“What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Church with [the] Academy, the Christian with the heretic? Our principles come from the Porch of Solomon, who has himself taught that the Lord is to be sought in simplicity of heart. I have no use for a Stoic or a Platonic or dialectic Christianity. After Jesus Christ, we have no need of speculation, after the Gospel no need of research. When we come to believe, we have no desire to believe anything else; for we begin by believing that there is nothing else which we have to believe.[i]
These provocative words by Tertullian have stimulated much discussion through the years. It seems to imply a negative answer. However, it demonstrates his rhetorical abilities and classical education. This paper will examine the thinking of four leaders in the Christian church — Clement of Alexandria, St. Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and John Henry Newman— and how they might answer Tertullian’s question. We will also try to determine what lessons might be learned from historical interactions between Christianity and the liberal arts.
Clement of Alexandria
Titus Flavius Clement, popularly known as Clement of Alexandria was born around AD 150 in Athens, came to Alexandria, Egypt, between AD 175 and 180, and left Alexandria during the persecution of AD 202 and spent the remaining ten years of his life in Palestine.[ii] He was one of the first great Christian scholars. Before going to Alexandria, Clement had traveled widely in Southern Italy and Palestine, learning from various teachers. In Alexandria, he studied under many teachers, the greatest of whom was Pantaenus, head of the Catechetical school of Alexandria in about AD 180. Clement would remain here to study and later to become one of the leading scholars in Alexandria. He would also succeed Pantaenus as head of the Catechetical school.[iii]
Alexandria was one of the leading intellectual centers of the ancient world. Ptolemy had established a famous museum with a huge library in this famous city. It attracted scholars from various cities. Alexandria was also a major center for Christian life and thought. It was a cosmopolitan city with a very broad intellectual environment. Many of the leading thinkers of the time lived or visited in Alexandria and the major ideas of classical authors like Plato and Aristotle were discussed openly.[iv]
In this environment Clement “thrived” and became one of the leading thinkers of his day. He demonstrated a vast knowledge of both Christian and pagan thought. He esteemed literature and had an extensive knowledge of both pagan poets and philosophers. He interacted with and quoted more pagan poets and philosophers than anyone in the second century. “Clement serves as an instructive guide,” observes David Dockery, because “of his wide range of learning, his love of philosophy and literature, his concern for the cultivation of an intellectually serious Christianity, his interaction with the issues and trends in the changing world of his day, and perhaps most importantly because he was a lay person— which is the case for more than 90 percent of faculty and staff, as well as students at most Christian colleges and universities.”[v]
Clement believed that “all truth is God’s truth no matter where it is found.”[vi] This is the reason why liberal learning and Christianity is compatible. If all truth is God’s truth wherever it is found, it follows that truth can never contradict itself. Arthur F. Holmes believes this idea is the “theological basis of Christian higher education.”[vii]
[i] Tertullian, “What Has Jerusalem to Do with Athens?” in Sources of the Western Tradition, Volume 1: From Ancient Times to the Enlightenment, Brief edition. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 107.
[ii] Eric Osborn, “Clement of Alexandria,” in the First Christian Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Early Church.(Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 127.
[v] David Dockery, Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society through Christian Higher Education (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008), 54.
[vi] Arthur F. Holmes, Building the Christian Academy (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001), 20.