HISTORICAL THEOLOGY

Samuel Waldron

THE EXPANSION OF THE EARLY CHURCH
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PART 2: THE EXPANSION OF THE EARLY CHURCH

SECTION 1: ITS CLASSICAL SETTING

Introduction:

The classical setting into which God introduced the Christian religion will be discussed under five headings:

I. The Christian Problem

II. The Social Milieu

III. The Religious Trends

IV. The Philosophical Movements

V. The Moral Climate

I. The Christian Problem

While Christianity was derived from Judaism, it was called to bring the gospel to the world. For the early generations of Christians the world was frequently equivalent to the Hellenistic civilization dominated by the Roman Empire (Note Lk. 2:1, " ... a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth.")

Bringing the gospel to this world was the great challenge of the early church. A world dominated for millenia by a way of thought and life utterly alien to the truth had to be taught this truth. The dangers were two-fold:

(1) To hinder the gospel by insisting on the acceptance with it of outmoded Jewish trappings. Note by way of illustration the Judaizers and later the Ebionites.

(2) To so adapt the gospel to pagan ways of thought that its distinctive message was lost. Terminology, meaningful and interesting to the Greeks and Romans must be used, but that terminology must not be allowed to retain its pagan definitions. Words like mystery (µ?st???ov), word (?o?o?), and lord (????o?) were familiar sounding words to Greek ears, but drew their specific content from their O. T. background and N. T. context. How well the early church avoided this danger is debated. A liberal historian like Harnack claims the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds were seriously distorted by Greek-pagan thought. Many have thought that some remnants of Greek philosophy may be traced in them.

In all eras a similar challenge faces the church. It must present the gospel, but not relativize the gospel. We must speak the language of 20th century Americans without reducing the gospel to 20th Century Americanism.

II. The Social Milieu

A. Origins

These origins were basically twofold.

1. The Alexandrian conquests which had united most of the known world in a common language and culture—The Greek language and Hellenistic culture—were its first element. (Hellenistic = a combination of Hellenic and Oriental culture.)

2. The Roman Conquests which had united most of the known world under a single law and government—The Roman law and Roman government—were its second element.

B. Characteristics

The characteristics of the resultant social milieu were significant advantages for the mission of the early church.

1. De Facto Pluralism

All pre-Christian societies were sacral in character. What do I mean by sacral? Webster defines sacral as "of or for religious rites." Leonard Verduin says, "In a sacral society there is unanimity on the religious plane ... What Cicero said of the Rome of his day is true of all sacral societies, of all pre-Christian societies: "Every commonwealth has its religion and we have ours." In such a society the separation of church and state is unthinkable and intolerable. To differ religiously in such a society meant persecution, exile, or death."

Yet the Roman Empire exhibited a de facto pluralism. Most people still thought in sacral terms, but as a matter of fact the Roman Empire was far from that ideal. Roman armies had brought many nations (and thus religions) under one government. The Romans, if they were anything, were smart politicians. They knew that enforcing the Roman Gods on all the Empire (and eliminating the national gods) would spell political troubles even the Roman legions couldn’t solve. Thus, many religions came to co-exist in the Empire. There was de facto religious pluralism.

There is a necessary qualification to this. Very early in the Empire, emperor worship began. Soon it took on a more official status. Offering incense or sacrifice to Caesar became a state religion signifying political loyalty. Even this was not strictly enforced early on. An uneasy truce with the Jews allowed them to pray and sacrifice for the Emperor rather than to him. Though threatened by the egotism of the Emperor Gaius Caligula in 40 A. D., this truce held till the Jews discontinued such sacrifices in 66 A. D. Further, as already implied other religions were not forbidden as long as Caesar worship was carried on. The result was that while sacralism was not dead, it was an unattainable and unenforceable ideal.

Thus, providence had supplied a political situation in which the modicum of freedom needed to preach the gospel was present. If persecution came in one city, there was at least the possibility of fleeing to the next, Matthew 10:23. Thus, as in the confusion of tongues at Babel, and the removal of Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees, so now God had provided the pluralistic society necessary for his purposes.

