Those Darn Greeks: Metaphysics and the Hellenization of the Gospel

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 ManyExplorations 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‽

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9 Responses to Those Darn Greeks: Metaphysics and the Hellenization of the Gospel

  1. Mike H says:

    Think NT Wright would be characterized as one who is dismayed at the “hellenization of Christianity”?


  2. Heb. 1:3 actually talks about the Son being “the engraving of the Father’s substance”
    ὃς ὢν ἀπαύγασμα τῆς δόξης καὶ χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως αὐτοῦ

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Robert Fortuin says:

    Right on. Thinks silly me this topic is of profound biblical, theological and dogmatic interest. Keep on going – a return is neither necessary nor desired.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Stuart says:

    Enjoying it all! No apologies required. Your perspective and knowledge far exceeds mine and I enjoy the stretch of thinking; so and keep it coming.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. John H says:

    Keep being metaphysical and Greek, Father. And I am looking forward to the completion of your profound meditations on Eliot’s Four Quartets as well!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. John burnett says:

    Hi father.

    You know, in the 50s or 60s, or probably even in the 70s in many places, you doubtless would have been taught this stuff in the seminary— i was even taught it in Catholic high school, in fact. Well— or at least i enjoyed philosophical theology and taking off from our religion classes, i spent a lot of extracurricular time reading Gilson, Maritain, de Lubac and so forth in those days. And lately i’ve been rediscovering Gilson a bit, and he’s still pretty good. But they were very popular, and Thomas was de rigeur. But things change, and i’m glad i had that chance to think-through our notions of God in terms of the logic of “being”.

    But i’m afraid my burning conviction over the past 20 years or so— burning ever more as time goes on, in fact— is that Harnack was largely right: the Church’s originally Jewish understanding of divinity did evaporate in the second century, and was replaced by that of Plato, and perhaps even more of Aristotle. And if this was already true even for the early fathers, it was true on a whole new level for the Scholastics and for everybody who followed after them, which included the Greeks and the Russians after the 1700s, so now Orthodoxy too.

    Now, to be sure, I haven’t read Harnack, nor do i really have plans to do so, so i’m not agreeing or disagreeing with anything else that he said, but i wanted to comment on that one idea as you relate it. For anyone who studies biblical theology today simply cannot but be struck by the fact that we do in fact no longer think in biblical terms. And i mean this both philosophico-theologically as well as spiritually and liturgically. And it’d good to explore why that is, and what its implications are.

    Let me start with a case in point: In my edition of the Menaion, the hymnography for January 1, the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, runs for nineteen pages. If you remove all the material about St Basil (celebrated on the same day), hymnography regarding the Circumcision would comprise maybe six of those pages. So already that tells you St Basil, who composed a liturgy and played a key role in the christological controversies, is more important to us than the biblical event of Christ’s circumcision. Don’t we in fact feel a little squeamish about this feast and wonder why we even mention it? But more significantly than the imbalance between Basil and the Circumcision— except for reading at Great Vespers of the paragraph about the covenant of circumcision with Abraham (Genesis 17), you would look in vain for any mention of the Covenant with Abraham— or for any mention of covenant at all, for that matter— on this feast of Christ’s becoming a “son of the Covenant”!

    But wasn’t that the point of the circumcision? Abraham— and even more, the foundational scriptural notion of covenant itself— simply aren’t on the radar in Orthodoxy, as they were, for example, for St Paul. What we find in the hymnography is some material about how the Giver of the Law submitted to the Law (and for us it’s always “Law”, as in the Septuagint; not “Torah”, a Hebrew word that does not mean “Law” but “Teaching”), as a figure of the incarnation itself and of Christ’s obedience; a reflection on the pain of circumcision as a figure of the passion; and a somewhat pauline view of circumcision as a figure of cutting off the passions. I wouldn’t take issue with any of that, but such typologies have manifestly replaced the meaning that circumcision had for the Old Testament and for St Paul, which was precisely the Covenant with Abraham and the mark of Jewish identity!

    So, given that the Covenant with Abraham is the foundation of the whole of salvation history both for the Old Testament and for the New— and especially for St Paul— a student of the Bible might indeed feel justified in thinking with Harnack that the Church’s awareness has shifted a bit since Paul sent Phoebe to Rome with his dissertation on the relation between those he called “the circumcision” and the gentiles.

