Yesterday I again heard a rather old accusation. The claim is that Christian theology borrowed from Greek philosophy, and that if we merely got our teachings from the Bible then we wouldn’t be teaching such-and-so.
The claim that “they got that from Greek philosophy” is usually tacked onto a denial of some difficult attribute of God’s nature. People who use this statement will be denying some doctrine such as God’s infinity, or Trinity, or omnipresence, or foreknowledge. Christian theologians teach difficult things about God, such as that He is impassable, meaning “without passions,” saying that there is nothing man can do to change God. There are others, but you get the idea.
Critics of these doctrines point to one of the many verses where God gets angry at something humans did, or responded to a prayer, and say “see, God changed. He got angry at man, and He answered prayer, so God is changeable. And the words “trinity” and “infinity” are not in the Bible. These things were brought into the church by people like Augustine, who borrowed them from Greek philosophy.” Such a statement is so broad and illogical that it is difficult to pin down.
First, yes, there are passages of scripture that show God demonstrating human emotions. God gets angry, asks Adam “where are you?” as if He didn’t know, God negotiates with Abraham like a street vendor, God is even spoken of as having arms, eyes, nostrils, wings, and feathers. God is spoken of as repenting. But are we saying that God didn’t think though something, then later, after He calmed down, came to His senses? This is not just ludicrous, it is heretical. Such a God is not the God of the Bible, but more similar to Zeus. Such verses are easily explained as anthropomorphisms. God does not have wings, nor does He learn things, or He wouldn’t be God. Our finite minds cannot understand God, so He speaks of Himself in terms we can understand. He speaks of Himself as having nostrils, or changing, so that we can understand Him.
Second, to say that “infinity” or “Trinity” are not in the Bible, and are therefore human constructs is simply untrue. They are supported by scripture, as any good systematic theology text will demonstrate. Further, if we throw out all terms that are not in the Bible, and the concepts behind them, we must deny the canon of scripture, “letting Jesus into your heart,” alter calls, musical instruments, and a host of other ideas. The word “bible” is not in the Bible, so if we were consistent, we’d have to stop using it also.
Third, we simply cannot deny doctrines by blaming Greek philosophy. This is true for several reasons. There was not one single body of teaching called “Greek philosophy.” There were many Greek teachers who taught many conflicting and overlapping things. Frederick Copleston in A History of Philosophy counts about 44 different Greek philosophers or schools of philosophy, and this is but an overview that does not include minor players. They did not agree with each other, and taught very different things: Artistotle did not agree with Plato, who did not agree with the stoics, who taught different things than Zeno, Anaxagoras, Plotinus, and Pyrrho. Some of them, such as Aristotle, were also trying to explain plants, animals, and the stars. So to say, “this came out of Greek philosophy” is so broad as to be borderline meaningless. Which philosopher? What book?
Fourth, it is impossible to not do philosophy of some sort, for philosophy is merely thinking about problems. For example, Augustine is often blamed with bringing Platonism into the church. While Augustine was indeed a Platonist, what are the alternatives? Plato taught that a thing’s attributes came from external forms; Aristotle disagreed, teaching that the attributes of a thing were in the thing itself. These are the only two options available to us about thinking of how objects are constructed. So we must either not think of how things are made, or if we deny Plato, we are forced into Aristotle, since there are no other alternatives. If someone, somehow, thought of another way of describing the attributes of a thing, they would have come up with their own philosophy, and would still be doing philosophy. So the claim that theologians were biased by bringing in Greek philosophy is bogus.
Fifth, much of the denials of doctrine are due to our difficulties in understanding God. People struggle with issues such as how God can be spirit, know all things, know the future yet humans still be free, etc. It is no wonder that we do not understand God, for we are the finite creation and He is the Creator. Shall the vessel instruct the Potter? Denying attributes of God by saying “I can’t understand them, they appear unreasonable to me, therefore they must not be true” is presumption at best, and is trying to squeeze God into a very small box. I can’t understand the electricity driving the computer I’m typing on, let alone claim that if I can’t understand God, He must not be that way.
In conclusion, we should be extremely careful before we start denying attributes of God that have been taught for many centuries and can be supported with scripture. To deny God’s infinity, Trinity, foreknowledge, omniscience, omnipotence, etc, due to philosophy does not merely show a lack of knowledge about philosophy, but also leads one into heresy.