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Athens and Jerusalem: Reflections on Hellenism and the Gospel

Dr. John Mark Reynolds

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For centuries, two cities, Athens and Jerusalem, provided the boundaries for intellectual and cultural growth. They formed one New Kingdom. Tensions between the rationalism of Athens and the faith of Jerusalem always existed, but each recognized the contributions made by the other. Eventually, however, the citizens of both cities grew restless. A product of classical Christian civilization was the birth of modern science. Athens became drunk with the success of science. Secular, scientific answers seemed to make religious truth and boundaries not only unnecessary, but also stifling. Athens began to pull away from Jerusalem. In the process, what was best in the old Greek and Roman tradition was also discarded. The moderation and humility so prized by the ancients was forgotten. Science would answer all questions and solve all problems. The old Christian, classical civilization began to crumble. The result was the nihilism we are experiencing today.

Others have noted the decline of this Christian, classical culture. The sort of societies that produced C.S. Lewis, Aquinas, or a John Chrysostom no longer exists in a dominant form anywhere. Some Christians have foolishly taken joy in the destruction. Oddly enough, these people are found on both the "left" and the "right" in Christendom.

Some Christians have moved to Athens while keeping a summer home in Jerusalem. The rationalism of Athens, by now reduced mainly to Science, dictates the nature of reality. Jerusalem provides these accommodating Christians with personal peace. Religion is a vacation from the harsh realities of a neo-Darwinian world in which only matter is real. Some shadowy divine providence is allowed to be unseen behind it all. Jerusalem is allowed this marginal existence, if it promises never to interfere with Science. Statements like "God created the heavens and the earth." are reduced to "spiritual" truths with no physical content. Christian colleges are often dominated with this spirit. Religion is kept firmly in line. Faculty are petrified that the old place will look a bit dated and tawdry if their Athenian friends were allowed to visit. Like many vacation homes, Jerusalem is filled with yesterday's furniture. No one lives there; they just spend the weekends and holidays hanging around. Other Christians have condemned Athens and left it to burn. Classical Christian culture is not mourned. These Christians have locked themselves into Jerusalem and are not coming out until the war is over. Armed with Bible verses, they glare over the walls and leave the rest of the world to fend for itself. It does. They then complain that the Truth is ignored. The ghetto or fortress of contemporary Christian culture, with its separate institutions and media, is a prime example of this form of impotence.

I once gave a talk about the sinful hatred many Christians have for the life of the mind. One older person came to me after the talk and said that this hatred was a sign of revival! Religion should be, in her view, about feeling and never about thinking. Thinking, she thought, leads to doubting. Doubting is simply the first step towards an apostate Athens. Such faithful Christian folk try to reduce themselves to repeating the Truth. Nevertheless, it turns out, even the most pious citizen of Jerusalem cannot do it. They try to avoid reasoning, only to end up reasoning about the Faith badly.

Any attempt to understand the very Words of revelation requires reason. Most people live for years after their conversion, minds fully functioning. They have questions. They try not to reason about them, so they simply reason without training, usually very badly. Why are there over twenty thousand Christian denominations, with more popping up every day? Trapped within the walls, an inbred Jerusalem becomes a bit crazy. There is another way. Many Christians still find much value in the old crumbled civilizations that came before their time. They see Athens and Jerusalem, not as two cities, but as two districts in one city: the City of God. There are signs that this view is growing. Sales of collections of classical tales have reached best seller lists in the Christian community. Christian day schools and a few colleges have seized on the classical model with some success. This look back must not be reactionary. The classical and Christian interaction did not produce one culture, but many. It seems perfectly capable of doing so again, if allowed the chance to do so.

Both Athens and Jerusalem are dying, because each needs the other to thrive. Our modern Athens has confined its rationalism to a materialistic science that prevents its thinkers from going beyond the natural to find the Truth. Science can do useful things, but by itself, it cannot find Truth and it knows little or nothing about Goodness and Beauty. Because science cannot deal with Truth, Beauty and Goodness, it must call the very existence of such things into question. Athens, the rational mind, does not have the resources it needs to deal with the most important things. The ancient Greeks knew this, which was why so many of them were eager to embrace Christianity. We are learning the same lesson again, the hard way. The fashionable philosophy we call post-modernism is merely the tired realization that rationalism without faith ends up destroying its own foundations.

