You may have heard it said, "Christian doctrine is really just baptized Greek philosophy." Let's take a look at this claim and consider how one might respond to it.
In order to curb the pejorative tone of this accusation, it is important to note the motive behind Christian use of Greek philosophy. In an important early twentieth century essay, Martin Kahler declared, "Mission is the mother of theology." What he meant by this is that the early church first began to theologize (explicit reflection on its teaching) in response to the missional encounter of the gospel in new cultures. In other words, the early Christians embedded their claims into the language and mind-set of its pagan mission field in order to bring them into the fold. Such mission-driven theology can be seen at work specifically in the intertwining of Greco-Roman culture and the Hebrew Scriptures, first in an incipient form in the New Testament and later in the full-blown synthesis of Trinitarian and Christological doctrines.
Most people would not quarrel with whether this happened. It is certainly an aspect of the historical development of Christianity. The question is what to do about it now that it is the case. What do we do with all this Greek philosophy commingled with classic Christian doctrine? As I see it, there are three logical options:
(1) Problematic - One view would be that the existence of Greek ideas in Christian doctrine is a problem to be solved. One might be charitable enough to say that this synthesis was innocent in its day, but it must be eradicated now. Greek philosophy is dated at best, and pernicious at worst. We must clear off the husk of cultural expression and get back to the kernel of Gospel truth. In Kahler's terms: mission is the mother of theology, but theology has grown up and no longer needs its mother.
(2) Permanent - The opposite view would be that the synthesis achieved by the early Christians is the essential form of Christianity. There was no Christianity properly-so-called until this encounter took place. Orthodoxy's dependence on Greek philosophy is therefore not a problem to be solved but a relationship to be explored. To retrieve a robust Christian faith in our day requires a simultaneous retrieval of the insights of Greek philosophy and culture. In Kahler's terms: mission is the mother of theology, and thou shalt honor thy mother.
(3) Perpetual - There is a third view that the cultural embedding of the gospel is a perpetual process that must occur over and over again. On each new mission field, theology once again does its work of reflecting on the gospel and its claims in the new context. This is a hybrid view, for on the one hand it agrees with the first view that past cultural expressions are not normative, while on the other hand it does not disparage those cultural expressions for what they are. In Kahler's terms: mission is the mother of theology, and each new mission is the mother of a new theology.
What do you think?
Would you agree that mission is the mother of theology?
Is this a fair account of the possible responses to this fact?
Is there a possible response not listed?
Toward which approach do you lean? Why?
Should we make use of all of these options in a case-specific manner? If so, which options go with which issues?