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Title: The Basis of Early Christian Theism
Author: Cole, Lawrence Thomas, 1869-
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Basis of Early Christian Theism" ***

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[Transcriber's Notes: Many printing errors, particularly in the French
and Greek, have been corrected. The inconsistent hyphenation of the
word stand-point has been retained.]



                LAWRENCE THOMAS COLE, A. M., S. T. B.,

   _Post-graduate Scholar of the Church University Board of Regents_

                         FACULTY OF PHILOSOPHY
                          COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

                               NEW YORK
                               May, 1898


  CHAPTER I:   Introduction                                           9

  CHAPTER II:  Greek and Roman Theistic Arguments                    14

  CHAPTER III: The Patristic Point of View                           26

  CHAPTER IV:  Patristic Use of the Theistic Arguments               38

  CHAPTER V:   Eclectic Theism                                       55

     "Les preuves de Dieu métaphysiques sont si éloignées du
     raisonnement des hommes, et si impliquées, qu'elles frappent peu;
     et quand cela serviroit à quelques-uns, ce ne seroit que pendant
     l'instant qu'ils voient cette démonstration; mais, une heure après,
     ils craignent de s'être trompés. _Quod curiositate cognoverint,
     superbiâ amiserunt._"
                                      --_Pensées de Pascal_, II, xv. 2.



A question which every author ought to ask of himself before he sends
forth his work, and one which must occur to every thoughtful reader, is
the inquiry, _Cui bono?_--what justification has one for treating the
subject at all, and why in the particular way which he has chosen? To
the pertinency of this question to the present treatise the author has
been deeply sensible, and therefore cannot forbear a few prefatory words
of explanation of his object and method.

In accounts of the theistic argument, as in the history of philosophy in
general, it has been customary to pass over a space of well-nigh ten
centuries of the Christian era in silence, or with such scanty and
unsympathetic notice as to make silence the better alternative. Largely
through the influence of such treatment as this, we moderns have almost
forgotten at times that during this period there lived men inferior to
none in history in endowments of mind and influence on succeeding
generations, and that there then took place some of the most significant
and far-reaching intellectual conflicts in the history of thought. "With
Cicero," says Professor Stirling, "we reached in our course a most
important and critical halting-place.... We have still ... to wait those
thousand years yet before Anselm shall arrive with what is to be named
the new proof, the proof ontological, and during the entire interval it
is the Fathers of the Church and their immediate followers who, in
repetition of the old, or suggestion of the new, connect thinker with
thinker, philosopher with philosopher, pagan with Christian."[1] To
attempt to account for even one of the details of thought during this
period cannot be without its advantages.

For Christianity gave a new and unique turn to thought. It brought with
it a new set of data, and a new subject-matter. The Christian doctrine
of God, the distinctions in the Trinity, the great doctrines centering
around the person of Jesus Christ, though, perhaps, faintly foreshadowed
in some of the earlier speculations, are, in their fulness and
completeness, first given to the world by the Founder of Christianity.
The claims made for these doctrines, too, gave them a unique character.
In contrast with the half-hearted, faltering conclusions of the
prevalent philosophical schools, Christianity asserted that its
teachings were absolute truth; it claimed to be nothing less than a
revelation from the Creator of the world. It will be readily seen that
the introduction of such a system as this into the Greek world would be
attended with important results, not only in its effects upon the
intellectual life of the times, but also in the influence of the current
philosophical conceptions on the statement of its doctrine. The
significance of this early period lies in the fact that, in the
positive, definite system of Christianity, systematic thought, which was
fast becoming disorganized and sceptical, found a center about which it
might rally and focus itself, and the scattered fragments of philosophy
were all collected together, by either friends or foes, about the new
religion. The new point of view and the new relations would be most
significant, too, in that department of thought with which the contact
of this new central system had most to do, and thus the treatment of the
theistic problem exhibits in a special degree the alteration in the
standpoint and method of philosophy. It threw into bold relief the old
basis of belief in the divine, and aroused a comparison and discussion
of the validity of the various arguments hitherto used by speculative
thought, and set them over in sharp contrast to the claims of the new
revelation. In the early period when this contrast was most clearly
felt, and time had not yet permitted a complete fusion and blending of
the two points of view, we find a simplicity of situation which will aid
analysis and facilitate the study of the relation of the old arguments
for the existence of a God to the Christian doctrine, and which will
help in determining the elements due to each and in interpreting the
reasons for the direction of thought on this subject, which
characterized the whole of the Mediæval period.

In the representations of early Christian thought, however, we find
great differences in the emphasis laid upon the speculative side of the
theistic problem. Christian philosophy is no exception to the rule that
the thought of the race develops through the needs, temperaments and
tendencies with which it comes into contact, and unfolds itself
naturally in response to internal or external stimuli--the doubts,
intellectual needs and growing consciousness and experience of the
believer, and the cavils, objections and attacks of his opponent. The
first Christian teachers had to meet simple problems, and the mission of
the Apostolic and sub-Apostolic Church was to "the people." Its first
task, determined by the conditions in which the Christians found
themselves, as well as by the command of their Master, was to convert
the Jews, who, by their long training as a "peculiar people," were
especially adapted for receiving this new revelation, based, as it was,
on that monotheistic idea to the preservation of which their national
life had been devoted. Upon them the primitive Christians, most of whom,
like St. Paul, were "Hebrews of the Hebrews," brought to bear the
instrument most adapted to their conversion, namely, the argument
deduced from the sacred Scriptures of their race.

And when the Church finally turned towards the Gentile world, it was
still the popular religion, the religion of the poets, rather than the
philosophy of the schools, with which its apologists first came into
contact, and it is very evident from such writings as the recently
recovered _Apology_ of Aristides, "philosopher of Athens," and many
other works extending over the whole Ante-Nicene period, that much of
the energy of the early exponents of Christianity was directed towards
the conversion of the populace who still adhered, at least formally, to
the religion of their own poets.

The function of the primitive Christians, so far as the content of their
belief was concerned, was to preserve and transmit to their successors
an _implicit_ faith. The value of this faith they attempted to show
chiefly by practical, ethical demonstration. Thus they preached chiefly
by example, and it is on the ground of _life_ rather than that of
_thought_ that they made their plea to the Gentiles. In their struggle
for existence, threatened on every side by official persecution and
popular fury, they had no opportunity for speculation on
fundamentals--they pleaded merely to be allowed to live the life to
which they were pledged. With the Eastern training, which most of them
had had, so foreign to the ideals of Greek philosophy, and so tenacious
of the idea of God, and with the person of Christ so near to them as to
blind their eyes to the possibility of any other standard of truth than
His words, they naturally afford us no material for the question under

Thus we must wait for the rise of Christian philosophy, and take as our
_terminus a quo_ the middle of the second century, when first there
appears that literature which bears evidence to the conversion of
philosophers to the Christian Church, and affords us examples of their
attempts to present the new doctrines to the schools which they had

Our _terminus ad quem_ will be the Council of Nicea. The reason for this
is in part the demands of time and space, and in part the fact that it
will avoid needless and tedious repetition. The use of the theistic
argument for some time after the Nicene period is fairly homogeneous,
and presents no important new considerations. The apologetic work of the
patristic writers was chiefly done in the ante-Nicene age; after that
discussion turned more upon questions within the scope of the Christian
Faith. The function of the age of the Councils was the formulation and
definition of Christian dogma upon the admitted basis of the revelation
of Jesus Christ.

This inquiry, therefore, will have to do with that interesting period
when the doctrines of the Christian Church were finding their connection
with and relation to the speculations of Greek philosophy, and when the
Christian philosophers and apologists were determining the attitude
which, for many centuries, revealed religion assumed toward the
demonstrations of natural theology.


[1] _Philosophy and Theology_, p. 176.



The first question that confronts us as we enter upon the discussion is
the preliminary inquiry: What had been done already in the way of
theistic argument, and in what condition did the Christian Church find
this argument when it first began to develop a system of apologetics?
And from the conditions of ancient thought, or, at least, from what we
know of it, this resolves itself into the question: How far had the
Greek philosophers advanced by means of speculative thought toward a
conscious theism, and by what means did the various individuals and
schools among them seek to prove the existence of the Divine? The answer
to this inquiry will involve a brief examination of the contributions of
the pre-Socratic philosophers (especially Anaxagoras), Socrates, Plato,
Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, Cicero, and the Hellenizing Jews
of Alexandria.

The thought of Greece before the time of Socrates, from the very nature
of its problem, and the material at its disposal, yields us but little
that can, without doing violence to the facts, be construed as bearing
on the theistic argument. The search of these early philosophers was,
indeed, for an Ἀρχή, but their interest in the inquiry, as a perusal of
the extant fragments of their writings will prove, was pre-eminently
cosmological. They strove to discover the eternal ground of all things,
but it was a principle to account for the phenomena of _physical_ nature
that they sought, and they had not attained to a realization of even a
rude form of the theistic problem. All they sought for was a primary
substance which should satisfy the needs of a rudimentary physical
science, which would enable them to co-ordinate the scanty data which
they had accumulated from their contact with the world in which they
lived, and to whose secrets they seem at times, in spite of their
limited knowledge, to have come very close. And even granting that the
problem involved in their search for the Ἀρχή was at bottom identical
with that of theism, they attempt to give no proof or argument for their
conclusions with regard to it. They are as yet merely _seers_, who
report the vision that comes to them as they gaze upon the stress and
strain and ever-changing spectacle of earth's phenomena. Even the
teleology of Anaxagoras (often mentioned as the germ of the theistic
argument) gives us nothing more than a poet's dream, expressed, as
Diogenes Laertius informs us, in a "lofty and agreeable style."[2]
"Nous," Anaxagoras tells us, "is infinite and self-ruled, and is mixed
with nothing, but is alone, itself by itself.... It has all knowledge
about everything, and the greatest strength; and Nous has power over all
things, both greater and smaller, that have life. And Nous had power
over the whole revolution, so that it began to revolve in the
beginning.... And Nous set in order all things that were to be and that
were, and all things that are not now, and that are, and this revolution
in which now revolve the stars and the sun and the moon and the air and
the æther that are separated off."[3] This, however, amounts to no
argument, and it is extremely doubtful whether Anaxagoras ever meant
anything more by his Nous than Empedocles did by his Love and Strife, of
which it was the historical successor, and we may safely, I think,
endorse the judgment of Aristotle when he says that "Anaxagoras, also,
employs mind as a machine" (_i.e._, as the Laurentian MS. indicates, as
a theatrical _deus ex machina_) "for the production of the cosmos; and
when he finds himself in a perplexity as to the cause of its being
necessarily so, he then drags it in by force to his assistance; but, in
the other instances, he assigns as a cause of the things that are being
produced, everything else in preference to mind (Nous)."[4] This
criticism will, I am confident, apply fully as well to any apparent
theism in the other pre-Socratic writers,[5] so that we shall be
justified in assigning to them as their part in the development of the
theistic argument, the mere undefined feeling and growing conviction of
a permanent behind the changing, a "one" behind the "many."

