Rethinking the Rethinking of Transcendence

In his recent article “Rethinking Transcendence,” Greg Boyd invites us to reconsider our understanding of divinity in light of God’s self-revelation in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ:

Consider, would it ever occur to anyone to think that God is “above” experiencing things sequentially, or that God is “above” experiencing any kind of change, if they anchored all their reflections about God in the Word who became flesh (Jn 1:14) and who then offered himself up on our behalf? And would it ever occur to anyone to imagine that God is “above” being affected by others and “above” experiencing passionate emotions or suffering if their thinking about God was consistently oriented around the one who suffered humiliation and death at the hands of wicked humans and fallen powers? I, for one, do not see how. The revelation of God on the cross runs directly counter to the divine attributes of the classical philosophical conception of God.

I used to preach along similar lines not too many years ago. I drank deeply at the theological wells of Robert W. Jenson, Jürgen Moltmann, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. I learned from them that an irresolvable conflict exists between the God of the Bible and the omnipotent, impassible, immutable deity of hellenistic philosophy. I learned from them that the Church Fathers, the very Fathers who taught us the doctrines of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation, allowed their philosophical apprehension of divinity to corrupt the clear teaching of the Scriptures. And I learned from them that the right preaching of the Crucified demands that we allow the biblical narrative to inform and radically transform our inherited notions of divinity. We must return to the purity of the gospel. I found it all quite compelling.

But over the past decade I have begun to critically reassess the de-hellenization project. Robert Sokolowski, Herbert McCabe, and David B. Hart have been particularly influential here, as well as my rediscovery of the early books of Eric L. Mascall. And then, of course, there has been my reading of the Church Fathers themselves. In their writings one sees brilliant theologians and preachers struggling to articulate a faithful understanding of the God made known in Jesus Christ. The more I read the Fathers, the less compelling I find the hellenization thesis of Jenson, Moltmann, and Pannenberg. The reality is more complex.

I have already touched on this topic in my article “Speculated God” and do not want to simply repeat myself here, but let me offer a quotation from patristics scholar Robert Louis Wilken which well expresses what I have come to believe:

The notion that the development of early Christian thought represented a hellenization of Christianity has outlived its usefulness. The time has come to bid a fond farewell to the ideas of Adolf von Harnack, the nineteenth-century historian of dogma whose thinking has influenced the interpretation of early Christian thought for more than a century. It will become clear in the course of this book that 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. Neither does it acknowledge the good and right qualities of Hellenic thinking that Christians recognized as valuable, for example, moral life understood in terms of the virtues. At the same time, one observes again and again that Christian thinking, while working within patterns of thought and conceptions rooted in Greco-Roman culture, transformed them so profoundly that in the end something quite new came into being. (The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, pp. xvi-xvii; my emphasis)

The oppositional contrast between the “God of the Bible” and the “Hellenistic God of the Church Fathers” simply will not do.  Faith and reason must not be divorced in this fashion (see Thomas Guarino, “Spoils from Egypt” and “Philosophia Obscurans?“). If the Fathers do not present divine passibility along Moltmannian lines, this is not because they thoughtlessly and uncritically appropriated the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, thereby subjecting the biblical understanding of God to alien speculative categories. The second-century formulation of the creatio ex nihilo and the fourth-century attribution of infinity to the triune Godhead contradict the popular notion of patristic enslavement to Greek philosophy. The Fathers knew the Scriptures inside and out, backwards and forwards; but they found that they could not responsibly restrict themselves to scriptural conceptuality and a surface reading of the biblical narrative when speaking of the Creator. They were charged by the mission of the gospel to think deeply, creatively, metaphysically about what it means for the one God to be both the transcendent Maker of heaven and earth and the incarnate Savior of mankind. Hellenistic philosophy provided the essential tools for this project, yet the Fathers were also well aware of the need to subordinate philosophy to the divine revelation.  As Origen wrote to St Gregory Thaumaturgos:

Thus, your natural good parts might make of you a finished Roman lawyer or a Greek philosopher, so to speak, of one of the schools in high reputation. But I am anxious that you should devote all the strength of your natural good parts to Christianity for your end; and in order to this, I wish to ask you to extract from the philosophy of the Greeks what may serve as a course of study or a preparation for Christianity, and from geometry and astronomy what will serve to explain the sacred Scriptures, in order that all that the sons of the philosophers are wont to say about geometry and music, grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy, as fellow-helpers to philosophy, we may say about philosophy itself, in relation to Christianity. Perhaps something of this kind is shadowed forth in what is written in Exodus from the mouth of God, that the children of Israel were commanded to ask from their neighbours, and those who dwelt with them, vessels of silver and gold, and raiment, in order that, by spoiling the Egyptians, they might have material for the preparation of the things which pertained to the service of God.

