Since the time of the 19th century one of the prevailing narratives of Church history presents the development of doctrine as a Hellenization of Christianity. This view was held strongly by the 19th century Protestant theologian Adolf Von Harnack and due to his influence this narrative has been popular within various circles of scholarship. Since the time of Harnack there have been notable theologians and historians who have challenged his reading of Church history, such as Jaroslav Pelikan and Robert Wilken, and have seen the Christian interaction with “Hellenism” as necessary and providential1. The appropriation of Greek philosophy by the early Christians was not a matter of uncritical interpolation of Plato or Aristotle into the message of the Scriptures; no one simply mapped the language of the scriptures onto a Greek philosophical system. Rather they incorporated elements of Greek philosophy which they saw to be consistent with scriptural narrative; as the Orthodox theologian Fr. John Meyendorff wrote, “The Greek Fathers…adopted everything in Greek philosophy which was compatible with Christian Revelation”2 The proposition that I wish to make is that during the course of the, so-called, “Arian” controversy that every side of the controversy implemented philosophical theology3 within their position; whether they were pro or anti-Nicene in their theology. While no one was guilty of simply imposing every single point of philosophical theology into their own theology (Arius was not simply a neo-platonist) I wish to suggest that the theologians who history, and the Church, would deem as heretical had a greater disposition towards incorporating philosophical theology without a redefinition, or as much of a redefinition, of these inherited doctrines than those theologians who would be deemed to be orthodox in their theology. As we will see that while figures such as Arius and Eunomius denied the doctrine of the full divinity of the Son and the Spirit based upon their implementation of philosophical theology figures such as Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa reconfigured, without discarding, philosophical theology in light of their reading of the biblical texts which revealed the doctrine of the full divinity of the Son and the Spirit with the Father.
The Christian Inheritance of Philosophical Theology and the Christian Attitude Towards Pagan Philosophy.
What I deem as “philosophical theology” has been labeled by others as “classical theism.” This notion of God holds that He is incorporeal, simple, united, eternal, immutable, impassible, omniscient, omnipotent, and good (among other attributes).4 These divine attributes could be found in the teachings of various Greek philosophers; such as Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus. The evidence of the Christian inheritance of these attributes can be found, for example though not limited, within various statements made by Origen in his work On First Principles. In the first chapters of Book 1 Origen attributes to God incorporeality, oneness, simplicity, immutability, omnipotence, eternity, and goodness for example.5
The early Christian attitude towards hellenic philosophy in general was one of both suspicion at times and critical acceptance at others. Figures such as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria viewed the hellenic philosophers as containing elements of truth and were for the Greeks what Moses was for the Israelites. On the other side was the early third century Latin writer Tertullian who rhetorically wrote, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”6 It’s common to see the early Christian writers criticize the hellenic philosophers while nonetheless adapting those elements of the philosophical theology that they find useful. For instance we can find Gregory of Nazianzus saying, “Attack the silence of Pythagoras, and the Orphic beans, and the novel brag about ‘The Master said.’ Attack the ideas of Plato, and the transmigrations and courses of our souls, and the reminiscences, and the unlovely loves of the soul for lovely bodies. Attack the atheism of Epicurus, and his atoms, and his unphilosophic pleasure; or Aristotle’s petty Providence, and his artificial system, and his discourses about the mortality of the soul, and the humanitarianism of his doctrine,”7 while elsewhere in the same oration he says, “Let us not think so nor yet, like hot-tempered and hard-mouthed horses, throwing off our rider Reason, and casting away Reverence, that keeps us within due limits, run far away from the turning point,”8 which contains an allusion to the two-horsed chariot of Plato in his work Phaedrus.
What can be established is that the early Christian writers were well acquainted with the dominant philosophies of their times. On a whole the philosophies were, at best, incomplete guides towards the true philosophy of Christianity and at the worst demonic corruptions. Nevertheless even those who were the most disparaging in their writings towards the philosophers accepted and incorporated a certain degree of their doctrines (varying from one writer to the next). What’s important to note is that no one accepted the entirety of the hellenic philosophies and that none of the early Christian writers were merely espousing philosophy in Christian dress.
The Arian Controversy.
In the fourth century a major controversy broke out regarding the divinity of the Son. The debate originated in Alexandria between the bishop Alexander and one of his presbyters Arius. Arius responded against the preaching of his bishop that the Son was eternally with the Father with the declaration that there was a time when the Son was not. What started as a local dispute between a bishop and his presbyter spread across the Roman empire and resulted in the Emperor Constantine convoking a council at Nicaea in 325 AD to deal with this issue. While the council at Nicaea upheld the doctrine of Alexander over Arius nevertheless there continued to be various theologies similar to Arius’ in the denial of the unity of being of the Son with the Father well into the 7th century. Throughout the theological debates it can be seen that all sides implement philosophical theology. Everyone takes for granted, for example. the simplicity of the divine nature and that it is unchangeable. What can be suggested is that the heretical writers possessed a theology that bore a greater resemblance to the philosophical theology of the hellenes than did the orthodox writers.
