Saturday, August 04, 2007
Church History 1 Post 2
How did Justin's Apology address the cultural challenges to Christianity in the second century, and how did his Apology offer a different approach to Christ than we see in the theology of Tertullian?
Stoics and Epicureans:
Dominant Philosophical Challenges to Christianity
During Justin Martyr’s lifetime from 100-165 A.D. and beyond, Christians were faced with many intellectual and philosophical challenges and attacks by prominent philosophers. Perhaps the most prevalent and dominant philosophical schools of the day were the Stoics and Epicureans. These schools charged Christians with accounts of atheism, being a mystery cult, and with accounts of stupidity because Christianity attracted the “outcasts” of the day. This short essay will present the primary doctrines of these two schools in order to give a brief example of what apologists like Justin were up against.
Stoic philosophy had been present for quite some time before Christians arrived on the scene. The founder of Stoicism was a man by the name of Zeno who lived from approximately 336 to 264 BC.[i] Stoicism is a Monistic belief system. “When the world is in existence God stands to it as soul to body, being the soul of the world.”[ii] Fire is the primary source from which all things are created, and God is this immanent fire who acts as the “Consciousness of the world.”[iii] The conscious reason or logo is not spiritual in nature but is physical along with the rest of the world. The Stoics denied the reality of human free will and believed that time and history was destined to repeat itself. Copleston states,
“…God forms the world and then takes it back into Himself through a universal conflagration, so that there is an unending series of world-constructions and world- destructions. Moreover, each new world resembles its predecessor in all particulars, every individual man, for example, occurring in each successive world and performing the identical actions that he performed in his previous existence.”[iv]
The “world-conflagration” is not to be confused with the Christian understanding of teleology. Because of this world view the Stoics were forced to accept the idea of being stuck in the wheel of faith. Their goal was not to be released from the never ending spiral but to become content with their situation. By achieving contentment with one’s situation, the Stoics believed that one could gain some level of inner freedom. This was achieved by the study of philosophy and the pursuit to live a virtuous life. “…Cosmological determinism is modified by their insistence on interior freedom in the sense that a man can alter his judgment on events and his attitude towards events, seeing them and welcoming them as the expression of “God’s Will.”[v]
The pursuit of Virtue, being moral insight, courage, self-control or temperance, and justice, was an all or nothing affair. You either possessed them all or you had none. “Virtue is a disposition conformable to reason, desirable in and for itself and not because of any hope or fear or any external motive.”[vi] Remembering that reason is logos, we find that virtue is the foundational fabric of the universe.
Lastly, although the Stoics were in essence monotheistic, they deemed it necessary to include polytheism into their system. Zeno stateed that sacrifices were to no avail; however lesser forms or manifestations of the Supreme Principle are to be honored. The polytheistic Gods were these manifestations, i.e. the celestial heavens, thus they were to be honored.
Epicureanism was also present far before Christianity. Its founder, Epicurus, was born in 342 and opened his own school in Athens by 307 BC.[vii] It is said that the Epicurean doctrines or philosophical orthodoxy were maintained more than any other school.[viii] Among the most famous of the Epicurean philosophers was the poet T. Lucretious Carus (91-51 BC) whose chief aim was the “liberation of men from the fear of the gods and of death and the leading of them to peace of soul.”[ix]
The Epicurean cosmology was quite different than the Stoic concept of God as fire. In essence, the Epicureans were strong naturalists believing the universe to be made up of atoms. The world was thus created mechanically which releases us from postulating teleology, and because there is no ultimate purpose to existence there is no fear of death. They are quoted as saying, “Death is nothing to us for that which is dissolved is devoid of sensation, and that which is devoid of sensation is nothing to us.”[x] Truth for the Epicureans was found in three areas which were the “senses, and the preconceptions, and the passions.”[xi] Through these criterion of truth one finds that pleasure is the ultimate goal in life.
“…we affirm that pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily; for we have recognized this as the first good, being connate with us; and it is with reference to it that we begin every choice and avoidance; and to this we come as if we judged of all good by passion as the standard.”
To be fair to the teachings of the Epicurean’s, it should be said they did not have a hedonistic lifestyle in mind when postulating this formula. Their pursuit was for the “pleasure which endures for a lifetime” which was not found in physical happiness but only in spiritual awareness.[xii] Also, all pain was not to be avoided. If one could foresee a greater good by enduring pain then it was necessary to endure the pain for the short term. They state, “Every pleasure is therefore a good on account of its own nature, but it does not follow that every pleasure is worthy of being chosen; just as every pain is an evil, and yet every pain must not be avoided.”[xiii] Unfortunately, when lived out in praxis these tenants tended to lean towards a hedonistic lifestyle.
We see from this brief overview that the Christians, specifically the Apologists, of Justin’s time were faced with complex and in depth philosophical systems to refute. Some of the prominent theologians of the day believed it was their duty to respond to these views. Others did not see the need to respond at all. We see this in the case of Tertullian. Either way, it was perhaps by the grace of God and the act of the Holy Spirit that these men were successful.
[i] Frederick Copleston, S.J. A History of Philosophy: Volume 1(The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland 1946) p. 129. Zeno was first believed to follow in his fathers footsteps by becoming a merchant but fell in love with philosophy while in Athens in 315.
[ii] Copleston, 133
[iii] Copleston, 132
[iv] Copleston, 133 this same concept can later be seen in Neitzsche’s concept of “Eternal Recurrence.”
[v] Copleston, 134
[vi] Diog. Laert., 7, 89. According to Copleston, 141
[vii] Copleston, 145
[viii] Copleston, 146
[ix] Copleston, 146
[x] Diog. Laert., 10, 139. According to Copleston, 148
[xi] Diog. Laert., 10, 31. According to Copleston, 147
[xii] Copleston, 151
[xiii] Diog. Laert., 10, 128 and 129, According to Copleston 151