Transcript: 108 - George Boys-Stones on the Greek Church Fathers

George Boys-Stones joins Peter to discuss philosophy in the Bible and the Greek Church Fathers.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: I'd like to start even before we get to the church fathers themselves by asking about the Bible. Some people have detected parallels with or even influences from strands of the ancient philosophical tradition in books of the New Testament. So how real do you think that that idea might be?

George Boys-Stones: Yeah, people have seen Stoicism, especially in Paul in particular, but in other books of the New Testament too. And from time to time people raise the idea that Jesus might have been influenced himself, at least in the shape that his message takes, by Cynicism. And it's not wholly implausible. The Monty Python view of Palestine as a sort of Jewish state under Roman occupation misses out the fact that it's, culturally speaking, a very Hellenized country. It was part of Alexander's empire already, so it's been under Hellenic influence for three centuries. And it's quite natural for people with any level of Greek education, Greek learning, to be phrasing their ideas in terms of the concepts of Greek philosophy. The Stoics and Epicureans of course get a name check in Acts, so people are aware of them at the very least. On the other hand, I think you have to work very hard to pin this down to anything very concrete. So claims that Paul is a Stoic, for example, I think seem to me to be quite implausible.

Peter Adamson: As a matter of historical possibility, do we think that Paul could have read Stoic texts or is the idea more that Stoicism would have been in the air in his intellectual environment?

George Boys-Stones: Well, I find it more plausible to think that it's in the air. He clearly has a very profound rhetorical training. He writes Greek that's indicative of a high level of Greek education. He could have read Stoic texts of course, it's just that there's nothing very specific that comes through his writings that indicates that he's done so.

Peter Adamson: So if you contrast him to someone like say Philo of Alexandria, maybe an unfair example, but there's a Jewish author of the first century AD who's totally steeped in the literature of Greek philosophy.

George Boys-Stones: No, that's a very helpful comparison. Philo and other Jews of the first and second centuries BC clearly are engaging very closely with Greek philosophy, have it available to them, and are studying the texts, and there isn't really any evidence of that sort of thing in Paul I think.

Peter Adamson: Well, moving then ahead into the second century when we really get into the people who are called the church fathers, and I guess I should say that for the sake of this interview, we'll be focusing on the earlier fathers who wrote in Greek. So basically Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Well, these guys are often said to be Platonists, right, or even called Christian Platonists. And I suppose that it's clear that there's influence from the Platonic tradition on them. And so in this case, unlike say the case of Paul, it's clear that they know some texts, right? But is it fair to think about them as Christian Platonists?

George Boys-Stones: Yes. Well, they certainly didn't describe themselves as Platonists, partly of course, because that term implies taking Plato as a philosophical authority and Christians don't do that. There are substantial differences too. In fact, all of these thinkers, and Christians of this period in general, tend to be quite clear that Plato is as good as it gets in the non-Christian tradition of philosophy - but that it stopped short of getting the most important insights which underpin a full account of the truth of the world. I think it's quite helpful myself to see the Christians building on a Platonist argument actually, because the Platonists at this period are arguing against the Stoics - that the Stoics are kind of right, but limited in how far they're right. So the Stoics are pretty good at ethics, they're pretty good at physics, but they miss out on understanding of those metaphysical principles, the forms, a transcendent God, which really gives explanatory value to a philosophical system. And in a very similar way, I think Christians go on to say, well, actually that's true of Platonism too. So Platonism also gets something else right, it's better than Stoicism, because it recognizes in particular the existence of a transcendent God. But it stopped short of understanding the nature of that God essentially.

Peter Adamson: So there's a strong engagement with Platonism, but at the same time a concern to map out the distance from Platonism to Christianity as well. And I guess that to some extent these figures were also self-consciously defining themselves in opposition to Hellenic culture, or at least pagan Hellenic culture.

George Boys-Stones: Yes, I mean it might be worth saying that they don't even describe themselves as philosophers on the whole, some of them do, but on the whole to talk about philosophy is to talk about a Greek cultural activity. So 'philosopher' for a Christian is an oppositional term already. So that's right.

Peter Adamson: I suppose that one way of thinking about it might have been that you've kind of got the middle Platonists as represented in part by Philo of Alexandria, who I already mentioned, and then Platonism branches off in two directions and there's pagan Neoplatonism and then there's these church fathers. But it sounds like that's not what you think. So you think that the pagan so-called middle Platonic tradition kind of marches on more or less continuously through Platonism and Neoplatonism, whereas Christian philosophy - if we're going to call it that - is an independent thing which draws on Platonism but is its own development.