Eusebius and Athanasius: The Trinity.
The Trinitarian theology of Eusebius of Ceasarea is one of subordination. In his system the Father possesses an absolute divine primacy over the Son. The Father alone is God proper and the Son is excluded from possessing divine equality with the Father by nature of his being begotten of the Father. The Son is the first product of the Father’s will before all creation with the Spirit being the first creature to come into existence through the Son. In Eusebius’ triadology we can see a hierarchy of the Father, Who alone is God, creating the Son, who possesses a different nature than the Father, and the created Son who creates the Holy Spirit. This subordinationist triadology bears some resemblance to the trinitarian concept found within the third century philosopher Plotinus. In Plotinus’ system there is first and foremost the ‘One’ who is self existing and leans on no other in it’s existence. Through some sort of inactive emanation there is produced the ‘Divine Mind’ which is later than the One and leans upon the One. As an act and utterance of the Divine Mind there emanates the ‘All Soul’ that looks to the Divine Mind. While differing from each other by account of the Son and the Spirit being products of will in Eusebius’ theology while in Plotinus the Divine Mind and the All Soul emanate apart from any act of willing we can see the hierarchy of origin and existence between Eusebius and Plotinus. In contrast to Eusebius’ triadology of subordination we can see in Athanasius of Alexandria a triadology of equality. Athanasius approaches the doctrine of the Trinity and his conclusion that the Son and the Holy Spirit are co-equal with the Father through his interpretation of the scriptures. He establishes the divinity of the Son through reading all of the exalted titles of Christ (the epinoiai or paradeigmata) found in scripture together. He finds that no created being within the scriptures possess such a plethora of exalted titles as does Christ and thus concludes that Christ possesses a preeminence over creation which places Him on the level of divinity, co-equal with the Father. In the case of the Holy Spirit Athanasius sees that the work of the Father and the Son is actualized in human beings by the Holy Spirit in the scriptures; the Spirit makes men sons of God in Christ, the Spirit enlightens, Christ is the Radiance, the Father is the Light, etc. Since the work of the Holy Spirit is tied together with the Father and the Son it is necessary that the Spirit is equally divine as the Father and the Son.
Arius and Gregory of Nazianzus: Unbegotteness.
In the theology of Arius we can see a strong emphasis on the attribute of being ‘unbegotten’ belonging to the Father alone. The unbegotteness of the Father asserts the absolute primacy of the Father above all other things since He alone has no origin. To suggest that anything else is unbegotten alongside the unbegotten Father is a logical contradiction in the theology of Arius since this would suggest two first principles. Since the Son is begotten He has no share in the unbegotten nature of the Father therefore the Son must consist of a different, created, nature than the Father. This bears a strong resemblance to the theological constructs of the Neo-platonists, such as Plotinus and Porphyry. Rowan Williams notes that in the case of the Neo-platonists there is the self-sufficient first principle from which real subsistents proceed from but that which comes from the first principle is a lower reality. In the case of the lower reality, “[it] is constituted or formed in this or that respect by the active life of the higher, but does not reproduce the essence of the higher.”9 While it would be an oversimplification to simply identify Arius as a Neo-platonist nevertheless the resemblance between his theological construction of the Unbegotten Father Who alone is God by nature and begets His Son by an act of will, giving the Son true existence other than the Father’s with the self-sufficient first principle from whom lower realities of a different nature proceed. The theology of Arius places the Son within the realm of created beings since having His origin in the Father there must have been a time when the Son was not and therefore the Son is not eternal. Eternity belongs only to that which has no origin. In contrast to the position of Arius we find Gregory of Nazianzus declaring that both the Son and the Spirit are also ‘unoriginate’; though in a certain qualified sense. The Son and the Spirit are originate in regards to having their origin in the Father but they are unoriginate in respect to time. Even with respects to the Son and the Spirit having their origin from the Father this does not necessitate that they aren’t eternal in their existence for Gregory since, “that which is eternal is not necessarily unoriginate.”10 In his argument against those who say that the Son is of another essence than the Father since He is begotten of the Father Gregory asks whether or not a human son which is born from a human father possesses a different essence. Likewise the first human Adam does not possess human nature alone but all humans that have come after him also possess the same human nature. Gregory’s argument is to show that if in the case of created beings that which is begotten possesses the same nature as the begetter than in the case of the Father that which is begotten of Him possesses the same nature. While Gregory’s argument here is a logical argument underlining it is his conviction of the equality of the Son with the Father based upon scriptural evidence. Near the end of his third theological oration he quotes a litany of scriptural passages which, for him, demonstrate the deity of the Son.11 Thus in the theological vision of Gregory of Nazianzus it is possible to say that not only is the Father unoriginate but so is the Son and the Holy Spirit – though unoriginate in a qualified sense – and that even though the Son and the Spirit come from the Father they are equals in deity rather than lower realities or of a different nature.
