Did Philo influence the Bible’s description of the Son of God?

Purpose

The Old Testament (OT) presents only one God. But then Jesus Christ appeared and claimed to be the “only-begotten Son” of God (John 3:16; 10:36), to have received all authority in heaven and on earth (John 17:2; Matt 28:18), and even implied to be the “I am” of the OT (John 8:58). This “I am” may be understood as “the angel of the LORD” who appeared to Moses “in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush,” who is also called “God” and who said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exo 3:2, 4, 14).

So, the writers of the New Testament (NT) had to figure out who Jesus is relative to God. They wrote things of Jesus that Jesus never said of Himself, such as that:

    • He is the “Logos” (John 1:1), the image of God (Col 1:15), and the “mediator … between God and men” (1 Tim 2:5).
    • He was “in the beginning with God” (John 1:1).
    • God created and still maintains all things through Him (e.g., John 1:3; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2-3; 1 Cor 8:6).
    • God gave Him all authority in heaven and on earth (John 17:2; Matt 28:18).

As Christians, we like to think that this message of the only begotten Son of God is unique to the New Testament. It is then a little disquieting to discover that, before the NT was written, Greek philosophy, as interpreted by Philo, also spoke about a Logos who always existed, through whom God created all things, who is the image of God and the mediator between the Uncreated and created.

Given these similarities, the Internet Encyclopaedia article on Philo (IE) claims that the NT descriptions of Jesus are derived from Greek philosophy via Philo and therefore that Christianity is based on Greek philosophy. The purpose of this article is to evaluate this claim. For this purpose, this article discusses the similarities and differences between Philo’s Logos and Jesus Christ and attempts to explain why such concepts existed even before the New Testament was written.

Summary

Philo

Philo of Alexandria was a Jewish philosopher who wrote a few decades before the NT was written. “Philo was thoroughly educated in Greek philosophy. … He had a deep reverence for Plato and referred to him as ‘the most holy Plato’.” But Philo was also committed to the Jewish faith. By using “an allegorical technique for interpretation of the Hebrew (Bible),” he produced a synthesis of the Old Testament and Greek philosophy.

Foundations of Christianity

Philo is not important for Judaism. “Philo’s primary importance is in the development of the philosophical and theological foundations of Christianity.”

IE claims that the Christian theologians of the second and third centuries (the Apologists) used Philo’s synthesis of the Old Testament and Greek philosophy to formulate the Logos theology. To explain:

The church began as a Jewish-dominated movement. After the church became Gentile-dominated in the second century, Logos Theology became the standard explanation of who Jesus Christ is and of His relationship with God. We cannot deny that that theology was substantially influenced by Greek philosophy.

But IE goes much further and even claims that Philo may have influenced the New Testament itself, particularly the writings of Paul, the gospel of John, and the epistle to the Hebrews.

By reading the Greek philosophy of his day into the Old Testament, Philo gave Greek philosophy a Biblical appearance. Therefore, what IE effectively claims is that Christianity grew out of Greek philosophy via Philo.

God

First, consider some of Philo’s views concerning God, namely:

      • No other being, not even the Logos, is able to fully understand the One who exists without cause: Only God is able to fully understand God.
      • God also created time and, therefore, for Him, “nothing is past and nothing is future, but everything is present only.”
      • “There never was a time when he did not create.”

The Logos

Philo’s most important doctrine

When Philo lived, “the notion of the Logos was deeply ingrained in Greek philosophy” and Philo included the Logos in his interpretation of the Old Testament. Philo’s entire philosophical system hinges on his doctrine of the Logos. The Logos was his means of synthesizing the Old Testament and Greek philosophy. Furthermore, IE claims that it was also Philo’s doctrine of the Logos that created “the foundation for Christianity, first in the development of (Paul’s letters) and (the books) of John, later in the Hellenistic Christian Logos and Gnostic doctrines of the second century.”

The Logos in the Old Testament

Philo found the Logos in the Old Testament in:

      • “The Word of the LORD” that is often said to come to the prophets and by which “the heavens were made,”
      • The personified “Wisdom” (Proverbs), and in
      • The Angel of the Lord.

A Personal Being

“Logos” is the common Greek word for “word,” “speech,” “principle,” or “thought.” But, in Greek philosophy, the word Logos had a very specialized meaning, namely, “a rational, intelligent and thus vivifying principle of the universe.”

IE claims that Philo, by introducing the concept of the Logos into Judaism, has transformed the Logos from a metaphysical theoretical entity into a humanlike being and mediator between God and men.

Other prominent scholars (Ronald Nash, RPC Hanson, Rowan Williams) disagree. They say that “Philo’s Logos is not a person or messiah or savior but a cosmic principle … a metaphysical abstraction.” The descriptions in Philo of “an individually subsistent Logos, distinct from the Father” are not literal but metaphorical.

My understanding is that Philo illogically describes the Logos as both a “metaphysical abstraction,” as in Greek philosophy, and as a Personal Being, as he interprets the Logos in the Old Testament to be. Rowan Williams adds, “To look for a clear definition or identification of the Logos in his writings would be … fruitless” (RW, 124)1Rowan Williams – Arius, Heresy & Tradition, 2001.

Has always existed.

Both Philo’s Logos and Jesus Christ have always existed:

Philo holds that “the Logos … constitutes the manifestation of God’s thinking, acting.” Consequently, the Logos has been brought into existence by God but always existed (because God has always existed and never began to think or do).

Similarly, in the NT, the Son was “begotten,” meaning that He has been brought into existence by God. At the same time, the Son “was” in “the beginning” (John 1:1-2) and is “the First and the Last” (Rev 1:17), implying that He has always existed.

Literally first in time

Since, in both Philo and the NT, the Logos has always existed, the Logos has existed first in time. For that reason, Philo described the Logos as “the first-begotten Son of the Uncreated Father.” Jesus Christ, similarly, is “the ‘first-born’ of God” (Col 1:15; Heb 1:6), although this might also be interpreted symbolically

Uniquely Generated

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos has been uniquely generated:

Philo used “begotten” and “created” as synonyms but he says that the Logos is neither uncreated as God nor created as men. In other words, He was generated differently from created beings.

The NT, by saying that the Son is “the only begotten” and not only “the first begotten” as in Philo, makes a distinction between “begotten” and “created” and indicates that the Son was uniquely generated.

Direct Agent of Creation

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos is the direct Agent of creation:

In Philo, “the direct agent of creation is not God himself … but the Logos. … the Logos … was used as an instrument and a pattern of all creation.”

In the NT also, God created all things through the Logos (John 1:1-3; cf. Col 1:16; Heb 1:2; 1 Cor 8:6).

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos maintains the universe:

In Philo, “the Logos is the bond holding together all the parts of the world” and “produces a harmony … between various parts of the universe.”

