catalogus testimoniorum of revealed truth. The same cause, however, made them take up the conservative position with regard to the historical traditions of Christianity. These were not ultimately tested as to their content, for this was taken for granted, no matter how they might be worded; but they were used to give an assurance of the truth, and to prove that the religion of the spirit was not founded on human opinion, but on divine revelation. The only really important consideration in Christianity is that it is revelation, real revelation. The Apologists had no doubt as to what it reveals, and therefore any investigation was unnecessary. The result of Greek philosophy, the philosophy of Plato and Zeno, as it had further developed in the empires of Alexander the Great and the Romans, was to attain victory and permanence by the aid of Christianity. Thus we view the progress of this development to-day,343343Though these words were already found in the first edition, Clemen (Justin 1890, p. 56) has misunderstood me so far as to think that I spoke here of conscious intention on the part of the Apologists. Such nonsense of course never occurred to me. and Christianity really proved to be the force from which that religious philosophy, viewed as a theory of the world and system of morality, first received the courage to free itself from the polytheistic past and descend from the circles of the learned to the common people.

This constitutes the deepest distinction between Christian philosophers like Justin and those of the type of Valentinus. The latter sought for a religion; the former, though indeed they were not very clear about their own purpose, sought assurance as to a theistic and moral conception of the world which they already possessed. At first the complexus of Christian tradition, which must have possessed many features of attraction for them, was something foreign to both. The latter, however, sought to make this tradition intelligible,. For the former it was enough that they had here a revelation before them; that this revelation also bore unmistakable testimony to the one God, who was a Spirit, to virtue, and to immortality; and that it was capable of convincing men and of leading them to a virtuous life. Viewed superficially, the Apologists were no doubt the conservatives; but they were so, because they scarcely in any respect meddled with the contents of tradition. The “Gnostics”, on the contrary, sought to understand what they read and to investigate the truth of the message of which they heard. The most characteristic feature is the attitude of each to the Old Testament. The Apologists were content to have found in it an ancient source of revelation, and viewed the book as a testimony to the truth, i.e., to philosophy and virtue; the Gnostics investigated this document and examined to what extent it agreed with the new impressions they had received from the Gospel. We may sum up as follows: The Gnostics sought to determine what Christianity is as a religion, and, as they were convinced of the absoluteness of Christianity, this process led them to incorporate with it all that they looked on as sublime and holy and to remove everything they recognised to be inferior. The Apologists, again, strove to discover an authority for religious enlightenment and morality and to find the confirmation of a theory of the universe, which, if true, contained for them the certainty of eternal life; and this they found in the Christian tradition.

At bottom this contrast is a picture of the great discord existing in the religious philosophy of the age itself (see p. 129, vol. I.). No one denied the fact that all truth was divine, that is, was founded on revelation. The great question, however, was whether every man possessed this truth as a slumbering capacity that only required to be awakened; whether it was rational, i.e., merely moral truth, or must be above that which is moral, that is, of a religious nature; whether it must carry man beyond himself; and whether a real redemption was necessary. It is ultimately the dispute between morality and religion, which appears as an unsettled problem in the theses of the idealistic philosophers and in the whole spiritual conceptions then current among the educated, and which recurs in the contrast between the Apologetic and the Gnostic theology. And, as in the former case we meet with the most varied shades and transitions, for no one writer has developed a consistent theory, so also we find a similar state of things in the latter;344344Note here particularly the attitude of Tatian, who has already introduced a certain amount of the “Gnostic” element into his; “Oratio ad Græcos”, although, he adheres in the main to the ordinary apologetic doctrines. for no Apologist quite left out of sight the idea of redemption (deliverance from the dominion of demons can only be effected by the Logos, i.e., God). Wherever the idea of freedom is strongly emphasised, the religious element, in the strict sense of the word, appears in jeopardy. This is the case with the Apologists throughout. Conversely, wherever redemption forms the central thought, need is felt of a suprarational truth, which no longer views morality as the only aim, and which, again, requires particular media, a sacred history and sacred symbols. Stoic rationalism, in its logical development, is menaced wherever we meet the perception that the course of the world must in some way be helped, and wherever the contrast between reason and sensuousness, that the old Stoa had confused, is clearly felt to be an unendurable state of antagonism that man cannot remove by his own unaided efforts. The need of a revelation had its starting-point in philosophy here. The judgment of oneself and of the world to which Platonism led, the selfconsciousness which it awakened by the detachment of man from nature, and the contrasts which it revealed led of necessity to that frame of mind which manifested itself in the craving for a revelation. The Apologists felt this. But their rationalism gave a strange turn to the satisfaction of that need. It was not their Christian ideas which first involved them in contradictions. At the time when Christianity appeared on the scene, the Platonic and Stoic systems themselves were already so complicated that philosophers did not find their difficulties seriously increased by a consideration of the Christian doctrines. As Apologists, however, they decidedly took the part of Christianity because, according to them, it was the doctrine of reason and freedom.

