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  • Writer's pictureM.B. Christiansen

What Has Athens to Do With Jerusalem?



The Importance of Reading the Old Dead Guys


Why should we spend time thinking about old dead guys? What could they possibly have to contribute to the faith of Christians living in our enlightened and postmodern world?


One of the beautiful things about the Christian faith is that it is inescapably ancient in its origins, and the faith we now hold is the product not just of God’s revelation through Scripture, but of a long tradition of theologians and thinkers who have wrestled with God’s Word and have helped to flesh out the doctrines presented in Scripture.


When one reads the “old dead guys”, the theological giants who came before us, we realize that the Holy Spirit spoke to them just as he speaks to us. What we find, when we consult the great Christian thinkers of the past, is that many of the problems we wrestle with are not new and have been dealt with by Christians in the past.


Consulting the ancient Christians who have gone before us gives us the privilege of not having to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. Every question of faith that a believer wrestles with has been thought of and wrestled with before. They faced the same doubts and questions we do, and in many cases overcame and solved them. Why would we not look to them for wisdom? After all, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9 ESV).

 

The Father of Western Theology


Perhaps one of the most influential ancient theologians you’ve never heard of is Tertullian of Carthage, who lived from around AD 160-220. Tertullian was a leader at a critical time in the history of the Christian faith. The Apostles who had been with Jesus and had been tasked with carrying on his Kingdom’s work were all dead and gone, and a new generation was left with their New Testament writings to wrestle with the staggering truths revealed therein. How could Jesus have been really a man while at the same time being God? What did that mean?


The Church was in a vulnerable place, and a step in the wrong direction could have fundamentally compromised the faith handed down from Jesus to the Apostles. The Christian faith owes a great debt to thinkers like Tertullian who stood with conviction in the face of heresies and human thought which, while appealing, if embraced would have marked a fundamental departure from the clear witness of Scripture.


Tertullian is often referred to as the Founder of Western Theology and the Father of Latin Theology. He was the first to coin the term “trinity” and to really flesh out what it means that God is a triune God, and he defended the importance of Jesus’ identity as fully human and fully God.


I find myself personally drawn to Tertullian’s writings out of admiration not only of the wisdom and understanding he has about Scripture’s witness, but because of the conviction with which he stood against the prevailing worldviews of the time which sought to subvert the Christian message and morph it into something it was never intended to be. Tertullian is emphatically to the point. He has no time for nonsense and seems to be driven exclusively by the desire to know God more fully. Theology, after all, is the means through which we are able to deepen our understanding of the vibrant and wonderful God who created us. Theology is the vehicle through which we get to know our Maker.


Since starting seminary, a love of reading has been reawakened in my soul, but it is not just reading for reading’s sake. I am only drawn to very specific kinds of books. Reflecting over the past couple of years, I’ve come to realize that I have very little interest in the human frameworks through which people try to wrangle God into a nice neat box. My interest in reading biblical scholarship and theology books hinges singularly on a desire to know God more clearly and deeply.


It is not theology for theology’s sake that interests me. It is the prospect of growing deeper in my knowledge of and relationship with God that draws me to reading. Human frameworks and systems of thinking only interest me if they are directly contributing to my understanding of God’s truth. If the material is helping me fill in a more accurate picture of who God is and how he relates to humankind, the driest and most dully academic biblical scholarship become interesting and bring joy. But if the literature is simply comparing and contrasting human ideas with no real application to my relationship with Christ, I quickly lose interest.

 

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?


This strictly pragmatic approach to faith and theology is something that Tertullian embodied. He had no time for the human philosophical systems of the Greeks that were popular in his world, because he recognized that they failed to adequately describe reality as it really was.


Much of the challenge that faced the early Church was the desire to take Greek philosophy and integrate aspects of it into the Christian faith. Citing Paul’s concern expressed to the Colossians, Tertullian vehemently objected:


These are the doctrines of men and of devils, gendered, for itching ears, of the spirit of the wisdom of this world, which the Lord calling foolishness, has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound even Philosophy itself. For such is the material of the wisdom of this world, the rash interpreter of the Nature of God, and of the order by Him established.

Finally, heresies themselves are tricked out by Philosophy. Hence the Aeons, and I know not what infinite ‘forms,’ and ‘the trinity of man’ according to Valentinus: he was of the school of Plato. Hence the god of Marcion, more excellent by reason of his indolence: he came of the Stoics And the doctrine that the soul dies is maintained from the Epicureans. And the denial of the restoration of the body is taken from the united school of all the Philosophers. And where matter is made equal with God, there is the doctrine of Zeno: and where ought is alleged concerning a god consisting of fire, there cometh in Heraclitus.

The same matter is turned and twisted by the heretics and by the philosophers, the same questions are involved: Whence cometh evil? and why? and whence man? and how? and, what Valentinus has lately propounded, whence God? To wit, from an exercise of the Mind and from an abortive birth.

Wretched Aristotle! Who has taught them the dialectic art, cunning in building up and pulling down, using many shifts in sentences, making forced guesses at truth, stiff in arguments, busy in raising contentions, contrary even to itself, dealing backwards and forwards with every subject, so as really to deal with none.

Hence those fables and endless genealogies, and unprofitable questions, and words that spread like canker, from which the Apostle restraining us, testifies of philosophy by name, that it ought to be shunned; writing to the Colossians, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 1:8 ESV).

