What does reason have to do with faith? What does the intellectual have to do with the spiritual? What does philosophy have to do with Christianity? These are questions that Tertullian, one of the early fathers of the Church, summed up when he asked, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?”
Tertullian’s question seems to pit the culture of these two ancient cities against one another, as if they are somehow inconsistent. And, indeed, there are important differences.
There have been many answers given to Tertullian’s question over the last 2,000 years. Some agree with him that there is something irreconcilable about the two cultures—one based on the reason of man, and the other on the revelation of God.
Christians were the inheritors of the classical culture that came from the Romans and the Greeks. As Rome fell, it left the scattered remains of the learning of antiquity among the other ruins of its culture. It was left to the Church to collect and preserve the things that remained.
Thomas Cahill, in his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, tells the story of how Irish monks copied and recopied the ancient texts throughout the Dark Ages to preserve them for posterity.
In the tenth and eleventh centuries these manuscripts containing the learning of the ancients were rediscovered by the Christian scholars of the West, who compared them with what they knew from the Scriptures, and placed them in the service of their faith.
The learning of the Greeks and Romans, transformed by the Christians of the Middle Ages, became what we now know as “classical education.” It was handed down generation by generation and became the foundation of the Christian culture of Europe and America.
Classical education was what the Puritans brought with them and institutionalized in schools such as Harvard and Princeton, and it was the system of learning on which the founding fathers were nourished.
The response of the historic Church to Tertullian’s question was not Tertullian’s answer. It was Augustine‘s answer.
What Augustine knew was that what some call “human reason” was not really human at all. The “reason” that we call “human” is really our own ability to perceive, by virtue of the image of God in us, the truths we find in the created world.
Augustine, acknowledged by many as the greatest thinker of the first thousand years of the Church—and himself thoroughly classically educated—argued in his great work, On Christian Doctrine, that the learning of the ancients was “Egyptian gold.”
As the Hebrews left Egypt, the Egyptians, chastened by the plagues sent from God, showered the Hebrews with gold, which the Hebrews took with them into the wilderness (Exodus 12:35). With it they foolishly made a golden calf—but they also used it to fashion, at God’s command, the vessels of the Tabernacle.
The truths of classical learning were discovered by pagans, but they were still gold. They were “taken,” said Augustine, “from the mines of God’s providence” so that we might do with them, not as the pagans had done, but as God would have us do.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2018 edition.