Infinity, Christian Theology, and Greek Philosophy

Some have made the charge that early Christian fathers borrowed concepts from Greek philosophy and used it in forming Christian theology. The charge is that concepts like infinity, omnipresence, and omniscience are not taught in the Bible and that these concepts are non-Christian. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Many of these doctrines stem from the infinity of God, something that is indeed taught in the Bible. For example:

  • But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! (1 Kings 5:27)
  • Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite. (Pslam 147:5)
  • Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Romans 11:33)

Further, the concepts taught by the ancient Greeks were 1) very different than those taught by Christian theologians, and 2) the Christians did not borrow from the Greeks without evaluating the teaching in light of the scriptures. The ancient Greeks taught mathematics and geometry; are we to reject these fields of study simply because they were organized by people with whom we disagree? No, we do not reject a teaching due to its source. Rather, the more important question is whether the statement is true or false, and not who said it. For example, note the following quote from Thomas Aquinas (d.1274) from his Summa Theologia (keep in mind that Aquinas’ method is to present false objections first, then present his answer):

Objection 2: Further, according to Aristotle, (Phys. i), finite and infinite belong to quantity. But there is no quantity in God, for He is not a body, as was shown above (1.3.1). Therefore it does not belong to Him to be infinite.
. . .
I answer that, All the ancient philosophers attribute infinitude to the first principle, as is said (Phys. iii), and with reason; for they considered that things flow forth infinitely from the first principle. But because some erred concerning the nature of the first principle, as a consequence they erred also concerning its infinity; forasmuch as they asserted that matter was the first principle; consequently they attributed to the first principle a material infinity to the effect that some infinite body was the first principle of things. . . it is clear that God Himself is infinite and perfect. (ST, 1.7.1)

So here Thomas is explaining the doctrine of the infinity of God. He notes that Aristotle taught about infinity as the first principle of all things, which was fine. But Aristotle and all the ancient Greeks mistakenly thought that the first principle of all things was infinite matter, not God. Thomas rejects this notion and states that all the ancient Greeks were in error about the origin of all things. Thus Aquinas does not simply follow the teachings of Aristotle, as some modern philosophers claim, and does not accept Greek philosophical teaching if it is in error, as some modern theologians claim.

In summary,, we should not accept all teachings of the church Fathers, for they are as capable of making mistakes as anyone. But we should also be very careful that we do not start off on a new doctrinal path without carefully evaluating the teachings of the Godly men who came before us. As a general rule, early Christian theologians did not unquestioningly borrow theology from ancient Greek philosophy.

(For more comments on this same subject, see here and here.)

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Aquinas, Philosophy, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

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