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1. Patristic literature

Patristic literature is generally identified today with the entire Christian literature of the early Christian centuries, irrespective of its orthodoxy or the reverse. Taken literally, however, patristic literature should denote the literature emanating from the Fathers of the Christian Church, the Fathers being those respected bishops and other teachers of exemplary life who witnessed to and expounded the orthodox faith in the early centuries. This would be in line with the ancient practice of designating as "the Fathers" prominent church teachers of past generations who had taken part in ecumenical councils or whose writings were appealed to as authoritative. Almost everywhere, however, this restrictive definition has been abandoned. There are several reasons why a more elastic usage is to be welcomed. One is that some of the most exciting Christian authors, such as Origen, were of questionable orthodoxy, and others--Tertullian, for example--deliberately left the church. Another is that the undoubtedly orthodox Fathers themselves cannot be properly understood in isolation from their doctrinally unorthodox contemporaries. Most decisive is the consideration that early Christian literature exists, and deserves to be studied, as a whole and that much will be lost if any sector is neglected because of supposed doctrinal shortcomings.


During the first three centuries of its existence the Christian Church had first to emerge from the Jewish environment that had cradled it and then come to terms with the predominantly Hellenistic (Greek) culture surrounding it. Its legal position at best precarious, it was exposed to outbursts of persecution at the very time when it was working out its distinctive system of beliefs, defining its position vis-à-vis Judaism on the one hand and Gnosticism (a heretical movement that upheld the dualistic view that matter is evil and the spirit good) on the other, and constructing its characteristic organization and ethic. It was a period of flux and experiment, but also one of consolidation and growing self-confidence, and these are all mirrored in its literature. (see also Index: early church, Hellenistic Age)

i) The Apostolic Fathers.

According to conventional reckoning, the earliest examples of patristic literature are the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers; the name derives from their supposed contacts with the Apostles or the apostolic community. These writings include the church order called the Didacheor Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (dealing with church practices and morals), the Letter of Barnabasand the Shepherd of Hermasall of which hovered at times on the fringe of the New Testament canon in that they were used as sacred scripture by some local churches; the First Letter of Clementthe seven letters that Ignatius of Antioch (d. c. 110) wrote when being escorted to Rome for his martyrdom, the related Letter to the Philippiansby Polycarp of Smyrna (d. c. 156 or 168), and the narrative report of Polycarp's martyrdom; some fragmentary accounts of the origins of the Gospels by Papias (fl. late 1st or early 2nd century AD), bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia, Asia Minor; and an ancient homily (sermon) known as the Second Letter of ClementThey all belong to the late 1st or early 2nd century and were all to a greater or lesser extent influenced (sometimes by way of reaction) by the profoundly Jewish atmosphere that pervaded Christian thinking and practice at this primitive stage. For this reason alone, modern scholars tend to regard them as a somewhat arbitrarily selected group. A more scientific assessment would place them in the context of a much wider contemporary Jewish-Christian literature that has largely disappeared but whose character can be judged from pseudepigraphal (or noncanonical) works such as the Ascension of Isaiah, the Odes of Solomon, and certain extracanonical texts modeled on the New Testament.

Even with this qualification the Apostolic Fathers, with their rich variety of provenance and genre (types), illustrate the difficult doctrinal and organizational problems with which the church grappled in those transitional generations. Important among these problems were the creation of a ministerial hierarchy and of an accepted structure of ecclesiastical authority. The Didache, which is Syrian in background and possibly the oldest of these documents, suggests a phase when Apostles and prophets were still active but when the routine ministry of bishops and deacons was already winning recognition. The First Letter of Clement, an official letter from the Roman to the Corinthian Church, reflects the more advanced state of a collegiate episcopate, with its shared authority among an assembly of bishops. This view of authority was supported by an emergent theory of apostolic succession in which bishops were regarded as jurisdictional heirs of the early Apostles. The First Letter of Clement is also instructive in showing that the Roman Church, even in the late 1st century, was asserting its right to intervene in the affairs of other churches. The letters of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch at the beginning of the 2nd century, depict the position of the monarchical bishop, flanked by subordinate presbyters (priests) and deacons (personal assistants to the bishop), which had been securely established in Asia Minor. (see also Index: Roman Catholicism)

Almost more urgent was the question of the relation of Christianity to Judaism, and in particular of the Christian attitude toward the Old Testament. In the Didache there is little sign of embarrassment; Jewish ethical material is taken over with suitable adaptations, and the Jewish basis of the liturgical elements is palpable. But with Barnabas the tension becomes acute; violently anti-Jewish, the Alexandrian author substitutes allegorism (use of symbolism) for Jewish literalism and thus enables himself to wrest a Christian meaning from the Old Testament. The same tension is underlined by Ignatius' polemic against Judaizing tendencies in the church. At the same time all these writings--especially those of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias--testify to the growing awareness of a specifically Christian tradition embodied in the teaching transmitted from the Apostles. (see also Index: allegorical interpretation)

Almost all the Apostolic Fathers throw light on primitive doctrine and practice. The Didache, for example, presents the Eucharist as a sacrifice, and I Clement incorporates contemporary prayers. II Clement invites its readers to think of Christ as of God, and of the church as a preexistent reality. The Shepherd of Hermas seeks to modify the rigorist view that sin committed after baptism cannot be forgiven. But the real key to the theology of the Apostolic Fathers, which also explains its often curious imagery, is that it is Jewish-Christian through and through, expressing itself in categories derived from latter-day Judaism and apocalyptic literature (depicting the intervention of God in history in the last times), which were soon to become unfashionable and be discarded.

ii) The Gnostic writers.

Hardly had the church thrown off its early Jewish-Christian idiosyncrasies when it found itself confronted by the amorphous but pervasive philosophical-religious movement known as Gnosticism. This movement made a strong bid to absorb Christianity in the 2nd century, and a number of Christian Gnostic sects flourished and contributed richly to Christian literature. Although the church eventually maintained its identity intact, the confrontation forced it to clarify its ideas on vital issues on which it differed sharply from the Gnostics. Chief among these were the Gnostics' distinction between the unknown supreme God and the Demiurge (identified with the God of the Old Testament) who created this world; their dualist disparagement of the material order and insistence that the Redeemer became incarnate in appearance only; their belief in salvation by esoteric knowledge; and their division of humanity into a spiritual elite able to achieve salvation and, below this elite, "psychics" capable of a modified form of salvation and "material" people cut off from salvation.

Among the leading 2nd-century Christian Gnostics were Saturninus and Basilides, reputedly pupils of Menander, a disciple of Simon Magus (late 1st century), the alleged founder of the movement; they worked at both Antioch and Alexandria. Most famous and influential was the Egyptian Valentinus, who acquired a great reputation at Rome (c. 150) and founded an influential school of thought. Basilides and Valentinus are reported to have written extensively, and their systems can be reconstructed from hostile accounts by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and other orthodox critics. The Gnostics generally seem to have been prolific writers, and as they needed their own distinctive scriptures they soon created a body of apocryphal books patterned on the New Testament. It was a Syrian Gnostic convert, Tatian, who compiled (late 2nd century) the first harmony of the four Gospels (the Diatessaron)--a single gospel using the material from the Gospels; and an Italian Gnostic, Heracleon (2nd century), who prepared the earliest commentary on the Gospel According to John (extracts from it were preserved by Origen). Epiphanius (c. 315-403) preserved a Letter to Flora, by the Valentinian Gnostic Ptolemaeus (late 2nd century), supplying rules for interpreting the Mosaic Law (the Torah) in a Christian sense; and another disciple of Valentinus, Theodotus (2nd century), published an account of his master's system that was excerpted by Clement of Alexandria.

Almost the entire vast literature of Gnosticism has perished, and until recently the only original documents available to scholars (apart from extracts such as those already mentioned, which were preserved by orthodox critics) were a handful of treatises in Coptic contained in three codices (manuscript books) that were discovered in the 18th and late 19th centuries. The most interesting of these are Pistis Sophiaand the Apocryphon of John, the former consisting of conversations of the risen Jesus with his disciples about the fall and redemption of the aeon (emanation from the Godhead) called Pistis Sophia, the latter of revelations made by Jesus to St. John explaining the presence of evil in the cosmos and showing how mankind can be rescued from it.

Since 1945, however, this meagre store has been richly supplemented by the discovery near Naj' Hammadi, in Egypt on the Nile about 78 miles northwest of Luxor, of 13 codices containing Christian Gnostic treatises in Coptic translations. Among these, the Jung Codex (named in honour of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung by those who purchased it for his library) includes five important items: a Prayer of the Apostle Paul; an Apocryphon of James, recording revelations imparted by the risen Christ to the Apostles; the Gospel of Truthperhaps to be identified with the work of this name attributed by Irenaeus to Valentinus; the Epistle to Rheginos, a Valentinian work, possibly by Valentinus himself, on the Resurrection; and a Tripartite Treatise, probably written by Heracleon, of the school of Valentinianism. The other documents from the Naj' Hammadi library include the Gospel of Thomasa collection of sayings and parables that are ascribed to Jesus; the Apocryphon of John, which represents the first chapter of Genesis in mythological terms; and writings ascribed to Philip, Mary Magdalene, Adam, Peter, and Paul.

A figure of immense significance who is often, though perhaps mistakenly, counted among the Gnostics was Marcion, who after breaking with the Roman Church in 144 set up a successful organization of his own. Teaching that there is a radical opposition between the Law and the Gospel, he refused to identify the God of love revealed in the New Testament with the wrathful Creator God of the Old Testament. He set forth these contrasts in his Antitheses, and his adoption of a reduced New Testament consisting of the Gospel According to Luke and certain Pauline epistles, all purged of presumed Jewish interpolations, had an important bearing on the church's formation of its own fuller canon.

iii) The Apologists.

The orthodox literature of the 2nd and early 3rd centuries tends to have a distinctly defensive or polemical colouring. It was the age of Apologists, and these Apologists engaged in battle on two fronts. First, there was the hostility and criticism of pagan society. Because of its very aloofness the church was popularly suspected of sheltering all sorts of immoralities and thus of threatening the established order. At a higher level, Christianity, as it became better known, was being increasingly exposed to intellectual attack. The physician Galen of Pergamum (129-c. 199) and the Middle Platonist thinker Celsus, who followed the religiously inclined form of Platonism that flourished from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD (compare his devastating Alethes logos, or True Word, written c. 178), were only two among many "cultured despisers." But, second, orthodoxy had to take issue with distorting tendencies within, whether these took the form of Gnosticism or of other heresies, such as the so-called semi-Gnostic Marcion's rejection of the Old Testament revelation or the claim of the ecstatic prophet from Phrygia, Montanus, to be the vehicle of a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Christianity had also to define exactly where it stood in relation to Hellenistic culture.

Strictly speaking, the term Apologists denotes the 2nd-century writers who defended Christianity against external critics, pagan and Jewish. The earliest of this group was Quadratus, who in about 124 addressed an apology for the faith to the emperor Hadrian; apart from a single fragment it is now lost. Other early Apologists who are mere names known to scholars are Aristo of Pella, the first to prepare an apology to counter Jewish objections, and Apollinaris, bishop of Hierapolis, said to be the author of numerous apologetic works and also of a critique of Montanism. An early apology that has survived intact is that of Aristides, addressed about 140 to the emperor Antoninus Pius; after being completely lost, the text was rediscovered in the 19th century. The most famous Apologist, however, was Justin, who was converted to Christianity after trying various philosophical schools, paid lengthy visits to Rome, and was martyred there (c. 165). Justin's two Apologies are skillful presentations of the Christian case to the pagan critics; and his Dialogue with Trypho is an elaborate defense of Christianity against Judaism.

Justin's attitude to pagan philosophy was positive, but his pupil Tatian could see nothing but evil in the Greco-Roman civilization. Indeed, Tatian's Discourse to the Greeks is less a positive vindication of Christianity than a sharp attack on paganism. His contemporary Athenagoras of Athens, author of the apologetic work Embassy for the Christians and a treatise On the Resurrection of the Dead, is as friendly as Justin to Greek culture and philosophy. Two others who deserve mention are Theophilus of Antioch, a prolific publicist whose only surviving work is To Autolycus, prepared for his pagan friend Autolycus; and the anonymous author of the Letter to Diognetusan attractive and persuasive exposition of the Christian way of life that is often included among the Apostolic Fathers.

