Antiquity and Christianity – a Contestable Conciliation

Matjaž Črnivec

In my short contribution to the debate on the relationship between Antiquity and Christianity, I want to present an intentionally radicalized view about some key differences between the two subjects under discussion. This further evolves into a criticism of their reconciliation that we find in theology from the patristic times onwards. For the purpose of this presentation, the term ‘Christianity’ will be taken to mean the time and the world view of the early church, as expressed in the New Testament and other early Christian documents, which still maintain its initial Jewish characteristics. With ‘Christendom’, I will designate the theological, philosophical and political cluster of ideas that appeared in the times of Emperor Constantine and that is still often not clearly distinguished from ‘Christianity’. As far as ‘Antiquity’ is concerned, I will concentrate mainly on the Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy as its essential worldview; other Greek philosophical schools like Epicureanism, Cynicism, Stoicism etc. will not be considered. Since Christians interacted mostly with the Platonic segment of antique world, this limited focus should be sufficient for our current purpose. In a way, my approach here is exactly the opposite of Averincev: he compared the Christendom of the early Byzantine era with the time of pagan Antiquity and found considerable differences due to the Christian influence. I am comparing Byzantine Christendom with the earlier Christianity and I am discovering differences that are due to the influence of Platonic philosophy.
I perceive the main area of difference between the two paradigms, that of Christianity and that of Antiquity, to be in the attitude towards the physical, created matter, which includes the human body and sexuality. A typical Platonic worldview could be summarized along these lines: the human soul is trapped in a cage of the body and limitations of material existence. The soul is “entombed in this which we carry about with us and call the body, in which we are imprisoned like an oyster in its shell.” The essence of the soul is understood as eternal and capable of pure knowledge and, therefore, in opposition to the carnal and material body, which only hinders it in this endeavour. The only way for the soul to escape is to realize this essential difference and to contemplate the eternal, abstract realities that are comprehended by “mind alone” and are absolutely transcendent to any mode of being in body. The purpose of philosophy is, therefore, to “dissever the soul from the body. … The philosopher dishonors the body; his soul runs away from the body and desires to be alone and by herself.” Salvation is only possible at the point of complete denial and elimination of everything bodily, corporeal, carnal and can be therefore directly associated with death. “What is that which is termed death, but this very separation and release of the soul from the body?” According to Socrates in Phaedo, true philosophy is actually a study and practice of dying. According to this paradigm, the human sexuality is also viewed unfavourably, because it is seen only in function of reproduction and prolongation of human bodily existence. Therefore, a dualism of the material and the spiritual exists in Platonic thought; the two are opposed without any possibility of reconciliation.
In contrast to this, early Christianity has maintained an essentially Jewish worldview that is significantly different in these points. The material world and human body were created directly from the one God and were pronounced “very good” at the beginning. The first sin, which took place after the creation of material world, made this “goodness” problematic, but never really obliterated it. Exactly to the contrary: God’s free and gracious actions to save the human beings were always worked out in concrete manners with material means and encompassed the body as well as the soul. Salvation in the Judeo-Christian paradigm is a personal “turning” to God, a change in relating to God and to fellow humans, which finally results in renewal not only of man’s spiritual existence, but in the resurrection of the body as well. In this world view, evil is not primarily associated with the matter and the body, it is rather located in the ‘spiritual’ centre of human being: in the heart and the mind.
Nevertheless, it is true that we find a certain dualism in some New Testament texts: the opposition between ‘the flesh’ and ‘the spirit’. Traditionally, this was understood in Platonic terms, as can be also seen from certain Bible translations. In some way, the interpretation of these two New Testament terms is crucial for our argument. First, we should note that the term ‘flesh’ is a broad one; it is often used in a neutral, non-negative meaning of bodily existence. It can denote the human condition, with special stress on its weakness, limitedness and temporality. The third meaning, the one that is associated precisely with the passages of our concern, is the human sinful nature, which is expressed mainly in one’s selfishness, self-centredness and the fact of being closed to God and to fellow humans. This ‘sinful nature’ is a spiritual entity, in the sense that it is not located in the human body, but it the human mind or soul.
