In the preface to Christianity and Civilisation, first delivered as Gifford Lectures in 1947, the Swiss theologian Emil Brunner sought “to formulate and to justify [his] conviction that only Christianity is capable of furnishing the basis of a civilisation which can rightly be described as human”(v). A civilization is largely determined by the prevailing answers that its various cultures give to basic questions about being, truth, time, man’s place in the universe, meaning, justice, freedom, and creativity, and these are the topics Brunner examines in Christianity and Civilisation. In his lecture “The Problem of Meaning,” he asserts:
Apart from the answer of the Christian Gospel…the most important solution of the problem of meaning within Western history is that of Greek philosophy(63).
Narrowing his exploration to these two worldviews, Brunner traces each of their origins and principles, and the effects of each upon Western civilization throughout historical periods and into our own modern time.
In this preface, Brunner speaks of his hesitancy to take on this work, feeling a disproportion between the topic and his “equipment for dealing with it,” as it is a vast subject requiring expertise in many areas. He commits himself to this labor, however, as he believes it to be a topic in urgent need of explication.
A feeling of urgency likewise compels me to look at these two prevailing Western worldviews, but within a greatly narrowed scope: one encounter between a minister of the Christian gospel and some Athenian philosophers: Paul’s sermon given in the middle of the first century on the Areopagus (Hill of Ares) to the Stoics and Epicureans, as recorded in Acts 17. This encounter is the earliest record of the Christian gospel confronting Greek humanism, and so Paul’s impressions, actions, and statements are worth close examination, as they provide inspired insight into the fundamental differences between these two worldviews, differences that were apparent to each of their proponents, but whose significance was fully understood only by the Apostle who, having been given Christ, the wisdom of God, had superseded the parameters of mind-bound philosophy. As George Fox said, “They that have Christ within have that which is above the heathen philosophies.”
Through this exercise, I hope to introduce Friends to the claim (or to substantiate it, for those already familiar) that original prophetic, primitive Christianity differs from the precepts informing Liberal Quaker belief and practice today, based as they are upon suppositions whose roots lie in Greek metaphysics, and not prophetic faith. The one thing needful–discovered, proclaimed, and suffered for by early Friends, as well as the prophets and apostles before them–has been lost to our religious society, and I hope that those who share my concern for reclaiming prophetic Quaker faith–or who are willing to hear more of this matter–will later turn to Brunner’s lecture series for a more comprehensive treatment of the differences between these two worldviews: Gifford Lectures.
In the following paragraphs, which are taken from his lecture “Man in the Universe,” Brunner sets out the fundamental conception of Greek humanism; in the second paragraph, he presents the contrasting principle of Christian humanism:
[Greek humanism] Man discovers in himself that which distinguishes him from the animal and nature as a whole and elevates him above, the Nous or the Logos, that spiritual principle which underlies all specifically human activity and gives man’s work the character and content of human dignity. Now, this Nous or Logos is, at the same time, the principle which links mankind with the divine; the Logos is not merely the principle of human thought and meaningful action, but also that divine force which orders the world and makes it a Cosmos. It is the divine spark in human reason by which alone man emancipates himself from nature and places himself above it. It is that same divine spark in his reason in which he experiences the divinity of his innermost being….Just as the divine Logos permeates nature and orders it, so it also permeates and orders man. But in man this divine principle becomes conscious knowledge. It is in the recognition of himself as partaker in the divine Logos that man becomes conscious of his specific essence and value; his humanity is, at the same time, divinity. [Underlining is mine in this and other quoted passages.]
In Biblical revelation the continuum of primitive mind is disrupted in an entirely different manner….God is no more the immanent principle of the world, but its Lord and Creator. He, the Lord-creator, alone is divine….Man in spite of every thing he has and is, with his spiritual as well as natural powers, is not divine. He is a creature…Man alone is created in the image of God…And this imago dei is the principle of Christian humanism as distinguished from Greek….man’s being created in the image of God does not imply any kind of divine spiritual substance in man, but only his relation to God….Christian humanism therefore, as distinguished from the Greek, is of such a kind that the humane character of existence is not automatically a possession of man, but is dependent on his relation to God, and remains a matter of decision (77-79).
