In the early days of the Christian Church, the supranational, one-world ideal founded by Alexander the Great and perpetuated in the Roman Empire was very much alive. Although Greece as a nation was eclipsed after it fell to the invincible phalanxes of the Roman army, the philosophy of Greece was revered even throughout the waning years of the empire and beyond. Thus, the libraries, museums, and general Hellenistic atmosphere of Alexandria made their impression on Clement and Origen just as surely as they did on Philo. And it was evident that as surely as the early Church Fathers were trained in the thought of their own day, so also would their ministries in the Church bear the impress of the thought and literature of Greece.
Not all the Fathers acquiesced in this Greek influence, of course. Tertullian, who is known for the rhetorical question “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?,” labeled all efforts to reconcile pagan wisdom with Christianity a failure. Tatian, a great student of Justin Martyr (who was perhaps more dedicated to reconciling the Gospel with the wisdom of Greece than any other Father), betrays a hatred of all that belongs to Greek civilization, art, science, and language. And Valentine, too, distrusted the rationalism of Hellenistic thought and, in ecstatic vision, felt he had seen its fall.
It is notable, however, that each of these men was a heretic. The more orthodox Fathers used the wisdom of Greece for Christian ends. Hugo Rahner, taking the Odyssey as a prime conveyor of the Greek spirit and outlook, has shown at great length how the teachers of the Church availed themselves of this myth, adapting it to Christian interpretation (Die Griechische Mythen in Christlicher Deutung, Zürich, 1957). Since the words of Homer were well known, both within the Church and outside it, Christian writers found them to be convenient pegs upon which to hang Christian truth. And the method was largely successful, even though much of what was written seems forced to us today.
A famous example of the Christian use of pagan myths is found in the letter of Clement of Rome to Corinth. Chapter 25 of this letter uses as the crowning evidence for the doctrine of the resurrection the ancient myth of the Phoenix, the bird that was thought to be reborn at five-hundred-year intervals from its own ashes. Clement, however, speaks of this bird not as myth but as historical reality, and we may assume that in this belief, as in other things also, he was a true child of his age. Another example of affinity between the Fathers and Greek philosophy is the attempt by Justin and others to make “pre-Christian Christians” of Socrates and other outstanding pagan figures.
Clearly, then, the Hellenistic thought-world had some effect upon the early Church Fathers. But what was that effect? Hans F. von Campenhausen insists that the early Church had no true theology and never would have had without the influence of Greek philosophy. But can this be said of the teaching of the early Church or only of the system in which and the method by which distinctively Christian doctrine was organized? Was it doctrine that was borrowed or only structure?
The answer is found in the fact that the early Church subordinated what it borrowed to the authority of Holy Scripture. Adolph Harnack is no doubt correct in saying that when the Church broke with the Jews and turned to the Gentiles it was forced to adopt Gentile modes of expression and thought. Saul of Tarsus was indeed a Hellenist; but Paul was a Christian Hellenist who gave the remainder of his life to spreading the teachings of Scripture, and the content of his message came by revelation (Gal. 1:12).
It is undeniably true that the early Church used the great Greek epics. But the Fathers’ extensive use of Homer was possible because they interpreted him in the light of the Logos of John, not in the light of the logos of the Greek philosophers. John may have found the actual term logos in Greek philosophy, but the word was not merely adopted; it was adapted, given new and Christian content. Likewise, when Tertullian considered the then current use of the word quiescere to describe the state of the dead, he felt he should generally prefix a re-,thereby adding a sense of Christian eschatology, namely, that the end is a return.
It is often claimed that the Church borrowed not merely terminology and teaching devices but also the very beliefs of its contemporaries. But this is not easily demonstrated. The Fourth Eclogue of Vergil, written in the strife-ridden aftermath of the assassination of Julius Caesar, prophesies the birth of a child who would restore order, and important scholars have attempted to trace the birth narratives in the Gospels to this source. But to do this is to be more Hellenistic than the early Greek Christians were, for the early Church did not connect the Eclogue with the birth of Christ until the fourth century. Even then it was the Emperor Constantine who claimed it was a “prophecy of Christ.” This example actually shows that the Gospel reigned over the classics.