The Gospel was hellenised in the second century in so far as the Gnostics in various ways transformed it into a Hellenic religion for the educated. The Apologists used it — we may almost say inadvertently — to overthrow polytheism by maintaining that Christianity was the realisation of an absolutely moral theism. The Christian religion was not the first to experience this twofold destiny on Græco-Roman soil. A glance at the history of the Jewish religion shows us a parallel development; in fact, both the speculations of the Gnostics and the theories of the Apologists were foreshadowed in the theology of the Jewish Alexandrians, and particularly in that of Philo. Here also the Gospel merely entered upon the heritage of Judaism.345345Since the time of Josephus Greek philosophers had ever more and more acknowledged the “philosophical” character of Judaism; see Porphyr., de abstin. anim. II. 26, about the Jews: ἅτε φιλόσοφοι τὸ γένος ὄντες. Three centuries before the appearance of Christian Apologists, Jews, who had received a Hellenic training, had already set forth the religion of Jehovah to the Greeks in that remarkably summary and spiritualised form which represents it as the absolute and highest philosophy, i.e., the knowledge of God, of virtue, and of recompense in the next world. Here these Jewish philosophers had already transformed all the positive and historic elements of the national religion into parts of a huge system for proving the truth of that theism. The Christian Apologists adopted this method, for they can hardly be said to have invented it anew.346346On the relation of Christian literature to the writings of Philo, cf. Siegfried, Philo von Alexandrien, p. 303 f. We see from the Jewish Sibylline oracles how wide-spread it was. Philo, however, was not only a Stoic rationalist, but a hyper-Platonic religious philosopher. In like manner, the Christian Apologists did not altogether lack this element, though in some isolated cases among them there are hardly any traces of it. This feature is most fully represented among the Gnostics.

This transformation of religion into a philosophic system would not have been possible had not Greek philosophy itself happened to be in process of development into a religion. Such a transformation was certainly very foreign to the really classical time of Greece and Rome. The pious belief in the efficacy and power of the gods and in their appearances and manifestations, as well as the traditional worship, could have no bond of union with speculations concerning the essence and ultimate cause of things. The idea of a religious dogma which was at once to furnish a correct theory of the world and a principle of conduct was from this standpoint completely unintelligible. But philosophy, particularly in the Stoa, set out in search of this idea, and, after further developments, sought for one special religion with which it could agree or through which it could at least attain certainty. The meagre cults of the Greeks and Romans were unsuited for this. So men turned their eyes towards the barbarians. Nothing more clearly characterises the position of things in the second century than the agreement between two men so radically different as Tatian and Celsus. Tatian emphatically declares that salvation comes from the barbarians, and to Celsus it is also a “truism” that the barbarians have more capacity than the Greeks for discovering valuable doctrines.347347It is very instructive to find Celsus (Origen, c. Cels. I. 2) proceeding to say that the Greeks understood better how to judge, to investigate, and to perfect the doctrines devised by the barbarians, and to apply them to the practice of virtue. This is quite in accordance with the idea of Origen, who makes the following remarks on this point: “When a man trained in the schools and sciences of the Greeks becomes acquainted with our faith, he will not only recognise and declare it to be true, but also by means of his scientific training and skill reduce it to a system and supplement what seems to him defective in it, when tested by the Greek method of exposition and proof, thus at the same time demonstrating the truth of Christianity. Everything was in fact prepared, and nothing was wanting.

About the middle of the second century, however, the moral and rationalistic element in the philosophy and spiritual culture of the time was still more powerful than the religious and mystic; for Neoplatonism, which under its outward coverings concealed the aspiration after religion and the living God, was only in its first beginnings. It was not otherwise in Christian circles. The “Gnostics” were in the minority. What the great majority of the Church felt to be intelligible and edifying above everything else was an earnest moralism.348348See the section “Justin und die apostolischen Väter” in Engelhardt’s “Christenthum Justin’s des Martyrers”, p. 375 ff., and my article on the so-called 2nd Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte I. p. 329 ff.). Engelhardt, who on the whole emphasises the correspondences, has rather under- than over-estimated them. If the reader compares the exposition given in Book I., chap. 3, with the theology of the Apologists (see sub. 3), he will find proof of the intimate relationship that may be traced here. New and strange as the undertaking to represent Christianity as a philosophy might seem at first, the Apologists, so far as they were understood, appeared to advance nothing inconsistent with Christian common sense. Besides, they did not question authorities, but rather supported them, and introduced no foreign positive materials. For all these reasons, and also because their writings were not at first addressed to the communities, but only to outsiders, the marvellous attempt to present Christianity to the world as the religion which is the true philosophy, and as the philosophy which is the true religion, remained unopposed in the Church. But in what sense was the Christian religion set forth as a philosophy? An exact answer to this question is of the highest interest as regards the history of Christian dogma.


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