Christian Hellenism — The Foundation of Western Culture

From the chapter on “Liturgy and Theology and Byzantine Culture” in The Formation of Christendom by Christopher Dawson (Sheed & Ward, 1967):

The essential achievement of the patristic age was the synthesis of Eastern religion and Western culture, or, to be more precise, the uniting of the spiritual traditions of Hellenism and the political and social traditions of Rome. This synthesis has remained the foundation of Western culture and has never been destroyed, in spite of the tendency of the Reformation to re-Hebraicize Christianity and that of the Renaissance to re-Hellenize culture.

And this synthesis has been no less important for Christianity itself. No form of Christianity since the days of Marcion has attempted to disavow its basis in the Old Testament, and Catholic Christianity has always been fully conscious of its debt to Hellenic thought, primarily for its contribution to the theology of the Fathers and the definitions of the Ecumenical Councils, but also in a secondary degree for the development of its philosophy and the formulation of its jurisprudence. Nor do the Oriental forms of Christianity reject this Hellenic element. Syrian literature derives from the same tradition as that of the West. There has been no attempt to produce and exclusively Oriental version of the Christian faith.

The original decision concerning the harmony between Christianity and Hellenism was made by the Apostolic Church when nit turned from the Jews to the Gentiles, from the closed world of the Synagogue and the Law to the cosmopolitan society of the Roman-Hellenistic world.

St. Paul the Christian Humanist

In spite of his apparent anti-intellectualism, St. Paul was by no means unconscious of the value of humane letters in the work of evangelization. In fact he was himself the first Christian humanist, and his speech to the Athenians, with its appeal to the Hellenistic doctrines of the unity of the human race, of divine providence and of the natural affinity between the human and the divine natures, is the basic document of Christian humanism.

All this is much more than a method of apologetic devised for a Hellenistic audience. It is an expression of St. Paul’s sense of a certain affinity between Christianity and Hellenism, owing to which the Hellenistic cities of the Eastern Roman Empire provided the necessary milieu for the propagation of the new faith.

What was the nature of this affinity? On the one hand Hellenism provided a humane ethos and a philosophy of human nature which were not to be found in other cultures, while on the other hand Christianity is distinguished from other religions by its doctrine of the Incarnate Word, through whom the divine and human natures have been substantially united in the historic person of Jesus Christ, the mediator between God and Man.

It is clear that this essential Christian doctrine gives a new value to human nature, human history and human life which is not to be found in the other great Oriental religions. The more the latter insist on the transcendence and absoluteness of the Divine Nature, the more they widen the gulf between God and Man, so that they tend either to deny the reality of the material world or to regard it as essentially evil, so that the body is a jail in which the human soul has been imprisoned.

These ideas were so powerful in the ancient world that they have often threatened to invade Christianity, and it was only by using the methods of Hellenic culture and with the help of Christian humanists like St. Irenaeus and St. Gregory of Nyssa that the Church was able to vindicate the Christian doctrine of man.

In the Tradition of Greek Thought

To St. Gregory there is a profound analogy between man’s natural function as a rational being — the ruler of the world and the link between the intelligible and sensible orders — and the divine mission of the Incarnate Word which unites humanity with the divine nature and restores the broken unity of the whole creation. The natural order corresponds with the supernatural, and both form part of the same divine, all-embracing plan of creation and restoration. The Incarnation restores human nature to its original integrity, and with it the whole material creation, which is raised through man to a higher plane and integrated with the intelligible or spiritual order.

These doctrines are no doubt fundamentally Pauline, but with St. Gregory of Nyssa they are explicitly related to the tradition of Greek thought and to the Hellenic ideal of humanity. Moreover, St. Gregory of Nyssa with his brother St. Basil and their friend St. Gregory Nazianzen were also humanists in the more technical sense — great students and lovers of humane letters who had a decisive influence on the development of the culture of Orthodox Christendom.

Today there is a tendency to view Eastern Christianity through Russian eyes and to stress those elements in the Byzantine tradition which are most remote from the humanist tradition — as expressed, for example, by Avakkum, Khomiakoff and Dostoevsky. But these represent the spirit of Russia rather than the Byzantine tradition. The founders of the Byzantine culture were the great Cappadocian Fathers, and behind all the later developments of Eastern Orthodoxy, which found so many different expressions in different ages and peoples, there lies this Christian Hellenism of the fourth century which was also a Christian humanism.

