For some time now, one of the main charges made against the early Church Fathers and the Medievals has been that in translating the gospel to their Greek contemporaries, they ended up altering (or disfiguring) it. Or at least in part. This kind of thing usually comes up most with respect to the doctrine of God. The idea is that in order to make the gospel intellectually respectable, or simply because they couldn’t recognize their own presuppositions, the Fathers constructed their doctrine of God in ways that were dependent more on principles of Greek philosophy, rather than based on the picture of God given to us in the Israel’s Scriptures. On this view, speech about an “impassible” and “immutable” God has less to do with the God of Jesus, than with Aristotelian or Platonic ideas about apatheia and so forth. Typically this has been dubbed the “Hellenization thesis.”
Now, this was an extremely popular charge over the last century or so, especially among those looking to ditch some old doctrines, and reconceive God along other lines. It’s still quite popular today, at least among the bloggerati as well. When you want to retool something, or reframe it differently than it’s been taught for a few hundred years, or longer, it’s usually good to have a story for why people used to teach something, and why we need to move on from it. A story of unfortunate corruption and decay fits the bill quite nicely.
I bring all this up because Michael Allen had a great post over at the Zondervan Academic blog, “Common Places”, on the way the Hellenization Thesis needs to be put to bed. I quite agree. Allen goes about showing the way it’s been dispatched by more careful historical and theological work of late. To summarize the situation, he quotes Robert Louis Wilken:
“The notion that the development of early Christian thought represented a Hellenization of Christianity has outlived its usefulness … a more apt expression would be the Christianization of Hellenism, though that phrase does not capture the originality of Christian thought nor the debt owed to Jewish ways of thinking and to the Jewish Bible.”
From what I’ve read of the literature, which admittedly is limited, that sounds about right. Allen then goes on to make a number of helpful suggestions about the way theologians ought to adjust to life after the death of the Hellenization thesis, all of which are worth your time. It’s dying in academia, but in the popular theological mind it still stalks about like a ghost clinging to life among the living.
Most people often don’t have the time to do the specialized studies of the Fathers and the Medievals to demonstrate this, however. So, I thought it might be helpful to note briefly a few ways of responding, or thinking about the “Greek” charge when coming across it popularly.
“Prove it”, or The Genetic Fallacy. The first is to note simply that many forms of the “Greek” charge are a form of the genetic fallacy. In other words, the assumption is that because an idea came from a Greek source, it is therefore unbiblical and false. But just because Aristotle came up with an idea, it by no means follows that the idea isn’t true. It still has to be demonstrated according to Scripture that some Greek idea is incompatible with the gospel. In other words, “Prove it.”
Two Biblical doctrines ought to give us pause in connection with this. First, is the doctrine of the Image of God. Without getting into the issue of natural revelation or the possibility of natural theology, despite the fall, humans can still get some reasoning done. It’s not salvific, or anything, but it’s still there. Second, is the doctrine of common grace. God gives out good gifts to both Jew and Greek, Christian and non-Christian, by his mercy and the common work of the Spirit in creation. The fall has corrupted our knowledge of God, and every philosophical principle needs to be held up to the light of Scripture, but we shouldn’t be too surprised when some of them lineup.
Jesus Has Layers – Closely related to this is an idea forwarded by some that the intellectual interaction between Biblical revelation and Greek philosophy was a good part of God’s providential ordering. Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has written about the critical role the attempts of the early Greek apologists played in the project of making the gospel intelligible and plausible to non-Jews. Gentile like us shouldn’t so quickly turn on the very principles that played such a significant role in their own conversion (ST: Vol 1, pg. 72).
C.S. Lewis wrote positively in Miracles about the way certain Greek philosophizing could “cleanup” biblical imagery without substantially changing, or weakening it. Indeed, it seems not improbable that God had a design in mind for the clash and encounter of Hellenistic and Biblical thought. Biblical truth is thick, with many layers.
Some theologians have made the point that it’s quite possible that with each new culture and thought form Christian theology encounters, more dimensions to the unchanging revelation of God will unfold. It’s not that the truth changes, mind you. It is that with each new culture and life situation, the same earth-shattering gospel of Christ crucified, risen, and reigning speaks to the particular problems and paradigms of those people in a new way. The meaning is the same, but it’s significance and implications expand.
It could be that the interaction of the Jewish-shaped gospel with the Greek intellectual culture brought out some of the implications inherent in the message itself. Jesus has always had surprising layers and depths to him. Is it really so hard to believe that Greek Christians managed to discover some enduring ones?
Soli Deo Gloria