The Western Calendar: Religion and Science Intertwined (Matthew F. Dowd)

NOTE: This article is taken from the 33rd chapter of Science, Religion & Society, pp. 290-296:

Reconstruction of Fasti Antiates, the only calendar of the Roman Republic still in existence. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/calendar/antiates.html
Reconstruction of Fasti Antiates, the only calendar of the Roman Republic still in existence.
http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/calendar/antiates.html

Calendars represent an important arena in which religion and science have historically operated fruitfully together. Calendars typically incorporate both scientific material, such as the motions of the sun and moon, and religious concerns, such as the proper celebration of religious festivals. Because temporality is an element essential to many religious practices, properly understanding the functioning of the regular natural processes used to mark time becomes an essential ingredient in the creation of a calendar. We are not talking here about the physical object of a calendar, though that is part of the regulation and promotion of a calendrical system. Our subject is the calendar as a theoretical construct: the periodic natural phenomena used to mark time and the points in time that are set down as being important to the culture that uses the calendar. This analysis will focus only on selective aspects of the calendars of Rome and Christian Europe (the latter of which eventually became the most commonly used calendar in the world), but similar remarks apply to the calendars of many different cultures of many different periods.

Calendar with removable pins.(Saturn, Sun, Luna, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus) From the stone plate of the 3rd—4th centuries A.D., found in Rome.
Calendar with removable pins.(Saturn, Sun, Luna, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus) From the stone plate of the 3rd—4th centuries A.D., found in Rome.

Fundamentally, calendars are purely human inventions. They need not follow any particular natural processes; however, because calendars delineate recurrent events, only a limited number of reliable, periodic natural phenomena are useful for a calendar. The most commonly used phenomena are the movements of the sun and moon, and indeed these motions have been the basis of the Western calendars.

An early Roman calendar
An early Roman calendar

The length of the solar year is approximately 365.242 days. Because a calendar year uses a whole number, 365 days, a calendar based on the sun must periodically intercalate, or insert, an extra day to compensate for the extra time (a little less than one-quarter of a day) that accumulates with each passing year, or else the date will begin to drift in relation to the seasons or with respect to the stars. The length of the lunar month (the period between the same lunar phases, such as the full or new moon) is approximately 29.53 days, and lunar calendars typically alternate between months of 30 and 29 days. A lunar year, or twelve lunar months, is about 354 and one-third days, about eleven days short of a full solar year. Thus, to keep in line with a solar year and to deal with the fractional difference between the lunar period and whole numbers of days, an extra month or day, respectively, must occasionally be intercalated. These problems lead to serious difficulties when one tries to combine the motions of the sun and moon within a single calendrical system.

The side A of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion
The side A of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion

Calendars also represent human choices about important events to be marked down or celebrated. Holidays and festivals are the most obvious religious events that calendars mark. And, as we will see below, natural phenomena are often used to set down the proper date for events, either at the same time each year (using the sun, or sometimes the moon, to date the events) or on moveable dates (which typically use a combination of the motions of the sun and moon).

The side B of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion
The side B of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion

The Roman Calendar

The origins of the Roman calendar are lost in antiquity. The Romans, however, attributed the origin of the calendar to the first two, semi-mythical kings of Rome: Romulus and Numa. Romulus was said to have created the initial calendar, and Numa was said to have modified it and to have instituted the college of pontifici, a category of priests whose responsibilities included monitoring and regulating the calendar. Very little reliable knowledge of the precise history of the calendar of the Roman republic is available, but certain general characteristics can be gleaned from ancient sources.

Romulus & Remus
Romulus & Remus

The first thing to note about the Roman calendar is that it was simultaneously a civil and religious calendar. The Romans believed that the proper functioning of society arose from maintaining the proper relationship to the gods, which entailed making the proper sacrifices to propitiate the gods. Only when the divine powers were propitiated could human society function in an orderly manner. This meant that various religious festivals had to be celebrated both in the proper fashion and at the proper time throughout the year. It was the responsibility of those who held priestly offices to make sure this happened, and the calendar was one important means by which they did so.

The calendar also performed the very practical function of setting out what sorts of activities could take place on which days. Each day of the year had one or more labels applied to it, indicating what kind of activity could take place on those days (we can see similarities in the modern calendar in the way holidays or religious worship take place on certain days). The dies fas were days on which legal business could be conducted, while the dies nefas were days on which legal business was not permitted. On the nefas feriae publicae, public festivals, which included propitiatory sacrifices to the gods, took place. Assemblies (political, legislative, and so on) were held on the comitialis, and markets were held on the nundinae. Essential elements—economic, legislative and political, and religious—of the proper functioning of society were embodied in the calendar.

Ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, observed on February 13 through 15.
Ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, observed on February 13 through 15.

The Roman calendar appears to have arisen out of a lunar calendar. According to later Romans authors, the calendar reform of Numa made the year 355 days long, with months of 31 or 29 days, but 28 for February, plus an intercalated month to keep the calendar in step with the seasons. Another indication is the system of referring to dates of the year according to the kalends, ides, and nones. The kalends of a month was the first day of that month, which originally may have corresponded to the new moon. The ides would then fall close to the full moon, which meant the 13th or 15th of the month (depending on the number of days in the previous month). The full system of naming the days can be understood in relation to these two important days of the month. The ides fell on the 13th or 15th of the month; the prior days, counting backward (the Roman calendar employed backward counting when it came to naming the days), would be referred to as the day before ides, the third day of ides, and so on. In the case of the ides, this ran for eight days each month, which gets one back to the 5th or 7th day. The 5th or the 7th day was then known as the nones of that month. Similar backward counting went on for the four or six days of the nones, which got one back to the kalends on the first day. The kalends then ran backward into the previous month (for example, the last day of January would have been referred to as the day before the kalends of February) until one reached the ides of that month, and hence there could be between sixteen and nineteen kalends for a month.

Many years ago, a wise soothsayer warned Roman leader Julius Caesar that he was in danger and to “Beware of the Ides of March.”   As predicted, Caesar, who did not heed the soothsayer’s warnings, was murdered on March 15, 44 B.C., the Ides of March.   Caesar was brutally stabbed by a group of conspirators, both friend and foe, and reportedly bled to death.
Many years ago, a wise soothsayer warned Roman leader Julius Caesar that he was in danger and to “Beware of the Ides of March.” As predicted, Caesar, who did not heed the soothsayer’s warnings, was murdered on March 15, 44 B.C., the Ides of March. Caesar was brutally stabbed by a group of conspirators, both friend and foe, and reportedly bled to death.

Because of the difficulty of maintaining congruence between solar and lunar elements in the calendar, the Romans faced numerous calendrical difficulties, particularly when the religio-civil officials in charge of its upkeep could not accomplish their task (for example, because of war or political struggles). By the time of the late republic, the calendar was in need of reform. Julius Caesar, who had been in the college of pontifici some years previously and was now dictator of Rome, undertook such a reformation in 46 BCE. He instituted what has since taken his name: the Julian calendar. On the advice of the astronomer Sosigenes, Caesar changed the number of days in each month (and Augustus, some years later, changed them to have the modern values) to make the calendar a solar year: 365 days per year, with a day intercalated every four years to account for the extra part of a day that accumulates each year.

numa-pompilius

The Roman calendar, then, shows a mix of astronomical and religio-civil concerns. Both the moon and the sun are used to mark time through the use of measurement of physical quantities. But the reasons for doing so are quite outside what we think of as scientific: to keep society functioning properly by helping Romans to observe and preserve the inseparable civil and religious aspects of their culture that they understood to be vital to maintaining their society.

julius+caesar-001

The European Christian Calendar

When the Western Roman Empire began to dissolve in the fifth and sixth centuries CE, being replaced by successive Germanic kingdoms, Christianity had already taken on a prominent cultural role within the region. To continue to make use of the Roman calendar was only natural, especially given that Christianity had become intertwined with the Roman Empire when it was made the legal religion of the empire at the end of the fourth century. But the Roman calendar was in certain ways inappropriate for a Christian community. Three particular concerns led to significant changes in the calendar during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages: the numbering of years, the problem of pagan religious festivals, and the dating of Easter. Each of these led to modifications of the calendar, though only the last required significant astronomical science (the replacement of pagan festivals sometimes was peripherally related to astronomical phenomena).

