Monday, April 02, 2007

Revisiting Hellenism

One of my Kingsley students has entered the following interesting comment on the Intro to Theology blog.

This week I have been reading ‘The Shaping of Things to Come’ by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, anyone read it? On pages 119-123, the authors present an interesting discussion on the topic of Hebrew and Hellenistic thinking in early Christian doctrines and their impact upon Christendom throughout the History of the Church. I have found the authors comments to be interesting and am keen to hear anyone’s comments in response to what they have to say. In summery, they argue that early Christian doctrine and thinking, including the creeds were largely and inappropriately influenced by Hellenistic thinking; an imbalance which could have been avoided had the early church fathers stuck to a more ‘Hebraic Spirit’ when interpreting scripture and discussing Christian dogma. They also perceive that when discussing Christology, early theologians focused too much on speculative doctrines, topics such as the Trinity, rather than ‘…the very elements that are stressed in scripture; ethics, discipleship, life and mission…[while also there being] no mention at all of Jesus the revolutionary, the subversive, the activist.’ As you have been reading through theology this semester, what do you think? Too much speculative theology, not enough practical? If so, has this had a profound impact of Christendom? In ‘Christian Theology, an Introduction’ on page 276, the ‘History of Dogma’ is introduced in relation to the topic of a suffering God. In this case, recent theologians seem to have altered their theology on this topic due to them having discovered an inappropriate leaning toward Greek Philosophy by earlier Christian theologians. Is there a danger of the same being the case in numerous other topics of Christian theology? I suppose, in view of Church history and theology, such questions have been the very heart of those who have gone before. Thomas Aquinas, an advocate for Greek philosophy, and Tertullian of Carthage, a strong advocate against the merging of theology and philosophy would be examples of this. Maybe I’m asking questions that too big for our little theology class. None the less, I feel it doesn’t hurt to ask and ponder.

Here is my reply: Certainly we need to be careful that we don’t allow our theology to be unduly influenced by philosophy (Hellenistic or otherwise) and the example you gave about the rediscovery by contemporary theologians of a suffering God is an excellent case in point. However the simplistic Hebraism good/Hellenism bad typology can be pushed too far. After all, the New Testament itself was written in Greek and the Old Testament Bible of Jesus and the Apostles was the Greek Septuagint translation, a product of Hellenised Judaism.

According to Cyril C. Richardson, “It was the Greek, rather than the Jew, who became the inheritor of the Christian message - a fact which should give pause to those who unduly exaggerate the importance of Hebrew over Greek thinking.” Christianity both inherited and displaced the older Greek philosophical system. When the Christian Emperor Justinian closed the philosophical school in Athens in 529 it was in one sense a sign of the victory of Christian theology over earlier modes of thought, but also a sign that the older views were no longer captivating the human heart and mind. Pelikan reminds us that the closing of the school was “more the act of a coroner than an executioner.”

Yet this “victory” over Greek philosophy was not complete “for the theology that triumphed over Greek philosophy has continued to be shaped ever since by the language and the thought of classical metaphysics.” A good example of this is the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation with its reliance on Aristotle’s distinctions between “substance” and “accidence.”

The so-called “Hellenization” of Christianity continues to be viewed as a subversion of genuine Christian teaching. This may be too simplistic but it remains true that in struggling to overcome pagan thought Christian thinkers often accommodated its terms in such a way that a high price was paid. Clement of Alexandria, for example, was heavily influenced by Middle Platonism. Even Tertullian, who asked what Jerusalem had to do with Athens, applied philosophical categories in his very attempt to distance himself from philosophy! The continuing influence of Greek philosophy on Christian theology is evidenced in part by the latter’s keen interest on the twin themes of the “absoluteness of God” and the immortality of the soul. Christian theologians typically asserted the Greek concept of the impassibility of God (his inability to experience feelings) as a given without providing much biblical proof for the idea, a concept which, as you have pointed out, has come under increasing attack in more recent theology.