We find the natural deep and practical piety of Socrates reinforcing
itself with a very full and complete statement of a teleological
argument, based upon final cause, or adaptation of means to ends. It is
in the _Memorabilia_[6] that we get the clear statement of this, and,
therefore, it is a Socratic teaching which can, fortunately, be
definitely distinguished from the Platonic treatment of the subject.
"But which," he asks, "seemed to you most worthy of admiration,
Aristodemus--the artist who forms images void of motion and
intelligence, or one who has the skill to produce animals that are
endued not only with activity, but understanding?" Then as Aristodemus
answers, "The latter," Socrates proceeds to a detailed description of
the adaptations of the eye, ear, teeth, mouth and nose to their several
uses, and concludes with the question: "And canst thou still doubt,
Aristodemus, whether a disposition of parts like this should be a work
of chance, or of wisdom and contrivance?" He also argues in like manner
from the existence of intelligence in man, the soul, and the general
adaptability of man's powers and conditions to the furthering of his
life. This argument to design has appropriately been called "peculiarly
the Socratic proof,"[7] and to his treatment of it, so in keeping with
the practical, sturdy common-sense of the man, nothing essential or
important, except in multiplication of applications and details, has
been added since his time. In the opinion of the writer, however,
Socrates, so far as one can judge from his recorded utterances,
developed merely the form of the Argument to Design, but it cannot be
positively asserted that he used it as a _theistic_ argument. In the
_Memorabilia_ it is always "the gods" to which the argument leads, and
the worship of them that he urges. He may have had a more theistic
conception, but the context warrants no further meaning of θεός than the
generic one of an object of worship--in this case the national gods. In
the _Apology_ "ὁ θεός" is used almost invariably of the local divinity
of the oracle at Delphi, and of the "daemon" which, at the instigation
of the Delphian divinity, as he was convinced, guided his actions. The
present writer is strongly of the opinion that much violence has been
done the words of Socrates by translators and interpreters, and that
this fact will account for much of the alleged theistic teaching which
is, without warrant, ascribed to the Athenian sage.

The contribution of Plato to the theistic argument was,
characteristically, the form of the "Ontological proof" which has been
called "Idealogical." This process is a very natural development for
Plato's Dialectic.[8] Once divide the universe, as he did, into the two
classes of permanent existence and transient phenomena, and identify the
former with the ideas (which are nothing else than universals, each of
which expresses the essence of many phenomena), and it is a very easy
process to conceive of these ideas themselves being united in another
more inclusive idea, and so, by a process of generalization, to reach at
length the "Idea of Ideas"--the absolute Idea, in which lies the essence
of all in the universe. Thus from any one fact of beauty, harmony, etc.,
the human mind may rise to the notion of a common quality in all objects
of beauty, etc.: "from a single beautiful body to two, from two to all
others; from beautiful bodies to beautiful sentiments, from beautiful
sentiments to beautiful thoughts, until, from thought to thought, we
arrive at the highest thought, which has no other object than the
perfect, absolute, Divine Beauty."[9] The "ideas," too, and especially
the "Good" or "absolute Idea," have in them a teleological element,
"since the Idea not only states as what, but also for what a thing
exists."[10] The absolute Idea is not only the first principle of the
universe, but also its final purpose, and thus we have indicated in
various places a teleological argument. Traces of other forms of the
theistic argument have been detected in Plato's writings, but none of
them are at all explicitly developed, and one cannot but feel that some
writers on the subject have claimed altogether too much for Plato's
theology.[11] The poetical and allegorical form into which he so
constantly throws his discussion makes it extremely difficult to
determine his exact position, especially on such a subject as his
theology, in which he is constantly adapting his metaphysical doctrines
to the prevailing polytheistic religious ideas; and at the same time
this method of expression gives a good opportunity for the collection of
isolated quotations which may support almost any theory.

The religious character of Plato's philosophy is, as Zeller says, to be
found much more on the moral than on the scientific side, and hence he
was content to leave the more exact formulation of such arguments as
these to his successors. As to the results to which this method led him,
the statement of Zeller, in view of the many conflicting opinions, seems
satisfactory: "In everything that he states concerning the Divinity the
leading point of view is the idea of the Good, the highest metaphysical
and ethical perfection. As this highest Idea stands over all ideas as
the cause of all being and knowing, so over all gods, alike hard to find
and to describe, stands the one, eternal, invisible god, the Framer and
Father of all things."[12] Of the personality of God Plato had no
conception,[13] and it would be a very difficult undertaking to prove
from his extant works that he was, in any real sense of the word, a

Of the three divisions of the speculative sciences--physical,
mathematical and theological--Aristotle makes the last the "most
excellent,"[14] "for it is conversant about that one amongst entities
which is more entitled to respect than the rest."[15] It is to the
discussion of this subject in Book XI. that the greater part of the
_Metaphysics_ leads up. He has established in the previous portions of
the work the two substances which he calls "natural or
physical"--namely, matter and form--and now he proceeds to justify the
hints he has given of a third substance which is "immovable."[16] It has
been customary to divide this discussion of Aristotle into several
formal theistic arguments,[17] but in the opinion of the writer the text
of the _Metaphysics_ does not lend itself readily to any such cut and
dried arrangement of its argument. Aristotle does, indeed, to avoid the
absurdity of an endless regress, argue from the κινούμενα and the
κινοῦντα of the physical World to a πρῶτον κινοῦν which is a pure
ἐνέργεια, ἀκίνητον, ἄνευ ὕλης, and hence foreign to all the passivity
and contingency of matter;[18] concludes from motion in the world that
there must be a First Mover;[19] and asserts the actuality of the
eternal as opposed to potentiality; but these arguments are so blended
together, and take each one so much from the others, that I cannot be
convinced that Aristotle had ever clearly differentiated them.

But it is clear enough that the crown of Aristotle's whole system is
this "prime mover," "unmoved" and "apart from matter," and that this
conception, up to which his thought leads from every side, as the
necessary implication from the motion everywhere seen in the world, is
his chief contribution to the argument for the existence of the Divine.
Aristotle's chief interest lay in the cosmological problem, and his form
of proof and the result which he reached by it were moulded by this
fact. His argument did not lead him to a Creator of the world, for the
universe, no less than the prime mover, was eternal, and the latter is
nothing more than a principle of reason immanent in the world--pervading
it, not distinguished from it--and the author of motion only in a
passive way, after all, as a sort of magnetic object of desire.[20] In
other places Aristotle makes passing references to different forms of
the argument to prove the existence of the gods,[21] but it is evident
that his own interest centered around this unmoved final cause, and it
is in his proof of its existence from cosmological considerations that
his significance for us lies.

In the post-Aristotelian schools we have an entire change of the point
of view, and instead of a philosophy of nature, such as occupied the
attention of the pre-Socratic thinkers, or a philosophy of mind, such as
Socrates, Plato, and to a large extent, Aristotle attempted to
construct, we find the interest of men in speculative questions centered
in a philosophy of life, of morals. Corresponding to this change in the
point of view, we may easily detect an alteration in the manner of
dealing with the arguments for the existence of the gods.

There was, in the first place, an increased emphasis laid upon this line
of thought, in common with religious subjects in general, and the
reasons for the belief in the existence of the gods (for the Greek
schools never transcended polytheism--when they speak of θεός they mean
simply the abstract divinity of the many separate divinities) seems, so
far as we may judge from the comparatively scanty remains that have come
down to us, to have been discussed at great length; critically and
negatively by the Sceptics, positively and apparently with full
conviction by the Stoics, and with a curious mixture of both of these
attitudes by the Epicureans. These latter, if the reported doctrine of
Epicurus himself be trustworthy, denied the popular gods, and, in order
to insure freedom, rejected the Stoic doctrine of providence; but, on
the other hand, asserted a belief in gods whose essential
characteristics are immortality and perfect happiness (to insure which
they must care nothing for the world or for men), and whose existence
was held to be proven on the basis of the common consent of all men
("_Argumentum e Consensu Gentium_"). This argument is the result of a
"natural idea" or "pre-notion," which Epicurus called πρόληψις;--"that
is, an antecedent conception of the fact in the mind, without which
nothing can be understood, inquired after, or discoursed on."[22]

The Stoics, on the other hand, with their strong conviction of
providence working in the world, were rather inclined to deny the
validity of this argument from common consent, and rested their belief
in the gods, as Cicero makes his Stoic do in _De Natura Deorum_,[23] on
the evidence of design and purpose in the universe, but by this process
succeeded only in proving to their own satisfaction that the world is
divine--a fatalistic pantheism which roused the ire of the Epicurean and
Sceptic alike, and which even Cicero seemed hardly to be able to accept.

From this necessarily brief review of the development of the argument
for the existence of a Divinity in Greek and Roman thought, it will be
seen that, at one time or another, in a more or less fully developed
form, each one of the principal types of the theistic argument received
the chief emphasis and had its method enunciated. The pre-Socratic
natural philosophers, on the basis of the maxim as old as philosophy
itself--Ἀδύνατον γίνεσθαι τι ἐκ μηδενὸς προυπάρχοντος--pointed to an
Ἀρχή--a real behind phenomena, a permanent behind the change--and thus
pointed to the so-called Aetiological argument founded on the principle
of causality. Socrates, with his pre-eminently practical disposition and
ethical point of view, saw above all things intention in nature, and so
from the consideration of this choice and adaptation of means to their
end, and the resultant Final Cause he constructs a very complete
Teleological argument for the existence of some intelligence behind the
visible world. Plato's Ideas, as we have seen, determine the method by
which he arrives at his abstract divinity, namely, by the "Idealogical"
form of argument based upon a process of generalization. Aristotle,
struck by the phenomena of motion in the universe, lays most stress on
the course of reasoning which would lead back to the Prime Mover. The
Epicureans, subordinating their theology to their ethical theory, and
unwilling to allow their deity to interfere with the world or with men's
affairs, developed and placed their dependence on the argument from
common consent. The Stoics, laying great stress upon the order,
proportion and harmony in the world, argued to mind as the reason for
this condition of things. But none of these philosophers, in the opinion
of the writer, attained to a conception of God which could in any real
or accepted sense of the word be called theistic, or which would satisfy
a mind accustomed to the idea of the Christian doctrine of God.

