Influence of Greek Philosophy on the development of Christianity

“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (Tertullian) Discuss the relationship between Christian theology and Greek philosophy, with particular reference to the 2nd century apologists.

It was Tertullian who asked the question, ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ querying the influence of Greek philosophy on the development of Christianity. Greek philosophy definitely had a major impact on that development, an impact which can even be seen in the writings of Tertullian himself, as will be seen in the discussion below.   What Tertullian was really objecting to is what is known as ‘syncretism’ – effectively a synthesis of a new way of thinking resulting from the enculturation of the message preached into the culture of the ‘preached unto’.

 

Syncretism of religion was not a new thingThe land of Israel had become thoroughly embedded in the Greek speaking culture of the wider area for a long time.[1]  That many Jews would have spoken Greek in preference to Aramaic or Hebrew is evidenced by the Septuagint, a translation of Hebrew scripture into Greek, published in the third century BC.[2]..  Among those Jews who spoke Greek there would have been some who were quite highly educated, these would have been tutored in Greek history and literature, that Greek thinking was becoming endemic in educated Jewish thinking would not be surprising.

That Greek influence on Jewish thinking is most noticeably shown in the writings of Philo, a Jew of Alexandria who ‘sought to interpret the Scriptures by reference to the most advanced and sophisticated systems of thought of the times, which were those of Greek philosophy.’ [3]  in his understanding of theology he related most strongly to Platonism, his understanding of ethics was based on Stoicism.  His clearest linking of Judaism to philosophy was in the use of the term ‘logos’, a Greek word for ‘word’ or ‘reason’ but also used by Philo in relation to God’s word of creation in Genesis, a concept later used by St John in the beginning of his Gospel.  Philo’s work was never really developed within the Rabbinic tradition which developed in Judaism after the destruction of the temple but he was contemporary with Jesus and was ‘foundational for the development of Christian theology’[4].

We can see the beginnings of enculturation of the Christian message into the norms of Greek society in the epistles of Paul, some of which are generally agreed to have been written by St Paul himself and others are either disputed or generally thought to have been written after it is generally presumed that Paul had died.  Discussing the theological differences between the letters, Borg & Crossman[5] described the Paul of the genuine letters as the ‘radical Paul’ and the later letters as having been written by, respectively, the reactionary, or conservative Paul:   ‘…the radical Paul opposed – and the conservative and reactionary “Pauls” accept – the normalcy of Roman hierarchy in its most obvious social expressions.  This is our first insight into how radical equality within Pauline Christian theology opposes and replaces the normal hierarchy within Roman imperial theology.  And the tragedy is that the Paul of the post-Pauline tradition is not only Deradicalized; he is Romanized.[6]

Philosophy had developed as a way of thinking in Greece, and areas under Greek control over a period of some centuries leading up to Tertullian’s time.  Philosophy had established the practice of questioning everything, but examining in particularly the nature of man’s existence and the world within which he exists.

A variety of different schools of thought had been established but there were two main strands which were of importance to Christianity because they had qualities which suggested that their adherents might already be predisposed toward conversion. By the end of the period of Greek philosophising there were two main strands of thought: Platonism and Stoicism.  Plato’s philosophy posited that the objects of our world all depended on ideal ‘forms’ of those objects which were not in existence in our world,  he continued this thinking into more abstract concepts which brought him to a ‘Form’ of goodness which we might understand as God.  He also discusses a creator-God who creates by bringing order into chaos.[7]  Stoicism placed ethics in the context of an understanding of the world as a whole, with reason being paramount both in human behaviour and in the divinely ordered cosmos.’[8]

One of the strongest proponents of philosophy as a way of understanding and theologising Christianity was Justin Martyr.  He had studied with a variety of philosophic teachers before becoming converted to Christianity.  He had been consistently disappointed in his studies until he came to Platonism,  and then converted to Christianity.  ‘Justin’s journey was complete.  His clinching point..’ Was that the wisdom of the prophets was older than that of the Greeks, and in an age which was inclined to see oldest as best, this was the most promising argument open to any exponent of the new faith in Christ.’ ’[9]

