It may come as a surprise that many of the early Christian apologists viewed the Greek philosophers Plato and Socrates very highly. Justin Martyr, in his First and Second Apologies (written mid-2nd century AD) mentions both philosophers many times, as do Tertullian and Athenagoras in their apologies of the same time period.
But why? Why would Christian authors, seeking to defend the Christian faith, look for support from “pagan” Greek philosophers who died half a millennium before?
Certainly Plato and Socrates were not perfect men. They had many vices and engaged in acts which Christians believe to be sinful. Yet, Christians saw that Plato and Socrates had perceived glimpses of the Truth: Socrates refused to worship the pagan gods and denied their existence, and Plato taught that there was a God who created all things and who orders and sustains the world through His Logos (i.e. reason, word).
Therefore, the Christian apologists believed that the Logos/Word of God was revealed to the Greek philosophers to bring them to some knowledge of the Truth.
Justin Martyr, speaking of the Greek philosophers, writes:
Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians. For next to God, we worship and love the Word who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since also He became man for our sakes, that becoming a partaker of our sufferings, He might also bring us healing. For all the writers were able to see realities darkly through the sowing of the implanted word that was in them.
(Second Apology, chapter 13)
Certainly, the Greek philosophers missed the mark in many ways, since they did not have the full revelation of Christ (as they lived a few centuries before Christ’s incarnation). And yet, Justin, Tertullian, Athenagoras, and others believed that men like Plato and Socrates had come to some knowledge of the Truth due to the Logos being imparted to them.
It is for this reason that many Christians in the first few centuries found kindred spirits of sorts in the Greek philosophers. This affinity with Greek philosophy also helped with Christian witness to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius who himself was a Stoic philosopher; Christians pointed out that the Christian faith was in accord with the best of Greek philosophy. In fact, Christians made the point that the Logos spoken of by Plato is, in fact, Jesus Christ, the one crucified by Pontius Pilate. Jesus is the Logos made flesh for our salvation. Whereas Plato glimpsed the Logos darkly and imperfectly, Christians are here to reveal him more fully.
In addition, Justin claims all those who lived “reasonably” (that is, who had the Logos within them) as Christians, even though they were born before Christ. He writes:
We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians [i.e. those not Greek or Roman], Abraham [i.e. Abraham of the Old Testament], and Ananias, and Azarias, and Mishael [see note below], and Elias [i.e. the prophet Elijah], and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious. So that even they who lived before Christ, and lived without reason, were wicked and hostile to Christ, and slew those who lived reasonably.
(First Apology, chapter 46)
Note: Justin refers to the three friends of the prophet Daniel mentioned in the Old Testament book of Daniel. Ananias (or Hananiah), Mishael, and Azarias (or Azariah) were their Hebrew names, but they are better known by their Chaldean names: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, respectively.
Justin’s statement makes the point that not only were the Greek philosophers Christians, because they had the Logos (i.e. “lived reasonably”), but also that the Old Testament faithful were Christians.
This latter point is one that the Church consistently makes; that is, that all of the Scriptures are centered around Christ and point us to him for our salvation. So, to say that the Old Testament faithful are Christians and part of the Church is not so out of place.
However, to claim that the Greek philosophers who spoke of the Logos are Christians is not something normally encountered. Yet, here it is, in Justin’s own words and also in the words of other writers such as Tertullian and Athenagoras.
Later, in fact, philosophical terms inherited from the Greeks would be used in the theology of the Church. The Church is indebted to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle for ways of thinking about and categorizing the world. In turn, the point the Christian apologists made is that these philosophers are indebted to God for giving them the Logos to enable them to come to some knowledge of the Truth.
Maybe the lesson we can learn from this is two-fold.
First, that there is truth we can learn from the philosophers. As Christians we need to understand that we have a fuller revelation from God, since we live after the incarnation of Christ. That said, though, the philosophers (Marcus Aurelius included, in his Meditations) provide important insights into the way the world works as well as new ways of thinking about the world.
Second, that we can form connections with what people already know in order to reach them with the message of the Gospel. The Christian apologists – writers such as Justin, Tertullian, and Athenagoras – did this. They made points of contact with Greek philosophy in order to demonstrate to their intended readers that the Christian faith is not new and that it is a fuller, more complete revelation of what the philosophers only got glimpses of.
We can make similar connections with people who we wish to reach with the Gospel of Jesus Christ as well. Are we talking to a Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist? We can find common points of agreement and start there with our Christian witness. Of course, to do this, we have to be aware of what these other faiths believe and think about where our beliefs intersect with theirs (maybe that’s a good subject for a post at another time).
If you’re interested in reading more of the apologists, I’ve published editions of Justin Martyr’s Apologies and Tertullian’s Apology, with my notes and commentary:
Image is of a bust of Socrates, located at the Vatican Museum in Rome. I took this picture when we were there earlier this year. It’s amazing how many works of art there are in the museum. Luckily, I could read the Greek inscription on the bust to recognize that this was of Socrates.