Jerusalem is sick as well. Her inbred residents, who cannot even do the sort of classical theology that produced their own creeds, sit in their ghetto talking only to themselves. Her ruling class is often composed of absentee landlords. They live in Athens and only show up to collect their tithes. These rulers reject the creeds, since Athens has rejected both the religion and the classical thought behind them, but cannot substitute much of anything in their place. So the Church is treated to the spectacle of evangelicals who believe the Bible contains errors and Anglican Bishops who do not believe in God.

Recently even evangelicals have begun to blame Athens for perceived problems in theology. For example, in the January/February Books and Culture, Nancey Murphy rejects the idea of dualism. Her essential point is that dualism is an unfortunate addition to Christian theology from Greece. Grenz and Kjesbo at least partially blame Greek culture and philosophy for the perceived oppression of women by the Church. The more conservative Ronald Nash argues that at most Biblical theology is only "weakly" dependent on Greek concepts. Even in Hebrews, the most Hellenistic of New Testament books, Nash sees few connections to the pagans. He is eager to remove all traces of Hellenism from Christian theology. He believes that the uniqueness of the Faith would be in danger if Christians allowed Athens a strong role.

All of these moves are wrongheaded. First, Greek and Christian culture cannot now be separated by any means I have been able to discover. Second, even if Christianity were strongly dependent on Greek ideas the doctrine of its divine uniqueness would not be in jeopardy. Both of these claims will be substantiated in due course. I do not believe that it is necessary to show any particular doctrine is "Greek" in order to do so.Murphy and those who agree with her might be described as the "infection" school. They believe that at some point in its history Christianity was infected with bad Hellenistic ideas. Their job is to purge Christianity of the disease. Some see the infection in Paul and the New Testament itself. On the other hand, more conservative scholars like Brian Ingraffia would place the problem in the patristic period. The first school is the radical infection camp. They would remake the very foundations of the Church. The second camp is the surgical infection camp. Such men think that a precise examination of the history of Church will allow for a careful removal of the Hellenistic infection.

The image of Athens presented by such thinkers is very simplistic. This is a major problem for both groups. Hellenism has a thousand-year history. It would be difficult to name a single idea not propounded in some form or another by the thinkers of the Greek world. Take for example the common complaint that Christians gained the idea of dualism by reading Plato or the neo-Platonists . Assume for the moment that this is true. Assume again the highly questionable idea that there exists some Hebrew physicalism. The argument is usually made that Christians drank in the dualism of the surrounding culture. This caused the converts to Christianity, including Hellenistic Jews, to misunderstand Scripture (or on the more radical view to make errors in Scripture).

The problem with this argument is that the early Church had the perfect ability to pick from materialistic accounts of the soul. Such accounts existed in the writings of the Epicureans. Of course, this school of thought was hostile to theism, but modern thinkers wish to argue that this is an accidental property of materialism in any case. The early Church could have adopted this view for the soul, if the Old Testament indeed urged them to it, and then cleaned up the problems with theism. We know this is possible since the modern thinkers are doing exactly this with modern forms of physicalism.

Nor is it odd to think of the Church making such changes in a pagan thinker in order to suit him to the theological task at hand. The Church had to do such revisions with Platonism. There was no reason for the Church to favor a dualistic account culturally, except that this account of the soul is what the Judaism and Christianity of the period deemed most in harmony with the teachings of the Bible.

It is frequently forgotten that Platonism (or neo-Platonism) was itself criticized by the Church even as it used some of its concepts. For example, Augustine who used many Platonic ideas is frequently critical of it. He says, "Yet all those philosophers, and others of the same way of thinking, and even Plato himself, thought it right to render worship to a plurality of gods. There are, to be sure, many other important points on which the Platonists differ from us." The critical point is that both the Jews, from the time of Philo on and the Christians found Platonic dualism most in harmony with their religious views. They adopted it, not because their cultural baggage gave them no other choice, but because it best fit their theological tradition.

