In an on-going discussion with Heal the Land, here is his most recent post to me:
am declaring a unilateral ceasefire/disarmament/surrender on my part on our past disagreements because my coursework has uncovered things that concern me far more deeply, namely the early and systemic fusion between Christianity and Platonic, Stoic, and Aristotlean philosophy. Their motivation seems to have been primarily to show the pagans that the Christians were as smart as they were? Basically, you have this stance that the wisdom of the Greeks actually came from God. Clement went as far as claiming that God gave the Law to the Jews and philosophy to the Greeks, a clear refutation of what Paul said in Romans 1. While Paul did say that he learned and benefitted from philosophy in verse 14 (and incidentally from the barbarians as well), he then rejected the knowledge of the Greeks – and all other forms of purported knowledge apart from Christ – as corrupt, perverse, and evil in 17-32, in 22 “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” and 25 “Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever.”
Now did Clement with his “God gave philosophy to the Greeks” and Augustine with his “Jesus Christ can be described using metaphysics” not have access to Romans 1 (very unlikely) or totally reject them (very likely)? And that speaks nothing of the “natural law” Aristotleanism of Thomas Aquinas that so vexed Martin Luther. I know understand your cryptic reference to Roman Catholicism in “what is there in common between Jerusalem and Rome” to be a clever play on the words of Irenaeus. Leaving apart the Catholic question for now and returning to Irenaeus’ original words … I have to ask you, do you believe that Irenaeus was right, or was he wrong?
Of course, my opinion is self – evident. So I will ask you another question: how practicable is it and what would be the effects of returning to the Christianity of Irenaeus, which appears to represent the eastern wing of the church and its earliest doctrines? Would it mean, perhaps, giving up systematic theology for one?
Second, I am extremely concerned about these “traditions” that were trafficked by the early church. I was of the opinion that most of them were post – Constantine created to prop up Catholicism, but it appears that they began to pop up as early as the second century. Let us be honest about what they were: LIES to support certain doctrines and to aid certain churches and groups in the struggle for power and prominence in the early church. So … what are we to make of the fact that as early as the second century a significant portion of the early Gentile church had become a bunch of power hungry liars desperate for validation by the Roman pagans? And, er, to what extent are these questions being asked at Wheaton and in your other stops on the theological road?
Here is my response:
Ireneaus and Clement continue to be heroes of the faith. I look forward to meeting them and discussing what we had right and wrong when I arrive in heaven.
I have another question for you. Have you read Elaine Pagels, because it is very interesting that many people like yourself make similar arguments. You argue that there was this power struggle, and the evil Roman Catholic Church fought dirty to establish the Christianity that we have now. Pagels argues this because she could not stomach the thought of a non-Christian friend going to hell. So she began reading the Gnostics and now she is very well off financially and professionally for arguing that the wrong side won in the debates of the first 5 centuries. In her parlance all orthodox Christians are evil, mean-spirited, women-hating, gay-bashing malcontents who would love nothing better than to send the entire world hell personally. That being said you probably hates your kind of Christian more than mine, but it would be a toss-up.
You can look at the 2000 years of history of the Church and see the fights, the hyperbole, the “right,” and the “wrong.” You can focus on what everyone got wrong and posit yourself as the one person in the history of the Church who has it right. Or you can talk of going back to the Christianity of the early church, and how we are going to reclaim the faith for God (every 30 years a new group springs up who claims to do this).
Or you can take another position. You can argue that through the grace of God, the illumination of the Spirit, and the power of Christ, that the Church has preserved an orthodox faith down through the millenia. You can argue that various doctrines have been right or been wrong, but you can also argue that there have been core values that the Church has affirmed over and over again. You can argue for what St Vincent of Lerins did that we must preserve that which has been believed everywhere, by everyone, at every time. Among these doctrines I would include: creatio ex nihilo, Special creation of man in God’s image, The Trinity, the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture, Total Depravity, the Virgin Birth, Christ as the 100% man, the Salvation of Christ as seen as 1) a victory of the forces of the adversary 2) an atoning sacrifice for the sins of man and 3) an example of the life to be lived by all Christians, the Gift of the Holy Spirit for work in sanctification, illumination, and power in ministry, the eminent return of Christ, and the coming judgment for humanity. These are values that have been seen throughout the orthodox Church from as near the beginning as we can get. We may work out some of these areas differently, we may believe other doctrines. But if you cannot agree to these doctrines, I would argue that you might want to consider whether or not you are actually a Christian. I believe that God is sovereign and works in power in His Church to see His work done (often times in spite of us rather than because of us). One last point on these lines I prefer to use the Wesleyan admonition on orthodoxy: unity in what’s essential (the doctrines I listed), charity in non-essentials, and love in all things. That means I am one with any brother or sister in Christ that can agree with me on the essentials of the church (I would posit my list or perhaps the Apostles Creed as the preeminent statement of these). It also means that we move out from these essentials we treat each other with charity. That is I give others the benefit of doubt when it exists (i.e. when Rob Bell uses a poor word choice to describe the Trinity in hopes of making another statement, and then states elsewhere that He affirms the Trinity I take him at his word… as long as the mistake is not consistently repeated). In all matters (in or out of the church) I respond (hopefully) out of love.