As stylists the Apologists reach only a passable level; even Athenagoras scarcely achieves the elegance at which he obviously aimed. But they had little difficulty in refuting the spurious charges popularly brought against Christians, including atheism, cannibalism, and promiscuity, or in mounting a counterattack against the debasements of paganism. More positively, they strove to vindicate the Christian understanding of God and specific doctrines such as the divinity of Christ and the resurrection of the body. In so doing, most of them exploited current philosophical conceptions, in particular that of the Logos (Word), or rational principle underlying and permeating reality, which they regarded as the divine reason, become incarnate in Jesus. They have been accused of Hellenizing Christianity (making it Greek in form and method), but they were in fact attempting to formulate it in intellectual categories congenial to their age. In a real sense they were the first Christian theologians. But the same tension between the Gospel and philosophy was to persist throughout the patristic period, with results that were sometimes positive, as in Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa, and sometimes negative, as in the radical Arians Aëtius and Eunomius.

As the 2nd century advanced, a more confident, aggressive spirit came over Christian Apologists, and their intellectual and literary stature increased greatly. Clement of Alexandria, for example, while insisting on the supremacy of faith, freely drew on Platonism and Stoicism to clarify Christian teaching. In his Protreptikos ("Exhortation") and Paidagogos ("Instructor") he urged pagans to abandon their futile beliefs, accept the Logos as guide, and allow their souls to be trained by him. In interpreting scripture he used an allegorizing method derived from the Jewish philosopher Philo, and against Gnosticism he argued that the baptized believer who studies the Scriptures is the true Gnostic, faith being at once superior to knowledge and the beginning of knowledge.

The critique of Gnosticism was much more systematically developed by Clement's older contemporary, Irenaeus of Lyon, in his voluminous Against HeresiesWhile countering the Valentinian dualism that asserted that spirit was good and matter evil, this treatise makes clear the church's growing reliance on its creed or "rule of faith," on the New Testament canon, and on the succession of bishops as guarantors of the true apostolic tradition. Irenaeus was also a constructive theologian, expounding ideas about God as Creator, about the Son and the Spirit as his "two hands," about Christ as the New Adam who reconciles fallen humanity with God, and about the worldwide church with its apostolic faith and ministry, a concept that theology was later to take up eagerly.

More brilliant as a stylist and controversialist, the North African lawyer Tertullian was also the first Latin theologian of considerable importance. Unlike Clement, he reacted with hostility to pagan culture, scornfully asking, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" His Apology remains a classic of ancient Christian literature, and his numerous moral and practical works reveal an uncompromisingly rigid moral view. Although later becoming a Montanist himself (a follower of the morally rigorous and prophetic sect founded by Montanus), he wrote several antiheretical tracts, full of abuse and biting sarcasm. Yet, in castigating heresy he was able to formulate the terminology, and to some extent the theory, of later Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy; his teaching on the Fall of Man, aimed against Gnostic dualism, in part anticipates Augustine.

Roughly contemporary with Tertullian, and like him an intellectual and a rigorist, was Hippolytus, a Greek-speaking Roman theologian and antipope. He, too, had a vast literary output, and although some of the surviving works attributed to him are disputed, it is probable that he wrote the comprehensive Refutation of All Heresies, attacking Gnosticism, as well as treatises denouncing specifically Christian heresies. He was also the author both of numerous commentaries on scripture and (probably) of the Apostolic Traditionan invaluable source of knowledge about the primitive Roman liturgy. His Commentary on Daniel (c. 204) is the oldest Christian biblical commentary to survive in its entirety. His exegesis (interpretive method) is primarily typological--i.e., treating the Old Testament figures, events, and other aspects as "types" of the new order that was inaugurated by Christ.

iv) Late 2nd to early 4th century.

Meanwhile, a brilliant and distinctive phase of Christian literature was opening at Alexandria, the chief cultural centre of the empire and the meeting ground of the best in Hellenistic Judaism, Gnosticism, and Neoplatonism. Marked by the desire to present Christianity in intellectually satisfying terms, this literature has usually been connected with the catechetical school, which, according to tradition, flourished at Alexandria from the end of the 2nd through the 4th century. Except for the brief period, however, when Origen was in charge of it, it may be doubted whether the school was ever itself a focus of higher Christian studies. When speaking of the school of Alexandria, some scholars claim that it is better to think of a distinguished succession of like-minded thinkers and teachers who worked there and whose highly sophisticated interpretation of Christianity exercised for generations a formative impact on large sectors of eastern Christendom.

The real founder of this theology, with its Platonist leaning, its readiness to exploit the metaphysical implications of revelation, and its allegorical understanding of scripture, was Clement (c. 150-c. 215), the Christian humanist whose welcoming attitude to Hellenism and critique of Gnosticism were noted above. His major work, the Stromateis("Miscellanies"), untidy and deliberately unsystematic, brings together the inheritance of Jewish Christianity and Middle Platonism in what aspires to be a summary of Christian gnosis (knowledge). All his reasoning is dominated by the idea of the Logos who created the universe and who manifests the ineffable Father alike in the Old Testament Law, the philosophy of the Greeks, and finally the incarnation of Christ. Clement was also a mystic for whom the higher life of the soul is a continuous moral and spiritual ascent.

But it is Origen (c. 185-c. 254) whose achievement stamps the Alexandrian school. First and foremost, he was an exegete (critical interpreter), as determined to establish the text of scripture scientifically (compare his Hexapla) as to wrest its spiritual import from it. In homilies, scholia (annotated works), and continuous commentaries he covered the whole Bible, deploying a subtle, strongly allegorical exegesis designed to bring out several levels of significance. As an apologist, in his Contra Celsumhe refuted the pagan philosopher Celsus' damaging onslaught on Christianity. In all his writings, but especially his On First Principles, Origen shows himself to be one of the most original and profound of speculative theologians. Neoplatonist in background, his system embraces both the notion of the preexistence of souls, with their fall and final restoration, and a deeply subordinationist doctrine of the Trinity--i.e., one in which the Son is subordinate to the Father. For his spiritual teaching, with its emphasis on the battle against sin, on freedom from passions, and on the soul's mystical marriage with the Logos, his Commentary on Canticles provides an attractive introduction.

Origen's influence on Christian doctrine and spirituality was to be immense and many-sided; the orthodox Fathers and the leading heretics of the 4th century alike reflect it. Meanwhile, the Alexandrian tradition was maintained by several remarkable disciples. Two of these whose works have been entirely lost but who are reported to have been polished writers were Theognostus (fl. 250-280) and Pierius (fl. 280-300), both heads of the catechetical school and apparently propagators of Origen's ideas. But there are two others of note, Dionysius of Alexandria (c. 200-c. 265) and Gregory Thaumaturgus (c. 213-c. 270), of whose works some fragments have survived. Dionysius of Alexandria wrote on natural philosophy and the Christian doctrine of creation but is chiefly remembered for his dispute with Pope Dionysius (reigned 259-268) of Rome on the correct understanding of the Trinity. In this Dionysius of Alexandria is revealed as a faithful exponent of Origen's pluralism and subordinationism. Gregory Thaumaturgus left a fascinating Panegyric to Origen, giving a graphic description of Origen's method of instruction, as well as a dogmatically important Symbol and a Canonical Epistlethat is in effect one of the most ancient treatises of casuistry (i.e., the application of moral principles to practical questions).

If Origen inspired admiration, his daring speculations also provoked criticism. At Alexandria itself, Peter, who became bishop in about 300 and composed theological essays of which only fragments remain, attacked Origen's doctrines of the preexistence of souls and their return into the condition of pure spirits. But the acutest of his critics was Methodius of Olympus (d. 311), of whose treatises The Banquet, exalting virginity, survives in Greek and others mainly in Slavonic translations. Although indebted to Alexandrian allegorism, Methodius remained faithful to the Asiatic tradition (literal and historical) of Irenaeus--who had come to France from Asia Minor--and his realism and castigated Origen's ideas on the preexistence of souls, the flesh as the spirit's prison, and the spiritual nature of the resurrected body. As a writer he strove after literary effect, and Jerome, writing a century later, praised the excellence of his style.

Latin Christian literature was slow in getting started, and North Africa has often been claimed as its birthplace. Tertullian, admittedly, was the first Christian Latinist of genius, but he evidently had humbler predecessors. Latin versions of the Bible, recoverable in part from manuscripts, were appearing in Africa, Gaul, and Italy during the 2nd century. In that century, too, admired works such as I Clement, Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas were translated into Latin. The oldest original Latin texts are probably the Muratorian Canon, a late 2nd-century Roman canon, or list of works accepted as scripture, and the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs(180) of Africa. (see also Index: Latin literature)

The first noteworthy Roman Christian to use Latin was Novatian, the leader of a rigorist schismatic group. His surviving works reveal him as an elegant stylist, trained in rhetoric and philosophy, and a competent theologian. His doctrinally influential De trinitate("Concerning the Trinity") is basically apologetic: against Gnostics it defends the oneness and creative role of Almighty God, against Marcion it argues that Christ is the Son of God the Creator, against Docetism (the heresy claiming that Jesus only seemed the Christ) that Christ is truly man, and against Sabellianism (the denial of real distinctions in the Godhead, viewing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three successive modes of revelation) that in spite of Christ's being fully divine there is but one God. His rigorous moralism comes out in his On Public Shows and On the Excellence of Chastity (both once attributed to Cyprian); in On Jewish Foods he maintains that the Old Testament food laws no longer apply to Christians, the animals that were classified as unclean having been intended to symbolize vices.

A much greater writer than Novatian was his contemporary and correspondent, Cyprian, the statesmanlike bishop of Carthage. A highly educated convert to Christianity, Cyprian left a large corpus of writings, including 65 letters and a number of moral, practical, and theological treatises. As an admirer of Tertullian, he continued some of his fellow North African's tendencies, but his style is more classical, though much less brilliant and individual. Cyprian's letters are a mine of information about a fascinating juncture in church history. His collections of Three Books of Testimonies to Quirinus, or authoritative scripture texts, illustrate the church's reliance on these in defending its theological and ethical positions. A work that has been of exceptional importance historically is On the Unity of the Catholic Church, in which Cyprian contends that there is no salvation outside the church and defines the role of the Roman see. His To Demetrianus is an original, powerful essay refuting the allegation of pagans that Christianity was responsible for the calamities afflicting society.

Three writers from the later portion of this period deserve mention. Victorinus of Pettau was the first known Latin biblical exegete; of his numerous commentaries the only one that remains is the commentary on Revelation, which maintained a millenarian outlook--predicting the 1,000-year reign of Christ at the end of history--and was clumsy in style. Arnobius the Elder (converted by 300) sought in his Adversus nationes ("Against the Pagans"), like Tertullian and Cyprian before him, to free Christianity from the charge of having caused all the evils plaguing the empire, but ended up by launching a violent attack on the contemporary pagan cults. A surprising feature of this ill-constructed, verbose apology is Arnobius' apparent ignorance concerning several cardinal points of Christian doctrine, combined with his great enthusiasm for his new-found faith.

By contrast, his much abler pupil Lactantius (c. AD 240-c. 320), like him a native of North Africa, was a polished writer and the leading Latin rhetorician of the day. His most ambitious work, the Divine Institutes, attempted, against increasingly formidable pagan attacks, to portray Christianity as the true form of religion and life and is in effect the first systematic presentation of Christian teaching in Latin. The later On the Death of Persecutorsnow generally recognized as his, describes the grim fates of persecuting emperors; it is a primary source for the history of the early 4th century and also represents a crude attempt at a Christian philosophy of history. (see also Index: "Divinae institutiones")


The 4th and early 5th centuries witnessed an extraordinary flowering of Christian literature, the result partly of the freedom and privileged status now enjoyed by the church, partly of the diversification of its own inner life (compare the rise of monasticism), but chiefly of the controversies in which it hammered out its fundamental doctrines.

Arianism, which denied Christ's essential divinity, aroused an all-pervasive reaction in the 4th century; the task of the first two ecumenical councils, at Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381), was to affirm the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. In the 5th century the Christological question moved to the fore, and the Council of Chalcedon (451), completing that of Ephesus (431), defined Christ as one person in two natures. The Christological controversies of the 5th century were extremely complex, involving not only theological issues but also issues of national concerns--especially in the Syrian-influenced East, where the national churches were called non-Chalcedonian because they rejected the doctrinal formulas of the Council of Chalcedon. (see also Index: Nicaea, Council of, Christ, two natures of)

Involved in the 5th-century Christological controversy were many persons and movements: Nestorius, consecrated patriarch of Constantinople in 428, and his followers, the Nestorians, who were concerned with preserving the humanity of Christ as well as his divinity; Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria, and his followers, who were devoted to maintaining a balanced emphasis on both of the natures of Christ, divine and human; Eutyches (c. 378-after 451), a muddleheaded archimandrite (head of a monastery) who affirmed two natures before and one nature after the incarnation; the Monophysites, who (following Eutyches) stressed the one unified nature of Christ; and the moderates and those who sought theological, ecclesiastical, and even political solutions to this highly complex doctrinal dispute, such as Pope Leo I. It was a time when the Alexandrian and Antiochene theological schools vied with each other for the control of the theology of the church. In the Syrian East the Antiochene tradition continued in the schools of Edessa and Nisibis, which became centres of a non-Greek national renaissance. The issues of grace, free will, and the Fall of Man concerned the West mainly. Meanwhile, old literary forms were developing along more mature lines, and new ones were emerging, including historiography, lives of saints, set piece (fixed-form) oratory, mystical writings, and hymnody.

i) The Nicene Fathers.

