To my friend Jay.
The other night we had a brief sidewalk talk about the Council of Nicea and the Nicene Creed during which you suggested that perhaps the Greeks had won out over the Jews. I’m not so sure that’s what happened. The issue of Greek vs. Hebrew thinking about God, humanity, the soul, eternal life, heaven and hell is very complicated. You know from your own studies that it dates back to the heavy influence of Hellenism on the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean world during the intertestimonial centuries. At the level of ordinary day-to-day thinking, the Greeks clearly won, and are winning still. We are all Greeks in our thinking whether or not we know anything about Greek philosophy. With that in mind, I doubt that it was much of an issue at Nicea because I don’t think it was ever raised.
On the other hand, it is a huge issue for contemporary theology because it is obvious that there are significant inconsistencies between Greek and Hebrew ways of approaching questions about God and humanity; there are more than a few points in which the two are simply incompatible. For instance, the Greek idea of the eternal soul is in dramatic conflict not only with Hebrew scripture, but also with the recorded teachings of Jesus in which life eternal, whatever that may be, is a gift granted by God and not something that is an inherent part of being human. On a more subtle level, Hellenistic dualism is unknown in the Hebrew scriptures until it begins to creep into books attributed to the Hellenistic era, and in Christian scripture Hellenistic dualism is alluded to but not endorsed.
As for Nicea, the main question revolved around the nature of Jesus as Christ. One side, the Arians, asserted that there was a time when “the Son” was not, that he was brought into being and subservient to God, the Father, and did not fully share in the divinity of God. The other side, the Athanasians, held that there was never a time when the Son was not, and that Jesus, as Christ, shares fully in the divinity of God. It took a long time through much bitter, and sometimes vengeful, debate, but in the end the Athanasians won out. For what it’s worth, both Arias and Athanasius were from from Alexandria, one of the four centers of Christian learning at that time: Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem and Rome.
The earliest Christians would not have thought to raise a question like that because they had a more intimate connection with Jesus through his immediate disciples, and were fairly well rooted in Pharisaic theology, even though they may have been gentiles. Later generations, almost entirely gentile, and long separated from the Jewish roots of the faith, did not have that relationship. They needed to understand who Jesus was in terms that would satisfy Greek ways of thinking. Again, it was not a matter of the Greeks wining, but a matter of how to understand who God was within the context of Greek rationality because that was the only context that was widely shared.
Christianity sort of lurched forward by asking a series of questions, the answers to which have dominated theological inquiry for centuries at a time. I believe these questions were raised sequentially as follows: Who was Jesus and how was he related to God?; Who is God and how does God related to God’s self?; Who is ‘man’ in relationship to God?; Who is ‘man’ in relationship to himself?; What does it mean to be a follower of Christ in relationship to society?
I believe that each of these questions was raised within the context of a first century Greek world view, heavily colored in the last century or two by the Enlightenment. I think that today there is another question that has come to the fore, and that has to do with challenging the Greek world view by turning again to a world view more deeply rooted in the Hebrew scriptures.