It is frequently urged by both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists and theologians that the beliefs and teachings of the church fathers provide a better picture of true, apostolic Christianity than the beliefs that came out of the Reformation. It is argued that the earliest fathers were the successors of the Apostles and received apostolic teaching in the form of unwritten traditions from them. They then passed that tradition on faithfully to the next generation of Christians and so on to the present day Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Contrary to this, it became clear to the Reformers and those who succeeded them that some aspects of the Christianity of the church fathers (and hence, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches) better reflect aspects of the thoughts, languages, and customs of their cultural environment. It is the purpose of this paper to show that, on many of the distinctive issues that separate Protestants from Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, the church fathers were heavily influenced by Greco-Roman thought and culture to believe what they did.
I am not saying that the influence was total (contra Harnack). Indeed, they rejected many (but not all) of the conclusions of Greek philosophy, but the point is that they still accepted and worked within the categories of Greek philosophy and the ontological scheme that it taught. With such a framework in place, it became impossible for the church fathers to see such things as juridical justification by faith alone. It was only with the Reformation and its “ad fontes”, “back to the sources”, approach that men started to question the categories of theological thought that they had learned, and Biblical exegetes saw that the beliefs of the church fathers were all too fallible and not a completely reliable guide to apostolic Christianity.
“The earlier patristic period represents the age of the exploration of concepts, when the proclamation of the gospel within a pagan culture was accompanied by an exploitation of both Hellenistic culture and pagan philosophy as vehicles for theological advancement. This tentative exploration of the conceptual world is particularly well illustrated by the rise and subsequent decline of the Logos-Christology. The use of such concepts in Christian theology was not, however without its risks: it was not sufficient merely to baptise Plato and Plotinus, for the tension which existed between the essentially Hebraic concepts which underlie the gospel and the Hellenism of the medium employed in its early formulation and propagation remains unresolved. Whilst it is evident that some form of adaptation may be necessary in order to give the gospel more immediate impact on its introduction to an alien culture, it is equally evident that such an adaptation may result in both compromise and distortion of the characteristic and distinctive elements of the gospel. An excellent example of the influence of a Hellenistic milieu upon Christian theology is provided by the doctrine of the [apaueia] of God, which clearly demonstrates the subordination of a biblical to a philosophical view of God.…Indeed, by the end of the fourth century, the Greek fathers had formulated a teaching on human free will based upon philosophical rather than biblical foundations. Standing in the great Platonic tradition, heavily influenced by Philo, and reacting against the fatalisms of their day, they taught that man was utterly free in his choice of good or evil…It is quite possible that the curious and disturbing tendency of the early fathers to minimize original sin and emphasize the freedom of fallen man is a consequence of their anti-Gnostic polemic…Justin’s anti-fatalist arguments can be adduced from practically any of the traditional pagan refutations of astral fatalisms, going back to the second century B.C.”
–Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 2nd edition (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, reprinted 1998), pp.17, 19, 20.
“Especially through Origen and the Alexandrian school (with roots in Philo), Christian theology was influenced by the notion of the cosmic ladder of being, with lower forms of existence participating in higher forms, deriving ultimately from the absolute. Creation, in this scheme, is an emanation (for Origen, eternal) of divinity from the one God reaching all the way out to the extremities of being. Specific scriptural teachings challenged or qualified aspects of the metaphysical heritage, but the worldview was essentially that of Middle Platonism, Stoicism, and Neoplatonism.”
-Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union With Christ (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p.184.
“In the West, Rome, its institutions, and its language had been imposed, whereas the cities in the Greek East had tended to absorb Roman values and to transform them into a common Greco-Roman culture in which the Greek element predominated. In much the same way, we find Christianity tending to absorb Greek philosophical values, until by the end of the third century the line between the beliefs of the educated Christian and the educated pagan in the East would often be hard to draw. After the conversion of Constantine, the empire now directed from New Rome (Constantinople) moved with astonishing ease from the patronage of the immortal gods to that of the supreme God.”
-W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, p.368.
