Vol. X • 1988
Old and New
The fundamental concepts of human thought are surprisingly similar-and repetitive throughout the history of philosophy and religion. What. may seem new to our own generation reveals itself as old upon i historical examination, or rather as a fresh branch from an ancient root.' Thus both faith in the God of the Bible and paganism-humanism, that is, faith in man himself as ruler of reality, go back to man's creation and fall.
At times a description of a historical period will immediately allow comparisons with similar developments now. So it is with the first four to five hundred years of Christianity in the pagan humanist world of' antiquity and Christianity today. On the pagan-humanist side, then as | now unbelievers prided themselves in their reason or "right reason" and relied on it as their ultimate authority. Then as now, paganism humanism believed that reality was determined by natural laws or i forces (deified in polytheism) and also by sheer coincidence or chance. - Therefore, then as now paganism-humanism produced two main co-existing or alternating currents of thought, atheist skeptical rationalism and pantheist-mystical irrationalism. Then as now. paganism - humanism considered a one-world state its solution to the ills of mankind and was essentially collectivistic and elitist in its social outlook.
Finally, then as now biblical Christian thought began with the personal, Triune, transcendent God as Creator and hence sovereign Ruler and Sustainer of all that is. Paganism-humanism on the other hand held to an eternally impersonal, self-existing universe of matter in motion. Thus biblical creation is the ultimate issue separating the two | faiths of mankind throughout history. That Christians do battle over this issue today is the most remarkable parallel between our own t me i and the first four to five centuries A.D.
Let us now consider that period in detail. The Roman emperor Augustus (63 B.C.- 14 A.D.) seemed to have solved the problem of political stability in the consolidated Roman empire after a century of upheaval. The philosophy of the state was largely built upon the views of Cicero (106-43 B.C.), who combined reliance on man's "right reason" with practical utilitarianism. He summarized the duties of public office as ( I ) maintaining the rights of property; (2) abstaining from burdensome taxation: (3) ensuring to every one an abundance of the necessities of life: and (4) absence of greed or corruption in public officials. These principles have remained the staples of Western statecraft till today. even though maintaining a balance between the first three has proven impossible in the long run. Furthermore. the venality of public officials is and always has been a fact in politics recognized by Christians as evidence and penalty of fallen man's sinfulness. Ensuring to every one an abundance of the necessities of life could come straight from the mouth of modern welfare state defenders. and it must eventually play havoc with taxation and thus property just as it did in imperial Rome.
Cicero held a middle-of-the-road position about religion whereas his contemporary Lucretius stood for extreme atheism - rationalism. Both believed in human reason as sufficient to guide man. Cicero has been more appealing to posterity because he sought to identify practical i utility with morality saying that nothing could be useful that was not i' also honest. While Lucretius. a true "secular humanist. rejected the gods of paganism and anything supernatural as sheer superstition. i Cicero rendered them lip service including ceremonies and recourse !, to divination. in part to identify with Roman tradition.
Along with its rationalism Augustan Rome also abounded with Oriental mystery cults where men sought inner unity with the gods or with the pantheistic divinity of the universe. This is the irrational or anti-rational current of paganism-humanism. The reader can draw his own parallels between these trends in antiquity and similar ones today i such as ''rationalist'' positivism and relativism and "irrationalist" ii occultism and 'new age'' ideas. There was one major difference: 3 pagan-humanist antiquity placed great value upon virtues. especially fortitude under adversity. while its modern counterpart sneers at virtue and heroism.
With regard to the state. the Roman empire under Augustus and the i ''good ''emperors succeeding him (Nerva. Trajan Hadrian Antoninus i| Pius. Marcus Aurelius) may be considered the pagan-humanist ideal society It combined security and order with relative affluence and liberty for Roman citizens. Along with this stability went distrust or even prevention of all things new, including technical inventions. The story is told of a man who invented a flexible or shatter-proof glass. The emperor Tiberius (Augustus' immediate successor) had him beheaded because such an invention would have brought about the collapse of all existing values in gold. that is. totally upset the empire's economic and hence political balance. Similar stagnation has marked all centrally governed collectivist states throughout history. Paganism - humanism has never solved the problem of the individual versus the state even in principle because it has no real place for individuals not aspiring to fame and power. It is not surprising that as paganism - humanism again predominates today collectivism also again prevails so widely.
