The stubborn stains of Greece

Something undeniably happened in 397BC, when the final words of the Old Testament were written, then the book closed, because what followed was a four hundred year silence from the heavens. Until God opened the new book of the New Testament and instructed the angel Gabriel to appear to Zechariah in the Temple, there had been no universally accepted Holy Scripture, prophecy or divine visitations for four centuries.

But what did happen in this four century gap was very significant. It was as if the devil had seized the moment to act, taking God’s apparent leave of absence as a license to cause mischief. And, boy, did he give it some!

Let us focus on that year, 397BC. Malachi was the last great prophet of ancient Israel. In the meantime Artaxerxes II was ruling the mighty Persian Empire, the Romans were slowly building up their Republic, the Carthagians were suffering defeats, King An of Zhou was bossing China and, in Athens, Socrates, the first great philosopher of the modern age, was nearing the end of his controversial but influential life.

And this is where we go next because the spotlight in those “days of silence” switches from Israel to Greece. Around that time an awful lot of very clever and capable people had appeared on the scene, people who thought long and hard about the world around them and what made it tick. These were the philosophers and although they had already been around for a couple of centuries before this time, the stage had been prepared and set for the drama to come.

Socrates, take your bow. Enter stage left a pug-ugly little man in flowing robes. He stands there under the glare of the lights, blinking awkwardly but unbowed.

Socrates, why were you so significant?

You’ll have to ask others. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Enter stage right, Plato. Taller, younger, more dignified.

I’ll speak up for Socrates. He is my teacher, my inspiration. In fact all my early work features the man himself in dialogue with others …

Socrates bows briefly and allows Plato to speak up for him …

Before my learned teacher entered the scene, we philosophers concerned ourselves with the world around us. Is the world made up of earth, air, fire and water, or are there smaller building blocks? Does mathematics govern everything? What about poetry? Socrates changed all that. What he taught us is to look within, at our moral beings, at what makes us tick …

Socrates was indeed influential, even for modern day thinkers. So key was he that all who preceded him were lumped together in a single classification, the “Presocratics”, the string of warm up acts, preparing the audience for the main performer.

Socrates was a familiar figure in the streets of Athens. He was an effective teacher, his classrooms mainly the public spaces, his pupils taken from the rich young men of his day, with time on their hands and rebellion in their hearts. He taught them logic and the ability to reason. On the positive side one effect of this teaching was the jettisoning of the sorry, pathetic and argumentative bunch of Greek gods that had held sway for so long. Not so positive for him was that he was condemned to death by a repressive city government for ‘corrupting the young’ and, most tellingly, ‘neglecting the gods’.

Plato was Socrates’ disciple. He was his biographer and recorded his ideas and became, in his own right, perhaps the most influential of all Socrates’ pupils. He founded a school in Akademia, a suburb of Athens, the very first “academy”. There people were instructed in mathematics, geometry, law and the natural sciences, as well as philosophy. He also wrote much. Much of his early writings were expanding on the ideas of Socrates, who wrote no books himself.

Plato never realised it, but his ideas were to become almost as influential as Jesus in the development of Western Christianity. He said a lot of stuff, wrote an awful lot of stuff, but it’s his one big idea that we are going to focus on because this was to become a tiny seed that somehow got into the fertile soil of early Christianity and grew and grew until … you’ll have to wait and see!

His one big idea was the Theory of Forms. Here’s the story …

We tend to label these clever Greek thinkers as cerebral giants, masters of thought and reason and defenders of human logic. We expect them to think through all matters of the inner world of the mind and body in terms of the natural world, of just what can be seen, heard and perceived by the senses. Actually, that isn’t true for this man. Plato was a man of ideas, but thought little of the world that surrounded him. He believed that there were two worlds, the obvious one that we live in and a “perfect” one, somewhere else in the Universe. I suppose this would be his concept of heaven and in this heaven exists what Plato called Forms.