Hence I cannot too strongly urge teachers and students of theology to assess critically the hellenization thesis in light of the patristic, and even scholastic, teaching on God and Jesus Christ. In addition to the books already mentioned, I recommend the following:

Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture

Paul L. Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God

Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea

And this brings us back to the Boydian proposal to rethink transcendence …

(Go to “Crucifying Transcendence“)

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7 Responses to Rethinking the Rethinking of Transcendence

  1. Charles Twombly says:

    Love this essay, especially your words here: “But over the past decade I have begun to critically reassess the de-hellenization project. Robert Sokolowski, Herbert McCabe, and David B. Hart have been particularly influential here, as well as my rediscovery of the early books of Eric L. Mascall. And then, of course, there has been my reading of the Church Fathers themselves. In their writings one sees brilliant theologians and preachers struggling to articulate a faithful understanding of the God made known in Jesus Christ. The more I read the Fathers, the less compelling I find the hellenization thesis of Jenson, Moltmann, and Pannenberg. The reality is more complex and exciting.”

    Check out the lengthy Florovsky quote in my new book, page 35. Florovsky, among others, saw the coming together of the gospel and Hellenistic culture as providential. When (possible) heresies pushed early preaching towards the need for more precise definitions and discriminations, Christian thinkers hunted for available tools. My thought: both the coming of Christ and the flowering of Greek thought emerged “in the fullness of time,” the former “doing just fine, thank you” as for content until new issues and concerns were forced on it; the latter providing a way of spelling out and clarifying in helpful ways. Yes, “the reality is more complex and exciting.” Thanks!

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  2. I’m a bit of a neophyte but I’ll throw this out –
    It seems that Greg often loves to push the edge of the Crosscentric envelope in his theology and intentionally steers away from any ecclesiastical and or “Christopatonic” orthodox constructs, in order to extend the influence of the “Open View” – (thus some of the Omni’s come into question) I always enjoy the spiritual challenge his work incites. Paul lays it out clearly though in the “Carmen Christi” for example, that the triune nature of God is capable of change – emptying Himself, experiencing things sequentially as He grew in a human body, His journey of obedience to The Cross, emotions along the way, etc… If Paul and others used Koine Greek (via the Spirit) in the compilation of the NT epistles, then how can he [and we] escape the etymological foundations of Hellenism?

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  3. Phil Cary says:

    I agree that the Harnack-style Hellenization thesis is long outdated. And substantively, I think the church fathers were right to see Scripture as pointing towards a metaphysics of divine transcendence, immutability, omnipresence and incorporeality. Athens and Jerusalem do well to think together.

    The problem is that after a couple of centuries, Jerusalem’s voice wasn’t heard so well. That is to say, the problem isn’t the influx of Greek learning, but the loss of Israelite knowledge. Things that every first century Palestinian Jew knew were not known to Augustine or Gregory of Nyssa. Here people like N.T. Wright have a lot to teach us. The loss of the lore of Jewish knowledge in the Gentile church meant a loss of understanding of the New Testament and indeed of who Jesus is, as the fulfilllment of the promises to Israel.

    The troubling consequences of this loss are not to be located in the metaphysics of a transcendent God, but in the church’s failure to love Israel. The Christian metaphysics of transcendence is, in my view, largely a success story. Whereas the relationship of the Church to Israel is mostly something to repent of. And because we Christians have not loved what God loves (i.e., Israel, which Scripture calls the apple of his eye) we have not known Christ as well as we should.

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  4. MJH says:

    Reblogged this on the pocket scroll and commented:
    A defence of the traditional ways of looking at God that takes seriously the Church Fathers’ own commitment to Scripture.

    ‘The oppositional contrast between the “God of the Bible” and the “Hellenistic God of the Church Fathers” simply will not do. ‘

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  5. frthomas says:

    My two cents …. (Probably worth just about that much LOL)

    Transcendence is a “going beyond” and implies a kind of movement. It is what the material/passible aspect of the creation was created to be and do.
    The universe is not two-storey. The ground floor reserved for the material/passible and the second floor for the spiritual/impassible. The material is referential. Likewise, the spiritual incarnates. It is the way God designed it.

    Any oppositional or mutually exclusive conceptualization or presentation of the material/passible and the spiritual/impassible is, to put it bluntly, error.
    Transcendence is the movement of all things material/passible. This movement is not one that implies a negation but a fulfillment (the manifestation of identity).
    Likewise, the incarnation of the spiritual/impassible is a movement that in no way implies a negation but rather a fulfillment (the manifestation of identity).
    The union, is not a balance or equilibrium, for those terms implied that the two aspects are inherently oppositional or incompatible. No, the union material/passible and the spiritual/impassible aspects of all that is, can only be realized and lived out in the third place. The place of union “without confusion and without separation.”

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  6. frthomas says:

    Being content to stay on the surface and make it about an either/or between anthropomorphic (Hebrew) vs. philosophical (Greek), is to miss the elegant simplicity of how God uses all things to offer salvation in word and action. There is a much deeper continuity (providential work) that leavens our modes of understanding and articulation.

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