Similarly, in the NT, God maintains all things through His Son (Heb 1:3; Col 1:17).

Subordinate

Both Philo’s Logos and Jesus Christ are subordinate to God:

In Philo, the Logos is “inferior to God” (Davis). “The supreme being is God and the next is Wisdom or the Logos of God” (IE).

In the NT, the Father sent the Son and Jesus said, “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). See – The subordination of the Son.

However, the orthodox teaching of the church accepts that the Son is functionally subordinate to the Father. The real question is whether the Son is also ontologically subordinate to the Father:

In Philo, “the ontology of the Logos would most closely resemble an emanation from the divine essence” (Davis). Therefore, He is also ontologically subordinate to the High God.

The Bible nowhere explicitly teaches anything about the substance of God or ontological equality.

Mediator

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos is the mediator between God and man:

Philo described the Logos as the “mediator between God and the world,” “continually a suppliant (pleading) to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race,” “to procure forgiveness of sins, and a supply of unlimited blessings.”

Similarly, in the NT, “there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5; cf. Heb 8:6; 9:15).

The Light of the World

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos illuminates the soul. In Philo, “the Logos … in the mind of a wise man … allows preservation of virtues” (IE). Similarly, John wrote: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.”

The Logos in our God.

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos is our God:

In Philo, “God is revealed to His creation through the Logos.” Due to “the utter transcendence of the First Principle [the One who exists without cause],” “man’s highest union with God is limited to God’s manifestation as the Logos.” For Philo, the Logos is the only experience of God that man will have. Effectively, therefore, the Logos is our God.

Similarly, in the NT, God “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” but the Son is “the (visible) image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). As the direct Agent of our creation and our continued existence, and since we will never be able to “see” or directly experience God, the Son is effectively the God of all created things. 

Cannot become Flesh

Philo would never have accepted that the Logos “became flesh” (John 1:14) because “Philo disdained the material world and physical body. The body was for Philo … ‘an evil and a dead thing’.”

Philo also taught that “a wise man … should be free of … pleasure, desire, sorrow, and fear.” But Jesus suffered sorrow and fear. Philo would never have tolerated such thinking.

Man’s Mind

For Philo, “the reasoning capacity of a human mind is” an indivisible part of the Logos. For this reason, the “Logos is apportioned into an infinite number of parts.” For that reason also, the human mind is imperishable and has the power of free will.

Did Philo influence the NT?

The following support the view that Philo influenced the NT:

1) The NT says things about Christ that Christ never said of Himself but which Philo did say about the Logos, for example, that God created and maintains all things through Him.

2) Since the word Logos had a very specialized meaning in Greek philosophy, and given the pervasive influence of Greek philosophy at the time, John’s description of Jesus Christ as “the Logos,” must mean that John identified the Son of God as the Logos of Greek Philosophy.

3) There are many other similarities between Philo’s Logos and the Biblical Son of God. For example, both have an origin, have always existed, are the direct Agent of creation, are subordinate to God, have been uniquely generated, and are the mediator between God and man.

The differences between them do not take away the astounding similarities or our duty to explain these similarities.

Possible Explanations

So, how do we explain the similarities?

The Bible is not inspired.

In the view of Critical Scholars (theologians who do not believe in the supernatural), the NT is simply the result of the evolution of human thought and the reliance on Philo is proof thereof.

A Different Logos

An alternative is to argue that the differences between Philo’s Logos and the NT’s Son of God are great and that Philo, consequently, did not influence the NT writers. However, the similarities between them are too substantial and too specific to deny the influence of Greek philosophy.

Teaching Mechanism

A fourth possibility is that the writers of the NT used concepts from Philo to explain Jesus Christ to Greek readers in their own language. However, the similarities are too extraordinary (out of the ordinary, e.g., eternal, creator) to be simply explaining truths in Greek thought forms.

To oppose pagan theology

Nash proposes that the significant number of similarities between Philo and the letter to the Hebrews can be explained as that the writer of Hebrews uses the language of philosophy to describe the Christian message as better than philosophy; not bring philosophy into Christianity.

This may be part of the answer but it is very far from explaining all the similarities. For example, the description of the Logos in both as the direct Agent of creation cannot simply be an argument that Christ is a better mediator than the mediators of pagan philosophy.

Therefore, I propose that:

Greek Philosophy was inspired.

Observations:

1) The large number of significant conceptual similarities between Philo and the NT means that Philo was right in some respects about the Logos. Since Philo’s writings were based on Greek philosophy, it means that Greek philosophy was right in some respects.

2) God elected Israel to take His message to the nations of the world. So, God worked particularly and extraordinarily with the Jewish nation. But that does not mean that the Holy Spirit was not working with and inspiring people from other nations as well.

3) In contrast to the multiplicity of gods in the Greek pantheon, Greek philosophy is monotheistic. Where did the Greek philosophers get this?

I propose as follows:

Firstly, to prepare the non-Jewish world to receive “the kingdom of God” from the Jews, God, through His Holy Spirit, inspired Greek philosophers, either through contact with Judaism or directly through the Holy Spirit, to move away from Greek polytheism to monotheism and with many truths concerning the nature of God.

Secondly, to make it easier for the writers of the NT to understand who Jesus is, God inspired Philo to harmonize Greek philosophy with the Old Testament.

Thirdly, through His Holy Spirit, God inspired the writers of the NT to selectively accept Philo’s teachings and to explain Jesus Christ as the Logos of Greek philosophy, as harmonized with the Old Testament by Philo.

I would like to support this proposal as follows:

Firstly, nothing prevents the Holy Spirit from using Pagan philosophers for revealing truths to the people of the world.

Secondly, the Logos Theology that the second-century church fathers developed explicitly explains Jesus Christ as the Logos of Greek philosophy. See – The Apologists. That implies that they assumed that Greek philosophy was inspired.

Thirdly, the Nicene Creed is influenced by Greek philosophy. RPC Hanson described words substance (ousia), same substance (homoousios), and hypostasis as “new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day” (RH2RPC Hanson – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 846). These concepts do not appear in the Bible.

Fourthly, since the Arian Controversy was caused by objection to these pagan concepts in the Nicene Creed, the “discussion and dispute between 318 and 381 were conducted largely in terms of Greek philosophy” (RH, xxi)3RPC Hanson – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381.

Fifthly, even today many philosophical concepts from ancient Greek philosophy, such as that God is immanent, transcendent, simple, immutable, impassable, and timeless, are generally accepted by church theologians even though NOT stated in the Bible. This is called Classical Theism.

– END OF SUMMARY –


Who is Philo?

Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BC to 40 AD), also called Judaeus Philo, was a Jew who lived and wrote in Alexandria, Egypt at the same time as when Jesus lived in Judea. Philo, therefore, wrote a few decades before the New Testament was written. At the time, Alexandria had the largest Jewish community outside of Palestine.

