Yet another note on the Van Tillian caricature of the Church Fathers as people who rather unfortunately did not recognize that they were “co-opting” the Faith with pagan philosophy:
Augustine notes that disproving the pagan arguments about the gods’ benevolence toward Rome requires more subtlety than just mocking them to scorn. He says engaging with pagan philosophers “of the most eminent reputation” is required, and that we must recognize that these philosophers agree with Christianity on many points, including the immortality of the soul, the creation of the universe, and God’s providence. However, “even these must be rebutted on the points on which they disagree with us; and therefore we must not fail in our duty, so that, when we have refuted their impious attacks – in so far as God gives us strength – we may establish the City of God, and true religion, and the true worship of God. For in this alone is the genuine promise of eternal bliss” (City of God I.36). Similarly, “Some [of the philosophers] certaintly established important points, in so far as they had divine assistance, while they went astray in so far as they were hindered by human weakness, especially when divine providence rightly opposed their presumption, in order to show, by contrast, the way of piety, which starts from humility and ascends to the heights” (II.7).
What’s the point of this? Simple. Just because he made a lot of use of Platonism doesn’t mean that Augustine is a confused “co-opter” of the Faith, a guy who just didn’t read his Bible enough so as to know that “vain philosophy” takes one captive to the basic principles of the world. Augustine was smarter than many Van Tillians give him credit for. He knew that there is a line to be drawn somewhere, because he knew that the philosophers are not always right and that where they are wrong they must be corrected by the Faith. And of course, this particular instance of him recognizing the superiority of the Faith to pagan thought appears in a very large work designed to show – surprise? – the antithesis.
But significantly, Augustine’s antithesis isn’t where the Van Tillians put it. It’s not in a ramped-up rhetorical “culture war” that focuses mainly on separating from corrupted external things and trying to construct a “pure” perspective based only on the self-validating Bible. No, Augustine’s antithesis is in the hearts of men, not in their epistemological states. While philosophy and religion do incarnate themselves in cultures, and in this sense a culture made by pagans is going to be against a culture made by Christians, at the same time the two cities are always intermingled in this life. The City of God should not be so into the glory of her divine constitution that she forgets that it is the City of Man from which her converts come and, accordingly, that she must “bear with their hostility until she finds them confessing the faith” (I.35). Bear with, not mock to scorn. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. It’s senseless to imagine that the defense of Christian truth requires totally leveling the ground, taking no notice of the varying qualities of the structures already there but razing all indiscriminately so as to rebuild from scratch. The antithesis isn’t that radical.