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Why We Must Learn A Little Philosophy In Order To Understand How Christianity Has Developed

We are really being naïve if we think that, as citizens of the modern world, we can easily understand the world of Jesus, Peter, and Paul.  As a young boy in the United States I was taught to speak English, an evolved form of old Germanic languages, a language somewhat distant from the likes of the languages of biblical times, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic.  Like everyone else in my country I was taught how to think and communicate in life by a school curriculum, a systematic study of English, mathematics, literature, geography, social studies, government, and other subjects that trained me to be a part of Western culture in the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Our culture is one of industrialization and technology in a global society of diverse populations.  For as long as I can remember I have watched television with its news and analysis, interpretation of life events based on a system of learning and analysis that goes back to early Greek philosophers and beyond that somehow evolved to its present form.

At some point it becomes obvious that the way that we think as members of the culture that we live in is different from not only other cultures now, but especially so from ancient cultures on the other side of the world.

It should also be obvious by now that the Christianity of today with its myriad “ologies” and “isms” and especially its innumerable divisions and denominations has developed to the state of complexity and often confusion because of how it has been affected by the culture over the centuries and millennia.

The mentality of the mind of Jesus, Peter, Paul and the early disciples in primitive, original Christianity is not the “rational”, analytical, skeptical, mind of the rest of the world of its day, let alone the “rational”, analytical mind of today.  For example, some Christians may preach that the Bible is a “owners manual” of life, giving the “how — to” on how to deal with situations in life from God’s perspective. Don’t think that I disagree with the concept, because I think that in the Law and the Prophets, the Psalms, the life and teachings of Jesus, the guidance of the Apostle Paul are myriad instructions on how to live a life for God.  But it’s easy to see that the “how to” manual called the Bible is far different from any other “how-to” manual that you see for other products, or practices.

I recently bought a “sports” wrist watch.  It enables me to not only know the time, and date, but it will tell me my heart rate, time how long I am doing activities, and tell me how many calories I burned during that time.  It comes with a little owners manual.  The manual gives step-by-step procedures for all of the functionality and services of the watch.  The manual has explanatory sections on “relative heart rate”, “finding your target heart rate zone”, and a numbered series of steps on “how to measure your heart rate”.  It has similar sections on using the countdown timer, setting the countdown timer, running the countdown timer, using the calorie features, how the watch works, care and maintenance, and so on.  It is presented in a logical and systematic format, with precisely numbered steps for procedures.

We all know that that is not how the Bible is written.  There is no systematic listing of subjects, with ordered steps for their proper care. Yes there are some direct commandments, and the whole listing of the Law is a precise and exact system.  But we also know that the giving of the law was not God’s first choice and is the exception to how things are generally presented in the Bible.  Mostly what we have are proverbs, parables, analogies, symbols, and simple historical accounts from which we are supposed to learn and follow the example of the good models while avoiding the example of those who erred.

The Logos as an example of Philosophical Thinking Impacting Early Christianity

This whole article is an illustration of the effect of Greek philosophy on our thinking.  It is especially illustrious of the concept of the Logos because it is presented from a logical, systematic point of view.  Our word “logical” comes from this Greek concept of Logos.

On the topic of the Logos it is naïve to think that the first time the Logos is mentioned in ancient documents is in the gospel of John.  For centuries before the advent of Christianity Greek philosophers were discussing and refining the concept of the Logos.  The Logos may be a foreign concept to many today, but it was as common in the times immediately before, during, and after the birth of Christianity as many controversial subjects are today such as evolution or atheism.  The Logos was being conceptualized by philosophers for centuries before Christ.  It is important to note that philosophy, especially at this time,  was often not atheistic.  Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Platonism were all important “religious” philosophies that sought to explain God  and help its followers find inner peace and wisdom.

The stoic philosophy started about three centuries before Christ.  Look at how one university professor describes the stoic concept of Logos and how intrinsic it was to their belief system:

“The Stoics claimed that the universe is a single ordered whole, a perfect organism that unites itself all that exists in the world.  It is ruled by a supreme cosmic power, a fiery substance still called itself the Logos, Divine Reason, or God.  the Logos is the organizing, integrating, and energizing principle of the whole universe.”[1]

Philo was an important Jew living in Alexandria Egypt about the same time as the book of Acts.  Philo integrated Judaism and philosophy.  Especially of note is that he further discussed and promoted the concept of the Logos as the God of The Bible.

So we can see that by the time the gospel of John was written, a discussion of God’s plan for salvation, with Jesus as the Redeemer,  in terms of the Logos would be a natural subject for a Christian to make comments about.

The Logos continued to be an important religious — philosophical concept in the culture as beginning around the second century after Christ the religious philosophy of middle Platonism furthered the concept of a divine reason, a divine mind, as part of a Trinity of three divine primary beings:  the divine mind, a second mind or God, and a world soul,[2] which looks suspiciously similar to the concept of the Trinity canonized in the late fourth century.

The universal Logos or divine reason became a concept of the Christian apologists of the second century who sought to defend Christianity from the Greek philosophers scoffing at it.   Apologists like Justin Martyr and Origen  responded to philosopher’s antagonistic comments with philosophical arguments promoting Christianity as the only true philosophy.

Hellenization is the name given to the process where the way Christianity was communicated and understood in its early form as a Jewish Christianity was changed to one dominated by Greek philosophy.

Philosophies’ Impact on Christianity throughout the Millennia till Now

Philosophy has never stopped being a powerful influence on Christian doctrine and practice.  Just the names of eras like scholasticism and the age of reason betray the incredible influence of philosophy.   Whereas before in Judaism and original, primitive Christianity we see systems based on revelation, and learning through analogy, symbol, and parable now the emphasis has drastically changed to the supremacy of reason as the basis for truth.

The importance of philosophy on the development of Christian doctrine can be seen in the preeminence of theological works that are philosophically based.  Some of these works are Augustine’s The Confessions of Saint Augustine, Boethius’ The Consolation Of Philosophy, and Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica.    Works like these were incredibly influential in influencing theological thought the ages.

Conclusion

We are dramatically different than the people of original, primitive Christianity.  Philosophy was a dominant force in the days of Jesus Christ here on earth and continues to be one now.  Some of the greatest challenges in the spread of Christianity came from philosophers.  Whether right or wrong, the response was to “Helenize” Christianity by changing the way it was discussed and reasoned.

The end result is what we have now, a very complicated system of ideologies, sometimes competing, all called Christianity.  The only way to understand how we got here is to understand the influences that created that complication.  One of those influences is philosophy.  For that reason we now have added the category of Philosophy to the website and will be looking to document some of its influences on Christianity and how it caused some elements of Christianity to be different from how it started.

[1] RELIGIONS OF THE HELLENISTIC-ROMAN AGE, Antonia Tripolitus, Eerdman’s, GrandRapids, 2002, p37

[2] ibid. p41

© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

August 24th, 2010 Posted by | Philosophy | no comments

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