Wednesday, November 4, 2020

New Testament and Early Church Conceptions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness


Carl Heinrich Boch
Transfiguration of Jesus 1872

Upon undertaking a series of Christian perspectives on Truth, Beauty, and Goodness we quite understandably find echoes of what we've previously considered in Hebrew scripture and Jewish philosophical thought. Furthermore, there are overlaps and parallels with at least some Greek philosophical positions that gradually were integrated into Christian thought by the early church fathers. In Christianity there developed an openness between the revealed truth of revelation as inherited from the Jews and the truths of reason as encountered among the rapidly converting Gentiles. Despite significant secularisation over the past few centuries, social mores and societal structures based upon such an amalgamated perspective persist to this day, being broadly diffused through the culture of Western civilisation.

Goodness and Truth in the New Testament

"There is none Good but One, that is, God." - Matthew 19:17 KJV*

The insistence on the Unity of God is carried over from Hebrew scripture. God is One and God is the Good. God is absolute goodness, the only source. Nothing else is inherently good, rather only contingently so in as much as it partakes in God's goodness. In a relative sense, material things can be good if they fulfill their purpose. A "good" tree can be expected to produce "good" fruit. The goodness of human beings include purpose informed by knowledge. The "good" shepherd knows his sheep. Such examples are furnished only as parables or loose material analogies pointing to the good as something spiritual. 

"For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do." - Romans 7:18, 19

Interestingly, what is here said to possess the body is evil not the good. Evil thus has a positive, that is to say tangible existence. This is confirmed by Saint Paul's further admonishment to the church of Corinth against pride, "Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?" - 1 Corinthians 5:6. In contrast to Greek and particularly Platonic thought, evil is not merely a deprivation of the good rather it maintains its own existence, one with potential to corrupt the good. The good appears to be not native to the body but a struggle for the Christian to adopt, something acquired through knowledge. To a point this accords with the teaching of Socrates that a lack of doing good is based on ignorance, to know good is to act right. While Saint Paul also preached that knowledge is essential; nevertheless, both he and Saint James goes on to insist that doing good is not automatic and that to know the good and not practise it was an even greater evil: "Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin." - James 4:17

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon
Crucifixion 1822

"That they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent." - John 17:3.

Once again the unity of God is stressed but this time in connection with truth and the role of the Christ as an emissary, a mediator between God and mankind of that truth. Furthermore, the imagery surrounding Christ involves light, explicitly so in the account of the transfiguration where his body and garments glow in blinding radiance whereas by contrast, midday darkness typifies his death at the crucifixion. So it is that truth is associated with light throughout the New Testament and particularly in the personage of Jesus Christ, "That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world." - John 1:9. The immateriality of truth is consistently reinforced and commensurate with the spiritual essence of the divine, "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." - John 4:24.

Truth was likewise associated with knowledge as divine revelation, both in the Law given to the nation of Israel as well as God's word as related by the prophets and finally through the gospel or good tidings of the Messiah, "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." - John 8:32. Repeatedly the spirit of truth is spoken of as being "in" the believer like a possession, described as a kind of "gnosis" or direct knowledge and awareness, a participation with the divine source of truth. While the faithful thus remained incarnate in this world and in their body, to become Christian was to be inhabited and thus transformed by spirit and truth. 

The Early Church Fathers and the Influence of Greek Philosophy

Saint Justin Martyr
With the rapid expansion of Christianity throughout the Roman empire, there would be inevitable contact and intellectual exchange with Greek philosophy, most notably in Egyptian Alexandria where Neoplatonism held sway. Many of the early church fathers had first been trained in Greek philosophy before coming to Christianity. This is a matter of autobiographical record for the 2nd century Justin Martyr who dabbled in Stoicism, progressing to Pythagoreanism before settling on Platonism prior to his conversion. Justin Martyr found accord between the Platonic concept of God as immaterial reason or Nous and the Christian view of God as spirit and truth. A Platonic cosmos ordered by the Demiurge matched up relatively nicely if somewhat imprecisely with a material world created by God that was thus good, being informed by divine purpose. How does Justin Martyr account for truth encountered in philosophy predating Christian revelation? His justification draws upon Stoic philosophical theory of the immaterial logoi spermatikoi immanent in matter, postulating that these men, "by means of the engrafted seeds of the Logos which was implanted in them, had a dim glimpse of the truth." 

