The School of Athens by Raphael (c. 1511)
This question was originally asked by Tertullian (c. 155 - c. 240 AD; full name: Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus), who was a Roman citizen in Carthage, Africa, renowned by some as the father of Western theology. He was trained in Stoicism but later became a great defender of the Christian faith, being the first recorded person to use the word “Trinity” to describe the Godhead, using the words “three persons, one substance” (which terminology was later adopted by the First Council of Nicaea). So the man knew his Bible, and he knew how to think; but he had questions about to what extent the two went together.
“What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Church with the Academy, the Christian with the heretic?… After Jesus we have no need of speculation, after the Gospel no need of research.” —Tertullian
Tertullian isn’t asking about geography here but about ideas linked with those geographical locations. He’s referencing the divide that exists between man’s thoughts (philosophy) and God’s Words (theology) because Athens was the ancient hub for philosophy, and Jerusalem, for religion.
Recently I had the opportunity of teaching through Acts 17 and I was struck again by how big that passage is. It’s easily top–3 of my favorite chapters in Acts, because it’s the most significant passage in the NT that overtly deals with the relationship between philosophy and theology. At the end of the chapter Paul comes to Athens where he is faced with the task of theologizing to a crowd of philosophers, mainly the Stoics and the Epicureans (Acts 17:18). Tertullian’s question rings out center-stage as Paul mounts the Areopagus to give his speech. Let’s set the stage a little more before we listen in.
Athens, the Home of the Philosophers
Athens, Greece, was the center-stage of Western philosophy for centuries, starting with Socrates and his student Plato who founded his own school of philosophy there in c. 387 BC, calling it, very creatively, ”The Academy”. Plato’s student Aristotle also started a school of philosophy there, and together they created the melody onto which all of Western thought would add harmonies. The School of Athens, painted by Raphael on a wall in the Vatican in 1511, depicts their struggle. In the scene, they are walking through the Academy, Plato on the left, pointing up, while Aristotle, on the right, is pointing down with an outspread palm. Here’s the painting again:
They are disagreeing on the fundamental reality of the universe, Plato claiming that everything that exists really exists “up there” in its Ideal Form (Platonism), while Aristotle was countering that by saying that ultimate reality is “down here” in the particulars of life (Aristotelianism). You could say that Plato was arguing for an essentially spiritual reality while Aristotle argued for an essentially material/physical reality. Plato was popular among the Christian mystics because he looked up for answers while Aristotle is popular with scientists because he trusted his own senses for answers (Empiricism).
Alfred North Whitehead once said that all of Western philosophy are just footnotes to Plato, and while that’s an overstatement, it works because this problem truly is the melody onto which all other philosophical problems become harmonies.
Two local philosophers in Athens, Epicurus and Zeno (the Stoic), are mentioned in Acts because they developed the most famous worldviews in response to the Plato/Aristotle debate. Aristotle ended up winning out in influence in the time, so that both Zeno and Epicurus are building on his base. Which means they both accepted the fundamental worldview that ultimate reality is essentially material, and that man can empirically figure out life on his own.
It’s this very tension Paul walks into in Acts 17, bringing the revelation of God into contact with the empirical thinking of man, presenting a Gospel oddly reminiscent of both.
Jerusalem, the Home of the Theologians
Across the Mediterranean Sea there were Jews and scribes and a more Platonic set of beliefs. The Jews believed in a single, monotheistic deity who gives life and breath to all creatures (Acts 17:25). So, in a way, the “religious” are people who are more Platonic than Aristotelian—so much so that modern religion has been called Neo-Platonic because we’ve bought into this idea that God lives “up there” and we live “down here.”
The Jews believed in a God who is self-existent (Ex 3:14), who created all things (Gen 1:1) and speaks to them by His Word which they must listen to and obey (Deut 6:4–9, the Shema).
This is why Tertullian, Bible scholar in the second century AD, asks what Athens, the home of empiricism, has to do with Jerusalem, the home of divine revelation. What is the relationship between man and God, particularly when it comes to the seeming incongruity between the life of the mind (reason) and faith?
The Dualism of Faith and Reason
Plato and Aristotle introduced this dichotomy between faith and reason when they separated matter from spirituality. It’s from here that we get the divide even we struggle with, the divide between the sacred and the secular, the physical and the spiritual. It’s this dichotomy Francis Schaeffer blows apart in his works like How Should We Then Live? where he describes this separation with an analogy of a two-story house where “faith” forms the upper story while “reason” forms the lower story. Empiricism (reason) is limited to the bottom level while divine revelation inhabits the upper level, never the two to meet. But going too far into that gets us off track.
