Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.10.57 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.10.57

Sébastien Morlet, Christianisme et philosophie: les premières confrontations (Ier-VIe siècle). Série "Antiquité" 33333.   Paris:  Le Livre de Poche, 2014.  Pp. 260.  ISBN 9782253156505.  €7.10 (pb).  

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht University (

In this booklet, Morlet presents us with a very concise but excellent overview of the confrontations between Christian faith and Graeco-Roman philosophy in the first six centuries CE, written in a clear style. After a methodological introduction, the first chapter deals with Christian objections to philosophy (e.g., Tatian, Hermias): they see the history of Greek philosophy as one of never-ending contradictions. No wonder, since philosophy is based upon human reason and for that very reason inferior to faith that is based upon divine revelation.

Ch. 2 deals with philosophical objections against Christianity (Celsus, Porphyry, Julian, Hierocles, the anonymous opponent in Macarius’ Apokritikos). Here the argument of kainotomia is important: Christianity is a new phenomenon and as such cannot be true; only what is old is valuable (Aristotle’s timiôtaton to presbytaton). Furthermore, Christian faith is irrational (see Celsus’ parody: ‘Do not ask questions, just believe!’ in Origen, Contra Celsum 1.9). Christians have an inadequate conception of deity, for instance, by attributing a son to god. Doctrines such as the incarnation or the resurrection of the body are the senseless products of alogos pistis. And if all this were divine revelation, why was it made known so late in history? The Bible is an absurd ‘holy book,’ written as it is charlatans and read by idiots. Jesus was a goês, an impostor, and his disciples were nothing but ignoramuses.

In ch. 3, Morlet sketches the counter-attacks by Christian intellectuals and apologists (Justin, Origen, Eusebius, Theodoret, and others). They argue that Christian faith can be justified and accounted for on a rational basis. If Christ is the Logos, he has been present throughout history and was also active in those philosophers who were open to the truth, such as Plato. He and others were in fact chrétiens avant la date, they knew about Christ, but for fear of having to undergo the same fate as Socrates, they kept their deepest conviction for themselves and only hinted at them in their writings. Moses, who also knew Christ and hints at him in allegorical ways, was older than even the earliest Greeks and influenced many a Greek thinker in their philosophy (hence, e.g., the agreements between Genesis and Plato’s Timaeus, already pointed out by the Jew Philo). The inevitable conclusion is not only that Christianity is the oldest, and hence the only true, philosophy, but also that in the final analysis philosophy, too, is a product (albeit a somewhat polluted one) of divine revelation.

Ch. 4 demonstrates that this theory made it possible to regard philosophy as a kind of ‘introduction to Christianity’ (praeparatio evangelica). In patristic theories of history (‘salvation history’), philosophy could thus play a positive role, even to the point that in the famous catechetical school of Alexandria the study of Greek philosophy, with its nuggets of truth, became a regular part of the curriculum. That the study of philosophy could prepare a person for conversion to Christianity is exemplified in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho 1-8 and in other writings.

In ch. 5 Morlet shows how the great pagan philosophers and their schools were interpreted by the early Church Fathers. In a fascinating survey, he discusses several passages from ancient philosophers as interpreted by Christian authors and points out what he calls the ‘double décontextualisation’ in such an interpretatio christiana: ignoring the immediate context of the passage quoted and interpreting it in the light of the biblical revelation.

Finally, in ch. 6, the question is raised whether one can find any influence of Christianity upon later Greek philosophers. Morlet discusses inter alia whether such influence may perhaps be detected in Plotinus’ doctrine of the three hypostaseis, or in the increased antirationalism and appeal to revelatory experiences of the later Platonists, but he is very cautious, if not skeptical, in assuming such influences.

The book is meant to be read by a wider non-technical audience and for that reason there are no footnotes, but there are quite a number of small ‘block texts’ alongside the main text in which important information is given about the main figures or ideas dealt with. The book ends with an index locorum and a bibliography (the latter is somewhat lopsided because most of the works mentioned are in French, but in view of the target audience this is understandable). Even though one might quibble with Morlet about some minor issues, on the whole this is an excellent introduction for beginners to a complex field of research that I recommend unreservedly.

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