1902 Encyclopedia > Christianity > The Influence of Pagan Philosophy on Christianity

Christianity
(Part 12)




The Influence of Pagan Philosophy on Christianity

In the contest which Christianity had to maintain with pagan philosophy the early Christians were compelled to work out another side of the great problem which confronted the early church -- the relation of the Old Testament to the New Testament kingdom of God. Philosophy when engaged upon topics which belong to Christianity is always easily distinguished by the way in which it puts its questions. The question with philosophy, for example, is: What is Sin? How can its existence be explained? But the Christian question is: How can I get rid of sin? To the philosopher sin is food for meditation, but to the Christian it is something to be escaped from. Outside Christianity there were many schools of thinkers who busied themselves with speculations about the origin and nature of sin, death, God, judgment, holiness, and so on, and there were many philosophers who were quite willing to take help from the Hebrew Scriptures in their difficulties. It was always a matter of earnest endeavour on the part of Christian theologians to make it clear that Christianity was not a philosophy to be discussed but a life to be lived; but when they were called, by the views of some of the Gnostics, to explain their relation to the Old Testament Scriptures and to the New Testament canon, we find them unable to realize the full significance of the problem. To the early Christians the Old Testament was pre-eminently the scripture, it was in their possession before the New Testament, and the New Testament canon was gradually formed as one after another of the writings which compose it were found worthy of a place beside the Old Testament Scriptures. Certain of the Gnostic sects made use of the facts, statements, and truths contained in the Scriptures in their theories of creation and redemption, of man, sin, and salvation; and Christian theologians were compelled to refute the Gnostics by setting forth over against the false doctrines what they held to be the truths concerning the matters taught. In this way and gradually there grew up an intellectual system of Christian truth, embodied in the creeds of the church and in the writing, of her theologians. The necessity was laid upon Christian theologians to present Christianity intellectually in this, way, and oppose a true to the false gnosis [Gk.]; but just as in her contest with Judaism and Rome Christianity insensibly adopted part of the error contended against, so here the struggle against intellectual evil had the result of tending to dissociate Christian life from the Holy Scriptures, and of creating two kingdoms of God -- one of life which was, to be lived on the lines of the old Roman empire, and one of doctrine which was to be based on the foundation Greek philosophy. This latter tendency did not appear in the church until the early Jewish element had almost died out. To the Jew Judaism was an historical past which it was not to the Gentile, who could with difficulty think of the church of the Old Testament as a spiritual organization into which he was actually brought by regeneration. To the Jew the Mosaic Law and the Old Testament Scriptures generally did not so much mean a series of commandments or prescriptions as a mode of life. No doubt when they thought of the Old Testament their minds were full of laws and commandments, but still the most prominent idea was that their fathers had lived and had been enjoined to live a particular mode of life. To the Jew the Old Testament was the past covenant life of his fathers in which he might share, and it showed him God much more as the covenant God with whom Israel had lived in communion than as a mere Lawgiver. But it was more difficult for the Gentile to feel this. He could not easily feel that the covenant life described in the Old Testament was the life into which Christ had brought him, and he felt as much outside of it as the Jew felt within it. And so to him the Old Testament was not so much a haven of religious fellowship as a series of commandments which he might understand and at least could obey. When the Gnostics drew false inferences from statements in the Old Testament, and when the church theologians corrected these in creeds, this forced making of creeds intensified the tendency to look at the Bible -- Old Testament and New Testament -- rather as a storehouse of theological weapons, than as the medium of personal intercourse between a covenant God and His people. One of the main characteristics of the Biblical idea of the kingdom of God was lost-the thought of personal intercourse with the King through His word realized in an act of personal trust, and the idea of faith lost its sense of trust with personal communion and took the character of assent to intellectual truths. But as the life can never be fed upon abstract truths and their comprehension, and must have some support, Christian life became gradually divorced from any relation to the Word, and became rooted on a system of observances, of which the sacrament of the Supper became the centre. The efforts of the church to realize its relation to the Scriptures were in this way partly successful, because it recognized its duty to set forth the truth of God; but from the way taken the result was to displace Christianity from its position of rest upon the Old Testament church and the Scriptures, and to send it to its own machinery for life and strength.





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