Harnack’s Hellenization Thesis, Heretics, and Evangelizing Metaphysics: Thomas Torrance and Thomas Aquinas

In this post I will write off the top, for the most part, at least when referring to Thomas Torrance, and will offer some suggestions about how I think Torrance operated in his constructive methodology of retrieving patristic theology, and how that may have informed his critique of later theologians like Thomas Aquinas.

Evangelizing Metaphysics and Orthodoxy

An important reality to grasp in regard to the development of Christian Dogma and theology through the centuries, particularly in the first four centuries of the church, is the idea of what Robert Jenson calls the evangelization of metaphysics. As Jenson writes against Harnack’s Hellenization thesis that the early church was overcome by appeal to classical Greek philosophical categories in aquinas1.jpgits articulation of the implications of the Gospel, Jenson argues that this was not the case at all (as reported by Peter Leithart)! Instead, as Jenson develops the early church took Hellenic philosophical categories and repurposed them, or reified them in such a way (a non-correlationist way) that they were essentially gutted of their former meaning and given new meaning under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; the lexical realities were still present (i.e. at the level of the words used), but within their new context driven by God’s revelation in the economy of His life, they lost any resemblance (i.e. the words) to what they used to mean within the classical philosophical context, and became resurrected words within a new grammar given reality by the logic of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Here is how Peter Leithar frames this as he quotes Robert Jenson:

Harnack’s hellenization thesis has been subjected to searching criticism, and an alternative account of the interaction of Christianity with Greco-Roman civilization has been offered. Writing not as a historian of dogma but as one of Harnack’s dreaded “dogmaticians,” Robert Jenson describes the relation of the gospel to philosophy during the first four centuries as an “evangelization of metaphysics.” Far from being conformed to Hellenistic categories and forms, the church in the persons of her theologians employed Greek concepts and terms to express something that Greek philosophy could never have envisioned. For Jenson, the central issue concerns time. Greek metaphysics and religion, he argues, were an elaborate effort to escape the corrosive effects of time.

It was the great single dogma of late Mediterranean antiquity’s religion and irreligion, that no story can be “really” true of God, that deity equals “impassibility.” It is not merely that the gospel tells a story about the object of worship; every religion of antiquity did that. The gospel identifies God as “He who brought Israel from Egypt and our Lord Jesus from the dead.” Therefore the gospel cannot rescind from its story at any depth whatsoever of experience, mystical penetration or theologia. Developed trinitarian liturgy and theology appeared as the church maintained the gospel’s identification of God in the very teeth of what everybody knew to be of course and obviously true of God, and in every nook of practice or theory where uncircumcised theological self-evidency lurked.[1]

I would like to suggest that Thomas Torrance in a principled way has attempted to do this same thing. Torrance works within the classical tradition, particularly as articulated by Athanasius; and he uses the grammar of the patristics like ousia (being) and hypostases (persons) inherited from his reading and understanding of the Niceno-Constantinopolitano creeds and what he calls the Athanasian-Cyrilian axis. Torrance uses the patristic concepts of De Deo Uno&De Deo Trino when he develops his doctrine of God and Trinitarian theology, but he uses them under advisement. In other words unlike, say the early medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, Torrance doesn’t simply appeal to God’s ‘ousia’ and ‘hypostases’ in a philosophical way; he doesn’t refer to God’s impassibility or immutability, or the omnis of God without reifying them or concretizing said concepts under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation simpliciter.

I would like to suggest that what Torrance did was to take what the early church did, and apply it to theological categories that had developed in the history of the church over the centuries in a way that he believed had lapsed back into purely Greek philosophical ways of understanding and “grammarizing” God. In a sense, and alongside Jenson’s thinking, Torrance believed the Harnackian thesis that the early church Hellenized the Gospel, it’s just that Torrance believed that (just like Jenson does) Harnack’s thesis only applies to the heretics of the early church, particularly with reference to Arius and his later disciple Eunomius; this is where Torrance’s Athanasian-Cyrilian axis is important. Torrance believed it was possible to evangelize metaphysics, and he believes that’s what happened in the Nicene and Constantinopolitan church councils, and later at Chalcedon.


In summary, Torrance believed that there has always been this kind of thread present within the development of dogma and church doctrine. In other words, he believed that there was always a heretical thread (a Hellenic thread) and an orthodox thread (and maybe a heterodox thread somewhere in between in this complex) at play within the walls of the church. So if we come up against someone like Thomas Aquinas, I believe Torrance would think that Aquinas veers toward, at least, a heterodox thread, and overly-Hellenizing thesis in his development of a doctrine of God. That because Aquinas so relied upon Aristotle’s categories (so Thomist classical theism), he indeed began to think God in a way that did not adequately work from an evangelized metaphysic, which resulted in presenting a God who was more of a mechanical-monad, a singularity, rather than a God who is by definition Triune, dynamic and relational. Torrance might look at Aquinas’ doctrine of God and see the classical concepts of ousia and hypostases at play, and Torrance might even find Aquinas’ emphasis upon God’s ‘being’ commendable (versus voluntarist emphases like those found in Scotism etc.), but Torrance would look at the whole picture presented by Aquinas and relegate his material conclusions in regard to God as overly-Hellenic. At this point Torrance would feel free to emphasize God’s antecedent-being (in se) as determinative for all else (like Aquinas) and in line with what has been called unity-of-being theology (like what is found in Athanasius’ theology), but then he would take said emphasis from Aquinas and other overly-Hellenized theologians and ‘evangelize’ it under the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. And he would scold Aquinas just as Athanasius scolded the Arians by saying that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.”[2] Clearly, Torrance would not place Aquinas into the same category as Arius (i.e. heretic), but he might just well think of Aquinas as heterodox on this front, precisely because, for Torrance, Aquinas failed at being a good “evangelist.”

