Readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy have no doubt observed that over the past six months I have been preoccupied with questions that might be called philosophical, even metaphysical (yikes!). Why this interest? Blame it on the writings of David Bentley Hart, particularly his book The Experience of God. Hart has persuaded me that a rudimentary grasp of classical metaphysics is essential to the exposition of Christian doctrine. If you had asked me about the gospel and metaphysics 25 years ago, I would have told you that the biblical understanding of divinity had been distorted by the patristic appropriation of Greek philosophy. I would have referred you to theologians like Robert W. Jenson and Jürgen Moltmann and confidently talked about the temporality and passibility of deity and the need to evangelize metaphysics. Had not Adolf von Harnack taught modern theology that the original Jewish understanding of divinity had evaporated in the second century, only to be replaced by the God of Plato? Who in the New Testament claims that Jesus is homoousios with the Father? Biblical scholars and theologians alike have taken Harnack’s Hellenization thesis to heart and have sought to reconstruct authentic “biblical” theology, free from the corrupting influences of the Greek and Latin Fathers. We are confronted today by a plethora of books and articles proclaiming the temporal God, the suffering God, the open God and the process God. As some have discovered, once one takes this step, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold on to the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation. But surely that is a small price to pay, if that is what fidelity to the Scriptures requires.
This is not to say that all have embraced Harnack’s thesis of Hellenization. In 1971 the great Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan advanced a counter-thesis:
It is even more a distortion when the dogma formulated by the catholic tradition is described as “in its conception and development a work of the Greek spirit on the soil of the gospel” [Harnack]. Indeed, in some ways it is more accurate to speak of dogma as the “dehellenization” of the theology that had preceded it and to argue that “by its dogma the church threw up a wall against an alien metaphysic” [Elert]. For the development of both the dogmas of the early church, the trinitarian and the christological, the chief place to look for hellenization is in the speculations and heresies against which the dogma of the creeds and councils was directed. (The Christian Tradition, I:55)
In his wonderful book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (which I really need to re-read sometime soon), Robert Wilken submits “that the time has come to bid a fond farewell to the ideas of Adolf von Harnack.” Instead of speaking of the Hellenization of Christianity, it would be more accurate to speak of “the Christianization of Hellenism. … 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” (pp. xvi-xvii; see esp. Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture). Hart concurs. “Too often modern theologians erect a disastrous partition,” he complains, “between ‘biblical’ faith and theology’s chronic ‘Hellenism,’ as if the Bible were never speculative or as if hellenized Judaism did not provide the New Testament with much of its idiom; Hellenism is part of the scriptural texture of revelation, and theology without its peculiar metaphysics is impossible” (The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 32). In his incisive critique of the eschatological theology of Robert Jenson, Hart goes so far as to suggest that some form of Platonism may be essential to the doctrinal exposition of the gospel:
Jenson most definitely comes from that Protestant tradition that has long deplored (without doubting the historical necessity of) the alliance struck between the theology of the early Church and “Hellenism”—or, to be more precise, “Platonism.” But there is another venerable school of thought that still regards this alliance as definitive and indissoluble, and is therefore predisposed to view that part of Protestant tradition that Jenson represents as misguided and destructive. After all, it is arguable that ‘Hellenism’ is already an intrinsic dimension of the New Testament itself and that some kind of ‘Platonism’ is inseparable from the Christian faith. In short, many theologians view the development of Christian metaphysics over the millennium and a half leading to the Reformation as perfectly in keeping with the testimony of Scripture, and ‘Hellenized’ Christianity as the special work of the Holy Spirit—with which no baptized Christian may safely break. To such theologians, the alliance struck in much modern dogmatics between theology and German idealism is a far greater source of concern than any imagined ‘Greek captivity’ of the Church. (“The Lively God of Robert Jenson“)
And that brings me back to my current reading. At the present I am reading a couple of books by the contemporary Thomist philosopher W. Norris Clarke—specifically, The One and the Many, Explorations in Metaphysics, and The Philosophical Approach to God. Not to worry—I won’t be blogging on these at length or over a long period of time! (Big sigh of relief.) But do expect one or two (maybe three) short articles on Clarke over the next week or so.
Please be patient, friends. This too will end. Maybe. Probably. Why wasn’t I taught this stuff in seminary‽