Between Athens And Jerusalem

In the second volume of Alan Knight’s World of Primitive Christianity series (review forthcoming), he makes an interesting test as to whether someone is a part of the Babylonian system of religious practice that is both elegantly simple and moderately alarming, but also in line with scripture.  He proposes that anyone or any religious or philosophical position that seeks a synthesis between Jerusalem and Athens is part of the Babylonian mystery religion.

This is an elegantly simple test of religious fealty.  Given the attractiveness of Greek philosophy even to those of us (like myself, I must admit) who are not inclined to heathen thought, this is a test that is very simple.  Greek philosophy tends to bolster the self-image of any rational and thinking individual, and its spread throughout sources as diverse as Philo, Muslim jurisprudence, and Roman Catholic scholasticism ought to be enough to convince us that Greek Hellenistic thought is very pervasive.

There are many systems (the Roman Catholic faith is only the most conspicuous) that believe in the possibility of a peace between Athens and Jerusalem.  In this opinion the “national” religion of the Jews must be tempered and modified by the universalist aims of Greek philosophy, inspired as it was by ancient heathen practices that proclaimed the freedom and autonomy of mankind.  And that is the rub.  In the eyes of the Bible (and of genuine biblical religion), universal opportunity for salvation comes by being “grafted” into Israel, since it is not ethnicity but a biblical law-abiding culture and worldview that is ultimately important.  These laws are deeply devoted to a godly life in the material world.

This is offensive to the Athenian mindset of human philosophy (see Romans 1) for a variety of reasons.  For one, the ethical demands of the Bible concerning social justice and moral purity are difficult to follow, and to concede their importance often requires painful repentance, difficult self-control, as well as a drastic change in lifestyle from what feels comfortable.  Most people would rather adopt a worldview that either allows their vulgar materialism and hedonism to run free, that disparages the limitations and passing nature of life in the material world, encouraging a (sometimes exclusive) focus on one’s spiritual health at the expense of neglecting or punishing our physical bodies that were created as God’s temple, or that provide an authoritarian system of leadership that frees the infantile believer from the need to work out their own salvation or wrestle with the difficult questions of examining, understanding, and applying biblical scripture.  All of these ungodly views share in common a desire to escape unpleasant responsibilities and free mankind to do what is most pleasurable, depending on where their own particular interests and inclinations lie, while the Bible forces us to wrestle with and corral our inclinations and bring them in line (with God’s help, of course) to a difficult standard of thought, behavior, and expression.

In short, Athens wishes for us to glory in what we are, whatever it is, while Jerusalem starts with what we are and focuses on a long and difficult journey between what we are and what we have been created to overcome.  In one sense, Athens glories in the freedom of being a grubby caterpillar or in using some way of focusing one’s attention and interests towards the spiritual world and ignoring and denying our inherent grubbiness.   In stark contrast, biblical religion points out rather bluntly our grubbiness but also reminds us that with a lot of help and a lot of very hard work, we will eventually become beautiful and eternal butterflies, trading in our grubby bodies for something far more beautiful.  The choice is ours as to which approach we prefer.

What is clear, though, is that in the eyes of the Bible, there appears to be no room for a synthesis of any kind between Athens and Jerusalem.  Those who wish to glory in the human wisdom of Greek philosophy leave the path of God.  And those who, like me, are students of philosophy from a biblical perspective are left to (as I did in my own comparison of the Greek and Biblical views of the road to virtue) note what aspects of genuine truth have been mixed with damnable error it in and every other system of human wisdom, and then to shine the same light on our own thoughts, beliefs, and actions.  Such self-examination is deeply painful, and often very unsettling, but it appears that the price of being given the gift of wisdom is the obligation of putting ourselves under the microscope and examining our own flawed and fallen natural inclinations, and work diligently, with God’s help, to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.  In such a task there can be no peace between Athens and Jerusalem, for when properly understood the two are locked in a state of permanent war until Jerusalem wins the final victory.

About nathanalbright

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13 Responses to Between Athens And Jerusalem

  1. says:

    “I believe because it is absurd”
    Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus

    “The Son of God was born: there is no shame, because it is shameful. And the Son of God died: it is wholly credible, because it is unsound. And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.” (De Carne Christi V, 4)

    Asserting that the body of Christ was a real human body, taken from the virginal body of Mary, but not by way of human procreation, Tertullian Among other justifications for the incarnation of Christ, stated; “the choice of ‘foolish’ flesh is part of God’s conscious rejection of conventional wisdom” and that “Without true incarnation, there can be no true redemption… God must have flesh, in order to have a real death and real resurrection.” (De Carne Christi, Mahé edition).

    R.D. Sider, “Credo Quia Absurdum?”, The Classical World, 1980

    • I believe it because God says so. But to believe something merely because it is absurd leads people to believe in the Trinity, the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, and a lot of other imaginary things. We ought to have a higher standard that does not deliberately insult our God-given capacity to understand but at the same time recognizes as well that as human beings some things are simply unknowable, no matter how wise or intelligent we are.

  2. says:

    “I believe because it is absurd”
    Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus

    Wouldn’t you think that an early cristian author would know why he said something like this? You said that “some things are simply unknowable, no matter how wise or intelligent we are.” I believe Tertullianus thought like you in that some people still want to argue over the existence of God knowing that it is a faith based belief. God is neither provable nor disprovable by the reasoning of humankind, so yes this is absurd but still people engage in polemic divinity. I think Tertullian may have just wanted to poke at his critics. As well he may have seen benefits of a good sense of humor.

    Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, anglicised as Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 220 AD),[1] was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa.[2] He is the first Christian author to produce an extensive corpus of Latin Christian literature. He also was a notable early Christian apologist and a polemicist against heresy. Tertullian has been called “the father of Latin Christianity”[3] and “the founder of Western theology.”[4] Though conservative, he did originate and advance new theology to the early Church. He is perhaps most famous for being the oldest extant Latin writer to use the term Trinity (Latin trinitas),[5] and giving the oldest extant formal exposition of a Trinitarian theology.[6] Other Latin formulations that first appear in his work are “three Persons, one Substance” as the Latin “tres Personae, una Substantia” (itself from the Koine Greek “treis Hypostases, Homoousios”).[4] He wrote his trinitarian formula after becoming a Montanist; his ideas were at first rejected as heresy by the church at large, but later accepted as Christian orthodoxy

    • And you gave the precise reason why I think he is a poor example to cite. For one, his philosophical views were deliberately modeled on the heathen Greek philosophy that I reject, and that this blog entry specifically condemns. Included in the mesh of Greek heathen (and ultimately Babylonian) concepts included trinitarian beliefs. Terfullian did not invent the Trinity, he merely imported this pagan belief into a false form of Christianity, and therefore anyone who took him up on his innovation likewise shares in his Greek syncretistic beliefs. I happen not to. There is a large difference in believing in something because it is illogical (which Tertullian, being a gnostic Christian, did), and admitting the limitations of human understanding making it impossible by human reasoning to solve or understand the problems of our existence. There is a massive and extreme step between humbly recognizing the limits of one’s capacity for reason and in glorifying utter folly and illogic (such as the Trinity).

  3. says:

    One God and one god, hmmm?

    • It is more than just “one God,” since Allah is one God and so is Mithra and so is the Trinity, if you accept the three-in-one argument (I don’t), but also “the right God.” As the Trinity is incorrect theologically, since the Holy Spirit is not a separate being, then Trinitarian thought is by definition heretical. I have discussed this point at length elsewhere.

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