“However, he does not limit himself to scriptural and traditional sources; he also borrows something from ancient Greek philosophy. Echoes of Plato are discernible in the following text:
I believe the words of the wise, that every fair and God-beloved soul, when, set free from the bonds of the body, it departs from here, at once enjoys perception and contemplation of the blessings which await it... and goes rejoicing to meet its Lord... Then, a little later, it receives its kindred flesh... in some way known to God, who knit them together and dissolved them, enters with it upon the inheritance of the glory there. And, as it shared, through their close union, in its hardships, so also it bestows upon it a portion of its joys, gathering it up entirely into itself, and becoming with it one spirit, one intellect and one god... Why am I faint-hearted in my hopes? Why behave like a mere creature of a day? I await the voice of the archangel, the last trumpet, the transformation of the heavens, the transfiguration of the earth, the liberation of the elements, the renovation of the universe.”
“The general tendency among Latin-speaking theologians was to follow Augustine of Hippo…in interpreting iustificare as iustum facere…While this may be an acceptable interpretation of iusificare considered in isolation, it is not an acceptable interpretation of the verb considered as the Latin equivalent of [dikaioun]…it would appear that the Greek verb has the primary sense of being considered orestimated as righteous, whereas the Latin verb denotes being righteous, the reason why one is considered righteous by others…[I]t is necessary to observe that the early theologians of the western church were dependant upon their Latin versions of the Bible, and approached their texts and their subject with a set of presuppositions which owed more to the Latin language and culture than to Christianity itself. The initial transference of a Hebrew concept to a Greek, and subsequently to a Latin, context point to a fundamental alteration in the concepts of ‘justification’ and ‘righteousness’ as the gospel spread from its Palestinian source to the western world.”
–Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 2nd edition (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, reprinted 1998), pp.14, 15.
Doctrine of God
“In Justin the oneness, transcendence and creative role of God are asserted in language strongly coloured by the Platonizing Stoicism of the day. It was apparently his sincere belief that the Greek thinkers had had access to the works of Moses.”
-J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), p.86.
“The Apologists’ originality (their thought was more Philonic than Johannine) lay in drawing out the further implications of the Logos idea in order to make plausible the twofold fact of Christ’s pre-temporal oneness with the Father and His manifestation in space and time. In so doing, while using such Old Testament texts as Ps. 33, 6 (‘By the word of the Lord were the heavens made’), they did not hesitate to blend with them the Stoic technical distinction between the immanent word (logos hendiathetos) and the word uttered or expressed (logos prophorikos).”
-J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), p.96.
“[Clement of Alexandria] clearly distinguishes the Three, and the charge of modalism, based on his lack of any technical term to designate the Persons, is groundless; and if he appears to subordinate the Son to the Father and the Spirit to the Son, the subordination implies no inequality of being, but is the corollary of his Platonic conception of a graded hierarchy.”
-J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), pp. 127-128. [I will note that the Reformed are sometimes chastised by the Eastern Orthodox for not believing that the Son receives His Being from the Father. However, as Kelly notes, this idea comes out of Platonism. The next quotes will reinforce that.]
“No doubt he tries to meet the most stringent demands of monotheism by insisting tht the fulness of unoriginate Godhead is concentrated in the Father, Who alone is ‘the fountain-head of deity’… As it is formulated by Origen, however, the underlying structure of thought is unmistakably borrowed from contemporary Platonism.”
-J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), p.131.
“In a more limited field the impact of Platonism reveals itself in the thoroughgoing subordinationism which is integral to Origen’s Trinitarian scheme. The Father, as we have seen, is alone [autotheos]; so St. John, he points out, accurately describes the Son simply as [Theos], not [ho Theos]. In relation to the God of the universe He merits a secondary degree of honour; for He is not absolute goodness and truth, but His goodness and truth are a reflection and image of the Father’s.”
-J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), pp. 131-132.
“[Athanasius’s] anthropology, it should be pointed out, which was thoroughly Platonic and treated the soul as having no necessary connexion with the body, was perfectly consistent with the latter hypothesis.”
-J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), p.287.
The Fall and Soteriology
“As we might expect, the [Fall] account [Athanasius] gives is a blend of Platonizing metaphysics and the Genesis story. Its most interesting feature is the contrast presupposed throughout between man considered as a creature, i.e. in his natural state, and as the recipient of God’s bountiful favour.…Instead of keeping their gaze fixed on God, however, the first human beings, Adam and Eve, allowed themselves to be distracted by the material world which was closer to them, particularly by their bodies. They turned away, in other words, from Him Who alone is being in the true sense to things which have no real being of their own. So they fell. Deprived of the grace of the divine image, they were reduced to the corruption which, after all, was their nature, lapsing into ignorance and idolatry.”