2. The Roman Peace

The Roman Empire was at its pinnacle from the reign of Augustus (27 B. C.) to the end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius (A. D. 180). Only occasional disruptions (mainly due to frontier wars) marred the Pax Romana. Roman rule and law brought a stability, rough justice, protection, and prosperity unparalleled in previous history. Paul enjoying the freedom and immunities of Roman citizenship travelled in relative security. In 1 Timothy 2:1, 2 he urged Christians to pray for their Roman rulers that this advantageous context for the gospel mission might continue.

3. The Common Language

The Greek language was spoken everywhere at least as a second language. It was a copious, expressive language with a rich intellectual heritage capable of making clear distinctions.

4. The Easy Travel

Roman roads expedited land travel. Roman fleets swept the Mediterranean of pirates making sea travel more secure. The victories of Pompey in 67 B. C. over the Cilician pirates were significant in this regard.

Our conclusion must be as follows: Mark 13:10 tells us that "the gospel must first be preached to all nations." It is this "divine must" which can be discerned in the presence of all these conditions which furthered the gospel.

III. The Religious Trends

"The world in which the church made triumphant, if sometimes painful, headway was hungry for religion. Surviving monuments of every kind testify to the desperate longing, felt by all classes, for assurance against death and fate, redemption from evil, spiritual cleansing, union with God." In this religion-hungry world several trends may be spotted.

A. The Decline of Classicism

By Classicism the worship of the ancient Graeco-Roman pantheons is designated. F. F. Bruce says "The old classical religions were bankrupt." Periodic attempts by Roman emperors from Augustus to Julian (D. 363) to re-invigorate these cults could only postpone their demise. Such worship was neither credible nor satisfying to the population of the Empire.

B. The Influx of Oriental, Mystery Religions

Eastern cults proved more satisfying to the masses and moved into the religious vacuum created by the demise of classicism. The popularity of such cults may be attributed to an assurance of immortality which purported to deliver their devotees from the terror of the unknown universe and to a certain camaraderie with their co-religionists which they imparted. These religions often centered upon a dying and rising god in whose death and resurrection the initiates came to share through secret ceremonies. By such ceremonies knowledge of the mysteries was gained. The initiation was intended to give the experience of a new birth. [One vegetarian cult had meal of raw meat as part of its initiation. Kelly, mentions one initiatory rite. "In the rites of Cybele and Attis ... he underwent a kind of baptism in the blood of a bull ... or a ram ... which was slain above, and as a result felt himself ‘reborn forever.’"]

These cults were multitudinous. Astarte, Baal, Cybele, and Adonis and many others were worshipped. The most popular seem to have been the cults of Isis and Mithra. Isis was a female deity of Egypt with varied abilities. The nature of her worship is well enough indicated by the comment that Egyptian lore knew her as wife, mother, and whore. Women were her most numerous devotees. Mithra, on the other hand, was a male deity and the soldiers’ god—of whom more will be said later.

C. The Syncretism of the Religious Atmosphere

Syncretism is the combination of differing beliefs in religion. (Webster) Kelly says, "Syncretism was the product of this mutual jostling of religions: the gods of one country were identified with those of another, and the various cults fused with and borrowed from each other indiscriminately." Thus, while there was little organizational unity among the same cult throughout the Empire, there was a general homogeneity and syncretism among all the cults of polytheism.

The exceptions to this were Judaism and Christianity. Sinnigen and Boak say, "Two religions, Judaism and Christianity, differed from their pagan counterparts in their dogmatism." Their claims were exclusivistic, contrasting them dramatically with the syncretism and inclusivism of the other religions which allowed one person to be a devotee of several cults, or to syncretistically identify different cults.

D. The Belief in Personal Immortality

While some forms of Greek philosophy were hostile to personal immortality, the belief in the immortality of the soul was nonetheless general. This general belief may have owed in part to Greek philosophy especially Pythagoras and following him Plato. Plato taught re-incarnation or the transmigration of souls. While this carried with it the idea of future judgement for good or ill, it did not generally entail the resurrection of the body. Note Acts 17:32, 26;8, 1 Corinthians 15, etc., where it is evident that the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body did not meet with a positive reception from the Greeks.

E. The Attraction to Monotheism

This growing attraction was a result of many different factors.

