Patristic Theology and Greek Natural Philosophy (Matthew F. Dowd, 2007)

NOTE: This article is taken from the 26th chapter of Science, Religion and Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture and Controversy, pp. 221-229:


In the first century CE, the new religion of Christianity began to spread across the Mediterranean world. Over the next four centuries, theologians, ministers, and eventually councils of the church worked through various theological controversies and issues. One significant problem for the early church was to sort out the proper relationship between Christianity and the classical culture in which large portions of the educated population were raised. It is at this intersection of Christianity and classical culture that the relationship of science and religion had to be worked out.

Homer, Thucydides, Aristotle, Plato and Plutarch
Homer, Thucydides, Aristotle, Plato and Plutarch

In the classical world, no profession of science existed as we understand it today. Artisans and craftspeople worked with physical materials, whereas natural philosophers contemplated and theorized about the functioning of the physical world. In the former category, practitioners kept private among themselves much of their craft knowledge, which in any event had more of the character of trial and error methods than scientific experimentation. In the latter category, a wide range of theories and acceptable methods of investigation were promoted. Thus the early Christian writers faced neither a single account of nature nor a unified group of professional individuals who could be identified as scientists.

The Sybil of Erythrae, and the Greek Philosophers Solon, Pythagoras and Socrates
The Sybil of Erythrae, and the Greek Philosophers Solon, Pythagoras and Socrates

Also, the aspects of classical culture that we might identify as scientific were not identified as a distinct subset of classical culture. Wrapped up in ideas about the physical world and the means to investigate it were various ideas about ultimate reality, ethics, and religious belief. For example, an examination of astronomy would reveal not just observational data and mathematical models but also ideas about the influence of celestial matter or beings on human free will and action, as well as the nature of God or gods and their role in the motions of the heavens. Thus Christian writers had the task of understanding the proper relationship not only between science and religion, but also between the claims of Christian faith and the ideas of classical philosophy more generally.

St. Justin the Martyr and Philosopher, along with Homer the Historian
St. Justin the Martyr and Philosopher, along with Homer the Historian

Nevertheless, Christian writers were forced to deal with issues of a generally scientific character—that is, questions about the physical world—because one important aspect of the Christian understanding of the world was that the world was created. So issues of how the world functions were significant in understanding God’s relationship to humanity, as well as the ramifications of our own nature as created beings. Yet because of the influence of classical culture on centuries of thought about how the world functions, Christian authors had access to a ready supply of intellectual material regarding the topic. This could be both a valuable tool, if one accepted the received picture of the world as a basis on which to speculate, and a challenge, if the tenets of natural philosophy seemed to contradict religious thought—for example, when astrological principles threatened the Christian principles of free will and responsibility.

Romanian Orthodox Fresco Depicting Philosophers
Romanian Orthodox Fresco Depicting Philosophers

Thus scientific material was bound up in a broader classical culture, and issues of a scientific nature were caught up in theological demands. These complicating factors led to a wide variety of Christian responses. No Christian theologian of the patristic period dealt with issues of science and religion in the same fashion we might today, due to the simple fact that science did not exist as we think of it today, but similar issues arose. Moreover, no single response dominated Christian theology in the patristic period. Theologians had mixed reactions to Greek philosophy, seeing both benefits and dangers in using its resources to understand the physical world.


Negative Appraisals of Greek Philosophy

Some theologians of the Christian church had a generally negative reaction to classical culture and philosophy, though rarely was that negative reaction explicitly limited to natural philosophy. These authors emphasized a number of general features of classical culture as a threat to Christian thought and pedagogy: the ubiquitous assumption of false (to Christian minds) pagan gods; the reliance, implicit or explicit, on the human mind alone for understanding issues of great magnitude, such as the nature of the world, or moral and ethical philosophy; the shameful depictions of divine and human behavior in works of literature and history, which were an integral part of the classical educational curriculum; and the lack of recognition of the importance of Christ’s incarnation for the salvation of humanity. Yet even those who had negative reactions often used Greek philosophy, at least implicitly through their methods, concepts, and vocabulary, to elucidate Christian theology.

Examples of Christian theologians who distrusted Greek philosophy can be drawn from a variety of times within the patristic period (indeed, this kind of mistrust of non-Christian sources of ideas still exists in some current controversies surrounding science and religion). Here, we will examine the early thinkers Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, the North African theologian Tertullian, and the biblical scholar Jerome. Natural philosophy was not a particularly significant aspect to their rejection of classical culture, though their mistrust or blanket condemnation surely included natural philosophy, and thereby much of the contemporary tradition that we most closely identify with science.


Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, both active in the second century, were concerned with establishing proper Christian belief, the former by writing apologetic works that defined Christian belief, and the latter by attacking what he labeled heretical views. In both cases, Greek philosophy was identified either explicitly or implicitly as a part of the improper beliefs of their opponents. For Justin Martyr, Greek philosophers, especially the Platonists, had identified certain aspects of the divine correctly. Because they did not have the true Christian belief, however, their philosophy was not only incorrect but actually dangerous to believers’ souls, for it could lead them into error. For Irenaeus, Greek philosophy was not his major concern; rather, he focused on opponents who saw themselves as part of the Christian community. Greek philosophy was not identified explicitly as dangerous or threatening. But Greek philosophy received implicit criticism because of its similarities with the beliefs of opponents of Irenaeus—such as the followers of Marcion and the people Irenaeus labels “gnostics”—on issues of knowledge of God and God’s relationship to the world. A suspicion of Greek natural philosophy could easily arise out of such blanket condemnations of heretical Christian beliefs.

Tertullian, a North African who flourished around 200, is often presented as anti-rationalist, and particularly as anti-Greek. No doubt his famous question “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” contributes to this generalization. But like the other theologians discussed here, Tertullian was clearly an educated man of his times; he shows great familiarity with the pagan writers that formed part of a classical education, in some places even knowing enough philosophy to recognize the contradictions between competing schools of thought. But it was not rationalism per se to which Tertullian objected. Rather, he saw around him, built into the contemporary culture, the rejection of Christian attitudes and the active persecution of those who lived a pious life. Apologetically defending Christianity, he urged his fellow Christians to distance themselves from the sin and worldliness that he saw among his contemporaries, and therein lies his rejection of “Athens.” As with the earlier apologists, natural philosophy was never Tertullian’s main target, but it was easily lumped into a rejection of things unnecessary to Christianity.

Jerome was active in the fourth century, when Christianity had become favored in the Roman Empire. Growing up in a wealthy Christian family, Jerome was educated in Rome, where he received a thorough grounding in grammar and rhetoric through study of the classics, such as Virgil and Cicero, although he likely did not study much philosophy until later in life. In middle age, as he recounts in his famous Letter 22, Jerome had a life-changing episode. Jerome had a habit of reading Cicero and Plautus, even though he was planning to devote himself to Christianity. In a dream, he was accused of being a follower of Cicero, rather than Christ. At that point, he says, he gave up the texts of humans for the divine. Natural philosophy apparently played no part in this episode, and yet it is significant for what it demonstrates about one Christian reaction to classical philosophy: that it misleads the believer and that at best it is trivial, at worst downright dangerous. And this position had the authority of a major Christian intellectual, responsible for important works of biblical scholarship, the promotion of asceticism, and translations of various Greek, Christian writers into Latin.

The Wise Solon (ca. 638 BC – 558 BC) in the Great Lavra of Mount Athos. The Wise Solon (c. 638 BC – 558 BC) in the Monastery of Prophet Elias in Siatista.

L: The Wise Solon (ca. 638 BC – 558 BC) in the Great Lavra of Mount Athos. R: The Wise Solon in the Monastery of Prophet Elias in Siatista.

Positive Appraisals of Greek Philosophy

Just as many theologians found classical culture a threat, many of them embraced Greek philosophy as a useful tool for theological investigation and educational practices. That the New Testament was written in Greek, for example, made sophisticated analysis of the scriptures impossible without a thorough understanding of the language. But none of the Christians thinkers who generally accepted Greek philosophy did so without some reservation: they always recognized mistakes and failings, as they understood the situation, in the works of the pagan philosophers. Here, we will look at two sets of Christian thinkers who were intellectually linked: first, a pair of North African theologians, Clement and Origen, perhaps teacher and student, and certainly both advocates of using Greek philosophy to elucidate Christian thought; and, second, the three Cappadocians, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nyssa, related in training and in thought, as well as, in the case of the latter two, by blood.

Hippocrates holding the words to his oath.
Hippocrates holding the words to his oath.

