The Church Fathers were the writers of the time who combined philosophy and theology to produce a more sophisticated Christianity (Watson, 245). Particularly they were of the first five centuries of Christian history. At that time, the theological discussions was not limited to Rome. Outside Rome, Alexandria and Antioch became the intellectual capital of the then Christian world.
The best known of the Alexandrians was Clement (c. 150-216). His aim was to “reconcile pagan scholarship- especially Greek ideas– with Christianity (Watson, 245)”. He disagrees with pagan intellectual and argued that “the world was not mythological phenomenon full of gods and daemons rather it was a natural governed by supreme self-subsistent God (Tarnas, 108).” For him “only the one invisible God and the one biblical revelation were authentic.” He borrowed this concept of “invisible God” from Platonic philosophy. To Plato, God is transcendent-the highest and most perfect being-and one who uses eternal forms, or archetypes, to fashion a universe that is eternal and uncreated (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Clement’s view was that the pagan statues of deities were no more than stone idols. He criticizes Greek paganism and he attacks “the mystery religions for their obscurantism and trivial rituals.”Clement found a ‘contempt’ for ‘this world’ in Plato’s theory of ideas, which was echoed in the theory of teaching of Jesus (Watson, 229).
Clement had run a school in Alexandria but was forced to leave during prosecution. After a gap of some years, his school was reopened by Origen (c. 185-254). He used to teach pagan subjects (rhetoric, geometry, astronomy, philosophy) alongside Hebrew. Origen’s most famous innovation was that everything in the Bible has three meanings- the literal, the moral and the allegorical and that only the last of these is the revealed truth. For example, “the Virgin Birth of Christ in the womb of Mary” was not to be primarily understood in a literal way. It represents “the birth of divine wisdom in the soul.” Likewise, Origen was highly influenced by Neoplatonism. He argued that “the universe was ‘a hierarchy of spiritual beings, with God at the apex and the devil and fallen angels at the base (Watson, 230).” His point was that the God can be knowable in two ways- through nature and through Christ. For him Christ was companion and as ordered as nature. “Man comprised a rational soul in a body of flesh and because of that occupied a position half-way between the angels and the demons. The soul was corrupted by its presence in the body and the object of life was to behave in such a way that one corrupted one’s soul as little as possible (230).”Moreover, he did not believed that resurrection would be of the material body. Since the Second Coming did not occur, this view became more and more influential as time passed.
Jerome (c. 340-419) was an educated man who tried and failed to start his own monasteries. Jerome begins translation of Bible into Latin. Around 383, Jerome produced a major revision of the Latin versions using earlier Greek texts to correct errors. “Jerome’s Bible became the basis for the Vulgate, the standard Latin version, replacing earlier partial translations, called the Itala (Watson, 165).” “His aim was to write a work that would please not only scholars and bishops but ordinary people as well (230).”
Augustine (354-430) was the greatest of the Latin fathers of the church, and “major figure in the history of ideas.”His father was a pagan and his mother was a Christian. He had so many pagan elements that he was known as ‘great sinner who became great saint.’ “According to his own confessions, he was a sinner until he was thirty-two, when he turned to Christianity. But even after that he was unable to live up to his hopes because of a ‘weakness in dealing with sexual temptation’ (232).” But later he was “turned into a great writer with 113 books and 200 letters.” ‘The Confessions’ and ‘City of God’ are his masterpieces.
Augustine’s great contribution was the idea of free will. According to him “humans have the capacity to evaluate the moral order of events or episodes or people or situations, and can then exercise judgment, to order our own priorities, so that we avoid the bad route and follow the good one.” His another influential idea is the Trinity. There was controversy at that time whether Jesus could be divine in the same way as God the Father. Theologians find out a solution. They argued that the Trinity was not three gods but a spiritual/mystical experience, the result of contemplation.