    Well, but that’s the point, isn’t it?— the relation between Jews and gentiles ceased to be much of an issue the First Jewish Revolt brought about a hardening of their positions with respect to each other, and indeed was hardly an issue in places where very few Jews were to be found in any case. So it was natural that the Israel-dimension of Paul’s letter and indeed of the rest of Scripture would fade into oblivion for the Christian Church, and the Bible come to be exploited instead for answers to the metaphysical questions that the Greeks (and other Greek-trained gentiles) were asking. I get that, and it wasn’t (as far as it went) a bad thing, and certainly it was necessary!

    But today I think we have a greater need, especially in the Orthodox Church, to rediscover Scripture in its own terms. The extreme anti-Semitism of traditionally Orthodox countries is a denunciation of how deeply we have forgotten not only what Paul was talking about in Romans 11.16-18 (for example), but of its significance as well—

    …If the root is holy, so are the branches. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree— do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.

    More specifically, we need not only to rediscover that God began with the Jews, but also to start thinking again in Paul’s terms— that is, in terms of the categories in which Scripture expresses itself— and not so much (these days) in terms of Aristotle’s reflection on “being”.

    Why? Because the world has changed, and our situation is more like the first century than the 13th. Covenant, land, people, Temple, Israel; face, house, the Other, and so forth— these, rather than “being”, “procession”, “essence”, and so forth— bring us to the real issues that face us today.

    One factor in all this, important for evangelism and mission, is that the Bible’s categories are portable, whereas the refined metaphysics of the homoousios, the filioque, and related terms are well-nigh incomprehensible to the vast majority of Christians. If you don’t believe me, try teaching the metaphysics of the Trinity to Africans— or to the average parishioner in Los Angeles County. Even among those who think they’re “supposed” to know this stuff (but don’t), you’ll very quickly get to the question, “But remind me again how and why this is important?” Because as one of my African students said, with bracing directness— “But Brother John! We Africans just don’t think this way!”

    By calling the Scripture’s categories “portable” i mean they’re easy to grasp because they belong primarily to a narrative structure (the one provided by the Bible), and narratives are easy to take with you. This was their original purpose, and the biblical narrative provides natural categories readily available to the average human being, as a basis for practical reflection and action. But when we seek to evangelize, or to teach sunday school, before we develop and encourage reflection and action on those primary biblical categories, we tend usually to talk about how you get “saved” and “go to heaven when you die”, about the Three Persons, the Two Natures, and the Virgin Birth, and even about “theosis”. We’re “Orthodox” because we talk about salvation in terms of Trinity and Incarnation, rather than penal substitution. But the last thing we are is biblical. In fact i can always tell if i’m leading a bible discussion among Orthodox people because the Orthodox never bring their bibles!

    But outside the biblical context, the Trinity is basically inexplicable. Our dogma was the result of Hellenistic reflection on the apostolic experience of Jesus as it is conveyed in the Scriptures. And the apostolic experience had to do with who Jesus was to Israel, and not at all with something called “Trinity” or “Incarnation”; still less with “going to heaven”! So, what we teach is no longer the answer to the question the Bible asks, which is the question about Israel’s experience with her God in “the desert of the nations” (Ezekiel 20.35), and where Jesus fit into that; it’s the answer to rather abstract questions about morality, metaphysics, and sacraments, and when it comes to narrative, we tend to talk about “the holy elders”.

    And by the way, when it comes to mission, people accept that the Bible is, or anyway should be authoritative, at least for Christians, so they tend to be open to a good discussion of the Bible. But they don’t start out with the view that Orthodoxy is authoritative, so if we start with Nicea rather than Abraham, we make evangelization into a lot more work for ourselves and for the Holy Spirit than it needs to be!

    But more importantly, while it’s hard for a mother with three kids to think of why the homoousios matters, but covenant, on the other hand— the eternal covenant with creation, her marriage covenant, the social covenant (well, i might wish we still had one, eh?!)— covenant is everywhere, and it only needs to be brought to mind in order to see its practical and deeply theological importance— at the grocery store, at home, on the highway, at work, anywhere.

