The Christian and the World

It is noteworthy that, while the problem of the relation of the Church to the world of culture has tormented Christians unremittingly through all the Christian centuries, it has yet taken the Church such a long time to develop a theoretical account of that relation. The practical necessity of relating herself to the world ‘round about her pressed on the Church, of course, from the very moment that the truth of divine revelation once again was preached and believed outside Israel. How tremendously difficult of solution was the problem of determining that relation can be seen in the wide diversity of answers that were given to it by the second-century Apologists, by the anti-gnostic Fathers and by the Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries.

Tatian and Tertullian

On the side of a radical rejection of the world of culture stands. for example, the Syrian Tatian, who, in his address Pros Helleenas (To the Greeks) contemptuousIy and in strong and even abusive language rejects Hellenic culture for the Old Testament. which he describes as ta barbaroon dogmata (the barbarians’ dogmas), and desires that Christianity remain a virile, barbarous faith.

With him is to be classed the great father of Latin Christian literature, Tertullian. Of him Pierre de Labriolle says that he “scarcely ever passes over all opportunity to dig still deeper the ditch separating the world from the Church. He proclaims that all the doctrina saecularis litteraterae is foolishness in the eyes of God, and that the Christian must reject it. ‘What is there in common,’ he cries, ‘between Athens and Jerusalem, between the Academe and the Church?’” (1)

De Labriolle analyzes the motivation of these men, and of others who felt like them, in the following paragraph.

Under(2) this train of reasoning more or less unfavorable to the Greco-Latin learning. there lay an element of rough but formidable logic. What good to make any endeavor at conciliation, or pretense of coquetting with a civilization wherein the true faith found so few points of contact, and so many occasions for becoming impaired or broken up? To live uprightly, to expiate one’s faults, to keep oneself on the road to the eternal fatherland without too many deviations—was not this the essential duty of a Christian? Why aggravate a task already so difficult by mingling with it the study of writers brought up on polytheism. with no care for any moral law, who welcomed all undisciplined curiosities of the spirit, all carnal weaknesses, and whose contradictory speculations disdosed uncertainties deadly to the stability of the established faith? By reading the Scriptures, were there not revealed therein more than one counsel susceptible of justifying the energetic prejudices already suggested by experience and even by good sense? The question then was no other than resolutely to take no account of that ‘wisdom of the world,’ which the Apostle Paul had called ‘foolishness,’ in order to attach oneself to that which was the whole duty of man during his terrestrial pilgrimage.

Thus far de Labriolle. What he has written we might paraphrase in language presently current among us by saying that these particular early Christians put too much emphasis on the antithesis at the expense of common grace. Many will wonder if it is wholly coincidental that both these men fell away finally from the orthodox church and ended their days in heretical movements: Tatian in Encratitism, of which he possibly was the founder, and Tertullian in Montanism.

To have achieved the absolute break with the world of culture that they professed to want, these intransigents, as de Labriolle calls them, would have had to press their absolute principles to the utmost and to have applied them in all their vigor. But, that same writer keenly observes,(3) “life has its necessary requirements and reactions, wherein our preconceived notions, however ardently held they may have been, are brought up against their own limitations, with which they are constrained to make some attempt at composition. To have entirely rejected Greco-Latin learning might have been a bold and imposing attitude to have taken, but can we truly imagine that it could have brought about and realized its work of making a complete breach and destroying it?” To put de Labriolle’s thought once again into words of our own choosing, does the nature reality itself allow the absolute break which these men’s standpoint seemed to encourage? That is, is not the theory in conflict with the existing reality, and therefore false theory?

Telling here, perhaps, are a couple of facts connected with these two men whom we have singled out to illustrate one type of answer given to the question of the Christian’s relation to the world. First, Tatian’s “elaborate style,” to quote the words of Prof Jaeger,(4) is “not in agreement with his antipathy to Greek culture.” His language shows the strong influence of Greek rhetoric in every line and proves that his practice was not quite as (sic!) uncompromising as his theory. And the same kind of remark could be made, and has been, about not only the style of Tertullian but also his extensive learning, betraying, as it does at every point, his thorough acquaintance with all the classical writers. Indeed, as de Labriolle has pointed out,(5) Tertullian, when it came right down to it, “recognized that to forbid Christians to become acquainted with profane learning was to reduce them to an intellectual and practical helplessness well nigh complete.”