1. While not theistic in a Christian sense, Greek philosophy in different ways tended to leave a monotheistic impression. Cf. Aristotelianism with its unmoved mover, Stoicism with its pantheism and world-soul, and Neo-platonism emphasis on the "one" at the pinnacle of being.

2. The syncretism already mentioned with its amalgamation of different gods tended toward a kind of monotheism.

3. The Mithra cult with its worship of "deus invictus sol Mithra" especially in its later phases became a kind of Solar Monotheism. Its devotees were influenced by Neo-platonism. Many of these identified as one with their Solar Monotheism the cults of Zeus, Apollo, Mithra, and Helios.

4. The far flung synagogues of Judaism also exercised an influence for monotheism.

IV. The Philosophical Movements

Introduction:

The history of Greek philosophy can be divided into three fairly well-marked epochs:

The Pre-Socratic Era 585 B. C. - 399 B. C.

The Era of Plato and Aristotle 385 B. C. - 323 B. C.

The Hellenistic Age 300 B. C. - A. D. 529

It is, of course, the so-called Hellenistic age which interests us. G. H. Clark has helpfully summarized these different eras: "If the Pre-socratic era is characterized as scientific, and if Plato and Aristotle are predominately though not exclusively epistemological, the chief interest among the philosophers of the Hellenistic age is ethical."

In the Hellenistic Age three major philosophies are of concern to us:

A. Epicureanism

B. Platonism

C. Stoicism

Epicureanism and Stoicism arose during the Hellenistic Age while Platonism though arising earlier continued into the Hellenistic age. Three periods in the history of Platonism may be distinguished:

Platonism

Middle Platonism (ca. 50 B. C. (Philo) begins)

Neo-Platonism

Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Neo-Platonism were characterized by a common ethico-religious interest.

A. Epicureanism

Its founder, Epicurus, lived from 341-270 B. C.

1. It’s Anti-religious motivation

As has been said the ethico-religious interest is central in Epicureanism. Its great aim was peace of mind (ata?a??a) or undisturbedness. Philodemus epitomizes this in his lines:

There is nothing to fear in God.

There is nothing to be alarmed of in death.

Good is easily obtained.

Evil is easily endured.

The arch-enemy of such an ideal is, of course, religion. "Religion (for an Epicurean) consists mainly in the belief that the gods reward and punish, especially punish, mankind. Fear of punishment in a future life makes the present life unbearable."

2. Its Atomistic physics

With this anti-religious ideal governing his thought, Epicurus adapted the atomic theory of Democritos to his need. This theory speculated that the ultimate principles of the universe were atoms endlessly falling in an infinite void. To this theory Epicurus added his doctrine of the ‘swerve.’ These atoms imperceptibly and inexplicably deviate from their paths causing collisions and making all things. Its goal is to avoid determinism and to give a basis for ‘free will.’ If the world were mechanical there could be no human freedom. Thus he advocates a materialistic indeterminism.

3. Its Ethical Character

This materialism allows Epicurus to deny any personal immortality and thus defeat his arch-enemy religion and attain his ideal of peace of mind. If there is no personal immortality, there is no future judgment to disturb us.

This leads us to discuss Epicurus’ assertion that the purpose of life was the enjoyment of pleasure. This was the intrinsic value on which his ethics were based. This gives birth to the popular meaning of Epicureanism which equates it with sensual libertinism. Even very early, many thought this to be his meaning. (‘In Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic an "appiqoros" was an irreverent heretic or libertine.) In reality, Epicurus rejected such an idea. Pleasure is undisturbedness. It is the absence of pain and freedom from care. He advocated a comparatively high ethic. Sensuality was not productive of atarakia (ata?a??a) . He would have agreed with the parody, "Eat, drink and be merry; For tomorrow we shall have gout, cirrhosis of the liver, and delirium tremens."

