THE EARLY CHRISTIAN APPROPRIATION OF PAGAN PIETY


PHILOSOPHY AND THE CHRISTIAN

AN INTRODUCTION TO VOLUME 2 OF AD FONTES

Tertullian famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” e relationship between faith and reason, between the Holy Scriptures and natural revelation, and between Christian doctrine and non-Christian philosophy, has been the subject of immense debate within the Christian tradition. Unfortunately, the history of this con ict has been frequently caricatured and misunderstood. So before we attempt our own constructive answer to these questions today, we must rst properly come to grips with the answers of the past. Just what was “philosophy” for our ancestors? Have the questions and intellectual postures associated with it changed, or is there signi cant continuity between “ancient” and “modern” philoso- phy? What were the doctors of the church thinking of speci cally when they either condemned or a rmed the enterprise? And most importantly, where does that leave the church today? is year’s longer editions of Ad Fontes will present a non-exhaustive survey of how Christians have navi- gated through this territory in the history of the Christian church. Our goal in doing so is not to commend slavish obedience to their example, but rather to provide an opportunity for critical re ection upon their wisdom for the sake of further cultivation in the present.

 


THE EARLY CHRISTIAN APPROPRIATION OF PAGAN PIETY by  BLAKE ADAMS

This essay, like Gaul, is divided into three parts, but it begins with the same question Adolf von Harnack asked over a hundred years ago: What is Christianity? Like Harnack, we desire a historical answer. Christianity insistently directs its origin to a divine revelation to humanity in the person of Jesus, the Messiah and the Son of God, and while other definitions are available to us, a historical one is the most appropriate for a discussion on the early Church appropriation of pagan piety.

I will investigate two competing historical definitions. The first definition, Christianity as Hellenized Judaism, belongs to Harnack; the second, Christianity as the Expectation of the Nations, belongs to the early Church. However, any discussion of historic Christianity requires some mention of the doctrine of divine revelation. The first part of this essay, then, will be a necessary Catechetical defining of this term.

Divine Revelation as God’s Self-Disclosure

Revelation, defined, is God making Himself known to us for the sake of establishing communion with Him.

Ancient theologians and apologists cited Scripture at great length to prove Jesus was the Messiah of fulfilled prophecy, as He claimed to be. And yet, despite centuries of study and familiarity with the prophets, the Messiah turned out to be like nothing anyone expected, which is enough to deny that Christianity can be explained as the result of literary exercise. The Scriptures could not predetermine that a man called Jesus is the Messiah. Rather, the prophetic texts awaited the Messiah to declare Himself, and only then could they be “fulfilled in our hearing.”[1]

Christianity also cannot be explained as the result of dialectic reasoning. Ancient Greek philosophers reasoned that above their pantheon of quarrelling deities is “the first God” who is “incorporeal, immovable, and invisible, and is in need of nothing external to Himself.”[2] Uncreated, immortal, and immutable, there was none other equal to or higher than this God. The gods of the nations whose idols we worship are His subordinates. Unlike them, the supreme God of the Greeks does not reveal Himself in history: He is known through the mind alone. Therefore, He has no image or temple, He is offered no sacrifices, and He is not worshiped through song or speech of any kind, but rather, the pagan Porphyry says, “we should venerate Him in profound silence with a pure soul, and with pure conceptions about Him.”[3]

How can such a God be known? As stated, the Greek answer is “through the mind alone” by dialectical reasoning. In the ancient dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asks a friend about the nature of piety. Euthyphro responds that “the pious is that which is loved by the gods.”[4] Socrates points out that the gods, being many, may disagree amongst themselves or love different things.[5] He aptly responds that the inevitable inference is that “what is pleasing to the gods is also hateful to them. Thus, Euthyphro, it would not be strange at all if what you now are doing…were pleasing to Zeus, but hateful to Cronus and Uranus, and welcome to Hephaestus, but odious to Hera, and if any other of the gods disagree about the matter, satisfactory to some of them, and odious to others.”[6] Following this reasoning, how can there be piety among men, and how can we identify anything as holy or sinful, when there is a plurality of deities?[7] This creates a dilemma: Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?[8] The only resolution is the existence of a God who is supreme above all the others. Even if there were only two gods, their existence would implicate something yet higher, which alone would be supreme.

