Resisting, not accommodating, Hellenization

It’s often said that Christianity was Hellenized away from its Jewish roots as it came into the Greco-Roman world. Surely, there are some examples of this happening, but Peter Leithart shows in a short piece that Athanasius’ defense of the divinity of Christ is hardly one of them. A key passage:

As Rowan Williams pointed out in his classic study of Arius, Greek metaphysics assumed that the Absolute must be free of relations. Un-relatedness was the very definition of Absoluteness, because a being in a necessary relation must be defined in relation to that to which he is related. The Absolute can only be truly absolute if it exists on its own, in isolated Oriental splendor.

Athanasius knew what he was about when he charged that Arius was a “Greek.” Working from common notions of the Absolute, Arius naturally concluded that the Father was a lone God, without relation, until he created the Son. Later anti-Nicene theologians went so far as to abandon the title “Father” once they recognized that “Father” is a relational term that implies the existence of a Son. Eunomius preferred the chilly title “the Unbegotten”—an austere being into whose lap one would not wish to climb.

Orthodoxy, by contrast, shattered the Greek Absolute. Tracing out the import of biblical descriptions of the Son as the Father’s “radiance,” “word,” and “wisdom,” Athanasius insisted that the Son must be co-eternal with the Father. No light can be without radiance, and if the Son is radiance he must have shone from the Father from eternity. No God worthy of worship can be without Word and Wisdom, so if the Son is Word he must have always been in the Father’s mouth. By denying the eternity of the Son, Arius insulted the Father too: If there was when the Son was not, then there was a “time” when the Father was a light without radiance, a God without word, an Absolute fool. Perhaps without fully realizing the havoc he was wreaking on Greek thought, Athanasius put forward a strange new being, the related Absolute.

Leithart quotes Robert Jenson in calling the development of ancient Trinitarian theology “the evangelization of metaphysics.”


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