How has Greek philosophy influenced Christianity?

Greek philosophy and Christianity
Question: "How has Greek philosophy influenced Christianity?"

Answer:
Philosophy literally means “a love of wisdom.” In modern use, the term refers to any process of organizing thoughts and ideas within some established framework. “Greek philosophy” is actually a subset of the world’s varied systems of discourse. Still, it would be fair to say that, when Western culture thinks of “philosophy,” what’s in mind is really “Greek philosophy.” Terminology, techniques, and categories developed in ancient Greece became the standards by which later philosophical discourse was conducted. As a result, virtually all questions of truth, ethics, worldview, and morality are still discussed using the basic principles of Greek philosophy.

It’s important, however, to distinguish between terminology and techniques, in contrast to tenets. In other words, Greek philosophy has provided the modern world with a vast array of methods and words useful in comparing different claims and effective in framing certain ideas. That does not imply that thoughts discussed using the mechanics of Greek philosophy are themselves drawn from the worldview of ancient Greece. On the contrary—what has made Greek philosophy so enduring is its application to a wide range of divergent views.

This distinction is especially crucial when discussing the impact of Greek philosophy on Christianity. On one hand, the worldview, morals, and central claims of Judeo-Christianity far predate Greek philosophers. Many central beliefs of Christianity are in direct opposition to those of men like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Paul, who often debated Greek philosophers (Acts 17:18), indicated that the gospel of Christ was “foolishness” to the Hellenistic (Greek) worldview (1 Corinthians 1:23). In that sense, it would be fair to say that Greek philosophy has not influenced Christianity.

On the other hand, it is also true that Christianity was born into a world steeped in Greek thinking. Greek philosophy provided the early Christian church with a set of discussion tools, as well as an opposing worldview with which to contrast the gospel. This makes Greek philosophy a profound influence on the words, systems, and discussions by which Christians throughout history have sought to explain their faith.

In short, Greek philosophy is not literally a source of Christian belief or a meaningful influence in the spiritual beliefs of Christians. At the same time, the systems with which Christians teach, discuss, and understand biblical truth have been deeply affected by Greek philosophy.

The apostle Paul was well-acquainted with Greek philosophy and often quoted Greek writers as he spread the gospel (Acts 17:23–28). New Testament writers also reference Greek philosophical concepts in order to better explain their ideas. John’s use of the word Logos, for instance, plays off of a pre-existing Greek term while connecting it to a personal, unique divine being (John 1:1–4). This shows how the prevalence of certain philosophical methods greatly influenced how early Christians presented their faith but not what they preached.

Early church fathers understood the relationship between message and method well. Augustine, for example, compared a Christian’s use of Greek philosophy to Israel’s use of gold taken from Egypt during the Exodus (Exodus 12:25–36). Like any physical tool, he argued, philosophy was capable of being used either rightly or wrongly. Philosophy might have been developed by an ungodly culture, Augustine contended, but it was ultimately just a set of techniques and terms, entirely useful in defending the truth.

As time went on, Christianity spread to a larger audience and involved more sophisticated discussion. The trend of relying on philosophical discussion continued. Greek philosophy remained a dominant force in Western thought, and so Christian theology continued to develop its structure and terminology by using this framework. This relationship is best exemplified in men like Thomas Aquinas, who sought to systematically describe the Christian worldview through the system of Greek philosophy. This approach, known as Scholasticism, revolutionized how Christians defended, discussed, and dispersed biblical ideas.

Of course, it would be naïve to think that Greek religious or spiritual ideas never, in any way, made inroads into the Judeo-Christian community. A major component of Greek thinking, in the era just prior to Jesus’ birth, was the concept of allegorical interpretation. In essence, this was the technique of interpreting mythical stories as analogies, not literal events, in order to avoid unpleasant implications about the morality of Greek gods such as Zeus or Ares. While this has value, in some instances, allegorical interpreters often applied the technique to stories meant to be taken literally. This allegorical approach was taken up by some Jewish writers, most famously the scholar Philo, who lived around the same time as Jesus Christ. Not all theologians accepted his approach, however.

Likewise, after the earthly ministry of Jesus, certain Greek religious ideas had to be confronted as they seeped into the church. Easily the most influential of these was Gnosticism, which played off the Greek penchant for mystery religions and intellectualism. The Bible itself shows that these overtly spiritual influences were strongly rejected by leaders of the church (1 John 4:2–3; 1 Timothy 4:1–5, Colossians 2:6–9). Even in the earliest days of Christianity, there was little confusion about the difference between adopting Greek philosophy and accepting Greek religion.

The New Testament era was one dominated by Greek culture and language. Even though Rome ruled the physical world, Greek intellectual traditions remained supreme. The New Testament was originally written in Greek and was targeted to an audience immersed in a Hellenized worldview. Greek philosophy continued through the millennia to be the primary system by which the Western world debated and defined concepts. At the same time, Christianity stands in clear contrast to the spiritual and religious beliefs of ancient Greek culture.

Greek philosophy has deeply, profoundly influenced the way Christianity discusses theology. It has not, however, been the origin of Christian belief nor a source of Christian religious ideas.

Recommended Resource: Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland

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