Compared to Greek philosophy, Roman philosophy was relatively poorly developed. Consequently, the intellectual world in the Roman Empire generally, and the Jewish community in Alexandria specifically, held Greek philosophy in high regard. “Philo was thoroughly educated in Greek philosophy as can be seen from his superb knowledge of classical Greek literature. … He had a deep reverence for Plato and referred to him as ‘the most holy Plato’” (The Internet Encyclopaedia article on Philo). [The remainder of this article refers to this article as IE.]

But Philo was also a committed Jew. Consequently, through his writings, he attempted to justify Judaism in terms of Greek philosophy. To do this, he interpreted the Old Testament through the eyes of Greek philosophy. “Philo uses an allegorical technique for interpretation of the Hebrew (Bible). … Using this allegorical method, Philo seeks out the hidden message beneath the surface of any particular text and tries to read back a new doctrine into the work of the past” (IE).

In this way, he produced “a synthesis of” the Old Testament and Greek philosophy. He “fused Greek philosophical concepts with Hebrew religious thought” (IE).

He thought that this would be appropriate because he regarded Moses as a philosopher. In fact, in his view, “Moses … ‘had reached the very summit of philosophy’” (IE). He, therefore, presents Moses as “the teacher of … all Greek philosophers.” “For Philo, Greek philosophy [with its monotheistic view of God] was a natural development of the revelatory teachings of Moses” (IE). He describes “the philosophical Platonic or Stoic ideas (as) nothing but the deductions made from the biblical verses of Moses” (IE).

[In this article, I use square brackets when I insert an explanation in a quote.]

Foundations of Christianity

Philo is not important for Judaism. “Jewish tradition was uninterested in philosophical speculation and did not preserve Philo’s thought” (IE). “Philo’s primary importance is in the development of the philosophical and theological foundations of Christianity” (IE).

Logos Theology

IE claims that, by producing a synthesis of the Old Testament and Greek philosophy, Philo developed concepts that were used by Christian theologians (the Apologists) in the second century to formulate Logos Theology. The church began as a Jewish-dominated movement but after the church became Gentile-dominated in the second century, Logos Theology became the standard explanation of Jesus Christ relative to God. IE mentions “Clement of Alexandria, Christian Apologists like Athenagoras, Theophilus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen” as Christian theologists who used Philo’s concepts. In support of this, IE notes that “the church preserved the Philonic writings … Eusebius also promoted the legend that Philo met Peter in Rome. Jerome (345-420 C.E.) even lists him as a church father.”

Adam Davis (The Logos of Philo and John – A Comparative Sketch) confirms that “one cannot deny that the Philonic Logos … influenced the early church. … Important figures such as Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Justin Martyr all incorporate threads of Philo into their work.”

RPC Hanson wrote: “Ever since the work of Justin Martyr, Christian theologians had tended to use the identification of the pre-existent Son with some similar concept in contemporary Middle Platonism” (RH, 22-23).

The Bible

But IE goes much further and claims that Philo may have also influenced the New Testament itself:

“He may have influenced Paul, his contemporary, and perhaps the authors of the Gospel of John … and the Epistle to the Hebrews” (IE).

“By developing this doctrine (of the Logos), (Philo) … provided the foundation for Christianity, first in the development of (Paul’s letters) and (the books) of John, later in the Hellenistic Christian Logos and Gnostic doctrines of the second century” (IE).

Trinity Doctrine

Since IE claims that Philo “laid the foundations for the development of Christianity … as we know it today,” we can assume that IE implies that Philo also laid the foundation for the Trinity doctrine that was developed in the fourth and fifth centuries. Regarding that period, RPC Hanson stated:

“All Greek-speaking writers in the fourth century were to a greater or lesser degree indebted to Greek philosophy. … If any writer had had a higher education … he … would have sucked in certain fundamental assumptions in the process.” (RH, 858-9)

“It would of course be absurd to deny that discussion and dispute between 318 and 381 were conducted largely in terms of Greek philosophy” (RH, xxi).

“Until we reach the Cappadocians, acceptance of philosophy by the theologians is eclectic and opportunist” (RH, 860). “The Cappadocians, however, present us with a rather different picture. They had all probably had an intenser education in philosophy than other theologians of the fourth century. They were all in a sense Christian Platonists.” (RH, 863)

Based on Greek philosophy

By reading the Greek philosophy of his day into the Old Testament, Philo gave Greek philosophy a Biblical cloak. What IE effectively claims is that Christianity grew out of Greek philosophy. Many scholars hold the same view still today. For example:

“In his history of philosophy textbook that is still widely used, even in some evangelical colleges, W. T. Jones claims that the “mysticism of the Fourth Gospel was grounded in the Platonism of Hellenistic Alexandria.” (Ronald Nash – Professor of Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary-Orlando)

Philo’s view of God

First, consider some of Philo’s views concerning God:

Only God knows Himself.

For Philo, “God’s essence is beyond any human … cognition” (IE). We cannot say what God is. We can only say “what God is not” (IE) [e.g., immortal, invisible, immaterial]. “Strictly speaking, we cannot make any positive or negative statements about God: ‘He alone can utter a positive assertion respecting himself, since he alone has an accurate knowledge of his own nature’” (IE). “It is not possible for God to be comprehended by any being but himself” (IE).

This is perhaps comparable to the NT’s description of “the invisible God” (Col 1:15), “who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16; cf. Rom 1:20).

God exists outside time.

Philo also argued that “God is the creator of time also … (for God) nothing is past and nothing is future, but everything is present only” (IE).

Creator Eternally

Philo argued that the world was created but has no beginning: “According to Philo, (God) did not begin to create the world at a certain moment” (IE) but has always been creating: “God is continuously ordering matter by his thought … there never was a time when he did not create” (IE). “Philo contends that … any description of creation in temporal terms, e.g., by Moses, is not to be taken literally, but rather is an accommodation to the biblical language” (IE).

The ancients had no inkling of the universe as we understand it today. For them, this world was the universe. Therefore, whenever we read of “the world” in Philo’s writings, we must think of the universe.

Note that these philosophers could argue that things (such as the ‘world’ in the example above) can have an origin, meaning to be caused by something else, but, at the same time, have always existed. Origen, for example, argued this way about God’s unique Son. In contrast, Arius stated that “there was when He (the Son of God) was not.”

Philo’s view of the Logos

Philo’s most important doctrine

When Philo lived, “the notion of the Logos was deeply ingrained in Greek philosophy” (Davis). Philo included the Logos in his interpretation of the Old Testament:

The pivotal … doctrine in Philo’s writings on which hinges his entire philosophical system, is his doctrine of the Logos. … (On this,) all other doctrines of Philo hinge” (IE).

