The Influence of Greek Thought on Early Christianity

Recently I was asked to answer a question about the influence of Greek thought and culture on the early church.  You can find my answer below, which I decided to post here since it might be of help to others.  Probably the most important reason for giving thought to this question is due to the fact some people think the doctrine of the Trinity is of pagan origin, and that it reveals the triumph of Greek philosophy during this period of time.  Anyways, enjoy!  Or don’t . . . whatever:

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In broad terms, I would say the greatest impact Greek culture had on the early church was in providing the conceptual framework and philosophical language that helped the church clarify its most important teachings.  Since the early Christians were in an environment that found philosophy attractive,[1] they found it helpful, when communicating the faith, to appropriate some of the language and statements made by Socrates and Plato.  Specifically, early Christians used it to their advantage that Socrates and Plato believed in a supreme being and that a higher world existed.

Platonic philosophy was influential during the patristic period because of certain emphases in Plato’s beliefs, namely, immaterial reality, the immortality of the soul, a “cosmic religion,” and a just society.[2]  Furthermore, the influence of Plato’s philosophy is seen in Origen’s articulation of the Trinity.[3]  Also, although Philo was Jewish, he was a Platonist who believed that Plato got his beliefs from Moses.  Thus, because he was influenced by Plato, Philo adopted an allegorical approach to his interpretation of the Pentateuch.[4]  Incidentally, Philo also had connections to the Stoics, which was another group from which early Christians borrowed some concepts.  At the top of the list would be the Stoics’ insistence on natural law, which was an idea employed by some of the early Christian apologists.[5]

Another area where Greek thought and culture had an influence on early Christianity is in the area of hermeneutics.  Clement of Alexandria, for example, held that there were five different “senses” of a particular passage of Scripture.  One of these senses was the philosophical sense.  This was a concept borrowed from Stoic philosophy which attributed meaning to both natural objects and human persons.  Gonzalez notes that one can see Clement’s appropriation of Platonic thought in his work Exhortation to the Pagans.[6]

While the early Christians may have borrowed Greek philosophical thought to help explain Christian doctrines, it should not be supposed that they capitulated in any way on core Christian doctrines.  Each person is influenced by the culture in which they are raised.  This is why we must admit our own presuppositions before we come to the text of Scripture.  Our culture and individual traditions can function both as a blessing and a curse.  The patristic writers were not infallible, but nevertheless we must thank God for the work done by those who came before us.

[1] J. N. D Kelly writes, “Philosophy was the deeper religion of the most intelligent people” (Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. [Peabody: Prince Press, 2007], 14).

[2] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 335; Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, Vol. 1, rev. ed. (NY: HarperOne, 2010), 23.

[3] Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 131.  This should not call into question the veracity of the doctrine of the Trinity.  While this God is one (Deut. 6:4), he is revealed in Three Persons (Jn. 8:58; Acts 5:4).  This is seen in that baptism is to be performed in the name (singular) of the Trinity (Matt. 28:19), and in Paul’s Trinitarian benediction (2 Cor. 13:14).  In the end, taking all this information together, one faces biblical “pressure” to come to terms with the reality that God is revealed as triune.  The early church recognized this and made a judgment on this matter, bequeathing to the church the theological terminology that is still used to this day.  For further discussion see C. Kavin Rowe, “Biblical Pressure and Trinitarian Hermeneutics,” Pro Ecclesia 11:3 (2002): 295-312; David S. Yeago, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma: A Contribution to the Recovery of Theological Exegesis,” Pro Ecclesia 3:2 (1994): 152-164; also cf. Robert Letham, “Established Boundaries,” Tabletalk 30:4 (2006): 12-15.

[4] Gerald Bray, Biblical Interpretation: Past & Present (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996), 77.

[5] Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 23.

[6] Ibid., 87.

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