A seesaw struggle between Arians and orthodox Christians dominated the immediate post-Nicene period. Arius himself, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and other radicals occupied the extreme left wing, carrying Origen's views on the subordination of the Son to what became dangerous lengths. Apart from a few precious letters and fragments, their writings have perished. On the extreme right Athanasius, Eustathius of Antioch, and Marcellus of Ancyra (strongly anti-Origenist) tenaciously upheld the Nicene decision that the Son was of the same substance with the Father. Again, the writings of the two latter figures, except for scattered but illuminating fragments, have disappeared. Most churchmen preferred the middle ground; loyal to the Origenist tradition, they suspected the Nicene Creed of opening the door to Sabellianism but were equally shocked by Arianism in its more uncompromising forms. Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-c. 340) was their spokesman, and for decades the eastern emperors supported his mediating line.

Eusebius is chiefly known as a historian; his Ecclesiastical History, with its scholarly use of documents and guiding idea that the victory of Christianity is the proof of its divine origin, introduced something novel and epoch-making. But he also wrote voluminous apologetic treatises, biblical and exegetical works, and polemical tracts against Marcellus of Ancyra. From these can be gathered his theology of the Word, which was Origenist in inspiration and profoundly subordinationist and which made the strict Nicenes suspect him as an ally of Arius. Such suspicions were unjust, for he upheld Origen's doctrine of eternal generation (i.e., that the Word is generated outside the category of time) and rejected the extreme Arian theses. His influence can be studied in the works of Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-386?), whose Catecheses, or introductory lectures on Christian doctrine for candidates for baptism, exemplify a pastoral type of Christian literature. Though critical of the Arian positions, Cyril remained reserved in his attitude toward the Nicene theology and at several other points showed affinities with Eusebius. (see also Index: "Ecclesiastical History," )

Athanasius (c. 293-373) bestrides the 4th century as the inflexible champion of the Nicene dogma. He had been present at the council, defending Alexander, the theologian-bishop of Alexandria from 313 to 328, who had exposed Arius; and after succeeding Alexander in 328 he spent the rest of his stormy life defending, expounding, and drawing out the implications of the Nicene theology. His most thorough and effective exposition of the Son's eternal origin in the Father and essential unity with him is contained in his Four Orations Against the Arians; but in addition he produced a whole series of treatises, historical or dogmatic or both, as well as letters, covering different aspects of the controversy.

It would be misleading, however, to delineate Athanasius exclusively as a polemicist. First, even in his polemical writings he was working out a positive doctrine of the triune God that anticipated later formal definitions. His Letters to Bishop Serapion, with their persuasive presentation of the Holy Spirit as a consubstantial (of the same substance) person in the Godhead, are an admirable illustration. Also his noncontroversial works, such as the relatively early but brilliant apologies Discourse Against the Pagans and The Incarnation of the Word of God; the attractive and influential Life of St. Antonywhich was to give a powerful impulse to monasticism (especially in the West); and his numerous exegetical and ascetic essays, which survive largely in fragments, sometimes in Coptic or Syriac translations, should not be overlooked.

ii) The Cappadocian Fathers.

Although Athanasius prepared the ground, constructive agreement on the central doctrine of the Trinity was not reached in his lifetime, either between the divided parties in the East or between East and West with their divergent traditions. The decisive contribution to the Trinitarian argument was made by a remarkable group of philosophically minded theologians from Cappadocia-- Basil of Caesarea, his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa, and his lifelong friend Gregory of Nazianzus. Of aristocratic birth and consummate culture, all three were drawn to the monastic ideal, and Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus achieved literary distinction of the highest order. While their joint accomplishments in doctrinal definition were indeed outstanding, each made a noteworthy mark in other fields as well.

So far as Trinitarian dogma is concerned, the Cappadocians succeeded, negatively, in overthrowing Arianism in the radical form in which two acute thinkers, Aëtius (d. c. 366) and Eunomius (d. c. 394), had revived it in their day, and, positively, in formulating a conception of God as three Persons in one essence that eventually proved generally acceptable. The oldest of Basil's dogmatic writings is his only partially successful Against Eunomius, the most mature his essay On the Holy Spirit. Gregory of Nyssa continued the attack on Eunomius in four massive treatises and published several more positive dogmatic essays, the most successful of which is the Great Catechetical Oration, a systematic theology in miniature. The output of Gregory of Nazianzus was much smaller, but his 45 Orations, as well as being masterpieces of eloquence, contain his classic statement of Trinitarian orthodoxy. Basil's vast correspondence testifies to his practical efforts to reconcile divergent movements in Trinitarian thinking.

Basil is famous as a letter writer and preacher and for his views on the appropriate attitude of Christians toward Hellenistic culture; but his achievement was not less significant as a monastic legislator. His two monastic rules, used by St. Benedict and still authoritative in the Greek Orthodox Church, are tokens of this. Gregory of Nazianzus, too, was an accomplished letter writer, but his numerous, often lengthy poems have a special interest. Dogmatic, historical, and autobiographical, they are often intensely personal and lay bare his sensitive soul. On the other hand, Gregory of Nyssa, much the most speculative of the three, was an Origenist both in his allegorical interpretation of scripture and his eschatology. But he is chiefly remarkable as a pioneer of Christian mysticism, and in his Life of Moses, Homilies on Canticles, and other books he describes how the soul, in virtue of having been created in the divine image, is able to ascend, by successive stages of purification, to a vision of God. (see also Index: Christianity)

A figure who stood in sharp contrast, intellectually and in temperament, to the Cappadocians was their contemporary, Epiphanius of Salamis, in Cyprus. A fanatical defender of the Nicene solution, he was in no sense a constructive theologian like them, but an uncritical traditionalist who rejected every kind of speculation. He was an indefatigable hammer against heretics, and his principal work, the Panarion("Medicine Chest"), is a detailed examination of 80 heresies (20 of them pre-Christian); it is invaluable for the mass of otherwise unobtainable documents it excerpts. Conformably with Epiphanius' contempt for classical learning, the work is written in Greek without any pretension to elegance. His particular bête noire was Origen, to whose speculations and allegorism he traced virtually all heresies.

iii) Monastic literature.

From the end of the 3rd century onward, monasticism was one of the most significant manifestations of the Christian spirit. Originating in Egypt and spreading thence to Palestine, Syria, and the whole Mediterranean world, it fostered a literature that illuminates the life of the ancient church.

Both Anthony (c. 250-355), the founder of eremitical, or solitary, monasticism in the Egyptian desert, and Ammonas (fl. c. 350), his successor as leader of his colony of anchorites (hermits), wrote numerous letters; a handful from the pen of each is extant, almost entirely in Greek or Latin translation of the Coptic originals. Those of Ammonas are particularly valuable for the history of the movement and as reflecting the uncomplicated mysticism that inspired it. The founder of monastic community life, also in Egypt, was Pachomius (c. 290-346), and the extremely influential rule that he drew up has been preserved, mainly in a Latin translation made by Jerome.

Though these and other early pioneers were simple, practical men, monasticism received a highly cultivated convert in 382 in Evagrius Ponticus. He was the first monk to write extensively and was in the habit of arranging his material in groups of a hundred aphorisms, or "centuries," a literary form that he invented and that was to have a great vogue in Byzantine times. A master of the spiritual life, he classified the eight sins that undermine the monk's resolution and also the ascending levels by which the soul rises to wordless contemplation. Later condemned as an Origenist, he was deeply influential in the East, and, through John Cassian, in the West as well.

Side by side with works composed by monks there sprang up a literature concerned with them and the monastic movement. Much of it was biographical, the classic example being Athanasius' Life of St. Antony. Sulpicius Severus (c. 363-c. 420) took this work as his model when early in the 5th century he wrote his Life of St. Martin of Tours, the first Western biography of a monastic hero and the pattern of a long line of medieval lives of saints. But it was Palladius (c. 363-before 431), a pupil of Evagrius Ponticus, who proved to be the principal historian of primitive monasticism. His Lausiac History(so called after Lausus, the court chamberlain to whom he dedicated it), composed about 419/420, describes the movement in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor. Since much of the work is based on personal reminiscences or information received from observers, it is, despite the legendary character of many of its narratives, an invaluable source book.

Finally, no work so authentically conveys the spirit of Egyptian monasticism as the Apophthegmata Patrum ("Sayings of the Fathers"). Compiled toward the end of the 5th century, but using much older material, it is a collection of pronouncements of the famous desert personalities and anecdotes about them. The existing text is in Greek, but it probably derives from an oral tradition in Coptic.

iv) The school of Antioch.

Antioch, like Alexandria, was a renowned intellectual centre, and a distinctive school of Christian theology flourished there and in the surrounding region throughout the 4th and the first half of the 5th century. In contrast to the Alexandrian school, it was characterized by a literalist exegesis and a concern for the completeness of Christ's manhood. Little is known of its traditional founder, the martyr-priest Lucian (d. 312), except that he was a learned biblical scholar who revised the texts of the Septuagint and the New Testament. His strictly theological views, though a mystery, must have been heterodox, for Arius, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and other Arians claimed to be his disciples ("fellow Lucianists"), and Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, who denounced them, lists Lucian among those who influenced them. But Eustathius of Antioch, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy, is probably more representative of the school, with his antipathy to what he regarded as Origen's excessive allegorism and his recognition, as against the Arians, of the presence of a human soul in the incarnate Christ.

It was, however, much later in the 4th century, in the person of Diodore of Tarsus (c. 330-c. 390), that the School of Antioch began to reach the height of its fame. Diodore courageously defended Christ's divinity against Julian the Apostate, the Roman emperor who attempted to revive paganism, and in his lifetime was regarded as a pillar of orthodoxy. Later critics detected anticipations of Nestorianism (the heresy upholding the division of Christ's Person) in his teaching, and as a result his works, apart from some meagre fragments, have perished. They were evidently voluminous and wide-ranging, covering exegesis, apologetics, polemics, and even astronomy; and he not only strenuously opposed Alexandrian allegorism but also expounded the Antiochene theoria, or principle for discovering the deeper intention of scripture and at the same time remaining loyal to its literal sense.

In stature and intellectual power Diodore was overshadowed by his two brilliant pupils, Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428/429) and John Chrysostom (c. 347-407). Both had also studied under the famous pagan Sophist rhetorician Libanius (314-393), thereby illustrating the cross-fertilization of pagan and Christian cultures at this period. Like Diodore, Theodore later fell under the imputation of Nestorianism, and the bulk of his enormous literary output--comprising dogmatic as well as exegetical works--was lost. Fortunately, the 20th century has seen the recovery of a few important texts in Syriac translations (notably his Commentary on St. John and his Catechetical Homilies), as well as the reconstruction of the greater part of his Commentary on the Psalms. This fresh evidence confirms that Theodore was not only the most acute of the Antiochene exegetes, deploying the hermeneutics (critical interpretive principles) of his school in a thoroughly scientific manner, but also an original theologian who, despite dangerous tendencies, made a unique contribution to the advancement of Christology. His Catechetical Homilies are immensely valuable both for understanding his ideas and for the light they throw on sacramental doctrine and liturgical practice.

In contrast to Theodore, John was primarily a preacher; indeed he was one of the most accomplished of Christian orators and amply merited his title "Golden-Mouthed" (Chrysostomos). With the exception of a few practical treatises and a large dossier of letters, his writings consist entirely of addresses, the majority being expository of the Bible. There he shows himself a strict exponent of Antiochene literalism, reserved in exploiting even the traditional typology (i.e., treatment of Old Testament events and so forth as prefigurative of the new Christian order) but alert to the moral and pastoral lessons of his texts. This interest, combined with his graphic descriptive powers, makes his sermons a mirror of the social, cultural, and ecclesiastical conditions in contemporary Antioch and Constantinople, as well as of his own compassionate concern as a pastor. Indefatigable in denouncing heresy, he was not an original thinker; on the other hand, he was outstanding as a writer, and connoisseurs of rhetoric have always admired the grace and simplicity of his style in some moods, its splendour and pathos in others.

The last noteworthy Antiochene, Theodoret of Cyrrhus (c. 393-c. 458), in Syria, was also an elegant stylist. His writings were encyclopaedic in range, but the most memorable perhaps are his Remedy for Greek Maladies, the last of ancient apologies against paganism; and his Ecclesiastical History, continuing Eusebius' work down to 428. His controversial treatises are also important, for he skillfully defended the Antiochene Christology against the orthodox Bishop Cyril of Alexandria and was instrumental in getting its more valuable features recognized at the Council of Chalcedon. He was a scholar with a comprehensive and eclectic mind, and his large correspondence testifies to his learning and mastery of Greek prose as well as illustrating the history and intellectual life of the age.

v) The schools of Edessa and Nisibis.