As stated above, Philo’s purpose was to synthesize the Old Testament with Greek philosophy. He did that through his description of the Logos:

“By developing this doctrine (of the Logos), he fused Greek philosophical concepts with Hebrew religious thought” (IE).

Furthermore, IE claims that it was “by developing this doctrine (of the Logos) (that Philo) … provided the foundation for Christianity, first in the development of (Paul’s letters) and (the books) of John, later in the Hellenistic Christian Logos and Gnostic doctrines of the second century.”

The Logos in the Old Testament

Philo obtained the idea of the Logos from Greek philosophy. But where did he find the Logos in the OT?

Firstly, he found it in the often-used phrase, “the Word of the LORD.” For example, the Old Testament often says that “the Word of the LORD” came to a prophet (e.g. Jer 1:2; Ezek 1:3; and Jonah 1:1), or that something was done by “the Word of the LORD.” For example: “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made” (Psa 33:6; cf. Gen 1:3, 6,9; 3:9, 11; Psa 32:9; Psa 106:20; Psa 147:15; Zech 5:1-4; Jer 1:4-19, 2:1-7; Ezek 1:3; Amos 3:1).

Secondly, “in the so-called Jewish wisdom literature, we find the concept of Wisdom … which could be to some degree interpreted as a separate personification … (hypostatization)” (IE).

We may agree that these were simply figures of speech and poetic language describing God’s words, actions, or wisdom, but Philo’s allegorical methods allowed him to identify these with the Logos of Greek philosophy.

Thirdly, Philo identified the Logos as the Old Testament Angel of the Lord (Gen 31:13; 16:8; etc.). Philo described “the Logos (as) the first-born and the eldest and chief of the angels” and as the Father’s “archangel.”

Philo also saw the Logos as referred to as theos in the Old Testament. He says, “when the scripture uses the Greek term for God ho theos, it refers to the true God, but when it uses the term theos, without the article ho, it refers not to the God, but to his most ancient Logos.” However, “Philo … explains that to call the Logos ‘God’ is not a correct appellation.”

Does the New Testament describe the Son as ‘the word of the Lord’, ‘the Wisdom of God’, or as the ‘Angel of the Lord’? Perhaps

Revelation, which John has also written, says of Jesus Christ, “His name is called The Word of God” (Rev 19:13).

The NT says that “we preach … Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23-24) but we should not necessarily interpret that literally.

I am not aware of any direct identification in the NT of Jesus Christ as the Old Testament Angel of the Lord.

A Personal Being

“Logos” is the common Greek word for “word,” “speech,” “principle,” or “thought.” But, in Greek philosophy, the word Logos had a very specialized meaning. “Through most schools of Greek philosophy, this term was used to designate a rational, intelligent and thus vivifying principle of the universe. This principle was deduced from an understanding of the universe as a living reality and by comparing it to a living creature.” (IE)

But IE claims that Philo, by introducing the concept of the Logos into Judaism, has transformed “the Logos … from a metaphysical [theoretical] entity into … (a) anthropomorphic [humanlike] being and mediator between God and men:” For Philo, “the Logos is thus more than a quality, power, or characteristic of God; it is an entity eternally generated” (IE).

In contrast, Ronald Nash states that “Philo’s Logos is not a person or messiah or savior but a cosmic principle … a metaphysical abstraction.” In this, Nash is supported by RPC Hanson4The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381 (RH) and Rowan Williams5Arius, Heresy & Tradition, 2001 (RW):

After a longish and involved discussion, RW states that the descriptions in Philo of “an individually subsistent Logos, distinct from the Father” are not literal but metaphorical (RW, 122).

Similarly, RH states that Philo “does not make the same division between the Logos and God as did the Arians” (RH, 60).

My own understanding is that Philo illogically describes the Logos as both a “metaphysical abstraction,” as in Greek philosophy, and as a Personal Being, as he interprets the Logos in the Old Testament to be. This understanding is supported by the following:

Nash states: “It is impossible … to find any clear or consistent use of the word (Logos) in his many writings. For example, he used the word to refer to:

        • Plato’s ideal world of the forms, …
        • The mind of God, …
        • A principle that existed somewhere between the realms of God and creation, … (and to)
        • Any of several mediators between God and man, such as the angels, Moses, Abraham, and even the Jewish high priest.”

RPC Hanson confirms, “Philo’s Logos-doctrine is confused and obscure(RH, 60).

Rowan Williams adds, “To look for a clear definition or identification of the Logos in his writings would be … fruitless” (RW, 124)

Does not exist without a cause.

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos has an origin:

In Greek philosophy, the Logos is God’s thinking, which is also His acting. Philo seems to say more or less the same thing:

“The Logos … constitutes the manifestation of God’s thinking, acting” (IE).

He similarly describes the Logos as “the Divine Mind.” But then he creates a little distance between God and the Logos by saying that the Logos is “the expression of this act of God (to create), which is at the same time his thinking” (IE).

Since Philo describes the Logos as the “manifestation of God’s thinking-acting,” “the Logos has an origin,” meaning that He does not exist without cause but exists because the Father has brought Him into existence.

Similarly, in the NT, the Son was “begotten,” meaning that He does not exist without a cause.

Has always existed.

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos has always existed:

In Philo, since God has always existed and has always thought and acted, the Logos has “eternal generation,” meaning that He has always existed.

Similarly, in the NT, the Son “was” in “the beginning” (John 1:1-2) and is “the First and the Last” (Rev 1:17). “His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity” (Micah 5:2). And the Arians liked to add, “From everlasting I was established” (Prov 8:23).

Ontologically Subordinate

Both Philo’s Logos and Jesus Christ are subordinate to God:

In Philo, the Logos is “inferior to God” (Davis). “The supreme being is God and the next is Wisdom or the Logos of God” (IE).

Here I need to divert a little. Some regard any kind of order or hierarchy among the persons of the Trinity as heresy. But that is not the orthodox teaching. The NT also provides clear indications of the subordination of the Son. For example:

    • The Father created all things through the Son.
    • The Father sent the Son.
    • The miracles which Jesus performed were performed by God “through Him” (Acts 2:22).
    • Jesus said, “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
    • After His ascension, God “seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Eph 1:17-21).
    • After sin and the consequences of sin have been vanquished, “the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

Therefore, the orthodox teaching of the church accepts functional subordination but prohibits that the Son be described as ontologically inferior to the Father. For that reason, several theological dictionaries define “subordinationism” with respect to ontology only. For example:

Subordinationism is “the doctrine that in essence and status the Son is inferior to the Father” (Millard Erickson, “Subordinationism,” in Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986) 161.)

Augustus Strong stated that “the subordination of the person of the Son to the person of the Father is perfectly consistent with equality” (See Glenn Peoples).

