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The Transformation of Hellenistic Thought on the Cosmos and Man in the Greek Fathers

by Father Gregory Telepneff and Bishop [now Archbishop] Chrysostomos

The relationship between Hellenistic thought and the theology of the Greek Fathers is one which is frequently misunderstood by Western theologians, not only because they look rather superficially at classical Greek philosophy itself, but also because they often overlook the clear process of development, during the first few centuries of Christianity, that led to a remarkable unity of thought in the Greek Patristic understanding of the cosmos and man. Thus it is that various theologians and Church historians hold forth with pompous and sweeping, if naive and sometimes unctuous, pronouncements against the "Platonic" or "Aristotelian" foundations of this or that Eastern Patristic notion. Indeed, even many an ingenuous scholar has eulogized the Greek Fathers with tales of their woeful fall to the traps of Hellenistic paganism.

One cannot deny, of course, the existence of certain affinities between the corpus of Patristic writings, both Eastern and Western, and Hellenism. Nor would we wish to disclaim certain general intuitions, as it were, held in common in these respective systems of thought. But the Greek Fathers, in "borrowing" language, images, and ideas from the Greek philosophers, maintained, in this process, views that are wholly at odds with the cosmology and anthropology of the Greek ancients. One might even say that their debt to Hellenistic thought is not so much that of a student to his mentor as that of a sculptor to his stone. The Greek Fathers built with the basic materials of Greek philosophy, but what they produced was different in form and in intent from that philosophy. The very vision of what it was they were to form from the stone of the Greek ancients, in fact, flowed from a view of man and the universe that the Greek classical philosophers would have considered "revolutionary."

The Greek Fathers believed and taught that God had acted through Israel and the Jewish people to prepare the human mind and heart for the coming of Christ. They also felt that the "fullness of time" rested in the Hellenes. Providence had appointed the Greeks, too, if not the Roman Empire itself, as a vehicle for the spread of the Faith. One would perhaps not wish to call this appointment a "covenant;" but certainly it was not, for the Greek Fathers, adventitious. There were, according to the Fathers, hints of Christian truth in Hellenism, and some of its ideas could be employed in the promulgation of the Christian Faith. Thus, the Fathers were eclectic—and not, as many suppose, syncretic—in their incorporation of Hellenism into the process of Christian theologizing. St. Justin the Martyr, for example, though he characterizes Plato as a "Christian before Christ," emphasizes that many Platonic ideas about the soul and the world are incompatible with Christian teachings. St. Gregory the Theologian suggested that, though Hellenistic language was useful to the Christian theologian, it had to be "baptized" and "transformed" to convey adequately the Christian experience. The "old skins" could not completely hold the "new wine." For the Greek Fathers, the final criterion in any decision to use the "tool" of Greek philosophy in teaching Christian truth was whether or not it conformed to Christian spiritual experience, the life and experience of the Faith. Hellenistic wisdom was never thought to be adequate in and of itself. St. Gregory of Nyssa summarizes what we have said, when he writes that:

...pagan philosophy says that the soul is immortal. This is a pious offspring. But it also says that souls pass from body to body and are changed from an irrational to an irrational nature. This is a fleshly and alien foreskin. And there are many other such examples....It acknowledges [God] as creator, but says He needed matter for creation. It affirms that He is both good and powerful, but that in all things He submits to the necessity of fate. [1]

Ultimately, for Gregory of Nyssa Greek philosophy was as if "always in labor but never giving birth." [2]

