Against the Hellenization Thesis

Having spent the better part of four (now almost five) years studying Patristic and Medieval theology, one of the most reoccurring themes I encounter from new classmates and my students when I get the opportunity to teach, is the “Hellenization thesis.”  I wrote about this a long time ago, and I won’t repeat myself here.  Needless to say, in short, the “Hellenization thesis,” is the theory, as Moltmann tersely put it, that in many instances the father’s of the church in their respective theology merely “baptized Aristotle” (Crucified God, 22).

This post is not meant to pick on Moltmann.  Nor is it to disallow that at some points, perhaps even in extensive ways, some of the formulae as stated in the concepts and idiom of the Fathers need revising.  This post has the humbler goal of stating just how difficult it is to develop and sustain causal historiographical claims of philosophical influence, and this for a variety of reasons.

1.) Smorgasbord: As Paul Gavrilyuk has pointed out at length, “Hellenization” is a completely unhelpful term out of the gate, as there was a staggering array of philosophical schools and opinions, who all disagreed with one another.  To “Hellenize” is already in this sense simply vacuous–it means nothing.  It is rendered even more imprecise because…

2.) Saturation: …”Hellenization” can also theoretically work at different levels.  What does one mean by the claim?  Typically, when “Hellenization” is mentioned, the claim is meant pejoratively to reference that it has perversely affected a theologian’s work at the theoretical level.  Yet, as Jaroslav Pelikan has noted, this is to simply to fallaciously assume that all “hints” of Hellenization evince a deeper theoretical connection to some aspect of Greek Philosophical theory.  But this is not so clear cut: what is misconstrued as (philosophical) Hellenization could actually be the manifestation of aesthetic sensibility, rhetorical styling, vocabulary, etc. … rather than the “deep structure” co-optation of theory.

3.) Reification: Part of the difficulty lay in the very assumptions made regarding the boundaries of theology and philosophy, which of course any claim regarding the philosophical “contamination” of theology trade upon.  As such, “thought forms” like “Hebrew” and “Greek” are idealized and serve as self-contained nodes of interaction.  It serves us to quote Lewis Ayres at length why this is problematic:

[T]he opposition Greek and Hebrew, or Greek philosophy and Christian theology, is one of the most important examples of a wider narrative trope that relies on oppositions between idealized thought forms. Some versions of this trope are of course one of the more lamentable aspects of early Christian heresiology, but it is also important to note that a particular version of engagement via typification has been important within modern theological thought.

And this is problematic precisely because

Relating the history of a doctrinal theme as the story of two competing and abstract ideas has enabled systematicians to invoke the history of Christian thought without the need for deep textual and contextual engagement [emphasis added]…this involves subtle strategies regarding assumptions about the nature and function of philosophy and about the appropriate use of the text of Scripture. This strategy presents philosophies as self enclosed systems of thought that frequently overcome theologians who attempt to appropriate them and that are only naively used piecemeal to expand on and explore the plain sense of Scripture … it is thus only a short step for theologians to assume as a working model that the history of Christian thought presents them with a history of accommodations to particular philosophies, or negotiations between self-enclosed philosophies and the Gospel (Nicaea and Its Legacy 390-391).

4.) Eclecticism: Another problem with the thesis of “hellenization” is how it misses the “pick-and-choose” aspect of how the Fathers’ utilize non-Christian thought.  This “ad hoc” methodology renders suspect that any of the Father’s were blindly absorbing philosophical thought wholesale.  Certainly one can disagree with individual decisions, but to cite the reason as “philosophical corruption” is here simply to miss the mark.

5.) Decontextualization: Indeed as Anna Williams points out, quite ironically

These commentators who see the Fathers’Christian judgment overridden by their enthrallment to the ‘wisdom of the Greeks’ not only fail to take full account of how much they reject or adapt, [but] as well how much they modify simply in virtue of the way in which they combine [Greek wisdom]. (Divine Sense, 18).

This, again, does not simply have to do with the deconstruction of elaborate Greek systems.  As with Pelikan’s point above in #2, here Williams notes that even the differing assumed audiences of Plotinus and Christianity mean concepts take on differing tones–whereas Plotinus’ works were aimed at the “educated, leisurely classes” (Divine Sense, 13) the elitist contemplative character of this sort of neo-Platonism shifted into discussions of the habits even ordinary lay-Christians could achieve–even if the terminology and concepts often (apparently) retained vestiges of the earlier philosophical idiom.

