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History of Philosophy
Ante-Nicene Fathers
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)


To the period extending from the beginning of the Christian era to the end of the third century belong the great Apologists, such as Justin Martyr (100-160), Athenagoras (died about 180), Tatian, and Theophilus (both belong to the end of the second century), who devoted their attention to the defense of Christianity against the last attacks of the representatives of pagan civilization. The period includes also Irenaeus (140-202), Hippolytus (first half of the third century), and Tertullian (160-240), whose life work consisted in the refutation of the Gnostics and other heretics. Finally the period includes Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Arnobius, and Lactantius, who, during the third and fourth centuries, expounded in their catechetical treatises the dogmas of Christianity, and developed in their exposition the first systems of constructive Christian philosophy.

Tertullian's hostile attitude towards philosophy is expressed in the well-known Credo quia absurdum, which is attributed to him. It must be remembered, however, that Tertullian, being a controversialist, was not always so measured in his language as he might have been, had he, like Clement and Origen, devoted himself to the task of building up a system of positive doctrine.

Clement of Alexandria [1] (died about A.D. 217), in the Cohortatio ad Gentes, the Pedagogus, and the Stromata (Strômateis), exposes the extravagances and absurdities of paganism, and undertakes a systematic arrangement and defense of the moral and dogmatic teachings of the Church. Following Justin, he maintains on the one hand that whatever is true in Greek philosophy is to be traced to the Divine Logos, who "enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world," and on the other hand that whatever errors are found in Greek philosophy must be attributed to man's weak and erring nature. The true gnosis is not the alleged esoteric doctrine of Christ, but the teaching of the Gospels and of the Church which Christ founded. He who assents to the teaching of Christ and the Church, without striving, by the aid of philosophy, to give an intellectual basis to his assent, possesses faith, but he does not possess the gnosis, which is to faith what the full-grown man is to the child. Just as the Stoics idealized the "wise man," so did Clement set up the Christian Gnostic as the idealized type of the Christian.
[1] Cf. Fessler-Jungmann, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 277 ff.
Origen [2] (185-254), a disciple of Clement, possessed by far the most synthetic mind among the Christian writers of this period. In his work, peri archôn, he exhibits a sense of system more imperative than that shown by any of his predecessors or contemporaries. He assimilated into his exposition of Christian dogma, elements from Plato, Aristotle, Philo, the Neo-Platonists, and the Gnostics. On such questions as the preexistence of the human soul, the eternity of the world, and the final return of all things to God (apokatastasis), his orthodoxy has been a matter of dispute. His greatest achievement was the scientific formulation of the creationist account of the origin of the universe. It is true that Clement also taught the doctrine of creation, but he did not develop it so systematically as did Origen.
[2] Ibid., pp. 282 ff.
Historical Position. Clement and Origen are representatives of the great school of Alexandrian speculation which, in the third century, renewed the intellectual and philosophical prestige of the ancient capital of Egypt. Successful as Greek philosophy had been in defining the relations between matter and spirit, it had failed to determine satisfactorily the notion of personality and to explain the origin of primal matter. This is what Patristic speculation accomplished by its definition of the personalities of the Divine Trinity and by its doctrine of creation. The work begun by Clement and Origen was completed by their successors after the Council of Nicaea.

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