Although a great intellectual achievement, this also fails to explain Christianity for us. In fact, the philosophers would deny Jesus was the same as the supreme God, taking it as a given that such a deity could not be both supreme and also interact with the material world. In fact, they even denied the supreme God could have created the universe, a task they credited to the Demiurge, a lower deity. There is ample material here with which Christians can agree, but in the end this thinking cannot anticipate that someone like Jesus is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”[9] So finally, the claim that Jesus is the Son of God is not a dialectic conclusion. We are unequipped to infer such things. Again, we must await the Son of God to announce Himself first.

Both prophecy and philosophy at their height orient us toward true religion by affirming there is a Christ and a supreme God, but they do not deliver us there of their own power. Salvation does not reside in a book or in the mind. Ultimately, it is God Himself who induces us to realize that He is who He says He is, and makes possible communion with Him. To encounter that revelation is to experience an epistemic breakdown where faith alone may enter.

What is the nature of this faith? To illustrate, let’s say you told me your favorite color. Whatever it is, I’d be inclined to believe you, not because I already know what your favorite color is (and therefore can determine on my own that you aren’t lying to me), but because there is no way to know what your favorite color is unless you tell me. It is highly specialized, exclusive information that could not be deduced from your wardrobe choices, favorite highlighter, or any number of brain scans. Your word is the final one; it is the “evidence of things not seen.”[10] Moreover, once you disclose your favorite color, who can deny it? You alone can supply such self-disclosure, because it is something only you can know. You could not lie to another person about it without simultaneously lying about yourself. Your exclusive right to such information compels either faith or a rejection of your whole person.

Faith rests in the authority of its source, not in the individual’s faculties. It is the same with God’s revelation. The object of faith is knowledge (pertaining to divine law, divine will, salvation, etc.) that we could not acquire through the powers of reason or experience. It awaits divine utterance, and it is believed not because we can determine for ourselves what is divine truth, but because God alone has authority to speak on things pertaining to Himself. In short, revelation is God’s self-disclosure.[11] Irenaeus, a 2nd century bishop, writes:

Action, then, comes by faith, as ‘if you do not believe’ Isaias says, ‘you will not understand’; and the truth brings about faith, for faith is established upon things truly real, that we may believe what really is, as it is, and believing what really is, as it is, we may always keep our conviction of it firm. Since, then, the conserver of our salvation is faith, it is necessary to take great care of it, that we may have a true comprehension of what is.[12]

It is on the revelation of God in Christ where the Christian faith rests. A rote observation is that Christianity did not fit comfortably in either Judaism or Hellenism. This is to be expected, if the Church is what she claims to be: the human “care” of a heavenly deposit. Subsequently, the history of doctrine is about a Church frequently taking issue with the cultural and philosophical contents which converts bring along with them, whether they be Jew or Greek.

Christianity as Hellenized Judaism

In A.D. 609, Christians gathered in Rome to consecrate the Pantheon. The temple was a massive domed room dedicated nearly five centuries earlier to seven pagan deities: Apollo, Diana, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, and Venus. The niches where their idols once stood are still intact, but in their places are relics of martyrs and depictions of Christ’s life.

The Christians had unique ideas about what made something holy. Because God was omnipresent, then any location was suitable for worship. Unlike their pagan neighbors, Christians did not consider any place or thing intrinsically holy simply because it was the designated space for religious practice. Rather, it was only made holy through an association with the lives of the Apostles and Jesus Christ. Consequently, it was commonplace to build churches on top of the graves of Apostles or martyrs. Since this was not a possibility with the Pantheon, twenty-eight cartloads of martyrs’ remains were removed from the Roman catacombs and placed beneath the altar. Once the consecration was complete, legend tells that seven demons, suddenly finding themselves in someone else’s home, fled in terror. The Pantheon, after hosting half a millennia of heathen worship, now qualified as a Christian holy site. It remains a Christian church to this day.

Displacing one faith with another, while keeping the pagan architecture intact, may serve as an analogy for the Christian appropriation of pagan piety. Seen this way, Christianity is like a spirit filling and animating a Hellenic cultural framework. This is a common way to describe what took place. But, while helpful, the analogy is unsuitable in some respects. For example, it insinuates the Christian religion is limited by the Hellenism in which it found its early expression.