Still, we should not press this “Hellenization” theory too far as if Christianity were not making an entirely new contribution or did not have its own unique voice. Chadwick comments on the paradox of Clement of Alexandria being “Hellenized to the core of his being, yet unreserved in his adhesion to the church.” The Fathers very often modified Greek philosophical ideas in light of Scripture. Indeed, Pelikan has argued that the theology of the creeds may well be seen a result of the “dehellenization” of earlier errors and that the real place to find Hellenism is among the heretics!

It could also be argued that Hellenized Christians were living in a Greek-speaking, Greek-thinking culture, so that Hellenising its message was simpy being missional! They utilized the thought forms of the very air that the church was breathing, in order to speak the truth of the gospel to a watching world. Indeed, it could be argued that if the church had failed effectively to Hellenize its message it would have remained a Jewish sect, exerting little influence on the surrounding world.


alan hirsch said...

Glen, good comment. Just to affirm that in some ways I/we would agree with what you are saying. Our point is simply to point out the Bible can only be truly understood over the long term from a Hebraic worldview. Even though that it was enriched by Hellenistic thinking, the surplanting of the Hebraic is terribly damaging to our capacity to truly understand the bible.

Mary said...

Glen, Alan,

I have difficulty with Alan's use of the term "from an Hebraic worldview". From a "biblical worldview" OK but the term "from an Hebraic worldview" is offering something else.

The bible was written in Hebrew but the worldview comes from revelation given and transmitted in the Hebrew language but also communicable into other languages. The difficulty I have with Alan's/Mike's statements are these:
Muslims claim you have to understand the Koran in Arabic else you do not understand it. Are Alan and Mike in some way saying that there is no way we can translate the bible and give an understanding of the biblical worldview.

Secondly the Jews who had the Scripture of the Hebrew texts had worldviews that were in the Hebrew language but were radically denounced by the prophets - what do Alan and Mike do with that. Do they accept them as Hebraic - they were communicated by ancient Hebrews to each other and were unacceptable. So there is a difference between a biblical worldview and worldviews (multiple) which were found among Hebrew speaking people at the time the Scriptures relate to.

The New Testament was written in Greek. In fact many of the references used in it were taken from the Septugintal translation of the Jewish Scriptures(not the Hebrew text) as Septuagintal scholarship in the last 50 years is showing.

The use of Greek in the first five hundred years of church history was important for the development of doctrine. The language of Trinity had to be worked out to avoid Tritheism - an anathema to a devout Jew. This happened within the context of Greek language wherein the biblical revelation was worked over and over and over to help us understand for example how God could be one but three persons...

The debates of the first 500 years of church history are not minor. The language of personhood that we have in the Western world grew up out of the Trinitarian discussions of the Cappadocians in the 5th century. The word "person" actually arose from those debates.

To see the discussion of the early church as "terribly damaging to our capacity to truly understand the bible" I believe arises from 1) a view of Hebraic thinking (as opposed to bibical revelation) which I consider somewhat naive

2) does not take into account an understanding of doctrinal development - it appears to me to tend toward a fundamentalistic orientation

3) fails to recognize that a solid doctrine of Creation will acknowledge that within every culture - including the Jewish culture of the Old Testament peoples - there are aspects of reality that are reflected and aspects that are horribly marred. That is why the church is enriched by persons from cultures far removed from both Hebrew and Greek languages. People will discern in the biblical revelation aspects that persons shaped by different cultures would not be able to discern.

So the debates of the first 500 years wherein Trinitarian theology developed for example occurred not within Hebrew categories but Greek categories. It is interesting that some of the Scriptures also in the Old Testament were in Aramaic.

So I think I would prefer the use of the term biblical worldview rather than Hebraic worldview for biblical worldview allows for the developments not only of theology but also of modern science wherein we understand the earth goes around the sun...


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