I’ve just finished reading Robert Louis Wilken’s book Christians as the Romans Saw Them. It taught me a few valuable things. First, that once Christians had the upper hand they proceeded to destroy what had been written by unbelievers that was critical of their faith; what remains of those writings must be pieced together from what Christian writers quoted as they proceeded to refute their critics. Second, the Romans and Greeks, who had a faith that went deeper than the conventional ridicule of idol worship would suggest, saw the gospel not so much as a theological challenge as a social one—to them, religion was the foundation of community, and they saw Christian separatism as a refusal to shoulder social responsibilities—and much of the response from church fathers was to explain why Christians did not present any such challenge.
Third, many of the more sophisticated theological concepts (e.g. the Trinity) emerged from efforts by scholarly Christians to make Christianity more respectable in the eyes of the pagans whose respect they craved; when pagans who respected monotheism objected that the Christian worship of Jesus was tantamount to polytheism, the average Christian didn’t care much what the pagans thought, but the objection stung the big thinkers into coming up with rational defenses.
Only a few enterprising [Christian] intellectuals, and only after more than one hundred years of Christian history, had begun to take the risk of expressing Christian beliefs within the philosophical ideas current in the Greco-Roman world. Most Christians were opposed to such attempts. As late as the third century, after the apologetic movement had introduced Greek ideas into Christian thinking, Christian preachers complained that the rank-and-file opposed such ideas. In the few places in early Christian sources where philosophy is mentioned up to the mid-second century, the term was used pejoratively. It referred to pagan belief, never to Christian teaching or life.
But probably the most interesting thing I learned was that some pagans viewed Christianity not as a superstition but as a credible philosophical school, which had a very specific meaning to them.
As we have already observed, earlier critics had agreed in calling Christianity a superstition. That Galen [a second century philosopher] does not use this term may be significant; yet what is more significant is that he chose a new term—namely, philosophical school. The term superstition accented that Christianity was a foreign cult whose origin and practices stood outside the accepted religious standards of the Greco-Roman world. Superstition, by definition, was opposed to genuine religious feelings.
The philosophical schools, on the other hand, were part of the public life of the empire. There were times, as for example under the capricious emperor Domitian, when philosophers were sent into exile, but in general people respected the philosophical life, and some from the upper classes identified with particular philosophical schools. In Galen’s time the emperor Marcus Aurelius had become a Stoic even though his tutor Fronto disapproved. Fronto, like Pliny, preferred rhetoric to philosophy. Marcus nevertheless went ahead with his plan.
In calling Christianity a philosophical school, even one whose dialectical skill did not impress him, Galen gave Christianity a boost on the ladder of acceptance within the Roman world. From another of Galen’s works it is clear that what led him to call it a philosophy was the success Christians had in leading men and women to a life of virtue. [Emphasis added]
In these enlightened times it doesn’t make much sense to us to judge a philosophy based on its effectiveness in changing lives. The most important things about philosophies (or systematic theologies, or biblical worldviews) are that they be rationally consistent and complete—because, presumably, an airtight argument will have its day and the rational man will acquiesce in the face of one. But though such a view of philosophy had once held sway in ancient times, by the second century it had lost its appeal.
Philosophy in Galen’s day had become less a way of thinking than a way of living. Although philosophers were the inheritors of intellectual traditions that dealt with the great metaphysical issues, and many still wrote books on these topics, they had gone into the streets of the cities to address the populace and to offer men and women advice on how to live. As we have already seen in Lucian’s account, the term used to describe the philosophical schools was bios (way of life), and the selling point of the various philosophies turned more on life-style and ethics than on metaphysical or epistemological questions. Philosophy was a matter of moral discipline, and its goal was a life of virtue. Marcus Aurelius described philosophy as a moral ideal which contrasts with the vain and empty goal most men pursue. Socrates was said to have risen above his ordinary human instincts by the practice (not study) of philosophy. […]
In the early years of the Roman Empire philosophy had become a popular idea. The philosophical schools offered, writes A.D. Nock, not only “intelligible explanations of phenomena” but also “life with a scheme.” They spoke about fear and friendship, about courage and peace of mind, about anxiety, love, freedom, about old age and death, about wealth and fame. In short, they preached to men and women about how to live among the twists and turns of fate and fortune. The philosophers sought to set people on a firm and sure path. For this reason, when a man or woman turned from his or her former ways to embrace philosophy, he or she was sometimes said to be “converted.”
It is in this sense that Galen identified the early Christian movement as a philosophical school. Christians led people to embrace lives of discipline and self-control, to pursue justice, to overcome the fear of death. Though they did not provide men and women with intellectual foundations for their beliefs, they did achieve a way of life not inferior to that led by “those who are truly philosophers.”
Galen recognized that Christianity successfully offered “life with a scheme,” not because of the soundness of its intellectual foundations—it didn’t have any—but because of the demonstrable changes it occasioned in the lives of believers. This is consistent with Rodney Stark’s observation that early Christianity spread rapidly in the ancient world, going from a few hundred believers to thirty million in just three hundred years, primarily because of the lives that believers lived before a watching world.
We’ve long since remedied the lack of intellectual foundations in Christian thought. But it’s also been a long time since the watching world marveled at the lives lived by ordinary Christians. Perhaps the quest for intellectual respectability has robbed us of something else. In his biography of Aquinas, Chesterton tells a similar story:
It was of [St. Dominic] that the tale was told … that the Pope pointed to his gorgeous Papal Palace and said, “Peter can no longer say ‘Silver and gold have I none;’” and the Spanish friar answered, “No, and neither can he now say, ‘Rise and walk.’”