-J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), p.287.
“Like Athanasius, they call in philosophzing allegory to aid them in interpreting the Biblical story. For Gregory Nazianzen the Garden is clearly the Platonists’ intelligible world of ideas, its plants being ‘divine concepts’. Gregory of Nyssa carried speculation to the point of proposing, on the basis of Gen. I, 26f., a double creation. The first consisted in the production of the ideal of archetypal man, in the Platonic sense, perfect and without sexual differentiation, comprising in himself all possible men and women. It was because God foresaw that, being creaturely and therefore mutable, he would sin, that He subdivided him, by a second creative act, into male and female, thus inaugurating the actual race of men.”
-J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), p.348.
“According to this, human nature was sanctified, transformed and elevated by the very act of Christ’s becoming man. Often, though not quite correctly, described as the characteristically Greek theory, it cohered well with the Greek tendency to regard corruption and death as the chief effects of the Fall. In its strict form it tended to be combined with the Platonic doctrine of real universals, in the light of which it was able to treat human nature as a generic whole.”
-J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), p.375.
“All the fathers, of whatever school, reproduce this motif. The physical theory, it is clear, is an elaboration of it, only parting comparny with it when, under the influence of Platonic realism, it represents human nature as being automatically deified by the incarnation.”
“Athanasius’s language often suggests that he conceived of human nature, after the manner of Platonic realism, as a concrete idea or universal in which all individual men participate. From this point of view, when the Word assumed it and suffused it with His divinity, the divinizing force would be communicated to all mankind, and the incarnation would in effect be the redemption. Such is the clear implication of numerous passages, such as, ‘Forasmuch as the Word became man and appropriated what belongs to the flesh, these affections no longer attach to the body because of the Word Who assumed it, but have been destroyed by Him’…There is little doubt that Athanasius’s Platonism tended at times to lose touch with his Christianity.”
-J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), pp. 378-379.
“Like Athanasius, too, [Gregory of Nyssa] translates the Biblical idea of solidarity into the language of Platonic realism. The whole of human nature, he claims, constitutes as it were a single living being…so that the experience of a part becomes the experience of the whole. In this way all mankind is seen to share in what Christ achieves by His resurrection.”
-J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), p.381.
“Hilary, for example, can write, ‘It was we who needed that God should become flesh and dwell in us, that is, by taking a single flesh to Himself should inhabit flesh in its entirety’. The Platonic conception of human nature as a universal clearly lies in the background here. We can see it again in his statement, ‘For the sake of the human race the Son of God was born from the Virgin and Holy Spirit…so that by becoming man He might take the nature of flesh to Himself from the Virgin, and so the body of the human race as a whole might be sanctified in Him through association with this mixture’. The same Platonic realism inspires Victorinus when he writes, ‘When He took flesh, He took the universal idea of flesh (universalem [logon] carnis); for as a result the whole power of flesh triumphed in His flesh.…Similarly He took the universal idea of soul.…Therefore man as a whole was assumed, and having been assumed was liberated. For human nature as a whole was in Him, flesh as a whole and soul as a whole, and they were lifted to the cross and purged through God the Word, the universal of all universals.’ Elsewhere he argues that, since Christ’s body is ‘catholic’, i.e. universal as opposed to particular, all individual human bodies were crucified in it, and His sufferings have a universal quality.”
-J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), pp. 386-387.
“[Cyril of Alexandria’s] argument, we observe, was influenced by the Platonic realism which affected the thought of Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa. Human nature was treated as a generic whole, so that when the divine Word assumed it at the incarnation it could reasonably be said, ‘By virtue of the flesh united to Him, He has us all in Himself’, and, ‘We were all in Christ; the common person of humanity comes again to life in Him’.”
-J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), p.397.
“Allegorism was well established in Alexandrian Judaism, and Philo, as we have seen, made a systematic use of it to bridge the chasm between the Old Testament revelation and his own Platonizing philosophy. In the hands of such a second-century Christian writer as ‘Barnabas’ Philonic allegorism was able to detect a Christian significance in the least likely passages of the Old Testament.”
–J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), p.70.