I. P. Sheldon-Williams, in his general investigation of the relations between Christian and Hellenistic thought, [3] very much supports what we have said about Hellenism and the Greek Patristic tradition. He identifies, in particular, three Hellenistic ideas about the cosmos and the person which are at odds with early Christian (essentially Greek Patristic) thought: the eternity of the cosmos, the inherently divine nature of the human soul, and the dualistic belief that the soul is a substance distinct from the body and, therefore, ultimately destined to a disembodied existence. The most compelling support for Sheldon-Williams' insights is the fact that the three major areas of divergence between Christian and Hellenic thought which he identifies mirror, and quite closely so, those very principles of Christian doctrine which Synesios of Cyrene, Christian bishop of Ptolemais [ca. 410] and a former Platonic philosopher, had such difficulty accepting before his conversion. In his "105th Letter," Synesios cites what were initially for him problematic areas of Christian thought: the denial of the eternity of the world; the denial of the pre-existence of souls (a corollary to the doctrine of the soul's syngeneia or inherent co-naturality with the Divine); and the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. To be sure, his confession confirms, as Sheldon-Williams also contends with us, that the Hellenic world and the spiritual milieu of the Greek Fathers, at very least with regard to the foregoing important issues, were anything but a marriage of like Weltanschauungen and similar cosmologies and anthropologies.

The classical Greek doctrine of the eternity of the cosmos stands in total contradiction to the Christian belief that God created the world ex nihilo, and thus the nature of the universe is wholly different for the Hellenistic thinker and the Greek Father. The primary ontological categories in Hellenistic thought, the intelligible and the sensible realms ("God" at the height of the intelligible), are foreign to Patristic thought. The Church Fathers divide reality into Uncreated (God) and Created realms, distinctions between the intelligible and noetic and the sensible and material belonging to the created realm. [4] The dualistic ontology of the Hellenistic philosophers constitutes a metaphysics which is not only at odds with that of Christian ontology, but which, more specifically, cannot accommodate the Christian notion of redemption. The structure of Hellenistic ontology renders the Christian doctrine of redemption meaningless, [5] since the Christian ontology of the Greek Fathers is decidedly theocentric and rests on the restoration of creation to its Creator. This ontology is incompatible with an ontology focused on essentially intellectual elements.

Thus, because they believed in its essential immortality and incorruption, the pivotal Christian doctrine of an incarnational scheme to redeem the soul from sin and ontological corruption is wholly absent from the thought of the ancient Greek philosophers. [6] According to Hellenistic philosophy, the soul is enlightened by gnosis, which reminds it of and recalls it to its extant, but obscured original, pristine state. The soul is not in need of the ontological renewal or transfiguration afforded by the Incarnation of God; nor is it necessary for one to overcome "sin." In the mind of the ancients, God and the "novus homo," if the latter term even obtains in the Hellenistic tradition, were to be reached and attained through gnosis and intellectual contemplation; while, in Christian teaching, God in essence is never available to the intellect and spiritual revelation transcends the capacities of human knowledge as such. [7]

The Christian doctrine of enlightenment and the restoration of the soul also centers on divine Grace. Since the soul is not inherently immortal or divine, the human person must "acquire" something above and beyond human nature, in order achieve salvation, enlightenment, the restoration of the soul, and communion with God. Moreover, the soul, according to the Greek Patristic view, cannot acquire this "something" (knowledge or vision, if you will) by its own power. Instead, it must rely on a Divine act, the Grace of divine revelation and the Grace of the Incarnation, by which potential perfection is offered to mankind in the ontological restoration of the human soul. Indeed, the difference between the Hellenistic (and especially Platonic) vision of human enlightenment and that of the Greek Fathers centers on two radically different views of God and the world, on a "Metaphysics of Intellect" and a "Metaphysics of Grace." [8]

Hellenistic somatology, finally, conceives of the body as an illusion which binds and frustrates the actions of the divine soul—a "prison," in Platonic parlance, holding man captive. Though uncareful observers often attribute such Hellenistic beliefs to the Greek Fathers, these beliefs in fact stand, as Sheldon-Williams rightly contends, in sharp and total contrast to Christian somatology and its doctrine of the "rehabilitation" of the body. [9] A fundamental element of Christian teaching is that the the body will be resurrected with the soul at the Parousia, and no small part of Greek Patristic writings is devoted to the explication and defense of this dogma. By the same token, since the "lower" psychic [10] and sensible faculties of the body participate in the its general restoration, it is not only the body, but physical perception and the senses that are transformed in the spiritual life and fully regenerated at the General Resurrection. Christian theosis, or divinization, is fulfilled in the Resurrection, when the wholeness of the body and soul are restored. This Patristic teaching could not be more greatly removed from the Hellenistic idea of enlightenment and the escape of the human soul from the chains of the body.

