Think of the way early Christian leaders (circa 100 A.D. and beyond) viewed their situation. They believed in Jesus as the Messiah, based on the Gospels and the teaching of Paul, but those beliefs were missing a substantive philosophical framework, or more correctly a theology, that could be taught and defended. The only way to overcome this lack of structure was to create it.
But there is a problem with creating this framework -- objectivity. How do men living in a Hellenistic world permeated by Stoicism develop a Christian theology without being influenced by Stoicism? Only with difficulty it turns out. As discussed in a previous post, the Christian apologists had two adversaries: splinter religious groups like the Arians and Gnostics and more seriously the classic Greek philosophers who enjoyed centuries of wide acceptance. The reputation of the Greeks was too strong to dismiss out of hand, so many Christian thinkers made peace with the Greeks, either my attributing Christian beliefs to them or finding Christianity in their philosophy.
My source book for this discussion is The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition by Jaroslav Pelikan. Professor Pelikan was an eminent scholar in the history of the Catholic Church and Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale from 1972-1996. He wrote a five volume set on the Catholic tradition including the work cited above which serves as volume one.
Pelikan cites the closing of the Greek philosophical school by Justinian in 529 A.D. as the triumph of the church over pagan philosophy. Or as Gibbon put it,
“this was a time when Christian theologians superseded the exercise of reason, resolved every question by an article of faith, and condemned the infidel or skeptic to eternal flames.”
We start by highlighting the most famous work of Boethius (executed 522 A.D.) called Consolidation of Philosophy. This paradoxical work attempts to reconcile Greek philosophy and the Christian religion. The paradox derives from the fact that the book reads like its writer is a secular philosopher and not a devout Christian. Pelikan accuses Boethius of pressing reason to the boundaries of faith.
Pelikan also suggests that the triumph of Christianity over Greek philosophy was “Pyrrhic” because the victory by the former included the absorption of some of the tenets of the latter.
Let’s look at the example of transubstantiation. The fourth Lateran council of 1215 A.D. decreed that the sacrament of the altar .. the bread is substantiated into the body of Christ. Substance in this case is no more than the metaphysics of Aristotle as laid out in his fifth book on that subject. As Aristotle says, “A substance is not predicated of a subject but everything else is predicated of it. That which, being present in all such things as are not predicated of a subject, is the cause of its being, as the soul is of the being of an animal.” It follows then that if you are using Aristotle’s definitions, then you are embracing Aristotle. It’s not surprising that this issue has been cited as an example of the problem of “Hellenization of Christianity.”
Indeed, Christian doctrine still bears the marks of pagan philosophy which is the price paid for the triumph over it. How high a price? We need to look no farther than the apologists to answer that question.
Extremists labeled many of the theologians of the early church hellenizers, a purposeful derogatory sobriquet. They said of Origen, “While his manner of life was a Christian, contrary to law he played a Greek, and introduced Greek ideas.” They were critical of his kinship with the Greek philosophers regarding the immortality of the soul.
The same can be said of Tertullian. Unsure of the characterization of the soul in the scriptures, he called upon the Stoics to help him explain it as a spiritual essence.
And Clement of Alexandria describes virtue as “a will in conformity to God and Christ in life, rightly adjusted to life everlasting.” This is basic Stoic metaphysics.
Now we can see how the Greek philosophers in general (Plato and Aristotle) and the Stoics in particular were able to influence Christian theology. This influence was undoubtedly caused by:
1. The longstanding assimilation of Stoicism into Hellenistic thought and its subliminal influence over those living at that time.
2. The lack of a philosophical foundation in the Christian religion which was originally built solely on the facts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
3. The thought processes of early Christian theologians whose intellects required examining all fundamental ideas, even those originating from the pagan enemy.
At the end of the day, our discussion becomes esoteric because the "Pyrrhic" character of the Christian victory over pagan philosophy was forgotten long ago. Those elements formerly Greek stand today as Christian dogma.