For the Greek writers never make any accurate distinction between ὁ
θεός, οἱ θεόι, τὸ θεῖον and τὰ θεῖα. They never conceive of their θεός
as anything more than a rather larger and more majestic member of the
innumerable family of the divinities of which the poets had sung--more
spiritual only in so far as it was more vague and indefinite, a sort of
mysterious, mythical being to which is sometimes attributed the same
kind of personality possessed by the inferior gods, and sometimes
regarded as simply the abstract divinity which characterized all of the
gods. But that to which the arguments that we have been discussing
generally lead is not even so near to the theistic conception as this
modified polytheism, for they usually conduct us, as we have already
indicated, to nothing more than a (sometimes) personified force of
nature, principle of order, or abstract conception--not a God. Take away
the inaccurate and misleading terms by which the original Greek is
rendered in most of the English versions, in which the enthusiasm of the
student of comparative religions has taken the place of the careful and
accurate translator, and, aside from frequent apostrophes, such as are
continually addressed by the poets to the many gods of the popular
religion, the end of the arguments we have been considering will be
found to be as depicted above. In a word: Greek philosophy, independent
of Semitic influences, developed the _form_ of the chief types of the
theistic argument, but it failed utterly to deduce from them a theism,
being throughout in its theology either polytheistic or pantheistic.

While considering this branch of our subject it would be impossible to
ignore another school of thought, which, while neither Greek nor Roman
in its nationality, yet derives so much of its philosophical stand-point
from the former of these races as to be often classed under the same
head. This is the school of Hellenizing Jews, in which there is built up
on the foundation of the traditional faith of the Hebrew race, to the
truth and authority of which they always held, a superstructure of
philosophical speculation which follows closely the models afforded them
by Greek thought. To effect a reconciliation between these two elements
it was necessary for them to resort to the allegorical interpretation of
the ancient inspired history of the race, and hence to the Oriental mind
that wished to engage in speculative thought it was naturally Platonic
and Pythagorean, rather than Aristotelian, methods that were most

The chief and probably the earliest developed example of this
combination of Oriental and Occidental thought is found in the writings
of Philo Judaeus.[24] To him the powers of man seemed to be wholly
unreliable and delusive, and only the special grace of God enables one
to perceive any truth--"Αὐτος θεός ἀρχή καὶ πηγὴ τεχνῶν καὶ ἐπιστημῶν
ἀνωμολόγηται." To approach God one must flee from one's self--"εἰ γὰρ
ζητῆις θεὸν ἐξελθοῦσα απὸ σαυτῆς ἀναζήτει." Neither reason nor any other
function of the soul can conduct us to God, nor can we attain to a
conception of Him as the supreme cause of all by regarding the manifold
perfections and powers of nature, for such a process can give us only
shadows. It is only by a "superior faculty" which is a grace of God that
one can attain some idea of the divine, but even by this means we arrive
at only negative knowledge--we can know only what God is not.[25] Yet in
spite of all this Philo uses quite an elaborate teleological argument
drawn from the order in the world.[26] This inconsistency, which, as
Erdmann remarks,[27] may be explained by the fact that Philo makes God
only the orderer of the world, and, furthermore, interposes an
intermediate being, the famous Philonian Logos, we have thought it worth
while to mention in this place, as it forms a connecting link between
the Greek philosophers and the Alexandrian Fathers, and foreshadows, in
some degree, the direction in which their thought was to be led.


[2] D. L., I, 16; II, 6.

[3] Ritter and Preller, 123. Translated by Burnet; _Early Greek
Philosophy_, p. 283, 4.

[4] _Metaphysics_, I, 4.

[5] The "one god, the greatest among gods and men" of Xenophanes has led
men to call him the first monotheist, but an examination of the
fragments attributed to him will, I am sure, confirm the verdict of
Burnet (_ut supra_, p. 123) that "what Xenophanes proclaimed as the
'greatest god' was nothing more nor less than what we call the material

[6] Xenophon: _Memorabilia_, I, 4.

[7] Cocker: _Christianity and Greek Philosophy_, p. 491.

[8] "La dialectique et le système des idées conduisaient directement
Platon à la démonstration de l'existence de Dieu; et son Dieu porte en
quelque façon l'empreinte de cette origine, puisqu'il est à la fois
l'unité absolue et l'intelligence parfaite." Jules Simon: _Etudes sur la
Théodicée de Platon et d'Aristote_, p. 29.

[9] _Banquet_, § 34.

[10] Erdmann: _History of Philosophy_, § 77, 4.

[11] E.g. Cocker: _Christianity and Greek Philosophy_, pp. 377, ff.

[12] Zeller: _Philosophie der Griechen_, II, i, s. 926.

[13] Plato "never raised the question of the personality of God."
(Zeller; _Greek Philosophy_ (briefer edition) § 49.) "Sie" ("die Idee
der Ideen") "ist natürlich keine gottliche Persönlichkeit." (Kahnis:
_Verhältniss der Alten Philosophie zum Christenthum_, p. 54.)

[14] _Metaphysics_, V, 1.

[15] _Ibid._: x, 7.

[16] _Metaphysics_, xi, 6.

[17] E.g., Schwegler: _History of Philosophy_; Cocker; _ut supra_, p.
412, ff.

[18] xi, 6.

[19] xi, 7.

[20] Jules Simon: _Etudes sur la Théodicée de Platon et d'Aristote_, p.
88, _et al._; Davidson: _Theism and Human Nature_, p. 45.

[21] Aristotle makes good use of the argument to design in a striking
passage from a lost work quoted by Cicero in _De Natura Deorum_, II, 37,
and in _Physica auscultatio_, II, 8, says: "The appearance of ends and
means is a proof of design."

[22] Cicero; _De Natura Deorum_, I, 16, 17, and frequently. See also
Seneca; _Epist._, cxvii, whose Syncretism allows him to borrow from
Stoic and Epicurean alike. See also Zeller; _Stoics, Epicureans and
Sceptics_, p. 465.

[23] E.g., I, 36; II, 2, 5, ff.

[24] Vacherot: _Histoire Critique de l'Ecole d'Alexandrie_, Vol. I, p.

[25] _Ibid._: Vol. I, p. 143, 144.

[26] See e.g., the quotation in Stirling; _Philosophy and Theology_, p.

[27] _History of Philosophy_, Vol. I, § 114, 3.



The philosophy of the Greeks during the first century of our era
presents a great contrast to that of the age of Socrates, Plato and
Aristotle. No longer do we find men engaged in the processes of
positive, constructive thought, but we have presented to our view an age
of retrospection, of literary criticism, and, to a great extent, of
intellectual exhaustion. Men live amid the ruins of the systems
constructed by their ancestors, and each one attempts to form for
himself, out of the scattered fragments, a combination which may serve
him as a sufficiently coherent rule of thought, and, especially, of
life. Stoicism, Epicureanism, Scepticism, the "Orientalizing Hellenes,"
and the "Hellenizing Orientals," all by their restless, nervous,
frequently erratic and aimless activity, bear witness to the fact that
the mind of man has had revealed to it its own limitations, and is well
on the way towards despair of ever arriving at truth. The Greek mind no
longer exhibits that elasticity and spontaneity and enthusiasm in the
search for truth, or that confidence in its results, which characterized
the representatives of the best period of the thought of the race. The
political fortunes of Greece do but typify the process which was going
on in the Greek mind itself, and the period which we are considering is
an age of intellectual as well as political decadence. This is
manifested by the further fact that the thought of the age was largely
turned backward and dwelt in the past. The day of original thought had
passed by, and men were now content to deal with ideas at second
hand--to be commentators rather than creators. This literary character
which Greek philosophy now first began to exhibit was often seen and
protested against. Thus Epictetus says: "If I study philosophy with a
view only to its literature, I am not a philosopher, but a littérateur;
the only difference is that I interpret Chrysippus instead of
Homer."[28] But protest as they might, the inexorable signs of old age
crept over the nation as irresistibly as they do over the individual,
and, like the venerable man, preserved beyond his generation, Hellas
lived largely in the memories of the past.

The influence of this condition of things is seen in the education of
the times. The Greek world of this period, as we know it, was
pre-eminently educated, but in a special, literary sense of the term.
The foundation of their education was Grammar--the "Belles Lettres" of
modern times. Sextus Empiricus says, "We are all given over to Grammar
from childhood, and almost from our baby-clothes."[29] After Grammar
came Rhetoric, "the study of literature by the study of literary
expression and quasi-forensic argument,"[30] and Rhetoric was followed
by Philosophy, which, however, like the other branches of study, so
partook of the characteristics of the age that we find Marcus Aurelius
congratulating himself in this manner: "I owe it to Rusticus that I
found the idea of the need of moral reformation, and that I was not
diverted to literary ambition, or to write treatises on philosophical
subjects, or to make rhetorical exhortations."[31]

This saying of the imperial Stoic suggests another characteristic of the
thought of the age--its ethical cast. From the time of Aristotle men had
been content to have, to a large extent, the abstract problems of
Ontology, Epistemology, and the others, and to lay emphasis on questions
of life and manners. Stoicism, Epicureanism, Scepticism, and all the
minor schools of the age, are pre-eminently ethical in their character.
To be sure it was ethical theory rather than practice with which they
were busied, but this fact makes the characteristic none the less
important for the student of the history of philosophy.

