Three Ways to Think About Athens and Jerusalem

The expression “Athens and Jerusalem” is a familiar one in Western cultural history. It denotes two very different cultures: one a culture of reason and the other a culture of faith. So different were they that they became the subject of a raging debate in the early Christian centuries.

As a matter of historical fact, Western Christian civilization is the product of the meeting between Athens and Jerusalem. These two cities are symbolic of the two broader cultures they represent: that of the classical Greek culture that began the serious inquiry into the great intellectual, moral, and artistic questions using natural reason, and that of the Hebrew culture which was chosen by God to be the recipient of His divine revelation. There are three theories of how Christians can view the relationship between Athens and Jerusalem.

The Conflict Theory

The first might be called the “Conflict Theory,” which is associated with the Church Father Tertullian. In this view, Athens and Jerusalem are distinct and conflicting in their relation. They work apart and are dissonant in their relation to one another.

“These are ‘the doctrines’ of men and ‘of demons,'” said Tertullian, “produced for itching ears of the spirit of this world’s wisdom: This the Lord called ‘foolishness,’ and ‘chose the foolish things of the world’ to confound even philosophy itself.” Tertullian believed that the Scriptures’ warning of “vain” philosophy meant all philosophy. “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” he asked. “What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from ‘the porch of Solomon,’ who had himself taught that ‘the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.'”

At times Tertullian seemed to reject all of the learning of the ancients, and he appeared to reject any kind of intellectual inquiry. “We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.”

Many Christian thinkers have rejected what they consider Tertullian’s extreme position. One of the problems with his position is that it would seem to condemn the disciplines of logic and rhetoric, developed by the  intellectual study of the Greeks. But that would undercut his own position, since he uses the devices of logic and rhetoric in his condemnation of Greek thought.

For this and other reasons, Tertullian’s view was a minority position among the fathers of the church.

The Reconciliation Theory

The second view might be called the “Reconciliation Theory.” This is associated in modern times with the great Victorian thinker Matthew Arnold. In his view, Athenian and Hebrew thought are distinct but reconcilable in their relation. They work together melodically.

In his book Culture and Anarchy, Arnold talks of two rival forces “dividing the empire of the world between them.”

And to give these forces names from the two races of men who have supplied the most splendid manifestations of them, we may call them respectively the forces of Hebraism and Hellenism. Hebraism and  Hellenism―between these two points of influence moves our world.

What were these two forces? Commenting on Arnold’s analysis, the American philosopher William Barrett explains:

The distinction, as Arnold so lucidly states it, arises from the difference between doing and knowing. The Hebrew is concerned with practice, the Greek with knowledge. Right conduct is the ultimate concern of the Hebrew, right thinking that of the Greek. Duty and strictness of conscience are the paramount things in life for the Hebrew; for the Greek the spontaneous and luminous play of the intelligence. The Hebrew thus extols the moral virtues as the substance and meaning of life; the Greek subordinates them to the intellectual virtues, and Arnold rightly observes: “The moral virtues are with Aristotle but the porch and access to the intellectual and with these last is blessedness.”

Arnold’s analysis is a bit of an oversimplification— the Greeks were not bereft of moral beliefs (perhaps Plato’s most universal theme is the Good) and the Hebrews certainly had articulated beliefs about knowledge, but oversimplifications serve a purpose in helping us to step back from the particulars of an issue so that we can see the big picture. And Arnold seems to have gotten at something important here: The Greeks were more peculiarly concerned with abstract intellectual truths and the Hebrews more with practical holiness.

The Dialectic Theory

But there is another view about this relation between classical and Christian thought: It might be called the “Dialectic Theory.” It is most associated in modern times with the Jewish thinker Leo Strauss. It has also been well articulated by the late English scholar Jeffrey Hart. This is the theory that the two are distinct but dialectical in their relation. They work together in harmony. This is a further development and refinement of the  Reconciliation Theory.

According to Hart, it is precisely the differences between Athens and Jerusalem that have powered the Western mind:

Whatever their differences in detail, such philosophers recognize that Athens and Jerusalem amount to a dialectic, and that the consequences of their interaction have been decisive for the character of Western civilization, setting it off from other cultures and civilizations both past and present…. The philosopher begins like Socrates by saying “I know nothing,” and pursues knowledge through an investigation of the world. The scriptural tradition bases its view of the world on a series of received insights into the constitution of actuality. The insights are not true because they are recorded in scripture, but they are recorded there because, finally, they are true.

For Arnold, the Hellenic and the Hebrew work together by cooperation; for Hart, by tension. This view incorporates an element of Tertullian’s thought—that there is indeed something at odds between Athens and  Jerusalem. But it also sees an opposite truth: that these two—one originating in revealed truth and the other in rational truth—have the same source. The contradiction inherent in the Athens and Jerusalem dilemma should not be hard for Christians to swallow, since the Christian faith itself embodies the same kind of paradoxes in the fundamental truths it proclaims: God Himself is Three and He is One, and He comes to us through His Son who is fully God and fully man. But this conflict is a healthy one, since it is caused by the complex nature of fundamental reality. These are two truths whose dialectical conflict provides the energy of Western culture.

Historically, Tertullian’s attempt at separation failed. It is hard, says Hart, to believe this was an accident:

Tertullian tried to pry Athens and Jerusalem apart. Clement and Origen tried to pull them closer together. In its formative years, Christianity, like Islam later on, might have ignored or tried to suppress Greek philosophy. As [Michael] Grant says, however, the victory of Clement and Origen was momentous. The Athens-Jerusalem dialectic prevailed in the West. Neither was compartmentalized against the other.

The View of the Church

It is in many ways this third view that lies behind the debate within the Church. Tertullian viewed any mixture of Athens and Jerusalem as suspect. But the majority of Church Fathers believed otherwise. In Byzantium in the East, the Cappadocian fathers hashed out the problems and promises of studying classical literature and philosophy in addition to studying the Scriptures. And in the Roman West, Augustine, already one of the greatest thinkers of his time, having become a Christian, looked back on his classical learning with a critical eye.

Both schools of thought came to the same conclusion. The Eastern fathers—St. Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus— believed that the Western classical tradition of reason had been pointing toward the truths of faith that had been revealed to the Jews through the Scriptures— and to the Christians through Christ Himself. Augustine in the West argued a similar position. To both schools in two very different parts of the Roman Empire the
learning of the pagans was considered “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. With it they foolishly made a golden calf to worship—but they also used it to fashion, at God’s command, the vessels of the Tabernacle.

The lesson is clear: The same substance can be used for good or for bad purposes. The Greeks and Romans often went astray, but the best of them were searching for Truth—and they often found it. The tools they used to find it should not be despised because they can be misused.

Reason is not the enemy of faith but rather its partner—whether it is to solve an earthly problem or to recognize a heavenly Truth.