Justin was concerned to make Christian teaching comprehensible to potential Greek-thinking converts and made use of Platonism in explaining it: ‘Some contemporary Platonism was theistic.  It retained belief in an absolute transcendent unchanging God, but it postulated a secondary ‘divine mind’ which mediated existence to the world.  ..So Justin himself asserts that God is totally beyond description, unchanging, not in any place, as well as totally good.  The God of the Bible, who acts and reacts within the world, who appears and intervenes (who is ‘immanent‘) is a distinct being – his Word or Son.’  [10]

Here Justin is, as Philo and St John had done before him, using the word ‘Logos’: ‘The title ‘Word’ or Logos … is the means by which God achieves things and makes himself known.  In philosophy it stood for the rational principle – not only of articulate speech, but also of all thought and of the rational  order of the universe.’[11]

Justin is therefore saying that whenever God appears in the Bible as an active participant then it is not God the Father who is acting but Jesus, his son acting as Logos.  This would have been much easier to accept among Greeks whose previous ideas of God were either the distant, passionless deity described by Plato, or the deities of their mythology who could be described as ‘fickle, jealous and quarrelsome’.[12]

Justin wasn’t the only writer who was supporting the idea of viewing Christianity through Platonic eyes.  Clement and Origen were both a little later than Justin but contemporaneous with Tertullian.  They both addressed the need that ‘to survive in the Graeco-Roman world it [Christianity] would need to develop a philosophy and literature which could challenge the reigning culture.[13]  Both Clement and Origen wrote in Platonic terms.

 

Tertullian was the first Christian writer to write in Latin and seems to have had a point of view which stood out against the general direction of Christian thought.  Perhaps, being more Roman than Greek, he was not addressing the same issues in those to whom he preached.  In general he claimed to be against the use of philosophy in Christian thought but in fact he often used Stoic thinking; his real problem was that he objected to Platonism, in particular he objected to the way it was influencing Christianity.[14]

 

Looking at the context of the quote introduced in the title of this essay: ‘What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?  What has the Academy to do with the Church?  what have heretics to do with Christians?  Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.  Away with all attempts to produce a Stoic, Platonic and dialectic Christianity!  We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after receiving the gospel!  When we believe we desire no further belief.  For this is our first article of faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides‘.  [15]

Here it seems that Tertullian is aiming for a pure return to Jesus’ message and is asking for all the intellectual debate to stop, echoing St Paul:  ‘See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy or empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe and not according to Christ’.[16] 

 

Tertullian continues: ‘For philosophy is the material of the world’s wisdom, the rash interpreter of the nature and the dispensation of God.  Indeed heresies see themselves instigated by philosophy.  From this source came the ‘Aeons’, and I know not what infinite ‘form’ and the ‘trinity of mane’ in the system of Valentinus; he was a Platonist.  From the same source came Marcion’s better God with his tranquillity; he came of the Stoics.’ [17]

 

Here his concern is with the spread of heresies.  The thinking he is referring to, that of Valentinus[18] and Marcion[19] were recognized as teaching heresy by the Church of the time.  Tertullian however is accusing those who insist on teaching of Christianity in terms of philosophy as encouraging the spread of heresy.  He is showing that syncretism is problematical.  When two ways of thinking are mixed together, or faith is viewed through eyes trained in philosophy, it is hard to draw the boundaries of how the one should influence the other.  Those whose thinking had been recognised as heretical had simply got the mix wrong; if philosophy weren’t taught as a way of understanding Christianity then this sort of confusion would be less likely to happen and so the heresies wouldn’t arise.

The issue of syncretism was not just a problem for the early Church.  It has been seen as a problem in other ages.  When Jesuits went to China in the 16th century they soon discovered that dressed as poor monks they were ignored;  they chose to dress as Confucian scholars and were much more able to teach and operate their mission to the people.  Recognising that the culture of the people they were preaching to was one of ancestor worship they incorporated a more extreme form of prayers for the dead into their worship than was normal liturgy, enabling the people to feel that if they converted they were not abandoning their relatives.[20]  This caused a crisis in the Church, later missionaries who came to the area objected strongly and the pope forbad what came to be known as the ‘Confucian Rites’ on three occasions.[21]

On the other hand, either fear of Syncretism or simple cultural blindness led to avoidance of enculturation in nineteenth century mission: ‘in the nineteenth century and for a good part of the twentieth, the work of English missionaries was to spread the Gospel, certainly, but to suggest as well that the perfect example of a Christian life was that led by a Victorian country gentleman.’[22]  The equivalent, in the early Church would have been the requirement that all converts to Christianity live as Jews, not just according to the Jewish Law, which was firmly rejected by St Paul[23] but in all respects according to Jewish culture.