“The inherent difficulties of typology, however, made the transition to allegorism extremely tempting, especially where the cultural environment was Hellenistic and impregnated with Platonic idealism, with its theory that the whole visible order is a symbolical reflection of invisible realities. Hence it is not surprising that most of the fathers injected a strain of allegory, some of them a powerful one, into their typology.”
–J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, reprinted 2003), p.72.
“The two theologians were indebted to ancient Greece for the idea that the chastisement inflicted by the gods is not punishment but rather a means of education and salvation, part of a process of purification. In Plato’s view this chastisement is a boon offered by the gods. Clement and Origen deduce from this the idea that “to punish” is synonymous with “to educate” and that any chastisement by God contributes to man’s salvation…Their Platonic idea of Christianity led Clement and Origen to take a comforting view of the matter…In keeping with this attitude, the two theologians give a soothing interpretation of the Old Testament passages in which God explicitly uses fire as an instrument of his wrath...Origen develops to the full the theory of purification, catharsis, which came to him from Plato, the Orphics, and the Pythagoreans.”
-Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp.52-53, 55.
“The theme of illumination is, in turn, inseparable in his thought from the theme of purification (katharsis). Gregory inherited an interest in this theme from his studies of ancient Greek philosophy, where katharsis is one of the key notions.”
“[Universalism] was picked up by Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-220), one of the founders of the Alexandrian schools of theology which tried to reconcile Christianity and Greek philosophy by creating a synthesis between the two. Although there is a possibility that he later came to believe in eternal punishment, it is generally conceded that Clement was the first to teach Universalism in the Christian Church.”
-Dr. Robert A. Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House, 1984), p.223.
“The term [apokatastasis] is found in Justin Martyr and Irenaeus and developed into a doctrine of universal salvation by Origin. Origen was condemned by a synod in Constantinople…the general concept of a final apokatastasis is, however, found in Gregory of Nyssa and persists in a modified form in Byzantine theology, notably in Maximus the Confessor. It recurs in Modern Russian thinkers such as Solovyov, Bulgakov, and Berdiaev,”
- The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity, p.36.
“As the implacable opponents of Eunomius, the Cappadocians were nevertheless dependent on Origen both for their biblical learning in the succession of his Hexapla and for their speculative thought; that becomes evident above all in the formulation of the doctrine of apokatastasis put forward by Gregory of Nyssa, which was spared the official condemnation visited upon Origen’s doctrines,”
- The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity, p.482.
“Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have none the less believed that in the end all will be reconciled to God. It is heretical to say that all must be saved, for this is to deny free will; but it is legitimate to hope that all may be saved. Until the Last Day comes, we must not despair of anyone’s salvation, but must long and pray for the reconciliation of all without exception. No one must be excluded from our loving intercession. ‘What is a merciful heart?’ asked Isaac the Syrian. ‘It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation, for men, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for all creatures’ (Mystic Treatises, edited by A. J. Wensinck, Amsterdam, 1923, p. 341). Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope even for the redemption of the Devil.”
Apophaticism and Mysticism
“Athenagoras described God primarily with negative attributes. This is, he explained what God is not rather than what God is. Later Christian theologians labeled this approach “apophatic theology,” and it became a major part of the story of Christian theology. Apparently Athenagoras and later apophatic thinkers assumed that God’s perfection means being unlike anything created. Thus God can only be truly described by saying what He is not rather than what He is. He is not imperfect, and to change or suffer or even be comprehensible to the human mind is to be tainted by creaturely imperfection. The result, of course, was a gradual diminishing of the Biblical God’s personal nature. Of course, neither Athenagoras nor any other Christian thinker rejected God’s personal being, but some of the ways in which they began to describe God seem to be more like the transcendent origin and ground of all things (arche) in Greek philosophy, which is rather abstract, than the very concrete, personal and interactive God of the Hebrew Bible and apostolic writings.”
-Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, p.63.
“A remarkable combination of Platonism with Christianity, to the injury of the latter, appears in the system of mystic symbolism in the pseudo-Dionysian books, which cannot have been composed before the fifth century, though they were falsely ascribed to the Areopagite of the book of Acts (xvii. 34), and proceeded from the later school of New-Platonism, as represented by Proclus of Athens († 485). The fundamental idea of these Dionysian writings (on the celestial hierarchy; on the ecclesiastical hierarchy; on the divine names; on mystic theology; together with ten letters) is a double hierarchy, one in heaven and one on earth, each consisting of three triads, which mediates between man and the ineffable, transcendent hyper-essential divinity. This idea is a remnant of the aristocratic spirit of ancient heathenism, and forms the connecting link with the hierarchical organization of the church, and explains the great importance and popularity which the pseudo-Dionysian system acquired, especially in the mystic theology of the middle ages.”
- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church 3.9.117
“The image of the sun, which derives from Plato, is one of Gregory’s favourite images when he speaks of God. Gregory uses this image in particular when he speaks of the human person’s striving to God as the highest good:
...From many and great things... which we receive and will receive from God, the greatest and the most generous is our inclination and our kinship to Him. In the realm of intelligible things God is the same as the sun in the realm of sensible. The sun illumines the world visible, while God illumines the world invisible; the former makes bodily sights sunlike, while the latter makes intelligible natures godlike. The sun, while giving a seer to see and a seen to be seen, is itself incomparably more beautiful than what is seen; in the same manner God, while giving a thinker to think and an object of thinking to be thought of, is Himself the climax of everything intelligible, so that every desire finds its end in Him and nowhere else reaches forward.”
“To understand this text, one should remember that in the Platonic tradition the way to perfection was perceived as one from multiplicity to simplicity, from duality to unity. Plotinus, in particular, claims that in order to come to the knowledge of the Unity we must become one from many. Contemplation of the One is, according to Plotinus, a total unity with the One which excludes all multiplicity or diversity:
‘There were not two; beholder was one with beheld; it was not a vision compassed but a unity apprehended. The man formed by this mingling with the Supreme...is become the Unity, nothing within him or without inducing any diversity; no movement now, no passion, no desire, once this ascent is achieved... It was a going forth from the self, a simplifying, a reunification, a reach towards contact and at the same time a repose’. The highest stage of the mystical ascent is a state of ecstasy, a total mingling with the One and diffusion in Him. The vision of the highest Intellectual-Principle is connected in Plotinus with the experience of the vision of light emanating from it. One can, of course, point to the disparity between the ecstasy of Plotinus as a diffusion in the impersonal One and the mystical contemplation of Gregory as an encounter with the personal Deity, the Trinity. Yet one cannot but see a startling similarity of language, terminology or imagery between the two authors.”
“The church fathers were also infected by this virus, too enthusiastic about the potential of Greek philosophy as preparation for the gospel, according to Balthasar. For Dionysius and Maximus, despite a formal adherance, ‘the Trinity plays almost no role whatever in the living-out of the Christian life. In fact what Maximus does is to get past the Cappadocians and Nicea and consciously link up with the Origenist schema of Logos theology.’
Closely bound up with this is their version of the incarnation, which despite the Antiochenes and Nestorius, constantly was inclined to a docetic and Eutychian view. The incarnation is consequently thought of as the most extreme point of “egression” of God from himself. The self-emptying back home to the Godhead.…In this schema the incarnation must appear as something provisional and transitional. The resurrection of the flesh, formally confessed and maintained, appears like a disturbance of the systematic lines and usually was subtilized in one or another form.
Hence come ‘its asceticism and mysticism,…a movement of the ascending, step-by-step return of the world potencies into God, unambiguously away from the material to the spiritual. Spiritualization, presented in a thousand different colorations, is the basic tendency of the patristic epoch,’ with early monasticism already providing ‘the peril of this movement.’ ”
- Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union With Christ (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), pp. 206-207, quoting Edward T. Oakes, Pattern of Redemption, pp. 113, 115, 116, 119, 120.
“Yet there are abundant examples also of a quite different emphasis on the ascent from matter to mind, which funded asceticism and monasticism. According to Maximus, for example, ‘deifying’ is equivalent to ‘nonmaterial,’ and sexual propagation itself was a result of the fall. ‘For this reason the Logos of God became man, to set man free from this passion and to restore him to the condition for which he had been created.’ ‘Through “practical philosophy” or the active life of the Christian,’ Pelikan explains, ‘some believers rose from the flesh of Christ to his soul; through contemplation others were enabled to go on from the soul of Christ to the “mind” of Christ; and through mystical union some few were able to move further still, from the mind of Christ to his very Godhead.’ ”
-Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union With Christ (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), pp. 304-305.
