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When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought

John Mark Reynolds
Published by IVP Academic in 2009

Tertullian once asked rhetorically, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” John Mark Reynolds has turned this question on its head and has offered an intelligent apology for embracing both schools of thought in order to defend and develop the Christian dogma. When Athens Met Jerusalem sets forth to be an introduction to Classical and Christian thought, as the subtitle suggests.

Beyond the Introduction, which we will deal with later, the material moves chronologically in philosophical thought from the pre-Socratics through the life and literary works of Aristotle. The concentration is highly and properly on the primary sources of Plato and Aristotle, with serious attention given to Socrates. Stylistically, the book reads much like a narrative of ancient philosophy with interesting tangents along the way to keep things fresh and intriguing. Both pre-Socratics and post-Aristotelians are also discussed with appropriate consideration given to all significant contributors of both eras. The enormity of the material with which Reynolds has chosen to deal is quite ambitious, but he makes it very palatable for the reader. Reynolds’ readings of Plato and Aristotle are both insightful and detailed.

It should be noted that Reynolds’ greatest efforts are made to explicate “Athens,” and how it operates and thinks. Along the way there are very few references to “Jerusalem,” though those most familiar with the Bible can catch some inferences. So on one hand, if the reader were to believe that this work was going to have as its agenda the constant intersecting of the two schools of thought or worldviews, it would be disappointing. Yet on the other hand, the concentration on “Athens” is quite apropos given that Christians are far more familiar with our religious heritage in “Jerusalem” than we are with our intellectual inheritance from “Athens.”

The Introduction makes some bold statements regarding the heritage of Christendom. Among such claims is that it is the product of “the marriage of two cultures” (13). If by “Christendom” Reynolds is referring to the socio-political entity of Medieval Europe, his point is well made; but if by it he means the Christian culture embracing the present-yet-still-to-come kingdom of God, then I think it falls short in its appropriation. I believe that Christianity was born into such a culture at such a time so that we could use the tools provided forus by philosophy in order to defend more logically and reasonably our faith to a culture that would demand nothing less. However, in the end, had we not been given these specific tools of ancient Hellenistic philosophy, our inheritance of “Jerusalem” would have sufficed. For if we had been given Moses without Socrates, we would still further the kingdom. If we had been given Isaiah without Plato, we would still flourish in our knowledge. If we had been given Jeremiah without Aristotle, we could still defend our faith. We have been given Christ, the founder and finisher of our faith. Therefore, I disagree with the premise that we are “children of the marriage of two cultures” (13). I would rather state that we as inheritors of a specific heritage have been given new tools with which to handle that heritage responsibly.

Reynolds, furthermore, states in the Introduction that, “trying to pry Athens and Jerusalem apart usually led to inconsistency and heresy” and that, “Jerusalem without Athens becomes a weird place” (17). To support these claims, Reynolds uses Tertullian as an example, but goes on to reveal that just as many fell into heresy because of the improper melding of the two schools of thought. I might also counter by stating that someone like Ezra –whose life overlapped with Socrates chronologically and who had no intimacy with “Athens” – committed no heresy, nor was he viewed as strange. Just because we view “Jerusalem” as being the source of religion does not mean it does not offer us an intellectual paradigm, albeit a Semitic rather than a Western model. Reynolds brings this to a head when he calls for the perspective of deeming Jerusalem-Athens as two districts of the same city rather than two cities. Again, I would rework the metaphor to be more like “Jerusalem” as the city and “Athens” as the Home Depot. While “Athens” has given us the tools to think in a clearer and more methodical manner, the veritable content of “Jerusalem” is well beyond comparison. To overstate the case of the “equal” heritage of Yahwistic religion and Hellenistic thought would be to marginalize Christ’s own disciples, conceivably even Jesus himself, and perhaps contemporary Semitic-thinking Messianics and other Eastern Christians, all of whom belong to “Christendom.”

The final chapter recreates the scene of Paul’s debate in the Aeropagus or on Mars Hills. Reynolds exposes Paul’s rhetorical skill and theological and philosophical savvy. In the end, Paul debunks both pagan mythology as well as the false claims of philosophy by speaking their language but interjecting a genuinely divine Referent. Given that Paul does not advocate a melding of the two but simply employs “Athens” to make a case for “Jerusalem,” Reynolds’ final chapter exposes the overly zealous projections of the Introduction. A Postscript wraps up and is excellent in its pursuit to give practical application to all the aforementioned material. Recommended reading lists of both primary and secondary sources follow.

This is an excellent book and I genuinely enjoyed reading it. Despite my concerns of overstating the prominence of our philosophical heritage in the book, it is a storehouse of wisdom, and I fully agree that we desperately need to rediscover our philosophical and intellectual heritage. The bulk of the book works very well as a companion to the primary sources of Plato and Aristotle. And the final chapter and Postscript put a solid and strongly Christian end cap on the book. I recommend this resource for all who are in need of a refresher on the importance of philosophical praxis in our Christian faith.

Cite this article
Aaron Hebberd, “When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:1 , 134-136

Aaron Hebberd

Reviewed by Aaron Hebberd, Theology and the Arts, Imago Dei College, Com-munity Christian College