The other member of this pair, ‘the spirit’, needs some qualification as well. In the New Testament context, it cannot be understood as an abstract and generic term for a transcendent, immaterial dimension. On the contrary, it is very particular: it means God’s Holy Spirit, Jesus’ personal and manifest presence among the believers. The antagonism of the flesh versus the Spirit therefore does not connote the dualism of the material and the immaterial, but the difference between the two modes of existence, the two ways of life: the one which is characterized by selfishness, self-aggrandizement and which is ultimately limited by death, and the other which is marked by the openness to the otherness of God and fellow humans, by freedom and by the limitless life.
This interpretation is held by the majority of contemporary biblical scholars. Whereas the New Testament does contain rigorous ethical demands and radical challenges to overcome the limitations of one’s own nature, we should observe that these happen inside a paradigm that is fundamentally different from Platonic philosophy. Therefore, if one could speak of the asceticism of the early Christians, this should be clearly separated from other forms of asceticism, which normally presuppose the opposition between material and incorporeal.
In the texts of the New Testament, we find explicit affirmations of the sanctity of the body and of sexual union of husband and wife. These were understood as concrete, tangible occasions of holy mysteries. The spiritual and the bodily, even the sexual, were not seen as opposites, but rather as parallels. The most vivid examples of such attitude can be taken from Pauline epistles. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 6.19 regarding the body. In addition, in Ephesians 5.28-32 he continues to include the sexuality: “In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.” The relationship of husband and wife is, therefore, a holy image of Christ’s relationship to the Church. The precursor to this understanding is almost certainly to be found in the Old Testament book Song of Songs.
Thus, we have briefly sketched the difference between antique and Christian worldview. However, from the 3rd century onwards we can observe how these two very distinct models started merging, to form the typical worldview of what I call ‘Christendom’.
I believe the most important figure in this process was Origen. It is true that even before him Christian apologists had used the language of Greek philosophy to describe the Christian faith. With Origen, however, something more important happens: philosophical terminology and concepts are not just used to explain Christianity to others, now they become tools used for Christian internal self-understanding. This change of language was not just superficial. With great conviction Origen stated that what the prophets were to Israel, Socrates and other philosophers were to Greeks, and thus somehow elevated the texts of the Greek philosophers to the same level as those of the Old Testament. This opened the doors for Christians to explore and employ certain aspects of this great philosophical tradition. With the help of certain Platonic philosophical elements, Origen constructed the first systematic representation of Christian belief and teaching, one that was quite appealing to his contemporary intellectuals. It could be argued that this was the birth of theology, in the sense of the word as is now commonly used, and especially systematic theology.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Origen’s speculations about the beginnings of the world run exactly as one would expect from a Platonic thinker: the story of creation is reinterpreted symbolically: the whole material world was due to the fall of the souls from God. The material nature of the world is perceived as merely an episode in the spiritual process of development, whose end should be the annihilation of all matter and return to God. As far as humans are concerned, the first sin is, therefore, understood as the cause for man to acquire the physical body. This ‘sarkosis’ happens at the point where God clothes the fallen Adam and Eve with garments of skins.
Another important consequence of Origen’s approach is seen in the transfer of Greek philosophical notions of what is proper for the abstract deity (theoprepés) to the personal God of the biblical revelation: the characteristics of impassability (incapacity of suffering) and immutability (incapacity for inner change) now become projected into the Godhead. Biblical passages showing God as expressing grief and even changing his mind are now explained away as crude anthropomorphisms that were necessary because of limitedness of the original audience. Constancy of God’s character, which is affirmed in the Scriptures, is now replaced by absolute changelessness and lack of inner motion.
Nevertheless, to be fair to Origen, we must recognize the importance of his achievement. In a time when Christianity had no political backing and was still regarded as a weird and dangerous sect in Greek and Roman societies, his synthesis meant a major apologetic triumph, which clearly showed that Christianity was actually the true peak and fulfilment of the highest aspirations of the contemporary culture. Origen’s brilliant knowledge of the Bible, his learned scholarship, the remarkable intuition of his Christocentric symbolic interpretations and his firm and coherent exposition of the Scripture made it almost impossible for anyone in has age to criticize him. We should also note that Origen repeatedly stressed the difference between the core teachings of the Church on one side and his speculations on the other; in various places he clearly states that his opinion is not a dogma, i.e. it is not normative for all Christians. It is actually quite amazing that his rejection by the imperial Church happened so late, in 553, three centuries after his death, in quite uncertain circumstances. In the meantime, his approach and his works made a huge impact on almost every significant Christian thinker of the Greco-Roman world, even on the most orthodox ones, who came to be called ‘the church fathers’ in most Christian traditions.
