The Greek Influences on Early Christianity
When Paul went to Corinth in 50 A.D., he said: “I am determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” Please notice: into a Greek culture, which worshipped “knowledge”, Paul sought only to know Jesus! By divine direction, he preached a message void of “persuasive words of wisdom” but instead clearly demonstrated the Holy Spirit and the power of God. (I Cor. 2)
Paul prevailed in Corinth by coming in the opposite spirit: instead of preaching wisdom with clever words, he preached the “foolishness of the cross”- convinced that the foolishness of God is wiser than men.
From Jerusalem to Athens
As the gospel spread from Jerusalem to Greece, we now notice a new battleground: the mind! Where before the battleground was legalism, Mosaic tradition and “religion”, now we face a new arena: “intellectualism”.
As Edwin Hatch points out in his insightful book The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity:
“They were a nation of talkers. They were almost the slaves of cultivated expression…. Like children playing at ‘make-believe’…It was impossible for Greeks, educated as they were with an education which penetrated their whole nature, to receive or to retain Christianity in its primitive simplicity. It necessarily gave to Christianity something of its own form.”
In this vein, the book of Acts records that the Athenians “used to spend their time in nothing other than telling stories or hearing something new!” (Acts 17:21)
Whether we see the battleground as intellectual versus unlearned misses the point.
The point I am trying to get at is how the educated Greek culture, in its search for wisdom, quenched and despised the Holy Spirit through the years. When Roman soldiers demolished the temple in Jerusalem and levelled the city in 70 A.D. and the Jews were forced to disperse (never to reunite again as a nation until 1948), the church took on a decidedly Greek form and expression. About this addition to the church, I think we can be unmistakably clear:
“That Christianity has been in large degree smothered by Greco-Roman humanism cannot be doubted by any student of the Scriptures or church history.” (G. T. Purves, 1888)
We need, therefore, to be especially sensitive to the presence of non-Biblical thinking in what passes as modern Christianity. The reformation of the church needs to be an on-going process.
When Paul wrote his beautiful discourse to the Corinthians on the “assembling” of the body in 1 Cor. 14, he yearned that “When you come together, each one should have a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation, a prophecy” and so on. The whole body was to be “being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies” (Eph 4) under the direct illumination and leadership of the Holy Spirit.
Little did Paul realise that 100 years later, not only would speaking in tongues be forbidden, but also, along with prophesying, it would be silenced completely.
Again from Hatch:
“In the course of the second century, this original spontaneity of utterance [tongues, prophecy, revelation, etc.] died almost entirely away. It may almost be said to have died a violent death. The dominant parties in the Church set their faces against it. In the place of prophesying came preaching. We consequently find that with the growth of organization there grew up also…the gradual restriction of the liberty to address the community to the official class.”
Of course, teaching and preaching are Biblical gifts to the church. Paul said he was “appointed a preacher, an apostle and a teacher”. (II Tim 1:11). Paul wanted someone to teach when the church gathered (1 Cor. 14) but not the same one every time! What is at stake here is the Spirit-directed contribution of each member in the body when they came together under the Headship of Jesus: a functioning priesthood of all believers who edify, exhort and encourage each other!
True to the nature of God, in every generation we can find those who don’t submit to the spirit of the age. In the 2nd Century, we find the Montanists, which was founded by Montanus in Phrygia (c. 172). Tertullian -“The blood of the martyr has become the seed of the church”- was the most famous Montanist and was involved in canonizing most of the New Testament.
The Montanists “maintained that the revelation of Christ through the Spirit was not a temporary phenomenon of Apostolic days, but a constant fact of Christian life. It was the first, though not the last, rebellion of the religious sentiment against official religion… Little by little those members of the Christian Churches who did not hold office were excluded from the performance of almost all ecclesiastical functions. At first a layman might not preach if a bishop were present, then not if any Church officer was present, and finally not at all.” (Hatch, emphasis added)
Where the “Church Fathers” judged the Montanists most severely is in “speaking of ecstatic utterances (tongues) and prophecy deemed to be divine revelations”. Nevertheless, as this “heresy” was cast out of the church, along with it went the last “original spontaneity of utterance” that Paul pleaded for among the Corinthians. Unfortunately, ever since, what has been handed down to us from our forefathers is a copy of a copy of a copy… each succeeding generation a little less clear than the one before it! I am more then ever stirred in my heart to say that we deviate from the New Testament pattern and norm at our own peril!
There are voices calling in the wilderness, however, just like in the 2nd Century: a call to return to the early church dynamics in both spirit and truth, form and function, with no spectators but every one playing their part!
“The hope of Christianity is, that the class [clergy] which was artificially created may ultimately disappear, and that the sophisticated element in Christian preaching will melt, as a transient mist, before the preaching of the prophets of the ages to come, who, like the prophets of the ages that are long gone by, will speak only ‘as the Spirit gives them utterance’”. (Hatch, emphasis added)
Yours for the Kingdom,