Pierre Hadot in his What is Ancient Philosophy? makes the same point from a different angle.  He notes that any appropriation of philosophy into Christian discourse was already to deconstruct it as “philosophy.”  This is because antique philosophy was viewed as purely a work of reason by Christian theologians–rather than, as it was, a mode of spiritual practice aimed at achieving the broad (and broadly misunderstood) goal(s) of eudamonia–often misleadingly translated by the English “happiness,” or “pleasure,” but which probably means something closer to the “good life.”  Yet to abstract the theoretical tools and resources of a Plato, an Aristotle–even an Atomist like Democritus–is already to begin to disassemble “Greek thought”.

Or, to take a material example, the a se God of Patristic and Medieval theology is often seen as utter capitulation to, say, Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover.”  Yet here, the difference that (for example) the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo makes is completely ignored: The a se God of Christianity is actually nothing like Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover–and this is precisely (and ironically) because of the Christian God’s independence from the world.  Aristotle’s God is self-sufficient, yes.  But he (it?) is also finite and limited precisely because he is not only unaware of the world he created, he created it (unawares) by a sort of intrinsic necessity.  The Christian God, by contrast, precisely by creation ex nihilo is intentionally and volitionally turned toward the world in love in the free act of creation.  It could fill several books by itself, but it is hard to over-stress the difference ex nihilo makes to the context of these two ideas of g/God.  In extension, the doctrine of the Incarnation was likewise revolutionary in this sense, even where retaining earlier “philosophical” idiom.

As such, we should also mention in this category that it is relatively simple to display similarity between thinkers; it is much less easy–short of explicit statements like many 13th century theologians who follow Aristotle on this or that–to demonstrate causation.

6.) Election: A particularly poignant aspect that is often overlooked is: why are “philosophical” solutions being adopted in the first place?  Here “Hellenization” often (as Point #3 above mentions) assume “absolute” categories of theology, philosophy (Gospel vs Greek) etc. … in which one is “invaded” by the other (note the conflict-metaphor).  But as Wolfhart Pannenberg says, quite perceptively, the reason that the ad hoc, eclectic, decontextualized thought world of non-Christian sources are engaged in the first place is because they appear to helpfully address, in one way or another, problems that are already latent in the Christian tradition:

In the history of ideas absolutely nothing is clarified and understood by the phrase: this or that has ‘influenced’ something or other. Thus even the remolding of the Christian message into a form that was understandable and attractive to Hellenistic thought may not be attributed only to a Hellenistic ‘influence,’ or to an infiltration of alien elements into what was originally Christian…the history of ideas is not a chemistry of concepts that have been arbitrarily stirred together and are then neatly separated again by the modern historian. In order for an ‘influence’ of alien concepts to be absorbed, a situation must have previously emerged within which these concepts could be greeted as an aid for the expression of a problem already present. (Jesus: God and Man 2nd ed., 153f).

As such, we have to ask ourselves: what problem was this (alleged) philosophy meant to address?  Famously, of course, homoousion has a tortured history, but its production was not philosophical importation but in regards to matters of Biblical exegesis.

7.) Temporal: Chronologically speaking, part of the difficulty of the “Hellenization” thesis is that many of the so called “Hellenistic influences” are themselves actually, chronologically, developing alongside or after Christianity.  Once upon a time it was thought, for example, that Gnostic (or proto-Gnostic) sources, were influencing John’s Gospel. This so-called “descending and ascending redeemer motif” supposedly made its way into the Christian consciousness as they attempted to explain the significance of Christ.  Today, however, both with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents which show non-Gnostic development of, e.g. the Light and Darkness themes in John, as well as the fact that we have no extant Gnostic sources pre-2nd century, it is much more likely that Gnosticism patterned itself on Christianity, rather than vice-versa (indeed if Irenaeus is to be believed, it was Simon Magus–the same man recorded in Acts–who was responsible for initiating certain sects of Gnosticism after his unsuccessful bid to buy the power of the Holy Spirit).  Such observations can often go for neo-Platonism, as Anna Williams points out (Divine Sense, 11): it is frequently difficult to disentangle just who is influencing whom.

All of this is not to say that philosophical influence can never be identified–quite the opposite.  It is, however, to suggest that the Patristic and Medieval thinkers we so quickly and fashionably excoriate, while not without flaw certainly, are being read with anachronistic and uncharitable eyes.  We are better than this.  The next person to speak of Augustine’s “Platonism” or Aquinas’ “Aristotelianism” without further comment (much further!) needs their knuckles rapped.

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