The late Protopresbyter Georges Florovsky has also dealt extensively in his writings with the relationship between Patristic thought and Hellenism. [11] He emphasizes especially the transformation which Hellenistic thought underwent as it was incorporated into the thought of the Greek Fathers. In one characteristic passage, he writes that:

Usually we do not sufficiently perceive the entire significance of this transformation which Christianity introduced into the realm of [Hellenistic] thought... It is sufficient to point out just a few examples: the idea of the createdness of the world, not only in its transitory and perishable aspect but also in its primordial principles. For Greek thought the idea of "created ideas" was impossible and offensive. And bound up with this was the Christian intuition of history as a unique—once-occurring—creative fulfillment, the sense of movement from an actual "beginning" up to a final "end," a feeling for history which in no way at all allows itself to be linked with the static pathos of ancient Greek thought. And the understanding of man as person, the concept of personality, was entirely inaccessible to Hellenism, which considered only the prosopon or mask as person. And finally there is the message of Resurrection in glorified but real flesh, a thought which could only frighten the Greeks, who lived in the hope of future dematerialization of the spirit....These are the presuppositions and categories of a new Christian philosophy....[12]

One of the most important differences between Hellenistic pholosophy and Greek Patristic thought cited by Father Florovsky is their divergent concept of time and history. This subject deserves our special attention, since it helps to focus the more general distinctions in cosmology and anthropology noted by Sheldon-Williams. Father Florovsky says specifically of time and history:

Greek philosophy was dominated by the ideas of permanence and recurrence. There could be but a disclosure [i.e., in history] of the pre-existing fulness. [Even] Aristotle made this point with a complete frankness: 'What is "of necessity" coincides with what is "always," since that which "must not" cannot possibly "not-be." ...If, therefore, the "coming-to-be" of a thing is necessary, its "coming-to-be" is eternal. ...It follows that the "coming-to-be" of anything, if it is absolutely necessary, must be cyclical, i.e., must return upon itself....It is in circular movement, therefore, and in cyclical "coming-to-be," that the "absolutely necessary" is to be found' (de gen. et corr., II.2, 338a).[13]

Florovsky concludes that: "Greek philosophy was always concerned rather with the 'first principles' than with the 'last things'.... [In the Greek conception], no increase in 'being' is conceivable.... The true reality is always 'behind' ["from eternity"], never 'ahead.'" [14]

As Father Florovsky's clear statements aver, Christian thought and Hellenism part ways with regard to the eschatological and historical nature of human experience and the cosmos. Even for Aristotle, who moved away from some of the accepted categories of earlier Hellenistic thought, history was still not history as such, but a disclosure of a pre-existing fullness. His entelecheia, or teleology, while linear in form, is still rooted in the notion of fixed, eternal, and pre-existing forms. Teleological development is simply a "disclosure" in individual development of an end. History, whether personal or universal, therefore, never leads to the creation and development of new and unique forms or modes of existence; it is not directive in its nature. Aristotelian and Hellenistic thought in general could not tolerate the idea that a thing could become more perfect in kind by acquiring some characteristic which was not implicit in its nature from the beginning. [15] The eternal cosmos, in its essential principles or logoi, exists from the very inception, or arche, of existence in a state of full perfection. Any sense of "regaining" one's lost original nature (as in the Neo-Platonic epistrophe) is, therefore, still always an historically "unproductive" act. One simply returns to the primordial state, and both personal and universal history have only a provisionary significance; history adds nothing to the essence of a being.

