So where are we in our story? We have already covered two key developments in the history of mankind, the rise of Greek philosophy and the birth of the Christian Church. Now sit back and listen to the story of how they came together. Hold onto your seats, it may not be a pretty sight.
The Church as we know it today didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. It is today’s snapshot of a continuous historical process that started effectively when the Holy Spirit descended on that small group in Jerusalem a few weeks after the Resurrection.
For a body whose chief mandate is to gather people of all backgrounds and cultures into its fold, staying pure and unsullied while it focused on its received mission was always going to be an issue. Contrast this with Israel in Old Testament times. Their mandate was to stay pure and holy, by living a separate existence from the world that surrounded them. By living within a wall of regulations, the Torah given by God to Moses, Israel was equipped to remain unsullied by the pagan nations around them.
Yet ultimately they failed, seduced by rival gods and prostituting themselves to alien lifestyles and were reprimanded by God as a result. But their failure was not a total one, thank goodness. The messianic bloodline was protected and Jesus arrived in the World as a member of the Jewish community, albeit one under foreign occupation and the salvation story was allowed to unfold.
The point being made here was that a nation socially engineered by God Himself to remain pure and untouched by alien ideas, fails to remain so, thanks to the basic restlessness of the human heart (rather than any fault of God’s). How much more so will another group, the early Christians, whose very raison d’etre is to “reach the World”, become tainted in turn by the very people it is trying to reach?
This tainting began fairly soon after that Council in Jerusalem of Acts 15. Paul himself acknowledged that other worldviews would need to be addressed, just two Chapters later.
“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ “ (Acts 17:21-28)
This meeting place is also translated as “Mars Hill”. It is interesting to note that this is the name currently adopted by two key Churches in the USA that are attempting to interface with the culture of the day, albeit in different ways. This is what Paul was doing in Acts 17, but little did he know that, within a century, the floodgates would have been opened and the Hebrew faith in Jesus the Messiah was going to be thoroughly swamped by the Greek culture of the day.
It all started with Plato. He was so key to everything that, in the 20th Century, the philosopher A. N. Whitehead suggested that all of Western Philosophy ultimately consists of no more than footnotes to Plato. But it’s the Church we’re interested in, so what happened there?
Plato founded a seat of learning in Athens called the Academy, which continued after he died, ensuring that his philosophy, Platonism, flourished. When Christianity spread westwards from Jerusalem to the lands to the east of the Mediterranean, it was Platonism that was encountered first. The early Church fathers had to make a decision. Do we ignore the prevailing culture, engage with it or learn from it?
It seems that engagement, as with Paul in the Areopagus, was the best way forwards, yet the Church Fathers took it a lot further than that. Trained in Greek thought, they saw no danger in constructing a Christian worldview in the light of the teachings of Plato. One of these teachers, Justin Martyr, had the view that Platonists would be so challenged by the similarities between their worldview and Christianity, that they may consider conversion. It seems that what may have started as engagement for the purposes of evangelism, swiftly gave way to debate, then compromise, then finally assimilation. Christianity could have been said to have became a subdivision of Platonism with added grace!
So how could this have happened? More about this next week …
How did Greek thinking infiltrate the Church?
Written by: Miriam Emenike
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