Dionysius Exiguus (c. A.D. 470-544)
Dionysius Exiguus (c. A.D. 470-544)

The Romans had typically referred to a year in one of two ways: either by the rulership of its leaders (for example, the consuls or the emperors) or by reference to the mythical founding of Rome (753 BCE by modern reckoning). Dionysius Exiguus, a monk living in the early sixth century CE, proposed instead numbering the years according to the birth of Christ, so that the first year of the Christian era would begin on the first day of January after the nativity. Due to a mistake in reckoning, he chose a year that was apparently three years too late, placing Jesus’s birth in the year 4 BCE, rather than 1 BCE. Some modern scholars speculate that the birth may have occurred some years prior to that. What is important, however, is not whether Dionysius got it right but that, in a conscious rejection of traditional practice, he changed the calendar to fit a cultural demand, replacing a secular event (the founding of Rome) with a religious event (the birth of Jesus) as the founding event on which the calendar would be based. By doing so, Dionysius was self-consciously incorporating religious belief into the calendar. Though Dionysius’s change was adopted only sporadically and over centuries, it eventually became common across Europe.

Easter cycle of Dionysius Exiguus. Marble. Ravenna, 6th cent. Museum Ravenna.
Easter cycle of Dionysius Exiguus. Marble. Ravenna, 6th cent. Museum Ravenna.

As the Christian church spread across the Roman world and northern Europe, it confronted older religious traditions in which festivals and observances celebrated astronomical events or were tenuously tied to celestial events to fix the time of the holiday. It was a common Christian practice to replace these traditional celebrations with Christian festivals. Certain practices of a holiday might be kept or altered, but the reason for the event was replaced with a thoroughly Christian one. One famous example is the replacement of Samhain, a Celtic holiday oriented around the position of the sun, with the Christian holiday of All Saints Day. In this case, ecclesiastics self-consciously and explicitly stated that church officials should try to replace the traditional celebrations with ones of a more Christian tenor, or at least modify existing customs to be in keeping with Christian celebration. Other examples abound, both in the patristic period, when the Roman religion was the object of attack, and in the early medieval period, when the Germanic or Celtic religions were seen as a threat. In all cases, the calendar was a means by which to convey religious beliefs and counteract undesired influences.

celtic wheel 1

The final issue for the Christian calendar during this period was the dating of Easter, and thereby all the moveable feasts. A moveable feast was a religious celebration or observation that had a different date from year to year. Easter is dated according to a lunar calendar because of the biblical narrative and the sequence of the passion following the commencement of the Jewish Passover festival, the date of which was fixed by the moon. Easter was to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox; thus the phases of the moon had to be calculated in order to know the date of Easter, and thereby to work back to the other moveable feasts of the year, such as Lent. There were controversies over how the calculation should be made; for example, Bede, in his History of the English Church and People, recounts the events of the famous synod of Whitby at which rival claimants to ecclesiastical authority debated the proper method of determining the date of Easter.

However, the Roman calendar had long ago lost its lunar character. In order to calculate the dates of Easter, the church adopted a nineteen-year cycle of lunar months, with occasional intercalated days, so that it would be easy to know when the new and full moons would occur. This cycle could then be superimposed on the Julian calendar, and one could calculate ad infinitum when Easter and the moveable feasts should fall. A nineteen-year cycle was chosen because this allowed a close correspondence between the solar and lunar calendars. This led to a new science of calendrical computation known as computus, the texts for which frequently incorporated various other elements of the physical sciences. Thus computistical works were often the vehicle by which more general scientific education could be accomplished.

St. Wilfrid
St. Wilfrid

The correspondence between the nineteen-year lunar cycle and solar calendar was not perfect, and as centuries passed, it also became clear that the solar calendar had gotten off track. Fairly simple observations showed that full moons and eclipses were not occurring at the times that the calendar said they should, and therefore the nineteen-year cycle was in error. Eventually it also became clear that the solstices, the most northern and southern points that the sun reaches, were not occurring at the expected times, showing that the solar calendar was in error. The calendar clearly needed to be fixed.

The Gregorian Reform

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Latin Europe learned that the Arabic world was far more advanced scientifically, both because they had preserved the Greek science that Latin literature hinted at and because Islamic scientists had preserved and improved upon ancient science. Various Latin scholars began to seek out and translate Greek and Arabic scientific works, a process that has since come to be known as the translation movement. The appropriation of this scientific corpus had a significant effect on the Western European calendar, as scholars soon learned that errors in the calendar could be remedied. It would take centuries, however, for the reform of the calendar to be enacted, and additional centuries for the new calendar to be adopted around the world.