4. Its Practical Acceptance

Epicureanism had ceased to be a meaningful influence by the time of the Early Empire. While certain of the Patrician class practiced its ideals, it was rejected by the vast majority of the Romans and their subjects. Three reasons may be given for this

a. Epicureanism was a rigid, inflexible system. Epicurus last words were "Remember the dogmas." His disciples did this preserving his teaching without modification. It was, thus, not as adaptable as competing philosophical systems.

b. Epicureanism failed to bring men true happiness. Its denial of personal immortality though accompanied by the assurance of undisturbedness fails to satisfy human longings.

c. Perhaps most important, Epicureanism did not provide a political and social philosophy adapted to the Roman Empire’s needs. The cares of political and even family life were inconsistent with its ideal of undisturbedness. Also its Atomism did not provide a sound philosophical basis for the ideal universal state hopefully coming to historical expression in the Empire. In Epicureanism there was no unifying principle which could bring order and unity to the chaos of the many, only many separate indeterminate atoms.

B. Platonism

Our outline will be:

1. Its Progressive Development

2. Its Practical Results

3. Its Critical Estimate

1. Its Progressive Development

You remember that Platonism developed through three stages.

Platonism: Plato, ca 350 B. C.

Middle Platonism: Philo, ca A. D. 50

Neo-Platonism: Plotinus, ca A. D. 200

a. Platonism

Plato and Aristotle were concerned with the problem of epistemology, i. e. the problem of knowing, the question, "How do we know?") Plato was convinced that mere sensory observation of the world could not impart true knowledge. This lead him to postulate an ideal world (composed of forms=ideas=universals) because he was convinced that true knowledge was attainable. An illustration of this is that Plato would say that when we know about apple, we do not really know it. Rather, we know the ideas of red, round, sweetness, tartness, and crunchiness in that peculiar combination we call an apple. This theory raises several questions.

How come the material world reflects these ideas? The answer is that the demiurge who formed the material world impressed these ideas on the matter out of which it was formed striving to copy the ideal world in the material world. How come we recognize these ideals or forms in the world? The soul is pre-existent and essentially part of this ideal world. It recognizes the ideals because when it sees them in the material world, it recollects them from its previous existence. Learning for Plato is recollection. Our forgetfulness of the ideal world is due to the shock of being placed in a corporal body.

Is the demiurge god for Plato? It would be wrong to equate any aspect of Plato’s system with the Christian idea of God. Plato remained a polytheist. The world of ideas was a hierarchy culminating in the form of the Good (or the one). The demiurge forms the world, but matter itself is eternal. Plato really has at least three co-ultimate and co-eternal principles: matter, the demiurge and the ideas culminating in the idea of the good.

World of Ideas <------- Demiurge -------> Material World

b. Middle Platonism

Aristotle forms the connecting link between Platonism and Middle Platonism. Aristotle postulated a supreme mind as the unmoved mover or creator. In Middle Platonism this mind is identified with Plato’s form of the good. At the top of the hierarchy of the ideal world is the mind=the good=the unmoved mover. This begins to approach a kind of theism. The Jew Philo, for example, made the ideas part of the mind of God.

c. Neo-Platonism

Plotinus (A. D. 205-270) was the great systematizer of Neo-platonism and in a sense of the whole development of pagan, Greek philosophy. Though he was younger than Origen and Clement of Alexandria, he enunciated the form of Platonism which deeply influenced them and Christian theology.

Neo-Platonism was a reaction against the materialism of the Stoics and Epicureanism. It stressed the importance of the immaterial world as the necessary basis of philosophy. Though it was Platonic in its major inspiration, it combined Aristotelian, Stoic, and even Oriental elements. With Aristotle it identified the idea of the one with God as the unmoved mover. With Oriental thought (like Gnosticism) it utilized an emanation theory to explain the existence of the universe. With Stoicism it identified the demiurge with the world-soul, the principle animating and organizing the material world.

The ideal world was identified with the "Mind". Out of the "mind" emanates the demiurge=the "soul." The higher soul transcends the world. The lower soul animates it. Matter out of which the world is formed really doesn’t exist. The material world is only a mirror reflecting being. It itself is non-being and evil. Being is light. Non-being is darkness.

"The Mind," however, is not the highest reality, or being. Mind itself emanates from "the one" = God. Since the one is above the mind it is beyond reason, ineffable, incomprehensible, and above being. In contrast the mind is the principle of rationality, containing the ideas, and is, thus, knowable. Thus ultimate reality can only be attained by mystical experience, not by reason or the intellect.

