Midwifing a Byzantium

Harnack had it backwards.  Did the early church “Hellenize” and thus negate Gospel purity?  The question defies any easy answer.  We will look at a few.

(1) Harnack held that the early church imported Greek concepts into the sweet biblical faith and polluted it.

There might appear an element of truth in this.  Some early Greek Christian writers do appear at odds with a literal reading of Song of Songs.  But that’s not what Harnack meant.  He had in mind something like,

(1*) The Greeks imported the miraculous into the Biblical faith and ruined the message of Jesus and love.

In other words, Jesus was a good German professor.  Harnack is too easy to attack.  Let’s look at other options.

The guys represented by Calvinist International (and this is not an attack on them, so please don’t flood my inbox) say the opposite:

(2) Greek categories were already embedded in the New Testament.

Well, kind of.  Paul uses words like “nature” (doth not nature teach you…) and Peter talks about theosis (2 Pet. 1.4).  Is this the same thing as the NT teaching Hellenization?  The problem is that Hellenism also implied other stuff:

(2a) Definition = limit.

Apply that to Triadology and you will see why early fathers were reticent to define God.  Now, is (2a) wrong?  Not necessarily (right or wrong is beyond the point for now).  But you can’t find that key Hellenic thesis in the NT.  Therefore,

(~2) There is no systematic Hellenization in the New Testament.

Now for my view, which I got from John McGuckin and John Zizioulas.

(3) Immediately after the Constantinian settlement Gregory of Nazianzus posited a new vision of the Roman Imperium, now Christian, as the new intellectual logos (using logos as rational order, not as Jesus).

Therefore, there is no reason to defend “Hellenism” as such.  Gregory’s writings are superior in content and style to anything ancient Greece has to offer.  But someone could counter,

(~3) Should we not go back to the Bible?

The objection implies a going back to the Hebrew ontology, such as it is.  Of course, we should always go back to the prophets, who offered their own social order.  But as to going back to a Hebraic intellectual system, the problem is what is meant by it.

(~3′) What is this Hebraic logos?

I suggest, however, we say with the apostle Paul, “The cross is foolishness to the Greeks and a Stumbling block to the Jews.”   Therefore, we see Paul rejecting both (2) and (~3).  Paul rejects Hellenization and it is doubtful he would be thrilled with reading Aristotle back into the NT.


About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
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1 Response to Midwifing a Byzantium

  1. Cal says:

    I think the thesis by McGuckin and Zizoulas is fascinating. I read another article (by a Unitarian no less) that argued part of the Arian controversy was over the presupposition of the Logos: was it constrained to Christ? In other words, the strongest Arians lent themselves to a stronger concept of the Empire. The Logos could be incarnated in both Jesus Christ and the Roman Emperor. Nicaean was, implicitly, calling into question the fundamental status of the Emperor. The Logos was more than an ordering principle of the Uncreate. it was not an it; He is the eternal son by nature.

    So much for Nicaea being the pro-Emperor faction!

    Despite all his other problems, Leithart (this is probably not his unique idea) advocated “evangelizing” metaphysics. It’s not about going to the past and trying represtinate/reify something. Incarnation as a principle has always resulted in healthier Church culture, a better sense of mission, and less stultifying inward facing. I mean, we’re reading the Bible in the vernacular, are we not?



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