Thursday, October 22, 2009

Nicea & the New Testament: A Common Myth

One of those common myths that floats around out there is the rhetoric that as the church moved into Greek culture, it adopted Greek patterns of thought. Without denying shifting worldviews that differ from the original context to a limited extend, I've critiqued this notion of 'Greek vs. Jewish' thought particularly as it get propped up on the word-level--as if certain words denote "Greek thinking".

One common myth is that in Church history the Nicene Creed represented the introduction of alien Greek concepts into Christian theology. The case is made that words like homoousia have no place in Biblical doctrine. This is a bit like saying that because the Bible doesn't use the word Trinity the Bible in no way teaches that God is Triune. This argument just not fly. Theology is built by exegeting Biblical passages and looking at the concepts developed by the use of words.

The rise of Arianism and the Council of Nicea was precisely a debate over the meaning of the Bible itself. Yes, Greek words were used and some of those words were used to encapsulate theological concepts in precise ways. There is nothing wrong with precision, in fact in the face of confrontations to doctrine we often have wrestle with issues to a new depth. Nicea was about better articulating and clarifying what the Scriptures themselves teach.

One thing that I personally find intriguing is that when you read men like Athanasius, defending Nicea, you find him wrestling with and working through Biblical texts. In some cases, his exegesis is a bit archaic by modern standards but in other cases he makes analogous argument to that which we make today to defend Christ's deity. Athanasius and men like him, even his opponents, were by and large very concerned with the meaning of Scripture rather than imposing doctrine upon it.

R.P.C Hanson in his massive study on the rise of Nicene doctrine writes:

The subject under discourse between 318 and 381 were not, as has sometimes been alleged, those raised by Greek theology or philosophy and such as could only have been raised by people thinking in Greek terms. It was not simply a quarrel about Greek ideas. In the fourth century there came to a head a crises... which was not created by either Arius or Athanasius. It was the problem of how to reconcile two factors which were part of the very fabric of Christianity: monotheism, and the worship of Jesus as divine. Neither of these factors specifically connected with Greek philosophy or thought; both arise directly from the earliest tradition. Indeed, as will, it is hoped, be shown in this book, it was only by overcoming some tendencies in Greek philosophy which offered too easy an answer to the problem that a solution was reached. (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 p.xx-xxi)

Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham have defended in numerous from the NT studies side the reality of monotheism and worship of Jesus was found in the earliest Christian churches--right from their formation. Hanson notes that Greek philosophy would have been an easy answer, which runs contrary to most of these simplistic critiques built on myth. In fact:
Greek philosophy could readily accept monotheism which included an hierarchically graded God and could easily afford a qualified divinity to the Son. Neither was in the end accepted by the Church. But it would be absurd to deny that discussion and dispute between 318 and 381 were conducted largely in terms of Greek philosophy. The reason for this was, paradoxically, because the dispute was about the interpretation of the Bible. The theologians of the Christian church were slowly driven to a realization that the deepest questions which face Christianity cannot be answered in purely Biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself. (ibid, xxi).
Serious historical reasoning and reflection cannot substantiate the notion that Christian doctrine developed at Nicea because of a coruption of Greek thought or philosophy. Hopefully, this short treatment shows this myth to be:


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