Clement of Alexandria, who flourished in the decades surrounding the year 200, is known especially for a trio of works: the Exhortation to the Greeks, the Paedagogue, and the Stromateis. These works metaphorically demonstrate his own life of being brought up in a pagan intellectual climate, his conversion to Christianity, and his eventual career as a theologian and catechetical instructor. In the Exhortation, Clement attempts to bring those raised in pagan culture to belief in Christianity. He does so not by condemning classical culture, but by using it to commend Christianity, holding the latter up as the ethical and aesthetic fulfillment of the promise of much Greek philosophy and literature. In the Paedagogue, Clement offers instruction for the proper Christian way of life, both in terms of belief and behavior—though not explicitly as a negative assessment of pagan life—and sometimes even using classical sources to reinforce his claims. In the Stromateis, Clement attempts to construct a true (as opposed to the incomplete, Greek) philosophy from Christianity. Much of the first book deals with arguments anticipating those who would object to his use of Greek philosophical and literary sources. He explicitly formulates the position that the Greeks knew much of God, though certainly not fully, and thus much of value can be taken from them. Greek philosophy had made much progress in understanding the divine and its relationship to the world, including the expectations for human belief and behavior that this relationship entails.

Origen, active in the first half of the third century, was known especially for his biblical exegesis and his place in later controversies in which various of his positions were condemned by the church. He was probably a student of Clement and certainly belonged to the same tradition of appropriating Greek philosophy on behalf of Christian theology. Origen’s interests and contributions were many and varied, including biblical scholarship and commentary, works of theology, and an active ministerial life. In On First Principles, he presents ideas about the physical cosmos as it is to be understood within Christian belief. Proceeding from a discussion in which he demonstrates the created nature of the world, Origen goes on to discuss various aspects of the greatly varied nature of the world and the living creatures within it. Relevant to this kind of discussion are the nature and causes of matter and substance. All of these considerations were important questions for Greek natural philosophy. Thus it is clear both that natural philosophy is relevant for Christian belief and that Christian theology must make clear how such questions are to be answered within the confines of Christian belief. Origen thus validates the pursuit of natural philosophical questions, while at the same time using and transforming the Greek natural philosophy that had already addressed these questions.

A century later, a trio of closely connected theologians formulated important claims about the status of classical education and philosophy for Christian belief, and in addition had much to say about natural philosophy and the sciences. The brothers Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa together with their friend Gregory of Nazianzus are collectively known as the Cappadocians. All three were born into well-to-do Christian families and lived during a period when Christianity was both a legal religion and in the ascendancy within the Roman Empire (having been embraced for a number of decades by members of the imperial family). Their similarity in these biographical details to Jerome is striking, but they had a very different notion regarding the place of a classical education and Greek philosophy in the intellectual life of the Christian believer.

The four kings prophesied by Daniel the Prophet, among whom is Alexander the Great. Saint Achilleos Church in Kozani built in 1740.
The four kings prophesied by Daniel the Prophet, among whom is Alexander the Great. Saint Achilleos Church in Kozani built in 1740.

All three Cappadocians were quite comfortable with their classical education, and each recognized the benefits that could accrue to a Christian grounded in the skills of rhetoric that their education had emphasized. Basil, in his Address to Young Men on Reading Greek Literature, wholeheartedly endorsed a classical education—as a means to train the mind—though always under the assumption that it was supplemented by Christian belief. The comfort with which the Cappadocians dealt with Greek classical culture is likely due to two related factors: they were raised in a period when Christianity was in ascendancy, and they came from families made up of devoted practitioners of Christianity. In such an environment, the potential threat of the pagan content of classical culture was undermined by the presumption that classical authors had performed their work in a world created by God. Thus the Cappadocians could confidently usurp, for example, Platonic thought that was compatible with Christian belief.

Within the specific context of science and religion, Basil is the most interesting of the Cappadocians because of his sermons on the creation story in Genesis, his Hexameron. These sermons are replete with allusions and explicit references to Greek natural philosophical theories, thus demonstrating Basil’s understanding of the relationship between science and religion. Basil uses Greek science to explain difficult passages in Genesis; for example, he uses Greek elemental theory to explain why the dry land is called “earth.” Basil also notes that Greek science can lead to a greater appreciation of God’s work in creation: the miracles of nature illustrate God’s power, the perfect adaptations of plants and animals to their environments show God’s foresight, and the arrangements made for human flourishing demonstrate God’s care for humanity. Scientific knowledge can even correct human belief about God; for example, that hemlock is poisonous to humans but not to starlings shows that God cares not just for humans but also for all of creation. Basil argues (perhaps humorously to the modern mind) that the creator provides certain animal behaviors as examples for humans to emulate, such as cranes’ care for their elderly, showing humans that they too ought to care for their elderly.