[1] Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius: Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality (Michigan: Baker Publishing, 2011), 57 Scribd version.

[2] Athanasius cited by Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian Of The Trinity (Ashgate Publishing Limited, England, 2009), 73.


Praying Trinitarianly with Augustine

I don’t have a lot of time today, and obviously haven’t over the last few (given the dearth of fresh posts here). But I wanted to leave you with a Trinitarian prayer for today, provided by, Augustine. This prayer is actually cited by Khaled Anatolios at the end of his book Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine. I intend over the next few weeks (we’ll see if this actually happens) to work through the last chapter of Anatolios’ book here at the blog. The last chapter is basically an offering of theological conclusions and synopses of the preceding work that Anatolios has already done through the rest of the book on the theologies of Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. The points that we will cover as we look at these ‘conclusions’ (which are very fruitful!) are: Revelation, Scripture, Tradition and Ecclesial Scriptural Interpretation, Worship, The Primacy of Christ, The Person of the Holy Spirit, Creation, Christian Salvation, Humanity in the Image of the Trinity, Divine Being as Trinity. Hopefully this whets your appetite to see what Anatolios and I (as I reflect on Anatolios’ thought) have to say on these central topics of the Faith. Let me close, as I said we would do, with Augustine’s Trinitarian prayer:

O Lord our God, we believe in you, Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Truth would not have said, “God and baptize the nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19), unless you were Trinity. Nor would you have commanded us to be baptized, Lord God, in the name of any who is not Lord God. Nor would it have bee said with divine authority, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God” (Deut. 6:4), unless while being Trinity you were still one Lord God. And if you, God and Father, were yourself also the Son your Word Jesus Christ, were yourself also your gift the Holy Spirit, we would not read in the documents of truth, “God sent his Son” (Gal. 4:4), nor would you, only-begotten one, have said of the Holy Spirit, “whom the Father will send in my name” (John 14:26), and, “whom I will send you from the Father” (John 15:26). Directing my attention toward this rule of faith as best I could, as far as you enabled me to, I have sought you and desired to see intellectually what I have believed…. Do you yourself give me the strength to seek, having caused yourself to be found and having given me the hope of finding you more and more…. Let me remember you, let me understand you, let me love you. Increase these things in me until you refashion me entirely. [Augustine, Trin. 15.28.51, cited by Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 292.]


Our Day at the Greek Orthodox Church

We visited a Greek Orthodox church today, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Portland, Oregon. My wife and I had been there before, years ago; but we thought we would go there with our kids to let them experience something like that. It was an interesting experience. There is definitely a sense of transcendence that Protestants often miss out on in their church services (which often emphasize the immanent or “closeness of God”); but I think that if Protestants, in general, go in an extreme in one direction, the “Orthodox” take it to the other extreme. It is a beautiful liturgy, with the smell of incense in the air, the Priests in their vestments engaging in chant and praise to our God, Jesus Christ. Unfortunately about 3/4 of the liturgy is in Greek; being able to read Koine Greek (which I can) and picking it up in chant in a liturgy are quite different things.

I think some of the more unfortunate things about the Greek Orthodox is that they are really Sectarian, that unless you have been chrismatized into their Church; received baptism and holy communion through their church; your salvation is non-existent. Further, while the Gospel is certainly spoken in the liturgy; it is not clear. If I were Orthodox, and I invited an “un-saved” friend to the Liturgy; he or she would not be able to understand or even truly “hear” the Gospel in a way that would make an impact on them in a “personal” way.

Our kids are really kind of too small to understand exactly what’s going on, but it did prompt some good discussion toward explaining differences between Protestants, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholics; they do understand that, at a basic level.

I think we stood out like a sore thumb. We didn’t “cross” ourselves throughout the liturgy — as the faithful do — we didn’t respond back to the Priest, because the Liturgy was hard to follow, and it was primarily in Greek; and of course we did not participate in Holy Communion, in fact we are not allowed to because we aren’t considered the “faithful.” Also, I brought my Greek New Testament with me; which nobody else in the church did, they don’t bring their Bibles to Liturgy (which is the saddest thing to me, I understand why they don’t, theologically). In fact towards the end of the Liturgy I had an older guy (he was Greek) question me about my Greek New Testament, which he saw sitting on my pew. He wanted to know what it was, I don’t think he understood why I had the Bible with me.

Anyway, an interesting experience; it makes me glad that I am “Reformed” in orientation, and that the Bible is something that I can take to church (should)!