 

Enculturation in itself is not wrong, it can enable people to understand Christianity from within their own language and context.  The Reader article quoted above discusses the work of Bishop Joel of West Nile/Madi who had undertaken to revise the liturgy of the Anglican Church in Uganda.  ‘The penitential rite made a particular impression on me.  It focuses on water, the agent of washing, cleansing and life – the vital importance of which is instantly grasped in countries where there is drought ..threatening everyday existence.  Using Joel’s analogy, to be in sin is to be arid – dry‘[24]. This is enculturation undertaken with care, maintaining the theology of true Christianity but altering the presentation of that theology so that it can be more easily understood.  If the philosophers of the early church had worked in this manner, then Tertullian might not have complained, certainly the impact on the theology of the church would have been reduced.

 

So was Tertullian right?  Was the mixing of cultures between Christianity and Greek philosophy producing something which was simply not Jesus’ message?  Or was it simply necessary in order to enable the spread of that message?

Küng‘s view on this, in his discussion of the origins of Catholicism, is quite clearly in favour of Tertullian:  ‘The negative effects of this Hellenization of Christian preaching were unmistakable.  In accordance with its Hebraic origins the truth of Christianity was not to be seen, or theorized on; rather, it was to be done, practiced.  Thus, in the gospel of John, Jesus Christ is called “the way, the truth, and the life” (14.6).  The Christian concept of truth was originally not contemplative and theoretical like the Greek concept but operative and practical’[25].  That is, Christianity is a way of life, not an academic subject.  Noticeably, Tertullian particularly objected to Justin Martyr’s habit of wearing an academic robe, or philosopher’s cloak.[26]  The suggestion is that we are not supposed to be writing books about Christianity, but living it.

Furthermore, Küng goes on to question the use of the word ‘Logos’: ‘…the new Logos Christology increasingly forced the Jesus of history into the background in favor of a doctrine and finally a church dogma of the Incarnate God.  Whereas in Judaism from Jesus’ time to the present day there have been arguments about the correct practice of the law, in Hellenized Christianity the arguments have been increasingly about the right, the orthodox truth of faith.’[27]

It seems that the very concept of Jesus as being God, enshrined in the ‘Nicene’ creed as ‘God from God’ is in fact of Greek origin rather than Christian.  There is some reference to it in the gospels, particularly St John but hints of it in the other gospels.  But to what extent were the gospel writers themselves influenced by Greek thinking?  The gospels were written in Greek, St John uses the ‘Logos’ terminology so the influence there definitely exists but all the gospel writers were from a culture which had already been influenced by Greek thinking.  And yet, even today, to question the idea that Jesus was himself God would be seen as heresy, his divinity is something which every Christian affirms on a regular basis when the creed is recited in church, whether they agree with it or not.

Perhaps, the view espoused by Justin, and other writers, that it was necessary to frame Christian theology in a Greek framework in order to spread the gospel was a valid view?  Without that, we might have a very much smaller church today, or the message might not have come down through the ages to reach us at all.  Certainly, Christianity would have been less likely to become the established religion of the Roman Empire as it did under Emperor Theodosius [28].  And from that point, the whole of ‘Christendom’ would not have been likely to come into being since the relationship between church and state would never have been established on what would have seemed at the time to be a ‘worldwide’ basis under the rule of Rome.

And would it have been a bad thing if there had been no ‘state Christianity’, no centralised control, no papacy?  Referring again to Küng, himself a Roman Catholic, discussing standards which came to be  created as creeds, canon and offices of the church to defend the simplicity of gospel-based faith from syncretism:  ‘However, despite all the criticism, the fact cannot be overlooked that…the Catholic Church created a structure for theology and organization and with it a very resistant inner order – but at the expense of the original freedom and multiplicity.’[29]

Nowadays, when Greek thinking is no longer a standard part of the education of the young, should Christianity re-examine itself to decide if it is a valid part of its thinking?  Do we, as Christians, have to continue to shut out from our Churches those who cannot accept a theology which is as much Plato as it is Jesus?  To even begin to take these questions forward would require a deep disentangling of our theology; to pull out from the thinking to which we have become accustomed to those elements which do not relate to Jesus’ message.  That work is beyond the scope of this essay but at a time when our Churches are shrinking and closing we should perhaps re-examine the syncretism of our faith with a philosophy which is no longer understood by many of our potential members, and perhaps look instead at how to connect the true message of Jesus himself to a new culture, not one of two thousand years ago, but the culture of today.

