Notes on Jaroslav Pelikan’s Christianity and Classical Culture

The title and the structure of this book alone warrant a significant amount of sorting out to figure out what’s going on. The full title is Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism. The book is structured in two parts: “Natural Theology as Apologetics” and “Natural Theology as Presupposition.” Each part has ten chapters, and each chapter parallels a chapter in the other part. So, for example, chapter six is titled “The Universe as Cosmos,” and chapter sixteen is titled “Cosmos as Contingent Creation.”

But back to the title. Pelikan sees the highest synthesis of Christianity and classical culture occurring, at least in the Christian East, in the thought of the Cappadocians. The book is an exploration of how Greek thought functioned in their theology. In other words, what was the nature of the relationship between philosophy (“natural theology” or simply “reason,”) and theology? As the subtitle indicates, Pelikan intuits a metamorphosis in the way “natural theology” functioned in the Cappadocians’ theology. The nature of that metamorphosis is hinted at in the structure of the book.

For Pelikan, the metamorphosis of natural theology took place in that it first functioned as an apologetic against the larger Greek-speaking—Pagan—cultural establishment, hence “Natural Theology as Apologetic.” But in the transition, under Constantine, from Christianity as an oppressed and persecuted religious group to the cultural and ideological milieu, natural theology metamorphosed into a presupposition for dogmatic or systematic theology. In other words, the faithful witness of Scripture confirms, completes, and transcends natural reason. Hence “Natural Theology as Presupposition.” The premises of natural theology are confirmed and enhanced by the conclusions encapsulated in the language of faith. Another way of thinking about it would be that the “Natural Theology as Apologetic” model is outward-looking in its emphasis, geared toward the establishment of a Christian theological patrimony in the wider culture, and uses reason (in other words, natural theology) toward that end, while “Natural Theology as Presupposition” is inward-looking, geared toward the life and thought of the church, and uses reason in the service of the higher truths of Christian doctrine.

So the structure seems quite ingenious, demonstrating, first, the two functions of Hellenistic thought among the Cappadocians and, second, Pelikan’s thesis that those two functions reflect a transition from one to the next. A simple example is that, by reason, one might be able to prove—against, say, an atheist—that there is a God (natural theology as apologetic), but reason alone cannot prove the Trinity, which must be divinely revealed and received in faith (natural theology as presupposition).

There’s plenty more to think about, but I haven’t actually finished the book yet.

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