Orthodoxy and Platonism
An Exchange of Letters with Protestant Apologist Douglas Jones
note: What follows is a series of emails exchanged with Douglas Jones, an editor
of the Reformed Protestant journal Credenda / Agenda, which some years
ago attacked Orthodoxy in print. A
reply to the issue in question has been underway since early 1998. We had
little hope that this exchange with Douglas Jones would cause him to change his
mind. Nonetheless, we consider what follows helpful for those Protestant readers
of this site who may still be wrestling with these issues.
This is to inform you that I have just posted to my site an extensive response to
Wes Callihan's article on the Orthodox use of Icons (Credenda/Agenda, Vol. 6, Issue 5).
If you would be so kind as to pass this information along to him I would be
Also, we are still awaiting an answer from Doug Jones or anyone on the editorial staff
as to why there is still no public acknowledgement of the numerous errors contained
in your Credenda/Agenda issue concerning Orthodoxy. After repeated requests
we can only assume that your publication is really not interested in presenting
the truth but only "straw men." Please consider how this violates
both the Ninth Commandment and the intellectual honesty expected of academic
Orthodox Christian Information Center
+ + +
Thanks for the update. As to the Ninth commandment, in the few essays I've read, I've
not found anything offering supporting a specific misrepresentation. In fact,
for example, in the essay interacting with mine on Plotinus, the author grants
the Hellenistic framework of Orthodoxy and denigrates Hebraic thought, as well
as tries to explain why the Cross doesn't show up readily in Orthodox
treatments. Those are usually the two points raised as violations of the ninth
commandment, but here they are granted and defended. What is so intellectually
dishonest if the other side grants the controversial points?
+ + +
Dear Mr. Jones:
I have been looking forward to further discussing some of the issues that you
raised in your article "Salvation by Plotinus," and the responses
that I made in my essay "Salvation by Christ" (frag_salv.htm).
In your most recent letter to Patrick Barnes, you referred to an
essay that interacted with yours (SBP).
I'm not sure if you're aware, but there are currently three that deal either directly
or indirectly with this subject. The
first to appear was the article by Patrick Barnes and Fr. Deacon John Whiteford,
entitled "Miles From the Truth," at thema_response.htm.
The second to appear was mine, at
frag_salv.htm. There are also some
informal comments by Dr. Thomas Mether that have been gathered together and
titled "Is Orthodoxy Neo-Platonic?" This compilation can be accessed
Jones, in your most recent correspondence with Patrick, you indicated that the
author of the piece that focused on your SBP article (who?) basically conceded
that what you wrote was correct, and that they only tried to explain why these
things were so. And so, according to
you, the Ninth Commandment issue suddenly becomes a non-issue. First, let me say that, at least as far as
my article is concerned, I in no way conceded anything that you wrote in your
articlenot if, by this, you mean an admission of total truth. For example, I recall commenting that it was
true that Orthodox written dogmatic treatises (on anythingnot just salvation)
were rarebut not for the reasons that you supposed. What I attempted to do (as did the other participants
in their pieces) was to take each of the major criticisms that you raised, and
then to place them in an appropriate context. When this was done, your criticisms were found
to be devoid of truth. Incidentally,
this is a point that has been indicated by several Protestants who have read
Jones, your treatment of the whole "Hellenization" issue was not nearly as critical
as academic scholarship would demand. As
I pointed out in my essay, you completely by-passed the fact that the same charges
you level against Orthodoxy were also leveled against the Church FathersChurch
Fathers that you identify as Pillars of Truth. You did not engage the heated 19th c. debate
that dealt with the issue of whether or not the theology that issued forth from
the great Ecumenical Councils (Synods) introduced an unacceptable Hellenization
into Christian theology. Nor did you
mention that St. Augustine, who has had immeasurable influence on Reformed thought,
himself drunk deeply from the philosophical well, a fact that has always been
acknowledged. But why this omission?
You did briefly allude to some of these critical truths in your piece
you wrote for the Renewing Your Mind Forum (henceforth, RYM), but you did not
answer the question of why Orthodoxy should be rejected, and the Fathers and
indeed Nicean, Chalcedonian theology should not.
Your whole thesis deals with the supposed "infiltration" of Neoplatonic
elements, but you ignore the many critical components that necessarily go with
such a charge, and choose to single out Orthodoxy.
