Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:22, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom.” Such is the legacy of Greek culture.
Greek Philosophy (or Hellenism) was the background of the early Christian Fathers. As they encountered the Christian message and relayed it to the people of their day, the Church of the opening centuries was forced to communicate divine truth in contemporary patterns of thought.
The three major schools of this time period were Platonism, founded by Plato (died 347 BC), Aristotelianism, founded by Plato’s pupil, Aristotle (died 399), and Stoicism, founded by Zeno (died 263 BC, why they didn’t call it Zenoism is beyond me). While these ideologies were originally distinct schools of thought, they eventually came to influence one another and amalgamate.
Greek thought resembled biblical Christianity in various ways. For instance, Greeks arrived at a belief in monotheism (that God’s essential nature is singular). On the other hand, many Greek notions about God were contrary to the Bible, such as his impassibility (from Latin in-, "not", passibilis, "able to suffer, experience emotion"), or the sharp distinction of human nature which regards the soul to be good, and the body to be evil. Accordingly, the real person consists of the spirit or soul, while the body is like a house or set of clothing in which one temporarily lives. You can imagine how such views militated against the notion that God became a man, suffered and died.
The task of the early Christian Fathers was to relate Christian faith to Greek thought in order for people of their day to understand its message. This was a great challenge—expressing divine truth in Greek terms without distorting the truth. In many ways they succeeded, but not entirely. For instance, God was still viewed as impassible by many, and the human body was still sometimes regarded as less than sacred (leading, for instance, to the practice of “asceticism” or discipline in the form of self-inflicted punishment of the body).
In the words of historical theologian, Tony Lane, “But to say that the outcome was not perfect is only to say that the early Fathers were human. It is not to belittle their considerable achievement or to claim that we could have done better.” Furthermore, the Church faces the same basic challenge today: communicating the gospel to people of our day in light of contemporary thoughts patterns. In the words of John Stott’s classic text on preaching, we live “Between Two Worlds,” laboring to convey the ancient truth of Scripture with accuracy and in ways that are meaningful to our own generation.
In our next post we will consider the shape and direction of gospel ministry in the Hellenistic world of the Apostolic Fathers.
1. Tony Lane. A Concise History of Christian Thought. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 8.