Athens & Jerusalem

In God’s providence, Christianity was born at a time when Greek and Roman thought dominated the ancient world and influenced everyone and everything—including the Jews and Judaism. Christendom, the culture of Christians after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, was the product of Christians making sense of both Greek and Jewish heritages.

Christianity in the East and the West formed cultures that had roots both in the classical world of Greece and Rome and in the faith of Jerusalem. This is true in the Christian West, where Greek and Jewish thought together shaped aesthetic and civic ideals that produced both the cathedrals of Paris and the parliamentary government of Great Britain.

It is also true in the Christian East. Eastern Christendom formed a new empire that shielded Western Europe from invasion and destruction. For one thousand years the great capital city, Constantinople, maintained unbroken study of both ancient biblical and pagan texts. It honored both the “inner wisdom” of the faith and the “outer wisdom” of the Greeks and Romans. Constantinople evangelized an entire commonwealth of states that stretched from the Balkans to Russia.

This fusion of Athens and Jerusalem can be seen in the buildings and the books of cities in Britain, Ethiopia, Romania, and the United States. It is no accident that the United States Supreme Court is housed in a building with biblical references carved onto it—a structure built in the classical style of Rome and Greece.

So then, how did the church deal with the massive intellectual and cultural heritage of this classical civilization? Generally speaking, there were three reactions.

The first was to reject “secular learning” in order to keep the church “pure”—the idea being that theology had nothing to learn from philosophy. But Judaism itself had been influenced by Greek learning. There was no “pure” stream of knowledge that did not run through Athens. The very Greek language that the early Christians used to communicate their message was soaked in centuries of classical thought. Trying to pry Athens and Jerusalem apart usually led to inconsistency and heresy.

It was the Greeks who set down the rules for proper reasoning. Any attempt to understand the Bible requires the application of these rules. Christians often go on for years after their conversion with a fully functioning mind but without the proper guidance on how to use it. Faith needs reason.

The second reaction was to go to the other extreme and worship Athens. Persecution made this rare, but it was still a problem. Origen, one of the greatest Christian thinkers of the early church, often pinned his understanding of Scripture more on his Neo-Platonic philosophy than on the biblical text. This extreme devotion to Plato caused Origen to develop a defective view of Christ and his nature.

But there was a third reaction: Mainstream Christians, such as Augustine in the West and Basil in the East, found a middle way. Jerusalem gave the basic, rational, religious truth on which to build an understanding of the world. It was the starting place of wisdom. Athens gave the technical language and categories to help define and extend this truth. Out of this complementary coexistence came the classical Christian civilizations that shaped most of the world in which we live.

For centuries these two cities, Athens and Jerusalem, were the driving forces of intellectual and cultural growth. Tensions between the rationalism of Athens and the faith of Jerusalem have always existed, but it was in the harmonious resolution of these tensions that the new Christian kingdom was established.

The kind of culture that produced John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, or C. S. Lewis no longer exists. For some Christians, the rationalism of Athens dictates the nature of reality. Other Christians have condemned Athens and left it to burn.

Christians must recapture the middle way of Augustine and Chrysostom. Athens and Jerusalem are not two cities, but two districts in one city: the city of God. Christian schools and a few colleges have seized on the classical model. When allowed to coexist in creative harmony, Athens and Jerusalem caused a cultural explosion. They have done so in the past and will do so again, if an attempt at revival is made soon.

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