This disorganized condition of thought which we have been attempting to
depict has been well described by Dr. Stirling: "The fall of the old
world, which was at once political, religious and philosophical, was
characterized by a universal atomism. Politically, the individual, as an
atom, found himself alone, without a country, hardly with a home.
Religiously, the individual, as an atom, has lost his God; he looks up
into an empty heaven; his heart is broken, and he is hopeless, helpless,
hapless, in despair. Philosophically, all is contradiction; there is no
longer any knowledge he can trust. What the world is he knows not at
all. He knows not at all what he himself is. Of what he is here for, of
what it is all about, he is in the profoundest doubt, despondency and
darkness. Politically, religiously and philosophically thus empty and
alone, it is only of himself that the individual can think; it is only
for himself that the individual must care. There is not a single need
left him now--he has not a single thought in his heart--but εὖ πράττειν,
his own welfare."[32]

It was in the midst of this lump of Eclecticism, Syncretism and
Scepticism that the leaven of Christianity was deposited, and the result
of the fusion which took place after the first antagonism had passed
away, makes this period a turning-point in the history of philosophy,
and of the utmost importance as regards its effects on subsequent

And of this antagonism and subsequent reconciliation, the early
Christian Apologists were concrete examples. They had most of them,
before they became Christians, been adherents of one or the other of the
different philosophical sects, and several of them had tried all in
turn.[33] They exemplified well the prevailing restless distrust of the
results and methods of the older schools, but in Christianity--the
belief in a Person, who was for them "the Way, the Truth and the
Life"--they finally found the certainty for which they had so long
sought in vain. The effect of this process, and of this result upon the
attitude of the early Christian philosophers, could be none other than
an increased distrust of the arguments for the existence of God, and an
inclination to ignore them completely. These already suspected processes
of reasoning by which the Greeks had been able to attain only to an
abstract principle, or force, or mechanical cause, or arranger of the
world, must be of very small importance to these men, upon whose sight
had burst all at once, in the height of their despair, the vision of the
Christian doctrine of God, certified to by one whom they believed to be
the veritable Son of God, "of one substance with the Father," and whose
testimony to the truth of any fact brought a certainty which was
infinitely superior to that which could be attained by any rational
argument on other grounds. The transcendent authority of the teaching of
Jesus Christ for these men, suddenly rescued by a belief in His claims
from an absolute scepticism which was rapidly overflowing their minds,
needs to be thoroughly appreciated before one can understand the
position which they assumed, especially with reference to such a
question as the one under discussion.

But though this basis of belief was sufficient for them, yet, as the
primary mission of the Christian was to "go, disciple all nations," they
were soon brought, in their endeavors to fulfil this command, into
contact with those who not only denied the authority of their Teacher,
but who were sceptical about the very fundamentals of religious belief.
For the sake of these, then, and occasionally for the further
confirmation of the faith of believers, and for purposes of
illustration, the patristic writers return again to the discussion of
those elements of belief for which they themselves felt no need, and
hence we have in their works a rather frequent reference to the various
forms of the theistic argument; but one which is evidently only
incidental to their main course of thought, and which is brought in
merely in accommodation to the needs of their readers. The ordinary
arguments to prove the existence of God were not at all an essential, or
even prominent, feature of early Christian Theology. And because of this
secondary and incidental position of these arguments, they were never,
as we shall see, given definite, conventional shape in the patristic use
of them, nor were the various forms of the argument differentiated; but
they were used in what we may call a mixed form, a combination of two or
more different forms being put forth as one composite whole.

Besides these general influences which shaped the patristic treatment of
the theistic arguments, we should notice certain fundamental and
characteristic principles assumed by the Fathers, or by most of them,
which have their bearing on our subject.

In the first place it is held by most of the early Christian authors,
and explicitly stated by many of them, that the idea of the existence of
God is innate in man as a "natural opinion." We have already noticed the
doctrine of πρόληψις advanced by Epicurus, and the somewhat similar
position assumed by Philo, and we are not surprised to find that this
idea took a strong hold on the devout minds of the early Christians.
Thus St. Justin Martyr states that "the appellation 'God' is not a name,
but _an opinion_ (προσαγόρευμα) _planted in the nature of man_ of a
thing that can hardly be explained,"[34] and makes one of his
discussions conclude that souls "can perceive (νοεῖν) that God
exists."[35] St. Clement of Alexandria goes even further and affirms
that "the Father, then, and Maker of all things is apprehended by all
things, agreeably to all, _by innate power and without teaching_."[36]
Tertullian thinks that "the soul was before prophecy. From the beginning
the knowledge of God is the dowry (_dos_) of the soul,"[37] and among
the "things known even by nature" is "the knowledge of our God" which is
"possessed by all,"[38] so that he could write a treatise, _De
Testimonio Animæ_, and exclaim, "O noble testimony of the soul by nature
Christian."[39] Origen speaks of "the uncorrupted idea of Him which is
implanted in the human mind,"[40] and St. Cyprian makes this knowledge
so plain that "this is the very height of sinfulness to refuse to
acknowledge Him whom you cannot but know."[41] Arnobius, too, in a
passage in which much allowance must be made for rhetorical fervor,
exclaims, "Is there any human being who has not entered on the first day
of his life with an idea of that Great Head? In whom has it not been
implanted by nature, on whom has it not been impressed, aye, stamped
almost in his mother's womb even, in whom is there not a native
instinct, that He is King and Lord, the ruler of all things that be? In
fine, if the dumb animals even could stammer forth their thoughts, if
they were able to use our languages; nay, if trees, if the clods of the
earth, if stones dominated by vital perceptions were able to produce
vocal sounds, and to utter articulate speech, would they not in that
case, with nature as their guide and teacher, in the faith of
uncorrupted innocence, both feel that there is a God, and proclaim that
He alone is Lord of all?"[42] Such language as this last example is, of
course, the exclamation of the orator rather than the deliberate
judgment of the philosopher, but taken in connection with the other
passages cited it will indicate how strong a hold this conviction had on
the Fathers, and will anticipate, to some extent, what we shall have to
say later as to the use of the _Argumentum e Consensu Gentium_.

In direct connection and sharp contrast with this opinion of the
Fathers, there stands the seemingly contradictory statement, as
frequently encountered in their writings, that the soul of itself cannot
see God nor attain to true religion. In the very same sentence in which
St. Justin Martyr asserts that souls "can perceive (νοεῖν) that God
exists," he states that they do not see (ἰδεῖν) God,[43] and insists in
more than one place that "neither by nature nor by human conception is
it possible for men to know things so great and divine."[44] Frequently
the patristic writers have occasion to emphasize the inability of man to
attain by any of his natural powers to religious truth, and to point to
the impotent longings and aspirations of Greek philosophy as an example
of this. St. Clement of Alexandria, for example, asserts that "the
chiefs of philosophy only guessed at" religious truth,[45] and lays
down the general principle that "God, then, being not a subject for
demonstration, cannot be the object of science."[46] Origen, too, states
that "for ourselves, we maintain that human nature is in no way able to
seek after God, or to attain a clear knowledge of Him without the help
of Him whom it seeks."[47]

The inconsistency between these two fundamental positions of the
Fathers, of which much is often made, is, I think, more apparent than
real. For they make a clear distinction in their thought, though the
mere language which they use is sometimes confusing, between knowledge
of the existence of God--the undefined feeling or belief that there is a
God--which is the "innate opinion," for which they give every man
credit; and the knowledge of God, _i.e._, of His attributes, etc., the
subject-matter of dogmatic theology. The existence of the former of
these, it is true, as of the latter, may be obscured and nearly
obliterated by sin and the consequent disorganization; for in the
teaching of the Fathers, as in that of their Master, it is the pure in
heart that see God,[48] and it is only the man whose nature is kept in
due balance by a life of moral rectitude--the "righteous man" of the
Scriptures--who can be expected to exhibit clearly this "natural
opinion" or to attain to a full knowledge and appreciation of the
Christian doctrine of God. At the very best, the knowledge of the Deity
attained apart from revelation seemed to the Fathers to be, in
comparison with their own certainty, miserably vague and conjectural,
and they are constantly contrasting, in the most striking and graphic
way, the contradictory and uncertain results to which the philosophers
attained with the definiteness and consistency of the already
well-defined doctrine of the Christian church. To them certainty in
regard to knowledge of God can only come by means of the testimony of
one who had seen and known,[49] and this testimony they are satisfied
that they find in two places chiefly--first, in the testimony of the
Prophets of the Old Testament, and, second, but in fact primarily, in
the life and words of Jesus Christ, "the Word."

Of the antiquity and reliability of this first source--the
Prophets--they were never tired of talking, and they were so confident
of the necessity of resorting to it that they developed their famous
theory of the indebtedness of Plato and Aristotle to those Hebrew seers
for their theology. "From every point of view, therefore," concludes St.
Justin Martyr, "it must be seen that in no other way than only from the
prophets, who teach us by divine inspiration, is it at all possible to
learn anything concerning God and the true religion."[50]

But the chief source from which the Fathers drew that certainty which
they could not find in the demonstrations of philosophy was in the
teaching of the Word, Jesus Christ. God, indeed, as we have seen, is not
an object of science, "but the Son is wisdom and knowledge and truth,
and all else that has affinity thereto. _He is also susceptible of
demonstration and of description._"[51] It is in the incarnate Word of
God that the patristic writers find expressed all that man is able to
comprehend, and all that he needs to know in this present world, of the
Divine Nature, and it is His words that confirm their confidence in that
"innate opinion" of the existence of God, of the presence of which in
every man they were so sure.

