Loving Wisdom Like the Early Church

by Matthew Arbo

Philosophy is many things. It is a “love of wisdom,” as the etymology of the term suggests. It is an academic discipline, with different expressions, methods, and points of emphasis. It is likewise something we all have. Each of us has a philosophy of something-or-other: a philosophy of cheese, maybe, or philosophy of education, of ministry, or even kayaking. Everyone has some sort of first principles they live by, however unconscious or intuitive. You don’t have to be a bearded recluse to have a philosophy. It's something we all come by and whatever we call “philosophy,” it must at least involve wisdom. 

The Christian faith is philosophical. Our faith is biblical and theological, yes, but it is also philosophical, and that shouldn’t be a terribly upsetting idea. When we read our bibles, we interpret what it says. We can’t not do that. This basic activity—interpretation—has all sorts of philosophical commitments associated with it. The bible even contains an entire genre of what scholars refer to as wisdom literature. Job, likely the oldest book, is replete with philosophical significance. What is the good life? What is friendship? Why is there suffering in the world and on so vast a scale? It is impossible to do without philosophy, really, and wholesale rejection of it renders our faith unintelligible.

Identifying the exact historical point at which skepticism toward philosophy first inserted itself is exceedingly difficult, but it certainly is not located at the early periods of the church. The early church fathers were men of dazzling brilliance and erudition. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine—all thinkers of learning, both in their own tradition and in others. In this aptitude, they are simply following the example of the Apostle Paul, whose familiarity with alternate philosophical schools of the ancient world, like Stoicism and Epicureanism, is evinced in several epistles. Theologians knew their philosophy and did their work in ways that drew upon the insights and methods of philosophy. 

Philosophy is of great importance to the early church for several reasons:

1. Differentiation

The early church was not constituted in a vacuum. These regenerate faith communities were set apart for a particular, peculiar kind of life, a life dedicated to the worship and proclamation of Jesus Christ, their head. Believers were drawn from all over: young and old, male and female, jew and greek, Roman and Greek, slave and free; eclectic people coming from eclectic places with eclectic ideas. The philosophical schools in pre-eminence across the near east and southern Europe, from which many early believers were drawn, were not isolated enclaves of speculative men, but rather vibrant, visible, and influential societies pursuing common cause together, sometimes to the point of resembling a religious sect. Philosophical schools like the Stoicism and Epicureanism (for example) sought to propound both a comprehensive vision for human life and communal forms in which the ideas could be pursued together.  

The gospel believed by Christians, however, announced only one source of the good life: the Lord Jesus Christ. He is life. Philosophy assisted these early communities in thinking together about how they had been set apart from the world, within the world. Because of the faith afforded in Christ, the church could acknowledge and accept a philosophical truth without at the same time accepting the whole school of thought from which it was borrowed. Thus philosophy in a unique way helped the church better understand itself and the world of ideas it encountered.

2. Doctrine

Being made different implied believing different. “Doctrine” describes the theological precepts believed and confessed by the church. Some doctrines of the church are relatively simple and accessible, while others are notoriously complex and mysterious. Philosophy turned out to be inordinately useful to the task of theological reflection. It was not the starting point for the church’s theological labors, of course, but it was relied upon instructively by the church to clarify what it believed, how, and why. Philosophy was also instrumental in defending church dogma from aggressive heresies; it had a pivotal apologetic function, aiding in defense of the church’s true creed and at the same time exposing the errors of heresy. Over time this had a remarkable crystalizing effect on Christian doctrine. It is for good reason philosophy was described as the handmaiden of theology.

3. Mission

The missionary zeal of the early church was intense, broad, and persistent. The world had not seen anything quite like it before. Small communities of faith exploded with converts and baptisms. Philosophy played an important role in that early mission. Part of that had to do with the peculiar and oftentimes deeply entrenched philosophical schools in certain regions. Beyond that, however, there was also the matter of method and approach. How exactly should these early communities coordinate, strategize, and embark on their mission? Philosophy helped these faith communities learn better how to contextualize the gospel for people they sought to reach. Like Daniel in exile, theologians of the early church learned what others believed and valued, what animated them and directed their lives, and then announced the ever more illuminating gospel.

The church of the 21st century could learn a few things from the early church. Our situation is not that greatly dissimilar, and in any case, we should indeed love wisdom just as the scripture implore. If any of you lacks wisdom, reminds James in his epistle, let him ask of God who gives to all liberally and without reproach and it will be given to him (James 1:5). We have but to ask! Our God is wise. Loving wisdom leads to the loving of much else that is good and hating in turn much else that is evil. The effect of loving wisdom is the wisening of our loves—love and wisdom reinforce one another—and this turns out to be one rather powerful way of describing the task of discipleship. 

If you’d like to read more about the early church’s philosophical interests and approaches, let me recommend the following resources:

Augustine’s Confessions (start there and then read Enchiridion) Athanasius’ On the Incarnation,  Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, Chrysostom’s Homilies on John, Plato’s Apology, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, and Cicero’s On Duties. This sample list is a great place to start.

For modern commentary or introductions to early Christian philosophy, I recommend anything by Henry Chadwick. Both his The Early Church (Penguin Press) and biography of Augustine (Oxford University Press) are excellent. I would also recommend Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy series, especially volume 1 on the ancient world. 

Read slowly, read carefully, read charitably, and, when possible, read promiscuously.