This latter view ties into the thesis of Adolf von Harnack in his fiery work, What Is Christianity? His argument is that the Christian tradition is effectively Hellenized, which he understood to be a corruption of the divine revelation at its core. According to Harnack, the purity of God’s revelation was deformed to fit into an ancient Greek framework. It is now difficult—if not impossible—to know what is Greek and what is Christian.

We find in Harnack’s thesis pollution on two fronts: the cultural and the intellectual. While these are typically found together, they are distinct. Harnack argues the intellectual corruption begins with the writings of Justin Martyr in the early 2nd century. However, the cultural pollution must precede that, since it is the necessary setup for the latter to occur. Let’s investigate both in their chronological order.

The Pantheon itself is a case in point regarding the cultural pollution of the early Church. It was one of several pagan temples to be repurposed into churches during the 5th and 6th centuries. However, the Pantheon still retains memories of its origin. To the modern onlooker, it might be unremarkable that the inner sanctuary is round. But to the pagan builders, the shape was a visual demonstration of the equal status shared by the seven gods. After entering the sanctuary, a worshipper could wander to any one of the niches, or cycle through all seven, or just pay respects to three or four. He had options. Conversely, when Christians built their own churches, the sanctuaries were long and narrow. Worshippers walked the length of a basilica from porch to apse, ascending from the world to a single point of devotion at the head of the building: the communion table. These two layouts illustrate fundamentally different ideas about the divine nature and the manner of proper devotion. How can Christians justify gathering in a temple where the very architecture teaches things antithetical to true monotheistic religion? Shouldn’t this temple be destroyed and replaced by a proper church, rather than preserved?

Christianity was born in a society which had already existed for centuries, and which it had not helped to create. Despite its original purpose as a pagan temple, the Pantheon was now occupied by a new set of worshippers. But in an important sense, it was the same set of worshippers. Everyone in attendance was either a former pagan or the descendant of pagans. The Christians did not claim the Pantheon as spoil from their conquest of the Greeks: they were the Greeks. It was their own temple which they repurposed into their own church.

Today, the (former) Pantheon features a prominent Christian altar across from the entryway. Despite the shape of the room, the sanctuary now has a distinctive head toward which the worshipper is drawn, converting any experience of the layout into a distinctively Christian one. Like Abraham departing Egypt with livestock and riches in tow, the early Church pressed formerly-heathen properties into the service of God.

From its beginning, the church was confronted with the problem of what it could allow, approve, or reject in its Greek inheritance. It is easy for us to slip into imagining this period as a sort of stand-off between the Christian and the Greek worlds. Statements abound depicting one in opposition to the other. The estimable Dariusz Karlowicz reminds his students that “the Christian theologians utilized arguments lifted out of the Greeks, but against the Greeks.”[13] This sort of language is necessary to an extent. The Church Fathers themselves use it. Justin Martyr wrote An Exhortation to the Greeks, where he criticizes teachings sourced in the Homeric tradition.[14] Though it is obvious he is not addressing Christians, we often forget the author was himself Greek.

When we say Greek, it begs the question: Greek what? Justin was a Greek Christian, and the substantive governs the modifier. Greek, in this sense, does not stand in opposition to Christian, but to other substantives: pagan, gnostic, etc. These are the enemies of the Church to whom the apologist writes or answers. But for the remainder of this essay, we will use Greek in the same sense in which Justin and Karlowicz use it: implicating a certain people of varying beliefs and philosophies who continue to live, whether through ignorance or stubbornness, as though the Christ, the Son of God, had not recently arrived on earth.[15]

The early theologians did not use Greek philosophical arguments like a soldier might use an enemy’s weapon he stumbled upon in the field of battle. Historically, philosophy came first for the Greeks, then the revelation of God. This sequence was true personally for most of the first apologists, as well. Long before they read Scripture, they read Plato and Seneca. Many were philosophers before they were Christians, and continued to refer to themselves as such after conversion. Philosophy, for them, was not a helpful afterthought, nor a mere evangelical tool for converting other philosophers. They testified that it had prepared them for the truth of the Gospel; a realization they expanded to explain the place of Greek philosophy in God’s plan to save the non-Jewish nations. In Christ, philosophy was not destroyed but perfected.

Given the above, we can also dispose of an assumption which gives Harnack’s thesis more clout than it deserves: Namely, the presupposition that a pure and Hellenism-free Christianity preceded the later, corrupt version. Assuming this pure Christianity did exist, how might we describe it? What were its contents, before they were sullied by Greek influence? Only one description is available to us: By pure Christianity, what is inevitably meant in this context is a purely Semitic Christianity.

