Is Classical Theism a Greek Import? A Wee Comment

I often hear people lamenting the corruption of Christian theology brought about by the import of Greek philosophical concepts. The God of classical theism (i.e., the God that is eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, timeless, spaceless, impassible, etc.) is, we are told, not the God of the Bible, not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is, rather, an alien import that was the intellectual equivalent of the Fall from Paradise. We need to get "back to the Bible."

Here is my wee thought: weeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

Here is another: That is much too simplistic.

First of all, the nice and neat division between "Hebrew thought" (in the Bible) and "Greek thought" is artificial. As any New Testament scholar will tell you, the Judaism at the time of Jesus bore many imprints of Hellenistic thought. It was not "Hebrew as opposed to Greek" but a variety of complex mixes. For instance, read the wonderful Wisdom of Solomon (a book that influenced some NT writers like Paul). Hebrew? Yes. Greek? Yes.

Second, as John Peter Kenny writes:
classical theism [was] a conceptual construct [that] can be seen to develop with increasing clarity in late antiquity, due to the efforts of thinkers such as Augustine, Boethius, and John Philoponus. It was finalized by Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scholastics in the High Middle Ages. But classical theism was not classical, for it was never clearly and fully articulated in the philosophical theology prior to the late third or fourth century A.D. Neither was it an indigenous product of the Greco-Roman tradition. Many of its prominent features, especially the concept of creation, were the result of prolonged reflection on the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and ultimately the Koran by theologians schooled in Greco-Roman philosophy.
Mystical Monotheism: A Study in Ancient Platonic Theology (1991. Reprint. Eugene, RO: Wipf and Stock, 2010): 43.
Indeed. Classical theism was not taken off the peg by Christian theologians; it was crafted by them as a response to the teachings they found in the Bible.

Of course, it was a task undertaken using philosophical concepts employed at the time. But Christian theologians never uncritically adopted pagan philosophical notions. What they did was draw selectively on a range of pagan philosophers in order to appropriate ideas that they found helpful in elucidating biblical faith. But they were more than happy to modify or to drop ideas that did not fit biblical faith. In the end, the gospel called the shots (at least, that was what the aspiration).

And what is so wrong with appropriating ideas from paganism and radically recontextualizing them? OT writers themselves did this all the time as any comparison of the faith of Israel with other ancient Near Eastern texts would show. NT authors did this too. Is it bad? Who would be willing to call the author of John's Gospel, for instance, to account for drawing on Logos theology? The prologue of John brilliantly draws on a (variously deployed) notion from Hellenistic theology (the Logos) precisely because it connects with and illuminates a biblical tradition about the word of YHWH and the wisdom of YHWH. I say, "Good one, mate!"

So, the simple fact that classical Christian theology draws on notions from Greek philosophy is no problem at all so long as it is subservient to the gospel. A little intellectual plundering of the Egyptians is fine by me. Let's be open to wisdom from God in surprising places.

Classical theism is most certainly not above criticism or revision but it was a hard-won prize that should not be surrendered lightly.


Kevin Davis said…
Yes, this is the typical reaction (over-reaction?) to the whole Hebrew-thought-is-distinct-from-Greek-thought paradigm, which has a long history, from Albrecht Ritschl and his anti-metaphysics school to Martin Buber and his personalism to Emil Brunner and neo-orthodoxy to Colin Gunton and Thomas Torrance on the British scene -- and we could also mention Pascal and Kierkegaard. Given this long and distinguished history of critique, we should be careful not to over-correct instances where they were perhaps too quick to dismiss Greek categories. However, the propriety of the dominant attributes of classical theism (a bunch of postulates that are opposite to finitude) is the real and abiding question, and I tend to agree that they have little to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (as Pascal would say) because such categories have the creature (finitude) as their starting point from which antinomies are drawn. Such a project was indeed foreign to the Israelites who worked with moral and relational categories instead, in response to the God who made covenant with them.
Robin Parry said…

Yikes. Someone who knows what they are talking about. I depend so much on the hope that people don't. Dang!

I appreciate your caution about throwing babies out with bathwater (which, as you appreciate, I share).

Kierkegaard was quite a classical theist in his conception of God (unless I am mistaken, which is indeed possible).

The question for me is whether the God of classical theism is incompatible with the biblical presentation of God. I agree that contrasting God with creaturely finitude is an important part of classical theism but not all of it. Concepts such as truth. goodness, justice, love, beauty (the kind of stuff you see as more biblical) are also fundamental to the classical picture.

And I have no problem with contrasting God with creaturely finitude. If that plays no role one wonders whether what we have left of God or a super-powerful being.

But there are a host of tricky questions in this neighbourhood. Classical theists have always sought to rethink philosophical notions of God in terms of biblical revelation and to modify the philosophy accordingly. A host of biblical-hermeneutical questions are thrown up in the process. I think classical theists would benefit from another very serious, very long look at Scripture and a fresh openness to think again in order to refresh the tradition.

But I remain strongly inclined to think that this tradition is a line very much worth pursuing.
Robin Parry said…
forgot to add that classical theism also was the context within which incarnational and trinitarian theology were developed so obviously those notions are critical
I love classic theism!

And I love the way some Christians, especially Charismatics, get so shocked when I argue for the impassibility of God.
Kevin Davis said…
You're probably right about Kierkegaard, but a number of his 20th century heirs discovered in Kierkegaard a God whose freedom was exhilarating, emboldening them to question classical theism -- root and branch.

God's qualitative otherness (his non-finitude) is known because of the perfections of his being that were demonstrated to Israel in his acts of mercy, care, providence, judgment, and, most fully, in the establishment of the lordship of Jesus Christ. This is known through our salvation where this lordship is established in our minds, hearts, and will. This is not known in any other way, which is to say that the true God is not known in any other way.

I'm terribly suspicious when God is defined in any way other than through the acts by which he revealed himself. The quest to find an "unconditioned" upon which finite being has existence and intelligibility is a noble quest, which captured the minds of the greatest thinkers from Plato to Hegel, but it is an impossible quest. It can only achieve opinion, not knowledge; probability, not certitude.

With all of that being said, I do recognize that the theologian will invariably appropriate philosophical categories to serve in the exposition of dogmatic terms. This is impossible to avoid, because no theologian is capable of "purely" abstracting himself from his given semantic field (which is given, ultimately, by natural process, not divine revelation), so he should use this field to his utmost advantage. That was Thomas Aquinas' genius, and that was Karl Barth's genius.

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