Friday, November 14, 2008

The Greeks and the Bible

There's a pervasive issue that seems to come up again and again in my classes this year. It's most pertinent to Early Church and Its Creeds, but it also influences my Biblical studies classes and all our discussions of theology. It even comes up in the context of worship and liturgy. The issue is that of the Greeks. Simply put, the problem is this: a long-standing Biblical (and Hebrew) tradition, with all its understanding of God, crashed headlong into a powerful philosophical tradition coming out of Ancient Greece. You can see it in Paul's preaching in Athens, recorded in Acts 17. When the early Christian church accepted that Gentiles could be accepted along with Jews, there was a clash of ideas and ideologies which has affected the church ever since.

So what's the big deal? The God of the Israelites is, so to speak, a God who gets down into the mud and muck of his creation. He is actively involved; he participates with humanity in time and space; he changes his mind. An argument can even be made that he is not all-knowing. In contrast, the Greek idea of god (note here that I'm not referring to the pantheon of Homer and Greek mythology, but to the philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle and their schools) is exemplified by the "unmoved mover". According to the Greeks, the divinity is unchanging, unmovable, and eternal; it is separated from the corrupt world of our experience. In fact, god cannot even be associated with lower, corrupt nature.

Likewise, the view taken of human nature is very different. The Biblical view is that the human race, while it is certainly sinful and disobedient, is part of God's creation, which is described in Genesis as "very good". Humanity, though it can reach the absolute depths of cruelty and sin, is still presented with the hope of meeting God (through God's gracious faith to his covenant). For the Greeks, on the other hand, anything changeable is bad and anathema to the divine. It is only the soul, which is eternal like god, that is viewed positively. Humankind's only hope of participating with the divine is through the elevation of the soul to the level of the eternal god; this is best seen in the later Platonist, Plotinus.

It seems hard to fathom how these two ideologies could come together in Christianity. Indeed, it seems to me that this tension is the source of some of the most difficult theological and Biblical questions. It was in trying to lay the Greek ideal onto the Biblical account that real problems and schisms happened in the church—just as one example, the claim that Jesus was truly God seemed impossible to many because God cannot be born, grow up, suffer and die. Even today, we are faced with this tension. If God knew from the outset that Adam and Eve would fall, why didn't he stop them—or, even more troubling, in what sense did they have free will? If Jesus was God, and knew he would suffer, die, and yet be raised to glory, how were his actions humble obedience? If we're supposed to become like God, heirs of the kingdom, then don't we have to deny everything on this plane of existence?

These questions, and others, are incredibly complex, and I have no intention of answering them. All I want to suggest is that they may be easier to understand if we recognize the tension inherent in all our thinking about God and creation, a tension which comes from our dual heritage. In the end, I believe we should lean on the Biblical account and deny the Greek philosophical claims when we see them contradicting the Bible; and in fact, many of the heresies the church has faced (heresies might be a worthwhile subject for a later post) can be understood as affirming philosophy over scripture.

It seems to me that the early church tried to use Greek philosophy as a way of protecting their image—when the Roman world believed that they were cannibals (they ate body and blood at communion) and engaged in incestuous orgies (they talked about loving brother and sister)—Christian apologists tried to show that Christianity was in fact perfectly reasonable and not as crazy as it sounded. Justin Martyr was the best example of this: he claimed that the logos of the Greek philosophers (logos, or reason, being so vitally important in that philosophy) was identical with the logos of Christianity (logos, or Word, John's description of Christ), and that anyone who followed reason actually followed Christ (including Socrates). This was an important and necessary work for the early church, and I think they were right to do it. However, in the church today, we are not faced with such challenges, and it remains for us to try to separate out again philosophy and gospel, insofar as they contradict one another.

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