The first Christians were Jews. In fact, the Church did not initially think herself as separate from the Jewish people. (Though Jesus had harsh things to say to the Pharisees, so does the Jewish Talmud.) God’s call was to the Jew first, and the call to the Gentile was a matter of dispute for a time. In fact, this dispute would contribute majorly to the split between church and synagogue (probably A.D. 85). But for at least a period, it was remarkable if a Christian was not a Jew. And yet, the first generation of Church Fathers after the Apostles were Gentiles.[16] Of course, these successors had worked closely with the Apostles, and the number of Jews within the Church remained substantial. Still, if only in a carnal sense, the reigns of the Church had in a matter of decades transferred from one ancient people to another.

How great were the cultural transformations that accompanied this transition? Harnack neglects to indicate what degree of Hellenization is permissible before there is corruption, but on the assumption that the presence of any Greek influence is cause for alarm, we run into a difficulty: The Jewish world had already undergone Hellenization long before Jesus’ time. Beginning in the 6th century B.C., Jews had spread throughout the empire in what historians call the Diaspora. Living amongst Greeks, and disconnected from their religious center in Jerusalem, a crisis of faith emerged when many Jewish families stopped speaking Hebrew. In response, the holy Scriptures were translated into a different language (i.e., Koine Greek) for the first time, probably in the 3rd century B.C. The result was the Septuagint—so called to commemorate the seventy scholars tasked with the translation. When it first appeared, the Septuagint was praised throughout Jewish communities and widely regarded as an inspired translation on par with the original. Many Jews (and later Christians) would never read or hear a word of Scripture in Hebrew.[17]

Perhaps the pinnacle of Jewish Hellenist scholarship was reached by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. A contemporary of Christ,[18] he saw in the stories of the Old Testament a vindication of pagan pieties, and devoted much of his literature toward identifying Greek philosophical conceptions in Judaism in order to reconcile the two. The method proved effective: Numenius, a Greek philosopher writing a century after Philo, famously asked, “What is Plato, but Moses speaking Attic Greek?”[19]

In any event, the Jews of Jesus’ time shared a culture similar to that of their Hellenistic neighbors. Although they remained a distinctive people, and were strongly disliked in certain regions, Jews could be found in high places of society throughout the Empire. They spoke Greek, read ancient literature, and their children received classical educations. It’s plausible that Philo’s literary endeavors were not only meant to benefit Greeks, but also his fellow Hellenized Jews.

The hypothetical “pure Semitic Christianity” necessary to support Harnack’s thesis never existed, nor did Christianity preempt a program to Hellenize its Jewish roots, which, as shown, had already begun in the Church’s absence. Finally, because Jews in many respects shared a culture with the rest of the Empire, the transition from Jewish to Gentile leadership was not as dramatic as we might imagine, culturally-speaking.

Still, becoming heirs to Hellenistic culture had consequences for the Church. After Constantine converted in the early 3rd century, becoming the first Christian emperor, the new religion spread to every corner of the Empire. By the mid-4th century, Christians could be found in every strata of society, and the faith had gone a long way towards appropriating the dominant culture of pagan Rome. Over the course of the next two centuries, time would be converted through the Christian calendar, and space through urban renewal projects concentrating typographically on holy sites.[20] Rome had become a Christian version of its former self. Many could not resist the temptation to equate the Church and its commission to make disciples of all nations with Rome’s ambition to conquer and establish peace throughout the known world. Henry Chadwick writes:

It is possible, therefore, to speculate that Christianity achieved its success in the empire in part because it answered best to the empire’s need for a universal religion with which it could identify itself. There are Christian writers of the 4th century who assume without discussion that ‘Roman’ and ‘Christian’ are almost synonymous terms.[21]

Since its birth, Christianity had been compelled to account for itself. Our question—What is Christianity?—was the same one troubling the early Church when it was surrounded by critics. On one flank were the Greeks; on the other, the Jews; and from within, the Gnostics. Christianity was defined through a fiery, centuries-long process of objection and defense. She was a controversial point of intersection across multiple cultures and languages in Rome’s diverse and pluralistic society. It is difficult to find another religion with comparable beginnings. However, quite early in her development, the Church became distinct from both Judaism and Hellenism. She belongs, ultimately, to neither. Rather, both belong in her.