Parallel with its richer and better-known Greek and Latin counterparts, an independent Syriac Christian literature flourished inside, and later outside (in Persia), the frontiers of the Roman Empire from the early 4th century onward. Aphraates, an ascetic cleric under whose name 23 treatises written between 336 and 345 have survived, is considered the first Syriac Father. Deeply Christian in tone, these tracts present a primitive theology, with no trace of Hellenistic influence but a firm grasp and skillful use of scripture. Edessa and Nisibis (now Urfa and Nusaybin in southeast Turkey) were the creative centres of this literature. Edessa had been a focus of Christian culture well before 200; the old Syriac version of the New Testament and Tatian's Diatessaronas well as a mass of Syriac apocryphal writings, probably originated there. (see also Index: Nisibis, School of, Syriac literature)

The chief glory of Edessene Christianity was Ephraem Syrus (c. 306-373), the classic writer of the Syrian Church who established his school of theology there when Nisibis, its original home and his own birthplace, was ceded to Persia under the peace treaty of 363, after the death of Julian the Apostate. In his lifetime Ephraem had a reputation as a brilliant preacher, commentator, controversialist, and above all, sacred poet. His exegesis shows Antiochene tendencies, but as a theologian he championed Nicene orthodoxy and attacked Arianism. His hymns, many in his favourite seven-syllable metre, deal with such themes as the Nativity, the Epiphany, and the Crucifixion or else are directed against skeptics and heretics. His Carmina Nisibena ("Songs of Nisibis") make a valuable source book for historians, especially for information about the frontier wars.

After Ephraem's death in 373, the school at Edessa developed his lively interest in exegesis and became increasingly identified with the Antiochene line in theology. Among those responsible for this was one of its leading instructors, Ibas (d. 457), who worked energetically translating Theodore of Mopsuestia's commentaries and disseminating his Christological views. His own stance on the now urgent Christological issue was akin to that of Theodoret of Cyrrhus--roughly midway between Nestorius' dualism and the Alexandrian doctrine of one nature--and he bluntly criticized Cyril's position in his famous letter to Maris (433), the sole survivor (in a Greek translation) of his abundant works; it was one of the Three Chapters anathematized by the second Council of Constantinople (553).

The frankly Antiochene posture typified by Ibas brought the school into collision with Rabbula, bishop of Edessa from 412 to 435, an uncompromising supporter of Cyril and the Alexandrian Christology. As well as writing numerous letters, hymns, and a sermon against Nestorius, Rabbula translated Cyril's De recta fide (Concerning the Correct Faith) into Syriac and also probably compiled the revised Syriac version of the four Gospels (contained in the Peshitta) in order to oust Tatian's Diatessaron. On his death he was succeeded by Ibas, who predictably exerted his influence in an Antiochene direction.

Another eminent Edessene writer was Narses (d. c. 503), who became one of the formative theologians of the Nestorian Church. He was the author of extensive commentaries, now lost, and of metrical homilies, dialogue songs, and liturgical hymns. In 447, when a Monophysite reaction set in, he was expelled from Edessa along with Barsumas, the head of the school, but they promptly set up a new school at Nisibis on Persian territory. The school at Edessa was finally closed, because of its Nestorian leanings, by the emperor Zeno in 489, but its offshoot at Nisibis flourished for more than 200 years and became the principal seat of Nestorian culture. At one time it had as many as 800 students and was able to ensure that the then prosperous church in Persia was Nestorian. On the other hand, Philoxenus of Mabbug, who had studied at Edessa in the second half of the 5th century and was one of the most learned of Syrian theologians, was a vehement advocate of Monophysitism. His 13 homilies on the Christian life and his letters reveal him as a fine prose writer; but he is chiefly remembered for the revision of the Syriac translation of the Bible (the so-called Philoxenian version) for which he was responsible and which was used by Syrian Monophysites in the 6th century. (see also Index: Philoxenian Bible)

vi) The Chalcedonian Fathers.

From about 428 onward Christology became an increasingly urgent subject of debate in the East and excited interest in the West as well. Two broad positions had defined themselves in the 4th century. Among Alexandrian theologians the "Word-flesh" approach was preferred, according to which the Word had assumed human flesh at the Incarnation; Christ's possession of a human soul or mind was either denied or ignored. Antiochene theologians, on the other hand, consistently upheld the "Word-man" approach, according to which the Word had united himself to a complete man; this position ran the risk, unless carefully handled, of so separating the divinity and the humanity as to imperil Christ's personal unity. (see also Index: Chalcedon, Council of, Alexandria, School of, Christ, two natures of)

Apollinarius the Younger (c. 310-c. 390) had brilliantly exposed the logical implications of the Alexandrian view; although condemned as a heretic, he had forced churchmen of all schools to recognize, though with varying degrees of practical realism, a human mind in the Redeemer. His writings were systematically destroyed, but the remaining fragments confirm his intellectual acuteness as well as his literary skill. The crisis of the 5th century was precipitated by the proclamation by Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople--pushing Antiochene tendencies to extremes--of a Christology that seemed to many to imply two Sons. Nestorius held that Mary was not only Theotokos ("God-bearing") but also anthropotokos ("man-bearing"), though he preferred the term Christotokos ("Christ-bearing"). In essence, he was attempting to protect the concept of the humanity of Christ. The controversy raged with extraordinary violence from 428 to 451, when the Council of Chalcedon hammered out a formula that at the time seemed acceptable to most and that attempted to do justice to the valuable insights of both traditions.

A number of theologians and ecclesiastics either prepared the way for or contributed to the Chalcedonian solution. Three who deserve mention are Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Proclus of Constantinople, and John Cassian. The first was probably responsible for drafting the Formula of Union (433) that became the basis of the Chalcedonian Definition. Proclus was an outstanding pulpit orator, and several of his sermons as well as seven letters concerned with the controversy have been preserved; he worked indefatigably to reconcile the warring factions. Cassian prepared the West for the controversy by producing in 430, at the request of the deacon (later pope) Leo, a weighty treatise against Nestorius.

But much the most important, not least because they approached the debate from different standpoints, were Cyril of Alexandria and Pope Leo the Great. Cyril had been the first to denounce Nestorius, and in a whole series of letters and dogmatic treatises he drove home his critique and expounded his own positive theory of hypostatic (substantive, or essential) union. He secured the condemnation of Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus (431), and his own letters were canonically approved at Chalcedon. A convinced adherent of the Alexandrian Word-flesh Christology, he deepened his understanding of the problem as the debate progressed; but his preferred expression for the unity of the Redeemer remained "one incarnate nature of the Word," which he mistakenly believed to derive from Athanasius. Leo provided the necessary balance to this with his famous Dogmatic Letter, also endorsed at Chalcedon, which affirmed the coexistence of two complete natures, united without confusion, in the one Person of the Incarnate Word, or Christ.

In patristic literature, however, the interest of both Cyril and Leo extends far beyond Christology. Cyril published essays on the Trinitarian issue against the Arians and also commentaries on Old and New Testament books. If the former show little originality, his exegesis marked a reaction against the more fanciful Alexandrian allegorism and a concentration on the strictly typological significance of the text. Leo, for his part, was a notable preacher and one of the greatest of popes. His short, pithy sermons, clear and elegant in style, set a fine model for pulpit oratory in the West; and his numerous letters give an impressive picture of his continuous struggle to promote orthodoxy and the interests of the Roman see.

vii) Non-Chalcedonian Fathers.

The Chalcedonian settlement was not achieved without some of the leading participants in the debate that preceded it being branded as heretics because their positions fell outside the limits accepted as permissible. It also left to subsequent generations a legacy of misunderstanding and division.

The outstanding personalities in the former category were Nestorius and Eutyches. It was Nestorius whose imprudent brandishing of extremist Antiochene theses--particularly his reluctance to grant the title of Theotokos to Mary, mother of Jesus--had touched off the controversy. Only fragments of his works remain, for after his condemnation their destruction was ordered by the Byzantine government, but these have been supplemented by the discovery, in a Syriac translation, of his Book of Heraclides of Damascus Written late in his life, when Monophysitism had become the bogey, this is a prolix apology in which Nestorius pleads that his own beliefs are identical with those of Leo and the new orthodoxy. Eutyches, on the other hand, an over-enthusiastic follower of Cyril, was led by his antipathy to Nestorianism into the opposite error of confusing the natures. He contended that there was only one nature after the union of divinity and humanity in the Incarnate Word, and he was thus the father of Monophysitism in the strict, and not merely verbal, sense.

After the Council of Ephesus in 431 the eastern bishops of Nestorian sympathies gradually formed a separate Nestorian Church on Persian soil, with the see of its patriarch at Ctesiphon on the Tigris. Edessa and then Nisibis were its theological and literary centres. But a much wider body of eastern Christians, particularly from Egypt and Palestine, found the Chalcedonian dogma of "two natures" a betrayal of the truth as stated by their hero Cyril. For the next two centuries the struggle between these Monophysites and strict Chalcedonians to secure the upper hand convulsed the Eastern Church. Among the Monophysites it produced theologians of high calibre and literary distinction, notably the moderate Severus of Antioch (c. 465-538), who while contending stoutly for "one nature after the union" was equally insistent on the reality of Christ's humanity. His contemporary Julian of Halicarnassus taught the more radical doctrine that, through union with the Word, Christ's body had been incorruptible and immortal from the moment of the Incarnation.

In the 7th century, inspired by the need for unity in the face of successive Persian and Arab attacks, an attempt was made to reconcile the Monophysite dissenters with the orthodox Chalcedonians. The formula, which it was thought might prove acceptable to both, asserted that, though Christ had two natures, he had only one activity--i.e., one divine will. This doctrine, Monothelitism, stimulated an intense theological controversy but was subjected to profound and far-reaching criticism by Maximus the Confessor, who perceived that, if Christians are to find in Christ the model for their freedom and individuality, his human nature must be complete and therefore equipped with a human will. The formula was condemned as heretical at the third Council of Constantinople of 680-681.

viii) The post-Nicene Latin Fathers.

Latin Christian literature in this period was slower than Greek in getting started, and it always remained sparser. Indeed, the first half of the 4th century produced only Julius Firmicus Maternus, author not only of the most complete treatise on astrology bequeathed by antiquity to the modern world but also of a fierce diatribe against paganism that has the added interest of appealing to the state to employ force to repress it and its immoralities. From Africa, rent asunder by Donatism, the heretical movement that rejected the efficacy of sacraments administered by priests who had denied their faith under persecution, came the measured anti-Donatist polemic of Optatus of Milevis, writing in 366 or 367, whose line of argument anticipates Augustine's later attack against the Donatists. (see also Index: Latin literature)

Much more significant than either, however, was Gaius Marius Victorinus, the brilliant professor whose conversion in 355 caused a sensation at Rome. Obscure but strikingly original in his writings, he was an effective critic of Arianism and sought to present orthodox Trinitarianism in uncompromisingly Neoplatonic terms. His speculations about the inner life of the triune Godhead were to be taken up by Augustine.

Three remarkable figures, all different, dominate the second half of the century. The first, Hilary of Poitiers, was a considerable theologian, next to Augustine the finest produced by the West in the patristic epoch. For years he deployed his exceptional gifts in persuading the anti-Arian groups to abandon their traditional catchwords and rally round the Nicene formula, which they had tended to view with suspicion. Often unfairly described as a popularizer of Eastern ideas, he was an original thinker whose scriptural commentaries and perceptive Trinitarian studies brought fresh insights. The second, Ambrose of Milan, was an outstanding ecclesiastical statesman, equally vigilant for orthodoxy against Arianism as for the rights of the church against the state. Both in his dogmatic treatises and in his largely allegorical, pastorally oriented exegetical works he relied heavily on Greek models. One of the pioneers of Catholic moral theology, he also wrote hymns that are still sung in the liturgy.

The third, Jerome, was primarily a biblical scholar. His enormous commentaries are erudite but unequal in quality; the earlier ones were greatly influenced by Origen's allegorism, but the ones written later, when he had turned against Origen, were more literalist and historical in their exegesis. Jerome's crowning gift to the Western Church and Western culture was the Vulgate translation of the Bible. Prompted by Pope Damasus, he thoroughly revised the existing Latin versions of the Gospels; the Old Testament he translated afresh from the Hebrew. His historical and polemical writings (the latter full of sarcasm and invective) are all interesting, and his rich correspondence supremely so. As a stylist he wrote with a verve and brilliance unmatched in Latin patristic literature.