    You mention that

    Theologians and biblical scholars alike have taken Harnack’s Hellinization thesis to heart and have sought to reconstruct an authentic “biblical” theology, excising the corrupting influences of the Greek and Latin Fathers. We are confronted today by a plethora of books 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.

    In my estimation, such a confusion of different gods, with attendant difficulties regarding Trinity and Incarnation, while understandable, comes from having only half-fled the hellenism they abhor, and from a deep and pervasive biblical ignorance, endemic still even among Important Professors At Major Institutions.

    Precisely because “the biblical understanding of divinity had been distorted by the patristic appropriation of Greek philosophy”, as you put it, hardly anyone even among top scholars can easily recognize the patterns of allusion and and intertext in the New Testament. Yet as we become aware of these again (and thank God for Bible software like Accordance or Logos!), we cannot but recognize that all of the New Testament writers unquestionably identified Jesus with Yhwh the God of Israel, even if they did so in exclusively biblical terms, and not in the Greek philosophical categories with which we’re more familiar. On the topic of how the New Testament writers understood Jesus, Richard B. Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Baylor, 2016) is particularly instructive. Once you click to what Mark was saying about Jesus when he described him as “walking on the sea as if to pass by” (Mark 6.48), recognizing here the echo of Job’s description of God— “who alone … walked upon the waves of the sea as on dry land… he passes by me, and I see him not” (Job 9.8,11 LXX)— then it becomes crystal clear how the language of homoousios and all the rest was necessitated precisely by the apostles’ testimony once the Greeks started asking questions about it, for you see that in fact the homoousios was the logical outcome of the apostolic testimony especially after Israel had faded into the background and the questions of person and relation came to the fore.

    And the fact is, the actual lineaments of the apostolic witness have faded. Yet like a palimpsest, they’re still there, and it turns out that the apostles’ question— “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk 24.21)— one that asked about who Jesus was in terms of what Israel was— is the key to understanding what the Church is today.

    For unless we grasp how God set forth, beginning with Abraham, to restore through Israel the blessing that Adam lost for all creation, we will never understand what Paul was arguing in Romans (especially as he comes to rest in chapter 8), about how we are brought in to God’s covenant, and about the nature of salvation itself. And failing to understand that, we will certainly misunderstand what the Church itself is, and substitute for it all kinds of fantasies like “the Byzantine Empire” or “Holy Russia” or some such, in all kinds of ways that mostly benefit the only actually existing Empire that “God’s regime” (Mark 1.14-15) is meant to overcome and supersede.

    On a related note you might enjoy having a look at Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge, 2012). Hazony is more interested in political philosophy than in metaphysics, but he sees the Hebrew Bible as exploring the nature of the moral and political order in a publicly accessible and debatable way, just as the Greek philosophers did. For the biblical writers, history (not metaphysics) is the definitive category, but they are no less philosophical than Plato. By placing their particular experience in history within the larger story of the cosmos, the Jews sought to teach the universal, paradigmatic significance of their journey with God in the desert of the nations, and to communicate their sense of why God had called Abraham, and hence themselves, and of what that meant for the human race. Hazony’s discussion of the New Testament in relation to this— with which i don’t 100% agree— is very thought-provoking as well.

    (Btw, in your blog post, shouldn’t the last word of that Pelikan quote be ‘directed’, not ‘direction’?)

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  7. I forgot to mention earlier–
    I think these scholars complaining about the Hellenisation of Christianity tend to think of it as a “de-Judaising” of Christianity completely missing out on the Gospel message that there is neither Jew nor Greek (Gal. 3:28).
    Jesus was rejected by both Jewish and Hellenist leaders and so it was necessary for him to start a movement. A movement that had to break from traditionally Jewish policies (or rather go back to the traditionally Jewish policies which the Jewish leaders rejected). So parts of Hellenism were brought in (or rather held as being consistently Jewish) as the rejection of the Jewish leaders also.
    Any way, I hope someone can comment to explain what I mean by what I just wrote.


  8. malcolmsnotes says:

    Funny you mention Clarke. I just wrote a short article about his view of God’s foreknowledge.


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