So, this section will only concern itself with the question of whether the Son is ontologically equal to the Father:

In Philo, “the ontology of the Logos would most closely resemble an emanation from the divine essence” (Davis), and “an extension of a divine being” (IE). Therefore, He is also ontologically subordinate to the High God.

The Bible nowhere teaches anything about the substance of God or ontological equality, except if we interpret “only-begotten” literally. That is what the Nicene Creed does. It interprets “begotten” as that He came from the substance of the Father and, therefore, that creed concludes, He is of the same substance as God. This idea, however, originates from “pagan philosophy” (RH, 846); not from the Bible. The anti-Nicenes of the fourth century warned that humans must not assume to understand what “begotten of God” means, that we should not interpret this literally as if God begat a Son like human beings begat children and that we should not introduce non-Biblical words or thoughts.

So, in Philo, the Logos is ontologically inferior compared to the Trinity doctrine, in which He is ontologically equal. But that is a difference between Philo and the Trinity doctrine; not between Philo and the NT.

Literally first in time

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos literally existed first in time:

It was already shown above that Philo described the Logos as eternal. Therefore, He “exists … before everything else.” For that reason, Philo described the Logos as the ‘first-born’ and as “the first-begotten Son of the Uncreated Father.”

Jesus Christ, similarly, is “the ‘first-born’ of God” (Col 1:15; Heb 1:6), although this might also be interpreted symbolically. Revelation 3:14 refers to Jesus as “the Beginning of the creation of God,” which also implies that He was the first being that God brought forth.

Uniquely Generated

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos has been uniquely generated:

Philo describes the Logos as both “eternally begat” and “eternally created.” In other words, Philo used “begotten” and “created” as synonyms. In another place, similarly, he describes the Logos as “neither unbegotten nor begotten as are sensible things.” In other words, all created things are “begotten.” Therefore, he described the Logos as “the first-begotten” and not as “the only begotten,” as we find in the New Testament.

However, Philo does describe the Son’s origin as unique but uses different words to do that. He says, namely, that the Logos is neither uncreated as God nor created as men.

The NT, by saying that the Son is “the only begotten,” makes a distinction between “begotten” and “created” and indicates that the Son was uniquely generated.

Direct Agent of Creation

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos is the direct Agent of creation:

In Philo, “the direct agent of creation is not God himself … but the Logos. … the Logos … was used as an instrument and a pattern of all creation.” “God … orders and shapes the formless matter through the agency of his Logos into the objects of the sensible world.” (The idea that the Logos is a “pattern of all creation” is a remnant from the Greek philosophy. At another place, Philo similarly states that “the sensible universe … is the image of the Logos.”)

The NT also describes Jesus Christ as God’s direct Agent of creation, namely, God created all things through the Logos (John 1:1-3; cf. Col 1:16; Heb 1:2; 1 Cor 8:6).

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos maintains the universe:

In Philo, “the Logos is the bond holding together all the parts of the world” and “produces a harmony … between various parts of the universe.” (This still relates to the idea that the Logos (the Word) is the thoughts of God through which all things are created and maintained.)

Similarly, in the NT, God maintains all things through His Son (Heb 1:3; Col 1:17).

The Light of the World

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos illuminates the soul:

In Philo, the Logos illuminates the human soul and nourishes it with a higher spiritual food (Wikipedia). “The Logos … in the mind of a wise man … allows preservation of virtues” (IE).

Similarly, Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness” (John 8:12). And John wrote: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.” “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man” (John 1:4, 9).

Mediator

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos is the mediator between God and man:

Philo described the Logos as “neither being uncreated as God, nor yet created as you, but being in the midst between these two extremities.” His role is appropriate for that position, for “the Philonic Logos is the bridge between the infinite God and finite creation” (Davis); “mediator between God and the world” (IE). As mediator:

When interacting with God, He is “a paraclete;” “continually a suppliant (pleading) to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race,” “to procure forgiveness of sins, and a supply of unlimited blessings” (IE).

When interacting with the human race, He is “the ambassador, sent by the Ruler of all, to the subject race” (IE), “a messenger” (IE), and the source of hope and wisdom for mankind. [For Philo, that the Logos was sent to the human race does not mean that He literally became a human being as in the New Testament, but that God sends a ‘stream of his own wisdom’ to men. “Through the Logos of God, men learn … everlasting wisdom.”]

Similarly, in the New Testament, “there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5; cf. Heb 8:6; 9:15). Everything that the creation receives from God, including existence, sustenance, knowledge, and salvation, flows through His Son. Also, through Christ, we draw near to God and worship Him. But this does not mean that the Son has to plead with the Father for us:

“I do not say to you that I will request of the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you” (John 16:26-27).

The Logos in our God.

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos is our God:

In Philo, “though God is hidden, his reality is made manifest by the Logos that is God’s image and by the sensible universe” (IE). “God is revealed to His creation through the Logos” (Davis).

“Philo believed that man’s final goal and ultimate bliss is in the ‘knowledge of the true and living God’” (IE). However, due to “the utter transcendence of the First Principle [the One who exists without cause],” “man’s highest union with God is limited to God’s manifestation as the Logos” (IE).

For the same reason – “the utter transcendence of the First Principle” – when the Bible says that man was made “in the image of God” (Gen 9:6), Philo argues that it is not possible that man is made after “the preeminent and transcendent Divinity.” Therefore, man was made after the image of “the second deity, the Divine Logos of the Supreme being”.

One could say that, for Philo, the Logos is the only experience of God that man will have. The Logos, therefore, is effectively our God.

Similarly, in the New Testament, God “alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” but the Son is “the exact representation” of God’s nature (Heb 1:3); “the (visible) image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). Therefore, Jesus said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). As the direct Agent of our creation and ur continued existence, and since we will never be able to “see” or directly experience God, the Son is effectively our God.

Cannot become Flesh

Philo does not have a concept of the incarnation as we find in the New Testament. On the contrary, “Philo disdained the material world and physical body. The body was for Philo as for Plato, ‘an evil and a dead thing’, wicked by nature and a plotter against the soul.” “He belittled the body as a tomb of the soul” (Nash). Philo, therefore, would never have accepted that the Logos “became flesh” (John 1:14).

This is confirmed in that “Philo adopts the Stoic wise man as a model for human behavior. Such a wise man … should be free of irrational emotions (passions), pleasure, desire, sorrow, and fear, and should replace them by rational … emotions; joy, will, compunction, and caution.” But Jesus suffered both sorrow and fear. Jesus “not only becomes man but participates in a full range of all that is human, including that He suffered, was tempted to sin, and died. Philo would never have tolerated such thinking.” (Nash)

In support of this point, C.H. Dodd noted6The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, page 10 that Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), one of the most prominent theologians of the early church, wrote7The Confessions vii. 9 that he read John 1:1-5, 10 and 13 in “some books of the Platonists,” “not in so many words, but in substance” but that he found nothing in these books about the incarnation of the Logos (John 1:10-12, 14).