Reality in Neo-Platonism is conceived as a scale of being.

THE SCALE OF BEING—

The One=God (Principle of Being

BEING ---------------------------------

The Mind=Ideal World (Principle of Diversity and Reason)

The (Higher) Soul (Transcends the Material World)

The (Lower) Soul (Animates Material World)

World

NON-BEING ----------------------------------

Matter = (Evil)

Note how Neo-Platonism has reduced the plurality of ultimate principles to the one from which all emanates. Note also how "religious" this system has become.

2. Its Practical Results

a. Politically

When we speak of the political results of Neo-platonism, it is of Plato to whom the Neo-platonists owe so much that we must first speak. Plato was deeply interested in politics. This may even be the heart of his system. His writings include The Republic (early) and The Laws (later). He founded his academy in order to train the statesmen who would found his ideal state.

In the Republic, Plato defines justice in terms of order or harmony. Justice in the individual is the ordering of the will and the appetites by the supreme reason. Justice in the state will be the ordering of the different elements of society in terms of reason or philosophy by a ruling elite, or even one philosopher-king. The characteristics of this society are—not unexpectedly—totalitarian. The "Guardians" who are at once the military, police-force, and rulers of Plato’s state must live in a material and sexual communism. Any physically unfit or unlicensed children must be disposed of, via abortion or infanticide. There is no rule of law since the philosopher-kings are the walking embodiment of law. These rulers are the supreme law competent to use falsehood to achieve their will. There is no conception of personal freedom here. The interests of the many are completely subordinate to order, to the one, to the philosopher king. This is Plato’s justice.

This emphasis on the one at the expense of the many only grows and does not wane in Middle and Neo-platonism. At the same time there is a growing religious and other-worldly orientation which tends to undermine and make secondary political interests. Nonetheless, pagan Neo-Platonism was closely associated with patriotism.

b. Religiously

1) The Religious Character of Neo-platonism

Sinnigen and Boak remark, "Neo-platonism was more than a philosophical system; it was then a religion and like Oriental cults, preached salvation." The character of religious Neo-Platonism is not difficult to see. The great goal is to scale the ladder of being and attain to the ecstatic experience of becoming one with "the one" i.e., the beatific vision. Its different characteristics may be correlated with this task.

a) Optimism

The Neo-platonists approached this task of religion with confidence. All reality was thought of as fired by an ardent longing to return to the one. Spurred on by this knowledge the Neo-platonist is optimistic of success.

b) Asceticism

This confidence is necessary because the first task in ascending the scale of being is to set oneself free of the material order. Since matter is both evil and non-existent, if one is to become good and attain to true and higher being, one must mortify all fleshly desires. Part and parcel of such asceticism was the desire to flee from worldly affairs which entangled one in fleshly concerns. This is, of course, incipient monasticism.

c) Speculation

Since mind is the first emanation and must be passed through to attain the one, metaphysical speculations and rational contemplation must now absorb one’s attention.

d) Mysticism

The one, however, is beyond mind and reason, indescribable, and without attributes. Thus, the ultimate step in this journey up the scale of being is a mystic non-rational trance which gives he beatific vision.

2) Its Effect on Christianity

Neo-platonism profoundly influenced early Christian thought. Christian asceticism and monasticism, subordinationism, and semi-Pelagianism all owed much to Neo-platonic influence. This influence is epitomized in Origen of Alexandria.

a) Origen’s asceticism was exhibited in his whole way of life. More specifically, it is generally believed that he castrated himself.

b) Origen’s Subordinationism has to do with the way he used Neo-platonism’s emanation theory to explain the Trinity. He equated God the Father with the one, God the Son with the mind, and God the Spirit with the World-soul, human souls came next in this hierarchy. This system of thought was at the root of the Arianism that later developed. The line between Creator and creature was drawn, but drawn rather arbitrarily between the Spirit and human souls. There was no inherent reason in Origen’s system why it could not be drawn between the Father and the Son.

c) Origen’s optimism with reference to man’s soul was at the root of the positive reception given to semi-Pelagianism at the time of Augustine in the Eastern Church. Free will was absolute. Origen’s system was built around free will. Satan might repent. Heavenly saints might fall from bliss. Souls are born depraved because they fell individually in a pre-existent life. This viewpoint would lead the Eastern church to hold a semi-Pelagian view of conversion. Why is this? Man can take the first step and then God will give his grace.

