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Faith and Philosophy in the Early Church

Roy Kearsley

Themelios 15.3 (April/May 1990): 81-86.
[Reproduced by permission of the author]


Dr Kearsley teaches in the Bible Training Institute, Glasgow.

Why should Themelios bother itself with an article on philosophy? Is not the subject abstruse and irrelevant for those preparing for ministry or mission? In fact, however, philosophy is an invisible force which has shaped the minds of the people we evangelize and pastor, and simply to ignore its impact upon both the world and the church is like going into battle wearing a blindfold. An introduction to the subject seems, to me, essential for all who want to be alert in God's work.

The work of early Christian theologians provides a classic set of case histories in the relationship of Christian belief to its intellectual setting. A short article like this cannot possibly do justice to the intricate and pervasive interaction of Christian and Greek thought (sometimes called Hellenism) in early Christian writers. For that matter, no single sentence can ever capture what ancient Greek philosophy was. Although giant figures - Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (particularly the last two) - dominated the scene, systems sprouted profusely. There was no such thing as the Greek philosophy though there were dominant systems. It was, however, variations of Platonism (discussed below) which counted for most in the earliest stages of Christian doctrinal development. Whilst the ideas of Aristotle enjoyed great currency at the emergence of Christianity, it was really Platonist thinking that touched the majority of Christian writers most in key doctrinal development. This article offers only a selective, fragmentary treatment of that process, highlighting some prime samples.

All important early Christian thinkers showed in their writings a contact with some philosophical mood of their day. It could never have happened otherwise. Already the inter action between Judaism and Greek thought had produced a great Hellenistic Jewish figure in Philo of Alexandria whose influence spread beyond the Jewish to the Christian world of thought, especially to Alexandrian Christianity in the Greek-speaking apologists Clement (c. 155-c. 220) and Origen (c. 185-c. 254). The alliance was not so surprising considering that some Greek philosophers harboured important ideas congenial to the OT. Of these, the belief in an absolute One (Plato) or First Mover (Aristotle) superior to the created order took supreme place. The impact of this united voice over against popular polytheism subtly disposed Christians, as well as some Jews, towards the Greeks. In the second century particularly, defenders of Christian belief sometimes greeted congenial traits in philosophy as part of the same revelation (see, for example, Justin's 1 Apol. 46 and Clement's Stromata).

In short, the foremost Christian spokesmen thought from the philosophy 'at the bottom of their minds'.[1] As Prestige reminds us, second and third-century Christians instinctively worked with the rational method of their day.[2] However, like Philo, they used it to call people to what they saw as a 'higher' and better way than the Greek schools. Certain key figures, such as Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) and Augustine (354-430), actually reached Christian faith only after a tour of philosophical schools and constructed their Christian theologies with one eye on a disapproving Hellenism. Others, like the Latin-speaking African apologist Tertullian (c. 160/70 - c. 215/20), sometimes scorned aspects of the Greek philosophical tradition whilst displaying considerable direct and indirect dependence upon it.

The options open to a pagan philosopher ran into many varieties but Christian thinkers of the early period interacted mainly with two strains of Platonism. The first was Middle Platonism (dating from the first century BC). The term merely locates a species of Platonism rather than a single school, since there were also varieties within Middle Platonism. However, certain tenets gained a grip upon the popular mind, giving a sort of shared religious framework. It certainly included the original Platonic division of the sensible world


(the material, visible and transient) and the intelligible world (the rational, spiritual, invisible and eternal). This division opened up into a yawning gap between the One and the Many, the Eternal and the Corruptible, the Changeless and the Changeable, which was no light matter since the Platonic quest sought by philosophy a possession of Truth and the absolute Good.[3]

However, many in its school had managed an uneasy synthesis with Stoicism (dating in its developed form from the third century BC). This seems at first an unlikely partnership since Stoicism taught a materialist view of all reality. Even the nearest thing to 'God', a pervasive 'World-Soul' or spirit which was diffused through all creation, was material though a highly refined kind. This rational principle, pervading and guiding everything, fell into the hands of Platonist thought as the Logos, the ideal mediator between the divided realms of the sensible and the intelligible. Stoic ethics too spread widely and finally invaded Christian soil prepared by the rigorous conditions of persecution. The moral ideal to the Stoic was the apatheia, freedom from the emotional life for the pursuit of rational discipline, the real philosophical and moral goal. We can find echoes of this Stoic idea amongst early Christians in a number of doctrines. These included, for instance, divine impassibility (in their case the belief that God is not vulnerable as the creatures are to feelings), salvation through enlightenment, and a tendency to give little place to the human soul of Jesus.