The two foremost Christian Latin poets of ancient times, Prudentius and Paulinus of Nola, also belong to this half-century. Both used the old classical forms with considerable skill, filling them with a fresh Christian spirit. Prudentius' work is both the finer in quality and the more wide-ranging; in his Psychomachia ("The Contest of the Soul"), he introduced an allegorical form that made an enormous appeal to the Middle Ages. Paulinus is also interesting for his extensive correspondence, much admired in his own day, which kept him in close touch with many leading Christian contemporaries.

All these figures are overshadowed by the towering genius of Augustine (354-430). The range of his writings was enormous: they comprise profound discussions of Christian doctrine (notably his De Trinitate, or On the Trinity); sustained and carefully argued polemics against heresies (Manichaeism, a dualistic religion; Donatism; and Pelagianism, a view that emphasized free will); exegesis, homilies, and ordinary sermons; and a vast collection of letters. His two best-known works, the Confessionsand The City of Godbroke entirely fresh ground, the one being both an autobiography and an interior colloquy between the soul and God, the other perhaps the most searching study ever made of the theology of history and of the fundamental contrast between Christianity and the world. On almost every issue he handled--the problem of evil, creation, grace and free will, the nature of the church--Augustine opened up lines of thought that are still debated. The prose style he used matched the level of his argument, having a rich texture, subtle assonance, and grave beauty that were new in Latin.

In part recovered in recent years, the works of Pelagius (fl. 405-418) show him to have been a writer and thinker of high quality. Early in the 5th century, when the monasteries of southern Gaul became active intellectual centres, Vincent of Lérins and John Cassian published critiques of Augustine's extreme positions on grace and free will, proposing the alternative doctrine called Semi-Pelagianism, which held that humans by their own free will could desire life with God. This in turn was criticized by able writers like Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390-c. 463) and the celebrated preacher Caesarius of Arles (470-542) and was condemned at the Council of Orange (529). Cassian, however, a firsthand student of Eastern monasticism, is chiefly important for his studies of the monastic life, based on material collected in the East. The rules he formulated were freely drawn upon a century later by St. Benedict of Nursia, the reformer of Western monasticism, when Benedict composed his famous and immensely influential rule at Monte Cassino.

The 6th century marks the final phase of Latin patristic literature, which includes several notable figures, of whom Boethius (480-524), philosopher and statesman, is the most distinguished. His Consolation of Philosophy was widely studied in the Middle Ages, but he also composed technically philosophical works, including translations of, and commentaries on, Aristotle. Beside him should be set his longer-lived contemporary, Cassiodorus (c. 490-c. 585), who, as well as encouraging the study of Greek and Latin classics and the copying of manuscripts in monasteries, was himself the author of theological, historical, and encyclopaedic treatises. Also notable is Venantius Fortunatus (c. 540-c. 600), an accomplished poet whose hymns, such as "Vexilla regis" ("The royal banners forward go") and "Pange lingua" ("Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle"), are still sung. Finally, Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) was so prolific and successful an author as to earn the title of Fourth Doctor of the Latin Church. Although unoriginal theologically and reflecting the credulity of the age, his works (which include the earliest life of St. Benedict) made an enormous appeal to the medieval mind.

ix) Later Greek Fathers.

The closing phase of patristic literature lasted longer in the Greek East than in the Latin West, where the decline of culture was hastened by barbarian inroads. But even in the East a slackening of effort and originality was becoming perceptible in the latter half of the 5th century. A clear illustration of this is provided by the practice of substituting chain commentaries composed of excerpts from earlier exegetes and anthologies of opinions of respected past theologians for independent exposition and speculation.

Yet the picture was not altogether dim. In the strictly theological field, Leontius of Byzantium (d. c. 545) showed ability and originality in reinterpreting the Chalcedonian Christology along the lines of St. Cyril with the aid of the increasingly favoured Aristotelian philosophy. Two other writers, very different from him and from each other, revived in the late 5th and early 6th centuries the brilliance of past generations. One was the figure who called himself Dionysius the Areopagite (c. 500), the unidentified author of theological and mystical treatises that were destined to have an enormous influence. Based on a synthesis of Christian dogma and Neoplatonism, his work exalts the negative theology (God is understood by what he is not) and traces the soul's ascent from a dialectical knowledge of God to mystical union with him. The other is Romanos Melodos (fl. 6th century), greatest hymnist of the Eastern Church, who invented the kontakion, an acrostic verse sermon in many stanzas with a recurring refrain. The sweep, pathos, and grandeur of his compositions give him a high place of honour among religious poets.

With Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus the end of the patristic epoch is reached. Maximus was a major critic of Monothelitism; he was also a remarkable constructive thinker whose speculative and mystical doctrines were held in unity by his vision of the incarnation as the goal of history. Writing early in the 8th century, John was chiefly influential through his comprehensive presentation of the teaching of the Greek Fathers on the principal Christian doctrines. But in constructing his synthesis he added at many points a finishing touch of his own; his writings in defense of images, prepared to counter the Iconoclasts (those who advocated destruction of religious images, or icons), were original and important; and he was the author of striking poems, some of which found a place in the Greek liturgy.


For 400 or 500 years, when secular culture was slowly but steadily in decline, the patristic writers breathed new life into the Greek and Latin languages and created Syriac as a literary medium. Even when the period came to an end, the halt was really only a temporary pause until the impulses behind it could force other outlets. The literature of the later Byzantine Empire looked back to and drew nourishment from the golden centuries of the Fathers, while Latin Christian letters experienced more than one renascence in the Middle Ages.

The range and variety, too, of the literature are impressive. Its overwhelmingly theological concern necessarily imposed understandable but serious limitations, but, when these have been allowed for, the Christian writers must be acknowledged to have been remarkably successful at molding the traditional literary forms to their new purposes and also at improvising fresh ones adapted to their special situations. Aesthetically considered, patristic literature contains much that is mediocre and even shoddy, but also a great deal that by any standards reaches the heights. And it has a unique interest as the creation of an immensely dynamic and far-reachingly important religious movement during the centuries when it could dominate the whole of life and society. (J.N.D.K.)


2. Christian philosophy

It has been debated whether there is anything that is properly called Christian philosophy. Christianity is not a system of ideas but a religion, a way of salvation. But as a religion becomes a distinguishable strand of human history, it inevitably absorbs philosophical assumptions from its environment and generates new philosophical constructions and arguments both in the formation of doctrines and in their defense against philosophical objections. These two topics cannot be kept entirely separate, however, for philosophical criticism from both within and without the Christian community has influenced the development of its beliefs.


i) Influence of Greek philosophy.

As the Christian movement expanded beyond its original Jewish nucleus into the Greco-Roman world, it had to understand, explain, and defend itself in terms that were intelligible in an intellectual milieu largely structured by Greek philosophical thought. By the 2nd century AD several competing streams of Greek and Roman philosophy--Middle Platonism, Neoplatonism, Epicureanism, Stoicism--had to a great extent flowed together into a common worldview that was basically Neoplatonic, though enriched by the ethical outlook of the Stoics. This constituted the broad intellectual background for most educated people throughout the Roman Empire, functioning in a way comparable, for example, to the pervasive contemporary Western secular view of the universe as an autonomous system within which everything can in principle be understood scientifically.

Some of the Neoplatonic themes that provided intellectual material for Christian and non-Christian thinkers alike in the early centuries of the Common Era were a hierarchical conception of the universe, with the spiritual on a higher level than the physical; the eternal reality of such values as goodness, truth, and beauty and of the various universals that give specific form to matter; and the tendency of everything to return to its origin in the divine reality. The early Christian Apologists were at home in this thought-world, and many of them used its ideas and assumptions both in propagating the Gospel and in defending it as a coherent and intellectually tenable system of belief. Their most common attitude was to accept the prevailing Neoplatonic worldview as basically valid and to present Christianity as its fulfillment, correcting and completing rather than replacing it. Philosophy, they thought, was to the Greeks what the Law was to the Jews--a preparation for the Gospel; and several Apologists agreed with the Jewish writer Philo that Greek philosophy must have received much of its wisdom from Moses. Tertullian (c. 155/160-after 220) and Tatian (c. 120-173), on the other hand, rejected pagan learning and philosophy as inimical to the Gospel; and the question has been intermittently discussed by theologians ever since whether the Gospel completes and fulfills the findings of human reason or whether reason is itself so distorted by sin as to be incapable of leading toward the truth. (see also Index: early church)

Greek philosophy, then, provided the organizing principles by which the central Christian doctrines were formulated. It is possible to distinguish between, on the one hand, first-order religious expressions, directly reflecting primary religious experience, and, on the other, the interpretations of these in philosophically formulated doctrines whose articulation both contributes to and is reciprocally conditioned by a comprehensive belief-system. Thus the primitive Christian confession of faith, "Jesus is Lord," expressed the Disciples' perception of Jesus as the one through whom God was transformingly present to them and to whom their lives were accordingly oriented in complete trust and commitment. The interpretive process whereby the original experience developed a comprehensive doctrinal superstructure began with the application to Jesus of the two distinctively Jewish concepts of the expected messiah and the Son of man who was to come on the last day and also of the son of God metaphor, which was commonly applied in the ancient world to individuals, whether kings or holy men, who were believed to be close to God. It continued on a more philosophical level with the use, in the Gospel According to John, of the idea of the Logos, drawn both from the Hebraic notions of the Wisdom and the Word of God and from the Greek notion of the Logos as the universal principle of rationality and self-expression. As Jesus, son of God, became Christ, God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, he was identified with the Logos.

ii) Emergence of official doctrine.

For several generations there was great variety and experimentation in Christian thinking. But as Christianity was legally recognized under Constantine in 313 and then became the sole official religion of the Roman Empire under Theodosius, its doctrines had to be formalized and agreed throughout the church. This pressure for uniformity provoked intense debates, which lasted for several generations before the great ecumenical councils (principally Nicaea, 325; Constantinople, 381; and Chalcedon, 451) finally established the official versions of the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity; to differ from these was heresy. The key ideas in terms of which these Christological and Trinitarian debates were conducted and their conclusions formulated were the Greek concepts of ousia (nature or essence) and hypostasis (entity, used as virtually equivalent to prosopon, person). (In Latin these terms became substantia and persona.) Christ was said to have two natures, one of which was of the same nature (homoousios) as the Father, whereas the other was of the same nature as humanity; and the Trinity was said to consist of one ousia in three hypostases. The Platonic origin of this conceptuality is clear in the explanation of the Cappadocian Fathers that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share the same divine ousia in the way Peter, James, and John shared the same humanity. (On the doctrines of Incarnation and the Trinity, see above Christian doctrine .)

Another prime example of the influence of Neoplatonism on Christian thought occurred in the response of the greatest of the early Christian thinkers, St. Augustine (354-430), to the perennially challenging question of how it is that evil exists in a world created by an all-good and all-powerful God. Augustine's answer (which, as refined by later thinkers, remained the standard Christian answer until modern times) includes both theological aspects (the ideas of the fall of angels and then of humans, of the redemption of some by the cross of Christ, and of the ultimate disposal of souls in eternities of bliss and torment) and philosophical aspects. The basic philosophical theme, drawn directly from Neoplatonism, is one that the American philosopher Arthur Lovejoy, in The Great Chain of Being (1936), called the principle of plenitude. This is the idea that the best possible universe does not consist only of the highest kind of creature, the archangels, but contains a maximum richness of variety of modes of being, thus realizing every possible kind of existence from the highest to the lowest. The result is a hierarchy of degrees both of being and of goodness, for the identity of being and goodness was another fundamental idea received by Augustine from Neoplatonism and in particular from Plotinus (205-270). God, as absolute being and goodness, stands at the summit, with the great chain of being descending through the many forms of spiritual, animal, and plant life down to lifeless matter. This conception explains why there are lower forms of existence--dogs, snakes, insects, viruses--as well as higher. Each embodies being and is therefore good on its own level; and together they constitute a universe whose rich variety is beautiful in the sight of God. Evil only comes about when creatures at any level forfeit the distinctive goodness with which the Creator had endowed them. Evil is thus negative or privative, a lack of proper good rather than anything having substance in its own right. This, too, was a theme that had been taken over from Neoplatonism by a number of earlier Christian writers. And if evil is not an entity, or substance, it follows that it was not a part of God's original creation. It consists instead in the going wrong of something that is in itself good, though (because made out of nothing) also mutable. Augustine locates the origin of this going-wrong in the sinful misuse of freedom by some of the angels and then by the first humans. His theodicy is thus a blend of Neoplatonic and biblical themes and shows clearly the immense influence of Neoplatonism upon Christian thought during its early formative period. (see also Index: evil, problem of, free will)

Augustine himself, together with Christian thinking as a whole, departed from Neoplatonism at one crucial point. Neoplatonism saw the world as continuous in being with the ultimate divine reality, the One. The One, in its limitless plenitude of being, overflows into the surrounding void, and the descending and attenuating degrees of being constitute the many-leveled universe. In contrast to this emanationist conception Augustine held that the universe is a created realm, brought into existence by God out of nothing (ex nihilo). It has no independent power of being, or aseity, but is through and through contingent, absolutely dependent upon the creative divine power. Further, Augustine was clear that the nihil out of which God created was not any kind of preexistent matter or chaos, but that "out of nothing" simply means "not out of anything" (De natura boni). This understanding of creation, entailing the universe's total emptiness of independent self-existence and yet its ultimate goodness as the free expression of God's creative love, is perhaps the most distinctively Christian contribution to metaphysical thought. It goes beyond the earlier Hebraic understanding in making explicit the ex nihilo character of creation in contrast to the emanationism of the Neoplatonic thought-world. This basic Christian idea entails the value of creaturely life and of the material world itself, its dependence upon God, and the meaningfulness of the whole temporal process as fulfilling an ultimate divine purpose.