The radical infection school of thought has many other serious problems. First, it is difficult, if not impossible; to find a consistent textual principle that will allow for separation of Greek and Hebrew elements. The crux of the problem is in the complexity of Hellenistic thought at the time of the writing of the New Testament. There are few, if any ideas, in the New Testament that cannot find an important parallel in the writings of the Greeks. For example, in the "dying god" motif of the resurrection, the classics scholar is reminded of the life of Apollonius of Tyana. This first-century miracle worker had a life that shared many features with that of the Jesus of the Gospels. Of course, the actual life of Apollonius was not written until after the Gospels, so scholars cannot be sure that Christianity did not influence it. However, if we were to accept the "life" as being an accurate account of what pagans believed about Apollonius in the first century, we have a good parallel to Jesus. At the very least, however, the mystery religions of Greece and Rome had important similarities to many features of the Christian cult, including the dying god motif. Using the radical infection method of dealing with the text, it would be permissible to call the entire "Jesus story" a Greek importation.

I am not arguing that such Greek practices actually influenced Christianity. In most cases, I think that they did not. The difficulty I am pointing out is that the argument from similarity is inconsistently applied. The radical infection theorist sees ideas in Paul that are like those of Plato. He dislikes these ideas and so is able to "remove" them as unworthy Hellenistic imports. This is an utterly subjective standard. Since the theorist is not disturbed by stories of Christ's miracles or baptisms, he does not bother to argue that they are "Greek." However, baptism was practiced by the Greek mystery religions centuries before Christianity. One begins to suspect that the theorist is arguing for as an advocate and not as a scholar.

Jews of the New Testament period were deeply influenced by Hellenism. The majority, and the most academically influential group, lived outside of Palestine in areas that were culturally Greek or Latin. The minority of Jews still living in Palestine had been ruled by Alexander the Great and a series of Greek influenced rulers for much of their recent history.

Even the Macabees could not resist the influence of Greek culture. Their last rulers were more Hellenistic than could have been imagined at the start of the dynasty. Therefore, within the Jewish community, Greek cultural exposure was very wide. There is simply no way to determine what if any idea may have had an impact on the Jewish community. If the only reason needed for removing a verse or doctrine from the New Testament is that it is like that of a Greek, then there will be no end to it. An advocate of a particular point of view will simply be able to play the "Greek card" to win the day. The Church has already seen this sort of argument from cultural importation made in the case of evangelical feminism. Once the game of removing Greek ideas from the New Testament begins, it can easily become an exercise in advocacy scholarship.

Does this argue against the inspiration or unique nature of Christianity? This is the fear that possess Ronald Nash, and to a lesser extent J.P. Moreland. I do not believe that it does. First, my argument does not depend on strong Greek influence actually being in the New Testament text. It merely accepts the premise of the radical infection school that such influences are there as a given for the sake of the argument. If that is so, then the door is indeed open for seeing such influences everywhere in the text. This is because the sole reason given by the radical infection advocate is the similarity of an idea to a Hellenistic one. Even Nash accepts the idea that a "weak" connection exists between New Testament material and Athens. My argument, in and of itself, need not be committed to anything more robust than this "weak" connection.

Suppose, however, that the connection is a strong one. Imagine, as a counter-factual claim, that Christianity is simply a religious form of Platonism. Does this argue against he unique nature of the Gospel? It does not. The unique nature of the religion would depend exactly on those elements that make it a religion. For example, the truths regarding the incarnation and life of Christ would be unique gifts of Christian witness to the world. Christianity would not be original philosophy, but it would be an original worldview. The combination of Plato and Jesus in Paul would be a matter of profound importance. The fact that one of the master sages of the age anticipated Christian philosophy would not argue against the Faith. Indeed, it could be seen as supporting it.

The second major problem for the radical theorist is more important. In my opinion, the Hellenism in the New Testament runs very deep. It is not obvious that anything would be left of the New Testament if all the Hellenistic influences were removed. Without going into the always disputable argument about what passages of the New Testament show a Greek influence, I think the case can be made on two simple, indisputable grounds.

The New Testament is written in Greek. It is true that it is the Greek of the market place and not the Academy, but it is Greek. Every word of the New Testament has an important connection to the writings of Homer and of the philosophers. Take, for example, the world logos. Can it be used without reminding the Greek speaking reader of the long philosophic heritage of the word?

Think of John's use of the term in his Gospel. Surely, John or his scribe as he was writing in Asia Minor must have considered the subtle meanings of his word choices. John's Gospel shows the marks of a master literary craftsman. How could he not at least be aware that the most famous son of Ephasus was Heraclitus? John's whole ministry seems to have been based in Ephesus.

