Rev Norman Goreham
How do we teach the Christian faith in an age when the cultural climate is increasingly materialistic and godless? What becomes of Christian catechesis in this situation? I do not pretend that I have answers to these questions. All I want to do is to set them in historical perspective.
Actually, Christianity has a very good record of adaptation to all sorts of cultures, both in its historical coming to us and in its present geographical spread. Without this facility for adaptation, it would not have been the powerful missionary force that it has been and undoubtedly still is. I myself have been involved, in a small way, in attempts to transpose Christian theology into West African culture, although this amounted to no more than finding traditional African thought-forms that are congenial to the biblical revelation.
To transpose Christian theology from its Judeo-Christian seedbed into another culture may be likened to translation of a message from one language into another. For mankind is not only fragmented into cultures, but also into language-groups. It is easier for the interpreter to translate into his own language from another, rather than out of his own language into another. This is a commonplace of translation work, which I found true when I attended a bilingual Conference on Christian Education in Africa at the University of Ghana, not as a conference delegate, but as an interpreter, using a method of simultaneous translation beamed to the participants through ear-phones.
There are, of course, limits to the comparison with translation. For example, the translation of the Bible, and its constant revision, into the major and minor languages of the world represents a remarkable achievement, in circumstances far from easy.
Yet the church has another task of translation on hand, without which the Bible will remain largely an alien book. Theology is, in the last resort, translation. It is the ever-renewed re-interpretation of the Gospel to new generations and peoples.
It is a re-presentation of Christ in a dialogue with new thought-forms and culture-patterns. In essence theology aims at understanding the fact of Christ.
The comparison with translation holds good, however, at least insofar as our communication with people in their cultures will be largely verbal. We have mentioned ‘dialogue’ and ‘dialogue’ means by definition two people or parties engaging in conversation. We have a long way to go in discovering non-verbal ways of communicating, whether these be through art forms or through sheer Christian presence by means of lifestyles. The traditional church, with its love of words, concepts and propositions, does not generally follow Charles de Foucauld, whose ardent passion for evangelism made him say: “I wish to cry the Gospel by my whole life.” And the lifestyle of the Little Brothers and the Little Sisters of Jesus is the exception rather than the norm.
Of necessity, I limit myself to the conceptual, or propositional, transposition of Christianity from one culture to another.
One period when Christian theology had to transpose itself in such a way, or die, was the time when the church saw that its destiny was not to remain as a sect within Judaism, but to reach out into the world of Greek language and culture. This was a critical time, and the church, with tremendous vigour and breadth of vision, won through. Had it not won through, none of us would have been sitting in this room today for the purpose that brings us here. This is why in a recent reconstruction of the Council of Jerusalem I didn’t make a very good ‘continuing Pharisee’.
In our dialogue with contemporary culture, we have this great historical precedent. Led by the Holy Spirit, the church dared to win the Gentiles by itself becoming Gentile. From within their own culture, Christ challenged the strength of the thought of the Greeks, and judged their wisdom.
This was largely achieved through a group of people bracketed together under the title of ‘The Apologists’. Inevitably, some of their contemporaries accused them of making so much use of Hellenistic categories in their presentation of Christian doctrine, as to obscure the essential features of the Christian faith. More of this in a moment, but let’s now look at the way they set about their task. They produced written defences of Christianity. Their work was essentially literary, and was addressed to the Emperor, to the public at large, or to certain individuals. In the latter category falls the short letter of Tertullian to the persecuting proconsul of Africa. They set out to correct popular misunderstandings of Christianity and to refute slander, which was widespread in an age of persecution. Many of the Apologists were philosophers, who had become Christians in mature life. Thus Justin Martyr, converted from Platonism at the age of 30, taught as a Christian philosopher. He was bold enough to take the Logos-concept of Greek philosophy, and use it as an apologetic weapon.
Christianity is the truest of all philosophies, says Justin, because taught by the Old Testament prophets and by the divine Logos. He sees the Logos in true Stoic fashion as everywhere and always at work, teaching the Greeks (that means people like Socrates and Heraclitus) and the barbarians (that means people like Abraham). Yet he goes beyond Stoicism when he speaks of the Incarnation of the Logos in Jesus Christ.
The content of the Christian message is similar to that of the finest heathen philosophies, including concepts like knowledge of God, morality, hope of immortality and future rewards and punishments. Yet the divine philosophy was fully revealed at the Incarnation of the Logos.
Just as Philo had attempted a synthesis of Greek and Jewish thought, so the work of Justin marks a conscious union of Christian thought with Gentile philosophy.
Nor did the Apologists lose their standing in
philosophical circles when they became Christians. The treatise of Athenagoras of Athens “On the Resurrection of the Dead”, before gaining circulation in literary form, was actually delivered before a philosophical audience.