Justin's successors, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, likewise place a great deal of emphasis on the Logos, seeking to reconcile the description by Saint John with that found in Greek philosophy, "In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made." - John 1:1-3. However, such an attempted reconciliation presents difficulties as the Platonic concept was of a cosmos ex-materia, an eternal material reality separate from God, one only organised by a distinct Logos. Alternatively, the predominant Neoplatonic conceptions were based on an hierarchy of being, emanations of the divine, a cosmos ex-deo in which the Logos is again not co-eternal as an independent being, rather is formed as an initial outpouring of the One. These are fundamentally very different metaphysics than the Jewish tradition inherited in Christianity of a creation by God ex-nihilo. Clearly, there is a lot to be hammered out over the next couple of centuries as to what exactly Christianity will be able to integrate from Greek philosophy. What has come down to us as orthodox Christianity is aided in its establishment by defining itself in contrast with what it rejects, both from Greek philosophy and even more so of competing ideas from further East.

The Rejection of Gnosticism

Just as Christianity encountered Greek philosophy as it spread West, it likewise came into contact with preexisiting theology coming from the East. Many of the ideas associated with Gnosticism can be traced back to Persia and Zorastrianism. Nevertheless, Gnosticism embraces many varied beliefs. What is of interest here are fundamental concepts commonly held by Gnostics who identified as Christians that were treated as heretical by the mainstream beliefs of later orthodox Christianity.

Gnosis, is a Greek word for "knowledge", not knowing how or what, rather knowing who. It describes the type of intimate knowledge when you say that you know someone e.g. The path to gnostic salvation did not rest in belief or faith in doctrine, instead only by achieving gnosis, that is to say a direct apprehension of divine truth. The gnostic metaphysic is essentially dualist. The material world is described not as fallen rather formed flawed right from the start. This wicked Demiurge maker is sometimes described as the errant progeny of the divine Sophia or wisdom and identified with Yahweh of the Old Testament. The matter from which the cosmos is formed has an ambiguous status. It seems to be pre-existent and separate from God. However, what animates it and us is said to be a spark of the divine captured in its darkness, providing a path of return from this alien existence as strangers in a strange land. Gnostic Christians did not expect salvation by Christ as much as they expected to become Christ themselves.

Such a dualistic metaphysic of matter as evil and spirit alone as good presented some conflict with a Christian belief of creation ex-nihilo. Mainstream Christianity might have viewed mankind as fallen but it saw the cosmos as God's creation, thus essentially good. This belief is what made the Incarnation of Christ as the last Adam, the perfect man possible. For a Gnostic, mortal flesh was evil and so he rejected a literal interpretation of the Incarnation, claiming that either the man Jesus was possessed or alternatively was a mere illusion projected by the divine. Another consequence to their dualistic stance was an extreme form of asceticism that preached withdrawal from especially sensual, pleasurable activities such as food, drink, and sex. The gnostic influence was present right from the beginning of Christianity as Saint Paul warns against such, "doctrines of devils...forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused." - 1 Timothy 4:1-4. At no time did Gnostic Christianity dominate; however, it did continue as a persecuted heresy well into the 13th century when the last of the Cathars in France were forced to convert to Catholicism or face massacre.

Carcassonne, France

Until this point in Christianity's development beauty has not been a point of focus to the degree of goodness and truth. However, that is all about to change with the writings of Saint Augustine which we'll consider in the next essay in the series.

*All passages are from the Kings James Version unless otherwise noted

Contributed by Patrick Webb

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