The Christian intellectual tradition began in second and third centuries A.D. among a small group of highly educated elites who dialogued with the varies pagan philosophies of the time.[1] Many of these thinkers were well educated in pagan philosophy before their conversion and worked to defend the core theology of the Christian message. In disciplines not specific to Christian theology, these intellectuals were methodologically men of their age.

The charge of Christian anti-intellectualism is traced to a few proof-texts from the Apostle Paul (Colossians 2:8 and 1 Corinthians 3:18-19) interpreted through the writings of Tertullian. However, Tertullian did not reflect the entirety of Christian thought on the usefulness of Greek philosophy (science). Christian apologists From Justin Martyr (c. 100– 165) to St. Augustine (354– 430) allied themselves with Greek philosophical traditions, especially Platonism and Neo-Platonism, that they considered congenial to Christian thought to help persuade pagans of the salvation truth found in Jesus Christ.[2]

During the first centuries A.D., Early Church Fathers like Tertullian and Basil did attack the pagan natural philosophy (science) that had once consumed their own thinking, yet employed arguments rooted in a Greco-Roman worldview to persuade those outside the Faith. Tertullian, for example, invoked the Platonic idea of a finite cosmos to reinforce his own cosmology. Christians were not ‘anti-science’ but institutionally represented the largest influence on the study of natural science and employed serious philosophical argumentation demonstrating a deep understanding and, in some cases, respect for it. [3]

St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa, continued in the tradition of Tertullian and Basil in his strong criticism of natural philosophy. However, his critique of philosophy was tempered by the utility he found in using it to fashion arguments that favored his Christian theology.[4] For Augustine, worldly knowledge was justified not by itself, but insofar as it was used as a means to achieve the greater ends of Divine knowledge. The early church esteemed a robust defense of the Faith over the handmaiden of natural science; however, low priority did not mean the Early Church Fathers had no value for natural science, during the patristic period the church was the most significant institutional influencer for the study of the natural sciences. Creation cosmology, the earth’s shape, and medicine are but three fields of study that demonstrate how the Early Church Fathers sought to integrate theology and natural science.

[1] David C. Lindberg, “Medieval Science and Religion,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 47.

[2] Ibid., 48-49.

[3] Lindberg, “Early Christian Attitudes toward Nature,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, 50.

[4] Lindberg, “Medieval Science and Religion,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, 51.

Dr. J.R. Miller is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. Outside work, he is a church planter. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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