To understand what these are, we need to think about everything that we see around us in our world, from actual objects like chairs and diamonds, to geometric shapes like squares and triangles, to concepts like beauty and goodness. Now you must realise that, according to Plato, all of these things are just imperfect copies of perfect chairs, diamonds, squares, triangles, beauty and goodness, that exist in the other “perfect” world. These items of perfection are Plato’s Forms. Get your (imperfect) head around that, then!

Plato also believed that whereas most of us will never get to see these Forms, some of us would. These are the guardians, specially gifted and trained individuals, the philosophers of course! Plato explained all of this in his analogy of the cave.

Our lives are as prisoners deep inside a cave, where all we can see of objects are their shadows, projected on the wall by a fire. We believe that what we see is reality but we are mistaken. To see reality we have to leave the cave and see things as they really are, though most are content at just seeing the shadow shapes inside the cave.

According to Plato, the one who makes this step to leave the cave is the guardian, who is rewarded by viewing the “higher Good”, the source of all truth and reason. Here’s an idea that seems vaguely Christian, so perhaps here’s the first clue as to how on earth this idea managed to find a home in the early development of Christian thought.

This “higher Good” is the ultimate Form, top of the Forms, Plato’s concept of God, though not the personal God as we know Him. This “higher Good” is what we must aspire to. This “higher Good” is an eternal reality that exists in a higher realm and our physical senses are just not equipped enough to see any more than a pale reflection. Plato likens this concept to the sun in two ways. Both cause things to exist and grow and both are sources of light. As it is light which enables our eyes to have a partial sight of reality, then “the higher Good” enables our minds to have partial knowledge of what is real.

So there is space for the concept of God, albeit an impersonal one, in Plato’s philosophy. Plato’s God does not answer prayers, or comfort those in distress, or teach his people or listen to the cries of the heart. Plato’s God is most assuredly not our Father in Heaven.

Plato believed that there are absolute standards for such things as goodness, morality and truth, each of these existing as a perfect Form in this “second” world. He also believed in the eternal soul. So what’s the problem with Plato? Well it all now starts to go downhill.

Plato believed that we are body and soul. He thought that these were totally separate entities, bound together temporarily during a person’s lifetime. This was the concept
of the duality of man. But, to Plato, the soul was the dominant, superior entity and it is immortal, being reborn again and again in different bodies, gaining in knowledge as it does so, like the concept of re-incarnation in Eastern religions. The soul is our seat of thought and knowledge, associated with the “second” perfect world. The body interacts through the five senses with our imperfect world and, to Plato, restricts the soul from attaining its full potential. So, in his view, the soul is good and the body is bad. Everything associated with the soul is good, everything associated with the body is bad. Fix this in your brain, it’s the Big Consequence of Plato’s “Big Idea”.

Plato’s Big Consequence: Soul = Good, Body = Bad

To summarise then, in the four centuries between the closing of the Old Testament and the opening of the New Testament, God’s extended “Gap Year”, a whole flood of new ideas and new ideals was pouring out of Greece. You may now start to see the relevance of this, because these ideas and ideals were not going to just impact the world, but the Church too. In the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican is a painting by Raphael. It is known as The School of Athens and features a whole gaggle of Greek philosophers. Clearly seen are Plato and Aristotle in conversation. Plato is pointing above to the heavens and Aristotle is pointing down to the earth. The question we need to ask is why they should be commemorated in the capital of the Roman Catholic Church?

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? It all started with the Jews, strangely enough, or one in particular. Philo was his name and he lived in Alexandria in Egypt, one of the most famous cities in the world at that time. It was just after the time of Jesus.