Christianity alone resisted pagan-humanist society and was not deceived by its outward peace. Because it preaches individual salvation in Christ, it has solved the individual-state problem in principle and made room for individual worth and creativity It has been rightly said that a society of law with individual liberty is but a political reading of i the Bible.
Under the ''good" Roman emperors jurisprudence and education for citizenship through the "liberal arts," pagan-style, flourished, and they endured for nearly two millennia. Christian learning was largely permeated with their precepts, and at times even sought purposely integration with them. That our own age is wide open to paganism humanism is shown by the return to the prominent thinkers of classical antiquity advocated by prominent educators in neo-conservative and nominally Christian circles today. Christians should know and understand from history that "integration" of biblical Christianity with paganism-humanism on an equal basis is impossible and can only emasculate Christianity, robbing the world of the healing and fruitfulness it alone can offer.
The foundation of such "integrationist" attempts has ever been the idea of a supposed "natural law" to which all rational men can agree. The unstated presupposition behind this notion is that once men see and agree to what is lawful ("good"), they will act accordingly. This belief denies that man is fallen and sinful but rather contends that he is naturally ''good" and needs only rational persuasion to do what is right. Let there only be "dialogue "between reasonable men and all will be well! Christianity can never agree to this idea because it knows that man is fallen and hence by nature rebellious against the only good that really is, namely, God Himself. Christianity also understands that reason cannot by itself infallibly determine truth and settle disputes. The regeneration of fallen man's naturally rebellious, self-worshipping will is the prerequisite for right human thought, that is, reason in conformity with God's will and work. Since man cannot regenerate himself, God alone must regenerate him and He alone can and must be the starting point for man's thought and action.
Already by the second century A.D. Rome began to decline and fall into increasing anarchy compounded by recurrent wars against its external enemies. As conditions became increasingly chaotic, Christians began to predict the imminent end of the world. For example, in the third century A.D. Cyprian wrote that Scripture prophecies of the end time were being fulfilled in view of changes in climate, exhaustion of natural resources, and the universal deterioration of political life, public justice, the arts, human relations and discipline in personal conduct. He also referred to a deadly plague then ravaging the empire as a sign of the end. Similar predictions of the end of this age and Christ's Coming Again have marked successive historical periods of great upheaval, last but not least today. As we note these crises and attendant preoccupation with biblical prophecy among Christians, we must cling to our Lord's own sober command to be faithful servants who "occupy till He comes.
In 313 A.D. the first Christian emperor, Constantine, accorded recognition and toleration to Christians in the Edict of Milan. This event introduced the problem of how to exercise Christian political power. The church as an institution became powerful and politicized, and biblically pure Christianity was endangered by political ambition and 3 interference. The tension between Christianity, church and state grew during the conflicts over important heresies especially Arianism (which ended with the victory of biblical orthodoxy defended by the great Athanasius) History shows that though Christianity eventually broke the mold of the Roman state of classical antiquity and ''Caesaro-papism'' (the unity of church and state), the problems of Christian government, even with separation of church and state. persist to this day.
While Christianity was gradually spreading throughout the Roman empire during the first five centuries A.D.. it was slow to produce a comprehensive explicit statement of its beliefs over against paganism - humanism. In this task the early church fathers contributed valuable insights and accomplished the crucial task of sifting heresies from biblical orthodoxy However in exposing the errors of paganism - humanism the most important progress was made by Augustine (354-430 A.D.). All Christendom afterwards has benefited from the intellectual wealth of his many writings. Augustine recognized that the starting point of Christian-biblical philosophy is the personal Trinity and creation of all things whatever by it out of nothing (ex nihilo). In creation the order and movements of all created entitities in the universe have their beginning.
