Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism

By Trombley, Frank R. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 1996 | Go to article overview

Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism


Trombley, Frank R., The Catholic Historical Review


Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism. By Jaroslav Pelikan. [Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen, 1992-1993.] (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1993. Pp. xvi, 368. $42.50 cloth; $17.00 paperback.)

This book seeks an understanding of the natural theology and classical background of the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa). The author adds a fourth person to this traid in the person of Macrina, whose role as an interlocutor in Nyssa's writings is taken as proof of actual input by this exceptionally well-educated woman (p. 108). The title belies the fact that the book's primary focus is on these figs. Pelikan is preoccupied with the Cappadocians' use of apophatic method in theology (p. 92), that is, the analyses of the idea of God through his negative attributes. In linguistic terms, this meant negation by use of the alpha privative in Greek words like "formless," "unpalpable," "invisible," inasmuch as "all language about the divine is inadequate" (p. 44). Put another way, it is a system of first determining terminologically what God is not: everything from his impassibility to the view that He is "One who is truly above all names" (p. 213). This is the reverse of kat aphasis or "affirmation of divine attributes," a characteristic, for example, of Greek myth. But apophasis is in essence a negative epistemology that controls metaphor and analogy, and eliminates myth with its corollary, the need for allegorical interpretation.

Pelikan's analysis takes the "Hellenism" of the Cappadocians as its starting point. For him this cultural category is bound up primarily with the Greek philosophical tradition, although the Greek Hellenismos was in the fourth century generally conceded to have a broader scope, embracing everything from pagan temple ritual to the pre-philosophical content of the paddies (the primary texts of Greek education in grammar and rhetoric like the Homeric poems, the tragedians, historians, etc.). It is unlikely that the Cappadocians' anthropology (as opposed to theology) can have failed to have been shaped by this (so for example Pelikan's discussion of the term arete "excellence"). But the reader should be aware that the discussion stresses the philosophical background of the three men and Macrina.

The body of the work is not, thankfully, a neat essay with an a priori thesis and all loose ends tied together. Rather it is an empirical analysis based on a thorough reading of the Cappadocian corpus with extensive quotations. As such the book makes few concessions to the reader. A synthetic reading of these texts has long been a desideratum, and so Pelikan's handling of the subject is most useful to scholars seeking a new understanding of the origins of the Christian Sophistic and the acculturation of the new religion to the Greek paddies. …

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