Some forms of false worship–idolatry–are easier to recognize than others: the lust and determination to secure social position and power; to indulge in animal sensuality; or to wield brute force are obvious signs of error. More difficult to discern are the indicators of a subtle idolatry in which natural human power is worshiped for its ability to orchestrate the good life, indicated by elevation of values and principles to highest prominence. Such idolatry is rarely challenged in Scripture, perhaps because it comes to the fore only when civic life is stable and free from grosser error. Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus is the earliest example of a challenge to this form idolatry, namely, a challenge to the proposition that divinity resides within human beings as a natural attribute.
Before beginning a verbatim account of Paul’s sermon, the scripture writer provides some background information about Paul’s situation in Athens: While waiting for two helpers to join him, Paul assesses the spiritual condition of the city and finds its idolatry distressing. He goes to the synagogue to reason with both Jews and Gentiles, and argues in the marketplace with whoever is willing. He preaches the gospel of Jesus and the resurrection, and the philosophers are privately critical and insulting, but curious to hear more. Then they all go to the Areopagus where Athenians regularly resort to hear the latest ideas, and Paul begins to preach:
Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you (Acts 17:22-23).
At the start of his sermon, Paul sets out a major difference between his faith and the condition of his hearers: Paul knows God, and the philosophers do not. The Athenians, by their own admission, claim God is “Unknown,” and therefore, by implication, unknowable. It is experiential knowledge of God that enables us to worship Him as He would be worshiped: in spirit and in truth. Jesus draws the connection between knowledge of God and true worship when he speaks to the Samaritan:
Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:22-24).
Unlike the Greeks who worship an “Unknown God,” Paul does know God, and is thus enabled to declare God’s work and humanity’s relation to Him. The following precepts in Paul’s sermon would have been foreign to the Athenians:
God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things (24-25).
Paul contends that God is Creator and Lord, and thus the giver and ruler of life; man receives life and is subject to God’s power. He is not, as the Greeks would have it, a builder and maker of ideas (notional speculations) or buildings (temples) that house God; for God does not dwell in temples made with hands (made by man). Rather, it is God who acts and reveals himself to man. We wait upon him to move, like the Spirit upon the face of the waters. We wait upon the Lord; this is the way of prophetic Quaker worship.
And [God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us (26-27).
In saying that God has made “of one blood all the nations of men,” Paul identifies man’s condition as universal. What is the condition that is true for all people in all times and places? It is the felt need for God, not the possession of “that of God in every one,” but the need for God. A sense of alienation from God suffuses each human psyche, and leads to a search to overcome the corresponding anxiety that is felt by every person in every time and in every nation. God has decreed each person will feel his or her need for God, and, in feeling this need, should seek the Lord.
Idolatry corrupts the search. Some poor substitute for God is found, the soul assuaged, and the search stopped. Some item, some loyalty, some pleasure, some theory, some circumstance, some obligation, some obsession stands in for God, numbing or distracting man from his true feeling of need. God is ready to meet our need for Him, and when He reveals Himself, then, and only then, is our felt need truly met: life’s meaning and fulfillment is known.
For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as, since, as also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring (28).
We are His “offspring,” a word denoting kinship, relationship. Says Brunner: “For man’s being created in the image of God does not imply any kind of divine spiritual substance in man, but only his relation to God“(78). We are separate from but related to God:
He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But to as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God (Jn. 1:11-12).
Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent (Acts 17:29-30).
God has ever had a plan for humanity’s restoration, Paul avers. Now the time is come that a new thing is commanded: repentance. We are to repent of our attributing divinity to ourselves (“ye shall be as gods” [Gen. 3:5]); that is, repent of the claim “that of God” resides within, when God is yet unknown, yet unrevealed. God is not mocked. True authority, the author of our faith, suffers outside the gate of our habitation, and we must become subject to his enlarging jurisdiction. The world in the human heart is judged:
Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead (31).
It is a foolish idea to the Greeks that a human being might be raised from the dead; it is beyond reason. For the Epicureans, death was the end of all things, and for the Stoics, death was followed by the soul being absorbed into that from which it sprang.
