Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Greek Philosophy & Christianity

There can be no doubt that Greek Philosophy and the Greek Worldview influenced the New Testament in all sorts of ways. The fusion of Greek and Jewish culture began with the Apocrypha, which includes many Greek ideas and values re-interpreted through a Jewish lens. This process continues into the New Testament. The fact is that the New Testament is written in Greek, and language itself carries with it philosophical baggage. When the Gospel of John called Jesus The Logos, in one fell swoop it dragged into the Christian worldview all of the Greek Culture that came before it.

But it must be remembered that Jesus Himself was a Jew, and that Hebraic and Hellenistic thought do not fit together nicely and neatly. The Bible winds up often in very murky places where these two traditions meet. Sometimes Hellenistic views become more ascendant (like the idea of a disembodied soul), sometimes Hebraic views become emphasized over and against Hellenistic views (like the Incarnation itself), sometimes something like a fusion develops, and sometimes you get contradictions that have no clear resolution (1 Corinthians 15:35-58 really makes no sense when you realize that 'soul' and 'flesh' or 'body' are considered opposing substances in the original Greek).

After the Biblical period people continued to try to bring Christian and Greek thought together. This was the project of many of the earliest church fathers. Greek philosophy was the best science of the day, and reconciling Christian thought with Greek philosophy was seen as a necessary endeavor. Much of this was fruitful, and it gives us a pattern to follow when we try to reconcile Christian thought with the best science of OUR day. But for many it ended up codifying as doctrine ideas that are not exactly Biblical, or are not consistently Biblical.

When we talk about the Trinity or the Incarnation or even Resurrection and the Virgin Birth, we often get trapped by thinking that is inherently married to substance ontology. Personhood or identity become all about a particular way of looking at a person or thing's 'essence' or 'being'. The truth is that the splitting of hairs, as to what constitutes such things often proceeds on strictly Greek grounds, when the Bible has no absolute philosophical commitments as to what it means to 'be' or what the 'essence' of a thing is.

In Chinese philosophy, becoming is more fundamental than being. And when the Bible translates
"Logos" as "Tao" in Chinese, the entire meaning of these words changes. For the "Tao" is not a changeless fact as the Logos is, but a living and dynamic idea, which is relational rather than substantive.

Relations are more fundamental than substances. Science keeps telling us this over and over again. The primary doctrines of Christianity are not weakened by divorcing them from a particular Greek idea as to what is ultimately real. Even when we translate God's name in Exodus "I AM that I AM", we leave out the other possible translation "I WILL BE what I WILL BE". That difference is huge, as the latter implies a God with a dynamic, rather than static nature...a God that is relational to the core.

In so many ways, we are constantly prejudicing our discussion of scripture by limiting the philosophical framework we use to interpret it. Many pastors who paint themselves as just stating the facts as they exist in the text are often a slave to a particular philosophical vision. I prefer Chinese to Greek Philosophy as an interpretive framework. I don't find this limiting or heretical, but rather a fruitful way to approach our understanding of things like The Trinity or the Incarnation. I bow down to Jesus Christ, not to some philosophy about who He was.

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