(This was an essay submitted to Cardiff University by Elspeth Parris as part of a course in Practical Theology taught at St Michael’s Theological College)

 

Bibliography

 

Alexander, P & D (eds.), The Lion Handbook to the Bible, Lion Hudson plc, Oxford  3rd edn, 2002.

Barton, J & Muddiman J (eds.), The Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford University Press 2001

Borg, M.J & Crossan, JD, The First Paul,  SPCK 2009

 

Hart, T.A. (ed) ,  Dictionary of Historical Theology

Paternoster Press, Carlisle 2000

 

Kamesar, A  (ed)  The Cambridge Companion to Philo.

Cambridge University Press 2009

Küng, H (trans. Bowden, J), The Catholic Church, Modern Library edition, New York  2003  (Random House Publishing Group) p.26

MacCulloch, D, A History of Christianity,   Penguin Books Ltd, London 2009

Reader Magazine Spring 2009 Vol 6:1 – The Last Word – Alan Wakely, Central

RSV: (The New oxford Annotated Bible, Oxford University Press, 1973)

Stevenson, J, A New Eusebius SPCK  London 1957, 2nd edition revised Frend, WHC 1987.  De Praescriptione Haereticorum is on p.167

Stevenson, J, Creeds, Councils and Controversies, SPCK  revised edition 1989.

Tomkins, S, A Short History of Christianity, Wm B Erdmans Publishing Co, Michigan/Cambridge 2006.


[1] Alexander, P & D (eds.), The Lion Handbook to the Bible, Lion Hudson plc, Oxford  3rd edn, 2002. Pp.521-523.

[2] Barton, J & Muddiman J (eds.), The Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford University Press 2001

[3] Kamesar, A, The Cambridge Companion to Philo, Cambridge University Press 2009, P.1

[4]  Hart, T.A. (ed), The Dictionary of Historical Theology, Paternoster Press, Carlisle, 2000, p.424

[5] Borg, M.J & Crossan, JD, The First Paul,  SPCK 2009

[6] Borg & Crossan, p.31

[7] Hart: entry on Plato pp 427-431

[8] Honderich, T (ed), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxfod University Press, 1995

[9]MacCulloch, D, A History of Christianity, ,  Penguin Books Ltd, London 2009, p.142

[10] Hart, Entry on Justin Martyr, p.293

[11] ibid

[12] MacCulloch p.32

[13] Hart, Entry on Clement of Alexandria pp. 128-9; Entry on Origen pp.406-7

[14]  Hart, p.538

[15] De Praescriptione Haereticorum (ANCL altered, quoted in A New Eusebius p.167)

[16] RSV: (The New oxford Annotated Bible, Oxford University Press, 1973)  Col 2:8

[17] De Praescriptione Haereticorum as above.

[18] Valentinus was a gnostic.  Stevenson, J, Creeds, Councils and Controversies, SPCK  revised edition 1989.

[19] Marcion was considered to tend toward gnosticism.  Hart, p.350

[20] Tomkins, S, A Short History of Christianity, Wm B Erdmans Publishing Co, Michigan/Cambridge 2006.

[21] MacCulloch p.708

[22] Reader Magazine Spring 2009 Vol 6:1 – The Last Word – Alan Wakely, Central Readers Council

[23] St Paul’s epistles e.g. ‘Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things which all perish as they are used) according to human precepts and doctrines?’  (RSV: Col 20-22)

[24] ibid

[25] Küng, H (trans. Bowden, J), The Catholic Church, Modern Library edition, New York  2003  (Random House Publishing Group) p.26

[26] Justin’s habit of wearing the ‘pallium’, MacCulloch p.142.  Tertullian’s satire on the wearing of academic dress, Hart p.539

[27] ibid.

[28] Tomkins, p. 53

[29] Küng, p.29

Posted on December 23, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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