“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”
That was the question raised by Tertullian at the end of the second century. At the beginning of the twentieth, Adolf von Harnack tried to identify the pure kerygma buried beneath layers of borrowed Greco-Roman ideas. (He mainly found some good ethics.)
At present, it is really easy to find people decrying the great and supposedly distorting influence of Hellenistic thought on early Christian teachings. Sometimes it is a mere cheap shot, one that gets the opposition sputtering and defensive. Often, however, it is an honest misunderstanding, a product of simplistic analysis, an overreliance on conventional wisdom, or following the cues of highly respected authorities–authorities who are mistaken on this point.
I’m really not picking on any one camp by going after this common error. I could easily turn this post into a dirty hit piece on a very diverse range of targets. Don’t believe me? Let’s see:
I could make a cheap shot at the Emergent Church.
Some Christian home-school groups.
Or even good old Bishop Spong!
I could go on. (*cough*DAN BROWN!*cough*) I’ve seen simplistic claims about the influence of Greek thought on Christianity from every corner. Left, right, and center. Academic and popular. In high-quality and in low-quality works. It’s one of the natural stock religious arguments of our age. In the sixteenth century, everyone linked their opponents’ views to atheism or sophistry. In our age, it’s usually Gnosticism, the Enlightenment, or Hellenism.
That is not to say that Christians in the early centuries didn’t make heavy use of Greek philosophy and literature in their preaching and theologizing. They certainly did. The Father saw it fit to send the Son to the world at a time and a place that was dominated by an international Hellenistic culture. It is therefore natural that the early fathers would use Greek tools when faced with the task of explaining and exploring Christian doctrine.
But it is important to remember that they used those tools in a discriminating way. Athanasius, in On the Incarnation, described God the Son as the eternal Logos, the framer and mover of the universe. Those images draw heavily from Platonic thought. Yet, in the same text, he lists the overthrow of Greek philosophy as one of Christ’s victories. He was like the legendary Boniface, the Apostle of the Germans, who cut down Thor’s Oak and used the wood to build a church.
So, while the early Christians used Greek philosophical and rhetorical tools, they generally reshaped those tools and used them in a careful way.