The second strain of Platonism was Neoplatonism. It owed much to the Middle Platonists but attempted a solution to that school's chronic dualism between the 'sensible' and 'intelligible' worlds. It sought the answer in the famed 'exodus and return' view of 'being'. The multiplicity of the sensible world overflowed from the undivided One outwards through strata of 'being' and then returned by the same way to the One. A kind of trinity appears at the source in the form of the One, the Mind (the principle of intelligence in the world) and the Soul (the principle of animation). This elegant and brilliant scheme, whose architect was Plotinus in the third century, brought with it a new religious quest, the challenge of mystical return to the One through the hierarchy of being. Views vary on the question of just when this form of Platonism began to influence Christian writers. Although Origen was a contemporary of Plotinus it is likely that Middle Platonism can account for most of his Platonist features, though Middle Platonism in any case contained some of the seeds of Neoplatonist thinking.

J. M. Rist questions the assumption that fourth-century Christian writers, such as the Cappadocean Fathers who were prominent in the development and defence of Trinitarian orthodoxy (discussed further below), simply took over this quasi-trinitarian and mystical tradition from the Neo Platonists. He argues that although the important Trinitarian theologian Gregory of Nyssa (330-c. 395) clearly depends upon Plotinus, Gregory's elder and more dominant brother, Basil of Caesarea (c. 329-379), received his education from the Middle Platonist school and used Plotinus hardly at all.[4] Nevertheless Rist recognizes affinity of thought and remarks that Basil's work shows how 'neoplatonically' a Christian can talk without any Neoplatonic source being used. In what areas, then, did these Middle and Neoplatonist traditions affect the Christian thinkers?

God in relation to the world

The doctrine of God took the strain of Middle Platonist pressure in the early years. Some exaggerated Platonist systems which took root in Christian circles were finally neutralized in great measure by the apologists Irenaeus (c. 175-c. 195) and Tertullian. These rivals to traditional thinking included second-century 'heretic' Marcion's notion of an evil creator opposed to the true God and his Christ, as well as the more flamboyant Gnostic systems which speculated on journeys of the soul through various spheres towards the Good. This unbending dualism even made an impact on some of the best Christian writers. Justin Martyr seemed to concede the Platonist ditch between the 'sensible' and 'non-sensible' spheres when he opted for a nameless and unutterable God. The resulting tendency towards 'apophatic' theology (speaking of God only in negatives, of what God is not), grew quite acute in those teachers most indebted to a training in Middle Platonism, namely Clement and Origen. This road led right into the heart of the church's Trinitarian and Christological thinking.

God as Trinity

The dilemma posed by dualism to Christian thought, namely that of shutting God out of his own creation, made its greatest impact upon Trinitarian thinking. An answer to that dilemma seemed already to hand in the notion, clearly present in Philo and other schools, of the Logos as an intermediary between God and the world. The Son of God of the NT soon lay under threat of becoming a being from a middle territory somehow in place to bridge the deep gulf between Eternal and Corruptible, between Being and Becoming, between the One and the Many. The formula offered at the beginning of the fourth century by the anti-Trinitarian Arius, of Christ as a secondary and created being, was not the bolt from the blue it may often seem.

Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) receives the blame, or credit, for having early 'domesticated' the Logos idea[5] by identifying the Logos with the mediating Son. He has earned a reputation for inheriting Logos theology neither from John's gospel nor from Philo but from his own instinctive Platonism.[6] But undoubtedly the most thorough Platonizing trend appears in Origen who saw in the Logos the answer to a perennial problem: the relation between the One and the Many. The Logos, he decided, contained in itself the multiplicity of aspects (epinoia) which account for diversity in the world, the sphere of the 'Many'. This world of diversity contrasted sharply with the 'One', the incomposite Father in complete unity and simplicity.[7] Although qualified in other ways by Origen, the Greek doctrine of the supreme Undivided One took on a life of its own, and in the hands of Arius it finally detached the Logos altogether from the Father, from the One, the Eternal and Simple. The road from apologist to heretic was paved with Greek intentions. Yet the various Christian systems contained much that was distinctively Christian and weighty enough to restrain entrenched Platonism.[8]