George Boys-Stones: Yeah, I mean, Philo never of course calls himself a Platonist, but structurally speaking his - as far as I can tell, this is controversial of course - but structurally speaking I think his system of thought is pretty much the same as a Platonist system of thought. The Christians aren't simply playing with terms here, they're not simply refusing the term Platonist, they actually, as I say, map out ways in which they're different from Platonism. So I think it's not even quite right to think of them as a branch of Platonism. Although, as I say, Platonism is the immediate point of reference for them in the Greek tradition.

Peter Adamson: And yet it's still going to be the case, isn't it, that there are some points of agreements between these church fathers and figures like Plotinus. Plotinus, for example, endorses the idea of a fully transcendent first principle, he endorses the idea of divine providence and immaterial soul. So actually there's a lot of agreement, isn't there, between the so-called Christian Platonists and the Neo-Platonists?

George Boys-Stones: Yeah, and you've put your finger on the major point there, which is the point at which they both disagree with the Stoics, which is that in order to have a proper explanation of the world you have to go to a transcendent first cause. And the way the Christians in particular put this - I mean they go in a way further than the Platonists in thinking about the way they put this = is to say that the problem with the Stoics is that they worship the created, not the creator, so that their God is part of the world, which both Platonists and Christians say is the thing that needs explaining by some greater cause. So that really is the main point of coincidence, yeah.

Peter Adamson: Well, as long as we're talking about God, I guess a striking difference between Plotinus and these church fathers would be that Plotinus wants to insist on the absolute unity of the first principle, whereas as Christians the church fathers are committed to some kind of doctrine of the Trinity, although I guess the figures we're looking at are early enough that it hasn't settled down into these sort of doctrines that are being churned out by church councils and so on - but they're still committed to the Trinity, right?

George Boys-Stones: Well they are, but it's also the case that it's very much a doctrine in a work in progress in the second century. I think the first use of the word for the Trinity comes in Theophilus in the late second century. We have the first kind of account of a Trinitarian, a systematic Trinitarian, view of God in Athenagoras at the same sort of time. But most of these accounts of the Trinity in the early stages of the development of that doctrine don't really capture what later becomes the orthodox sense that you have to insist on unity as much as you have to insist on Trinity. So from a later perspective they seem very unorthodox and heretical precisely in keeping the principles too separate, and in particular subordinationism, so called, is one major problem that later councils have with the earlier fathers because quite often God the Son is described as, is conceived as, a derivative being from the Father in some way.

Peter Adamson: Even though the relationship between the Father and the Son is supposed to be different from the relationship between God and the world. So the Son is maybe subordinate to the Father but not in the same way that a physical object is subordinate to God, presumably.

George Boys-Stones: No, but the comparison with Plotinus is quite helpful there I think because the relationship between God the Father and God the Son is very much conceived by early Christians in terms of the relationship between a sort of Platonic first principle - the one as it might be in Plotinus or just an intellect on the one hand - and the forms on the other. I mean essentially God the Son at least takes the place that the forms take in a Platonist system. So it's that kind of sense of a second principle coming after a first. So they might be co-eternal even but they're not one principle.

Peter Adamson: And they even use the word "logos" which means well... what does it mean? Reason, word, account, something... Anyways they use the word logos, whatever it means, to describe the second person of the Trinity which also sounds rather Platonic.

George Boys-Stones: That's tricky because it can sound Stoic as well of course. And there's a certain play about kind of Stoic notions of deity that might be imported with the Son. But yes it is and Philo uses that word of the rationality that emanates from God for example.

Peter Adamson: But do you think that they were actually reaching for ideas? I mean I think clearly this happens later on with say, the Cappadocians. They do reach for ideas from the Hellenic philosophical tradition to explain how the Trinity works. Do you think that that's also true of these early church fathers? So people like Origen?

George Boys-Stones: I think there's absolutely no doubt that is true of the exploration of the relationship between God the Father and God the Son and the terms in which that relationship is described absolutely and sometimes quite explicitly in those sorts of terms. I think where we have to be more careful is in thinking about the doctrine of the Trinity as a whole as something that's influenced by Platonism. So there are all triads in Platonism. Plotinus for example has three first principles and there are Platonists before him who do as well. So one thing that people sometimes try to do is to map all three persons of the Trinity onto some Platonic triad. One thing that facilitates that or that makes that tempting is the fact that both traditions make reference to a text which is ascribed to Plato. We don't think it's actually by Plato, but there's a letter ascribed to Plato, where he talks very enigmatically about the three principles of his philosophy. I've got the quotation here. Actually he says it's like this, "upon the King of all do all things turn, he is the end of all things and the cause of all good. Things of the second order turn upon the second principle and those of the third order upon the third." So Platonists including Plotinus love that text as a Platonic proof text for their view about the divine principles, but Christians also like it as a view as an indication of how close Plato really came. That's the Trinity. But getting the Holy Spirit into the equation is rather harder it seems to me. The Holy Spirit doesn't really play the role of a metaphysical principle in early Christian thought but rather it's a sort of principle of inspiration so it's consistently appealed to as the spirit of prophecy, for example.