The most central idea in Heraclitus' thought was a divine logos that was the first unifying principle of the world. It seems too much of a coincidence that the language of Heraclitus and the Gospel is the same. Even if John and his scribe were not aware of this connection, the very use of logos depends on the work that Heraclitus had done philosophically in the past. Thinking of a word in this divine, primal way depends on the expansion of the possible meanings of the word done by philosophers like Heraclitus.

Even if a Hebrew idea is being expressed in the New Testament, it is being expressed in words that had a specific philosophic meaning. This meaning cannot be separated from the text itself. The New Testament is a book written in Greek by Jews or mostly Jews. (The most Hellenistic of New Testament book, ironically Hebrews, has an unknown author.) We do not know the extent of the Hellenism of the writers, but we do know that without careful redefinition on the part of the writer, every word of the New Testament introduces Athens to Jerusalem.

Of course, at times this redefinition happens. The Gospel writers are frequently careful to explain terms that may be unfamiliar to their Greek readers. This does not mitigate the central point. Words in the New Testament carry with them the linguistic heritage of Athens. This was God's choice for the language of New Testament transmission.

The situation for the infection theorist is made worse by a second indisputable fact. The Bible of the New Testament writers was the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. It is a commonplace of scholarship that the translators of the Septuagint were Hellenistic Jews. They were translating the Bible in Alexandria, the center of Hellenism during the period. They used terms for Hebrew words like "create" that echo the neo-Platonist teachings of the period. The translators made frequent use of technical, Greek philosophical terms. In short, the Septuagint is widely viewed as the happy fusion of Greek and Jewish thought. It is freely quoted in the New Testament, even in cases like the Old Testament verse cited in Hebrews 1: 6 where the citation is found only in the Septuagint and not in the original Hebrew text!

How then can we measure the influence that this book, this product of Hellenism, had on the Jewish mind in Palestine? Imagine the case of a Jewish "fundamentalist." Such a person might have been consumed with a passion to destroy any trace of Hellenism in his Judaism. He might have avoided all physical contact with Romans or Greeks. Such a careful man would still have picked up the "Greek infection" in the reading of the Torah in synagogue! The use of the Septuagint in the early Church means that there is no way to claim that any "pure" Hebrew mind existed in the New Testament period.

The advocate of the weak infection of Greek thought into Christianity is equally wrong headed. First, we have already seen that Hellenism is deeply embedded in the framework of the New Testament. To purge Christianity of Hellenism, such a man would have to remove this "malign" influence. Just the "weak" connection seen by Nash would be enough to make this task impossible.

It is hard to see how the "marriage" of Christian doctrine and Hellenistic concepts made by the Fathers could be undone without destroying the Faith. The Fathers produced the central formulations of Christian doctrine. They did so using Hellenistic ideas. Copleston and others have pointed out this providential marriage between Greek language and Christian dogma. To other thinkers like Murphy, such a connection is anything but providential. They have suggested rethinking the trinity and other classic Christian doctrines. The Fathers and the Creeds reflect, they say, too much Hellenism to be useful in modern times. Since the infection groups rarely believe the Creeds are the product of inspiration or strongly authoritative, they feel free to reject them.

Here many Christians will part company with Murphy. The Orthodox and Catholic communities with a high regard for tradition cannot join Murphy in such a quest. Protestant traditions like classic Anglicanism would also refuse to go along. Murphy, however, should find no comfort even in those groups for whom the Creeds carry no particular theological weight. There are two arguments against her position that do not depend on the built in authority of the Creeds and the Fathers.

First, there are prudential reasons to avoid rethinking the Trinity and other classic doctrines. The Church is divided enough. There has been unity between the three main branches of Christendom only in the area of the Creeds. It would be a great pity to put modern Protestants outside this area of agreement.

When one considers the present state of theological discourse, one is not sanguine about the prospects for a new formulation that would attract more than narrow, partisan support. Where are the theologians of such ability? Unless there is grave reason to do so, where the good clearly outweighs the harm, the Church should refrain from such an action. It simply is not prudent. Does the Church really wish to reopen such issues every time the scientific consensus changes?