He had been to Athens, and had, through his conflicts therewith, become acquainted with that wisdom of man, which affects the Truth and corrupts it, itself also being divided many ways into its own heresies by the variety of sects opposing each other. What then has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What the Academy with the Church? What heretics with Christians? Our School is of the porch of Solomon, who himself also has delivered unto us, that we must in simplicity of heart seek the Lord. Away with those who have brought forward a Stoic, and a Platonic, and a Dialectic Christianity!

Tertullian, On Prescription Against Heretics VII
(text modified from translation by Peter Holmes)

 

Tertullian pulls no punches as he interacts with the prevailing worldviews of his day, and his argument is perfectly summed up in his statement: What, then, has Athens to do with Jerusalem?


The problem is not with the existence of these other systems of thought, it is that they have nothing to do with the Christian faith. As Paul warned the Colossians, we must be careful not to mix flawed human ways of thinking with the perfect truth of God’s Word. To do so creates something altogether different than the faith handed down by Jesus. If philosophy can lend insight that enhances the Christian faith, so be it. What Tertullian is reacting against is the attempt to use philosophy to modify the Christian faith. When faced with new ideas that hoped to compromise the Christian faith and synchronize it with the other worldviews, Tertullian responds by asking “so what?”

 

Practical Takeaway: Adapting the Delivery, not the Content


The fundamental issue that Tertullian addresses above is that people were allowing their preconceived notions about reality to distort how they approached the faith. People who had a background in Greek philosophy were taking their preconceived ideas and trying to make their Christian faith fit into their foreign framework.


This is the very same issue we are faced with living two thousand plus years after Jesus’ ascension. We have an entirely different lived experience than the first-century Jews, so inevitably when we approach Scripture, we have different ideas that we bring with us to the text.


The task of the serious student is to leave our preconceived notions behind in order to see Scripture as God intended to reveal it. Realizing that we approach Scripture with an unconscious bias is half the battle.


Those engaged in ministry in our world today are on the frontline of the same issues that Tertullian faced in his day. A bewildering array of secular ideologies like Critical Race Theory, New Age thought, and the ever-developing ideas centering around human sexuality and gender are being embraced by the Church and, alarmingly, integrated into the Christian faith to produce something fundamentally disconnected from the faith handed down through the ages. When we do this it becomes not the genuine Christian faith but a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of beliefs.


Often times, the intentions from which compromise arises are noble. The thought is that we must adapt in order to share God’s truth with a culture that is lost and needs direction. If we want to reach our neighbors and communities with the gospel, it makes sense that we engage with them with terms and ideas that will resonate with them and meet them where they’re at.


The problem is that all too often, the content is changed as well as the delivery. In an attempt to make the gospel more palatable to our modern sensibilities, the temptation is to water it down and downplay sin in an attempt to make Jesus more attractive.


The task of theology (and anyone who follows Christ with the proper conviction) is adapting the delivery of the Christian faith without compromising the message.


In order to engage the culture, we must communicate God’s truth in terms that will be understood by our neighbors, while still maintaining the integrity of the gospel message itself. Then, and only then, will we effectively contribute to the Kingdom of God. Surely Tertullian would not have objected to using philosophical terms to communicate the biblical truth to those engrained in the Greek worldview (indeed John's usage of Jesus as the logos appears to be just that); what he objected to was integrating Greek philosophical ideas into the faith that fundamentally compromised the message of the gospel.


This is what youth ministry is all about. The age-old truth handed down through generations is that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Without Jesus, we all stand condemned and must pay eternally for our sins. This truth remains true regardless of what is going on culturally around us. The task at hand is to communicate the good news of the gospel to a generation that does not resonate with terms like substitutionary atonement. If we are to connect God’s truth with the next generation, we must communicate the fundamental idea of the gospel in terms they understand. The content does not change, the language used to communicate it does.

 

Ministry as Fundamentally Polemical


Something I deeply appreciate about the early church fathers like Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Athanasius is that they stood boldly in the face of popular ideas that were clearly opposed to their own beliefs. For this reason, the early church had a faith that was largely polemical. In order to differentiate their beliefs from those of the world around them, they had to stand up for God’s truth, and refute contrary ideas when they were offered.


Ministry in the days we live in should be highly polemical. Gone are the days when we can simply love the culture and neglect to point them to the truth. The prevailing theories and cultural convictions of our day are diametrically opposed to the biblical faith. Common ground with the culture can only be established if that common ground actually exists.


Our Western culture would have us set ourselves up as the ultimate authority on morality and truth. Our own desires are the thing that must be followed at any cost, and to do anything less is to commit the cardinal sin: to not be true to yourself. The words of the Serpent in the Garden echo softly and deceptively through the consciousness of our media and our influencers: “If you just follow your heart, you’ll be like God… You’re the only one who can decide what’s right and wrong for you.”


Like Tertullian, we might ask: "What has Hollywood to do with Eternal Life?"


It is refreshing and encouraging to read the voices of the past and to realize that they, like us, lived in a world that was full of false ideas which were leading their friends and neighbors down the wide well-trodden road to eternal destruction. It is refreshing to read how strongly and boldly they stood for God’s truth, not worrying about how they might be perceived by those hostile to the Christian faith. It is encouraging to see how they refused to compromise and continued to serve God faithfully. The thing that makes their writings and their stories so inspirational is that they knew what they stood for.


As followers of Christ, we stand for God’s Truth and the beauty and love communicated through an ugly rough-cut cross on a hill in Palestine two thousand years ago. Our task is to be a light and to stand strongly and unapologetically for God’s Kingdom in an effort to point those who find themselves living in darkness to the source of eternal light.

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