Basil does not, however, accept Greek natural philosophy without certain caveats. He warns that natural philosophy by itself will not lead one to consideration of God, and indeed that Greek scientists have neglected to consider the creator while they carefully examine the creation. And Basil points out that Greek natural philosophy is full of contradictions, such as debates over the number of elements or the shape of the earth, and that it can lead to false beliefs about the world that revelation has shown to be incorrect, such as astrology. So even though Basil admires much that Greek natural philosophy has to offer and is confident that its methods are an aid to understanding God’s contingent creation, he does not wholly endorse contemporary science as the most valid form of knowledge.

The Wise Hippocrates (ca. 460 BC – ca. 370 BC) in the National Library of France dating to 1342
The Wise Hippocrates (ca. 460 BC – ca. 370 BC) in the National Library of France dating to 1342

A Compromise Position

In nearly all the cases discussed above, no theologian’s carefully considered position completely rejects or accepts the legacy of Greek philosophy. Even had they desired to reject Greek philosophy, it proved impossible to do without the language and ideas that were a prominent part of the intellectual milieu of late antiquity. And if they wished to use in a robust sense Greek philosophy, they discovered that certain ideas and attitudes from within that philosophy either failed to live up to the revelation of true belief or even constituted dangers to Christian tenets.

In the end, the dominant position of Christian theology toward Greek philosophy, and Greek natural philosophy in particular, became a utilitarian one. So long as the dangers of Greek philosophical positions were clearly enumerated, the potential benefits could be used profitably. That such a position came about after Christianity had been formally legalized within the Roman Empire is no accident, because it was only from a position of strength that Christian thought could confidently use the intellectual apparatus that had formerly been seen as a serious threat. Likewise, only from a position of confidence could theologians pick and choose which parts of natural philosophy would prove helpful to Christian communities.

The Wise Plutarch as depicted in the narthex of the church at the Monastery of Philanthropinon in Ioannina. The Wise Aristotle as depicted in the narthex of the church at the Monastery of Philanthropinon in Ioannina.

This compromise, utilitarian position toward natural philosophy is best typified in the writings of Augustine. Although Augustine’s mother was a devout Christian, Augustine initially rejected Christianity, in part, according to his own account in the Confessions, because he found the scriptures poorly written compared with the works of classical literature in which he reveled. Spending many years in search of truth, Augustine investigated classical philosophy and Manichaeanism before returning to Christianity, eventually becoming a bishop in North Africa. His prodigious writings made him one of the most important Latin theologians of the church.

Like many of his predecessors, Augustine received a thorough education in the classical tradition, and with his acceptance of Christianity, he had to sort out precisely what role that background could validly serve. In his Confessions, Augustine demonstrates that classical literature misled him, both with its moral example and with the devious way its attractive style insinuated itself with young persons. And in his monumental City of God, Augustine points out many errors of Greek philosophy, made obvious in his mind not only by the revelation of Christ but by the operation of reason. So the undercurrent of mistrust of classical philosophy and education is apparent in Augustine. Yet Augustine also saw much of benefit in the classical background of his education. He credited the philosophers, for example, with leading him to certain intellectual positions that helped him reject mistaken opinions, such as Manichaeanism, and left him more open to Christianity. He also recognized that his training in rhetoric enabled him to proclaim the Christian message more effectively.

In the arena of natural philosophy, Augustine had much to say, though some of his positions must be surmised from context rather than explicit statements. The heart of his position is that much of the natural philosophy available from the Greeks gets certain things right, but ultimately that these things are not essential to the Christian. Augustine’s knowledge and use of astronomy and astrology will help to demonstrate this position. Augustine was, for a time, a devotee of astrology, proficient enough to cast horoscopes for a friend. (In late antiquity, astrology was not a fringe science, but was part and parcel of the study of astronomy; the point of studying the motions of the celestial bodies was to understand their effect on the terrestrial realm.) Part of Augustine’s reasons for rejecting Manichaeanism was that Faustus, who had been held up as having answers to many of Augustine’s vexing questions, understood astronomy less ably than Greek natural philosophy. So Augustine knew enough astronomy to be confident that it was correct in its descriptions. However, the fifth book of his City of God contains an extended argument that uses both scripturally based and purely rational means to refute astrology.

 The Wise Aristotle painted in 1858 by Nikephoros in Vatopaidi Monastery The Wise Plato painted in 1858 by Nikephoros in Vatopaidi Monastery

Aristotle: “The begetting of God is by nature inexhaustible, for the Logos derives His substance from Him.”