Moreover, are you unaware of the influence of Hellenism on Judaism? For more than 350 years Palestine had been
heavily influenced by Hellenism. Dr. Victor Tcherikover, a professor at the
Hebrew University in Jerusalem, writes that "the thirty Greek cities, with
Greek populations, in Jewish Palestine proper had great influence throughout
all of Palestine." Surely
you are aware that the Old Testament Scriptures utilized by the Christians;
the one that is quoted some 75% of the time by New Testament authors, is the
Septuagint, the 3rd c. B.C. Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Constantelos, who is Charles Cooper Townsend Sr. Distinguished Professor of
History and Religious Studies Emeritus at The Richard Stockton College of New
Jersey, explains that "As the Old Testament clearly reveals that the biblical
Hebrews did not receive everything from heaven, but that they inherited much
from the high culture that had long existed in Canaan when Abraham migrated
from Haran to Palestine, likewise the New Testament manifests that its writers
were influenced by the Greek mind that had long existed before the birth of
Christianity. Here is one more illustration.
The fundamental concept of Christian faith (pistis) in the New Testament,
faith as trust, conviction and persuasion derives from Greek rather than Hebrew
thought. The Greek theory of paideia
(education, intellectual training) served as a framework on which differing
views of faith in the four Gospels, in Paul, James and Peter were established
and used. In fact, it was long before
Christian writers, that Jewish notions about faith had accommodated themselves
to Greek notions, thus making the transition to Christian adoptions easier.
Greek modes of thought influenced Hellenistic Jewish and early Christian
writers. The Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, reveals
the Platonic distinction between eternal archetypes and temporary copies."
you seem to want to brush aside this indisputable fact of history; that of Greek
influence on Judaism, and later, Christianity. As Constantelos notes, "Orthodox and non-Orthodox theologians
and scholars believe that the Judaization of Christianity would have been fatal,
while its Hellenization determined its universal appeal and its catholic character."
Furthermore, the eminent British scholar William Ralph Inge writes: "I
know of no stranger perversity than for men who rest the whole weight of their
religion upon history, to suppose that our Lord meant to raise an universal
religion on a purely Jewish basis...Christianity conquered Hellenism by borrowing
from it all its best elements; and I do not see that a Christian need feel any
reluctance to make this admission."
perhaps you would claim that any New Testament utilization of Greek ideas is
exempt from any charges of unbiblical Hellenization. However, there have been scholars who have not been willing to say
that. And if your thesis is the unwarranted
borrowing of Greek thought, then your criticisms suffer the same shortsightedness
as when viewed in light of the Fathers and 4th-5th century christology and pneumatology.
I wrote in a reply to your Renewing Your Mind post that, concerning Tertullian's
famous quip "What Has Athens to do with Jerusalem" that this is indeed
ironic that he should say this, since he too was influenced by the very philosophy
he sought to disassociate from. As Evangelical
David Wells points out, "Latin theologians were more influenced by philosophical
notions than they realized. It is not difficult, for example, to see traces
of Stoicism in some of Tertullian's
ideas. His notion that the divine essence
is merely a refined form of matter hardly finds its genesis in anything that
the apostles taught."
for some of the other issues that you took exception to in your article "Salvation
by Plotinus," I offer the following. First, (I'm not sure whether your comment about conceding that Orthodox
treatments of the Cross were few was directed to me or not), but I will say
that as far as my essay was concerned, I simply wanted to place the issue in
contextwhich was something that you did not do. Your piece led the reader to believe that the
Orthodox don't value the Cross theologically,
whereas what I basically said was that whereas the West (particularly Protestantism)
has written about the Cross, the East has sung about it.
If you've read my essay, you'll know that there are far more references
to the saving Cross in the Orthodox liturgical service books than you'll find
in any Protestant ones. Moreover, three major Feasts are dedicated to the commemoration
of the Cross of Christ in the Orthodox Churchhardly what one would expect if
your thesis had truth to it. At any
rate, I cite for you two examples from the service books: "He who was righteous
was condemned as an evildoer and with criminals was He nailed to the wood, giving
remission through His own blood to the guilty" (Matins, Tone Two); and
"O Christ our God, of Thine own will Thou hast accepted Crucifixion, that
all mankind might be restored to life. Taking
the quill of the Cross, out of love for Man in the red ink of loyalty with bloody
fingers Thou hast signed our absolution" (Vespers of Third Sunday
problem with your whole thesis on our supposed neglect of the Cross is that
you're unable to accept that the East doesn't have the same understanding of
theology and what its place is in the life of the Church. Unlike Western Christians, the Liturgy is best described
as the Orthodox "catechism." We
have never lost sight of the Patristic dictum "the rule of faith and worship
is the rule of doctrine." Many of the written compilations of theological
works in the West came about because of the pressures of the Reformation. The Reformed were reacting to abuses and corruption
of doctrine in the Latin Church, and so composed writings to set forth their
position. Rome would in turn counter-act,
and so on. But these were all issues
that affected the Western Church. Notions of merit, indulgences, the papacy, eucharistic aberrationsall
of these were absent in the East, and Reformers such as Luther noted this.