Papal coat-of-arms of Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585)
Papal coat-of-arms of Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585)

Some of the earliest calls for reforms came from the English scholar and ecclesiastic Robert Grosseteste. In his Compotus correctorius, probably written in the 1220s, Grosseteste argued that various phenomena showed that the contemporary calendar was in error, and that the work of the Arabic astronomers could be used to correct the calendar. He was, however, not very explicit on how the fundamental nature of the calendar might be changed to correct these errors. For example, he knew the length of the solar year must be calculated more precisely, but he did not offer practical advice for how this would be accomplished.

Pope-Gregory-XIII

The problem of errors in the calendar was not merely a scientific one. The real issue was that errors could lead to the improper celebration of religious festivals like Easter. And this had clear theological implications, especially since the celebration of religious festivals was understood as important to salvation. Science might be the means to correct errors, but the goal in so using it was a religious one.

Detail of the tomb of Pope Gregory XIII celebrating the introduction of the Gregorian calendar.
Detail of the tomb of Pope Gregory XIII celebrating the introduction of the Gregorian calendar.

Despite repeated calls for reform, the issue of correcting the calendar did not spur ecclesiastical officials to take action until late in the sixteenth century. Pope Gregory XIII brought together a commission to resolve the issues of correcting the calendar and officially announced the reform of the calendar in 1582. The lunar cycle was modified to be more precise. A few intercalated days were removed. And to bring the solstices and equinoxes back to their “proper” dates, ten days were removed from the year 1582: October 5 through 14. Thus in 1582, October 15 followed October 4.

http://www.slideshare.net/charlesmartel1974/satanic-origin-of-the-gregorian-calendar-25324283
http://www.slideshare.net/charlesmartel1974/satanic-origin-of-the-gregorian-calendar-25324283

The Gregorian reform was not immediately adopted across Europe. In Catholic realms, it carried the weight of the pope’s official backing and was adopted very quickly. Most Protestant regions, however, refused to change their calendars for many years. Germany finally adopted a similar reform in 1700, whereas England waited until 1752 to do so. The rejection of the reform had little to do with the scientific work of Gregory’s commission but was instead due to the authority that tried to impose it: the Roman Catholic Church. Just as religious reasons were at the heart of calls for reform, the unwillingness to adopt this particular reform was fueled by religious and thereby political sentiment, namely, that the Roman Catholic pope had no authority in those places. But the practical considerations of operating under separate calendars proved too difficult, and eventually all of Europe was unified under a single calendrical system. Due to the economic and political clout of Europe in the succeeding centuries, the Gregorian calendar spread across the world and now is used nearly everywhere.

The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Day (1572)
The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day (1572)

The calendar is one arena in which religious and scientific concerns by necessity run concurrently. Scientific information and analysis are vital to creating a calendar that can serve its purpose: tracking recurrent cycles of time. But in many cases, the parameters of what counts as important for the calendar—the dates that need to be figured, the cycles that need to be tracked— are not based on scientific goals or theories. Rather, the history of the Western calendar shows that religious concerns have been an important factor both in creating the calendar and in conducting scientific investigation regarding it.

The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Day (1572)
The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day (1572)

Bibliography

  • Blackburn, Bonnie, and Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year: An Exploration of Calendar Customs and Time-reckoning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Borst, Anno. The Ordering of Time: From the Ancient Compotus to the Modern Computer. Trans. Andrew Winnard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
  • Coyne, G.V., M.A. Hoskin, and O. Pedersen, eds. Gregorian Reform of the Calendar: Proceedings of the Vatican Conference to Commemorate Its 400th Anniversary. Vatican City: Specola Vaticana, 1983.
  • Declercq, Georges. Anno Domini: The Origins of the Christian Era. Turnhout: Brepols, 2000.
  • McCluskey, Stephen C. Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Michels, Agnes Kirsopp. The Calendar of the Roman Republic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.
  • Richards, E.G. Mapping Time: The Calendar and Its History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Samuel, Alan E. Greek and Roman Chronology: Calendars and Years in Classical Antiquity. Munich: Beck, 1972.
  • Wallis, Faith. Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999.
  • ———. “Chronology and Systems of Dating.” In Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographic Guide, ed. F.A.C. Mantello and A.G. Rigg, 383–87. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996.
  • Ware, R. Dean. “Medieval Chronology.” In Medieval Studies: An Introduction, 2nd ed., ed. James M. Powell, 252–77. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

Frans_Hogenberg,_The_St._Bartholomew's_Day_massacre,_circa_1572

Advertisements

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:

science-religion-and-society-1-638

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.

philosophers

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.

Aristotle
Aristotle

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

Bibliography

  • 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