The unknown writer of the Epistle to Diognetus tries a different line of approach. In defending Christianity to a heathen partner in dialogue he gives a vivid description of second-century Christian life, and argues for the truth of Christianity from the life of the Christian community.
For Tertullian, however, things were very different. The grace of God had been offered to the Gentiles only after it had been deliberately rejected by the Jews. His apologetic work is therefore not conciliatory towards the Jews. Nor is it towards the Gentiles. He ridicules belief in heathen gods, and says that the accusations brought against the Christians are true rather of the heathen.
The attempt to fuse Christian thought with Greek philosophy he condemns as a medley of folly, contradiction and hypocrisy. His words are well known:
What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon, who himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic and dialectic compositions. We want no curious disputation, after possessing Christ Jesus; no research, after enjoying the Gospel ... Where is there any likeness between the Christian and the philosopher? Between the disciple of Greece and of heaven? Between the man whose object is fame and the one whose object is life?
He dismissed Socrates as “a corrupter of youth”. And his opinion of Aristotle was “the miserable Aristotle” - Aristotle whom the great St Thomas Aquinas in a later age of intellectual re-awakening was to rediscover and baptise into Christ, thus producing the greatest synthesis of Christian thought and non-Christian philosophy known to mankind - “the miserable Aristotle”.
It fell to Clement of Alexandria to reply. One of his works is the Stromata, a title meaning ‘Carpets’, indicating a literary genre favoured by philosophers, giving a discursive treatment of a wide variety of topics woven together like the colours in a carpet. Clement could not share Tertullian’s delight in rejecting the achievements of the finest minds of the ancient world. Nor could he adequately commend the Gospel to educated contemporaries, were he to endorse so low an estimate of human learning. He saw Tertullian’s attitude as provoking the retort of Celsus that most Christians he knew were ignorant, unintelligent, uninstructed and foolish. Consequently Clement pursued the same path as Justin: an examination of the relationship of Christian faith and Greek philosophy. He saw this philosophy as having a divine source. Just as the Law was given by God to the Jews, so was philosophy given by God to the Greeks. If St Paul saw the Law as a tutor to Christ, so Clement saw philosophy.
Before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness. And now it becomes conducive to piety, being a kind of preparatory training to those who attain to faith… For this was “a school-master to bring” the Hellenistic mind, as the Law was to the Hebrews, “to Christ”.
In this Clement went beyond the Apologists. They had used philosophical terminology to explain Christian faith. And Justin had found the seeds of the Logos in Greek philosophy.
But Clement was the first to see philosophy as part of the divine plan. Nobody before him had said that “the way of truth is one, but into it, as into a perennial river, streams flow from all sides”. So much for Clement’s attack on the anti-intellectuals.
We pass briefly to his attack on Gnosticism. The Gnostics disparaged faith, and prided themselves on gnosis which was a non-rational knowledge, possessed by pneumatic or spiritual beings. Clement replied by saying that faith and knowledge are not irreconcilable, and in fact are akin to each other.
He argues for a Christian, as distinct from a false, gnosis. History has shown that his positive anti-Gnostic apologetic was more effective than a negative polemic would have been.
Where does all this lead us? Clearly, the dogmatic formulations of Clement are of more interest to the historian of dogma than to us. What concerns us is his methodology. To follow Clement and his predecessors is to enter into dialogue with contemporary culture. A church that will not grapple with truth in terms of contemporary learning will soon dissolve Christianity into a superstition. Perhaps humanism is the element of contemporary culture with which we need to come to terms. To follow Christ is to refuse to see humanism as hopelessly corrupted by secularism. Is there a Christian humanism, just as Clement found a Christian gnosis? Our task is not merely to integrate Christian tradition with an eclectic assembly of religious ideas, nor to take Hebraic categories and transmute them into Greek metaphysics, or into any other thought-forms. It is the immense task of hearing the Gospel afresh and enunciating it in the historical situation.
Tertullian and his colleague Cyprian refused to read pagan books. Clement and his successor Origen were bound to read them, because they were an index to the culture in which they lived and to which they spoke.
It is customary at the commissioning of a Methodist lay-preacher for a letter to be read from the President of the Conference. One such letter urged the preacher to read modern novels. “You may find much in them that is alien to you as a Christian, or even repulsive. Yet these books are an index to the thinking and behaviour of our times. They show the forces which, in a subtle and penetrating way, mould the lives of your hearers.”
Can we go even further? Is not the task of the theologian also that of the prophet? To discern the pattern of the divine presence and activity in the culture of our time? And, if God is already present and active there, how can we say, as Christians, that that culture is alien to us?
My commissioning as a lay-preacher in the British Methodist Church took place in June 1951. The above-mentioned letter was read and given to me on that occasion. It had been written by the President of the Conference for that year, the Rev Dr W Edwin Sangster, himself one of the most accomplished preachers of the twentieth century.