Couched in an amiable culture, this understanding was under threat. Many noted figures, including Ambrose and Augustine, would retaliate in writing, to great effect. Benedict of Nursia would found monasteries, thereby reasserting the early Christian model of a life devoted to prayer and spiritual practice. However, perhaps the best retaliation was the Great Commission itself. As missionaries penetrated into the neighboring barbarian tribes, the synthesis of Roman imperialism and Christianity broke down. No new program was begun; Christians merely repeated with hostile tribes what had won them the Empire. Gregory I, writing from the late-5th century, instructed missionaries to adapt both pagan temples and pagan holy days to Christian usage:

The idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there. For if these temples are well-built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God.[22]

In this manner, the missionaries to the Germanic tribes were following the practice widely current in the days when the Roman Empire was being converted.

Boniface, dubbed the Apostle of the Germans,[23] was among the first missionaries to the Germanic tribes. A tale left to us by Willibald recalls Boniface and his retinue coming across a tree held sacred by the Germans called Thor’s Oak. Despite its extraordinary size, Boniface took an axe to the base and felled it. But instead of disposing of the wood, he used it to construct a church for the tribe. This may serve as a second church-themed analogy for the Christian appropriation of pagan piety. Here, the old pagan religion is a sort of raw material with which the Church may be built. More than any other analogy, this one might be closest to the view of the early Church.

 

Christianity as the Expectation of the Nations

Let’s now turn to the intellectual side of the issue, which is the heart of Harnack’s thesis. To be clear, we are distinguishing the intellectual from the cultural much as we would the essential from the incidental. For the purposes of this essay, we are not concerned with the accidental and general limitations of language when tasked with the burden of communicating divine revelation; rather, we turn our eyes toward a choice set of philosophically-charged words that were used to articulate key Church doctrines. Even if we can dismiss the idea that Hellenistic influence is a corruption, is it possible that it confines Christian doctrine?

Harnack describes the dogma formulated by the early Church as “in its conception and development a work of the Greek spirit on the soil of the Gospel.”[24] By this, he does not refer to the historical accident that the first Church doctrines were developed in the Greek language (a mere consequence of pagan conversions), but to the more insidious notion that essential doctrines presume a pre-existing philosophical framework native only to Hellenistic cultures. This argument has teeth. The clinch is that it does indeed appear that the early theologians deliberately drew upon the riches of philosophical traditions in order to articulate official Church doctrine.

Take, for example, the Greek homoousios. This word appears in the Nicene Creed (325 A.D.), often translated as “essence” in the line: “We believe…in Jesus Christ…begotten not created, of the same essence [homoousios] as the Father….” This word is a compound of ousia (i.e., “being, essence, nature”) and homo (i.e., “same, identical”), so it literally means “of the same nature.” Originally, this was a philosophical term used by both Plato and Aristotle to describe being and existence. In fact, Aristotle laid out several important technical meanings for the word, so naturally when determining what it meant when used to relate the Son to the Father, the Church Fathers were obliged to cite Aristotle as an authority on proper use.

Gallons of blood and ink would be spilled over this word. Councils would be formed and churches divided over whether the Son had the same ousia as the Father, or just a similar ousia, or a totally different ousia.

Could we describe this, then, as a philosophical debate? If so, then it was wildly unphilosophical. Citing Aristotle, a proper Greek would say an ousia was indivisible. If you suggested there could be two persons, but one ousia, he’d consider the statement nonsensical, like saying 1+1=1. In the process of applying philosophical categories to the God of the Gospel, the Church Fathers exercised Hellenism to the breaking point. In the Gospel of John, the writer borrows the term Logos (i.e., “Word”) from the Stoics, who used it to mean the divine, animating, rational, and immaterial principle pervading the Universe. For the first four verses of the first chapter of his Gospel, John says nothing with which a Stoic philosopher would disagree. But he pushes the term forward until his Hellenic philosophy breaks down into a declaration of revelation: “And the [Logos] became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory….”[25] John is not engaged in neologisms, nor can we accuse him of simply redefining terms in a manner that favors his position. Rather, any Stoic philosopher would have recognized John’s usage of Logos. The Apostle does not believe he is altering the meaning, but simply announcing who the Logos is, and the manner in which He has revealed Himself—something the Stoics were unequipped to do.

