Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.04.51
George Karamanolis, The Philosophy of Early Christianity. Ancient Philosophies. Durham: Acumen, 2013. Pp. xvi, 317. ISBN 9781844655687. $24.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Justin Rogers, Freed-Hardeman University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]
The volume under review is the tenth in the Ancient Philosophies series from Acumen. The volumes in this series provide introductory information for students of the classics and ancient philosophy. In keeping with the series theme, the contribution of Karamanolis is an introduction to Christian philosophy between the mid-second and late fourth centuries beginning with Justin Martyr and ending with Gregory of Nyssa.
The overarching premise of the book, as spelled out in the Introduction, is that Christian philosophy ought to be studied as a unique intellectual movement that both borrows from and reacts against contemporary pagan philosophy. Karamanolis sees three reasons for the rise of Christian philosophy: (1) the desire to gain universal acceptance among intellectuals; (2) the need to settle Christian doctrinal disputes, especially with heterodox communities; and (3) the rise of contemporary skepticism as a challenge to all dogmatic philosophy.
The first chapter discusses the Christian critique of contemporary philosophy and the intellectual system proposed in its place. Karamanolis suggests that Christianity borrowed from the Skeptics the notion that disagreement among the major schools highlights the uncertain nature of dogmatic philosophy. In contrast to the Skeptics, however, the Christians offered a dogmatic system focused on scripture, which itself is an expression of the Logos. In focusing on a textual authority, the Christians mirror the strategy of contemporary Platonists.
Scripture, of course, could take Christian philosophy only so far. Scripture itself was subject to variant interpretations and, nevertheless, failed to address most of the major philosophical issues directly. Karamanolis adduces three additional tools by which philosophical principles are established in the authors he surveys. First is the logical implication of philosophical concepts. The very concept of God carries with it implications, such as goodness, rationality and so on. Second is the law of non-contradiction. Saying that God can do anything, for instance, exposes one to the fallacy that God can make a rock too heavy to lift, and so on. Third is the focus on the author’s “intention.” Such is a reading strategy that has parallels in Ammonius Saccas and Plotinus, and allows the Christians to claim access to authorial intent. It is the latter of these that proves most helpful, for one can claim biblical authority for a philosophical concept that is not clearly biblical at all.
The second chapter addresses physics and metaphysics, especially in the area of first principles and cosmogony. After surveying the intellectual options available to the Christians, Karamanolis outlines the contributions of nine Christian authors, with special attention justly given to Clement, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. Like the Platonists, the Christians in general opted for the Platonic Demiurge, which provided a principle of divine generation, while keeping God himself, the “form of the Good,” a transcendent principle of being. Both of these moves react against Aristotelian and Stoic models. Still, the Christian doctrine of first principles could not easily explain the origin of matter, which is connected to the origin of evil. For Christian philosophy, God needed to be both the efficient cause of the world and ontologically different from it. The former concept implies that God created matter, the latter idea that matter was preexistent and utilized in the act of creation. The Bible could be read to endorse either doctrine. As Karamanolis shows, the Christian philosophers attempted to sort out this dilemma in different ways, but never truly solved it.
The third chapter discusses Christian logic and epistemology. Karamanolis uses Galen’s critique to illustrate the need early Christians felt to explain their apparent “blind faith.” Rather than denying the role of faith, however, they insist that faith is required for knowledge. Essentially Stoic in his perspective, Clement speaks of “assent” as a necessary requirement for knowledge. The human mind must accept the “sense-perceptions” offered to him based on “preconceptions.” Origen too adopts Stoic epistemology and logic, going so far as to replicate Stoic syllogisms in his critique of Celsus. Christian epistemology goes one step beyond pagan philosophy in that God is isolated as the ultimate source of knowledge. This is because the world comes into existence by divine thinking. Everything in the world must be understood by virtue of its origin in the divine intellect. This theory is developed in the work of Gregory of Nyssa, who understands man to share his intellectual nature with God. Therefore, two forms of knowledge are available to man: (1) that which comes through sense-perception and (2) “true” knowledge, which comes through engagement with the divine intellect.