Free will ---> Faith ---> Grace

Note that this viewpoint has profoundly effected modern Christianity.

3. Its Critical Estimate

a. A Christian must reject Neo-Platonism’s monistic view of reality. In Neo-platonic thought there is being and non-being (= soul and body), there is only one kind of being. A Christian believes in two kinds of being, the Creator and the created.

The Neo-Platonic view involves a too pessimistic view of the body and a too optimistic view of the soul. Both of which have profoundly influenced Christian thought and both of which must be rejected.

b. A Christian must reject Neo-platonism’s view of the One and the Many.

What is the Christian view of the One and the Many? Which is ultimate? Neo-platonism dissolves the many into the one. Politically,this leads to totalitarianism. Religiously, this leads to a god who is not self-contained or self-sufficient.

THE ONE AND THE MANY IN PLATONISM AND CHRISTIANITY—

PLATONISM

ONE

/ \

/ \

/ \

/ \

M A N Y

CHRISTIANITY

ONE > MANY

One > Many

C. Stoicism

Introduction:

a. Its Importance

The importance of Stoicism may be underscored from a couple of different directions. Its importance for Roman history is epitomized in the statement that it counted among its adherents Seneca (who was a very influential advisor of Nero in Nero’s early years), Epictetus (a famous freedman and philosopher of Rome), and Marcus Aurelius (the Roman Emperor), as well as countless others, many of them influential. Cicero, the Latin translator of Greek philosophy and famous Senator of the Republic, was also strongly influenced by Stoicism. Its importance for Christianity is symbolized by the fact that Paul cites a Stoic in Acts 17:28a, Aratus. Tarsus, the hometown of the Apostle, had strong historical associations with Stoicism.

b. Its Origins

Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Cyprus (whose dates are 335-263 or perhaps 342-270) in 300 B. C. The name derives from the Stoa Poecile where Zeno taught in Athens. This phrase means the painted or multi-colored portico. Besides Zeno its most famous advocates were Cleanthes and Chrysippus who succeeded him as the leaders of his school. Stoicism as well as other Greek philosophies were planted at Rome by a famous Greek embassy in 155 B. C. which included three representatives of the three famous Greek philosophies.

c. Its Character

In contrast to Epicureanism, the Stoic philosophers exhibit a great deal of independence and originality and a tendency to mix their beliefs with those of other schools. Kelly remarks, "Both the Stoicism and, to an even greater extent, the Platonism which flourished in the first two Christian centuries show important deviations from their classical prototypes. Each had borrowed from the other, and indeed the intellectual attitude of great numbers of educated people might be described as either a Platonizing Stoicism or a Stoicizing Platonism."

1. Cosmology

a. Pantheistic Materialism

1) The Doctrine of the Universe

The Stoics were materialists. Reality was something you could knock your knuckles against. Yet the original matter was a universal fire, a universal fire which was alive—God. Modern-day analogies might include a force-field, fluid, or gas.

In the present universe formed out of this original living fire the Stoics distinguished two principles: an active and a passive. the active principle is a fiery vapor akin to the original fire in its pure state. This is the logos (=the world-soul). The passive principle also emerges out of the original fire and is motionless and inert (like the ashes of a fire). It is enlivened by the logos, the active principle. At long intervals the universe returns to its original condition in a universal conflagration (e?p??????).

Alexander Pope, though not himself a Stoic in any formal sense, epitomizes the Stoic view of the universe in his famous lines: "All are but parts of one stupendous whole whose body nature is and God the soul."

2) The Doctrine of Man

Man is a microcosm of this universe. Just as the universe is passive matter enlivened, formed, and guided by the universal logos; so in man there is a spark of this universal logos which enlivens, forms, and guides his material body. These sparks are the seminal logoi (spe?µat??o? ?o?o?).