It took the sharp edge of the Arian debate to arouse a Trinitarianism more uncomfortably aware of philosophy's problematic elements. Athanasius, the chief defender of the Son's divine status against Arian thought, disrupted the church's experiment with Middle Platonist ideas. For him,


the notion of an intermediary spanning the gulf between unutterable being and multiple, restless creatures determined too much the identity of the Logos. For Athanasius, the demands of the Christian doctrine of redemption furnished the best guide to who the Logos really was: nothing less than divine being. In his early years Athanasius fought in particular for the homoousios ('same-essence' with the Father) of the Son, the same formula adopted by the Council of Nicea (AD 325). The Son's share in the Father's divine reality or being was for Athanasius the only safeguard of the Christian faith. Equally, for this same shielding of God's saving work in history, he came to assert also the homoousios of the Spirit, the one through whom the Logos brings life and sanctification.

But that was not the end of the influence of Platonism upon Christian thinkers. It was merely the end of an era, of a particular proneness and vulnerability at a key pressure point. Heavy residual Greek philosophy persisted in Trinitarian writing but less unquestioningly. Views vary on the degree of mental independence from Platonism's dictates in the fourth century. J. P. Mackey finds the great fourth-century de fenders of Trinitarian orthodoxy, the Cappadocean Fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzen), firmly embedded in the Neoplatonist mindset. He considers that Gregory of Nyssa's habit of speaking of a mystical ascent to knowledge of the unknown through intermediaries suggests reliance upon a scheme of emanations which is now the property of the Arians.[9] Certainly these Greek theologians espoused a mystical notion of philosophy as a vocation. That is, it was 'a way of life',[10] a way upwards by enlightenment, towards the knowledge of the incomprehensible God. This approach has enjoyed a long life in the mystical traditions of both Eastern and Western Christianity but peaked for Western Trinitarian theology in the work of Augustine. Almost all scholarship is agreed that Neo platonism with its mystical, contemplative quest towards the One as well as its positive view of human potentiality animated Augustine. The general Neoplatonic scheme of One, Mind and Soul promoted well Augustine's favoured 'psychological' model of the Trinity, based on an individual's 'psychology' or experience of Memory, Understanding and Will.

Yet Gregory of Nyssa was a product of the Athanasian homoousios tradition, whilst the Platonist scheme rested on a plurality of ousiai or 'essences' as its first axiom. The ascent for Gregory, therefore, was not through realms and hierarchies of being, but through stages of perception and renewal.[11] A gulf remains 'between the self-existent Trinity and all its creatures'.[12] J. M. Rist says of Gregory's great contemporary, Basil, that there 'is not a trace of the influence of Neoplatonic speculation in that area of Trinitarian theology from which the Council [of Nicea] had excluded Platonism forever'.[13] That was just it. The decision of Nicea for the Son's identity as homoousios with the Father had removed the main shaft of the Platonist view of reality in the Christian context. Some of the machinery kept spinning, notably the pursuit of gnosis, of divine knowledge through progressive enlightenment, because it was still congenial to the Christian vocation of the NT. But a new de-Platonized core of Trinitarianism was in place.

The impact of Greek religious thought upon the doctrine of the Trinity receives varied assessment. A. Harnack, in his famous What is Christianity? (ET 1901), even dismissed the whole patristic development of Christian thought as 'Hellenization', an alien distortion of the pristine Christian faith. More recent assessments have been less sweeping. J. P. Mackey highlights more selectively the 'divine ineffability, the true extent of divine immutability, divine creative activity and its suggested intermediaries, responsive human eros and the distinct hyposiaseis which can be described in its return to the One, the source of all....'[14] We have seen that all of these indeed supplied, at various stages, a womb and nourishment for the embryonic Trinitarian dogma. They do not, however, explain the persistence of Trinitarian thought through several centuries and different stages of Platonism. This springs from a stubborn conviction of the divine status of the Son and the efficacy of the Holy Spirit which the church detected in the NT tradition.