Philo may have been a Jew but his education was thoroughly Greek, in common with all Jews living in the Egyptian capital. Yet he was a loyal and proud Jew and his life’s ambition was to bring together his religious heritage and his philosophic tendencies. He believed he saw continuity between Moses and Plato. The problem of his day was that many Jews, trained in Greek ways, were rejecting Moses and the Bible and so Philo worked hard to create a compromise that would be acceptable. His main work was in the creation of Bible commentaries, mainly of the Book of Genesis, and he was the first to do so with one finger figuratively in the pages of the Bible and the other in the life and works of Plato.

We can start at the Creation story. To Plato (and to Philo), the Universe came into being through the work of the Demiurge, not quite God as we know Him, but a lesser god. Remember Plato’s Big Consequence, that the soul is good, the body is bad, the concept of dualism. This can be simplified further in saying that anything of the physical world is inferior to anything of the spiritual world. So this Demiurge, responsible for the Creation of the physical Universe, just has to be an inferior god, from Plato’s point of view.

The concept of the Demiurge is a consequence of Platonism. It is a fudge to support a faulty philosophy. That is the problem if your starting point is a falsehood. Everything that follows from it is also false and you’re just sinking further and further into the mire. This is even the case with techniques used to implement your ideas. The technique that Philo used most of all when he turned to the Books of Moses is the same one already used in the study of Greek texts, such as those of Homer. This tool is known as allegory and the damage it did to the Biblical text is incalculable.

Allegory. In the context of this book it’s a key concept, so it’s worth labouring the point in order to fully understand it in every way. It is defined as a way of representing a situation, giving it a meaning that is not a literal meaning. Examples are the best way of getting a grip on this:

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegory of the Soviet era of Stalin in the pre-war years. Whereas kids may have a hate figure in Napoleon the pig, there is a greater hate figure implied as Stalin himself. So, if we take the story literally, it’s just a story of talking animals on a farm, but allegorically it’s a political satire.

The movie The Wizard of Oz, gave a lot of joy to generations of kids, with its basic homespun philosophy. It also exercised the brains of generations of scholars and commentators who saw allegory all over the place in it. So, in its literal sense, it’s just a good kid’s yarn, but as an allegory it is mostly seen by economists as a critique of the gold standard (no time here to explain that one!)

One big question we need to ask is whether the author intended to create an allegory and, if so, what point is he making? In George Orwell’s case, the allegory was clear and unambiguous. With The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, the author, never made it clear what the real meaning of the movie was.

So what about the Bible? Well, we know the author, God Himself. So when Philo went through the text of the early books of the Old Testament, he had to be sure that, if he saw allegory, then the author Himself would need to be in agreement. And, if He wasn’t, then Philo was treading on dangerous ground indeed!

Why would Philo have to use allegory anyway and what’s this to do with Plato? Well, it’s back to Plato’s “Big Idea”, his dualism, and it’s worth delving deeper to extract the core thinking behind it. When Plato says that the soul is good and the body is bad, he is declaring a basic principle that has many guises. In religious terms, he is saying that the physical world, the one in which we live, is bad (or evil) and the spiritual world (heaven and such places) is good, and therefore worth striving for. So, material world is bad … spiritual world is good. This theme is going to pop up again and again in this book, as you begin to realise how deep this idea has sunk into our collective minds.

Because of this, Philo was uncomfortable whenever, in the Bible, God (a spiritual being) mixes it with us on a human level (the material world), when He interacts with man personally, or shows human characteristics or emotions. You would expect that he would have had a real problem with Jesus – their lifetimes actually overlapped. Perhaps they actually met each other? When Philo wrote of such God-man interactions in his Bible commentaries, he would look beyond any literal interpretations of the verse for deeper meanings, allegories. In fact this became a regular feature of his work, looking for deeper “spiritual” meanings behind Bible verses that the author (God) meant just to be taken literally. Often he accepted that Bible verses could have both a literal and an allegorical meaning.

