by Moses Hadas
The Philosophy of the Church Fathers. Volume I, Faith, Trinity, Incarnation. By Harry A. Wolfson. Harvard University Press. 635 pp. $10.00.
The most remarkable quality of this magisterial work is its purity. Here is a book which analyzes the philosophy: structure which the pioneer fashioners of Christian theology severally erected as a scaffolding for their sometimes discrepant beliefs, and it deals, in the course of its analysis, with such prickly themes as the Trinity and the Incarnation, and such prickly thinkers as St. Paul and Tertullian, to mention only a sample. Men have been so passionately attached to some of the propositions discussed in this work that they have been willing to die for them; and there were others ready enough to kill those who disagreed with these propositions. Our author maintains a neutral objectivity, and it is clear that the objectivity is effortless, for it never occurred to him to write otherwise.
The academic title blazoned in Professor Wolfson’s by-line (“Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy in Harvard University”) might suggest as his expected response a hearty curse or a heartier guffaw on both orthodox and heretic, or at least a wistful regret that so much intellectual and spiritual energy had been frittered away on casuistry as irrelevant to progress as year before last’s chess game. If such anticipations cross the reader’s mind, the author does nothing to fulfill them, unless it be that his miraculous lucidity in dealing with incredibly knotty subtleties deprives the reader of the comforting belief that these are ineffable profundities beyond his comprehension.
But what of Professor Wolfson’s own intellectual talent over the seven years of close application the writing of this book required? Has that not been frittered away? Far less than if he had espoused in his book one side, or condemned both. Here is the purest piety to scholarship—a pursuit of truth for the sake of understanding and for no other motive. The Church Fathers represent the main, indeed the only, vigorous stream of intellectual activity during the early centuries of our era. The scope and the processes of their thought need to be understood and expounded, and Professor Wolfson has taken the pains to understand them and make his understanding accessible to others.
The one objection that might be brought forward is that Philo may be credited with too large an influence on sundry Fathers. For the influence Professor Wolfson claims, he gives cogent philological arguments; I myself believe, and I think Wolfson does too, that the influence goes even further than he is willing to state. He has said elsewhere that between Philo and Spinoza there is no philosophy, and this pronouncement has been received with dismay by admirers of both Maimonides and Aquinas. But if philosophy is an unconstrained pursuit of truth, it must be so: between Philo and Spinoza there were thinkers of great subtlety and strength (as the Fathers whom this book treats were), in Judaism and Islam as well as in Christianity, but all were already in possession of paramount truth to which they could only make what they called philosophy a handmaiden. It is the handmaiden to which Wolfson has been devoting himself. He has already dealt with the ‘two termini of his span in palmary works, here we have the Church Fathers, and his next work, on the Kalam, is now well under way. (Still other works will follow to complete his projected “Structure and Growth of Philosophic Systems from Plato to Spinoza.”)
There are other senses in which Mr. Wolfson’s book is pure. His subject is thought, and he never falls into the error of substituting fox it, or even trimming it with, biography or history. The personalities involved might, indeed, not only enliven the story but suggest why certain positions came to be taken, and reference to social and political history would go far to explain why one position prevailed over another and what the practical consequences were. But then we should have a psychological or sociological or political but not an intellectual study. Such single-minded stripping away of everything other than the intellectual core is virtually unexampled in the field. That is why, and not because of arrogance or malfeasance, the documentation is almost wholly limited to the ancient sources, and refers to modern works only to indicate where a general and generally accepted Catholic or Protestant treatment is to be found. For anyone concerned with larger historical movements or with human personalities, the interest of the book is peripheral—unless be agrees that the essence of men’s humanity and of their history is their intellect.
Only with concentration on the intellectual is such a book as this possible, as Wolfson’s extraordinary working procedure shows. In the case of each author he strives to achieve a sense of the habit and cant of his mind; he then writes his account of the author, inserting at appropriate junctures, to make transitions in the argument, dummy quotations, some of which he dredges from memory in rough form but most of which he surmises must be found in a mind of such habit and direction; finally he proceeds to find actual passages to substitute for his dummies. The fact that he invariably does find them is demonstration that his understanding of the author has been correct. Alas, that the correctness of reconstructed lives, as opposed to minds, cannot be so convincingly demonstrated! The procedure is admirable—for a Wolfson dealing with his avatars.