Reflecting on an Important Ancient Text

Hello blogging buds,

Thanks for all the encouraging responses to my “soul-ache” post. I’m continuing to explore its source and remain free of idolatry. In the mean time, here’s something that might interest some of you.

This morning (around 4:30 AM) I came across an interesting passage in Clement of Alexandria’s work Stromata. It marvelously exemplifies a fundamental problem I see with the early Christian appropriation of Hellenistic philosophy (and that forms a core aspect of my thesis in the first volume of The Myth of the Blueprint). I’ll first quote the passage at length and then analyze it.

In Book V, ch.11 of Stromata, Clement writes:

“If then, having abstracted everything which is added to corporeal and incorporeal things, we hurl ourselves into the greatness of Christ, and starting from him advance through holiness into the abyss (achanes), we attain in some measure to the concept (noēsis) of the Almighty, having comprehended not what he is, but what he is not. For we ought not to think of the Father of the universe in terms of form or movement or rest or throne or place or right or left, even though these things are found in Scripture. The First Principle is not in a place, but transcends (huperanō) place, time, name and thought… He cannot be conveyed by instruction, nor can he even be named by men, but is knowable (gnoston) solely by means of his own Power (dunamis). To seek him is to seek the formless (aeides) and invisible (aoraton); the grace of knowledge comes from the Son alone.”

There are four things worth noting about this passage.

First, the method Clement is using to arrive at his conception of God is called “the way of abstraction” (kat aphairesin) and was widely employed by the Platonists of his day. Basically, the thought was that to arrive at a true conception of God you have to negate all contingency, becoming, form, movement and place. In The Myth of the Blueprint I am arguing that this methodology (also known as “the way of negation”) actually reflects a core assumption that permeated Greek philosophy from the pre-Socratics on: namely, to arrive at fundamental principles (archai) that are adequate to explain the world, we must negate all the features of the world that need explaining. (In Myth of the Blueprint I refer to this as “the Principle of Negative Transcendence”). While I think there is some philosophical merit to this principle, I also argue that it tends to be circular (see below) and that, given the revelation of God in Christ, Christian theology should put very little weight on it.

Second, it’s important to notice that this method of abstraction arrives at a God who “transcends place, time, name and thought” only because it presupposes at the start that God “transcends place, time, name and thought.” Think about it. How else could one know one needs to negate “place, time, name and thought” in order to arrive at a “true” conception of God? To ancient Platonists and (owing to their on-going influence) to most Christians today it is simply self-evident that God “transcends” (I would rather say “is barred from”) these things.  For example, one of the most common objections I get to the open view of God is that it contradicts “the truth” that God is “above” time and change.

Third, it’s worth noting that Clement’s abstract view of God is pretty much identical to the views expressed by contemporary Platonists of his day. It’s also worth noting that Clement explicitly argues we should embrace this view even though it’s contrary to Scripture. When it comes to explaining how it is that the God revealed in Scripture interacts with us in time, moves through space, has a name and can be thought, Clement argues these are merely anthropomorphic figures of speech. Here too Clement is simply following a long Hellenistic philosophical tradition of reinterpreting and demythologizing ancient texts – especially Homer – in ways that rendered them consistent with their philosophy. (By the way, I am by no means denying there are anthropomorphisms in the Bible. I’m just calling our attention to the way everything that is inconsistent with the abstract God of Platonism is dismissed by Clement as an anthropomorphic figure of speech.)

Finally – and this, to me, is the central problem – it’s important to notice that Clement encourages us to “hurl ourselves at the greatness of Christ” only after we have purified our conception of God with the method of abstraction. The great early church historian Jean Danièlou sees in this passage an example of the admirable way Clement and other early church theologians integrated Hellenistic philosophy with their faith. He argues that:

“…this striking passage sums up, and places in its proper context, all that has been said so far on the subject of the way of negation. God is beyond not only bodies but minds; he is absolutely transcendent and unapproachable. He can be known only by grace, that is to say, by the revelation which he makes of himself, and this revelation is Christ.”

And a bit later he adds that “[p]hilosophy, by the process of abstraction, purifies this concept of God of its anthoropomorphisms [sic], and thus arrives at the negative theology” which lays the groundwork for the revelation of God in the Son (Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture, tran. J. A. Baker, Westminster Press, 1973.)

Do you see a problem with Danièlou’s assessment? In a nutshell, if (as Clement and Danièlou’ insist) we only know God through Christ, how do we know how to purify our concept of God before we come to Christ? Indeed, if we only know God in Christ, why do we need to “purify” our concept of God before we come to Christ? Shouldn’t we rather trust Christ to “purify” our conception of God? And most importantly, if we only know God in Christ, how can we begin our reflection on God with a methodology that leads to a view of God that is (I argue) antithetical to the God revealed in Christ?

If we keep our focus on Christ, it seems to me the last thing we’d be inclined to conclude is that God transcends “place, time, name and thought” and is devoid of movement, rest, etc. To the contrary, if our thinking remains focused on Christ, it seems to me we should be more inclined to see the abstract God of Platonism not as transcending time, contingency and movement, but as being barred from time, contingency and movement. If the God-man Jesus Christ is our criteria for who God is, then lacking time, contingency and movement must be viewed as deficiencies, not signs of perfection.  From the perspective of a christocentric theology, the timeless, immutable, impassible God of classic platonism must be judged to be s a frozen, lifeless,  abstract false God.
Stromata V. 11 perfectly exemplifies what I think is the fundamental tension in all the early church’s attempts to integrate Hellenistic philosophy with biblical theology (a tension, by the way, which is found in Philo and other pre-Christian Jewish thinkers). The God of the Bible is a dynamic, divine person(s) who acts toward us and responds to us in time. He moves and plans, loves and is angered, has joy as well as sorrow and experiences occasional regrets and disappointments. Most importantly, he’s a God who loved humanity enough to become a human and voluntarily die a hellish death on the cross.

It seems to me that this beautiful, dynamic, personal view of God is about as far removed from the abstracted “first principle” of Platonic philosophy as any theistic conception could be. Yet, beginning in the early church and continuing up to this day, theologians have wasted enormous amounts of time (and ink) trying to fuse the two together and resolving the multitude of paradoxes (or contradictions) that result from this unhappy marriage.

Think about it.



Related Reading