Famously Adolf Von Harnack asserted in the History of Dogma that much of Christian theology betrayed the “work of the Greek spirit on the soil of the gospel.” Now to be fair, the old liberal didn’t have much gospel himself but the observation has something to it.
On the one hand we have the Scriptures beginning with a very good creation, full of promises of land and seed and a Saviour taking flesh to renew heaven and earth. On the other we have a Hellenizing spirit which pits body and soul, earth and heaven, time and eternity against each other. When this spirit meets this gospel – and Harnack was right, this is a perennial danger – it always yields bad fruit.
But in this series I want to look at two towering exceptions in the history of theology – Irenaeus and Athanasius. In their day they resisted ‘the Greek spirit’ and called the church back to the fertile soil of the gospel. There they found the Fountainhead of those unities which escaped the philosophers of this age. In Jesus Christ they saw creation and salvation held together as one work performed by one Word. And from there flowed a unified account of all reality.
In our own day we would do well to hear their voices. Because we too find it completely obvious to fall for the old dualisms.
In the realm of the body, we see self-harm and eating disorders, promiscuity and confusion over sexual identity, compulsive dieting and body-building, cosmetic surgery and gender re-assignment. These are problems commonly found in the world but also in our churches. We seem deeply uncomfortable with our bodily existence.
In the realm of the environment, we see the extremes of those who simply consume the earth and those who worship it.
In worship there are the ritualists who consider their sacramental practice to work ex opere operato and there are the low church minimalists running scared from anything physical.
And theologically, as we consider the relationship of creation and redemption, some mistake political harmony, social justice or economic liberation for salvation. In reaction, some cut loose creation from salvation with an anti-physical gospel and an escapist eschatology. And some will dissolve any final distinction between creation and redemption and opt for universalism.
In view of this, the proper co-ordination of creation and redemption (and its attendant co-ordinations of body and soul, time and eternity, etc, etc) is a vital task for us all.
Irenaeus and Athanasius are going to help us massively. And they will help because they put Jesus Christ at the centre of their thinking.