Plato: “The old is new and the new is ancient. The Father is in the Offspring and the Offspring is in the Father, the One is divided into Three, and the Three constitute One.”

Yet even with his denunciation of the astrological principles of Greek natural philosophy, Augustine still found the study of natural philosophy useful for the Christian. For one thing, knowledge of natural philosophy could prevent the Christian from looking the fool in discourse with nonbelievers, by preventing the Christian from mistakenly holding erroneous positions about matters that could be clearly demonstrated by reason. Natural philosophy could be helpful for biblical exegesis, as demonstrated through Augustine’s On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, which makes use of a great deal of natural philosophy. And finally, Augustine notes that science has purely practical benefits, such as the way in which astronomy aids agriculture and navigation.

While he lauds Greek natural philosophy and certain aspects of Greek philosophy more generally, Augustine is still wary of the dangers of its study, perhaps cognizant of his own prior infatuation with literary classics and astrology. He acknowledges that natural philosophy can cause one to concentrate on unimportant matters. The time and care it takes to understand astronomy, for example, could lead one to pay too much attention to phenomena that are essentially trivial. Ultimately, while this knowledge is not dangerous in and of itself, though its study can be distracting, it is also not of utmost importance to the Christian believer, for it does not lead to the salvation of souls.

Like other theologians before him, Augustine adopted a nuanced position regarding Greek philosophy, accepting certain aspects of it as potentially helpful while simultaneously insisting that dangers lurk within its study. His explicit concern with issues of natural philosophy arose out of his particular circumstances and background, but it reflects his position regarding classical education and philosophy more generally.

Augustine’s position represents the most important theological response to natural philosophy in the Western, Latin tradition. His understanding of the situation, however, represents only one of a range of options available during the patristic period. Some Christian theologians saw Greek philosophy, and thus by association natural philosophy, as a danger to Christian belief. Others saw relatively little danger in the use of an appropriated philosophy, properly modified by Christian understandings of the world. Thus Greek natural philosophy could usefully be put to Christian purposes, even illuminating the nature of God and the study of scripture. The vibrant, active theology of the patristic period did not speak with one voice, but expressed many different positions regarding the relationship between science and religion.

The Wise Sybil painted in 1858 by Nikephoros in Vatopaidi Monastery The Wise Sophocles painted in 1858 by Nikephoros in Vatopaidi Monastery


  • City of God. Trans. Henry Bettenson. New York: Penguin, 1984.
  • ———. Confessions. Trans. F.J. Sheed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1993.
  • ———. On the Literal Meaning of Genesis. Trans. John Hammond Taylor. Ancient Christian Writers, vols. 41–42. New York: Newman, 1982.
  • Barnes, Timothy David. Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
  • Basil of Caesarea. Address to Young Men on Reading Greek Literature. In Basil: The Letters, vol. 4, 379–435. Loeb Classical Library, vol. 270. Trans. Roy Joseph Deferrari and Martin R.P. McGuire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934.
  • ———. Exegetical Homilies. Sister Agnes Clare Way, C.D.P. Fathers of the Church, vol. 46. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1963.
  • Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.
  • Clement of Alexandria. Fathers of the Second Century. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989 (reprint).
  • Cochrane, Charles Norris. Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine. London: Oxford University Press, 1944.
  • Principal Works of St. Jerome. Trans. W. H. Fremantle. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. 6. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989 (reprint).
  • Kelly, J.N.D. Jerome: His Life, Writings, and Controversies. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.
  • Lindberg, David C. “Early Christian Attitudes toward Nature.” In The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition, ed. Gary B. Ferngren, 47–56. New York: Garland, 2000.
  • ———. “The Medieval Church Encounters the Classical Tradition: Saint Augustine, Roger Bacon, and the Handmaiden Metaphor.” In When Science and Christianity Meet, ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, 7–32, 288–91. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  • On First Principles. Trans. G.W. Butterworth. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1973.
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav. Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.
  • Rousseau, Philip. Basil of Caesarea. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
  • The Writings of Tertullian. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993 (reprint).
  • Trigg, Joseph Wilson. Origen: The Bible and Philosophy in the Third-century Church. London: SCM, 1985.

The Wise Thales painted in 1858 by Nikephoros in Vatopaidi Monastery The Wise Apollonius painted in 1858 by Nikephoros in Vatopaidi Monastery


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