Did Aquinas Bring Greek Philosophy Into Christianity?

Periodically we hear the accusation that we should not bring in philosophy, particularly Greek philosophy, into Christian theology. Tertullian is often quoted as saying “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” Also, is it not true that the apostle Paul warns us to beware of philosophy in Colossians 2:8? The accusation is that this is evidence that we should not study philosophy or the traditions of men, let alone mingle their teachings with sound Biblical doctrines.

It is true that Paul tells us in Colossians 2:8 to not let anyone take us captive using philosophy, deceit, or the things of the world, rather than of Christ. And this is wise advice, for over the centuries many people in the church have indeed been deceived by the teachings of men. As Norman Geisler has pointed out, in order to beware of philosophy, we must first be aware of philosophy. In order to recognize the deceptions that come from many philosophers, we must recognize the deceptions for what they are. The only way to do this is to be aware that they exist and know what they look like compared to the truth.

Secondly, there is no one single “Greek philosophy.” In Copelston’s classic history of philosophy, he lists 44 ancient Greek philosophers or schools of philosophy, not counting the minor players. These Greek traditions were vastly different from each other. Plato did not agree with Socrates, Aristotle dis not agree with Plato, Plotinus modified their teachings to his own end. With all of the very different schools of thought, it is difficult to see how anyone could “bring in Greek philosophy” in any specific or recognizable sense of the term. Perhaps someone could bring in a tradition of a particular Greek teacher, but not Greek philosophy in general, for there were too many different teachings.

Third, philosophy is merely thinking about things, and it is almost impossible to leave out thinking about things. For example, Plato taught that things in the world were patterned after very real things called forms which were very real, but existed somewhere as perfect ideals. To Plato, forms were outside the thing, and things are copies of the forms. Aristotle disagreed, and said the form is in the thing, not external to it.

So if we have, for example, a chair in front of us, we have three options. We can either 1) say with Plato that the chair is patterned after an ideal of a chair that is out there somewhere, or 2) we can say with Aristotle that the form of the chair is built into the chair, or 3) say I do not care and I will not think about how the chair is patterned.

Perhaps with chairs we can choose the third option and never look back. However, how about men’s souls? If we think about how humans are constructed, we very often cannot study the Bible if we choose option 3. We often struggle with how we are created. Do we side with Augustine and say the soul is the real part of us, and the body not important? Or do we side with Aquinas and say the body is an equal part of you as your soul? If we choose Augustine, we choose Plato’s metaphysic, but if we choose Aquinas, we have chosen Aristotle. The only other option is not think about all those Bible verses that speak of the body and soul.

Getting even more specific, 1 Corinthians 15 has a lengthy passage that speaks of the resurrection body. I submit to you that this section makes no sense if we take the more common teaching that most of us have been brought up to believe, which is that the “real you” is your soul, and the body is not “really you.” Separating body and soul comes from Augustine’s theology, who was influenced by Plato’s metaphysics. The apostle Paul, not getting his teaching from men, had no such idea. To Paul, your body is as much “you” as your soul. In 1 Corinthians 15, we are presented as a soul-body unity, and a physical bodily resurrection of all humans is needed because our bodies are equally “us” as our souls.

So a metaphysic that is closer to Aristotle corrects a possible heresy that has permeated Christian teaching about the resurrection body for many centuries, a teaching that came originally from Plato.

So again, our options are we can either not think about important doctrines like our resurrection bodies, or we can accept one or the other teachings that can be traced back to Greek philosophers. We have no other choice.

But either way, it is not an option to accept some teachings, such as those from Augustine and all the many theologians who followed him, while rejecting others as having brought in Greek philosophy.

Fourth, as Etienne Gilson said, “Philosophy buries its own undertakers.” All those who try to kill philosophy have to think about it to do so, and philosophy is thinking. If we try to think about all the areas where philosophy has crept in, and eliminate it, we have to think about it, then recognize it, and in doing so we are doing philosophy. Thinking about not thinking is self-refuting.

Fifth, many of those who want to eliminate philosophy are those who are most deceived by it, for they do not recognize it for what it is. Again, see Augustine, who overall was a great Bible teacher.

Sixth, philosophers are humans, and we are told to go out into the world and make disciples of all humans. The apostle Paul understood this, and in Acts 17 was in a group of philosophers. Paul knew philosophy, for he quotes two of their teachers in his speech, and systematically refutes them before getting to the good news of the gospel of Jesus.

Therefore trying to eliminate all philosophy is impossible. Our only options are do we think poorly, or do we think clearly?

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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4 Responses to Did Aquinas Bring Greek Philosophy Into Christianity?

  1. robinobishop says:

    The achievement of Thomas Aquinas was the synthesis of Augustine and Aristotle. Augustine had previously closed ancient thought and began medieval thought after spending his formative tears in the schools of the philosophers. The Gospel of Jesus Christ in its purity was ancient thought and left out of this discussion except when describing, so briefly, the biblical account of Paul defeating philosophers. Consistent with ancient Christian thought, Paul made use of a power of revelation with a solid testimony of uncontaminated gospel principles.

    The notion that the consequence of philosophy can somehow be extracted from orthodox Christianity today is, as you have said, impossible. Philosophy has had a deeply corrosive result on ancient Christian thought in the form of false doctrines piled upon false doctrines inconceivable to the ancients. Most serious problem for the Protestants and Catholics today who are so divisive among each other and have dwindled in integrity without the truth.

    • humblesmith says:

      You can make blanket claims about philosophy in general, but as the post states, this becomes meaningless when we try to nail down exactly what is being discussed. “Philosophy” as a concept is so broad as to not be useful. Whatever is meant by “Augustine had previously closed ancient thought” is doubtful, since as stated, he was heavily influenced by Plato’s metaphysics, and Augustine’s theology has influenced many teachers even till today. I would be extremely hesitant to say that Aquinas synthesized Augustine and Aristotle, since their bases for how things exist are so different.

      You imply that the first-century church is something we should long for or get back to. I submit that a careful reading of the New Testament will show that the first centrury church was as filled with problems as modern ones: people being put out of the church due to sexual sins, doctrinal heresies that needed correction, false teachers, and many more.

      All we have that is inspired is the word of God presented to us in the Old and New Testaments. We do not need to follow fuzzy condemnations of “philosophy” as if such a statement meant something specific, and we certainly do not need to follow false prophets like Joseph Smith or the Latter Day Saints who have demonstrated their non-Christian teachings.

      http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/comparison-between-christianity-mormonism/

      http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/is-mormonism-a-cult/

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  3. WESLEYHICKS@comcast.net says:

    Glen have you written any thing on the 23rd Psalms ? I couldn’t find any thing in the archives.  The chart you sent will work OK

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