In the Greek Patristic scheme of things, history is significant, since it records a productive sequence of events both in the personal and universal sense. It is a productive unfolding in time and space of something creative: a move toward the eschaton and the restoration of the fallen universe —a restoration which embodies perfection and which moves the creation from glory to glory, from lost perfection to "greater perfection." If we understand this Christian notion of time and space, then we come to see the absurdity of attributions of Platonic world-views, by some Western scholars, to such renowned Greek Fathers as St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Dionysios the Areopagite. The Greek Fathers speak of movement into eternity in a manner which gives meaning to historical existence, since the virtues, spiritual character, and "perfection" are "acquired" in embodied existence and in time and space. Indeed the very flesh indissolubly linked to the human soul during the course of embodied existence is "translated" into eternity and participates in divinity. It is not shed but transformed. Though not everything in temporal empirical existence is so transformed—but only that which has a referent in the divine and eternal realm—, there is obviously a very fundamental divergence between the Greek Patristic understanding of the importance of historical existence and that of the Greek ancients.

Let us here emphasize that the Christian idea of "productive" free-will is a direct outgrowth of the emphasis which the Greek Fathers place on the entry of historical, empirical bodies into eternity. By exercising choice, the human being accomplishes a spiritual task within history. Though this task is ultimately perfected in the eschaton, it is actualized by free action in time and space. The ancient Greek view of the cosmos is a-productive, as it were. For the Hellenistic philosophers, though the universe is in motion, this motion is inefficacious, since it effects no alteration in the essences or ideas of things. [16] Empirical "reality" is defined only with reference to these essences of things and constitutes what is essentially a "closed" ontology. Their ontological scheme is inconsistent with the dynamic Patristic idea that creatures are not only created out of nothing, but that they are also created in a state of relative spiritual immaturity. History describes the process of attaining to perfection: a productive passing of time in which the human will and person have critical meaning.

Father Florovsky has also placed great emphasis in his writings on another essential area of concern which highlights the differences between the Hellenistic philosophers and the Greek Fathers: human personhood. [17] Here, especially, we see that Hellenistic philosophical terms and categories are radically transformed in their Patristic usage. In fact, the Greek Patristic concept of personality is a uniquely Christian contribution to the history of thought. As Florovsky notes, in their understanding of the relationship between the human soul and the body, the Greek Fathers were actually closer to Aristotle than to Plato. [18] Prima facie, this appears strange, since, strictly speaking, Aristotelian anthropology and cosmology make no claims for life after death: nothing human passes beyond the grave, and man's singular being does not survive death. Nonetheless, Father Florovsky argues that Aristotle understood the unity of human existence, of the body and soul, at an intuitive level. Aristotle understood better than any of the Greek philosophers the empirical wholeness of human existence, and thus empirical existence and the human personality took on an importance for him that could not be detached from the eternal elements of the soul. And so he discounted the idea of a transmigration of souls to other bodies, in that he could not free himself from a compelling respect for the unity of these two elements of the human person. He never came to attribute permanence or an immortal dimension to the person, but the foundations for such an attribution are everywhere to be found in his thought.

The Greek Fathers, according to Florovsky, drew on Aristotle's notion of the mortal unity of body and soul and effected a synthesis, of sorts, from this and the impersonal [19] and eternal Platonic nous of Plato. [20] The Patristic witness affirms the integrity and eternal dimension of empirical, embodied, and uniquely individual human existence and, at the same time, pays homage to the noetic qualities of existence that Plato reserved only for the soul. There is a direct continuity of the person from the mundane to the spiritual realm, not only by virtue of the resurrection of the body, but because individual personality, formed and shaped in time and space, survives in its uniqueness outside time and space. In essence, this Patristic synthesis is a rejection of body-soul dualism, since the life of the material body and its sensible faculties acquire an ultimate significance, or at least possess a referent in the eternal or divine realm. In their transformation of Platonic and Aristotelian precepts, the Greek Fathers were able to convey with loyalty the unique Christian idea of the person, without indeed tainting that teaching with the foibles of Hellenistic dualism.