Modern Christian treatments of the idea of creation ex nihilo have detached it from a literal use of the Genesis creation myth. The idea of the total dependence of the universe upon God is neutral as to whether it had a temporal beginning; nor does it in any way preclude the development of the universe in its present phase from the "big bang" onward, including the evolution of the forms of life on Earth. Although creation ex nihilo (a term apparently first introduced into Christian discourse by Irenaeus in the 2nd century) remains the general Christian conception of the relation between God and the physical universe, some recent Christian thinkers have substituted the view (derived from Alfred North Whitehead and developed by Charles Hartshorne) that God, instead of being its transcendent Creator, is an aspect of the universe itself, being either the inherent creativity in virtue of which it is a living process or a deity of finite power who seeks to lure the world into ever more valuable forms.

iii) Aristotle, Aquinas, and Descartes.

Although Neoplatonism was the major philosophical influence on Christian thought in its early period and has never ceased to be an important element within it, Aristotle was also always known, though at first only as a logician. But in the 12th and 13th centuries his writings on physics, metaphysics, and ethics became available in Latin, translated either from the Greek or from Arabic sources, and they were crucial for the greatest of the medieval Christian thinkers, St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-74). One of the Aristotelian themes that influenced Thomas was that knowledge is not innate but is gained from the reports of the senses and from logical inference from self-evident truths. (Thomas, however, in distinction from Aristotle, added divinely revealed propositions to self-evident truths in forming his basis for inference.) Thomas also received from Aristotle the conception of metaphysics as the science of being. His doctrine of analogy, according to which statements about God are true analogically rather than univocally, was likewise inspired by Aristotle, as were his distinctions between act and potency, essence and existence, substance and accidents, and the active and passive intellect and his view of the soul as the "form" of the body.

Thomas Aquinas' system, however, was by no means simply Aristotle Christianized. He did not hesitate to differ from "the Philosopher," as he called him, when the Christian tradition required this; for whereas Aristotle had been concerned to understand how the world functions, Thomas was also concerned, more fundamentally, to explain why it exists.

With the gradual breakdown of the medieval worldview--its assumptions undermined by the Renaissance, the Reformation, the rise of modern science, and the spread of a new spirit of exploration and free inquiry--the nature of the philosophical enterprise began to change. The French thinker René Descartes (1596-1650) is generally regarded as the father of modern philosophy, and in the new movements of thought that began with him philosophy became less a matter of building and defending comprehensive metaphysical systems, or imagined pictures of the universe, and more a critical probing of presuppositions, categories of thought, and modes of reasoning and an inquiry into what it is to know, how knowledge and belief are arrived at in different areas of life, how well various kinds of beliefs are grounded, and how thought is related to language. There has long ceased to be a generally accepted philosophical framework, comparable with Neoplatonism, in terms of which Christianity can appropriately be expressed and defended. There is instead a plurality of philosophical perspectives and methods--analytic, positivist, phenomenological, idealist, pragmatist, and existentialist. Thus modern Christianity, having inherited a body of doctrines developed in the framework of ancient worldviews that are now virtually defunct, lacks any philosophy of comparable status in terms of which to rethink its beliefs. In this situation some theologians have turned to existentialism, which is not so much a philosophical system as a hard-to-define point of view and style of thinking. Indeed, the earlier existentialists, such as the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55), vehemently rejected the idea of a metaphysical system--in particular, for 19th-century existentialists, the Hegelian system--though some later ones, such as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), have developed their own systems. Existentialists are identified by the appearance in their writings of one or more of a number of loosely related themes. These include the significance of the concrete individual in contrast to abstractions and general principles; a stress upon human freedom and choice and the centrality of decision, and hence a view of religion as ultimate commitment; a preference for paradox rather than rational explanation; and the highlighting of certain special modes of experience that cut across ordinary consciousness, particularly a generalized anxiety or dread and the haunting awareness of mortality. Existentialists have been both atheists (e.g., Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre) and Christians (e.g., Kierkegaard, the Protestant Rudolf Bultmann, and the Roman Catholic Gabriel Marcel). It would be difficult to identify any doctrines that are common to all these thinkers. Existentialist themes have also been incorporated into systematic Christian theologies (e.g., by John Macquarrie).

iv) Other influences.

Others have sought to construct theologies in the mold of 19th-century German idealism (e.g., Paul Tillich); some, as process theologians, in that of the early 20th-century British mathematician and metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead (e.g., Charles Hartshorne on the doctrine of God, John Cobb on Christology); some, the liberation theologians, in highly pragmatic and political terms (e.g., Juan Luis Segundo, Gustavo Gutiérrez); and some, as feminist theologians, in terms of the newly awakened self-consciousness of women and the awareness of a distorting patriarchial influence on all past forms of Christian thought (e.g., Rosemary Ruether, Elizabeth Fiorenza). Most theologians, however, have continued to accept the traditional structure of Christian beliefs. The more liberal among them have sought to detach these from the older conceptualities and to reformulate them so as to connect with modern consciousness (e.g., Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, Adolf von Harnack, Karl Rahner, Gordon Kaufman); while the more conservative have sought to defend the traditional formulations within an increasingly alien intellectual environment (e.g., B.B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, Karl Barth, Cornelis Berkouwer). (see also Index: liberation theology, women's liberation movement)

Of the factors forming the intellectual environment of Christian thought in the modern period, perhaps the most powerful have been the physical and human sciences. The former have compelled the rethinking of certain Christian doctrines, as astronomy undermined the assumption of the centrality of the Earth in the universe, as geologic evidence concerning its age rendered implausible the biblical chronology, and as biology located humanity within the larger evolution of the forms of life on Earth. The human sciences of anthropology, psychology, sociology, and historical research have suggested possible naturalistic explanations of religion itself based, for example, upon the projection of desire for a cosmic father figure, the need for socially cohesive symbols, or the power of royal and priestly classes. Such naturalistic interpretations of religion, together with the ever-widening scientific understanding of the physical universe, have prompted some Christian philosophers to think of the religious ambiguity of the universe as a totality that can, from the human standpoint within it, be interpreted in both naturalistic and religious ways, thus providing scope for the exercise of faith as a free response to the mystery of existence.


Different conceptions of faith cohere with different views of its relation to reason or rationality. The classic medieval understanding of faith, set forth by Thomas Aquinas, saw it as the belief in revealed truths on the authority of God as their ultimate source and guarantor. Thus, though the ultimate object of faith is God, their revealer, its immediate object is the body of propositions articulating the basic Christian dogmas. Such faith is to be distinguished from knowledge. Whereas the propositions that are the objects of scientia, or knowledge, compel belief by their self-evidence or their demonstrability from self-evident premises, the propositions accepted by faith do not thus compel assent but require a voluntary act of trusting acceptance. As unforced belief, faith is "an act of the intellect assenting to the truth at the command of the will" (Summa theologiae, II/II, Q. 4, art. 5); and it is because this is a free and responsible act that faith is one of the virtues. It follows that one cannot have knowledge and faith at the same time in relation to the same proposition; faith can only arise in the absence of knowledge. Faith also differs from mere opinion, which is inherently changeable. Opinions are not matters of absolute commitment but allow in principle for the possibility of doubt and change. Faith, as the wholehearted acceptance of revealed truth, excludes doubt.

In the wider context of his philosophy Thomas Aquinas held that human reason, without supernatural aid, can establish the existence of God and the immortality of the soul; though these are also revealed, for acceptance by faith, for the benefit of those who cannot or do not engage in such strenuous intellectual activity. Faith, however, extends beyond the findings of reason in accepting such further truths as the triune nature of God and the divinity of Christ. Thomas thus supported the general (though not universal) Christian view that revelation supplements, rather than cancels or replaces, the findings of sound philosophy.

From a skeptical point of view, which does not acknowledge divine revelation, this Thomist conception amounts to faith as belief that is unevidenced or that is stronger than the evidence warrants, the gap being filled by the believer's own will to believe. As such it attracts the charge that belief upon insufficient evidence is always wrong.

In response to this kind of attack the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-62) proposed a voluntarist defense of faith as a rational wager. Pascal assumed, in disagreement with Thomas Aquinas but in agreement with much modern thinking, that divine existence can neither be proved nor disproved; and he reasoned that if one decides to believe in God and to act on this basis, one gains eternal life if right but loses little if wrong, whereas if one decides not to believe, one gains little if right but may lose eternal life if wrong. In these circumstances, he concluded, the rational course is to believe. The argument has been criticized theologically for presupposing an unacceptable image of God as rewarding such calculating worship and also on the philosophical ground that it is too permissive in that it could justify belief in the claims, however fantastic, of any person or group who threatened nonbelievers with damnation or other dangerous consequences. (see also Index: Pascal's wager)

The American philosopher William James (1842-1910) refined this approach by limiting it, among matters that cannot be determined by proof or evidence, to belief-options that one has some real inclination or desire to accept, carry momentous implications, and are such that a failure to choose constitutes a negative choice. Theistic belief is for many people such an option, and James claimed that they have the right to make the positive decision to believe and to proceed in their lives on that basis. Either choice involves unavoidable risks: on the one hand the risk of being importantly deluded and on the other the risk of missing a limitlessly valuable truth. In this situation each individual is entitled to decide which risk to run. This argument has also been criticized as being too permissive and as constituting in effect a license for wishful believing, but its basic principle can perhaps be validly used in the different context of opting to base beliefs upon one's religious experience.

The element of risk in faith as a free cognitive choice was emphasized, to the exclusion of all else, by Kierkegaard in his idea of the leap of faith. He believed that without risk there is no faith, and that the greater the risk the greater the faith. Faith is thus a passionate commitment, not based upon reason but inwardly necessitated, to that which can be grasped in no other way.

The epistemological character of faith as assent to propositions, basic to the Thomist account, is less pronounced in the "betting one's life" conceptions of Pascal and James in that these accept not a system of doctrines but only the thought of God as existing--though of course that thought itself has conceptual and hence implicitly propositional content. Kierkegaard's self-constituting leap of faith likewise only implicitly involves conceptual and propositional thought. The same is true of the account of faith based upon Ludwig Wittgenstein's concept of seeing-as (Philosophical Investigations, 1953). Wittgenstein pointed to the epistemological significance of puzzle pictures, such as the ambiguous duck-rabbit that can be seen either as a duck's head facing one way or a rabbit's head facing another way. The enlarged concept of experiencing-as (developed by the British philosopher John Hick) refers to the way in which an object, event, or situation is experienced as having a particular character or meaning such that to experience it in this manner involves being in a dispositional state to behave in relation to the object or event, or within the situation, in ways that are appropriate to its having that particular character. All conscious experience is in this sense experiencing-as. The application of this idea to religion suggests that the total environment is religiously ambiguous, capable of being experienced in both religious and naturalistic ways. Religious faith is the element of uncompelled interpretation within the distinctively religious ways of experiencing--for theism, experiencing the world or events in history or in one's own life as mediating the presence and activity of God. In ancient Hebrew history, for example, events that are described by secular historians as the effects of political and economic forces were experienced by some of the great prophets as occasions in which God was saving or punishing, rewarding or testing, the Israelites. In such cases religious does not replace secular experiencing-as but supervenes upon it, revealing a further order of meaning in the events of the world. And the often unconscious cognitive choice whereby someone experiences religiously constitutes, on this view, faith in its most epistemologically basic sense.

For these voluntarist, existentialist, and experiential conceptions of faith the place of reason in religion, although important, is secondary. Reason cannot directly establish the truth of religious propositions. Its function is rather to defend the rational propriety of trusting one's deeper intuitions or one's religious experience and basing one's beliefs and life upon them. These schools of thought assume that the philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God are inconclusive, and that the universe is capable of being consistently thought of and experienced in both religious and naturalistic ways. This assumption, however, runs counter to the long tradition of natural theology.


