CHRISTIANITY and CLASSICAL CULTURE

1. The Christian message, first propagated in the cultural milieu of Palestine scarcely open to GrecoRoman culture soon came into contact with that culture through Jews of the Diaspora who maintained links with Palestine and through the journeys of evangelists to Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. Some of the best-known missionaries came from Hellenized regions, esp. Paul of Tarsus. His letters contain occasional citations of pagan poets and judgments on their religious and moral attitudes Rom 1:18-32; 1 Cor 1:172:16; 3:18-20; 15:33; Col 2:8; Tit 1:12 and speeches Acts 14:15-17; 17:16-34. We will not attempt here to investigate possible influences of Greek thought on Paul and other NT writers, such as James and John. 2. The earliest, biblically inspired Christian literature the so-called Apostolic Fathers; NT apocrypha; compositions of an ecclesial, homiletic or poetic nature contains only rare, weak traces of or references to classical culture. 3. This culture is strongly present, however, in varying degrees and with differing assessments, in the 2nd-c. Greek apologists. The Preaching of Peter, while chiding the Greeks for their ignorance of God, insists on concepts familiar to Stoicism and Platonism. Aristides writing in the reign of Hadrian, 117138, or Antoninus, 138161, reviewing the religious beliefs of barbarians, Greeks, Jews and Christians, has confidence in the power of reason and the achievements of philosophy and, while condemning its religious errors and moral disorders, appreciates Greek culture as a whole. The philosopher and martyr Justin, writing in the mid-2nd c., cites poets and philosophers primarily Plato who deeply influenced him and extols philosophy, his conception of which is deeply religious. He sees the presence of the Word in the form of seed in the best preChristian and even contemporary philosophers, which explains together with their borrowings from the Bible their consonance with the Christian message. Justin’s disciple Tatian refers frequently to classical culture, condemning it totally in all of its expressions, while fully exploiting the stylistic resources provided by traditional schooling. Athenagoras, writing ca. 177, cites numerous pagan writers mostly, it seems, secondhand and shows their influence here and there. While recognizing the limitations of the poets’ and philosophers’ religious ideas, he sees in them a certain conformity sympatheia with divine inspiration, which explains their considerable achievements in the domain of truth and their nearness to Christian thought. Theophilus, bishop of Antioch ca. 180, frequently cites pagan authors in his three books Ad Autolycum, rejecting with contempt all aspects of their culture. The Letter to Diognetus, however, despite its negative judgment on pagan philosophy, proposes Christianpagan relations on a plane of peaceful coexistence, with Christians accepting the social reality of which they formed a part and which they were called to leaven with the yeast of the gospel. 4. With Clement of Alexandria ca. 150ca. 230, Christianity took a decisive step in its relations with classical culture. Clement knew it profoundly and was able to engage it with pioneering ardor, moderation, openness to human values, and literary ability, putting contemporary culture, primarily philosophy, at the service of the Christian word in his Protrepticus, Paedagogus and Stromata. The work of Origen ca. 185ca. 254 extends to much wider fields than those we are considering here. His attitude to pagan culture, of which he had a profound knowledge, is particularly evident in the apologetic Contra Celsum, and in the more properly theological De principiis i.e., of the fundamental truths of faith, where he attempts to elaborate revealed data with the help of philosophy, not without some risk to orthodoxy. 5. The number and stature of the Fathers of the 4th c., the golden age of patristics, obliges us to concentrate on a few outstanding figures. Basil of Caesarea ca. 330379 addresses this theme in his Address to the Young on the Way to Draw Profit from Pagan Literature, where, drawing on Plato and Plutarch, he points out the elements of that literature which can serve the education of the young. His friend Gregory of Nazianzus ca. 329390, who studied classical culture for a long time, esp. at Athens, shows his appreciation of classical culture particularly in his attentive care for literary form in his 45 Orations and in his poetry and letters. Basil’s younger brother Gregory of Nyssa ca. 332394 sees the disciplines which constituted the cultural heritage of his time as having a propaedeutic function for the understanding of the Christian word, drawing especially on philosophy in his attempts to speculate on revealed data.

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