Professor [now Metropolitan] John Zizioulas, following Father Florovsky's observations about the synthesis of Platonic and Aristotelian concepts by which the Greek Fathers formulated a Christian statement of personhood, makes some interesting comments about the implications of this synthesis for a Christian ontology. His arguments also provide an opportunity to see the crucial differences which separate Greek Patristic and Hellenistic thought at the most fundamental of levels. Zizioulas observes that Aristotle's notion of man as a psychosomatic entity void of an eternal or permanent quality renders impossible the conceptual union of the "person" [prosopon] with the "substance" [ousia] of man. Thus Aristotelian man has no true ontology. For Plato, the soul can be united with another physical body; through reincarnation, it can assume another "individuality" and thus ensure a kind of human, but not unique, personal continuity. Greek philosophical thought, then, is unable to endow human individuality with unique permanence and, therefore, with a true ontology of the person. This is partly because, for the Hellenistic sages, being, in the final analysis, is an eternally existing unity (in spite of the multiplicity of existent things), [21] and every differentiation within the course of embodied human existence is nothing more than a falling away from the unity of true being. [22] Individual human personhood compromises ontological unity. Hellenistic notions of the universe lead to a kind of "ontological monism," [23] from which not even God—merely the first of the hierarchy of intelligible beings—can escape. Moreover, Zizioulas notes, from the standpoint of Hellenistic ontology, humans are never free to add or contribute anything significant to "being" or existence. True being, in its essential sense, exists already from the arche of existence. In the words of Plutarch, "no particular thing, not even the least, can be otherwise than according to common nature and reason [logos]." [24] For the Greeks, Zizioulas concludes, existence is therefore determined by a pre-existing necessity.

It is also important to note that the term prosopon, or "person," originally denoted in Greek theatre the mask worn by an actor as he played various roles. In Hellenistic philosophy the term continued to convey the idea of a temporary "role" assumed or played by an individual in his temporal life. It is not used to describe the true "hypostasis" of an individual and ultimately remains without ontological content. [25]

To the classical Greeks, Zizioulas contends, personhood was no more than an adjunct to concrete ontological being. [26] Of course the Greek ancients had intuitions about individual personality; [27] this one cannot deny. The point is that these intuitions were never so strong as to prompt the Hellenistic philosophers to find in temporal existence real significance—anything beyond the temporary and illusory world of the "mask"—and again, therefore, to find in the individual personality traits suggestive of a genuine ontology. [28]

In Patristic thought, personhood has ontological authenticity because in synergy, in conjunction with the will of God, the human is responsible for his or her own destiny. The soul is not inherently immortal, but only so with regard to its syngeneia with the Divine realm. The soul possesses divinity "thetically", that is, in a thetic participation—a participation by free will—in God. God has of course given eternal life to humankind as an act of His own will and energies. But there is also a higher level of existence, in which the person comes to virtuous well-being and full communion with God. It is this level of participation that the creature must acquire within the course of embodied historical existence and by an exercise of the will. Thus a personal encounter with God in temporal existence, in an historical context, and in an "existential" way, one might say, brings the human person (and, as we have noted above, both peronal and universal history) into the eternal realm, endowing him, in this synergistic interaction, with its energetic character—a character inaccessible to the human person in Hellenistic thought. [29]

In the Greek Fathers, the historical existence of the person—the individual human person as a psychosomatic whole of complementary elements of soul and body—is linked to the eternal human essence, the individual logos, or genuine identity. Human empirical existence is given an ontological foundation in the Patristic identification of hypostasis with prosopon and with its translation or movement into eternal existence. Even the very course of the productive acquisition of virtue by which the personality attains to genuine ontology is, for in the Greek Fathers, a participation [metousia], or "sharing," in divine existence and therefore possesses an eternal dimension itself. Certainly our discussion, along many dimensions, of man and the cosmos in Hellenistic and Greek Patristic thought leaves little doubt that the Greek Fathers cannot be accused by any justifiable criterion of contamination by the dualism and cosmological and anthropological limitations which rendered history, the body, human existence, and temporal experience ontologically insignificant for the Greek ancients. Rather, a careful and objective examination of the larger paradigms and presuppositions which underlie these two approaches to reality, as it were, reveals that the Greek Fathers—if we may express this without pejorative implication—" contaminated" Hellenistic philosophy by borrowing its insights into ontological truth, its terminology, and to some extent its philosophical methodology and adopting them to the revelations of Christians truth—"baptizing" them and transforming them. Only the most superficial or polemical observer, even from such a cursory treatment as our present one, can truly argue that the Greek Fathers were anything but seekers after old bottles for new wine, readily and acutely conscious that, lest the new wine be spoiled in these old vessels, they had to cleanse and purify them of their former content. Such is a proper image of the Greek Fathers as they undertook to use, transform, and remold Hellenistic thought.