 

Meanwhile, it was the heretics, not the orthodox, who cowered in the safety of sensible, Hellenistic categories. In fact, we could describe almost every early heresy as a version of Christianity that did not transfix itself sufficiently on God’s self-disclosure, but instead slid too far into either Hellenism or Judaism. The first apologists seldom wrote to a single demographic. Apologias and exhortations alternated between Greek and Jewish objections, since both needed to be answered for a thorough defense from heresy. Paul also depicts the Church in the center of two worlds, at once connecting them like a keystone connects two arches, but comfortable in neither one of them:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.[26]

Although used to articulate official doctrine, philosophy ultimately submitted to the revelation preserved in Apostolic teachings. The reverse of Harnack’s thesis seems to be more accurate: It was Judaism and Hellenism, in light of a divine deposit, which were transformed, or, rather, converted.

While orthodox Christianity is not limited by Hellenistic categories, Hellenism remains indispensable for understanding key doctrinal developments in early Christianity. The claim that this is historically accidental is not far from the mark, since the same claim can be made of the role of Judaism in salvation history. The trenchant question: Why did God reveal Himself to the Jews, and not some other tribe? Surely, God could have done so, if He had the mind to; and surely, given their history of broken covenants, God did not elect the Jews because they were worthier of divine revelation, or their language more fit for His spoken Word. The answer to this is unclear, but it is enough to say the early Church Fathers did not behold Hebrew culture and language as intrinsically holier than any other (a fact the polyglot Bible enduringly demonstrates). Yet at the same time, language and cultures are not interchangeable where divine revelation is concerned. God did not speak Hebrew because it was holy, but Hebrew was made holy because God spoke it. While this elevated the status of the original Hebrew Scriptures, it does not restrict the Word to its Jewish expression.

At this point in the argument, most Christian apologists are willing to lay down their pens, but a question still remains: How were the early Church Fathers so willing to seize on the contents of their Greek inheritance to build the Christian Church? To parallel it to a separate but contemporaneous issue, how is citing the pagan Plato, and normalizing his teachings in our doctrine, at all different from eating meat sacrificed to idols?

No early apologist spoke to just Jews or Greeks. As mentioned, the body of work produced by a single apologist was typically split down the middle between the two sets of Church critics. This was necessary because each side presented a different set of objections, but in a less obvious way, it was because each warranted a different mode of response.

Justin Martyr is our finest as well as one of our earliest examples. To the Greeks, he spoke as a Greek. He used philosophical arguments and demonstrated his knowledge of classical literature. To the Jews, however, he quoted blocks of Old Testament text, attempting to persuade them on the grounds of their own tradition. This disparity in approach should give us pause. Why should Justin believe engaging the Greeks, as it were, on their own turf, was at all adequate? Shouldn’t he instruct them in the ancient Scriptures first (especially the Prophets), and bring them to faith by arguing Christ is the Messiah of fulfilled prophecy? Chronologically-speaking, the Jew knew the Scriptures first, then Christ. For the Greek, it was the other way around: First, he was introduced to the Apostolic teachings, and only secondly the Scriptures, as a sort of Jesus pre-history. Shouldn’t the same sequence be prescribed for the Greek? Shouldn’t Greeks, as it were, pass through Judaism before reaching Christianity?

Following the Apostle Paul, the early Church Fathers saw no need for this. The story of salvation, which concentrates on revelation, is not limited to Jewish history. The Scriptures repeatedly report pagan intersections with the story of God’s chosen people, most notably the Magi in the nativity story. Although the Jews remain central in the biblical narrative, in the periphery we see glimpses which suggest God is active among other nations and peoples:

The sceptre shall not be taken away from Judah, nor a ruler from his thigh, till He come that is to be sent, and He shall be the expectation of nations.[27]

Among the early Church Fathers, this latter line became a proof text, summarizing the three major points of the Church’s schematization of the appropriation of pagan piety, which Jaroslav Pelikan identifies succinctly as “the historic mission of Israel, the end of that mission with the coming of Jesus, and the place of Jesus as the divine answer to the aspirations of all the nations.”[28] What we find among the Church Fathers is a willingness to adopt Hellenic philosophy as an affirmation of the Divine Logos in all mankind and a testament to the revelation of Christ as the universal way of salvation. Paul states:

