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Tertullian,“What Has Athens To Do With Jerusalem?”
Christiantheology and philosophy have had a love-hate relationship. In thehistory of Christianity, philosophy has come in handy as a naturalcomplement to theological reflection. At other times, though,practitioners of the two disciplines have considered each other asmortal enemies (Herzman na). Some ancient Christian leaders such asTertullian were in view that secular philosophical reasoning was outof order with Christianity.
Thus,despite theological claims of reasoning being defended byphilosophers, some aspects Greek philosophy was in conflict withChristianity. Tertullian could not hear of it. As a result, he wantedto clear the controversy between the two disciplines, thus, asked arhetorical question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Thispaper is an analysis of that rhetorical question. It highlights thecontext in which it was made and draws comparisons with modern viewsbetween Christianity and philosophy. What has Athens to do withJerusalem is a question asked by a second-century church leaderQuintus Septimius Florens Tertullian (King 544). Athens is thecapital city of Greece and is considered to be the motherland ofphilosophy being a mother to renowned philosophers such as Plato andSocrates. Jerusalem, on the other hand, represented the center ofJewish revelation and Christianity. Therefore, Tertullian’sstatement was probing on the relationship between the Greekphilosophers and Jewish prophets. His rhetorical question signifiedthe incompatibility of Greek philosophies to Christian theology(Herzman, na).
TheGreek culture was widespread in Jerusalem before, during, and afterthe Gospel. The New Testament was originally written in Greek and theOld Testament was translated to Greek as well being used widelyduring the apostle’s time. Due to these close associations, bothdisciplines were bound to influence each other, leading tocontroversies that needed brilliance to solve them. Tertullian wasactually distancing Christianity from philosophy as it is consideredto come from God. He was posting a warning to the Christians to watchout against the corruption of their doctrine through the practice ofphilosophy. His questions should not be understood by the shallowmeaning of what thought has to do with Christianity (Herzman, na).Rather, the question cuts deep into the foundation and finalauthority for divine knowledge. It entails discerning which side tostick with in the face of incompatibility of two sides. Deeperreflection raises the question about how the church can work togetherwith the philosophy academy. Can there be dual citizenship betweenAthens and Jerusalem without neglecting one discipline for the other.
Tertullian’squestion was not only important historically, but have resounded downthrough history to date with serious implications for modern dayChristianity. The question is not meant for scholars who reflecttheir role in the church but are meant for all the members of thewhole congregation (King 538). The question cuts across worldly humaninfluences on the practice of Christianity. It entails discerningwhich sides to take as Christians when faced by worldly influences.In the past, the world’s view of marriage was determined by whatthe church stood for. However, with time, the world has establishedits own viewpoint on marriage issues the same way Greek philosophyhad drifted its own views. Such viewpoints are contrary toChristianity. An example in the modern world that could be addressedby Tertullian’s rhetorical question is the effect of liberalthinking of the world and its relation to Christian theology.
Theissue of same-sex marriages has become a serious debate worldwidewith the church being particularly vocal against it. The reasonscited by the church against it include that it is sinful against God,it is unnatural as God created man and woman, and it is condemned inthe Bible with Sodom and Gomorrah being punished for their homosexualpractices. However, pressure from gay movements advocating for gayrights has led to the recognition of same-sex marriages by the law.As a result, some churches have softened their stance on the issueleading to secessions into various segments.
Inlight of this, Tertullian’s question can be applied in thissituation and could be rephrased to cover the issue. “What hasmodern liberal thinking on lesbianism, bisexuality, and homosexualitygot to do with Christianity?” This addresses the incompatibility ofsuch practices with the church just as Tertullian’s incompatibilityof Greek philosophy with the divine revelations. Upon asking such aquestion, Christians are prompted to evaluate their views on theissues of same-sex marriages according to their doctrine and takesides depending on their beliefs on whether same-sex marriages shouldbe allowed in church (King 535). The question can also be directed togay people to show them how unharmonious their sexual practices areto Christianity.
Inaddition, before conversion to Christianity, most followers normallyhave a culture which conflicts the Christian life. Tertullian’s oldquestion can be used by modern Christians in relation to theirculture. In other words, the question can mean, “how can Christiansbe faithful to their doctrine and at the same time participate intheir culture?” It questions the link between biblical faith andsecular learning and whether these two are compatible in any way.
Inmodern days, the media and entertainment have also impacted on theChristian lifestyle. Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Madison Avenueare today’s representations of Athens in the famous Tertullianquestion. Entertainment has rocked the world with modern day trendsand fashion, becoming the popular culture which not only influencesthe world but Christians as well. This raises the questions on howChristians should respond to such popular culture. Simply put, theresponse of many Christians would concur with Tertullian’s responsethat entertainment and popular culture has nothing to do withChristianity. Many biblical texts appeal to Christians to separatethemselves from the world by resisting its pleasures and maintainingdistinctive Christian values in the face of social pressures frompopular cultures.
Inconclusion, Tertullian sought to separate the Christians from thesecular influence of the Greek philosophy. He considered the twodisciplines as discordant despite both having the profound influenceon each other. His question aims at ensuring purity of the Christianfaith, making it relevant to the contemporary world. As a result, thequestion has resounded down from the ancient times to modernChristianity owing to the many factors affecting it (Herzman, na).Therefore, the Athens, Jerusalem question can be equated to theearthly spiritual split in modern days. Christians are asked to avoiddilution of their doctrine by the contemporary secular practices.Emerging worldly issues such as same-sex marriages, entertainment,dress code, and popular culture are equivalent to the Greekphilosophy and, therefore, should be kept at bay by Christians, sinceAthens has nothing to do with Jerusalem indeed.
Herzman,Ronald. "Confessions 7.9: What Has Athens To Do WithJerusalem?." JournalOf Education 179.1(1997): 49. AcademicSearch Premier.Web. 18 Oct. 2015.
King,U. (2005). The Journey Beyond Athens And Jerusalem. Zygon:Journal Of Religion & Science, 40(3),535-544.