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Orthodoxy and Platonism

An Exchange of Letters with Protestant Apologist Douglas Jones

Webmaster 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.

Dear Editor,

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 grateful: presumptuous.htm.

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 discourse.

Sincerely,

Patrick Barnes,
Orthodox Christian Information Center

+ + +

Dear Patrick,

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?

Doug Jones

+ + +

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 at orth_plato.htm.

Mr. 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 article—not 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 anything—not just salvation) were rare—but 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 the articles.

Mr. 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 Fathers—Church 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.

Demetrios 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."

Evidently, 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."

Now, 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."

As 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 context—which 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 Church—hardly 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 in Lent).

The 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 aberrations—all of these were absent in the East, and Reformers such as Luther noted this.

Also 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 justification—hardly 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 essay—Note 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."

Mr. 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 others—who 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.

Mr. Jones, thank you for taking the time to read this, and I look forward to hearing from you soon regarding these issues.

Sincerely,

+ Mr. Carmen Fragapane,
cfrag@wvu.edu

+ + +

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.

Sincerely,

Doug Jones

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Hello, Patrick.

Thanks 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".

Actually, 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 believe—please correct me if I'm wrong!) demonstrated that this whole approach was a disaster for Jones—making 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.

The 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.'"

As 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 part—taking up our cross; dying to the vain things of this world—in 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.

Now, 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 Apostles—if 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 thought—a 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 God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption." No mention here of any imputed righteousness—Christ 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 unclear—there is no mention of either term in these passages. They are instead speaking of the supreme efficacy of Christ's sacrifice.

In 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.)

I hope that this goes a little ways, at least, in answering Jones' "basic claims."

Carmen Fragapane,
cfrag@wvu.edu