G. W. H. Lampe has claimed that classic Trinitarianism came to birth by a process of moulding the Logos of Middle Platonism into the shape of the personal and divine Son of God present only in a developed form of Christian thought.[15] However, the vigour of the Trinitarian idea through all the phases of philosophical fashion suggests a more basic drive. Moreover, his case encounters a further problem in the increase of Trinitarian speculation after Nicea. The march of the Niceans weakened Middle Platonist preoccupation with the Logos as a secondary order of being, yet in fact strengthened the Trinitarian doctrine that is supposed by Lampe to rest upon it.

Divine Immutability

In the background of early Christianity there lurked an assumption possibly more subversive to Christian distinctiveness than all the baits offered by Platonism to Trinitarian development. It was the cardinal Platonist doctrine that underlay them, the notion of God's unchangeableness and its twin, the impassibility of God. For Platonists of every shade, and there were many, God was free of 'feelings', for these admitted change and pointed to inferiority and corruptibility.[16] The reluctance of Justin to give names and attributes to God and the apophatic way of talking about God tended to yield only a list of 'in's' and 'imm's': incorruptible, incomprehensible, immutable, immobile, immaterial ...impassible.

It is often assumed that Christian writers absorbed all of these uncritically and without a struggle, a quite natural conclusion in the light of Clement's identifying of the Platonist God with the biblical God. But there were enough points of tension to generate contradictions in the Christian writers so that they could never be wholly comfortable with such an unbiblical idea as a God, for instance, who did not act in the world, Impassibility, however, had its own particular plus values, a few of which remain with us today. Even in modern British culture we find admiration for the person who is 'cool'. In ancient thought passions not only pointed to changeableness, and therefore mortality, but also to vulnerability. It was not altogether unsound or inconsistent with the Bible to recognize in God a potency and sufficiency which, by shielding him from vulnerability, guaranteed him and his strength to the believer. The Psalms are full of such confidence, and undoubtedly the early Christians admitted impassibility (apatheia) into their vocabulary with an unconsciously constructive instinct.


Yet from time to time other convictions came to expression. Although Origen had spoken approvingly of God's impassibility, he also came to speak of the same 'impassible' God suffering with compassion, and even ascribed emotions to the Father on account of the Son's suffering and the displayed passibility of the Son in the incarnation.[17] It was, in fact, the question of the incarnation which exposed the problems which would be entailed for Christian belief in a comprehensively immobile God.

The incarnation

The central mystery of Christian faith was always the person of Jesus himself. Belief in the incarnation formed a strategic scene of tension between the NT tradition and the Greek atmosphere into which it was born. Systematized Gnosticism, early in the second century, took to a rigorous conclusion the Platonist assurance that the One stood apart from the Many, the Unchanged from the Changeable, the Incorruptible from the Corruptible. For many Gnostics the physical identity of Jesus only seemed (Greek dokein, hence 'docetic') normal. Christ was sent from the heavenly, the divine, sphere and therefore could not possibly unite himself to a material form since all material reality was intrinsically evil. True incarnation was impossible and all the physical traits and activities of Jesus were just an elaborate illusion to make possible the revelation of secret knowledge which Jesus brought.

The second-century apologist Irenaeus launched a comprehensive assault upon Gnostic views from which they never really recovered, though it was necessary later in the century for Tertullian to repeat some of these arguments. Tertullian also tackled a variant strain of Platonic doceticism in the work of Marcion and in doing so wrote the first really trenchant defence of the true humanity of Christ. Marcion's dualism took a leaf out of the Gnostic book, dumping the creator (demi-urge) in with the intrinsic evil of creation itself. For Marcion, Christ came from much further out, from the good God challenging the OT's vengeful creator as much as he challenged the demonic world. It is important to recognize that although the soil and roots of these species of thought are Platonist, we are really dealing with mutants. These are hardly respectable representatives of the chief forms of Middle Platonism. When Tertullian attacked Plato he was really pouring scorn upon something that passed for a Platonist school. Yet it is true that the threat to belief in the real humanity of Jesus stemmed from that unbridgable abyss fixed, for Platonist thinking, between two spheres. Even the One could not cross it. True incarnation was therefore unthinkable. Tertullian, himself probably the product of a standard Platonist education, drew from the NT 'rule of faith' a counter-revolution in Christology: assertion of a full, fleshly, ensouled Logos.