But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God (I Cor. 1:23).
Paul speaks beyond the Greeks understanding, beyond their reason. Through repentance we condemn to death the reprobate mind: having seen that our inward condition is inadequate to meet our felt need. It is a universal verdict of the universal judgment appointed by God. We are given to know the risen one, even Christ Jesus, who is ordained by God to judge and to speak to this condition, this fallen state. We are raised to life in unity with him that has been raised from the dead. Beyond our comprehension, our reason, beyond our philosophy, we are given to know the inward resurrection experientially.
In the final words of his sermon, Paul presents the most conclusive difference between Christian faith and the philosophical mysticism of the Greeks. It is a person we encounter in the risen Christ, and this person, Christ Jesus, becomes the foundation for our life. Impersonal mystical openings occur, but only foreshadow the subsequent restoration of personal relationship with God, drawing us to Christ, his Word. Lewis Benson states in his essay “Prophetic Quakerism”:
Wherever the philosophical type of mysticism has found expression within the limits of the Christian community, it has sought to reduce the saving Word of God addressed inwardly by the Voice of Jesus Christ to something less personal (The Truth is Christ, 16).
That seventeenth-century Friends understood the person of Jesus Christ to be inwardly revealed is apparent in George Fox’s most frequently used phrase that expressed the basic tenet of Quaker faith: “Christ is come to teach his people himself.” Christ is active: coming to us and teaching us as only a person can. The basic law of man’s being is to live by the Word of God. We must come into an experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Word of God.
The statements in Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus accord with Jesus’s and first Friends’ teachings, because every one of them spoke from the same source: the knowledge and power of God. As their source was the gospel, the power of God, there was unity in their understanding.
- There is one God who is Creator and Lord. (25-26)
- God has made all humanity to feel their need of him, for in relationship with him our being is completed and perfected. (26-28)
- God is not like that which we can devise by thinking or making. (29)
- It is time to repent and end the ignorance of idolatry. (30)
- Each is to be judged in his spiritually deadened state and resurrected to life in Christ. (31-32)
In the face of last century’s Liberal Quaker communities turning away from prophetic faith and, in its stead, adopting a philosophy of values, Lewis Benson re-introduced the prophetic, primitive Christianity held forth by George Fox and other first Friends. Benson also discovered in the work of theologian Emil Brunner (referred to at the start of this paper) a worthy analysis of the progress and consequences of the loss of Christian understanding in history, its usurpation having begun in the alternative metaphysics of Greek philosophy.
The ground, root, and foundation of the Quakers’ faith…begins with belief in God who created all things out of nothing and who created man as a being with whom he could converse. Man is a being whose creator visits him and speaks to him, demanding a reply. Brunner says, “God has a different relation to man from what he has to other creatures….He has intercourse with man; He reveals His will to him and expects obedience and trust from him. It is not that man as he is in himself bears God’s likeness, but, rather, that man is designated for, and called to, a particular relation with God.”…The conversational relationship with God for which man was designated is essential to man’s life. When this relationship is broken, the ground of man’s life is broken and instead of life, he knows only death. When man is separated from the word that God speaks to him, then death and darkness overtake him….There is no coming out of darkness and death while man is alienated from God and does not listen to his word or fails to obey his command. This dialogic relationship to God is not a special religious consciousness but it is the basic law of man’s being (Catholic Quakerism, 13-14).
Benson, Brunner, early Friends, and the apostle Paul all find unity in the truth of prophetic Christian faith. The unity of their understanding witnesses to the universality of the God’s call to each person to come into a conversational relationship with Him, and furthermore, witnesses to the potential for each person to answer His call in righteousness. In every century, place, and culture, there are those of us who have come to know experientially the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent, whom He raised from the dead, the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being.
Thank you! This is a post I shall have to save and re-read – and I shall definitely have to read Lewis Benson himself…
Thank you, Mike! Here’s a link to some lectures by Lewis Benson on George Fox’s teachings: http://nffquaker.org/page/lewis-benson-writings
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