The subject of the "demonstration" of the existence of God is spoken of
at some length in several places by St. Clement of Alexandria, and with
his position most of the Fathers agree in the main. He regards the
subject largely from an Aristotelian point of view. All knowledge is
derived from Sensation and Understanding. "Intellectual apprehension is
first in the order of nature; but in our case, and in relation to
ourselves, Sensation is first, and of Sensation and Understanding the
essence of knowledge is formed, and evidence is common to Understanding
and Sensation."[52] But "should any one say that knowledge is founded on
demonstration" (which "depends on primary and better known
principles,"[53] being "discourse agreeable to reason, producing belief
in points disputed, from points admitted"[54]) "_by a process of
reasoning_, let him hear that first principles are incapable of
demonstration, for they are neither by art" (τέχνη), which is "practical
solely, and not theoretical," "nor by sagacity" (φρόνησις = practical
wisdom), which is "conversant about objects which are susceptible of
change,"[55] but are "primary," "self-evident," and
"indemonstrable."[56] Thus this "demonstration by a process of
reasoning," apart from Sensation _and_ Understanding, is only "to
syllogize;" "for to draw the proper conclusion from the premisses is
merely to syllogize. But to have also each of the premisses true is not
merely to have syllogized, but also to have demonstrated," "so that if
there is demonstration at all, there is an absolute necessity that there
be something that is self-evident, which is called primary and
indemonstrable."[57] On the basis of this theory of knowledge, it is
evident that the usual arguments for the existence of God would have but
little weight. For they either attempt to attain their end by formal
thought alone, and thus result in mere "syllogizing;" or, starting from
valid enough premises, they try to extend the conclusion beyond the
limits imposed by the laws of "demonstration." For St. Clement, then,
God is not "apprehended by the science of demonstration." If the Deity
is to be known, there must be some place in which a union of the
material and formal elements of "demonstration" of His existence is to
be found. This he places in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, who,
as God incarnate, furnishes the "evidence" which "is common to
Understanding and Sensation," and thus translates the "Infinite" and
"Ineffable" into terms of the finite and comprehensible. In this paradox
Christian theology has ever since been content to rest as one of the
fundamental mysteries of the Faith.

But even with all the aids of revelation, the Fathers would not claim
that man can advance to a full or adequate knowledge of God--we can
simply know so much _about_ God as is necessary for _practical_
purposes--for ascertaining our proper end and duties. God is, from the
very limitations of the human mind, "ineffable," "incomprehensible,"
"the unknown;"[58] and St. Clement of Alexandria expressly states even
the best knowledge of God that man can by any means attain is only

These general positions, which in their broad lines are common to
practically all of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, serve to confirm the
historical interpretation of the place occupied by early Christian
theistic thought, and will pave the way to an appreciation of their use
of the arguments for the existence of God.


[28] _Enchiridion_, 49.

[29] _Adversus Grammaticos_, I, 44.

[30] Hatch: _Hibbert Lectures_, 1888, Lect. II, where a full account is
given of the education of the time, and what it signified.

[31] I, 7.

[32] _Philosophy and Theology_, p. 164.

[33] See e.g., St. Justin Martyr: _Dialogue with Trypho_, II.

[34] _Second Apology_, VI.

[35] _Dialogue with Trypho_, IV (end).

[36] _Stromata_, V, 14.

[37] _Against Marcion_, I, 10.

[38] _Resurrection of the Flesh_, III.

[39] _Apology_, XVII.

[40] _Against Celsus_, II, 40.

[41] _Treatise_ VI, § 9. See, also, Tertullian: _Apology_, XVII; "And
this is the crowning guilt of men that they will not recognize One of
whom they cannot possibly be ignorant."

[42] _Against the Heathen_, I. 33.

[43] _Dialogue with Trypho_, IV, "Even Homer distinguishes simple seeing
(ἰδεῖν) from νοεῖν, which implies perception by the mind as consequent
upon sight."

[44] _Hortatory Address to the Greeks_, V.

[45] _Exhortation to the Heathen_, XI.

[46] _Stromata_, IV, 25. In V, 12, he explains what he means by
"demonstration": "Nor any more is He apprehended by the science of
demonstration, for it depends on primary and better known principles.
But there is nothing antecedent to the Unbegotten."

[47] _Against Celsus_, VII, 20. See also VII, 44, and Clem. Alex.:
_Stromata_, II, ii, 4, and often.

[48] E.g., Theophilus (I, 1, 2) replies to the demand: "Show me thy
God," by the counter-demand: "Show me _yourself_, and I will show you my

[49] E.g., St. Justin: _Hortatory Address_, V.

[50] _Ibid._, XXXVIII. See also V, VIII, and Athenagoras: _Embassy_,
VII; Clem. Alex.: _Exhortion to Heathen_, VI, XI; _Stromata_, I, 13; II,
2, 11; V, 14; Tertullian: _Apology_, XVIII; Methodius: _Miscellaneous
Fragments_, 1.

[51] St. Clem. Alex.: _Stromata_, IV, 25. For a few among many
references, see: St. Irenaeus: _Against Heresies_, V, i, 1; St. Clem.
Alex.: _Exhortation to Heathen_, XI; _Instructor_, I, 12; _Stromata_, I,
5, 19; II, 2; V, 1, 6, 11-13; VII, 1; VI, 5; Tertullian: _Against
Marcion_, V, 16; _Against Praxeas_, XIV; Origen: _De Principiis_ I, iii,
1; _Against Celsus_, VII, 42, 44; Novatian: _De Trinitate_, VIII;
Arnobius: _Against the Heathen_, I, 38.

[52] _Stromata_, II, 4: "ἐκ δὲ αἰσθήσεως καὶ τοῦ νοῦ ἡ τῆς ἐπιστήμης
συνίσταται οὐσία κοινὸν δὲ νοῦ τε καὶ αἰσθήσεως τὸ ἐναργές." The student
of Kant's _Kritik der Reinen Vernunft_ will find a number of familiar
passages in St. Clement.

[53] _Ibid._, V, 12.

[54] _Ibid._, VIII, 3.

[55] _Ibid._, II, 4.

[56] _Ibid._, VIII, 3.

[57] _Stromata_, VIII, 3.

[58] E.g., Theophilus: _To Autolycus_, I, 3; St. Clem. Alex.:
_Stromata_, V, 12.

[59] _Stromata_, V, 12: "If, then, abstracting all that belongs to
bodies and things called incorporeal, we cast ourselves into the
greatness of Christ, and then advance into immensity by holiness, we may
reach somehow to the conception of the Almighty, _knowing not what He
is, but what He is not_."



From this account of the general attitude of the ante-Nicene writers
toward a possible knowledge of God, it will readily be anticipated that
the forms of the theistic argument used by Plato and by Aristotle will
find no place in their system. St. Clement of Alexandria, in a passage
already referred to,[60] shows that any Ontological or Idealogical
argument can only lead us to an "Unknown," which may be "understood" and
given meaning "by the Word alone that proceeds from Him;" and he and
others of the early Christian writers seem to hint at that distinction
between Epistemology and Ontology which has always been the chief enemy
of any purely rational theistic argument. The Aetiological argument,
too, is not explicitly stated by them; and, though Lactantius does, in
opposing atheistic atomism, ask the question, "Whence are those minute
seeds?" yet the casual character of the inquiry shows the small emphasis
he placed on it, and the silence of the other writers, even when there
was every opportunity for calling attention to such an argument, gives
evidence to their estimate of its usefulness.

It is the more "practical" and "common-sense" forms of the theistic
argument--the Cosmological, the Teleological, the argument from common
consent, and mixtures of these types--that the early Christian writers
use most frequently, and in this they do but conform to the general
tendency of their age, as well as to the practical spirit of
Christianity. As we have seen, the more artificial and abstract
arguments of Plato and Aristotle did not take much hold upon others than
their originators or formulators, and the distinct tendency of the
theology of the later Greek and Latin schools of philosophy was toward
the more concrete forms of the theistic argument. And this inclination
would be emphasized in the early Christian writers, so far as they make
use of the argument at all, by the eminently simple and common-sense
attitude of Christianity toward all such problems, and also by the
peculiar work which the primitive Church had to do in the conversion of
the "common people," to whom an abstract argument would have been a
waste of words.

But we should expect that to men, upon whom a close perusal and study of
the Old Testament Scriptures had impressed the idea of God as the
Creator, Law-Giver and Governor of the universe, the Cosmological
argument would appeal strongly. Moreover, the strong Stoic influence
which is seen in their works, particularly in their treatment of
questions of morals, and in their ethical terminology, would naturally,
one would think, pre-dispose them to regard with favor this argument, so
in vogue among the philosophers of the Porch. It is, therefore, all the
more remarkable that, among the important works of the Ante-Nicene
Fathers, not more than a dozen instances, at most, of this argument can
be found; and of these more than half are merely passing references to
the patent fact of order in the world. Thus Tertullian asserts (quite
incidentally, in the course of an argument on an ethical question), that
"Nature herself is the teacher" of the fact "that God is the Maker of
the universe,"[61] but even here it is doubtful whether he means to
appeal to order or design in the world. In another place he makes the
mere statement that the fact of God's existence is tested by His works;
His character by the beneficence of them;[62] in another that the
"Creator ought to be known even by nature;"[63] and in still another
that nature teaches all men the existence and character of God.[64]
Origen in a passage sometimes quoted, appeals to the order and harmony
of the world,[65] but it is to prove the unity of God rather than His
existence. Perhaps the best and most elaborate example of the use of the
Cosmological argument by the Ante-Nicene authors, is that made of it by
"Athenagoras the Athenian; Philosopher and Christian," as he styled
himself.[66] He is concerned with making a distinction between God and
matter, in opposition to the popular idolatry, and declares that
Christians see the "Framer" behind the orderly world--whose relation one
to the other he likens to that between the artist and the materials of
his art. "But as clay cannot become vessels of itself without art, so
neither did matter, which is capable of taking all forms, receive apart
from God the Framer, distinction and shape and order."

And these few incidental and scattered instances represent practically
the explicit use of the Cosmological argument in the writings with which
we are occupied. When we consider how constantly they must have met with
the statements of it which are prevalent in the writings of the Stoics,
by whom they were, we know, profoundly influenced in both the form and
the terminology of their thought, we must surely consider this omission
a significant fact, for which it is worth while trying to account.

Nor does the "Socratic proof," the argument to design, meet with any
more cordial reception at the hands of early Christian writers. Although
the cases in which it is used are generally more explicit and fully
developed, yet the appeals to design in nature are fewer even than those
to order. The earliest, and one of the best examples of the use of this
argument is that made by Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, in his work
addressed to the idolater Autolycus.[67] He seeks to prove that the
invisible God is perceived through His works. As the soul is unseen, yet
perceived through the motion of the body; as the pilot is inferred from
the motion of the ship; as the king, though not present in person, is
believed to exist from his "laws, ordinances and authorities;" so the
unseen God is "beheld and perceived through his providence and works."
"Consider, O man, His works," he exclaims; and proceeds to enumerate the
evidences of design in the universe--"the timely rotation of the
seasons," "the regular march of the stars," the various beauty of seeds
and plants and fruits, and many others. It is a passage of considerable
beauty, and evidences no mean rhetorical skill.