1. "Life of St. Moses," II.40. In Classics of Western Spirituality. Paulist Press, 1978.

2. Ibid., II.11.

3. See his chapters in the Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, ed. A. H. Armstrong. Cambridge University Press, 1967. Pp. 426ff.

4. Ibid, p. 426.

5. Ibid.

6. Father John Romanides very persuasively argues that the idea of salvation from sin and ontological corruption is a fundamentally Biblical concept in his essay, "Original Sin According to St. Paul," St. Vladimir's Quarterly, IV (1&2), pp. 5-28. For those who wish to pursue the issue of restored human ontology, see Constantine Tsirpanlis, "Aspects of Maximian Theology of Politics, History, and the Kingdom of God," The Patristic and Byzantine Review, 1 (1982).

7. L. Bouyer, review of The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition (A. Louth), Sobornost, IV (1), pp. 70-74.

8. Sheldon-Williams, Cambridge History, p. 427. One might argue that later Hellenistic philosophers, such as Plotinus, come closer to a Christian mestaphysics. Despite such contentions, even later Hellenistic thought ultimately purports that it is the "purified mind," reduced to a state of pure simpliccity, which "reaches" God. A Christian concept of effective Grace is wholly absent from such a scheme. See in this regard H. Drrie, "Was ist 'spätantiker Platonismus'? berlegungen zur Grenzziehung zwischen Platonismus und Christentum," Theologische Rundschau, N.F. 36, esp. pp. 293, 301ff.

9. Ibid., p. 426.

10. The Patristic thymos and epithymia and the Hellenistic nous and logistikon.

11. See his Collected Works (Nordland; Bchervertriebsanstalt, 1972-), "Creation and Creaturehood," "Redemption," "The 'Immortality' of the Soul," and "The Last Things and the Last Events," chaps. in Vol. III; "The Patristic Age and Eschatology," chap. in Vol. IV.

12. Ibid., Vol. VIII, p. 32.

13. Ibid., Vol. IV, pp. 68-69.

14. Ibid.

15. Cf. E.S. Mascall, The Openness of Being. N.p., 1971. P. 246.

16. Cf. J. D. Zizioulas, Being As Communion. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1985. Pp. 71f.

17. In particular, see his chapter, "The Patristic Age and Eschatology," Collected Works, IV, pp. 63-78.

18. Ibid., p. 75.

19. The doctrine of merempsychosis denies the personal continuity of the soul in Platonism.

20. Florovsky, Collected Works, IV, p. 77.

21. Zizioulas, Being, p. 29.

22. Plotinus tries to solve this dilemma by offering positive "reasons" for this falling away, but he ultimately attributes only a derived "goodness" to these "reasons," which fall short of the ideal "good."

23. Zizioulas, Being, p. 29.

24. Ibid., pp. 32f. Interestingly enough, Professor Zizioulas believes that Plutarch linked the logos with nature and fate, another element in Hellenistic ontology that the Greek Fathers would have rejected prima facie.

25. Ibid., pp. 31-33.

26. Ibid., p. 34.

27. Cf. G.C. Stead, "Individual Personality in Origen and the Cappodocian Fathers." In Origeniana: Premier Colloque International des tudes Origniennes, eds. H. Crouzel et al. Bari, 1975. See esp. his remarks on Proclus.

28. Zizioulas, Being, p. 35.

29. Ibid., p. 39.

This article originally appeared in The Patristic and Byzantine Review, 1990, IX, 2&3.