“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.

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Posted by Kevin White

9 Comments

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Achtung Aeon, John Bell. John Bell said: Christianity and Hellenism, Part 1 of 3 (mereorthodoxy.com) http://feedzil.la/bxCjWf […]

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  2. Kevin: Welcome to Mere-O. I, too, have noticed this peculiar anxiety among Christians in late modernity who think the church has swallowed Hellenism hook, line, and Plato with the ensuing mandate to de-Hellenize. You rightly claim the church fathers discriminately used Greek philosophical and rhetorical tools. Here’s one of my favorite examples. In On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine appropriates the Stoic notion of “seminal reasons” (rationes seminales) to explain the doctrine of creation. Alister McGrath writes:

    Augustine’s basic argument is that God created the world complete with a series of dormant multiple potencies, which were actualized in the future through divine providence. Where some might think of creation in terms of God’s insertion of new plants and animals ready-made, as it were, into an already-existing world, Augustine rejects this as inconsistent with the overall witness of Scripture. Rather, God must be thought of as creating in that very first moment the potencies for all the kinds of living things that would come later, including humanity.

    It’s not surprising, then, that McGrath employs Augustine’s theological lens to harmonize the Book of Nature, as understood through evolutionary biology, and the Book of Scripture.

    What’s your vocational aspiration after you earn your PhD in church history? Would you like to teach in a seminary or Christian liberal arts school? Or, do you plan on working in a ministry or church context?

    Reply

    1. I lean strongly towards teaching in a seminary, but I would also be quite happy teaching in a liberal arts school. I have no illusions about the job market for young professors, so the magic word is flexibility.

      Reply

      1. Christopher Benson October 27, 2010 at 3:30 pm

        Kevin: Would you prefer teaching at an evangelical or mainline seminary? Any top choices? I’d be interested in hearing your evaluation of the MAR at Yale. The MA in Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California intrigues me. One final question: were you aware that Augustine appropriated the Stoic notion of rationes seminales for his doctrine of creation? I recently discovered this while reading McGrath’s A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology (Gifford Lectures).

        Reply

  3. Hi Kevin

    I have begun to take a peek at the Puritans and what I’ve learned so far has challenged a number of my assumptions about origins of some of the ideas of what I consider to be modern Christian cults, or whatever you call these restorationist movement groups. The Puritans had anti-Hellenist views. Can you comment on the depth of these beliefs witin Puritanism? Thanks!

    Reply

  4. Mark,

    That would be a whole other post, really. And a little bit of extra research. Just keep in mind: (1) Puritan is a bit of a catch-all term, and usually not a self-identification. It covered everything from imitators of the Magisterial Reformers to fringy antitrinitarians. Look at New England: Puritan settlers were almost as likely to try to build up Plato’s Republic as they were to found the New Jerusalem.(2) In the context of early Protestantism, “Aristotle” was a shorthand. An attack on “Aristotle” was not generally an attack on all forms of Greek philosophy, or even a rejection of Aristotelian logic or rhetoric. It was a critique of certain errors of Medieval theology, especially in its use of metaphysics. A common error for modern readers is to miss that, to misread the shorthand for a direct reference to classical philosophy. But, if I go any further I shall have to research up a new post and perhaps a new little series.

    Reply

  5. Kevin

    Sorryfor late response. I’m out of town on my iPhone. I appreciate your insightful comments. I’m most intrigued by the comment that they were as likely to be trying for Plato’s Republic as a Christian primitivist ideal. That surprises me. Can you think of a source Where could I read about this?

    Reply

  6. I don’t have a good specific reference off the top of my head, but try looking up the founding of the New Haven colony. That was the example I had in mind.

    Reply

  7. Myrrdin Wyllt May 1, 2021 at 10:00 am

    In short, Christians appropriated Greco-Roman and Norse culture, desecrated it, and claimed it for themselves.

    I fail to see how that in any way is honourable.

    Reply

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