As in the question of the Trinity, fundamental Christian conviction somehow proved tenacious in the face of potential philosophical subversion. The Christian mind instinctively knew to defend the real entrance of God into the human dilemma. It knew Christ as both Lord and brother in untainted solidarity with human beings. The idea of salvation-via-incarnation finally became non-negotiable in the famous maxim of Athanasius (De Incarnatione 54. but echoing a sentiment in Irenaeus): 'he became human that we might become divine' (in the sense of united to the divine). However, the Greek way of thinking showed persistence too. Origen, for instance, took on board the Platonist recognition of pre-existent soul as a mediating element in its dualism, since the soul partook of both the 'intelligible' sphere (as rational), and of the 'sensible' sphere (as being involved in motion, which belonged to change and corruption). A startling formula for the divine-human Christ became possible: pre-existence extended to the humanity (the soul) as well as the deity (the eternally begotten Son) in a perfect fusion. This solution to the problem of Christ's dual identity was both brilliant and dangerous, for although it compelled Platonist thinking to serve Christian thought, it also marginalized the humanity of Jesus as a mortal physical and emotional life in this world. It designed a unity of natures in Christ detachable from real physical incarnation. Origen espoused the idea of redemption through Christ's role as bringer of knowledge and revelation. For him the historical Christ, a time-conditioned form, was to be relativized when at last the eternal truth became known.[18]

Origen's idiosyncrasies passed away quickly but what remained was a muted recognition of the full incarnated life of the eternal Logos in this world, a hallmark of Platonist instinct. Great names have fallen under suspicion on this score. Foremost amongst these must be Athanasius.

Most patristic scholars agree that even if Athanasius reserved a place in his Christology for the features normally attributed to the human soul, yet the soul as a distinct unit carried no weight-bearing load for the work of salvation in his theology. In the tradition of his predecessors in Alexandria, he seemed rather to have placed the Logos alone at the centre of the saving programme. In every sense the divine Logos was the answer to the human dilemma. In Platonic thinking the Logos and the world-soul 'participated' in both the ideal supra-sensible sphere and the concrete material world. In the other direction, the features of the concrete material world equally 'participated' in, or drew from, original 'Forms' or patterns. So in Athanasian thought, it was all up to the Logos as one participating both in the divine sphere and the human sphere (both the individual manhood and the pattern of humanity) to correct and purify rogue human nature. The Logos undertook that mission even to death as the defeat of death. None but a divine Logos could possibly see the programme to its end. A tension appears in the work of Athanasius. On the one hand he seems docetic, bypassing human consciousness and experience since the Logos is the subject of Christ's life, and on the other hand recognizing real suffering and death which he located exclusively in the agency of human experience. A now familiar picture takes shape in which the Platonist ethos finds itself in uneasy company with a NT tradition which will not go away.

The rivals of the Alexandrian tradition in a school of thought centred on Antioch protected the deity and impassibility of the Son by balancing on the edge of a dualism between 'the God' and 'the Man' in Christ. But in fact the old Middle Platonist view was approaching extinction in the Christian camp. Nicea had proved more critical and decisive for it than appeared at the time. Fierce disagreements divided the schools of Antioch and Alexandria, the former stressing the completeness and integrity of both the human and divine in Christ, the latter straining after ways of placing the saving Logos at the centre of Christ's experiences as the unifying


focus of them. Yet both sides were committed to the principle of incarnation, untrammelled by prejudices about the appropriateness of a divine Logos in intimate contact with an unruly world.


This brief review of early Christian thought in its philosophical setting has been very selective and we could have found other sparks from the Platonist fire warming the hearths of Christian theology. The chief points of interest, however, do concern God's relation to the world, the incarnation and the doctrine of the Trinity. Here, we have seen that compatibilities between Judaeo-Christian principles and Greek theology eased the process of Christianization of thought and even supplied a conceptuality through which Christians could argue their concerns. To this degree they owed a debt to the Hellenistic world. We have seen also that it took time, and ultimately the Nicean crisis, for the areas of conflict to spill out to view. During this time there was a real possibility that some Christians would surrender the new and challenging in Christian belief to the established and the familiar, or at least modify or assimilate the new to the old. What prevented this was the critical centrality of those NT beliefs to Christian identity and to the special salvation idea.