Man’s Mind

For Philo, “the reasoning capacity of a human mind is but a portion of the all-pervading Divine Logos.” It is “indivisible from the Divine Logos.” For this reason, “this Logos is apportioned into an infinite number of parts in humans.” Consequently, the human mind “has divine essence … (and) is imperishable. By receiving this, humans received … the power of spontaneous will free from necessity.”

I would say that this is an aspect where the NT deviates from Philo.

Did Philo influence the New Testament?

The question is: Does the New Testament say things about Christ that Christ never said of Himself but which Philo did say about his Logos? Considering the discussion of Philo’s theology above, the answer must be “Yes!”

For example, Jesus never said that He created all things or that He maintains all things, but Philo made these claims about the Logos and these claims eventually found a prominent place in the New Testament.

Since the word Logos had a very specialized meaning in Greek philosophy, and given the pervasive influence of Greek philosophy at the time, John’s description of Jesus Christ as “the Logos,” coupled with His description of the Logos as existing with God “in the beginning” and as the direct Agent of creation (John 1:1-3), all of which are consistent with Philo’s logos as discussed above, must mean that John identified the Son of God as the Logos of Greek Philosophy. Furthermore, since Philo has “numerous expressions implying that the Logos is a being in its own right” (RW, 117), John, in all likelihood, specifically had Philo’s Logos in mind. This conclusion is made undeniable by the many similarities between Philo’s Logos and the Biblical Son of God:

In both Philo and the NT, the Logos has an origin, has always existed, is subordinate to God, has existed first in time, has been uniquely generated, is the direct Agent of creation, maintains the universe, illuminates the soul, and is the mediator between God and man.

It is also possible to argue, in both Philo and the NT, that the Logos is a personal Being, and is “our God.”

There are also many important differences between Philo’s Logos and the NT’s Son of God, such as that Philo’s theology does not allow for the incarnation of the Logos, that “the reasoning capacity of a human mind is but a portion of the … Logos,” and many others not discussed above, but these differences do not take away the astounding similarities or our duty to explain these similarities.

Possible Explanations

So, how do we explain the similarities? Why did such concepts exist before the New Testament was written?

The Bible is not inspired.

Critical Scholars (theologians who do not believe in the supernatural or miracles but who, unfortunately, dominate the academic world) believe that the NT is simply the result of the evolution of human thought. Consequently, they claim that the writers of the NT were not really inspired in this regard but simply found Philo’s speculations a good explanation of who Christ is. Nash states:

“Various writers have attempted to undermine the authority of the New Testament by affirming that some of its teachings were borrowed from pagan philosophical systems of the day.”

A Different Logos

An alternative is to argue that the differences between Philo’s Logos and the NT’s Son of God are great and that Philo, consequently, did not influence the NT writers.

Ronald Nash adopts this approach. He proposes, for the following reasons, that “Philo’s Logos could not possibly function as a direct influence on the biblical concept of Logos:”

(1) “The Logos of the New Testament is a specific, individual, historical person. Philo’s Logos is not a person or messiah or savior but a cosmic principle … a metaphysical abstraction.”

(2) “It is impossible … to find any clear or consistent use of the word (Logos) in his many writings.”

(3) Philo could never have believed in anything like the Incarnation of the Logos.

(4) “Philo’s Logos could never be described as the Book of Hebrews pictures Jesus: suffering, being tempted to sin, and dying.”

(5) “The repeated stress in Hebrews of Jesus’ compassionate concern for His brethren (i.e., Christians) is incompatible with Philo’s view of the emotions.

Based on these differences, Nash sees “no need to postulate a conscious relationship between Philo (or Alexandrian Judaism) and the New Testament use of logos.”

I cannot support this argument: Yes, the Logos in the NT is very different from that described by Greek philosophy or by Philo, but, as discussed, the description of the Son as the Logos, who was with God in the beginning, through whom God created all things (John 1:1-3) is too specific and too similar to that of Philo to deny the influence of Greek philosophy.

Both are based on the Old Testament.

A third possible explanation is that Philo and the New Testament came to the same conclusions because they used the same source, namely, the Old Testament.

However, it is very unlikely that the NT could have derived these truths simply by interpreting the Old Testament. The NT is a quantum leap from the Old Testament. It cannot simply be an interpretation of it. And it was a quantum leap and a leap in the direction of the Logos of Greek philosophy.

And Philo did not derive these truths merely by interpreting the Old Testament. He derived his thoughts on the Logos explicitly from Greek philosophy.

Teaching Mechanism

A fourth possibility is that the writers of the NT used concepts from Philo to explain Jesus Christ to Greek readers in their own language. GotQuestions, following this approach, states that “John’s Gospel begins by using the Greek idea of a ‘divine reason’ or ‘the mind of God’ as a way to connect with the readers of his day.” However, the similarities between Philo and the NT, as discussed above, are too specific and of too extraordinary a nature to be simply explaining truths in Greek thought forms. These are major conceptual similarities.

To oppose pagan theology

Nash notes “a number of fascinating connections between the author of the Book of Hebrews (whom he takes to be Apollos) and Alexandrian Judaism.” He proposes that both the author and his audience were trained in Philo’s philosophy before their Christian conversion and that “the writer argues that … Christ is a better Logos (or mediator) than any of the mediators available to them in their former beliefs.” In other words, “the writer of Hebrews does not use this philosophical background to introduce Alexandrian philosophy into Christian thinking; rather he uses Christian thinking to reject his former views.”

Nash concludes that the Christian community’s “application of the concept of logos to Jesus Christ did not amount to an introduction of pagan thinking into Christianity. On the contrary, their Christian use of Logos was developed in conscious opposition to every relevant aspect of Philo’s philosophy.”

Nash implies that John refers to Jesus Christ as the logos for the same reason.

This may be part of the answer but it is very far from explaining all the similarities. For example, the description of the Logos in both as the direct Agent of creation cannot simply be an argument that Christ is a better mediator than the mediators of pagan philosophy.

Therefore, I propose that:

Greek Philosophy was inspired.

Observations:

1) The large number of significant conceptual similarities between Philo and the NT means that Philo was right in some respects about the Logos. Philo did not develop new ideas. He largely read the ideas of Greek philosophy into the Old Testament. So, when we say that Philo was right in some respects, then we are really saying that Greek philosophy was right in some respects.

2) God elected Israel to take His message to the nations of the world. So, God worked particularly and extraordinarily with the Jewish nation. But that does not mean that the Holy Spirit was not working with and inspiring people from other nations as well. God is always working with all peoples and all nations. He has prophets in other nations as well. For example, at the time of Christ, the wise men came from the east.

