Why Early Christianity Adopted Greek Philosophy

It is common in LDS discourse to say that Christianity went into apostasy because it was corrupted by Greek philosophy. There is no question that by the fourth century, Christian theologians had rearticulated Christian belief and understanding using the content and methods of philosophy, with a popular version of Platonism providing most of the resource. The creeds and their defenders make that evident. But I will argue here that this incorporation of a popular contemporary philosophical tradition into Christianity was the result—not the cause—of the apostasy as understood by many Latter-day Saints.

Before Clement of Alexandria and during the first century and a half of Christianity, references to contemporary philosophies by Christians served principally rhetorical functions in dealing with outsiders. Following a tradition going back to Paul (Acts 17:18-31), missionaries could cite beliefs of contemporary philosophers that were similar to the teachings of Christ as a means of introducing their own message. This was an attractive strategy in that the philosophical community shared with the Christians a seriousness about living a good life and a critical rejection of the vulgar excesses of pagan worship practices and the silliness of pagan mythology. Christian apologists, such as Justin Martyr, found the philosophical beliefs of the Roman elites a most useful ground on which to defend their own Christianity.

But Clement took a much bigger step near the end of the second century when he consciously adopted the rational methods of philosophy as the tools of Christians in pursuit of the truth. While this philosophical gambit was never uncontroversial, it spread rapidly throughout the Christian community and was both officially and firmly established by the fourth-century councils that produced the Christian creeds. The interesting discovery for Latter-day Saints comes when they discover that traditional Christians—Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern—regard this adoption of Hellenist philosophy as the salvation of the incomplete and struggling Christian community. It is also worth noting that Clement was consciously following the example of Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish philosopher who had written volumes in the decades just before Christ’s ministry in which he allegorized the Old Testament systematically to make it accord with a contemporary form of Platonism.

By the last two decades of the second century, not only had all the authorized apostles and prophets disappeared, but the first generation of those who knew and heard them were also gone. Lacking faithful witnesses, Christians were left without authoritative voices to clarify scriptural ambiguities or to give divine direction in the resolution of new challenges for the community. Like his contemporaries, Clement recognized that “the prophets and apostles knew not the arts by which the exercises of philosophy are exhibited” (310). Rather, he explains, the prophets and disciples were of the Spirit and knew these things infallibly by faith. But this is not possible for others, says Clement, disagreeing with some of his own contemporaries who insisted on avoiding contact with philososphy, logic, or natural science, “demand[ing] bare faith alone” (309). Clement sees their approach as sterile and ignorant. He urges instead the cultivation of the vine (Christ)—watering, pruning, and tending so that it might bring forth good fruit. So by bringing everything to bear on the truth (geometry, music, grammar, and philosophy itself), “he guards the faith against assault” (310). Only one educated in these things “can distinguish sophistry from philosophy” or the varieties of philosophical teaching “from the truth itself” (310). From this he concludes it is necessary “for him who desires to be partaker of the power of God, to treat of intellectual subjects by philosophizing” (310).

Clement quite explicitly characterized Greek philosophy as divinely provided for Christianity in his times. He calls Hellenistic culture “preparatory” and argues that “with philosophy itself . . . [it has] come down from God to men” (308). This preparatory movement is illustrated for all Israel in the case of Abraham, who attained wisdom by “passing from the contemplation of heavenly things to the faith and righteousness which are according to God” (306). And Hagar (the young and fruitful maiden) was given to Abraham so that, by allegorical interpretation, he could “embrace secular culture as youthful, and a handmaid” (306). “Philosophy is characterized by investigation into truth and the nature of things (this is the truth of which the Lord Himself said, ‘I am the truth’); and that, again, the preparatory training for rest in Christ exercises the mind, rouses the intelligence, and begets an inquiring shrewdness, by means of the true philosophy, which the initiated possess, having found it, or rather received it, from the truth itself” (307). Hence the Christian view of philosophy as the (fruitful) handmaiden to theology.

Clement claimed not to be promoting any particular philosophical school of his day (Stoic, Platonic, Epicurean, or Aristotelian), but identified philosophy (the love of wisdom) with “whatever has been well said by each of those sects, which teach righteousness along with a science pervaded by piety,—this eclectic whole I call philosophy” (308). So rather than follow a particular non-Christian school, he strives to be “conversant with all kinds of wisdom” and bring “again together the separate fragments, and makes them one” in order that he might without peril “contemplate the perfect Word, the truth” (313).

And so it was that Christianity, bereft of its eyewitnesses, and witnesses of its eyewitnesses, moved on to philosophy as a source of truth and stability.

Note All quotations are from Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, or Miscellanies, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2.