Darkness Over Here; Light Over There

I’m not going to make much of this right now, as I’ve only just begun reading the work, but W.K.C. Guthrie makes the intriguing point that “In contrast to the societies of the present day [its own day], [Greek society] had sprung at a bound from darkness into light.” [The Greeks and Their Gods (Boston, Beacon Press, 1955)]

He is speaking of the world of Homer, which is usually dated from 850-750 B.C. What intrigues me about this remark of Guthrie’s (and I admit I am using it in a different context than he was) is that this date range corresponds roughly to the date ranges usually given for the period from the ministry of Elisha to those of the Minor Prophets. Now the basic theme of all the Minor Prophets is the slide of God’s people into apostasy and the threat of coming judgment upon them. God’s people are rejecting the light that He has given them, and embracing darkness.

Here’s my proposal based on these facts: During the first few centuries of the Faith, Christians came slowly (somewhat reluctantly) to see the best of Greek culture as having prepared the way for the propagation of the Gospel throughout the world. Guthrie claims that Greek culture – the best of which began with Homer’s generation, particularly with Homer and Hesiod – basically sprang up out of darkness straight into light, and he says this was in marked contrast to societies contemporaneous with the Greeks.

Is it plausible to argue that while His chosen people slid into apostasy and a long captivity to the servants of false gods, God graciously shifted the center of His work with men to another people, the Greeks? Not in the sense of giving them direct, special revelation – that can’t be true since much of even the best of Greek thought is not amenable to Scripture – but in the sense of giving them a great deal of light that they went on to use to create most of the conditions necessary for the Gospel?

Think about it: according to Herodotus, Homer and Hesiod were primarily responsible for giving the Greeks the “classical” conception of their gods. Homer and Hesiod are pretty crass polytheists, yes, but it is in no small part because of them that Socrates undertook the birth of philosophy as a way to point the Greeks to the higher truths they were missing. Without Homer and Hesiod, no Socrates. Without Socrates, no philosophy. Without philosophy, no concern for a wisdom that transcends the mortal conditions of men. Without a concern for transcendent wisdom, no preparation for the Gospel.

On this sketch, then, the sudden “springing up” of Greek culture from darkness into (relative) light was an action of divine providence “making his sun to shine on the just and the unjust alike,” for “God is no respecter of persons.” On this sketch, God took a bunch of pagans and slowly – incompletely, but still significantly – raised them up as another way of chastising His wayward people. Almost as if He said, “Ok, you don’t like the special revelation I gave you; let’s see how you like what the heathens can do with the little bit of natural revelation I give them.”

As I said, I’m not going to make too much of this right now. It’s one of those things that would have to be fleshed out in great detail in order to make any kind of persuasive case. However, just as a sketch of a possible argument, this line of thought is provocative for anyone who doesn’t superficially reject the Greeks for their alleged “autonomy.”

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2 Responses to Darkness Over Here; Light Over There

  1. But were the Greeks so “autonomous”? Were they in the darkness of “crass polytheism”? And what does that even mean, anyway? It is at least arguable that Hindus are monotheistic at core, and the Haitian hougan cutting the throat of a goat in a voudou ceremony is most definitely monotheistic.

    Many researchers in philosophy now are not seeing the emergence of Greek philosophy as some isolated incident, but as an outgrowth of more exoteric discourse about esoteric doctrines at the heart of Middle Eastern and Egyptian religion. In other words, it was not a radical break from the “crass polytheism” the preceded it. The recent discovery, for example, of the musical nature of the Platonic dialogues themselves seem to speak of the the profound Pythagorean roots of philosophical discourse, if not to mention an almost “shamanistic” intrusion of of such discourse into human life. In other words, I don’t see it in such dualistic terms. In many ways, and this is particularly the case in the late Neoplatonists. The Greeks saw themselves as inferior in terms of transcendent truths in that they were trying to commit to a philosophical system what they saw was already present in Egyptian hieroglyphics and Babylonian myths. They saw themselves in a process of decadence, not progress.

  2. Tim Enloe says:

    I actually don’t hold to the “Greeks as autonomous” school of thought. I address that topic because too many Reformed people DO hold that view.

    I guess I don’t follow some of your last paragraph. Plato’s critique of the preceding polytheism is precisely that it is “crass” – the poets tell despicable lies about the gods, because no god worth the name would ever act like the Zeus or Poseidon or Ares of the stories.

    I am aware that the Greeks got much of their material from the Egyptians and Babylonians, but I still don’t see that the turn to philosophy was necessarily an attempt to create an inferior rendition of transcendent truths. Perhaps you could elaborate?

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