The point we are discussing is that while it has taken the Church so long to arrive at an adequate theory of its relation to the world. the practical need of discovering the proper relation was there from the beginning. We said that the difficulty of determining exactly what the relation should be was evident in the great diverSity in the answers that came to be given to the problem. We have discussed the answer given. by men such as Tatian and Teltullian, and we have found it to be extreme. We saw that neither man could maintain his theory in practice.

Justin Martyr

At the other extremity of the gamut of opinion stands a man like Justin Martyr. Reared in the thought-world of Stoicism, with its World-Reason or World-Logos and, in man, the logos spermatikos or seed-reason, this wandering Hellenistic philosopher, after his conversion, sought how he might bring his newly-found faith to those old associates of his unbelieving years. The answer he found in the first chapter of John’s Gospel. By an illegitimate appeal to John 1:9—“That was the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”—he could say, in effect, to his old associates in paganism: “See here, you talk abstractly of your World-logos and of the logos spermatikos in each individual. Now it is just that, but with far greater clarity, that Christianity teaches. Christ is the World-logos, and the logos spermatikos in the individual is what John means when he says that the light lighteth every man. That you who call yourselves Stoics—he refers especially to the Roman Stoic Musonius—that Herakleitos, that Sokrates could know enough to speak of the Logos was itself the result of our Christ’s having illumined you, them and all men.”



What is Justin doing here? He is reducing the meaning of the Scripture to that of the pagan philosophers in order to ease the transition of his old comrades from their paganism to the Christian faith. He attempts to show the essential unity of truth in Greek philosophy and in the divine revelation. The antithesis between true prophecy (God’s Word in Scripture) and false prophecy (the messages of the various philosophers) is concealed behind an assumed mere difference of degree of clarity of insight. Christianity sees clearly what the Greek philosophers were but half blindly grasping after. Prof. Vollenhoven, in his 1933 publication, Het Calvinisme en de Reformatie van de Wijsbegeerte, writes of Justin:(6)

Proceeding not from revelation but from the reason, and with the late Stoa accepting the freedom of the will and applying that consistently with respect to the work of redemption, he—i.e. Justin—further identified the Logos of the true God with the subjectivistic and anti-materialistic logos of that (Stoic) school; following Sextus Empiricus he thought that he found traces of the logos of the late Stoa also in Sokrates and Hcrakleitos, and in this connection he speaks of ‘logos spermatikos’ and (thus) saw in the speculations of the philosophers mentioned ‘germs’ or ‘seeds’ of the Truth of God! You can see: here everything is present that characterizes this movement up to the present moment: in the field of physics an anti-materialistic energetics a la HerakIeitos, with respect to the higher functions a Christianized subjectivism, and –such a total misconception of common grace that this changed from a goodness of God into being an activity of men, more specifically, of heathen, and thus the difference between true and false prophecy becomes relativized.

Of this same line of thought de Labriolle says,(7) “There were some who went so far as to admit that very nearly all of the truth was scattered throughout the pagan philosophical systems, but that no thoughtful mind had embraced it in its integrity. because none of them knew of the master idea which dominates life and which gives it its sense and end. It was only necessary then to reconstitute again by the light of revelation these scattered morsels of truth and to bring them back to unity.” In a footnote de Labriolle says, “This is the theory of Latantius who in this respect is in line with Justin, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria and Minucius Felix.”

Here then we have the second type of early Christian answer to the problem of the relation of the Christian to the world, to culture. We might say that this answer would make too much of, i.e. would misconceive, common grace.

What we ought to see is that neither group could let go utterly of the world and culture in which it found itself. Both Justin and Tatian, though with somewhat different intent, had taken shelter behind a fancy conceived previously by the Alexandrine Jews (Philo), according to which Greek culture, or parts of it, had been derived from the Hebrews. Justin had declared that certain Platonic doctrines were derived from Moses. But Tatian went further, exclaiming that the “wisdom of the Greek sophists” was a “plagiarism drawn by misunderstanding and conceit from its Old Testament source” (Lietzmann). Justin accepted Hellenic culture, simply clothing it in a loose biblical dress. Tatian, though by asserting it to be a plagiarism from the Old Testament he was tacitly admitting that that culture was not a pure lie, nevertheless felt the evil spiritual direction present in it. The great mass of Christian believers in the first centuries, it seems, were more inclined to agree with Tatian. Clement complains that such was the case in his day even in the enlightened city of scholarship, Alexandria.