As a generalization, the 'subversion' theory of Harnack survives today mainly in very modified forms, though in specific matters the verdict, bold in its day, still attracts many. Did the Christians in fact abandon a pristine simple messianic faith by stages until something unrecognizable as the original emerged? Or was it rather that they simply took over terminology and commandeered it for new concepts? Certainly in Christian hands the Greek terms, not all derived from a philosophical vocabulary, acquired new applications and novel uses.[19] The distinguished patristic scholar, Heinrich Dörrie, felt that Christian thought only ever took over peripheral material from Platonism such as language and literary form.[20] E. P. Meijering, however, a specialist in early Christian interaction with Platonism, believed that the relationship was not so superficial. Platonism lived in the heads and the hearts of the early thinkers.[21] C. J. de Vogel offers a third and sound way. According to him, early Christians felt an affinity with much in Platonism and received its teachings sympathetically but not uncritically. But on the matter of the progress of dogma, he is confident that 'Christian doctrine developed according to its own intrinsic laws', since the core of Christian faith was alien to Platonism and it was Christian faith, based not on en lightened human reflection but upon revelation in Christ.[22]

Philosophy and Christian faith today

Philosophy today only partly resembles the discipline that the patristic writers knew. Some of the agenda remains the same, such as examining exactly what we mean by 'knowledge' (epistemology) and 'self-consciousness', finding categories in which to express new ideas, analysing conceptuality. Some have argued that the only appropriate field left to philosophers is this last one, the rigorous enquiry into what any statement actually means, indeed its claim even to be meaningful, without concluding some factual addition to the body of human knowledge. Philosophy fell prey to this emasculation because of the modern growth of the sciences which transferred to themselves fields previously the territory of philosophers. Cosmology is an obvious example, anthropology another. What Christian thinkers need to mark now are some underlying assumptions of major schools. It is easy to make concessions, for instance, to G. W. F. Hegel's principle of the absolute dynamic of all reality, and surrender all ground for the self-consistency of God and the real identity of ourselves. Whilst Hegel has lost ground with the philosophers, he enjoys, through the work of German theologians, a formidable revival in theology. Equally, some have taken on board Kant's boxing-up of all knowledge into the knowledge of the material world along with the regular conditions for experiencing it. For Kant the subject of 'God' falls into the category of the unknowable metaphysical world. All talk of God, therefore, even that based upon the claim of revelation in Christ, is so indirect as to provide no grounds for faith. It is existentialism, however, which has been the most fertile field of philosophico-Christian synthesis, perhaps because it appeals to individual decision, a feature of early Christian preaching. Its influence has reached into all fields of Christian theology, the biblical as well as the dogmatic.

Do such hazards mean that no constructive relationship between theology and philosophy is possible? It may help to observe at least three possible dominant tendencies. The first tendency is that of conscious, radical, full-blooded espousal of a known philosophical framework. A good modern example here is process theology, whose distinguished British exponent, Professor W. N. Pittenger, has openly admitted his commitment to the process philosophy of A. N. Whitehead, and has argued for a full abandonment of the traditional frameworks to accommodate the new. Pittenger's claim is that everyone has some such commitment overtly or covertly.[23] There is, however, a vast difference between adapting philosophy to a Christian application and un bending allegiance to a comprehensive philosophical system. The second tendency is simply an unconscious adoption of some distinctive assumptions current in philosophical thought. Such, as we have seen, were many of the early Christian writers, and such are most of us today, taking the tinge of modern secularism and individualism (even existentialism) into our Christian conceptuality. Like the early writers, we would benefit from critical analysis of our thought on this score. Some, no doubt, have even seen in evangelical fashion, devotion, communication and public worship, un acknowledged debts to other thought-systems, such as those where spontaneity, autonomy and individualism assume key positions. The third tendency is a kind of restrained synthesis where a theologian's sympathies for a particular philosopher live in uneasy tension with more traditional convictions. A fine example of this tension is Karl Rahner, whose devotion to Heidegger surfaces in both method and content but finally has to compromise with a strong traditional Roman Catholicism.

