The Transformation of Hellenistic Thought on the Cosmos and Man in the Greek
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
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
eclecticand not, as many suppose, syncreticin 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. 
Ultimately, for Gregory of Nyssa Greek philosophy
was as if "always in labor but never giving birth." 
I. P. Sheldon-Williams, in his general
investigation of the relations between Christian and Hellenistic thought,  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.  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,  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
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.  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. 
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." 
Hellenistic somatology, finally, conceives of the
body as an illusion which binds and frustrates the actions of the divine soula
"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.  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  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.  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 uniqueonce-occurringcreative 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
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).
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.'" 
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.  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 transformedbut 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
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.  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.  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.  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  and eternal Platonic nous of Plato. 
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),  and every differentiation within the course of
embodied human existence is nothing more than a falling away from the unity of true being.
 Individual human personhood compromises ontological unity. Hellenistic notions of the
universe lead to a kind of "ontological monism,"  from which not even
Godmerely the first of the hierarchy of intelligible beingscan 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]."  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. 
To the classical Greeks, Zizioulas contends,
personhood was no more than an adjunct to concrete ontological being.  Of course the
Greek ancients had intuitions about individual personality;  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 significanceanything beyond the
temporary and illusory world of the "mask"and again, therefore, to find in
the individual personality traits suggestive of a genuine ontology. 
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 participationa participation by free
willin 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
charactera character inaccessible to the human person in Hellenistic thought. 
In the Greek Fathers, the historical existence of
the personthe individual human person as a psychosomatic whole of complementary
elements of soul and bodyis 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 Fathersif 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.
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,
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.
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
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.