On to Clement’s famous declaration that Greek philosophy stands as a revelation of God to the Greeks. Here it is important to truly understand just what the author is saying. In the passage in question (in Clement’s defense of the faith against Gnosticism), Clement is arguing for a point, i.e. the absolute stupidity of Gnostic thought. Like Ireneaus he is fed up with the nonsensical teaching of this band of false teachers. Ireneaus simply argues (well I might add) that Gnosticism is not good Christianity. He has a reason for doing this in that He stands as Bishop in a region filled with this thought (in the form of Valentinian Gnosticism), and has has more than one parishoner led astray by the foolish beliefs of these people. He is a pastor fighting like hell for the sanity and safety of his flock. Ireneaus then argues that the true believer is one who stands on the rule of faith. He is among the first that state that the New Testament canon (as we would come to know it) stands as the authoritative rule of faith for all Christians. This is the faith passed down to him from Jesus to the Apostles to him.
Clement is going beyond this fact, he is arguing that Gnosticism does not even make for good philosophy as the typical Greek might understand it. He is doing so because he is a scholar in the dominant philosophical center of his time, Alexandria. There he is surrounded by the amassed knowledge of the entire known world. He is talking to people drowning in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. So he is going to prove that Christianity represents the top of pinnicle of human knowledge. Furthermore he is arguing that the knowledge (gnosis) and faith (pistis) of Christianity is a higher and fuller revelation of God than what the Greeks previously had. This was an offensive idea to many Greeks (understandably so). So Clement begins (like any good debater) by discussing the ways in which he is similar to, and influenced by the writings of Plato and Aristotle. In doing this he argues that the philosophy of the Greeks served as a “pre-evangelion” to the Greeks. In the same way that the Law was designed to show the Jews to God, and prepare them to recognize the Messiah when He comes, the philosophy of the Greeks is to serve to point people to God (Plato and most of the philosophers believed in One God), and prepare them for the day that the teachings of Christ would be revealed to them. In this way he is preforming much the same task as Paul on Mars Hill. He is pointing to a reference point in their experience and revealing how that point ultimately points to the supreme revelation of Christ.
I buy into (and many orthodox believers would as well) that God is a good God that works throughout the world. I would argue that God in his prevenient grace works to prepare all of us for the revelation of Himself to us in fullness. In that sense you have the early church fathers arguing that all truth is God’s truth. If there is truth to be found in the world that truth is God’s work in preparing people’s hearts and minds for the ultimate revelation of God in Christ. The belief of the Church has long been that God created an ordered and reasonable world in which He can be seen and to some measure understood. In fact I believe that is what Paul teaches in Romans 1. He states that no man has any cause to complain to God that they did not know He existed. The very heavens and earth scream that there is a God and that He exists. The problem is that by the corruption of sin that came with the Fall, man’s nature is corrupted to the point that it is impossible for him or her to find God. They are inexorably attracted, bound, and defeated by sin, evil, and the devil. That is the second part of Romans 1.
Romans 1 and like passages on the imago dei have long had Christians discussing these passages. All have agreed that in some way shape and form there are natural or common graces; yet the understanding of how these graces act has varied. Thomas Acquinas, Jacob Arminus, and others have argued that the faculties of man to understand God and come to Him based solely on these graces raises to a salvific level. Most of us in the Protestant world (particularly in evangelicalism) argue that while these graces may serve to point us toward God, they are not without special revelation (i.e. Christ and the Scriptures) salvific. Salvation can only be found in the specific revelation of Jesus Christ (as mediated by the Scriptures).
To your last question (which was the first), I would ask how then could you go back? I would argue that the last 1800 years of the Church has included much that is good, and holy. We have faced any number of challenges to the faith (challenges to the trinity, canon, divinity and humanity of Christ, understandings of salvation and the scripture, etc), and I would argue along with many that in facing these challenges the Church has not only overcome, but often come out stronger with a better understanding of just who we are, and what we are to do. Which begs another question, why would you want to go back to Ireneaus’ time? And should we even try? A Jewish philosopher Abraham John Heschel once stated that he was OK with his lot in life, because God did not expect him to be Moses, he expected him to be Abraham John Heschel. I believe that God has sovereignly placed each of us in time, to be who He needs us to be in this time, and in this place. Where that meant to Ireneaus had to struggle pastorally with the problems of Valentian Gnostics, and Clement had to deal with the scholarship of Plato and Aristotle, it means that I am to struggle with the theological issues of post-modernity, and this post-Christian nation. My place is to answer to my best the questions of this day, and to seek to point others to the supreme revelation of Christ. I could stand alone in my corner of the church and brood that no one is getting it right, or I could step out into the world see ehere God is moving, and see how He is preparing people for Himself, and attempt to stand in the gap for them pointing them onto the saving knowledge of Christ. In doing this I attempt to stand with that great cloud of witnesses that have come before me. I know that they are cheering me on, and one day maybe I will get to stand with them in heaven and compare notes. Oh, and spend my eternity worshipping our great and awesome Savior. I hope to see you there.