When Athens Met Jerusalem

John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009). $22.00, 266 pages.

When Athens Met Jerusalem by John Mark Reynolds begins and ends at the Areopagus, where Paul famously disputed with a group of Athenian philosophers (Acts 17:16-34). In between, it takes us on a whirlwind tour of Greek philosophy, surveying the pre-Socratics (chapter 1); Socrates (chapter 2); Plato (chapters 3-7); Aristotle (chapters 8-9); and the neo-Platonists, Epicureans, and Stoics (chapter 10). The stated purpose of this tour? To tell “the story of Greek philosophy and how it helped prepare the way for Christendom,” by which Reynolds means, “Christ’s kingdom.”

Some Christian readers doubt whether such a tour is necessary. Like the third-century Christian Tertullian, they ask, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy [of Plato] and the Church?” This is a good question. In the first few centuries of the church, followers of the philosophies Reynolds surveys were often critical of Christianity, when not outright rivals to it. One thinks here especially of Gnosticism, which was a religious popularization of neo-Platonism and for centuries a thorn in the side of orthodox Christianity. Sympathy for Athens thus seems like sympathy for the devil. And more generally it’s not clear how easily open-ended dialogue sits with divine revelation, the former assuming that answers are yet to be discovered while the latter that they have already been uncovered.

But Reynolds perseveres. On the one hand, he points out that much of Christian thought is simply incomprehensible without knowledge of classical philosophy. Philosophy provided the vocabulary and conceptual tools by means of which the church fathers articulated the faith in their own day and age. On the other hand, philosophy laid out the problems for which Christianity offered the best solutions. The philosophers Reynolds surveys uniformly deplored the Delphic religion of their age, in which the gods were arbitrary and irrational tyrants and reality at bottom was simply “chaos and dark night.” How to explain the orderliness of the cosmos as well as the possibility of moral agency? How to provide political unity without sacrificing liberty to tyranny? The philosophers couldn’t offer a definitive answer. Christ could and did. Or so Reynolds argues.

In my judgment, Reynolds does a better job outlining Athens’ problems than providing Jerusalem’s answers. His five chapters on Plato, for example, are a masterful introduction to that philosopher’s dialogues. Indeed, if the measure of a good introduction is that it fires the reader’s desire to consume the original works, then Reynolds’ book must be judged a success, for I wanted to go right out and read (or re-read) each and every one of Plato’s works. Reynolds’ chapters on Aristotle, the neo-Platonists, Stoics, and Epicureans are less interesting, perhaps because he has less interesting material to work with. Still, one gets a keen sense of the intellectual problematics of Greek philosophy by reading Reynolds’ book.

By contrast with his extensive discussion of Athens’ problems, Reynolds’ discussion of Jerusalem’s solutions seems perfunctory and dogmatic. Reynolds is professor of philosophy at Biola University, an evangelical Christian school. An in-depth case can be made for how Christ pointed to the solution of Greek intellectual problems. And perhaps Reynolds will make that case in a future book. My point is that he has not made it here, at least not to my satisfaction, and certainly not in the same depth as his treatment of Athens’ philosophies. The subtitle of When Athens Met Jerusalem is “An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought.” That description of the book is only half right, in my opinion.

But perhaps it is too much to ask of an author that he accomplish such an immense task in a single book. So, honor where honor is due: Reynolds has written an excellent introduction to Greek philosophy for students and interested laypeople. It succeeds in describing both Greek philosophy and the intellectual problems for which Christian theologians of the patristic era offered solutions. I heartily recommend this book, and I eagerly await another one from Reynolds focusing on patristic solutions.

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