It was Augustine who introduced through his Confessions what we call today individual psychology/'introspection: he condemned. of course. as pagans-humanists do not. in himself that which was not in conformity with Christ. It was Augustine who m his City of God introduced the concept of linear history from creation to the last judgment. over against pagan-humanist cyclical history and endowing history with meaning and purpose in God's creative design. It was Augustine who saw the kingdom of God on earth as a society regenerated by the acceptance of Christian truth. It was Augustine who against Pelagius upheld the necessity for God's grace in man's salvation. It was Augustine who worked out the relationship of faith and reason in that faith precedes reason so that rational understanding in turn becomes the reward of faith. By doing so Augustine exposed the great ,illusion of paganism - humanism m classical antiquity and now. This ,illusion in Charles Norris Cochrane s words. was the supposition that while opinion (roughly equivalent to faith') was subjective. reason contained within itself the power to transcend the limitations of mere subjectivity and to apprehend 'objective truth. This illusion is still the chief content of pagan - humanist attacks upon the Christian-biblical faith today. Only few humanists today understand that all statements about reality are based on prior beliefs or presuppositions (that is. faith). Pagans" humanists begin to reason from within the crested universe (for them. eternally self-existing and ''evolving''). Augustine. on the contrary. did not reason from the world to God but began with God. an epistemology neglected by Christian intellectual leaders until our own time when again nothing less than this starting point will suffice.
Augustine gave value to individual human personality as free from the twin evils of determination by fate and/or chance in the pagan-humanist closed universe. He denied that the devil or evil were independent of God but called them mere parasites upon God's goodness. He denied that the body as such or matter is evil, a Manichean heresy often falsely attributed to biblical Christianity. He saw Christ as the rock or foundation for a new physics, a new ethic, and a new logic. Ideologies not founded upon Christ he called the "prostitution of mind to its own fancies" (fantistica fornicatio). In it he correctly recognized the origin of all efforts to build utopian systems, societies and institutions of man's own making. Man must invent falsehoods (such as evolutionism or the myth of the natural goodness of man) to bridge the abyss between his fancies and actual created reality.
Augustine rejected both academic scepticism and idealist subjectivism. Since God as Creator is the Guarantor of reality, things are really "there" by virtue of creation and providence, and there is certainty of knowledge when God communicates His own perfect knowledge to His people. This certainty in and by God also forbids idealist-subjectivist, mystic speculation for its own sake. For Augustine all creatures have their own created identities with their own proper motions and purposes by virtue of God's creation. Man must think God's thoughts after Him to interact with his fellow creatures fruitfully and exercise proper dominion over them as God's vice-regent. Augustine sums up this principle briefly and beautifully: "The will of God is the necessity of things." The standard of good and evil is also set by God's character and will/word. Man must "realize himself" in accordance therewith. When attempting to do so in neglect or conscious opposition to God and His universe, that is, against true reality, he can only destroy himself. Hence classical paganism-humanism was doomed to defeat, as is its modern counterpart.
Augustine believed that God's kingdom rules here and now in the church as the faithful obedience to Christ by His people. He did not believe that the evils of society, where the saints and the enemies of Christ must dwell together, can be overcome by the saints 'withdrawal from the world, nor by escape into primitivism, but only by their full exercise of authority in God, including fully exposing the errors of pagan-humanist unbelief. "To this task," Charles Norris Cochrane writes, "the Christian militiaman is impelled by the conviction that, as Christian truth alone is genuinely salutary, its immediate acceptance is of the highest possible moment to the welfare of the race." While not all views of Augustine (or of any individual Christian) are true in the light of Scripture and reality (which two absolutely and totally coincide), his insights cited above served his own and many generations of believers to our day. No more powerful weapon than belief in biblical creation has ever been forged against paganism - humanism, then and now.
Note: This paper is deeply indebted to Charles Norris Cochrane's great work Christianity and Classical Culture (Oxford University Press 1944), which deserves the widest possible reading.
"Paganism-Humanism: Old and New"
CSSHS • Creation Social Science & Humanities Society • Quarterly Journal