Peter Adamson: Couldn't you think of the second person of the Trinity as a kind of procession kind of mechanism and the Holy Spirit as a returning kind of mechanism so that you would have this Platonist idea of procession and return going on within the Trinity, or is that maybe something that happens later, or never?

George Boys-Stones: That's a very nice Platinian idea - of course the people we're talking about at the moment are pre-Plotinus and I'm not sure that's an obvious model available in early Platonism.

Peter Adamson: Yeah it's not something you would find in a Numinius or something like that.

George Boys-Stones: No certainly not in such explicit terms. And I think it's all about the relationship between God and the world at this point anyway. God the Father is figured as creator and Father at a very early stage, but then the question is how the Son relates to the world in the creation of the world. So as the formula comes to be, again a very Platonic formula, God creates the world through the Son as the Platonist God creates through the forms. And then the Holy Spirit is about another kind of relationship that God has with people so it's rather unidirectional I would say.

Peter Adamson: Well that brings us on to something else which I think might be really distinct about this Christian tradition which is that it pays a lot of attention to the importance of historical events. In Platonism and actually even in Plato you get the idea that there's a sort of static relationship - a permanent relationship which never changes between these transcendent principles - maybe the demiurge or God or whatever, and the forms and the physical universe which is eternal - but obviously the Christians are going to have to put a lot of emphasis on the incarnation, which is a historical event. And I guess maybe that would make it also more natural for them to think that the world is not eternal, although those two things don't necessarily need to go hand in hand, I suppose.

George Boys-Stones: No, but that's an absolutely key point. Some Platonists of course thought the world had a beginning - Plutarch is an example of that. But Christians are quite radical about the world having a beginning and I would start there rather than with the incarnation as a matter of fact, because it comes down to the question of why there's a world at all - and I think Christians feel that the Platonist answer isn't a real answer at all. It doesn't explain anything at all - essentially what the Platonists say is that God is 'of such and such nature' and so the world is there, and it is of such and such nature - but there's no kind of reason beyond that from the Christian perspective that Platonists are able to give. So it's fundamental I think, to the Christian view of the world, that it's created for a purpose and in particular it's created for human beings. So the issue of its having a beginning and having a purpose is really very important there. And of course they think they think that it has a beginning in a much more radical sense than any Platonist thinks as well, because they think that God created not only the world but the matter out of which the world was created. So there being anything at all is something that the Christians want to explain there.

Peter Adamson: And the relationship between God and the things that he creates is predicated on a free act of generosity on God's part, rather than on some kind of necessary... I mean again maybe we don't want to assume that Platonism means Plotinus but I think even in Numinius and other middle Platonists you definitely get the sense that it is a sort of necessary relationship between these transcendent principles and the things that come after them.

George Boys-Stones: Yeah very much, and so there's a very nice text we have by Origen where he's in debate with a second century Platonist philosopher called Celsus, and Celsus had written an anti-Christian treatise already in the second century - the first one we know of, but a very interesting and thoughtful treatise. And one of the things that Celsus says about the Christians is that they're so arrogant - they have this view that the world is created for them, right, well you might as well say the world's been created for frogs or something like that. But in response, Origen replies that the world simply has no meaning if it isn't created for some purpose, and in particular it's created for human beings to benefit us, to bring us to a superior moral state, to bring us to union with God.

Peter Adamson: And then the incarnation is presumably just another act of the same kind.

George Boys-Stones: It's part of that because - certainly for Origen, it's a bit less clear for other thinkers I think but certainly for Origen - the need for this act of generosity towards human beings comes because there is a moral fall in the first place. So Origen actually begins with the creation of intellects - no world, just intellects - but the intellects sin and God creates the world as a kind of reformatory for them.

Peter Adamson: How does an intellect sin exactly? Believing in an invalid syllogism or something?

George Boys-Stones: Something like that. The idea is that the intellects are supposed to be unified with God the Son - again playing the role of the sort of object of intellectual contemplation - and they're supposed to think purely of him, solely of him, completely of him. And Origen talks about them falling away from that contemplation, and that the key word here is "koros," they have a satiety. It's almost like they get bored with thinking about this so that, somehow or other, their minds stray - and that straying of the minds is what constitutes the fall, and the world is there to bring them back to something like that original pure state of intellectual union.

Peter Adamson: I wonder if there's an epistemological corollary of that then, in that maybe if we're in some kind of fallen state, as Origen already seems to be implying, God might need to actually do something generous to put us in a position where we can have knowledge, or are they more optimistic than that? Do they think that a philosopher in principle could get pretty far in understanding the relationship between God and the world, the sort of things that we've been talking about?

