Major Book Reviews -- Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism by Jaroslav Pelikan

Article excerpt

THIS WORK is the outgrowth of the Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology delivered by Pelikan at the University of Aberdeen in 1992-93. Pelikan, the Sterling Professor of History at Yale University and author of numerous highly respected works, is perhaps best known for his five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (1971-89). This latest book is itself a monumental contribution to the study of Christian theology.

Pelikan has borrowed the title, Christianity and Classical Culture, from two other works, one by Charles Norris Cochrane (1944) and the other by Arthur Darby Nock (1972). Cochrane's book, in particular, has long held the status of a classic reference. Whereas Cochrane tracked the development of thought from Augustus to Augustine, giving particular attention to the revolutionary contributions of Athanasius and Augustine, Pelikan has focused somewhat more narrowly on the "metamorphosis of natural theology" that occurred in the late fourth century in the work of the Cappadocians: Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Macrina, the sister of the first two.

The addition of Macrina to the usual list of the three Cappadocians is striking, but Pelikan argues that it accords with her brother Gregory's portrayal of her as his and Basil's teacher of philosophy and theology. It also accords with Pelikan's procedure of presenting the Cappadocians' teaching as a coherent whole to which each made distinct contributions. All were staunch supporters of Nicene orthodoxy; all were firmly anchored in classical Greek culture; all effectively utilized elements of that culture in the service of Christianity; all recognized tensions between the Christian faith and the classical tradition and warned against an uncritical appropriation of the latter. Moreover, it was through their combined efforts that the three Cappadocians, influenced by the fourth, shaped the lasting settlement of Nicene orthodoxy in 381 and the faith, particularly of Greek-speaking Orthodox Christianity, forever after. Pelikan does acknowledge points of disagreement among the Cappadocians, but his synthesizing approach precludes the possibility of making careful differentiations among their positions or within the position of any one of them. Such matters as context and chronology are left unexplored.

What Pelikan has ably provided is an engrossing study of Cappadocian natural theology as the product of the interaction of the Greek Christian tradition with Hellenism. In deliberate contrast to those who would argue the benefits accrued or losses incurred in the Hellenization of Christianity, Pelikan has focused upon prominent themes of Cappadocian natural theology, the sources for which were Greek philosophy, the Old and New Testaments, and "the common apprehension of humanity," as this theology evolved in the dialogue with those inside and outside the Christian faith.

The themes are themselves the basic issues with which centuries of Christian theologians have struggled: the delimitation of theological vocabulary, particularly the utilization of negatives to secure divine transcendence; the multiple means of attaining knowledge of God, including the roles of reason and revelation; tensions between the arguments for monotheism and the doctrine of the Trinity; the relationship of God to the cosmos, and the implications of that relationship for the doctrine of the incarnation; theological anthropology, with its emphasis on the image of God in human nature and the fulfillment of that nature through deification; the foundation, progress, and goal of creation, particularly as related to eschatology. …