In the time of the emperor Constantine and his successors, Origen’s bold linking of the Greek philosophy with the Judeo-Christian revelation, started to serve a new and important political purpose. The emperors who wanted all their subjects to embrace Christendom certainly found it useful, because it helped to make the transition smoother, especially for the better educated. Furthermore, even the teachers and theologians inside the Church became so accustomed to the use of philosophical terminology and concepts that they seemed to be unable to do without them. It appears that in Greco-Roman world there were almost no objections towards this linguistic and paradigmatic shift. This can be clearly shown from the history of the early Ecumenical Councils, where the dogmas of the nature of Christ and of the Trinity were being discussed.
In the First Council of Nicaea, which took place in 325 AD, the philosophical concepts of homooúsios and homoioúsios were subject to fervent debate as to which of them properly described the relationship of Christ to God the Father. Both of these terms come from the sphere of philosophy and are not found in the Christian Scriptures. It is amazing that for the bishops of the Council there was simply no other way; they had to decide between one of these. It seems it was completely impossible to go back to the biblical language, which was rooted in Jewish worldview and lacked the precision but was, on the other hand, less abstract, more direct and lively than the chosen terms. We can only wonder at the absolute absence of any voice that would try to show that the abstract philosophical terminology was simply inadequate or inappropriate for expressing the paradoxes and intimacy of the personal relations that were in question.
It is important to note that these expressions were not understood as additional explanations of the revelation for the interested individuals; this language was constituted as an absolute norm for every Christian – an important difference since the time of Origen. Accepting the right philosophical term and rejecting the wrong one was a matter of salvation or damnation, all those who did not accept the homooúsios formula were expelled from the imperial Church. Furthermore, although this terminology was thought to supply a level of precision that was not possible with the biblical language, it soon became obvious that it needed more explanation with the same philosophical language to make it more precise. Another council was necessary, with new formulations and with a new Church-splitting damnation of those who did not accept the new definitions. This cycle was then repeated several times, and each time a part of Church was cut off from the rest, because of its disagreement with the proposed formulation.
We can see this unquestioned synthesis of Christianity with Antiquity everywhere in the early Byzantine Church, both in its eastern and its western part. It made its way not only into the normative theology, but also in the practical spirituality of Christians. The body was again understood as a cage for the soul and sexuality was again disfavoured and reduced to a reproductive function. Instead, stern asceticism and virginity were honoured and put on prominent positions.
To show how drastically the attitude of the mature Byzantine era differed from that of the apostle Paul, whom we quoted earlier, we can refer to one of its most distinguished representatives: the writer, theologian and mystic Maximus the Confessor. In his Centuries on Love we find statements like this: “He who has his mind attached to the love of God, despises all visible things and even his own body as something foreign” (I.6). It is quite difficult to imagine that any New Testament writer could have expressed himself in such terms! As it logically follows, Maximus’ view on sexuality between husband and wife is strictly functional: “… the correct use of the sexual intercourse is the purpose of begetting children. He who looks at the pleasure has missed the use … he is abusing his wife” (II.17). The difference between the Apostle and Confessor is obvious and it shows how well integrated have the elements of neo-Platonism become in most representative works of the Byzantine times.
Here we should note Averenicev’s remarkable observation in the introduction to his book. He shows that the imperial Christendom was neither the first nor the strongest propagator of dualistic ideas in the early Byzantine society. Quite to the contrary: Christians were ridiculed by the neo-Platonists, because they believed in resurrection of the body. Almost all of the known heresies and cults of the time advocated a much more radical asceticism than the official Church. It seems like these ideas and the value system associated with them were so integral to the zeitgeist that the Church was not able to oppose them entirely – it could only correct some of their extremes. Alternatively, from a more critical standpoint, it could be argued that the Church could not oppose these trends, since it needed to maintain a good public image in a society where emperor has assigned it the prominent role of the state religion.