The challenge facing us is that of sympathetic but critical interaction with modern philosophies, whilst ultimately relying wholly upon none. This practice has a long tradition and even marks the Reformed theologians of the nineteenth century. The degree of indebtedness to philosophical writings varied, but it is doubtful if there have been any important theologians, even in very conservative quarters, who escaped it altogether. The exercise can still be fruitful for those skilled enough to tackle it, so long as they recognize at


the outset that Christian revelation asks, as host, any philosophy to take the shape of Scripture, observe its codes, honour its purpose, glorify its Christ. The interaction requires that in the process of critical encounter, philosophical method will yield, at the crunch, to a 'biblicizing' of itself. Hesitation here betrays prior allegiance to a philosophy already posturing to rule, not to serve, the NT content. To be sure, critical analysis and fresh conceptuality can discipline our biblical and theological work. They can raise our perceptions. They can supply a rigorous test of our authenticity, our clarity and our integrity. But ultimately, to displace the Bible's own frameworks and tests is to abuse the hospitality of the host. In our thinking as well as our doing none of us can serve two masters.


[1] C. J. de Vogel, 'Platonism and Christianity: A Mere Antagonism or a Profound Common Ground?', in Vigiliae Christianae 39 (1985), pp. 1-62, 34-35.

[2] G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London: SPCK, 1975), p. xiii.

[3] For a full survey, J. Dillon, The Middle Platonists. 80 BC 10 AD 220 (London: Duckworth, 1977).

[4] M. Rist, 'Basil's "Neo-Platonism": Its Background and Nature', in Paul J. Fedwick (ed.), Basil of Caesarea: Christian, Humanist, Ascetic. A Sixteen-Hundredth Anniversary Symposium (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1981), pp. 137-220.

[5] H. Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition (Oxford: University Press, 1985), p. 4.

[6] Ibid., p. 16.

[7] See J. W. Trigg, Origen: the Bible and Philosophy in the Third Century Church (London: SCM, 1983), pp. 97-98. See also E. Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (London: Sheed & Ward, 1955), p. 39. Prof. Frances Young summarizes well the same trend appearing in the Origenist Eusebius of Caesarea, in From Nicaea to Chalcedon. A guide to the literature and its background (London: SCM, 1983), p. 18.

[8] See the comment of R. Grant, Gods and the One God. Christian Theology in the Graeco-Roman World (London: SPCK, 1986), p. 109: 'The Logos doctrine does not necessarily exhaust the theological ideas of any of the apologists.' Also J. W. Trigg, op. cit., p. 15: 'The Logos theology for all its popularity in Origen's time was transitional. The Church ultimately rejected it because it limited Christ's dignity.'

[9] J.P. Mackey, The Christian Experience of the Trinity (London: SCM, 1983), pp. 148-149, 152.

[10] F. Young, op. cit., p. 116.

[11] I. P. Sheldon-Williams, 'The Greek Christian Platonist Tradition from the Cappadoceans To Maximus and Eriugena', in A. H. Armstrong (ed), The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: University Press, 1967), pp. 444-445.

[12] F. Young, op. cit., p. 119.

[13] John M. Rist, op. cit., p. 220.

[14] The Christian Experience of the Trinity, pp. 106-107.

[15] G. W. H. Lampe, God As Spirit (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977), pp. 120-134.

[16] Mackey, op. cit., p. 112, thinks it possible that Aristotle, as heir to, and modifier of, Plato, may have been more responsible than Plato himself for the impassibility doctrine.

[17] R. Grant, op. cit., pp. 91-93, who points us to De Principiis II, Commentary on Matthew and the Homilies. Grant, interestingly, explains the tension by Origen's discovery of Ignatius who in his Roman letter speaks of the 'passion of my God'.

[18] T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith. The Evangelical theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clarke, 1988), p. 37.

[19] See the standard introduction to this subject: G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London: SPCK, 1975), passim but especially p. xiv; G. L. Bray, Creeds, Councils and Controversies (Leicester: IVP, 1984), pp. 83-91, particularly p. 84.

[20] H. Dörrie, Platonica minora (Munich, 1976), pp. 508-523, cited by de Vogel, op. cit.

[21] E. P. Meijering, 'Wie Platonisierten Christen', Vigiliae Christianae 28 (1974), pp. 15-28.

[22] C. J. de Vogel, op. cit., pp. 27-31.

[23] W. N. Pittenger, Christology Reconsidered (London: SCM), p. 87 (cf. p. 104).

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