Natural theology is generally characterized as the project of establishing religious truths by rational argument and without reliance upon alleged revelations, its two traditional topics being the existence of God and the immortality of the soul.

i) Arguments for the existence of God.

(1) The design (or teleological) argument.

St. Paul, with many others in the Greco-Roman world, believed that the existence of God is evident from the appearances of nature: "Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made" (Romans 1:20). The most popular, because the most accessible, of the theistic arguments is that which identifies evidences of design in nature, inferring from them a divine designer. The argument was propounded by medieval Christian thinkers and was developed in great detail in 17th- and 18th-century Europe by such writers as Robert Boyle, John Ray, Samuel Clarke, and William Derham and at the beginning of the 19th century by William Paley. Such writers asked: Is not the eye as manifestly designed for seeing, and the ear for hearing, as a pen for writing or a clock for telling the time; and does not such design imply a designer? The fact that the universe as a whole is a coherent and efficiently functioning system likewise, in this view, indicates a divine intelligence behind it. (see also Index: teleological argument)

This kind of argument was powerfully criticized by the Scottish philosopher David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). Hume granted that the world constitutes a more or less smoothly functioning system; indeed, he points out, it could not exist otherwise. He suggests, however, that this may have come about as a result of the chance permutations of particles falling into a temporary or permanent self-sustaining order, which thus has the appearance of design. A century later the idea of order without design was rendered more plausible by Charles Darwin's discovery that the adaptations of the forms of life are a result of the natural selection of inherited characteristics having positive, and the elimination of those having negative, survival value within a changing environment. Hume also pointed out that, even if one could infer an intelligent designer of the world, one would not thereby be entitled to claim that such a designer is the infinitely good and powerful Creator who is the object of Christian faith. For the world is apparently imperfect, containing many inbuilt occasions of animal pain and human suffering, and one cannot legitimately infer a greater perfection in the cause than is observed in the effect.

In the 20th century, however, the design argument has been reformulated in more comprehensive ways, particularly by the British philosophers Frederick R. Tennant (Philosophical Theology, 1928-30) and Richard Swinburne (using Bayes's probability theorem in The Existence of God, 1979), taking account not only of the order and functioning of nature but also of the "fit" between human intelligence and the universe, whereby one can understand its workings, as well as human aesthetic, moral, and religious experience. There are also attempts to show that the evolution of the universe, from the "big bang" of some 15,000,000,000 years ago to the present state that includes conscious life, required the conjunction of so many individually improbable factors as to be inexplicable except as the result of a deliberate coordinating control. If, for example, the initial heat of the expanding universe, or its total mass, or the strength of the force of gravity, or the mass of neutrinos, or the strength of the strong nuclear force, had been different by a small margin, there would have been no galaxies, no stars, no planets, and hence no life. Surely, it is argued, all this must be the work of God creating the conditions for human existence.

These probability arguments have, however, been strongly criticized. A basic consideration relevant to them all is that there is by definition only one universe, and it is difficult to see how its existence, either with or without God, can be assessed as having a specific degree of probability in any objective sense. It can of course be said that any form in which the universe might be is statistically enormously improbable as it is only one of a virtual infinity of possible forms. But its actual form is no more improbable, in this sense, than innumerable others. It is only the fact that humans are part of it that makes it seem so special, requiring a transcendent explanation. The design argument is thus an area in which debate continues.

(2) The cosmological argument.

St. Thomas Aquinas gave the first-cause argument and the argument from contingency--both forms of cosmological reasoning--a central place for many centuries in the Christian enterprise of natural theology. (Similar arguments were also used in parallel strands of Islamic philosophy.) Thomas' formulations (Summa theologiae, I, Q. 2, art. 3) have been refined in modern neo-Thomist discussions and continue to be topics of Christian philosophical reflection.

The first-cause argument begins with the fact that there is change in the world. A change is always the effect of some cause or causes. Each cause is itself the effect of a further cause or set of causes; this chain moves in a series that either never ends or is completed by a first cause, which must be of a radically different nature in that it is not itself caused. Such a first cause is an important aspect, though not the entirety, of what Christianity means by God.

The argument from contingency follows by another route the same basic movement of thought from the nature of the world to its ultimate ground. It starts with the fact that everything in the world is contingent for its existence upon other factors. Its presence is thus not self-explanatory but can only be understood by reference beyond itself to prior or wider circumstances that have brought it about. These other circumstances are likewise contingent; they too point beyond themselves for the ground of their intelligibility. If this explanatory regress is unending, explanation is perpetually postponed and nothing is finally explained. The existence of anything and everything thus remains ultimately unintelligible. But rational beings are committed to the search for intelligibility and cannot rest content until it is found. The universe can only finally be intelligible as the creation of an ontologically necessary being who is eternal and whose existence is not contingent upon anything else. This is also part of what Christianity has meant by God.

Criticism of these arguments points to the possibility that there is no first cause because the universe had no beginning, having existed throughout time, and is thus itself the necessary being that has existed eternally and without dependence upon anything else. Proponents of the cosmological argument reply that the existence of such a universe, as a procession of contingent events without beginning, would still be ultimately unintelligible. On the other hand, a personal consciousness and will, constituting a self-existent Creator of the universe, would be intrinsically intelligible; for human beings have experience in themselves of intelligence and free will as creative. Critics respond that insofar as the argument is sound it leaves one with the choice between believing that the universe is ultimately intelligible, because created by a self-existent personal will, or accepting that it is finally unintelligible, simply the ultimate given brute fact. The cosmological argument does not, however, compel one to choose the first alternative; logically, the second remains equally possible.

(3) The ontological argument.

The ontological argument, which proceeds not from the world to its Creator but from the idea of God to the reality of God, was first clearly formulated by St. Anselm (1033/34-1109) in his Proslogion (1077-78). Anselm began with the concept of God as that than which nothing greater can be conceived (aliquid quo nihil majus cogitari possit). To think of such a being as existing only in thought and not also in reality involves a contradiction. For an X that lacks real existence is not that than which no greater can be conceived. A yet greater being would be X with the further attribute of existence. Thus the unsurpassably perfect being must exist--otherwise it would not be unsurpassably perfect.

This argument has intrigued philosophers ever since. After some discussion in the 13th century it was reformulated for the modern world by Descartes in his Meditations (1641). Descartes made explicit the assumption, implicit in Anselm's reasoning, that existence is an attribute that a given X can have or fail to have. It follows from this--together with the assumption that existence is an attribute that is better to have than to lack--that God, as unsurpassably perfect, cannot lack the attribute of existence.

It was the assumption that existence is a predicate that has, in the view of most subsequent philosophers, proved fatal to the argument. The criticism was first made by Descartes's contemporary Pierre Gassendi and later and more prominently by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Putting their point as it has come to be further clarified by Bertrand Russell and others in the 20th century, to say that something with stated properties (whether it be a triangle, defined as a three-sided plane figure, or God, defined as an unsurpassably perfect being) exists, is not to attribute to it a further property, namely existence, but is to assert that the concept (of a triangle, or of God) is instantiated--that there actually are instances of that concept. But whether or not a given concept is instantiated is a question of fact. It cannot be determined a priori but only by whatever is the appropriate method for discovering a fact of that kind. This need for, in the broadest sense, observation cannot be circumvented by writing existence into the definition of the concept ("an existing three-sided plane figure," "an existing unsurpassably perfect being"), for the need arises again as the question of whether this enlarged concept is instantiated.

In the 20th century several Christian philosophers (notably Charles Hartshorne, Norman Malcolm, and Alvin Plantinga) have rediscovered and claimed validity for a second form of Anselm's argument. This hinges upon "necessary existence," a property with even higher value than "existence." A being that necessarily exists cannot coherently be thought not to exist. And so God, as the unsurpassably perfect being, must have necessary existence--and therefore must exist. This argument, however, has been criticized as failing to observe the distinction between logical and ontological, or factual, necessity. Logically necessary existence, it is said, is an incoherent idea, for logical necessity applies to the relations between concepts, not to their instantiation. God's necessity, then, must be an ontologically, or factually, rather than a logically, necessary existence: God exists as the ultimate fact, without beginning or end and without depending upon anything else for existence. But whether this concept of an ontologically necessary being is instantiated cannot be determined a priori. It cannot be validly inferred from the idea of an eternal and independent being that there actually is such a being.

(4) Moral arguments.

Moral theistic argument belongs primarily to the modern world and perhaps reflects the modern lack of confidence in metaphysical constructions. Kant, having rejected the cosmological, ontological, and design proofs, argued in the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) that the existence of God, though not directly provable, is a necessary postulate of the moral life. To take seriously the awareness of a categorical imperative to act rightly is to commit oneself to work for an ideal state of affairs in which perfect goodness and happiness coincide. But as this universal apportioning of happiness to virtue is beyond human power, a divine agent capable of bringing it about must be assumed. (see also Index: morality)

Other Christian thinkers, particularly during the 19th and early 20th centuries, have developed the theme that to accept the absolute demands of ethical obligation is to presuppose that this is a morally structured universe; and that this in turn implies a personal God whose commands are reflected in the human conscience. It cannot be proved that this is such a universe, it is said, but it is inevitably assumed in acknowledging the claims of morality.

The basic criticism of all attempts to trace ethical obligation to a transcendent divine source has been that it is possible to account for morality without going beyond the human realm. It is argued that the exigencies of communal life require agreed codes of behaviour, which become internalized in the process of socialization as moral laws; and the natural affection that develops among humans produces the more occasional sense of a call to heroic self-sacrifice on behalf of others. It seems, then, that the moral arguments for divine existence do not rise to the level of strict proofs.

(5) Arguments from religious experience and miracles.

Religious experience is used in Christian apologetics in two ways--in the argument from religious experiences to God as their cause and in the claim that it is (in the absence of contrary indications) as reasonable to trust religious as it is to trust nonreligious experience in forming beliefs about the total environment. (The first use is considered here among the traditional theistic arguments; for the second, see below Contemporary discussions .)

The argument maintains that special episodes, such as seeing visions of Christ or Mary or hearing a voice speaking with apparently divine authority, as well as the more pervasive experience of "living in God's presence" or of "absolute dependence upon a higher power," constitute evidence of God as their source. The criticism of this reasoning is that although such experiences may be accepted as having occurred, their cause might be purely natural. To establish that the experiences are real, as experiences, is not to establish that they are caused by an infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, divine being. As Thomas Hobbes succinctly put it, when someone says that God has spoken to him in a dream, this "is no more than to say he dreamed that God spake to him" (Leviathan, Pt. III, ch. 32).

The analogous argument, from miracles to God as their cause, is more complex, involving two sets of problems. The argument may assert that the children of Israel were miraculously rescued from Egypt or Jesus was miraculously raised from the dead and therefore that God must exist as the agent of these miracles. The first problem concerns the reports. Whereas in the case of private religious experiences the skeptic (to whom the argument is addressed) may well be willing to grant that such experiences occurred, in the case of public miracles the skeptic will require adequate evidence for the described event; and this is not forthcoming for the classic miracle stories referring to alleged extraordinary events of many centuries ago. There are, however, well-evidenced contemporary and recent accounts of "miraculous" healings and other remarkable happenings. On the assumption that some of these, and also some of the classic miracle stories, are historically accurate, the second problem arises. How can it be established that these events were caused by supernatural divine intervention rather than by the operation of natural psychic laws, such as seem to be indicated by the phenomena of telepathy and telekinesis?

Once again, any kind of strict proof seems to be lacking. These arguments can, however, still be seen as displaying aspects of the explanatory power of the idea of God. Divine activity is not the only possible way of understanding the ordered and developing character of the universe, its contingent existence, the unconditional claims of morality, or the occurrence of religious experiences and "miracles." Nevertheless, the concept of deity offers a possible, satisfying answer to the fundamental questions to which these various factors point. They may thus be said to open the door to rational theistic belief--but still leaving the nonbeliever waiting for a positive impetus to go through that door. Some of the contemporary work by Christian philosophers has been in search of such a positive impetus.

ii) The immortality of the soul.

Human beings seem always to have had some notion of a shadowy double that survives the death of the body. But the idea of the soul as a mental entity, with intellectual and moral qualities, interacting with a physical organism but capable of continuing after its dissolution, derives in Western thought from Plato and entered into Judaism during approximately the last century before the Common Era and thence into Christianity. In Jewish and Christian thinking it has existed in tension with the idea of the resurrection of the person conceived as an indissoluble psychophysical unity. Christian thought gradually settled into a pattern that required both of these apparently divergent ideas. At death the soul is separated from the body and exists in a conscious or unconscious disembodied state. But on the future Day of Judgment souls will be re-embodied (whether in their former but now transfigured earthly bodies or in new resurrection bodies) and will live eternally in the heavenly kingdom.