It is true that there is another element in Orthodox Christianity which is neither Western nor humanist — I mean the tradition of the monks of the desert. But whereas the Byzantine culture was able to incorporate and Hellenize this tradition, thanks largely to St. Basil himself, the purely Oriental element in monasticism, as represented by such leaders of Egyptian monasticism as Bgoul and Schenouti, became unorthodox as well as non-humanist and was one of the driving forces behind the religious revolt which separated Egypt and Syria from the Orthodox Church.

Against Christian Hellenism

It is therefore no accident that this great Orientalist reaction against Hellenic culture should have found its theological justification in a doctrine which denied the full humanity of Christ. Nor did the Oriental reaction stop at this point. For Monophysitism is only the first step in a far-reaching movement which carried the East away from Christianity and found its final expression in the uncompromising Unitarian absolutism of Islam which rejects the whole idea of Incarnation and restores an impassable gulf between God and Man.

And thus while it is easy enough to conceive of an Oriental Christianity which has no affinity with any form of humanist and Hellenic culture, we must admit that it is very difficult in practice for such a Christianity to hold its own against the various forms of unorthodox or non-Christian spirituality — Manichean, Moslem or Monophysite — which make such a profound appeal to the Oriental mind.

It is true that Western Christianity also has witnessed attempts to eliminate the Hellenistic-Patristic tradition from Christianity. These have occurred among the more extreme forms of Protestant sectarianism, which appeal to the Bible alone or to some form of direct prophetic inspiration — for example, some of the Puritan sects in seventeenth-century England and in nineteenth-century America. These movements tend to such an extreme reaction against secular culture that they become movements of social revolution — like the Munster, and the Diggers under the English Commonwealth.

The only true Oriental Christianity is that of the Syriac Churches, which became separated from Byzantine Orthodoxy in the fifth century. Nevertheless, in spite of their primitive and ultra-conservative tradition, they represent a similar synthesis of Christian and Hellenic traditions to that of the rest of Christendom. They also look back to the literature of the patristic period as the source of their religious culture. And it was through them that Greek philosophy and science, above all the works of Aristotle, were transmitted to the Medieval Moslem world.

It is only their sacred poetry, derived from the ancient Syriac tradition of St. Ephrem, that is entirely their own and owes nothing to Western or Hellenic influence. Here, as we have seen, it is they who have influenced the West, not vice versa.

This community of inheritance from the patristic age unites the Churches of the East and the West in spite of their dogmatic and ecclesiastical differences. Alike in theology and liturgy, in the cult of the saints and the monastic institution, they share the same traditions which go back to the formative age of the Fathers, and especially to the fourth century.

What is Owed the Byzantines

Hence this period is of critical importance for the study of Christian culture in the East and West, first, as the age of religious unity which we must study in order to find the religious elements which transcend differences in culture, but secondly, as the point of divergence where we can see the effect of cultural differences in producing religious schism.

From the sociological point of view this period is of unique importance as affording almost the only example of the process by which one of the higher civilizations is transformed from within and achieves a completely different form. The parallel process of change which affected Chinese culture in the Buddhist period is less significant because the change was less profound and less permanent, and it is also less easy to study because of the absence or inaccessibility of historical material.

In conclusion, to sum up the debt which Europe owes to the Byzantine culture is not easy. The influences were so manifold and passed through so many channels. There was the influence of Byzantine Ravenna upon the West in the fifth and sixth centuries, the contact through Venice and Amalfi and Southern Italy in the early Middle Ages, the influence through the Latin conquerors of Constantinople in the thirteenth century and the last contribution by the Greek refugees at the time of the Turkish conquest of the Aegean.

And on the other hand, there is the direct influence of Constantinople on Eastern Europe through the culture of the Balkans, the conversion of the Slavs and the wholesale importation of Byzantine art and culture into Christian Russia, so that the whole culture of Eastern Europe still rests on Byzantine foundations. But beyond all this there is the incalculable importance of the existence of a great Christian civilization behind the medieval world of Western Europe.

It was the Byzantine culture that created the view of life that we call medieval, and whatever in the West was not purely barbaric, participated in the spiritual and intellectual atmosphere that came from the Christian East. Only when the East had ceased to be Christian, and a Mohammedan sultan ruled at Adrianople and Byzantium, did the civilization of Western Europe finally form for itself a new way of life and a new conception of the universe.

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