absent in your essay SBP is the fact that notions of imputation, and views of
the atonement that arose only with Anselm (and were inherited by the West) were
completely absent from the annals of early Christian writing. Gustaf Aulen (and more recently, Alister McGrath),
have demonstrated that such notions were not part of early Christian soteriology. Were you unaware that St. Augustine (often
mistakenly claimed as a proto-Calvinist), wrote in quite explicit terms of theosis
and integrated it within his concept of justificationhardly good Calvinist
theology to see justification as a process, as opposed to an "imputed" conception
of righteousness. I would be very interested
to hear what you have to say about this; specifically McGrath's comment (found
in my essayNote D) that it is not Calvin, but "Martin Luther who is closer
to Augustine in his teaching of justification."
Where they differed was that "the notion of the iustitia Christi
is simply not present in Augustine's theory of justification in the sense that
Luther required...In justification, man is made righteous. For Luther, however, the righteousness of Christ is always external
to man, and alien to him."
Jones, in the end your whole thesis from Hellenization, to Orthodoxy's teachings
concerning salvation, is a serious misrepresentation and is far from the truth.
Fortunately, as I pointed out in my essay, there are Evangelical scholars
who have taken the time to learn about Orthodoxy; people such as Daniel Clendenin,
Harold O. J. Brown, and many otherswho certainly would not agree with your
final analysis. Your essay clearly demonstrates that you have
not seriously researched the key issues. And
not just contemporary Orthodoxy, but also early Christian soteriology and historical-cultural
studies of Judaism and the emerging Christian communities in the eastern Mediterranean.
Jones, thank you for taking the time to read this, and I look forward to hearing
from you soon regarding these issues.
+ Mr. Carmen Fragapane,
+ + +
Dear Carmen Fragapane,
Thanks so much for your note. I know you mean well but your latest letter just repeats
some of the points you raised in your essay. I wish I had time to interact with
every email writer, but my work won't allow me. You may want to take another
look at the Tabletalk article to see how you have yet to answer my basic claims.
In my writing, I plan to return to the same themes in future articles.
+ + +
for your kind words. If you think it
will be beneficial, you may certainly post these letters. As you can see from this response from Mr. Jones, no fruitful dialogue
is going to arise, unfortunately. It's
basically the same retreat of "you don't understand the issue"; or
"you haven't answered my claims".
I have read (for the third time), as he directed in his response to me, his
contribution to the Renewing Your Mind Forum.
It can basically be broken down into two themes; (1) the presence of
Greek philosophy in Christian thought, and (2) salvation; specifically, the
lack of the imputed righteousness teaching in Orthodoxy, from which he derives
that the concept of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man is lost. As far as the "Hellenization" issue
is concerned, I have (I believeplease correct me if I'm wrong!) demonstrated
that this whole approach was a disaster for Jonesmaking the accompanying charges
of Hellenization against Orthodoxy in "Salvation by Plotinus" and not even treating
the issue in the context of either the influence of Hellenism on Judaism, or
the utilization of Greek philosophy by the Church Fathers. He does make some superficial comments in his
RYM contribution, simply stating that indeed the Fathers let some of this Greek
thinking "slip by unchallenged." Of course, what "slipped" by was utilized by these Fathers
to provide an Orthodox framework for the union of our Lord with His Father!
He then comments that we all are prone to this influence, and that one
should "repent" of this philosophical baggage, which he equates with "sin":
"Just as there were good kings in Israel who didn't remove all the idolatry,
so too can we find lingering paganism in the Fathers, medievalists, Reformers
and ourselves. But when our eyes are open to sin, the sign of a repentant heart
is to abandon it (Col. 3:8)." One
wonders how this idea would apply to the writers of the New Testament; for example,
St. John, who found it beneficial for his audience at Ephesus to explain the
pre-existent Christ as the Logos; a concept already familiar to them.