It is in this same connection--in the refutation of idolatry--that St.
Clement of Alexandria uses this argument, contrasting the living
organism of man with the heathen idols.[68] "None of these (artists)
ever made a breathing image, or out of earth moulded soft flesh. Who
liquefied the marrow? or who solidified the bones? who stretched the
nerves? who distended the veins? who poured the blood into them? or who
spread the skin? who ever could have made eyes capable of seeing? who
breathed spirit into the lifeless form? who bestowed righteousness? who
promised immortality? The Maker of the universe alone; the great Artist
and Father has formed us, such a living image as man is. But your
Olympian Jove, the image of an image, greatly out of harmony with truth,
is the senseless work of Attic hands." This, it will be readily seen,
is more an attempt to show the insufficiency of idolatry to account for
man's nature, than a deliberate attempt at theistic proof.

The other examples of the use of this form of the argument for the
existence of God are found in Lactantius, "the Christian Cicero." In
speaking of Socrates he introduces[69] with approval an epitome of the
Athenian sage's argument, which we have already considered,[70] and, in
combatting the atomistic theory of the origin of the world, he
asserts[71] that neither atoms nor the "Nature" of Lucretius can account
for the adaptations in the actual world; and the phenomena of mind,
especially, proclaim an intelligent Providence. His treatise "On the
Workmanship of God, or the Formation of Man," is almost entirely an
argument to design from the phenomena of man's physical and mental
nature. From the standpoint of the physiology and psychology of his
time, he discusses in detail the function and working of the different
parts of man's nature, and from the adaptation of means to ends, of
organs to their functions, which, even with the scanty data of the
science of that day, is a striking consideration, he concludes that
man's being can only be accounted for on the supposition of an Arranger
or Planner, whose purposes are carried out in exercise of the various

The argument _e Consensu Gentium_ has often been accredited with being
peculiarly the patristic argument for the existence of God,[72] and for
this conclusion the use of it in Epicurean theology, and the doctrine of
the natural, innate idea of God already considered, would fully prepare
us; but the fact is that, apart from frequent passing references to the
"natural opinion" mentioned in the preceding chapter, the instances in
which the argument is explicitly made use of are not much more numerous
than in the case of the other forms. They constantly appeal to the
common consent, but it is generally against polytheism, as indicating a
consciousness of _the unity_ of God. St. Justin Martyr, in the passage
to which we have already alluded, asserts[73] this common consent, but
only as preparatory to the certainty which he finds in revelation. St.
Clement of Alexandria, after asserting that "the Father and Maker of all
things is apprehended by all things, agreeably to all, by innate power,
and without teaching," goes on to confirm his statement in this
manner:[74] "But no race anywhere, of tillers of the soil, or nomads,
and not even of dwellers in cities, can live without being imbued with
the faith of a superior being. Wherefore, every eastern nation, and
every nation touching the western shore; or the north, and each one
toward the south--all have one and the same preconception respecting
Him, who hath appointed government; since the most universal of His
operations equally pervade all." It is with the principles and end of
this argument in view that Tertullian appeals[75] to the witness of the
soul, "not as when fashioned in schools, trained in libraries, fed in
Attic academies and porticoes," but "rude, uncultured and untaught, such
as they have thee who have thee only; that very thing of the road, the
street, the workshop wholly;" and from his examination of this ordinary
soul he concludes that "the knowledge of our God is possessed by
all."[76] Minucius Felix appeals to this same common instinct and
exclaims:[77] "What! is it not true that I have in this matter the
consent of all men?" and Origen, in his reply to the attack of Celsus,
points to "the ineradicable idea of Him."[78] Novatian asserts[79] that
"the whole mind of man is conscious" of Him, "even if does not express
itself," and Lactantius thinks that for Cicero "it was no difficult
task, indeed, to refute the falsehoods of a few men who entertained
perverse sentiments by the testimony of communities and tribes, who on
this one point had no disagreement."[80]

Besides these instances in which the different types of the theistic
argument are used in an undeveloped, but yet in a pure form, there are
several places where a mixed form appears, the different conventional
processes being used in combination without being clearly
differentiated. Thus the argument from common consent and the argument
based on order or design are used in conjunction, the necessity of the
universal knowledge of God's existence being seen from the witness to
Him found in nature.[81] So, too, the arguments from order and from
design in nature are often used in conjunction, and in many passages it
is difficult to decide to which one of these two the author intends to
appeal primarily.[82] These undifferentiated or mixed arguments are
quite frequently to be seen in the patristic writings, and serve to
illustrate the eclectic character of their thoughts, often presenting in
one passage the forms of the theistic arguments peculiar to two opposed
schools in Greek philosophy; and they also indicate how incidentally and
naïvely the Fathers used such weapons, not taking the trouble to
differentiate one form from the other, though they could not have been
ignorant of such distinctions.

The first thing that strikes one's attention in this examination of the
use of the theistic argument in the early Christian writers is, as has
been indicated, the paucity of examples. When we consider the emphasis
laid upon this subject in the contemporaneous philosophical schools; the
constant appeal to one form or another of the argument by Stoic and
Epicurean alike; the various combinations and adaptations made by
Eclectics and Syncretists; the use of such material in the exercises of
the rhetorical instruction then so prominent in education; it would seem
that a weapon so ready to their hand must have been seized upon by the
Fathers, and made full use of for the advancement of the cause in which
they were enlisted. And this silence on their part cannot be due to
ignorance of what had been written on the subject, or of what was going
on in the world about them. The patristic writings show the keenest
interest in, and fullest knowledge of what men were thinking about in
the outside world as well as within the Church. Many of the Fathers, as
we have had occasion to notice, had been trained in the philosophical
schools,[83] and show themselves fully conversant not only with such
subjects, but with poetry and general literature as well.[84] In the
course of their education, as well as in their reading, they must have
become fully acquainted with all the forms of the theistic argument. And
this knowledge they had every opportunity to use. Many of their works
that have come down to us are either apologies or else answers to
critics of Christianity, who attacked its doctrines from the stand-point
of either polytheism or atheism. In maintaining the Christian doctrine
of God against these opponents, the theistic argument would seem to be a
most natural weapon for one who was confident of its validity. But the
fact is, that in most of these apologies no such reasoning is employed,
and even when it is to be found in their pages, is only incidental and
by way of illustration, to explain the rational character of the
Christian doctrine of God by a sort of _argumentum ad hominem_.

One reason for this neglect of the theistic argument may be readily
found in the subject-matter of the treatises themselves. Almost
exclusively with the earlier Fathers, as we have seen, and very largely
with their successors, the emphasis was laid on life, rather than on
thought, and the appeal was to authority rather than to reason. Men were
asked to judge of Christianity by its fruits, and to receive the faith
which it professed, not because of its rational demonstration, but
because of the authority of Him who promulgated it. The persons to whom
the arguments were addressed, too, explain much of the silence of the
Fathers. To the Jew or religious Gentile it would be superfluous to
address elaborate arguments to prove the existence of God, and it was to
these classes that many of the works under discussion were addressed. To
them the argument, such as we frequently find, from the Old Testament
types and prophecies, or from the superior beauty and morality of the
Christian doctrine and life, taking for granted the existence of God,
was what the case required. And when, as is very frequently the case,
they address the popular idolaters, it is a negative argument to show
the unworthiness of idol-worship, and the superiority of their own
doctrine, of which they naturally make use, and not a theistic argument
which would have no significance to those who were already "too

Many of the apologies of the early Church were called forth by the
attacks which were made on the Christians by the adherents of the
popular religions. The charges usually brought against them were those
of atheism, because of their rejection of the gods of Greece and Rome;
of immorality, because of the secrecy and mystery of their meetings, and
cannibalism, because of their doctrine of the partaking of the Body and
Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. In refuting these charges, especially
the first, no place was afforded for the use of a theistic argument, but
they naturally exhibit their belief in God as superior to that of their
accusers, and appeal to their lives as justifying their belief.

But aside from these cases in which the theistic argument would have
been superfluous, there are many places in which it is conspicuous for
its absence. That they had other arguments besides those from scripture
and authority, and that they believed in using them when necessary, we
have, as we have seen, many proofs in their writings. Their position is
well indicated by Lactantius, who blamed St. Cyprian for using a
Scripture argument to an unbeliever,[85] and we shall be obliged to look
deeper than mere ignorance or lack of occasion to account for the
paucity of cases in which they use the argument for the existence of

The fact is that the history of Greek thought had shown conclusively the
absolute futility of any efforts to arrive at a certain proof of the
existence of God by purely rational methods. The attempts of each school
to attain such certainty were repudiated by their successors, and even
by their contemporaries; and the later trials--which the religious
instincts and aspirations of men would not permit them to forego, even
when they were sceptical of obtaining any valid and positive
results--frequently became, instead of a sincere seeking after God, mere
practice in the art of Rhetoric. And not only was it true that no one of
the forms of the theistic argument brought conviction to any other mind
than that of the man who regarded it with the partial enthusiasm of an
originator or formulator, but even such an one was led to only the most
vague and indefinite results. We have already seen how even the best
theology of the Greeks led to nothing but a sort of organized or unified
polytheism. A vague, fanciful first cause of physical phenomena, a
general idea, abstracted out of all content, so as to leave no meaning
for the human mind--whatever the imagination might make of it--a
mechanical, magnetic force, to which all motion might conveniently be
referred; a deified principle of order--and these held in conjunction
with the popular polytheism, and impregnated with the national
pantheistic conceptions--was all that Greek philosophy could offer to
the higher religious aspirations of the educated man. The opinion of the
Greek mind itself as to the character of the knowledge of God, to which
the thought of their race had led them at the beginning of the Christian
era was fitly expressed by those Athenians, who erected near the
Areopagus the "altar on which was written, 'To the Unknown God.'"[86]
The opinion (for in most cases it did not amount to a conviction) that
there was an Unknown (or even, as many thought, an Unknowable) Divinity
of some sort, which might account for the phenomena of the world, and
which might be the truth behind the vagaries of the anthropomorphic
polytheism, was as far as Greek thought had led men at the period with
which we have to do. Their θεός was really nothing more than Mr. Herbert
Spencer's "Unknowable,"--a mysterious "force," to which everything was
referred which could not be accounted for on the basis of scientific

Now if this was the case with the adherents of the heathen philosophical
schools, how must the realization of the poverty of this result, and the
distrust of the means which led to it, have been emphasized by the
conversion of individuals from them to Christianity. It is a graphic
picture which some of the Fathers paint for us of their eager search, in
the different schools in turn, for some religious truth which would
bring with it conviction; of their disappointment and consequent despair
and scepticism, and then of the satisfaction which they had found for
their aspirations in the teaching of Jesus Christ, who, they were
convinced, was the very Word of God. Viewed merely from the historical
point of view, this process is full of interest as illustrating that
which was going on in many minds that stopped at the sceptical stage,
and, for one reason or another, never found refuge in the Christian
Church. But for those who did take this step, their former distrust of
the theistic argument, as a basis for religious conviction, must have
been greatly emphasized. The contrast between their former scepticism as
to man's ability to attain to any knowledge of things beyond the
phenomenal world, and their present faith and conviction which their
belief in the Person of Christ gave them, must have made the part of any
such means of arriving at truth as the already discredited theistic
argument most insignificant. They, themselves, had no need for it. All
it had been able to do for them, as for those to whom they wrote, was to
raise an aspiration which "would not down"--to bring them to the
hypothesis (substituted for polytheism, now outgrown) of an "Unknown
God," and they felt that their message to their contemporaries was, like
that of St. Paul to the Athenians on Areopagus: "Whom, therefore, ye
ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you."

