June 01, 2004

A simple philosophy

I'm still making my way, slowly, through Constantine and Eusebius by Timothy D. Barnes, which is a fascinating read. At one point, he notes,

A Platonic philosopher writing about 300 prefaced a critique of Manichean doctrines with some observations on the state of Christianity which presumably reflect conditions in that city. He characterized Christianity as a simple philosophy, chiefly devoted to ethical instruction, which tells ordinary people how to behave and thus inculcates genuine virtue, piety, and desire for the good. He complained, however, that Christianity lacked a proper theoretical basis, either for theology or in ethics. Since they had no agreed basis for deciding theological issues, the leaders of sects sought novelty for its own sake, thereby converting a simple philosophy into something hopelessly complicated and ineffectual.

The philospher in question was Alexander of Lycopolis, a footnote tells us, and his work was Critique of the doctrines of Manichaeus. I was reminded of this quote from Erasmus, albeit about the Arian heresy:

You will not be damned if you do not know whether the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son has one or two beginnings, but you will not escape damnation, if you do not cultivate the fruits of the Spirit which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, long-suffering, mercy, faith, modesty, continence, and chastity ... The sum of our religion is peace and unanimity, but these can scarcely stand unless we define as little as possible, and in many things leave one free to follow his own judgment, because there is great obscurity in many matters, and man suffers from this almost congenital disease that he will not give in when once a controversy is started, and after he is heated he regards as absolutely true that which he began to sponsor quite casually...

The characterization raises numerous questions on my mind -- the notion of the pursuit of novelty by sects leaves open the question of whether Alexander considered all believers to be in sects or whether he saw sects as diverging from a mainstream -- but I suppose that and other queries can't be answered without tracking down the book.

Posted by Ideofact at June 1, 2004 11:52 PM

I've swiped the second half of that quote for my quotes sidebar. Thanks!

Posted by: Gary Farber at June 7, 2004 05:38 PM

My pleasure.

Posted by: Bill at June 8, 2004 01:39 AM