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.