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“)