A One Way Bridge Between Hellenism and Christianity

I found these quotes from G.W.H. Lampe a few years ago, and just rediscovered them in a file today. Very interesting stuff in light of a certain popular Reformed polemic against “Greek thinking.”

…To persuade thinking pagans that their own intellectual and spiritual leaders pointed the way to Christ as the true fulfillment of their highest ideals and the full revelation of a reality which they had already perceived dimly themselves was an effective missionary strategy. It had to be balanced, however, by an uncompromising refusal to allow the possibility that there might be more than one ultimate source of divine revelation. To show the pagan world that its own philosophers, poets and oracles gave supporting testimony to the truth of Christian belief and the excellence of Christian moral principles was to build a bridge between Hellenism and the Bible; but the Church made it perfectly clear that this bridge was constructed for one-way traffic only. [G.W.H. Lampe, “Athens and Jerusalem: Joint Witnesses to Christ?”, in The Philosophical Frontiers of Christian Theology: Essays Presented to D.M. MacKinnon, eds., Brian Hebblethwaite and Stewart Sutherland (Cambridge University Press, 1982), pg. 14]

…The Logos of God was, according to the Apologists, none other than the reason in which, because they have been created as rational beings, all men participate. On the basis of this understanding of the Logos Justin was able to adapt Stoic theory to his missionary purpose. The idea of an immanent principle of rationality which gives order to the cosmos, and to live in harmony with which must be the aim of the wise and virtuous man, leads Justin to make his famous claim that ‘those who have lived with Logos are Christians, even though they may have been regarded as “atheists”, such as Socrates and Heraclitus among the Greeks and Abraham and Elijah among the barbarians’[First Apology 46], and the still more far-reaching assertion that ‘whatever among all men has been well said belongs to us Christians’. [Second Apology 13] This enables Justin to develop a two-pronged apologetic: Christianity is the fulfilment of the Hebrew scriptures, as Trypho must realize after their true meaning has been unfolded to him; it is also the fulfilment of the partial and incomplete, but nevertheless, so far as they go, valid insights and aspirations of Greek philosophy…

The witness of Hellenism to the truth of Christianity was therefore always subservient to, and strictly controlled by, the biblical revelation and the doctrinal tradition derived from it. Within the limits of the authoritative God-given body of truth, the testimony of philosophy and of the natural knowledge of God implanted in, or accessible to, all men is valuable supporting evidence, particularly as a source of useful arguments ad homines; but it plays a subordinate role and is never allowed to stand on an equal footing with the biblical tradition as a source of revelation. In this way Christianity was in the enviable position of being able, on the one hand, to advance the exclusive and uncompromising claim to offer infallible truth (the strength, or apparent strength, of all fundamentalism) and at the same time to assimilate Greco-Roman religious and philosophical thought, ideals and practice and use them in the furtherance of the revealed Gospel. Again, the process of assimilation was virtually one-way. [G.W.H. Lampe, “Athens and Jerusalem: Joint Witnesses to Christ?”, in The Philosophical Frontiers of Christian Theology: Essays Presented to D.M. MacKinnon, eds., Brian Hebblethwaite and Stewart Sutherland (Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 18-19]

In one way, I’m sorry to be so “on” about the subject of the insufficiency and incorrectness of certain of the key ideas of Van Tilian apologetics of late, but in another way I’m not sorry. I am increasingly convinced that this mode of polemic just flat isn’t dealing with the legacy of the Ancient world in a truly responsible manner. This isn’t something I’ve only just come to after a few months studying the Humanities at the University of Dallas, either. It’s long been bouncing around in my mind, and my studies at UD are doing little more than providing me with a lot of concrete specifics to back up what used to be a mixture of “somewhat sophisticated arguments” and “somewhat vague impressions.”

From where I sit, the case for Medieval Protestantism isn’t helped at all by constructing a false antithesis that serves little purpose other than insulating us from the powerful, incarnated, and sometimes visceral realities of the things we profoundly share with all human beings. It’s not a question of regeneration, not a question of an endless war between the “haves” (by grace) and the “have nots” (by sin). It’s a question of basic historical and philosophical cogency and responsibility, and the more I dig into these subjects the less cogency and responsibility Van Tilianism has to my mind.

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