3) In contrast to the multiplicity of gods in the Greek pantheon, Greek philosophy is monotheistic. That was a quantum leap. Where did the Greek philosophers get this? It is not impossible that he learned this from contact with Judaism.

Proposal:

I propose as follows:

Firstly, to prepare the non-Jewish world to receive ‘the kingdom of God’ from the Jews, God, through His Holy Spirit, inspired Greek philosophers, either through contact with Judaism or directly through the Holy Spirit, to move away from Greek polytheism to monotheism and with many truths concerning the nature of God. Greek philosophy, therefore, was a combination of revealed truth and human wisdom.

Secondly, to make it easier for the writers of the NT to understand who Jesus is, God inspired Philo to harmonize Greek philosophy with the Old Testament.

Thirdly, through His Holy Spirit, God inspired the writers of the NT to selectively accept Philo’s teachings and to explain Jesus Christ as the Logos of Greek philosophy, as harmonized with the Old Testament by Philo.

Justifications:

I would like to support this proposal as follows:

Firstly, many of the teachings of the NT, for example, that God created all things through His Son, did not come from the Old Testament or from anything that Jesus said. We would assume, therefore, that, after Christ’s ascension, God’s Holy Spirit inspired the Bible writers to understand these things (John 16:12). The pagan philosophers were earnestly trying to understand the nature of reality. Nothing prevents the Holy Spirit from using them to reveal truths to the people of the world.

Secondly, the Logos Theology which the second-century church fathers developed went beyond what the Bible teaches and explicitly explains Jesus Christ as the Logos of Greek philosophy:

For example, they taught that the Logos is the ‘mind’ or ‘wisdom’ of God that always was part of God. However, God is unable to interact directly with physical matter. Therefore, when God decided to create the physical universe, His Logos became a separate reality (hypostasis) through whom God could create and maintain all things. See – The Apologists.

RPC Hanson states: “Ever since the work of Justin Martyr, Christian theologians had tended to use the identification of the pre-existent Son with some similar concept in contemporary Middle Platonism” (RH, 22-23).

Their development of Logos Theology implies that these church fathers assumed that Greek philosophy was inspired. If these Gentile church fathers, who lived in the same Greek culture as the Jewish writers of the NT, assumed that Greek philosophy was inspired, then it is possible that the writers of the NT did the same.

Thirdly, the Nicene Creed is influenced by Greek philosophy. RPC Hanson described the words substance (ousia), same substance (homoousios), and hypostasis as “new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day” (RH, 846). These words and concepts do not appear in the Bible.

Fourthly, since the Arian Controversy was caused by objection to these pagan concepts in the Nicene Creed, the “discussion and dispute between 318 and 381 were conducted largely in terms of Greek philosophy” (RH, xxi).

Fifthly, even today many philosophical concepts from ancient Greek philosophy, such as that God is immanent, transcendent, simple, immutable, impassable, and timeless, are generally accepted by church theologians even though NOT stated in the Bible. This is called Classical Theism.


Abbreviations

RH = RPC Hanson, RPC Hanson – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381

RW = Rowan Williams – Arius, Heresy & Tradition, 2001

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FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Rowan Williams – Arius, Heresy & Tradition, 2001
  • 2
    RPC Hanson – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381
  • 3
    RPC Hanson – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381
  • 4
    The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381
  • 5
    Arius, Heresy & Tradition, 2001
  • 6
    The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, page 10
  • 7
    The Confessions vii. 9

The ‘orthodox’ view when the Arian Controversy began

Purpose

The fourth-century Arian Controversy began as a disagreement about who the Son of God is, relative to God. Later in the fourth century, the Holy Spirit was included in the debate. In the next (fifth) century, church councils made decisions about the nature of the Son after His incarnation. But the purpose of this article is to ask what the ‘orthodox’ view was when the Controversy began in the year 318, if there was any ‘orthodox’ view at the time.

Overview of History

In the year 325, a church council at Nicaea accepted a creed we refer to as the Nicene Creed. For the next 55 years, the majority sentiment in the church was against that Creed; primarily against the word homoousios. The Creed uses that term to say that the Son is of the same ‘substance’ as the Father.

During those 55 years, a string of alternative creeds was formulated. Some said that the Son’s substance was similar to the Father’s (homo-i-ousians), others that His substance is different from the Father’s (hetero-ousios), and still others that, since the word and concept of the substance of God are not in Bible, Christian Creeds should not refer to God’s substance at all.

However, in the year 380, Emperor Theodosius made an end to the Controversy when he made one of the strands of Christianity, namely, Trinitarian Christology, the official religion of the Roman Empire. That strand was by no means the dominant strand, but the Imperial Forces ruthlessly suppressed the other strands of Christianity. The Nicene Creed was somewhat revised at the 381 Council at Constantinople, which Emperor Theodosius called and dominated.

When the Western Roman Empire divided into the nations of Europe in the fifth and later centuries, the official religion of the Roman Empire became the Roman Church. With the support of Emperor Justinian and the Eastern Roman Empire, the Roman Church grew in strength and dominated during the Middle Ages. Continuing the spirit of its origin – the Roman Empire – it cruelly suppressed all opposition.

During the Reformation, the Protestants rejected many of the practices of the Roman Church but retained the Nicene Creed. Consequently, today, that creed is accepted by almost all denominations.  

Was Nicene Christology ‘orthodox’?

For example, Steven Wedgeworth published an article in 2013 that speaks of Nicene theology as orthodoxy, implying that that theology already existed when the Arian Controversy began. For example, he refers to:

      • “The orthodoxy of Athanasius,”
      • “The orthodox bishops,”
      • “The defeat of Orthodoxy” in the year 360 at the Homoean Synod of Constantinople, and
      • Some defended “the orthodoxy” at the Western council at Arminium in 360.

He refers to anti-Nicens as ‘heretics’.

In opposition to the ‘orthodox’, Wedgeworth referred to the ‘heretics’. He said, for example, that “the heretics typically took pre-existing Christian or Jewish tradition, combined it with certain philosophical rhetoric.” (See – Did Arius mix theology with pagan philosophy?)

He described anti-Nicene theology as supposedly ‘orthodox’. For example, he refers to “supposed orthodox arguments (that) could perhaps be made against using ‘substance’ language in regards to the godhead.” In this regard, he mentions:

Origen, who have already rejected the term homoousios a century before, and

The Church Council in the previous century that condemned the word homoousios as Sabellian. That same council condemned Paul of Samatosota as a heretic.1Sabellianism is the teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three parts of the one God, however, in a different way than in Modalism.

The term “supposed” in the phrase “supposed orthodox arguments” indicates that these arguments are not really ‘orthodox’.

Conclusion

So, Wedgeworth seems to say that Nicene theology was the standard teaching with respect to Christ when the Controversy began.

Others say there was no orthodoxy.