The point is that to the Athenians (and to us) faith is separated from reason. The upper story is separated from the lower story; theology is separated from philosophy. Just because you believe in a God doesn’t mean you also believe He is knowable. An example of this is the way the Athenians would identify their gods. They would set sheep on the Areopagus and turn them loose to go and wherever they wanted, and wherever they stopped the mystical Athenians would set up an altar to another unknown god. Hence the one Paul happens upon in Acts 17:23.
Paul comes into this environment preaching the resurrection of Christ, the physical manifestation of a spiritual reality, which does two things: 1) it destroys the closed system of materialism and 2) it re-integrates the physical with the spiritual. If Jesus was dead, and then became alive, some other force is at work, not only above Him, but within Him. And as Paul later says, without that resurrection, the entire Christian worldview would fall apart (1 Cor 15:17).
The Areopagus, where Paul delivered his sermon
The Sermon on Mars Hill: Acts 17:22–31
The Areopagus Sermon by Raphael (1515)
Now, let’s get on to the text. I will do better exposition in another post, but for now, let me summarize:
Paul says, I walked through your city and noticed a lot of altars to unknown gods, and I realized that you’re very religious, but let me tell you you’re doing religion all wrong. God isn’t unknown or unknowable; He’s rational, reasonable, and real. And you can find Him and come to know Him. The Being who created you is holding you together. He’s not separated off by Himself, leaving you to fend for yourself in your tiny empirical ability. And since He created everything and sustains everything, there is a purpose for your life, and if you don’t repent, His purpose for the Universe will include your own destruction. My proof? It’s Jesus. It’s time to end your ignorance and come to know the Truth because life isn’t just about philosophical musings; it’s far more real and lasting. The eternal bumps up against the time-space continuum in Story, and you are writing your own story right now.
Simply put, Paul reintegrates the sacred with secular by using the resurrection as proof that the material world exists within the realm of the spiritual, not aside from it. The fact that God holds our very bodies together in some sort of parallel dimension is what scientists have now discovered (via their empirical observation) in what they call quantum physics, which serves as a bridge between physics (the study of material things) and metaphysics (the study of “spiritual” things). This is what Paul is referring to in Acts 17:27–28). Quantum physics was discovered by Paul in 50ish AD!
What this quantum physics line of reasoning does is reintegrate the secular with the sacred, reconnect Athens with Jerusalem, and reconcile philosophy and theology.
“The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes.” —Martin Luther
The Divide Struggles On
But, due to the hard hearts and small minds of humans, the divide still exists. It even affects the way we work. Tim Keller comments on that divide:
When many Christians enter a vocational field, either they seal off their faith and go to work like everyone else around them, or they spout Bible verses to their coworkers. We do not know very well how to persuade people of Christianity’s answers by showing them the faith-based, worldview roots of everyone’s work. We do not know how to equip our people to think out the implications of the gospel for art, business, government, journalism, entertainment, and scholarship.
Even Tertullian never figured it out:
Tertullian argued that Christians could not participate in the military, in politics, or in trade with the world. “After we become Christians,” Tertullian said, “we have no need of Greek philosophy.” Jerusalem and Athens have nothing to do with one another.
How Are We to Deal with this Divide?
Jay Green lists three popular potential options:
- Avoid “reason” and the life of the mind altogether, and just stick with our “religious” exercises.
- Engage with “reason” but do it defensively (i.e., the Truth Project).
- Resist integrating faith and reason, and just live with both, unconnected.
But these three options all still buy into the lie that philosophy and theology are actually divided. In reality, they aren’t. We aren’t here to barter about what is “religious” and what is “secular,” but we are here to be integrated humans in God’s integrated world. Art is art, and knowledge is knowledge, no matter where it may come from. This can explode into a huge argument huge books are written about, so for now, we’ll leave it here, with this from Jay Green:
The academic disciplines are both extensions of creation and one of the most consequential ways in which we exercise dominion over that which God has made. As such, the academic disciplines are legitimate spheres of good human work even when they are controlled by sinners, even when their most masterful practitioners are unbelievers (which they typically are), and even when they are used for nefarious purposes.
“We were not wrong to learn the alphabet just because they say that the god Mercury was its patron, nor should we avoid justice and virtue just because they dedicated temples to justice and virtue…. A person who is a good and a true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found.” —St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine
- Jay Green, An Invitation to Academic Studies.
- Hugh Whelchel, How Then Should We Work?.
- James D. G. Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem.
Tertullian, “Prescription against Heretics,” trans. Peter Holmes, in Ante- Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody, MA: Hen- drickson, 1994), 3:249. Accessed in Jay Green, An Invitation to Academic Studies, pg. 8. ↩
Tim Keller, “A New Kind of Urban Christian,” Christianity Today, vol. 50, no. 5, May 2006. Accessed in Hugh Whelchel, How Then Should We Work?, loc 1816. ↩