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Tuesday, 29 May 2018

From Hebraic roots to Greek philosophy! (Part 3)

Okay! After that slight detour, it's back into the Tardis! (If this is your first visit, I recommend that you read Parts 1 and 2, below, before continuing here!). This time we travel forward to the end of the fourth century/beginning of the fifth. There we may meet a man named Augustine, from a place called Hippo in modern Algeria. Augustine is considered by both Roman and Reformed theologians to be one of the most important figures, if not the most important, in the development of western Christianity. It was he who introduced idea of original sin; and our understanding of evil. But what is not always emphasisied is that Augustine was originally a follower of the heretical cult of Manichaeism – that promoted a form of dualism (remember Plato?!) with good v. evil; light v. darkness; body v. soul.

He also followed a tradition established by a Hellenistic Jew named Philo of Alexandria (c.20BC-50AD), and refined by Origen (185-254) in using allegory to interpret Scripture. When Jesus spoke in a parable, there was one main lesson; an allegory takes just about every point and ‘spiritualises’ it. So, for example, I was informed just last evening - in an Old Testament (Tanakh) example - that when David took five stones from the brook before facing up to the Philistine, Goliath, the four "unused" stones were for the killing of Goliath's brothers! Of course, even clainming that Goliath had four brothers is reading into a particular passage of the Tanakh what one wants it to say, rather than taking out of it what it says! That is "eisegesis" rather than "exegesis"!

Augustine declared that the Scriptures are inspired by God; but reinforced Origen’s idea that Jesus needs to be ‘shoe-horned’ all over the Tanakh – even if the fit is uncomfortable – and that allegorical interpretations are the way in which to deal with passages that are difficult! His approach was to say that, initially, we should look for the spirit behind the literal texts; to grasp the mind of God through spiritual understanding – even in passages that were quite obviously meant to be taken literally!

The last person we mention in this whistle-stop Tardis journey is a man named Thomas Aquinas – a 13th century Italian Dominican friar and theologian who combined the theological principles of faith with the philosophical principles of reason. His “hero” was Aristotle (whom, for the sake of at least relative brevity, we have "skipped over"!) and, in common with the Greek philosopher, he was keen on using the rational mind and senses alongside faith.

His ideas are best explained in his major, and most famous, work – Summa Theologica. This is a guide to all of the main theological teachings of the Church of Rome. Look at just one teaching, concerning the doctrine of transubstantiation. This is the belief in the Church of Rome that, as part of the Eucharist/Holy Communion/celebration of the Last Supper, the bread and wine actually change into the body and blood of the Lord Jesus, the Christ, on the altar – rather than the teaching of the Reformed churches that they are merely symbols. Aristotle taught that all matter is made up of an inner “substance” (which gives it its reality) and an outer “accident” (which gives it its appearance). For example, if we look at bread, it is white, round, soft. The whiteness is not the bread, it is simply a quality that the bread has; the same is true of the roundness and the softness. There is something there that has these and other properties, qualities, attributes - the philosophers call all of them accidents. Whiteness and roundness we see; softness brings in the sense of touch. We might smell bread, and the smell of new bread is wonderful, but once again the smell is not the bread, but simply a property. The something which has the whiteness, the softness, the roundness, has the smell; and if we try another sense, the sense of taste, the same something has that special effect upon our palate.

What Thomas did was talk about the universally-held Doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist—the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ—in the language of the day. He said that, when the bread and wine are consecrated by a validly ordained Priest, the “accidents” (outward appearance) remain the same, but the inner “substance” (reality) of the bread and wine becomes the “substance” of the Body and Blood of Christ: i.e. “transubstantiation.”  Shades of, you may recall, Plato’s “Theory of Forms”!

So, back to earth! That was a very sparse outline of the way in which Greek philosophy infiltrated Christian theology and its Hebrew roots. To summarise: the ideas of Plato were refined by Philo (for a Jewish audience) and Origen (for a Christian audience). Thanks to Augustine, the father of the Western Church, they became thoroughly entwined with God’s revelation to us in the Scriptures. The ideas of Aristotle were added to the mix, and all was put together by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica.

In the next part, we shall, D.V., climb back into our "virtual Tardis", and move forward to the fourth century, A.D. See you then!! :-)

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