For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal men and birds and animals and creeping things.[29]

The early Church Father interpreted Paul’s words to mean that in every sacred tradition are traces of the knowledge of God, derived from nature and the inner testimony of the Imago Dei. The pagan gods are, as it were, attempts to worship the invisible God without the assistance of divine revelation. In this very enterprise, philosophy tends to elevate something that is by nature below god to the status of God. Philosophy, in its attempts to be a guide toward human perfection, is therefore a manufacturer of idolatry, since it cannot escape beyond its own nature-based methods. Though able to arrive at much truth, its knowledge will always be partial. The task of the apologist, therefore, is not to make every pagan a Jew, but to present Christ as the perfecter of pagan piety.

And so Paul indicates the altar dedicated to the Unknown God in Athens, and declares, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”[30]

 

Blake Adams is a writer from Marietta, GA. His work has appeared in Salvo Magazine, WORLD Magazine, and Mere Orthodoxy. He formerly taught Latin and Ancient Western History at Seattle Classical Christian School. He is an alumnus of Patrick Henry College (Purcellville, VA), and he is currently investigating graduate programs in early Christian studies for Fall 2018. He lives with his wife in Seattle, WA.

 NOTES: 

[1] Luke 4:21. In this passage, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2 and afterwards speaks the words cited above. This is not the first time Jesus implicates that He is the Son of God, but it is the first time He holds up Scripture as the certificate of His identity.

[2] Porphory, On Abstinence from Killing Animals, trans. by Gillian Clark; reprint edition (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2014), 2.37, 34.

[3] Ibid., 34.

[4] Plato, Euthyphro, trans. by Lane Cooper (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005), 6e-7a.

[5] As they often do.

[6] Euth. 8a-b.

[7] It is easy to imagine a Christian saying these words, as well as those of Porphyry above. In fact, Augustine goes so far as to suggest that Porphyry was writing about the Christian God, albeit through a glass darkly: “In fine, He is the God whom Porphyry, the most learned of the philosophers, though the bitterest [critic] of the Christians, confesses to be a great God, even according to the oracles of those whom he esteems gods” (Augustine, The City of God, trans. by Marcus Dods, D.D. (New York: The Modern Library, 2000), 19.22).

[8] Euth. 10a.

[9] Col. 1:15, ESV.

[10] Heb. 11:1, KJV.

[11] God does not disclose insights that do not pertain to Himself. This is so because the aim of any act of revelation is communion with Him. Modern critics of Christianity often ask why God did not give us mathematical formulas, since these would have been genuinely useful; we take His silence on the subject to mean humanity’s salvation is not to be accomplished through scientific advances. The same critics also assert that, if God (hypothetically) declared 2+2=5, we would blindly agree. In such a case, it would be a question whether this was a divine revelation, since God would be dealing in information we are equipped to know on our own.

[12] Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, trans. by John Behr (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 1:1.

[13] Dariusz Karlowicz, Socrates and Other Saints: Early Christians Understandings of Reason and Philosophy (Eugene : Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017), 42.

[14] It is uncertain whether Justin is the actual author of this work. In any event, it was written by a knowledgeable, if anonymous, Greek Christian apologist, which is enough for the purposes of this essay.

[15] Their use of Jew is similar.

[16] Two might not have been.

[17] Notable exceptions include Origen and Jerome. Both were influential Christian exegetes and translators who held the original Hebrew in high regard and treated it as the spiritual and hermeneutical basis for all other translations of the Scriptures.

[18] We have no reason to think Jesus and Philo ever met.

[19] Clement, Stromateis, trans. by John Ferguson (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1991), 1.150.4.

[20] The repurposing of the Pantheon was a part of this project.

[21] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 73.

[22] Bede, A History of the English Church and People, trans. by Leo Sherley-Price (New York: Barnes & Nobel Books, 1993), 1.30.

[23] A title comparable to Paul’s “the Apostle of the Gentiles.”

[24] Adolf von Harnack, Judentum und Judenchristentum in Justins Dialog mit Trypho (Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs, 1931), I:20.

[25] John 1:14, ESV.

[26] 1 Cor. 1:22-25, ESV.

[27] Gen. 49:10, DRB.

[28] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 56.

[29] Rom. 1:20-23, ESV.

[30] Acts 17:23, ESV.