Second, it seems highly improbable that a good God would have allowed the Church to err in such a universal manner for so long. Is it really the case that only with the coming of the infection theorists that God is at last revealing His nature to the Church? These are not areas of minor interest, but central to the very definition of what it means to be a Christian. Unlike other areas, there has been little or no suggestion in the long history of the Church that these doctrines are wrong. In the groups, that have made such suggestions, such as Universalist Church, the doctrinal outcome has not been encouraging to further experimentation. Athens and Jerusalem seem married for keeps.

There remains a serious problem. In modern times, Athens has gone bad. The classical city of history is just a memory. Athens has been seized by scientism or post-modernity. Real accommodation between Jerusalem and a scientific or post-modern Athens is impossible. Some contemporary theologians try to dialogue with post-modernity, but this is impossible without denying their Christian heritage.

After all, the Creeds are written in an elegant and precise Greek. They make bold assertions about God and reality. The early Christians could do this, because they believed their ideas were true. Move very far from those ideas as the main stream Church has understood them and basic orthodoxy, and Christian identity, comes into question. To be truly Christian, after all, was to believe some things and not believe others. That very idea, however, makes conversation with those who would deny such logical categories in religious discourse impossible. At least the modern believers in scientism claim the doctrines are false or meaningless by definition. The post-modernists think that all doctrines have only an inner or personal truth. Athens cannot hear what Jerusalem has to say. Modern Athens is not a good ally.

Like a married couple that after fifty years of marriage comes to look alike, the very shape of theological discourse has an ancient Greek tone. Jerusalem cannot praise the nature of even the Holy Trinity without echoing the language of pagan philosophers. Athens has discovered, or soon will discover, that she cannot go it alone. Science without God, intellect without theology, is rapidly becoming anti-knowledge. If you cannot know Truth, then even small truths can be called into question. Athens and Jerusalem cannot live apart.

Athens and Jerusalem cannot stay separated without grave damage to both. In the providence of God, the Church was born into a Greek, Roman, and Jewish world. From the mix came classical Christian civilizations that changed the world. Any hope of reviving such a classical and Christian culture must begin by understanding what it is. What are the roots? Once every educated person was familiar with both the Greek and Christian foundational ideas. That is no longer the case. Study of the ancients is vital for any new beginning to classical civilization.

Knowledge of ancient Athens is vital for Christians. Some will see it as the starting place for the flowering of new classical Christian civilizations. It is a chance to see what human reason, unscarred by an irrational desire to rid itself of Christianity, looks like. As Christians move toward the classical model, they must also be aware of the mistakes and dangers along the path. We cannot just reclaim the Academy. We have to remake it.

Naturalism, science without limits, would have mostly been scorned as limiting or undercutting human freedom and knowledge in ancient Athens. The irony is that secular intellectuals have no more time for the old books and writers than the most anti-intellectual Christians do. It is easy to graduate from most colleges in the United States with an advanced degree without having read a single classical author.

As humans have remodeled and destroyed ancient Athens, they have also sacked Jerusalem. It was after all a man who was a foe to both classical and Christian ideas, sitting by a lake in Switzerland, who developed the ideological formula that has captured the times. He knew that the modern human was interested in personal peace, often at any cost. He understood that contemporary people were driven by economic desires. He believed that the promise of a place to call "mine" would be an adequate substitute for religion. A philosophy could have democratic, capitalistic, totalitarian, or socialistic implementation. It was still the siren call of modernity. Lenin summed up the spirit of the age in the revolutionary call for, "Peace, Bread, and Land."

Classical and Christian thinkers did not agree. Such persons believed that goodness was often better than peace bought at the price of a toleration of moral evil. They believed that the quest for truth was more important than personal affluence. Whether in monastic community or in compassionate capitalism, it was the truth, not wealth, which would set humans free. Finally, classical and Christian humanists believed things, even important things, could not satisfy if there were not beautiful. Mere consumption or production was not enough. There were standards of beauty to which every civilization should aspire. Classical Christian civilizations answered modernity with a cry for, "the Good, the True, and the Beautiful."

These were not abstract ideas for the Christian. Whatever else the relationship was understood to be, these ideas were rooted in the very nature of Jesus Christ. God, a personal God, was Good. He spoke the Truth. He created a divine hierarchy that was Beautiful. Humans could know God and so know the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Biola University. He has also taught philosophy at Roberts Wesleyan College, Whitworth College and Saint John Fisher College. Visit the Dr. Reynolds blog. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 7/16/04



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