Faith And Reason

Although medieval thinkers within all three religious traditions could justify the use of reason in their attempts to understand God's revelation to them, by affirming that God is the author of the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature, and that any conflict between the two books could only be apparent, the medieval Christian authors provide many more explicit reflections on conflicts between faith and reason. Medieval Muslim writers interpreted their Scriptures within the tradition of the heirs to the Prophet. Their Jewish counterparts followed in the footsteps of the interpreters of their Law. Christian theologians took their lead from the early Church Fathers, in whose writings the battle between faith and reason had already been waged. Tertullian, in the late second and early third centuries, underscored the conflict in his famous set of rhetorical questions: "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians?" (Prescription against Heretics, c. 7). For Tertullian, philosophy of every type was the source of heresy, not the source of truth. On the other hand, Clement of Alexandria, at roughly the same time, in the Greek world, took a much more positive view of philosophy in his Stro-mata or Miscellanies (c. 5): "God is the cause of all good things; but of some primarily, as of the Old and the New Testament; and of others by consequence, as philosophy. Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a schoolmaster to bring the Hellenic mind, as the law the Hebrews, to Christ. Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ."

These citations from Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria stand for negative and positive views toward philosophy within the tradition of the Christian Fathers of the Church. Similar attitudes can be found among medieval Jewish and Muslim authors. In general, however, some reconciliation of faith and reason was achieved in the intellectual worlds of all three religions. The dominant and more nuanced Christian attitude is expressed by the words of St. Augustine in On Christian Doctrine (II, 42):

But just as poor as the store of gold and silver and garments which the people of Israel brought with them out of Egypt was in comparison with the riches which they afterwards attained at Jerusalem, . . . so poor is all the useful knowledge which is gathered from the books of the heathen when compared with the knowledge of Holy Scripture. For whatever man may have learnt from other sources, if it is hurtful, it is there condemned; if it is useful, it is therein contained. And while every man may find there all that he has learnt of useful things elsewhere, he will find there in much greater abundance things that are to be found nowhere else, but can be learnt only in the wonderful sublimity and wonderful simplicity of the Scriptures.

Basically, for Augustine, all the traditional Greek and Roman liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) could be helpful—indeed, even necessary—for understanding the Scriptures, yet he always stressed that they must be at the service of the divinely revealed truth.

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