The tension between the two visions, Hellenic and Biblical, was sharp and obvious. Greeks and Christians were dwelling, as it was, in two different worlds. Accordingly, the categories of Greek philosophy were inadequate for the description of the world of Christian faith. The main emphasis of Christian faith was precisely on the radical contingency of the cosmos, on its contingency precisely in the order of existence. Indeed, the very existence of the world pointed, for Christians, to the Other, as its Lord and Creator. On the other hand, the creation of the world was conceived as a sovereign and “free” act of God, and not as something, which was “necessarily” implied or inherent in God’s own Being. Thus, there was actually a double contingency: on the side of the cosmos —, which might not have existed at all; and on the side of the Creator — who could not have created anything at all. God would be God whether he created or not. The very existence of the world was regarded by the Christians as a mystery and as a miracle of Divine Freedom.
Christian thought matured gradually and slowly, by a way of trial and retraction. The early Christian writers would often describe their new vision of faith in the terms of old and current philosophy. They were not always aware of, and certainly did not always guard against, the ambiguity, which was involved in such an enterprise. By using Greek categories Christian writers were forcing upon themselves, without being consciously aware of it, a world, which was radically different from that in which they lived by faith. They were therefore often caught between the vision of their faith and the inadequacy of the language they were using. This predicament must be taken very seriously. Etienne Gilson once suggested that “la pensee chretienne apportait du vin nouveau, mais les vieilles outres etaient encore bonnes” [“Christian thought brought the new wine but the old skins were still good enough.”]. It is an elegant phrase but is it not rather an optimistic overstatement? Indeed, the skins did not burst at once, but was it really to the benefit of nascent Christian thought? The skins were badly tainted with an old smell, and in those skins the wine acquired an alien flavour. In fact, the new vision required new terms and categories for its adequate and fair expression. This problem is apparent in the earliest Christian literature — if the Apologists are understood from within the mind of the Church, it is clear about, which they are speaking. But as soon as one attempts to understand the Apologists “from without,” from categories other than the apostolic deposit, one can read into their thought many things, which they would have rejected. It was an urgent task for Christians “to coin new names, as St. Gregory of Nazianzus was to point out — το καίοτομεϊν τα ονόματα.
Fr. Georges Florovsky, The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century, chapter nine.
This isn’t new of course and echoes themes that I have encountered in Zizioulas’ Being as Communion (which I have not abandoned, despite all appearances to the contrary) on the relationship between Greek thought and the biblical witness. But it also raises the question for me of the extent to which our current thought processes and cultural and philosophical assumptions enable or hinder the expression of faith.
Perhaps I noticed this particularly because I recently came across the website of a theological college that I once had contact with. Reading its mission statement, I was struck not just by the emphasis on contextuality in theological education, but that this involves allowing the tradition to be transformed by the context. Now there was a time when I was involved such academic circles – and I remain committed to some of their concerns – but it now strikes me as being insufficiently critical of the factors operating in the contemporary context, and of the extent to which they form us and condition our responses.