But did the opposite ever occur? Did myth and philosophy ever alter the content of the Gospel? This certainly happened in the apocryphal writings of the early church era and in the pseudo-Christian writings of the Gnostics. In fact, it was the appearance of such Gnostic writings as the “Gospels” of Thomas and Philip that necessitated official recognition of the canon. The early Fathers were never wholly able to subordinate their pre-Christian training to the word of Holy Scripture, either. And their writings, too, are rightly outside the canon. Even with respect to the very heart of the Gospel, the doctrine of grace, it is painfully evident how far even the earliest Church Fathers could drift from the New Testament (see T. F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, Grand Rapids, 1959).
Yet, for the most part, it was the early Fathers of the Church who successfully opposed heresy and the many attempts by Gnosticism to submerge the Gospel, and who also sought to gain a hearing for the faith by showing that it was compatible with much of what had been said by the great classical teachers. Perhaps it may be said that they exactly reversed the procedure of the Gnostics, who sought to blend Oriental myth with Greek philosophy, leaving only a small place for revelation.
Origen was well aware that Greek philosophy, if accepted as an all-inclusive system of truth, would contradict the Christian faith. But he was also aware that Christian dogma, though it has no base in philosophy, must be proclaimed in a way that is relevant to the existing philosophical climate if it is to get a hearing. Thus the Church wished to accommodate Greek thought while yet affirming the uniqueness of Christianity as the only way of salvation. It had abundant examples of what would happen if the word of Holy Scripture was not allowed to dominate in this relation.
Thus, against the mythology common to the day, the Church contrasted the opinion that the gods were historical heroes or kings who came to have deity ascribed to them with the biblical doctrines of monotheism, the Trinity, and Christ’s unique sonship and humiliation. And even though one today might be somewhat dismayed to find Clement of Rome relying on the Phoenix myth to bolster the doctrine of the resurrection or conceding supernatural powers to the oracles, a glance at the footnotes in a modern translation of his letter will amply demonstrate that Scripture was his prime authority.
It is striking that although almost all second-century Christian literature was written by Gentile believers, Hellenism can in no way be considered a dominant factor in it. The letters, addressed to Christians, as they generally are, seem totally independent of Hellenism and show an intense concern for the New Testament message. The apologetical writings that deal with Hellenism do so in order to show the superiority of Christian revelation.
The Church, then, was unwilling to receive truth from outside. And by the middle of the second century it had acknowledged the canon as the divinely given corpus of propositional revelation. It considered the Holy Scriptures sufficient, the only valid norm of thought and practice.
Tertullian was no doubt joined by many others in his opinion that Athens had nothing to offer the Christian, but Clement of Alexandria felt it best to try to preserve the Hellenistic breadth of thought and learning within the Church. He argued that the call of the sirens in Homer’s Odyssey was the call of classical mythology and thought. This Greek wisdom, if blindly followed, would lead to destruction. Yet the crew of the ship, whose ears Odysseus stopped with wax to spare them from temptation, were cowards. Odysseus was the hero, for he endured the trial, sailed by, and made his way to his home. Clement argued that to hear the wisdom of Greece is necessary for the full Christian experience but that to remain only with Greek wisdom is death. When the Greek word for siren was taken into the Septuagint (e.g., Job 30:29; Isa. 13:21, 22; Jer. 50:39) and when these sirens were exposited in Homeric fashion (in Jerome’s commentary on Isaiah, for example), the Homeric epic continued to convey Christian teaching for centuries.
The early Church considered itself totally bound by the authority of Holy Scripture and thought the worth of Greek wisdom relative and the worth of Greek religion non-existent. The Fathers drew upon their classical knowledge as a point of contact with their non-Christian contemporaries. Origen realized that he needed to study philosophy to see into the minds of the unchurched; like Clement of Alexandria, he studied it not primarily so he could teach it but in order to gain a hearing for Christian truth.
The classical culture that surrounded the early Church was not simply ignored. It was brought into subjection to Christ and the Scriptures he inspired. But then it was used as a point of contact for evangelizing Gentiles.
The implications for today are plain. Some forms of modern existentialism easily match Gnosticism in meaninglessness. Neo-platonic optimism about the power of reason finds its parallel in a scientism that thinks it has crowded the God of the Scriptures out of his universe. The spirit of Celsus—the platonist philosopher who was the author of the first notable attack on Christianity—is still with us, and it calls for many an Origen to reply. The times demand men who are truly men of the modern age but who bow before the words of God in Scripture.
Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”
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