The fourth chapter addresses the important philosophical concerns of free will and divine providence. The Christians understood God as having free will, and like the Platonists, argued that God was under no compulsion at all. Plotinus goes so far as to say that God’s “will is his essence.” The free will of God has implications for humans as well. As sharers in God’s intellect, we too share in free will. Evil is the result of bad decisions made according to free will. This background explains the existence of the Devil, who was the first to sin by free will. For Christians, overcoming sin leads to a virtuous and happy life, and indeed there can be no righteousness without temptation.
While free will is fundamental, the Gnostics observe that human beings seemingly possess a predisposition toward good or evil. This notion raises a problem for volitional freedom, which the Christian philosophers must answer. Irenaeus simply dismisses the problem, arguing that virtue and vice would be impossible to evaluate unless God creates all men equal. Origen, however, suggests that human disposition is the result of choices made by pre-existent souls prior to their “descent” into the body. Although Origen has received much attention for this doctrine, it merely pushes the problem back in time, and fails truly to solve it.
Chapter Five discusses psychology. The nature of the soul is of primary importance because it is regarded as the divine essence in man, that part of man made in the image of God. The Christians vacillate, however, between a tripartite (body-soul-spirit) and a bipartite (body-soul) view of man. Justin and Irenaeus maintain a tripartite hierarchy in man, the body participating in the soul, the soul participating in the spirit, and the spirit participating in God. This enables them to argue for the salvation of the body. Origen develops a more complex view, which Karamanolis tendentiously reconstructs. He believes that for Origen preexistent intellects devolve into souls, which descend into bodies. The intellect remains active in the sense that it is responsible for rejecting vice and accepting virtue, while the soul is responsible for the emotions in the body, such as love, anger, and so on. Gregory of Nyssa, like Origen, focuses on the intellect although he does not separate the soul from the intellect. For Gregory, the intellect is not “in” the body, but rather permeates the whole body as a power (dunamis), and shapes the human being in accord with itself. Picking up a Stoic argument found also in Tertullian, the soul is transmitted through the male sperm, and thus does not exist apart from the body. The immortality of the soul, then, implies the resurrection of the body, which is purified and returns to its original, ideal state.
Chapter Six focuses on ethics and politics. As is well known, Christian ethics stands very close to Stoic ethics, but Platonic models are also influential. Christian thinkers can speak of “freedom from the passions” (apatheia) or the more moderate, course, “moderation of the passions” (metriopathia). They speak of ethical progress (prokopē) toward virtue. They speak of “sin” more often than “vice,” but the language of salvation is common to both Christian and Platonic traditions. Christian ethics diverges from pagan ethics, however, in two important respects: (1) the pagans expect ethical goals to be attainable in earthly life, whereas Christians can speak of heavenly rewards, and (2) salvation in the pagan tradition is entirely dependent upon human effort, whereas God’s grace plays an important role in the Christian journey toward perfection.
The book contains an appendix providing helpful biographical information about each of the Christian thinkers covered in the book. Since so much attention is given to contemporary pagan thinkers, however, it would be helpful if they were represented as well. After a section for the endnotes, the author includes a brief list of recommended works for further reading, organized according to the book’s chapter content, as well as a comprehensive bibliography of the works cited in the book.
There are a few minor errors in the book. On p. 156 eimarmenē should be spelled heimarmenē. Also the phrase pnoēn zoēs on p. 186 should be transliterated pnoēn zōēs. The index references the wrong page numbers for “emotions” as pp. 240-241, but this is impossible. The author also has several long sentences that make for tedious reading in English (p. 46 first sentence, bottom paragraph; p. 59 final paragraph; p. 74 final paragraph).
Overall, the book is a sound comprehensive introduction to the field of early Christian philosophy. The author allows primary sources to speak for themselves as a general rule. However, his references to modern scholarship are relevant and current. This book would be an ideal textbook for an undergraduate course on Christian philosophy.
Table of Contents
1. The Christian conception of philosophy and Christian philosophical methodology
2. Physics and metaphysics: first principles and the question of cosmogony
3. Logic and epistemology
4. Free will and divine providence
5. Psychology: the soul and its relation to the body
6. Ethics and politics