When I was working on a Masters at Washington University in St. Louis, I took a seminar entitled “Athens and Jerusalem.” It was taught by a member of the faculty of the Classics Department, Dr. George Pepe, who is still teaching some 30 years after I took the course. Pepe is a specialist in Greek and Roman philosophy and Latin prose, and he took the name of the course from a quotation: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, or the Academy with the Church?”
The quotation is from the early Church father Tertullian (circa 155 to 240 A.D.), one of the first to write in Latin as opposed to Greek. He was an apologist for the Christian faith, writing work after work making logical mincemeat of the arguments of the pagan writers and the official policies of the Roman Empire. (One of his best known observations, still quoted today, is “The blood of the martyrs is seed.”)
In our seminar, we had a number of assigned readings in Tertullian. Since this was pre-Amazon and few if any bookstores carried the writings of the early Church fathers, the assignments meant I spent a lot of time in the Washington University library, in a study carrel tucked among rows of very dusty old books. Few students were enrolled in Classics courses, but the books on the shelves didn’t seem to mind my intrusions.
Reading Tertullian was a revelation. Even in English translation and some 1800 years after his death, the passion and the mind of the man were clear. In his arguments against the pagans, Tertullian took no prisoners. He pointed out all of the inconsistencies and contradictions of classical beliefs and practices, including all of the less-than-admirable traits and personal histories of the Greek and Roman gods. Yet he was more than an apologist; he was also one of the first theologians to tackle the question of the Trinity. Eighty-five years after his death, his works influenced the Council of Nicea and St. Augustine even later.
Aside from his passion, what struck me most about Tertullian was how contemporary his arguments sounded. Substitute “science and technology” for “Classical thought” or “The Academy,” and you have a very similar debate, a similar clash of worldviews. And in the 30 years that I’ve read, that debate has come only more to the fore.
The debate between worldviews is older than Tertullian, of course. Eight-hundred years before him, the prophet Daniel and his three friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego faced a very similar clash but in more severe circumstances. The church in Tertullian’s time faced on-again, off-again persecution; Daniel and his friends existed solely at the sufferance of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Despite what they faced in their day-to-day life in a sometimes viciously polytheistic culture, the four remained faithful.
In Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism, John Lennox describes that faithfulness. And he draws a parallel to contemporary society.
“Babylon’s philosophy,” Lennox says, “resonates with the scientism to today that encourages us to look for both meaning and salvation in science and technology. But scientific analysis and explanation does not yield to us the meaning for which we as persons long. Babylon will leave you empty.” This was the argument against classical culture that Tertullian made as well.
Tertullian, despite his influence, was never canonized. It’s believed he became associated with the Montanists, considered heretical by the Church for their emphasis upon the continuing influence of the Holy Spirit (some scholars suggest that the Montanists have a spiritual descendant in pentacostalism).
But what he argued for is as important today as it was in his own time. Our culture, too, has embraced gods with clay feet, gods who cannot answer the truly important human questions or needs. “Athens or Jerusalem?” remains a vital question for all of us.
For the past several weeks, I’ve been discussing John Lennox’s Against the Flow. It is so packed with insight that I can only highlight a few things in each post, but it is well worth reading and re-reading.
Illustration: A 16th century representation of Tertullian. We really don’t know what he looked like.