It is with this attitude in mind, I am convinced, that we must interpret
the doctrine, so often enunciated by the early Christian writers, but
especially by St. Justin Martyr and St. Clement of Alexandria, of the
"partial," "fragmentary" character of the theological truth arrived at
by Greek philosophy. They have sometimes been charged with
inconsistency in thus characterizing the work of men from whom they
borrowed so much, but they seem, in fact, to have been remarkably
appreciative of their old masters when we consider the position in which
they stood. In fact, they seem to grant to Greek philosophy all that its
adherents would claim for it, namely, that, by means of the arguments
adduced by its different schools, the Greeks had attained to the opinion
that there was something behind the phenomena of nature, but this might
as well be a transcendent force or a pantheistic world-soul as an
immanent God. With the Apostle on Mars' Hill they would say that the
best theology of the Greeks simply put them in a position "that they
should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him and find Him."

And each of the Greek schools, they would say, by resting their case on
some one of the various arguments, and emphasizing some one of the
attributes of the Deity at the expense of the others, had attained only
a partial and inadequate view, though true so far as it went. "Since,
therefore," says St. Clement of Alexandria,[87] "truth is one (for
falsehood has ten thousand by-paths); just as the Bacchantes tore
asunder the limbs of Pentheus, so the sects both of barbarian and
Hellenic philosophy have done with truth, and each vaunts as the whole
truth the portion which has fallen to its lot. But all, in my opinion,
are illuminated by the dawn of Light." These men were deeply
appreciative of the work of Greek philosophy so far as it went--even
assigning to it a place analogous to the Hebrew Scriptures[88]--but they
always attribute to it a distinctly propædeutic office, and are careful
to emphasize its failure to lead to any firm and positive conviction of
the existence of God. That this was the position of the early Christian
philosophers might be shown by many passages, but we will content
ourselves with one example from the pages of St. Clement of Alexandria,
who assigned to Greek philosophy a higher place than any of the
patristic writers--so much so that his orthodoxy has frequently been
questioned because of it. He is fond of designating the knowledge of God
to which the Greeks had attained by the term "περίφρασις." Thus he
concludes[89] an argument from common consent, already quoted, in these
words: "Much more did the philosophers among the Greeks, devoted to
investigation, starting from the Barbarian philosophy, attribute
providence to the 'invisible, and sole and most powerful, and most
skilful and supreme cause of all things, most beautiful;'--not knowing
the influences from these truths, unless instructed by us, and not even
how God is to be known naturally, but only, as we have already often
said, by a true periphrasis." "The men of highest repute among the
Greeks knew God, not by positive knowledge, but by indirect expression
(περίφρασις)."[90] The indefinite and merely "probable" character of the
results which the Fathers think were reached by the theistic argument in
Greek thought explains to us the few examples of these proofs which we
find in their writings, and the certainty which they thought they had
found, and their consequent attitude toward all arguments of this
nature, which we have tried to depict, is the key to the explanation of
a new phase in the history of thought which was to last for several

In our examination of these examples of the theistic argument in the
Fathers, it cannot escape our notice that they occur much more
frequently, and in more developed and conventional form in the West than
in the East--under the influence of Rome than under that of Alexandria
and the Orient. The reason for this is not far to seek, and is one that
throws light also on the motive with which the patristic writers made
use of these arguments.

In Alexandria and the East there was no incentive for the Christians to
try to prove the existence of God, for the philosophy of that portion of
the world was essentially religious in its character, and based its
speculation on the existence of God as a fundamental postulate of
revelation and of reason as well. In the combination of Judaism and
Hellenic philosophy made by the "Hellenizing Jews" and by the "Judaizing
Hellenes," the existence of God was admitted quite as freely, and
maintained quite as zealously, as by the Christians themselves, and even
the incipient Neo-Platonists made no quarrel with them on this ground.
So we find that the reference in the Alexandrian and other Eastern
Fathers are mainly of the character of examples and illustrations as to
principles that are well understood and admitted, and are employed
chiefly for the purpose of refuting idolatry by a distinction between
God and matter, or of proving the unity of God in opposition to the
still latent polytheism.

Under the influence of Rome, however, other tendencies came in to give a
rather different significance to the theistic argument. For Rome had
become the chief center of the later schools of Greek philosophy, and
under the shadow of the seven hills rather than in the Athenian groves
and porticoes were found the disciples of Pyrrho, of Zeno and of
Epicurus. Thus, very naturally, wherever Roman civilization was dominant
the teacher of Christian doctrine was obliged to present his subject
with reference to the forces already at work in the minds of those whom
he addressed. In accordance with this, we find, first, a _negative_
influence in the hostile attitude assumed by the Sceptics and members
of other schools who tended toward their position, toward any religious
knowledge. That this influence is not an imaginary one may be seen
especially in the instance already quoted from Lactantius, whose use of
the theistic argument is called forth by the cavils of Sceptics and
atheistic atomists.

But there was also a _positive_ influence at work to facilitate the use
of the theistic argument by the Western Fathers in the prevalence at
Rome of Stoic and Epicurean doctrine. From the former of these schools
would result a familiarity, and, in many cases, an agreement with the
forms of the argument drawn from order and design; from the latter, for
the demonstration from common consent. Both of these influences, no
doubt, had some influence on the shape in which Tertullian of Carthage,
Minucius Felix, Novatian and Lactantius presented their doctrine, and,
together with the more material and less religious character of the
West, accounts in large degree for the comparative frequency of their
appeal to the theistic argument.

But when we consider the frequency with which we meet with the theistic
argument, and with reference to its use in other writers, in the pages
of Cicero, for example, these scanty instances afforded us by the
writings of the ante-Nicene Fathers, whose works occupy, say, 4,500
large, closely-printed pages in the translation, and who were, let us
remember, dealing exclusively with religious thought, indicate plainly a
fundamental change in position, the influence of which was operative for
centuries in this department of thought, and which, even to-day, governs
the attitude of the greater part of the Western world. The absolute
failure of the Greeks to arrive at any certainty of God's existence by
demonstration, the introduction of the Christian doctrine of God, before
which the deductions of Greek philosophy seem empty and unsatisfactory,
even to many who cannot accept that doctrine as truth, and the
substitution of faith in a Person for purely rational proof, render it
impossible, so long as that faith continues, that any one should think
it worth while to devote more than a passing notice to any such
argument, unless for the purposes of an _argumentum ad hominem_. And so
it is not until faith begins to grow cold and men become mere
speculators and debaters about religion, rather than believers in
Christ, that the revival of these arguments under the title of "proofs"
is possible. Even the famous Ontological Argument of St. Anselm was, I
am convinced, no serious attempt to formulate an _a priori_ proof of the
existence of God, but was addressed to a particular case[91]--the "fool"
who "said in his heart, 'There is no God,'" and who _also_ maintained
that God was "that than which no greater can be thought."

From this survey it will be seen that, in the view of the Ante-Nicene
Christian authors, the theistic argument was valuable merely as a
propædeutic to Christianity, but was superfluous for the believer in
Jesus Christ; the use of it cannot, as it had not in Greek thought,
bring proof, but only probability; even this uncertain result is only
vague and fragmentary in character, and was never unified and made
significant by the Greeks; its office in Christian evidences was merely
of an _ad hominem_ sort, and this only in its simpler and more practical
forms, in which the senses as well as reason had their testimony to
bear; and, lastly, the argument was used much more frequently by the
Western than by the Alexandrian and other Eastern Fathers.


[60] _Stromata_, V, 12.

[61] _De Spectaculis_, II.

[62] _Against Marcion_, I, 17.

[63] _Ibid._, V, 16. This is to justify his doctrine of the punishment
of the heathen.

[64] _Scapula_, II.

[65] _Against Celsus_, I, 23.

[66] _Plea for the Christians_, XV, XVI.

[67] I, 5 and 6.

[68] _Exhortation to the Heathen_, X.

[69] _Divine Institutes_, III, 20.

[70] Chap. II.

[71] _Treatise on the Anger of God_, X.

[72] E.g., Stirling: _Philosophy and Theology_, p. 179.

[73] _Trypho_, III, IV.

[74] _Stromata_, V, 14.

[75] _The Soul's Testimony_, I.

[76] _Of the Resurrection of the Flesh_, III.

[77] _Octavius_, XVIII.

[78] _Against Celsus_, II, 40.

[79] _De Trinitate_, VIII.

[80] _Divine Institutes_, I, 2.

[81] E.g., Irenaeus: _Against Heresy_, II, 9, 1; Tertullian: _Against
Marcion_, I, 10; Origen: _De Principiis_, I, 3, 1; Tertullian:
_Apology_, XVII; Lactantius: _Divine Institutes_, I, 2.