Within this framework philosophical discussion has centred mainly on the idea of the immaterial soul and its capacity to survive bodily death. Plato, in the Phaedo, argued that the soul is inherently indestructible. To destroy something, including the body, is to disintegrate it into its constituent elements; but the soul, as a mental entity, is not composed of parts and is thus an indissoluble unity. Although Thomas Aquinas' concept of the soul, as the "form" of the body, was derived from Aristotle rather than Plato, he too argued for its indestructibility (Summa theologiae, I, Q. 76, art. 6). The French philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), a modern Thomist, summarized the conclusion as follows: "A spiritual soul cannot be corrupted, since it possesses no matter; it cannot be disintegrated, since it has no substantial parts; it cannot lose its individual unity, since it is self-subsisting, nor its internal energy since it contains within itself all the sources of its energies" (The Range of Reason, 1952). But though it is possible to define the soul in such a way that it is incorruptible, indissoluble, and self-subsisting, critics have asked whether there is any good reason to think that souls as thus defined exist. If, on the other hand, the soul means the conscious mind or personality--something whose immortality would be of great interest to human beings--this does not seem to be an indissoluble unity. On the contrary, it seems to have a kind of organic unity that can vary in degree but that is also capable of fragmentation and dissolution.

Much modern philosophical analysis of the concept of mind is inhospitable to the idea of immortality, for it equates mental life with the functioning of the physical brain (see MIND, THE PHILOSOPHY OF ). Impressed by evidence of the dependence of mind on brain, some Christian thinkers have been willing to accept the view--corresponding to the ancient Hebrew understanding--of the human being as an indissoluble psychophysical unity, but these thinkers have still maintained a belief in immortality, not as the mind surviving the body, but as a divine resurrection or re-creation of the living body-mind totality. Such resurrection persons would presumably be located in a space different from that which they now inhabit and would presumably undergo a development from the condition of a dying person to that of a viable inhabitant of the resurrection world. But all theories in this area carry with them their own difficulties, and discussion continues.

Kant offered a different kind of argument for immortality--as a postulate of the moral life. The claim of the moral law demands that human beings become perfect. This is something that can never be finally achieved but only asymptotically approached, and such an unending approach requires the unending existence of the soul. This argument also is open to criticism. Are humans indeed subject to a strict obligation to attain moral perfection? Might not their obligation, as finite creatures, be to do the best they can? But this does not seem to entail immortality.

It should be noted that in the case of all these arguments, both for the immortality of the soul and for the existence of God, the debate has been as much among Christian philosophers as between them and non-Christian skeptics. It is by no means the case that Christian thinkers have all regarded the project of natural theology as viable. There have indeed been, and are, many who hold that divine existence can be definitively proved or shown to be objectively probable. But there are many others who not only hold that the attempted proofs all require premises that a disbeliever is under no rational obligation to accept but who also question the evidentialist assumption that the only route to rational theistic belief is by inference from previously accepted evidence-stating premises.


Contemporary discussion among Christian philosophers is predominantly epistemological. Among Roman Catholic thinkers it includes the original work of Bernard Lonergan in Insight (1957), which has stimulated considerable discussion. Lonergan argued that the act of understanding, or insight, is pivotal for the apprehension of reality, and that it implies in the long run that the universe is itself due to the fiat of an "unrestricted act of understanding," which is God. Other Roman Catholic thinkers have continued to refine and extend the Thomistic approach, particularly the idea of analogical predication in statements about God. Others, in common with non-Catholic philosophers, have discussed the traditional divine attributes--omniscience, omnipotence, eternity, immutability, personality, goodness. The concept of a finite deity developing through time has also been proposed (e.g., by Charles Hartshorne) to meet objections to some of these concepts: If God is immutable, how can God be aware of successive events in time? If God has absolute self-existence, how can God respond with sympathy to the pains of creaturely life? Others have defended the traditional attributes as logically coherent, both individually and in their relationship to one another, and as allowing for divine awareness of the created universe, God's activity in history, and divine sympathy with human suffering. (see also Index: Thomism, finite God)

i) Influence of logical positivism.

Perhaps the largest body of work, however, has been generated in dialogue with the new linguistic turn of philosophy in the English-speaking world, particularly since World War II, concentrating on the analysis of language in its various uses. The logical positivist movement originated in the 1920s with the Vienna Circle. Although mainly concerned with the philosophy of science, it posed by implication a major challenge to the logical meaningfulness of religious language. The positivist position, in its developed form, was that a statement has factual meaning only if it is capable in principle of being verified or falsified, or at least in some degree confirmed or disconfirmed, within human experience; otherwise it is meaningless, or cognitively vacuous. In the years immediately after World War II this account of factual meaning was applied (e.g., by Antony Flew) to theological statements, raising such questions as: What observable difference does it make whether it is true or false that "God loves us"? Whatever tragedies occur, do not the faithful still maintain their belief, adding perhaps that the divine love is beyond human comprehension? But if it is not possible to conceive of circumstances in which "God loves us" would have to be judged false, is not the statement factually empty, or meaningless? (see also Index: Analytic philosophy, verifiability principle)

This challenge evoked three kinds of response. Some Christian philosophers have declared it to be a non-challenge, on the ground that the positivists never succeeded in finding a precise formulation of the verification criterion that was fully satisfactory even to themselves. Others have held that this does not block the central thrust of the positivist challenge. Does it really make no difference within actual or possible human experience whether or not God exists and loves us; and if so, is not the significance of the belief thereby fatally damaged? Among those who felt it necessary to face this challenge, one group granted that theological statements lack factual meaning and suggested that their proper use lies elsewhere, as expressing a way of looking at the world (e.g., Richard M. Hare) or a moral point of view and commitment (e.g., R.B. Braithwaite). The other group claimed that theism is ultimately open to experiential confirmation. The theory of eschatological verification (developed by John Hick) holds that the belief in future postmortem experiences will be verified if true (though not falsified if false), and that in a divinely governed universe such experiences will take forms confirming theistic faith. Thus although the believer and the disbeliever do not have different expectations about the course of earthly history, they do expect the total course of the universe to be radically different.

In the late 20th century, under the stimulus of Wittgenstein's posthumously published works, attention has been directed to the multiple legitimate uses of language in the various language games developed within different human activities and forms of life; and it has been urged (e.g., by D.Z. Phillips) that religious belief has its own autonomous validity, not subject to verificationist or scientific or other extraneous criteria. Statements about God and eternal life do not make true-or-false factual claims but express, in religious language, a distinctive attitude to life and way of engaging in it. This suggestion forms part of the broader non-realist interpretation of religion, holding that its beliefs do not refer to putative transcendent realities but are instead expressive of human ideals, desires, hopes, attitudes, and intentions. Such thinking goes back to the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (The Essence of Christianity, 1841) in the 19th century and to George Santayana, John Dewey, and J.H. Randall, Jr., in the early 20th century and is advocated today by some Christian writers, notably D.Z. Phillips and Don Cupitt. According to them, true Christianity consists in the inner purity of an unself-centred attitude to life and does not involve belief in the objective reality of God or of a life after death. The criticism this view inevitably attracts is that to deny the transcendent reference of religious language empties it of any substantial meaning. The issue is the focus of considerable contemporary discussion.

ii) Evidentialist approach.

In addition to this and other work concerning religious language there has been a renewal of fundamental discussion of Christian, and more broadly religious, epistemology. The natural theology tradition held that, in order to be rational, religious belief must be supported by adequate evidences or arguments. It was assumed that God's existence must be validly inferred from generally acceptable premises. This evidentialist principle has been questioned, however, not only by such earlier thinkers as Pascal and William James but also by a number of contemporary Christian philosophers. Evidentialist thinking was foundationalist in granting that there are some beliefs that can be reasonably held directly and not by inference from other evidence-stating beliefs. Thomas Aquinas, for example, recognized self-evident truths and the reports of the senses as basic in the sense that they do not need support from other beliefs. They thus provide the foundations on which a belief structure can properly be built. Belief in the existence of God was not regarded as basic or foundational in this way but was thought to require adequate evidence or arguments. It has been argued (by Alvin Plantinga) that the range of properly basic beliefs is wider than classic foundationalism had recognized. It can include not only beliefs about the past and the existence of other persons but also belief in the reality of God. Such beliefs can be basic (i.e., not inferred), and they are properly basic if held in appropriate circumstances. Thus, the belief that "There is a tree before me" is properly basic for one who is having the experience of seeing a tree; and the belief that "God exists" is properly basic for one who experiences God's judgment, forgiveness, love, claim, providential care, or some other mode of divine presence.

Discussion of this proposal centres upon the criteria for proper basicality: In what circumstances is it appropriate, and in what circumstances not, to hold the basic belief in God or the basic beliefs of other religions or of the naturalistic worldviews?

A related contemporary development, pursued by William Alston and others, is the claim that religious experience constitutes an entirely proper basis for religious beliefs. The claim is not that one can validly infer God as the cause of theistic religious experience, but that one who participates in such experience is entitled to trust it as a ground for belief. It is argued that human beings all normally operate with a "principle of credulity" whereby they take what seems to be so as indeed so, unless they have some positive reason to doubt it. Accordingly, one who has the experience of living in the presence of God can properly proceed in both thought and life on the basis that God is real. Such belief inevitably involves epistemic risk--the risk of error versus the risk of missing the truth. But perhaps the right to believe that was defended by William James applies in this situation.

The discussion focuses on the analogies between religious forms of experience and the kinds of sensory experience in relation to which the principle of credulity is virtually universally accepted. It is uncontroversially proper to hold beliefs reflecting sense experience, but what of beliefs reflecting religious experience? Whereas all human beings hold the former and could not survive without doing so, the latter type of belief seems to be optional. Although beliefs regarding physical objects can be empirically confirmed or disconfirmed, religious beliefs cannot. Acknowledging these significant differences, some Christian philosophers have argued that they are the kinds of differences that are to be expected, given the difference between the human relationship to the world and to God. It is necessary to human existence as physical organisms that a consciousness of the material environment should be forced upon human beings. On the other hand, it is necessary for existence as relatively autonomous and responsible beings that consciousness of God should not be forced upon them, for to be compulsorily aware of God's universal presence as limitless goodness and power, making a total claim upon human life, would deprive them of creaturely freedom. Humans are accordingly set at an epistemic distance from God that is overcome only by faith, which can be identified with the voluntary interpretive element within the experience of God's presence.

The central Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ is another topic of current discussion. Philosophical questions concerning this were debated intensively in the 3rd to 5th centuries, as noted above, in terms of the key notion of ousia/substantia. The concept of substance, however, although confidently used throughout the medieval period, has been widely questioned within modern thought and no longer figures in the distinctively 20th-century streams of philosophy. There have consequently been a variety of attempts, in which theology and philosophy mingle inextricably, to find an interpretation that is intelligible today. Instead of the basically static notion of substance--Jesus qua human being of human substance and qua divine of God's substance--many have preferred the more dynamic idea of divine action. From this point of view Jesus was divine in the sense that God was acting redemptively through him; or, instead of a homo-ousion, identity of substance, between Jesus and the heavenly Father, there was a homo-agapion, an identity of divine loving. Others, however, have criticized such alternatives to the older substance language, often on the ground that, whereas "being of the same substance as" is an all-or-nothing concept, divine activity in and through a human life is capable of degrees, so that the divinity of Christ may in principle be de-absolutized. The intertwining theological and philosophical issues continue to be strongly debated.

The problems of religious pluralism are increasingly being seen as requiring the attention of Christian philosophers. One reason arises from the kind of apologetic described above, hinging upon the reasonableness of basing beliefs upon religious experience. It is evident that there are many forms of religious experience, giving rise to many forms of religious belief. There is considerable variety within the Christian tradition itself, and in the world as a whole Muslim forms of religious experience give rise to and justify Islamic beliefs, Jewish forms of experience to Jewish beliefs, Hindu to Hindu beliefs, Buddhist to Buddhist beliefs, and so on. These different belief systems include mutually incompatible doctrines. Thus the experiential solution to the problem of justifying Christian beliefs has given rise to a new problem constituted by the conflicting truth-claims of the different religious traditions.

The other reason the great world faiths provide new issues for Christian philosophy is that some of their belief systems challenge long-standing Christian assumptions. Whereas Judaism and Islam raise theological questions, the most challenging philosophical issues are raised by Buddhism. The belief in God as the personal ultimate is challenged by the idea of the ultimacy of the nonpersonal dharma-kaya. The idea of the immortal soul is challenged by the anatta ("no soul") doctrine, with its claim that the personal mind or soul is not an enduring substance but a succession of fleeting moments of consciousness. And yet Buddhism, teaching as it does doctrines that are radically different from those of the Christian faith, also challenges Christianity by the centrality within it of compassion, peaceableness, and a respect for all life.

These and other issues raised by the fact of religious plurality are ones that Christian philosophers have only begun to face but that suggest the possibility of major developments in Christian thinking. 


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