UNIVERSE MAN

Matter Body

Logos L. S.

b. Teleogical Determinism

Determinism is the teaching that all things are determined in advance of their occurrence. Now there are two kinds of determinism. Blind determinism says that the determining agent is impersonal—without foresight or providence. Modern behavioralists illustrates this sort of determinism with their chemical determinism. Teleological determinism implies a purpose behind the determinate events. It implies a personal intelligence foreknowing, guiding, and determining the events of history to a foreknown and determined end. The Stoics held as central to their philosophy the doctrine of providence ( ) and, thus, were teleological determinists. The poetry of Cleanthes enunciates their determinism.

Lead me, O Zeus, and thou, my destiny,

Whate’er the path that ye ordain for me;

Fearless I’ll follow, but if I refuse,

Still must I follow, howsoe’er I choose.

This poem might seem to suggest that human choices are meaningless. In fact many charge all determinism with such an implication of godlessness because, they say, it makes ethics meaningless. Several replies can be made by the Stoic. First, God ordains the means as well as the ends. Thus, our choices (as means) do make a difference. Second, each man contains a seminal logos. Thus, his choices are meaningful. While his choices cannot frustrate the divine purpose, they can help to achieve it and embody it. Third, history and experience teach that determinists appear to take ethics far more seriously than those who emphasize free will. This is illustrated by the contrast between the Stoics and the Epicureans. Gordon H. Clark asserts, "It is also a curious and to the free-will Epicurean an inexplicable fact of history that determinism, at least teleological determinism, is regularly associated with a strict and vigorous morality, while the exponents of freedom have tended to a free and easy mode of life. Certain it is that this is the contrast in antiquity."

2. Epistemology

The Stoic view of knowledge and how we know is strikingly opposed to that of Platonism. Platonism divorced knowledge from the material world. All knowledge was rooted for it in the world of ideas. Stoicism taught that all knowledge was derived via sensory impressions. While the mind might perform certain operations with this data, it basically was a tabula rasa. Without these sensory impressions there is no knowledge. Ideas are only mental conceptions and have no real existence outside the individual. Because of his materialism, the Stoic also had no trouble explaining how the material world could convey knowledge to an immaterial soul about the ideal world. Since both soul and body were basically one substance, there is no difficult dichotomy to deal with. The criterion of knowledge is the irresistible conviction which sensory impressions create in the mind, not abstract reason. The material world is, thus, far more positive, important, and significant for the Stoic than for the Platonists.

3. Ethics

a. The Nature of Their Ethics

Ethics was the heart and center of Stoic thought. It was grounded in two ideas. The universe is governed by law and the essential nature of man is reason. Thus, "the Stoic way of life could be summed up in the phrase, . . . to live in harmony with nature." Living in harmony with nature meant two things. It meant, first, to act according to one’s deepest nature, the seminal logos, one’s reason. It also meant, second, to fall in line with the plans of the universal logos. This may be called submission to fate or cooperation with destiny depending one one’s perspective. Such a perspective could well promote moral strength. Bruce comments, "A man’s fate cannot be avoided, but it will be easier for himself if he co-operates with it and accepts it gladly instead of struggling vainly against it. At least this fate was not capricious; it was part of the universal logos or design. When men were convinced that they were caught up into this grand design, the conviction gave rise to great moral strength and purpose of mind, stimulating them to noble endurance and action."

Living in harmony with nature demanded, therefore, strength of will, total self-mastery. It meant bringing one’s body into line with the plans and aims of the logos. Intrinsic value for this approach to ethics lies in the will. Virtue is not the enjoyment of pleasure as it is for the Epicurean. Virtue is strength of will, self-mastery, even if one is impotent to achieve his purposes. Logically, the details of Stoic ethics differed markedly from those of Epicureanism. At one point, however, there was agreement. Suicide was legitimate option for both Epicurus and the Stoic. Its founder died by his own hand.