modern scholarly consensus the question of the Hellenization of Christianity
is quite different from that which Jones asserts, as Constantelos explains:
"Concerning the Hellenization of Christianity, scholars of different fields
(history, philosophy, patristics and biblical studies) seem to argue that far
from being a corruption of Christianity, Hellenization secured its survival
and universality. In a recent scholarly
review of Wolfhart Pannenberg's Jesus: God and Man and Revelation
as History, David W. Tracy has summarized the scholarly opinion of recent
years as follows: 'In fact, Pannenberg's position not only allows, but also
insists, that the Hellenic tradition provided the necessary conditions of possibility
for a clearer affirmation of the divinity of Jesus Christ and the universality
of the eschatological self-revelation of God in the face of Jesus.'"
for the theme of salvation, notice first that the material that he draws his
critique from is a book authored by Fr. Jon Braun (does anyone else think that
another source; perhaps Nicholas Cabasilas' The Life in Christ might
have been a better choice)? As I indicated
earlier, he somehow makes the inference that the notion of theosis minimizes
both the holiness of God and sinfulness of man. Essentially what this means is that when one
moves outside the bounds of the Reformed idea of imputed righteousness, sanctification
ends up being the basis for salvation, and this, according to Jones, is a process
that ultimately is completed through our own efforts. However, the fact that God's Son died on the
Cross for our sins does not negate the necessity of spiritual effort on our
parttaking up our cross; dying to the vain things of this worldin short, "enduring
to the end" as our Savior said. And put conversely, these Scriptural admonitions obviously
do not undercut the efficacy of our Lord's supreme sacrifice.
in the letter that I sent to Jones; the one that he responds to here, I reiterated
that the whole notion of imputed righteousness was a teaching not to be found
in the Fathers, and that this has been confirmed by the likes of Alister McGrath,
Gustaf Aulen and Jaroslav Pelikan. It should come as no surprise, then, that one doesn't find it in
Orthodoxy. But the absence of this central
tenet of Reformed thought in the early Church should give us pause.
Is it unreasonable to expect that we should find this teaching in the
minds of some of the Christians who lived close in time to the Apostlesif it
is indeed true? How unfair, indeed, to the multitude of Christians
who lived before the advent of this notion in the Reformed era. Jones offered no comment on this. Neither did he comment on the fact that this
notion was certainly not part of St. Augustine's thoughta supposed "pillar"
in Calvinism. But are these omissions
not crucial to this whole argument? Furthermore,
as Pelikan pointed out in his book The Reformation of Church and Dogma, the
Reformed basically looked at any passage that dealt with the righteousness of
the Lord, or mention of the word "imputed" and read into it their
novel ideas. For example, if the Scripture
was "the Lord is our righteousness," then this meant that the perfect
righteousness of Christ had been imputed to us. Let's look at the Scriptures cited by Jones
as stating such a position: (1) 1 Cor. 1:30"But of Him you are in Christ
Jesus, who became for us wisdom from Godand righteousness and sanctification
and redemption." No mention here of any imputed righteousnessChrist is
our righteousness. One would have to,
as Pelikan pointed out, link up this verse with one describing imputation. (2)
Phil. 3:9"And be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which
is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness
which is from God by faith." Again, the language of imputation is not used
here together with the mentioning of righteousness. (3) Rom. 4:6-7"Just
as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness
apart from works: 'Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose
sins are covered.'" (verse 8 goes on"blessed is the man to whom the
Lord shall not impute sin"). Notice no mention of righteousness being imputed
to us; only about the possibility of sin being imputed to a person). (4) Rom.
5:17-19"For if by the one man's offense death reigned through the one,
much more those who receive abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness
will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as through one man's offense judgment came to all men, resulting
in condemnation, even so through one Man's righteous act the free gift came
to all men, resulting in justification of life.
For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one
Man's obedience many will be made righteous" Notice that it says "made
righteous," not "declared righteous." (5) Heb. 9:14, 19"How
much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered
Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve
the living God?..."For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people
according to the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water, scarlet
wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people,"
(verse 20 continues"Saying, 'This is the blood of the covenant which God
has commanded you.'") How this is relevant to the subject of imputed righteousness is
unclearthere is no mention of either term in these passages. They are instead speaking of the supreme
efficacy of Christ's sacrifice.
Jones' words, the above Scriptures set forth the teaching that "the perfect
righteousness of His obedience [is] imputed to us." And yet this escaped the exegesis of the patristic
era. Per McGrath, there simply was no
patristic forerunner to the Reformed concepts of either imputed righteousness
or forensic justification (see his article "Forerunners of the Reformation?
A Critical Evaluation of the Evidence for Precursors of the Reformation
Doctrines of Justification" in Harvard Theological Review,
75:2, p. 219ff.)
hope that this goes a little ways, at least, in answering Jones' "basic