Augustine argued that “since God had made us in his own image (as it said in the Scriptures), ‘we should be able to discern a Trinity in the depths of our minds’.” In ‘On the Trinity’ he said there are “three faculties of the soul – memory, intellect and will; three stages of penance after sin: contrition, confession and satisfaction; three aspects to love – the lover, the beloved and the love that unites them.” There is memory of God, knowledge of God and love of God. “It was a clever intellectual achievement, a fusion of theology and psychology that had never been conceived before (232).”
Augustine’s other well-known work was ‘City of God’. In this, Augustine rejected both the immortality of the human race proposed by pagans, and contemporary ideas of ages (such as those of certain Greeks and Egyptians) that differed from the Church’s sacred writings. He argued that, “the fall of Rome took place because she had fulfilled her purpose: the Christianization of the empire.”According to him the real purpose of history was to pit self-love against the love of God. ‘Self-love lead to the City of Man, love of God to the City of God. These two cities will remain at odds and conflicted throughout time, until the city of God is eternalized as heaven and the city of Man as the hell.Though Augustine’s main aim was to developa philosophy of history, his perspective of history comprised of pessimism. According to him, God had sentenced humanity to eternal damnation as a result of Adam’s original sin. This ‘inherited sin’ was passed on through what Augustine called concupiscence, the desire to take pleasure in sex rather than in God. From Augustine on, Christians viewed mankind as humanity as chronically flawed. “Augustine formulated the Christian Platonism that dominated the medieval Christian thought in the West (Tarnas, 103).” “Christian integration of the Greek spirit frequently regarded Socrates and Plato as the “divinely inspired pre-Christian saints.” Similarly, Augustine rejected the ancient idea of time as cyclical. Instead, he said, time was linear and it was the property of God.
Gregory the Great (540-604) “was the marvelous administrator and under him the church became ever more efficient in an everyday, worldly sense.”“Gregory centralized and reformed the papal administration, elevated the status of priests, expanded the Church’s care for the poor and distressed (Tarnas, 477).” His one of the influential idea was ‘the seven deadly sins. The seven sins were set out on a scale of increasing seriousness: lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, wrath, envy, pride. “A highly popular pope and widely venerated in his own lifetime, Gregory sought to make the Christian faith more comprehensible to the masses of uneducated Europeans by reforming the Mass and by popularizing miracles and the doctrine of purgatory (477).”
It is increasingly accepted among scholars that “at the end of the 1st century AD there were not yet two separate religions called ‘Judaism’ and ‘Christianity’ (Goldenberg, 2002). “Christianity had been a separate religion since the time of Paul (Watson, 222)”, and spread rapidly to the other parts of the empire under his leadership. “By the end of the fourth century, Christianity had become the official state religion of the Roman Empire (Tarnas, 89).” But the conversion of the empire from dominant pagan to Christian was not easy task. Christian had to bear torture at first, they tolerated, and then crucifixion for their new system of belief.
“Paganism dominated the Roman Empire until the fourth century (Viola and Barna, 41)”, but “between 380 and 450 paganism shrank fast (Watson, 241).”The turning point came in the early fourth century when the Roman emperor Constantine convert himself a Christian. “He committed himself and his imperial power to Christianity’s propagation (Tarnas, 890.”
The first-century Christians were opposed to the world’s systems and avoided any contact with paganism. “This all changed during the fourth century when the church emerged as a public institution in the world and began to absorb and Christianize pagan religious ideas and practices (Viola and Barna, 61).” In this way the pagan ideas/scholarship were denied at first but later they were assimilated and incorporated by Christianity.
Goldenberg, Robert .Review of Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism by Daniel Boyarin. JSTOR 92.3-4 (2002): 58.http://www.jstor.org/. Web. 16 May 2014.
Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: understanding the ideas that have shaped our world view. London: Pimlico, 1996. Print.
Viola, Trank and Barna, George. Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices.New York:Tyndale House Publishers, 2008. Print.
Watson, Peter. Ideas: a history of thought and invention, from fire to Freud. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Print.
Morley, Brian. “God, Western Concepts of God.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 08 June 2014. http://www.iep.utm.edu/god-west/