George Boys-Stones: Yes, well of course they can get as far as the Platonists got. As we said earlier on, the Platonists got pretty far in understanding the world. But as we also said they are limited and in particular they're limited because the sheer application of reason only allows you to, essentially as one of the fathers puts it, 'you can work out what the rules of nature are.' But what you can't do is to understand the contingencies, you can't understand why this world, you can't understand what the particular historical narrative of this world is doing for you, because you don't understand what the particular nature of the fall was. So as soon as you get free will and generosity and providence in these kinds of terms driving your view of the world, there are serious limits on what you can arrive at by sheer inference. So we've got to something else, which is to provide roots of inspiration whereby we can have, as it were, a direct insight into what his thinking was when he created the world. So we've already talked about that. We've already talked about the Holy Spirit as an agent of inspiration, inspiring the prophets, the Old Testament. Why did that need to happen? And well it needed to happen because we, as human beings, couldn't get to a proper understanding of the world without an insight into the mind of the creator.

Peter Adamson: Right. So actually we could maybe draw a parallel between three things that God does: He creates the world for us, he sends us his Son and sacrifices his Son for us and then he also gives us revelation and prophetic inspiration. And so it's like he keeps trying over and over to call us back to him.

George Boys-Stones: Yes, in what we're calling the Christian philosophers anyway, the emphasis on sacrifice isn't so strong as you might expect. In fact, what the incarnation is primarily about is itself an act of revelation. So when the Holy Spirit is inspiring the prophets, what he's actually doing is inspiring them to an insight of what the Son is - as the reason of God, if you like. The problem is, again from a Christian perspective, that the Jews who are the guardians of this message, who are the recipients of this message in the first place, came to misunderstand it. In particular, they think they came to read the Old Testament rather too literally. Now, of course, if you've read Philo of Alexandria, that's nonsense - but that's how the Christians think about this. So again, you need a sort of super act of inspiration, which is Jesus coming down himself to say what's going on. Of course, they're reading the beginning of the Gospel of John, that the "logos" itself comes down, the word himself comes down and is made flesh. And Jesus in that kind of context is represented as the supreme epistemological authority, if you like.

Peter Adamson: It actually is a very philosophical idea of the incarnation. It's like the healing of the mind as much as a redemption of the body, as it were.

George Boys-Stones: Yes, it's a lifting of the veil, all these sort of images. It's an act of exegesis almost. So God's given us the text, but then he has to send someone to tell us how to read them as well. So it's more like a double act of revelation, I think.

Peter Adamson: Well speaking of texts, so far we've only really been talking about Greek texts. So mostly we were talking about the New Testament, which is in Greek, and these church fathers who wrote in Greek. But they have contemporaries who are church fathers who wrote in Latin. And I wonder whether you think there's a big difference between these early Latin church fathers and the early Greek church fathers, or is it just a matter of geographical and linguistic difference?

George Boys-Stones: Greek is the language of culture in the first three centuries of the era, so the default language for anyone writing philosophy, as a matter of fact. There is, of course, at this period, no division between the east and the west churches. There is later on. So it's purely a matter, I think, of personal choice, more or less, that some people write Latin. It's not a matter of birth or location. But there is a very distinguished Latin tradition going right the way back to the early second century. So we have Venusius Felix in the second century. Tertullian is a contemporary of Clement's. And Lactantius, a very important figure for later on as well. All of that seems to change in the fourth century, though, when Greek seems to go, or the knowledge of Greek seems to go into some sort of decline. And then there's a real flourishing of Latin literature. And also, very interestingly, there's a great translation movement associated with that. So in the fourth century we have Jerome translating the Bible. This is not the first time the Bible's been translated into Latin, but of course, this is a very important translation. His associate, Rufinus, and him both translate the Greek fathers into Latin. And in fact, most of our knowledge of Origen is through Rufinus's Latin translations of him. But also, very interestingly, you get Christians translating Greek philosophy. So Calcidius, for example, translates some comments on Plato's Timaeus. Marius Victorinus, who ends up as a Christian - it's not clear he's a Christian when he does this - but he makes Latin translations of Aristotle and perhaps even Plotinus. So one of the people who isn't very good at Greek in the fourth century is Augustine. But he has this very rich wealth of Latin material available to him now. We know that he made a very close study of Platonism, presumably through these translations, and talks at one point about Plotinus as a kind of reincarnated Plato as well. So he has access to a Latin translation of Plotinus, and he rates him very highly. Origen is contemporary of Plotinus's - in fact, according to some reports, he even studied with the same teacher as Plotinus. But the reference point for his understanding of Platonism is really the generations before. So the move from, as it were, the Greek fathers to the Latin fathers - the third century to the fourth century - you can think of as more analogous, I would say, to the move between Middle Platonism and Plotinian Platonism. That's the sort of breaking point. 


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