[82] E.g., Minucius Felix: _Octavius_, XVII, XVIII; Novatian: _De
Trinitate_ VIII; Dionysius the Great: _Fragments_, II, 1.

[83] E.g., "Justin, in Philosopher's garb, preached the word of God."
Eusebius, IV, 11.

[84] The mere list of Greek authors _quoted_ by St. Clement of
Alexandria occupies over fourteen quarto pages in Fabricius'
_Bibliotheka Graeca_.

[85] _Divine Institutes_, V. 4.

[86] _Acts_, XVII, 23.

[87] _Stromata_, I, 13.

[88] E.g., _Stromata_, VI, 5: "The one and only God was known by the
Greeks in a Gentile way, by the Jews Judaically, and in a new and
spiritual way by us." In I, 5, he says: "For this (philosophy) was a
schoolmaster to bring "the Hellenic mind," as the law the Hebrews, to

[89] _Stromata_, V, 14.

[90] _Ibid._, VI, 5. See also, e.g., I, 19; V, 13.

[91] See Stirling: _Philosophy and Theology_, p. 35.



The early Christian writers, so far as they assumed any philosophical
position, were invariably Eclectics. In this, as we have seen, they were
the true children of their age, whose most striking characteristic was
that it had deserted the older systems, while attempting to preserve out
of their ruins the particular truth for which each of the schools had
contended. But with the Christian philosophers it was not merely the
negative influence of scepticism which drove them to Eclecticism. Their
conviction of a sure knowledge of things divine--the final question for
all philosophy--exerted a positive influence as well, which led them to
formulate more or less explicitly a view of the function of philosophy
as an organon of the truth, not merely with reference to the past
history of Greek thought, as their contemporaries outside of the
Christian Church were accustomed to do, but with a view to all possible
speculation on the Deity. For this deposit of revealed truth, to which
they gave assent as the most certain of all knowledge, they regarded as
the _whole_ truth, of which the various speculations of philosophy on
the existence and attributes of God, were but "portions" and
"fragments"--true and trustworthy so far as they went, and from their
own particular standpoint, but, nevertheless, essentially and
necessarily partial, and hence productive, not of certainty, but of mere

And this estimate of the function of philosophy with respect to
theological truth, which the Fathers worked out on the basis of the
concrete example of the course of Greek thought, though with a view to a
much wider application, has its justification in the very nature and
conditions of thought itself. For philosophy is essentially a
_process_--its very life depends on its being in motion, in process of
change and development. Each system is evolved out of its predecessors,
and contains within itself the germs of its successors--it is the link
which connects the past with the future. It expresses the
"common-sense," the unconscious convictions and instinctive tendencies
of the time, and the man who first gives voice to this unspoken message
is the philosopher. He utters the truth which the times demand--that
which satisfies the conditions. Thus with Professor Erdmann[92] the
patristic writers would say that each statement of philosophical truth
is "the final truth only for that time." It is the phase or aspect or
particular statement of the truth which the times demand, which the
situation calls forth, and which appeals most strongly to the minds that
make up part of that situation. Changed conditions demand a different
statement of the truth to satisfy them, and furnish the data upon which
such a statement is based. Philosophy, like science, "does not really
accumulate, but is entirely transformed by each fresh hypothesis. It is
only the data that accumulate; and when we say that a new hypothesis is
'truer' than that which preceded it, we mean merely that it enables us
to co-ordinate a larger number of these data."[93] And this
transformation takes place, in reality, not only by addition, but by
subtraction of data. For it is a phenomenon common to the thought of all
ages, that each school not only calls attention to new data, ignored by
its predecessor, but also shuts its eyes to more or less of the valid
data set forth by the earlier system. In no period of the history of
thought were men more commonly led into abstractions by being dazzled by
the brilliancy and novelty of the latest idea than in the pioneer age
represented by Greek philosophy, when men had not yet attained to a
clear perspective, and the foot-hills often hid the lofty mountain peak.

It is this trait, so evident in the naïve thought of the Greeks, that
makes it possible for the early Christian thinkers to take the attitude,
at once appreciative and critical with regard to the Hellenic theology.
They borrowed much, not only from the form, but also from the results of
the speculations of the philosophers, but always with a deep sense of
the limitations which the conditions imposed upon them. Socrates, Plato,
Aristotle and the rest had spoken the truth, but each only from one
point of view, and on the basis of only one method of approach. The
conclusions of each were the result of a process of more or less
complete abstraction, and in abstractions the Fathers, true to the
genius of Christian thought, could never rest content, but could only
accord to them the appreciation which belongs to a temporary and
preliminary stage in the search for the final unity.

To this partial, temporary, "relatively final," and constantly changing
content, the revealed doctrine of God, manifested in due relations,
unity and completeness by the Incarnate Word, stands with the Fathers as
the principle to the particular rule or application--as the whole to the
part. As the revelation of God it came to them, not as the result of
man's investigation and speculation, colored by every change of time,
place and environment, a mere momentary phase of a process; but as
eternal verity, viewed, so far as man's powers would allow, in its
entirety and unity. Dorner expresses their position well when he says
that in Christianity "as the organism of the truth, the elements of
truth, elsewhere here and there to be met with in a scattered form or a
disfigured guise, come together in unity--a unity which, as it
personally appeared in the God-Man, so in the course of history ever
more and more rises upon the consciousness of mankind." The Fathers
think that in the Christian doctrine of God they find all the true
elements contributed by previous thought, and besides these an infinite
depth of truth unthought of by the Greeks, all unified and harmonized in
a way that makes it a sharp contrast to the fragmentary and abstract
character of the Hellenic theology. Christian doctrine represents to
them the stable, absolute truth, so far as it was revealed by the
Incarnate Word, the eternal verities in their completeness and unity, so
far as man is able to comprehend them. Philosophy represents the phase
or aspect of the truth which the conditions of thought at the time
demands and emphasizes, which will co-ordinate the data at present in
the foreground of consciousness. Thus they conceive of the facts of
Christian Theology as the goal towards which philosophy is (often
unconsciously) striving, but at which it can never arrive without the
"leap of faith." Once this leap is taken, however, these theological
verities become the major factors in the data to be co-ordinated, and
philosophy and theology come into that union and harmony which, in the
eyes of the Christian philosophers, is their normal relation.

This Eclectic attitude of the Fathers, and their deprecation of any
abstraction or partial statement usurping the place of the truth,
explains to some extent their treatment of the theistic argument.

In the first place it led them to distrust and reject any argument for
the existence of God which proceeded on the basis of reason alone, apart
from any content furnished by sensibility. While the Fathers do not make
any explicit and scientific distinction between Epistemology and
Ontology, such as has in modern times been the bane of any attempted
natural theology, yet they seem to have made a pretty constant
_practical_ separation between the two. St. Clement of Alexandria, as we
have seen, holds that by a method of abstraction of specific
characteristics we can arrive only at an "Unknown," to which meaning can
be given only by combining with this rational process some content
furnished directly by the senses or, indirectly, by testimony, and he
further states that God is not a subject for demonstration--_i.e._, the
science that depends on primary and better known principles--for "first
principles are incapable of demonstration."[94] This position seems to
be tacitly assumed by the patristic writers throughout, and even where
they speak of Plato with gratitude and admiration they never seem to be
at all inclined to make any use of his "Idealogical" argument or
anything related thereto. They seem to take a common-sense stand for the
testimony of the whole man, as well as for the whole truth, and to
instinctively distrust any rational concept in the formation of which
sensuous content had been ignored.

The Eclectic character of the patristic thought is seen also in the
frequency with which they use the different forms of the theistic
argument in conjunction, or present it in mixed forms. The Greek
philosophers, as we have seen, each selected some one of the forms of
the argument, and by means of it, attempted to establish the sort of an
Ἀρχή, to which such a course of reasoning would lead, ignoring, or
attacking the forms in use by their rival school. Thus early, however,
as in modern times, Christian theology, in contrast with the attempts of
rational theology, began to emphasize the interdependence of these
different forms of the theistic argument, and the cumulative character
of their evidence. Each one of itself could bring no conviction, nor
even high degree of probability, and furthermore, even if all its claims
be admitted, would lead to a result far short of theism--a mere
indefinite first cause, an Architect of the universe, etc. Each one,
however, adds its quota to a great _cumulative_ argument, which, taken
in its entirety, raises an exceedingly high presumption, which amounts
to "_moral_" though possibly not intellectual proof. And, after all,
"probability is the guide of _life_."

And this is all that the Fathers, or Christian apologists, generally,
would claim for the theistic argument. It is a _practical_, not a
theoretical proof, and it is in this way that the early Christian
writers seem to regard it. They resort to it most frequently to show
that the Christian doctrine of God is not contrary to reason nor
inconsistent with the nature of things, and to demonstrate that such a
conception is demanded by man's very nature. In a word, their use of the
argument is confirmatory and explanatory rather than by way of absolute
proof and demonstration.

This attitude towards and use of the theistic argument, so radically
different from that of the Greek philosophers, perpetuated itself in the
post-Nicene literature of the Christian Church, and, in its main
features, remained unaltered, until the time when men who had abandoned
the faith in the Word which had been the main stay of the ante-Nicene
writers, and who yet were unwilling to abandon the great theistic idea
for which the world was indebted to Christianity alone, sought to
justify this idea on the basis of reason. It took the scepticism of a
Hume and the criticism of a Kant, and the re-adjustment of all their
followers to bring us back at the close of this nineteenth century into
substantial agreement with the common-sense estimate placed upon the
theistic argument by the ante-Nicene Fathers.


[92] _History of Philosophy_, Vol. I, § 4.

[93] Burnet: _Early Greek Philosophy_, p. 25.

[94] _Stromata_, II, iv.


The writer was born April 24, 1869, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He attended
the Ann Arbor Public Schools and the Ann Arbor High School. In 1892 he
received the degree of A. B. from the University of Michigan. In 1895 he
graduated from the General Theological Seminary, New York, and was
awarded the degree of B. D., which was formally conferred in accordance
with the rules of the Seminary one year later. In 1896, he received the
degree of A. M. from the University of Michigan. He pursued studies in
Philosophy at Harvard University during the first term of the year
1896-7, and at Columbia University from February, 1897, to February,
1898. He has been the post-graduate scholar of the Church University
Board of Regents from July, 1895, to the present time.

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