We have seen that the difficulty of our problem caused even the inexorable Tertullian, as de Labriolle calls him, to vacillate. Such vacillation was not, however, peculiar to him; it sometimes approached being duplicity, as in the case of Jerome. Some of you are probably acquainted with the famous ‘dream of Jerome,’ which Jerome himself relates in one of his letters. As he tells the story he was on his way to Jerusalem and the desert, where he intended to live an ascetic life. With him he had his books, procured before leaving Rome. And here is what he writes:

Miserable man that I amI I was fasting and then I began to read Cicero; after many nights spent in watching, after many tears, which the remembrance of my faults of not so long ago drew forth from the depths of my heart, I took Plautus in my hands. If by chance, on recollecting myself, I started reading the Prophets, their unadorned style awoke in me feelings of repulsion. My eyes, blinded, saw no longer the light, and it was not on my eyes that I laid the blame, it was on heaven.

While the old serpent thus misused me, a violent fever penetrated the marrow of my worn-out body towards the middle of Lent, and, without any respite, in an incredible manner, it so consumed my poor members that I had scarcely any flesh left on my bones. Already people were thinking of my funeral. My body felt quite frozen; a remnant of vital heat no longer palpitated save in the lukewarmness of my poor breast.

Suddenly, I felt myself ravished away in ecstasy and transported before the tribunal of the Judge. Such a dazzling light emanated from those present that, crouched on the ground, I dared not lift up my eyes. On being asked my profession, I replied, “I am a Christian.” Whereupon, he who presided said, “Thou dost lie; thou art a Ciceronian and no Christian; where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.”

At last the sore-tried Jerome uttered the following oath: “Lord, if ever it happens to me to possess or to read profane books, I shall have denied Thee.”

It so happens that years later this same Jerome, in answer to a correspondent in Rome, who had asked him “why he strewed here and there in his writings examples taken from profane literature, thus soiling the whiteness of the Church with pagan horrors,” asserts his “absolute right to make use of the Greco-Latin literature in the interests and honor of the faith” (de Labriolle).

“If we are perplexed to know,” writes de Labriolle,(8) “how St. Jerome reconciled in his mind this doctrine with the somewhat formal obligations whereof his dream of Cicero has furnished the testimony, St. Jerome himself removes this difficulty when he retorts that after all a dream is only a dream and engages us to nothing.” That would seem to me to approach, as I said, duplicity. Nevertheless, I must agree with de Labriolle that it is open to no doubt “that the scruple which he thus vividly portrayed in his dream was for him, as for so many other lettered Christians of the first centuries, the cause of very real and very grievous anguish.

In the wrestling of these early Christians with the problem of the Christian’s relation to the world of culture two elements have appeared: (1) there is widespread awareness of an evil principle present in that world; but (2) there is unwillingness and a vaguely sensed inability to cut oneself oft entirely from that world. Sometimes this second element led to a dangerously naive acceptance of much of the world of ancient culture.

Towards the end of the fourth century a kind of compromise working arrangement came to be widely accepted. This practical “solution” is found, first, in a celebrated tract of Basil of Caesarea which sometimes goes by the title Pros tous neous (To the youth ), but which, as to content might better be entitled “On the Right Way of Drawing Profit from the Profane Authors.” I shall employ de Labriolle’s description of its essential argument.

(Continued in May issue)

1) Pierre de Labriolle, History and Literature of Christianity from Tertullian to Boethuis, translated from the French by Herbert Wilson, London and New York, 1924, Page 18.

2) Idem, p. 20.

3) Idem, p. 21.

4) Werner Jaeger, Humanism and Theology, (The Aquinas Lecture, 1943), Milwaukee, 1943. Page 70, Note 16.

5) de Labriolle, op. cit., p. 24. He cites the following two passages: De Idolol. X, “…cum instrumentum sit ad omnem vitam litteratura”; Der Cor. VIII (OEhler, I, 436), “(Litteras) necessarias confitebor et commerciis rerum et nostris erga Deum studiis.”

6) Page 119f.

7) Op. cit., p. 24 and note 2.

8) Idem, p. 26.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was written for a specific occasion. The reader ought to bear in mind that the purpose was not give a systematic exposition of the problem of the relation of the body of Christians to the “world.” That is a task that yet awaits us. Here the more modest purpose was to provide an historical sketch of the rise of the problem. As such our objective was to indicate that such historical awareness is a necessary precondition to any fruitful discussion of the problem. Even within the suggested limits a deeper analysis will be required in the future. The article is offered as a beginning only.