“Even the Grecian philosophy was conceived by the Pythagoreans, the Platonists, and the Stoics, not as theoretical knowledge merely, but also as practical wisdom, and frequently joined itself to the most rigid abstemiousness, so that “philosopher” and “ascetic” were interchangeable terms. Several apologists of the second century had by this practical philosophy particularly the Platonic, been led to Christianity; and they on this account retained their simple dress and mode of life. Tertullian congratulates the philosopher’s cloak on having now become the garb of a better philosophy.”
- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church 2.9.104
“The orthodox or catholic asceticism starts from a literal and overstrained construction of certain passages of Scripture. It admits that all nature is the work of God and the object of his love, and asserts the divine origin and destiny of the human body, without which there could, in fact, be no resurrection, and hence no admittance to eternal glory. It therefore aims not to mortify the body, but perfectly to control and sanctify it. For the metaphysical dualism between spirit and matter, it substitutes the ethical conflict between the spirit and the flesh. But in practice it exceeds the simple and sound limits of the Bible, falsely substitutes the bodily appetites and affections, or sensuous nature, as such, for the flesh, or the principle of selfishness, which resides in the soul as well as the body; and thus, with all its horror of heresy, really joins in the Gnostic and Manichaean hatred of the body as the prison of the spirit. This comes out especially in the depreciation of marriage and the family life, that divinely appointed nursery of church and state, and in excessive self-inflictions, to which the apostolic piety affords not the remotest parallel. The heathen Gnostic principle of separation from the world and from the body, as a means of self-redemption, after being theoretically exterminated, stole into the church by a back door of practice, directly in face of the Christian doctrine of the high destiny of the body and perfect redemption through Christ. The Alexandrian fathers furnished a theoretical basis for this asceticism in the distinction of a lower and higher morality, which corresponds to the Platonic or Pythagorean distinction between the life according to nature and the life above nature or the practical and contemplative life… Clement of Alexandria, otherwise remarkable for his elevated ethical views, requires of the sage or gnostic, that he excel the plain Christian not only by higher knowledge, but also by higher, emotionless virtue, and stoical superiority to all bodily conditions; and he inclines to regard the body, with Plato, as the grave and fetter of the soul.”
- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church 2.9.105
“But how little such views agreed with the spirit of that age, we see in Clement’s own stoical and Platonizing conception of the sensual appetites, and still more in his great disciple Origen, who voluntarily disabled himself in his youth, and could not think of the act of generation as anything but polluting.”
- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church 2.9.107
“As Richardson noted, philosophy meant virginity, and in its earlier usages, did ‘not refer to Christian virginity, but primarily to philosophical celibacy.… The Neo-Platonic philosophy of the times, through its doctrine of the purification of the soul by its liberation from the body or sensuous things, taught celibacy and ascetic practices generally. So Plotinus (d. A.D. 270) practiced and taught to a degree, and Porphyry (d. 301+) more explicitly.’ As Prestige noted, pagan mystics ‘prayed to be delivered from the flesh rather than sin.’ Hellenized Jewish hermits appeared well before Christian hermits lived in the Egyptian desert, and there was a Hellenized Jewish colony of hermits in the Egyptian desert, and there was a Hellenized Jewish colony of hermits near Lake Mareotis. From the second century B.C., the ‘immured ones’ of Serapis lived incarcerated in cells near their god, receiving food through small windows and living and dying in their holes. This pagan asceticism, deeply rooted, infiltrated into Christianity.”
- Rousas John Rushdoony, The One and the Many (Thoburn Press: Fairfax, VA., 1978), p.165.
“In Salvian, regrettably, we find the weakening of the body required, ‘for the health of the body is inimical to the soul.’ The soul is ‘an attribute which is divine,’ and the body ‘an enemy which is of the earth.’ ”
- Rousas John Rushdoony, The One and the Many (Thoburn Press: Fairfax, VA., 1978), p.169.
“Knowledge in us is from the soul, which has its origin from heaven; ignorance from the body, which is from the earth: whence we have something in common with God and with animal creation. Thus, since we are composed of these two elements, the one of which is endowed with light, the other with darkness, a part of knowledge is given to us, and a part of ignorance. Over this bridge, so to speak, we may pass without any danger of falling; for all those who have inclined to either side, either towards the left hand or the right, have fallen.”
-Lactantius, Institutes 3.6