In our story, Philo is but a stepping stone, so, rather than dwelling on him any further, we will move on a century or so to the next major figure of our story, Origen. He was a Christian, one of the Church Fathers and he, too, lived in Alexandria. In common with Philo, he had a passion for interpreting the Bible but there was a major difference here. Although Philo looked to marry the orthodox Jewish interpretations with insights that he believed that he had from Greek philosophy, he always saw himself as a Jew first and his writings always reflected that fact. Origen was a Gentile Christian who was writing Bible commentaries for other Christians in the Greek speaking world. For him, the Hebrew text and Jewish themes were just the raw data, to be processed using the tools of Greek understanding.

Origen was greatly influenced by both Philo and Plato but, in his approach to the Biblical texts, went a stage further than Philo. Whereas Philo often gave literal and allegorical interpretations of the Scriptures, Origen tended to dwell on allegory. As a Christian heavily influenced by Plato, he saw the spiritual dimension as all-important, so strained to find “deeper” meanings wherever he could. In fact Origen was responsible for making allegory the dominant form of Bible interpretation for centuries to come.

A favourite theme of his was to re-interpret the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament, using techniques from Greek philosophy, married with insights from early Christian tradition and other writings. His driving principle was that the Bible contained three levels of meaning, corresponding to the body, soul and spirit. You can see the influence of Plato here, particularly when he adds that the “body” level of meaning, the literal meaning of the text, is for the more simple minded whereas the “soul” and more particularly the “spirit” levels of meaning are for the more enlightened readers. If Origen discerned where a Bible passage spoke about Christ, then, for him, this had to be the original meaning of the text. This may have come from the noblest of motives, but is it correct, is this what God had in mind when He authored the text?

Our next port of call of this whistle-stop tour of early Christian influences takes us to a place in the same African continent, two centuries later, to a place called Hippo, in modern day Algeria. We are going to meet the man who can be described in two different ways, depending on your perspective. To both the Catholics and Protestant reformers he is one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity. To others he is the philosopher who infused Christian doctrine with Platonism (or Neoplatonism to be specific). Like many of these Church Fathers, he was, by virtue of the sum of his influences, a Christian philosopher, a term that should by rights be an oxymoron.

Augustine of Hippo was enormously influential in many ways. From him we get the idea of original sin and our traditional understanding of evil. He has contributed much yet it is worth looking at what influenced him. He was originally a follower of Manicheanism, a cult that promoted a form of dualism, with good versus evil, light versus darkness, body versus soul. It was said to be a set of beliefs closer to Buddhism than Christianity.

His later influence was Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, who introduced him to the Bible interpretation techniques of Philo and Origen. The fact is that Augustine was just so influential in the subsequent development of the Western Church, that if we perceive any issues in the way he interpreted the Bible, then this is going to have great consequences. So his take on such matters as “allegory versus literal readings of Scripture” is crucial.

Suffice to say that he follows in the tradition started by Philo and refined by Origen, in using Platonic techniques to interpret Bible texts. Although Augustine was correct in declaring that Scriptures are inspired of God, he reinforced Origen’s ideas that Christ needs to be shoe-horned all over the Old Testament, even where the fit is uncomfortable and that allegorical interpretations were given to passages he was unsure of or unhappy with. His approach was to say that, in the first instance, readers must look at the spirit behind the literal texts, to grasp the mind of God, through spiritual understandings.

The scene has now been firmly established that, because of the demands of the Platonic world view in preferring the spiritual over the material, spiritual meanings were sought, even in Bible passages that were so obviously meant to be taken literally. A free-for-all was now created, allowing Christian teachers right up to the current day to be able to bend and coax God’s word to say whatever they want it to say!

That is the legacy of the infiltration of Greek philosophy into Christian theology. The ideas of Plato, refined by Philo (for a Jewish audience) and Origen (for a Christian audience), became thoroughly entwined with God’s revelation to us, thanks to Augustine, the father of the Western Church.

The Church has been thoroughly “Greeced”. Isn’t it time for a thorough “de-Greecing”?

Why not now visit our blog to see how a group of folk are trying to deal with these issues.