Trevor Hart wrote an article in which he evaluated the book – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – by R.P.C. Hanson. Hart says that this book is the distillation of some twenty years of careful research and that nothing comparable in either scale or erudition exists in the English language. Hart wrote:

The main point Hanson wishes to make throughout the book is that what took place in the fourth century was not, as many accounts have suggested, a conflict between an ancient and established orthodoxy on the one hand and an emergent Christological heresy on the other.

For example:

What was ‘orthodox’ before the Controversy is heterodox today.

Much of what the Church Fathers taught “in the first three centuries … would have been forbidden as heterodox from 381AD onwards.” For example, as already stated, a church council in the third century rejected the term homoousios as Sabellian. And, as shown below, all of these church fathers described the Son as Subordinate to the Father.

Arius was a Conservative. He did not create something new.

The view which Arius himself represented had long since co-existed alongside others within the church. While the church traditionally describes Arius as an innovator, scholarship now agrees that Arius was a conservative. His theology was not an emergent Christological heresy.

Nicene Christology was not ‘orthodox’ when the Controversy began.

Hanson described the word homoousios and related words as “new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day” (RH, 846). For this reason, the claim is made that Nicene theology is an innovation. But Hart defends the Nicene view as “one strand of the ancient interpretative tradition over against others, and not to be misconstrued, therefore, as a discovery, or as an essentially novel doctrinal departure.”

It would be important to understand who taught the homoousian view before the Arian Controversy began. But the point is that Nicene Christology was not ‘orthodox’ when the Controversy began.

There were no clear boundaries.

When the controversy began, there were no “clearly defined groups and boundaries.” “Clear definition is just what was lacking, and was, in fact, what gradually came to be established as the century wore on.” Rowan Williams, in a 2001 book on Arius, agrees:

“Nicene apologists thus turn ‘Arianism’ into a self-conscious sect – as if the boundaries of Catholic identity were firmly and clearly drawn in advance. But the whole history of Arius and of Arianism reminds us that this was not so.” (RW, 83)

Lewis Ayres, in his 2004 book, wrote similarly:

“Original Nicene theology was a fluid and diverse phenomenon, and one that kept evolving.” Athanasius attempted to “offer a convincing version of that original Nicene theology” but “it was to be many years before those attempts evolved into what I shall term pro-Nicene theology.” (LA, 99)

It was a search for orthodoxy; not a defense of orthodoxy.

For these reasons, Hanson “replaces the language of controversy … with that of the metaphor of a search:

‘This is not the story of a defence of orthodoxy, but of a search for orthodoxy’ (RH, xix-xx).

Arius’s dispute with his bishop prompted a search for the truth rather than a simple restatement of something which ‘all Christians everywhere had always believed’.

“Orthodoxy on the subject of the Christian doctrine of God did not exist at first. The story is the story of how orthodoxy was reached, found, not of how it was maintained.” (RH, 870)

The orthodoxy was ‘Subordinationism’.

There is a third option, namely that orthodoxy did exist when the controversy began, but it was not what we know today as orthodoxy. Specifically, there was a general agreement in the church that the Son is subordinate to the Father. Hanson explains:

The Logos of Greek Philosophy

During the first three centuries, Greek philosophy was still a strong force in the Roman Empire. In that philosophy, God is immutable and is only able to communicate with our world of change and decay through an intermediary. For that reason, Middle Platonist philosophy postulated a nous or Second Hypostasis as an intermediary between the high God and the physical world. (Greek Philosophy)

The Apologists identified the Son as that Logos.

During those centuries, while Christians were still being persecuted by the Roman Empire, the Apologists (the pre-Nicene fathers) defended Christianity before the Gentile peoples of the Roman Empire. They found it effective to identify “the pre-existent Christ … with the nous or Second Hypostasis.” (Greek Philosophy)

Since the nous of Greek philosophy was “a second, created god lower than the High God” (Divine), the pre-Nicene fathers described Christ as “a subordinate though essential divine agent.” (Irenaeus) Therefore, as Hanson explains, going into the controversy, the orthodoxy was that Christ is subordinate to the Father:

The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century … was to make the Son into a demi-god.” (Divine)

“Indeed, until Athanasius began writing, every single theologian, East and West, had postulated some form of Subordinationism. It could, about the year 300, have been described as a fixed part of catholic theology.”2RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153.

“With the exception of Athanasius virtually every theologian, East and West, accepted some form of subordinationism at least up to the year 355.” (RH, xix)3RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988, p. xix.

“Subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement (end) of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy” (RH, xix).

Theos had a wide range of meanings.

Theos is the Greek word that is translated as “god” or “God,” depending on the context. Its Latin equivalent is Deus.

The pre-Nicene fathers did regard Christ as divine and described Him as theos, but as Hanson noted:

“The word theos or deus, for the first four centuries of the existence of Christianity had a wide variety of meanings. There were many different types and grades of deity in popular thought and religion and even in philosophical thought.” (theos)

In the thinking of the pre-Nicene fathers, “of course Christ was divine,” but since they assumed that many levels of divinity exist, the question that started the Arian Controversy was: “How divine, and what exactly did ‘divine’ mean in that context?” (theos)

Conclusions

A Complete Travesty

Hanson describes the conventional account of the Arian Controversy as a complete travesty. This current article discusses one aspect of that ‘travesty,’ namely that in the past, many writers have assumed that:

“Arianism … had been from the outset an easily recognised heresy in contrast to a known and universally recognised orthodoxy.” (95)

Consequently, the Arian Controversy was a struggle of an established orthodoxy against a newly developed heresy.

Furthermore, Athanasius defended the ‘orthodoxy’ as we know it today.

As this article shows, and as Hanson states, this “is far from being the case” (RH, 95). Hanson wrote:

“At the outset nobody had a single clear answer to the question raised” (RH, 870).

“At the beginning of the controversy nobody knew the right answer. There was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?’, certainly not in the form which was later to be enshrined in the Creed of Constantinople.” (Beginning)

The orthodoxy as we know it today, did not yet exist. It was only created through that ‘search’ or ‘controversy’, particularly by the Cappadocian Fathers in the period AD 360-380.

Logos-theology was orthodox.

If there was an ‘orthodoxy’ when the Controversy began, it was the Logos-theology of the Apologists, in which the Son is a subordinate Intermediary between the High God and His creation:

“The great majority of the Eastern clergy (at Nicaea) … were simply concerned with maintaining the traditional Logos-theology of the Greek-speaking Church.”4The Rise of Christianity by W.H.C. Frend

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FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Sabellianism is the teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three parts of the one God, however, in a different way than in Modalism.
  • 2
    RPC Hanson, “The Achievement of Orthodoxy in the Fourth Century AD” in Rowan Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy (New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989) p. 153.
  • 3
    RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988, p. xix.
  • 4
    The Rise of Christianity by W.H.C. Frend