Whatever the reason, we can only observe that this amalgamation of Christian and Platonic ideas in imperial Christendom became a standard and a norm and was unquestioned almost up to our times. It became a part of the Christian “collective unconscious”. It was so persistent that it mostly survived even the Reformation’s endeavours to bring the Christendom back to the Bible. Possibly due to Luther’s and Calvin’s appreciation of Augustine and church fathers in general, this paradigm can still be traced in various Protestant traditions and movements, including some recent ones. Only in recent decades can we notice an increased scholarly and pastoral stress on the Jewishness of New Testament texts, their authors and of Jesus himself. Part of this awareness is the recognition of a typical Hebraic or Semitic paradigm under the New Testament, which compels us to rethink our exegesis and its theological and anthropological implications.
This is also the purpose of this text: it is not to criticize or contradict Origen, the church fathers or the Ecumenical Councils. I am the first to admit to their great contributions and achievements from which all Christians should learn; learn mostly in the positive sense, but in the case of unreflected acceptance of a foreign paradigm, we should learn from their mistakes as well. The problem does not lie in the particular conclusions that they formulated, but in the fact that these were made normative and thus defining for the identity of Christianity. It is time to realize that this synthesis or reconciliation of antique and Christian paradigms is indeed contestable and problematic, and that the earlier Christian worldview is more appropriate for the identification of Christianity.
Plato, Phaedrus, 250c.
Phaedo, 65.
Ibid., 67d.
The goodness of creation is a recurring theme in its account; cf. Genesis 1.10,12,18,21,25,31.
Even the distinction between body and soul is a later development; in most of the Old Testament texts, the term ‘soul’ (Hebrew népeš) has a connotation of ordinary human existence, individual’s life etc. Only later, under Greek influence, does it begin to denote the inner, incorporeal dimension of human being.
It is telling that the main New Testament verb used to describe ‘Salvation’, sózo, means both ‘to heal’ and ‘to save’, and therefore encompasses both dimensions.
Cf. Mark 7.14-23; in the biblical language the “heart” denotes the hidden centre of the whole human being, the seat of will and thoughts.
Cf. Romans 1.18; Ephesians 4.17 etc. The Greek word used here (noûs) denotes the capability of intuitive and direct knowledge or apprehension; it was regarded by the Greeks as the peak of human spiritual capabilities. Some translators even prefer to render it with the English word ‘spirit’.
See for example John 3.6; 6.63; 1 Corinthians 3.1; Galatians 5.17 etc.
Especially in certain Southern Slavic translations (Serbian, Croatian and Macedonian) we can notice that the term sárx is translated simply as ‘body’.
Hebrew baśár, Greek sárx.
See Colossians 2.18 where the phrase ‘mind of the flesh’ (noûs tes sarkós) is employed: “A surprising expression, which shows how the apostle transcends the antique dualism of body and spirit. Even the purest mind can become ‘carnal’, if it is estranged from God.” (Gorazd Kocijančič, a note to Colossians 2.18 in the Slovenian Standard Version of the Bible, p. 1764, Svetopisemska družba Slovenije, Ljubljana 21997)
Cf. 1 Corinthians 2.14; James 3.15.
Cf. Genesis 3.21; referred to by Origen in Against Celsus IV.40 as containing “a certain secret and mystical doctrine (far transcending that of Plato) of the souls losing its wings, and being borne downwards to earth, until it can lay hold of some stable resting-place.” This is actually a direct quote from Plato, Phaedrus, 246c, where it is also clearly stated that this is the moment when the soul acquires an “earthly body”.
Cf. Exodus 32.9-14; Jonah 3.10; 4.2 etc.
This happened at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople. Some scholars argue that the condemnation actually did not take place on the Council, but it was later misunderstood as one of the conciliar decrees; others point to the fact that the condemnation mainly dealt with a later development of Origen’s thought that had nothing to do with Origen personally.
See for example John 1.18, where the Son’s closeness to the Father is expressed by Him being “in the bosom of the Father”. The word kólpos which is used here, can also mean ‘the womb’ and comes from Semitic idioms that link inner parts of the body like womb and intestines with tenderness and other intimate affections.