There’s an idea going around in some Reformed circles that Christians before the glorious time of the Reformation, (you know, when the Bible, having been lost for so many ages, was rediscovered and theology purged from centuries of error and dross), recklessly let the Faith get “co-opted” by “pagan philosophy.” Although I studied and wrote under the tutelage of this story for a number of years, I have to admit that these days it is seeming increasingly to be a bad idea.
The big problem with the idea is that as it’s most often stated, it’s a gross generalization that doesn’t cover the real particulars of the things it’s trying to generalize. In other words, when you actually seriously study the “pagan” things and compare them with the polemical story about how past generations of Christians allowed them to “co-opt” the Faith, you don’t get that great of a fit. The polemics turn out to be not just unhelpful and inacccurate, but questionable in origin, purpose, and method. Here’s a few examples from the collection I’ve started.
In his Confessions, St. Augustine, that lover of things Neoplatonic, masterfully subverts the Neoplatonic theme of “ascent to the One,” turning it into a picture of how God sovereignly pulls us up to Himself. Augustine can polemicize with the best of them when he needs to, of course – the City of God has quite a bit of railing against “pagan thought.” But, Augustine is keenly aware, as many Reformed people today are not, that you ought not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Maybe it’s an exaggeration to say that just by changing a few words, Plato could have been a Christian, but for those who read Socrates seriously and reflectively, there’s more than a little bit of wisdom that harmonizes well with Scripture and demonstrates the fallacy of polemically claiming that pagans are morons who, not having Scripture, have no genuine understanding of the world and human life in it.
In his Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius, that harmonizer of Plato and Aristotle (and so, of Plato, Aristotle, and Christianity) subverts the classical Greek and Roman notion of Fortune, and transforms Fortune into an agent of God’s providence whom God is using to direct our attention away from worthless worldly things. Centuries later, Dante picks up on this theme and writes some passages about providence and predestination that, with only a few words and phrases changed, could have come from the pen of Calvin.
Speaking of Dante, in his Divine Comedy, he makes skillful use of the Aristotelian Virtue / Vice scheme to illustrate numerous biblical themes, again, including God’s sovereign redemption of undeserving sinners who cannot in any way work their way into His favor. Between the examples of Virgil and Statius there are some intriguing lessons about where the real “antithesis” between Christ and pagans lies.
In the Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas Aquinas brilliantly exposes the flaws of – surprise! – “pagan philosophy,” and demonstrates quite a sophisticated understanding of the boundaries of the Faith relative to how far the inquiries of supposedly “autonomous reason” can go. That whole thing with Siger of Brabant on the eternity of the world – where does that fit into the severely exaggerated Reformed attack on “synthesizers” and “co-opters”?
In his Ordinatio, Duns Scotus uses a complex mixture of Scholastic philosophical thought and biblical exegesis to map out the beginnings of one of Reformed theology’s most hallowed concepts – covenant theology. Sure, it takes more time and development to get to Reformed theology per se, but without the important work of that “co-opter” Scotus, Calvin’s theology might have turned out very differently.
On the other hand, there is Pseudo-Dionysius, a thoroughgoing Neoplatonist whose work on metaphysical and ecclesiastical hierarchies, erroneously attributed to the Dionysius whom Paul converted at Mars Hill, was indeed very influential in Medieval theology and had some bad results. Or there’s Peter Abelard, who, unlike Aquinas, sometimes didn’t know where to stop with Aristotle and Plato. Perhaps a few more examples could be found, but I give those just to show that exaggerated though it is, the “antithesis” story isn’t a sheer fabrication.
The point here, especially from the examples in the first half of the post, is that this great story of the Faith being “co-opted” by “pagan philosophy” and only freed from its bondage by the Reformation is not a good story. It’s too general to be of much use beyond calling the troops to whatever Great Battleline is currently perceived as necessary to defend, and it leads too easily to anachronistic and prejudical readings of our fathers in the Faith – not to mention to the maintenance of some peculiar blindspots of our own.