The ethics of Stoicism were popular with conservatism of Roman society. It meshed well with the Roman stress on moral serious-ness (gravitas). Its idea of the world-state and advocacy of involvement in the social context also were congenial to Roman Imperialism. Clark remarks, "The ideal of virtue differs in many particulars from the Epicureans ideal of ease. Whereas the school of pleasure found family life too much of a nuisance, the Stoics defended monogamy and the family with its reciprocal duties. They advocated education for women—even courses in philosophy. Whereas the Epicureans, too withdrew from politics, the Stoics stressed patriotism and civic responsibilities."

b. The Incompatibility of Their Ethics with Christianity

Stoic ethics appealed in many ways to Christians and would profoundly influence later Christian thought. Stoics emphasized family and social responsibilities. They spoke in terms of the fitting and the proper in terms akin to those used in the N. T., Eph. 5:3, Col. 3:18. Marcus Aurelius’, Meditations, even though he was a persecutor of Christians, would become a religious classic in the Medieval church. Bruce remarks, "It is interesting to speculate what further ‘meditation’ Marcus would have bequeathed to posterity could he have foreseen this development!"

In at least two pivotal points Stoicism’s ethics were clearly incompatible with Christianity. There was, first of all, no hope of personal immortality at the base of its ethics. Secondly, the Stoic ideal of self-sufficiency (a?ta??e?a) was diametrically opposed to a Christian perspective. It was, of course, rooted in the pagan view of the soul as a "divine spark." Bruce comments, "The Stoics were at heart sturdy individualists; they tended to put up with their brother-men rather than to love them. When conditions of life became too intolerable for a self-respecting Stoic to endure with human dignity, suicide was regarded as a proper way of release."

4. Politics

The most original contribution of Stoicism was its advocacy of the world-state, the cosmo-polis. They deduced the idea of a world-state from their pantheism. Marcus Aurelius epitomized this viewpoint when he said, "My city and country so far as I am Antoninus is Rome, but so far as I am a man, it is the world."

Though certain Stoic ideas are admirable, for instance its ideal of human brotherhood, Stoicism’s world-state would have been inevitably totalitarian. The Stoic like the Platonist must inevitably dissolve the many into the one. Because of its pantheism, Stoicism viewed all men, as ultimately one differing only in secondary incidentals. There could be no ultimate balance between the one, Rome, and the many, its citizens. The choice was anarchy or totalitarianism. Rushdoony cites Marcus Aurelius in this regard, "The social goal, the One, Rome, was as paramount for Marcus Aurelius as for his early Roman forebears. The alternative as he saw it was either oneness or anarchy: "But art thou discontented with thy share in the whole? Recall the alternative Either Providence or Atoms! and the abundant proofs there are that the Universe is as it were a state. The alternative was either a universal state, a whole which absorbed all and moved through a repetitious cycle of growth and decay, or universal anarchy and particularity. It was for him a choice between law or no law. In this picture, the individual was nothing in the whole." Perhaps Platonism tended more sternly to totalitarianism, but it is still very apparent in Stoicism.

V. The Moral Climate

Having examined the religious trends and philosophical movements of the early empire, its moral climate must form our conclusion. As we turn from classical philosophy to the practical morality of this period, our experience will be much like that of the small boy who from star-gazing at the peak of the barn slipped and fell into the manure pile at its base. The Graeco-Roman world was a moral dungheap.

Many illustrations of the grossly immoral climate of society might be given. One might begin by noting that homosexuality was widespread and accepted in upper-class Greek society. Socrates and Plato both practiced homosexuality. Not only philosophy, but also religion contributed to the general putrefaction. Many of the cults included ritual prostitution both of the male and female varieties. Abortion’s first century equivalent was calmly practiced. Bruce remarks, "How little conscience was made of this by decent-minded people is illustrated by a letter written in 1 B. C. by an Egyptian labourer at Alexandria to his wife at Oxyrhynchus, in terms of real affection, instructing her with regard to the baby that she is expecting: "If it is a boy, keep it; if a girl, expose it." The writer of the Epistle to Diognetus mentions as something noteworthy about Christians the fact that they do not expose their children."

Two factors beyond humanity’s native depravity were active in contributing to the general moral breakdown.

First, political upheaval had uprooted many from their ancestral homes. This removed them from the influences of common grace resident in their family and cultural ties and placed them in cities filled with such uprooted masses. Secondly, unparalleled prosperity provided increased opportunities and more extensive abilities for debauchery.

PRE-CONSTANTINIAN EXPANSION


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