Eunomius and Gregory of Nyssa: Divine Transcendence.
One of the marks of Eunomius’ theology is his insistence on the absolute transcendence of the divine essence of the Unbegotten which is prior to and independent to all activity. The God of Eunomius is a self-sufficient monad who is impervious to all process of causality and activity in his essence. All forms of activity are external from the essence of the Unbegotten in a manner which has no implication of the divine essence. In it’s existence the divine essence is inactive and disinvolved in respects to everything outside of, and other than, the divine essence; ie: all created beings. There is much that Eunomius’ theology of an inactive transcendence shares in common with the One of Plotinus. Plotinus describes the One as, “self-gathered, tranquilly remote above all else,” and that we can ascribe no motion to the One but rather we must confess, “immobility in the Supreme.”12 Likewise he ascribes an absolute unity to the One while it is that which comes after the One, the Divine Mind, which comes into contact with diversity. In contrast to the immobile and inactive definitions of divine transcendence of Plotinus and Eunomius is the vision of Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory redefines divine transcendence according to his doctrine of divine goodness. Gregory sees the attribute of goodness as belonging to the divine essence which can admit no variance of degree; only in the realm of creation, due to it’s participation in goodness, can variances of goodness be found. Gregory’s reading of the scriptures, such as Luke 18:19, lead him to conclude that both the Son and the Spirit alongside the Father possess perfect and essential goodness. Since the Son possesses the fullness of divine goodness in Himself Gregory sees the self-humbling of the Son in His incarnation and crucifixion to be the manifestation of divine goodness. This divine goodness manifested by the Son is defined as the power to accomplish the good by Gregory. To be good is to possess the power to accomplish the good and since God is good by His own essence He possesses the power to accomplish everything that is good. Since the scriptures designate perfect goodness to both the Son and the Spirit, and since divine goodness cannot be divided, it is the Holy Trinity which is perfectly good; which means that the Trinity has the power to accomplish the good. This is what divine transcendence looks like in the theology of Gregory; to possess the power to accomplish the good. Rather than associating inactivity to the doctrine of divine transcendence Gregory does the complete opposite by uniting power to his doctrine of divine transcendence which implies activity.
While all of the early Christians employed philosophical language and concepts some of them redefined these concepts according to their reading of the scriptures. The examples given in this paper are selective and therefore do not qualify as having sufficiently proved the thesis this paper set out to suggest. Rather the objective has been to begin the cross analyzing process of the various theologies of the early Christian writers with the philosophies of the ancient Greeks. While much work has been done in the studying of the ancient philosophers as well as the studying of their influence on the early Christians much more work needs to be done in studying how the scriptural interpretations of the early Christian writers effected their reception and interpretations of philosophical concepts. A more comprehensive study is needed to move beyond the category of suggestion into the category of demonstration. While a comprehensive analysis of every early Christian writer might be too daunting a task – even if we limit ourselves to the first eight centuries – perhaps a number of major thinkers who helped shape the major points of Christian doctrine can be analyzed. Perhaps we can study in depth the theology of figures such as, but not limited to, Arius, Eusebius, and Eunomius in light of their reception of philosophical concepts along with Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus rather than simply pointing to a single example from each as has been done in this paper. What also needs to be noted is when figures such as Athanasius or Gregory of Nyssa incorporate philosophical concepts without scriptural redefinition. It cannot be the case that the early Fathers always redefined philosophical concepts without exception while those deemed as heretics always allowed pagan philosophies to determine their theology. Such a conclusion would prove to be an oversimplification and an inaccuracy; and all oversimplifications for the sake of argument only serve to complicate the matter further. Nonetheless with the few examples given in this paper it does not seem improbable that the suggestion of a greater scriptural redefinition of philosophical concepts by the Fathers over against the heretics is inaccurate. If this suggestion can be shown to be accurate then the argument of the Hellenization of early Christianity will be shown to be itself an oversimplification of the matter.
1See for example the Introduction and pt. 3 in http://orthodox-theology.com/media/PDF/IJOT1.2014/Ih-Ren.pdf.
2John Meyendorff, Byzantine theology: historical trends and doctrinal themes (Fordham University Press, 1974), pg. 23.
3What I mean by “philosophical theology” is doctrines about God which are found in the ancient philosophers.
5See for example Book 1, Ch. 1, pts. 5, 6, Ch. 2, pts. 10, 11, and 13.
6On the Prescription of Heretics, Ch. 7.
7First Theological Oration, Ch. 8.
8Ibid. Ch. 5
9Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Eerdmans Press, 2001), pg. 220.
10Third Theological Oration, Ch. 3.
11Ibid. Ch. 17.
12The Fifth Ennead, First Tractate, Section 6.