Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Saint Paul's Application of Greek Philosophy

Alice C. Linsley

The Apostle Paul is one of the most fascinating and controversial figures of history and one of the most important leaders of the early Church. He was born about 10 A.D. in the Roman province of Cilicia, in the town of Tarsus. According to Jerome, Paul’s parents came from Galilee. Both were Jewish and of the tribe of Benjamin. Paul received thorough grounding in the Hebrew Scriptures. 

The elders of the church at Antioch recognized God's call on this man and commissioned him and Barnabas to be evangelists. In his missionary journeys Paul traveled over 57,000 miles and he endured many hardships and persecutions. St. John Chrysostom speaks of Paul's letter to the Romans as “a spiritual trumpet.”

Paul has been accused of creating a new religion. A Hebrew play on words reveals how many Jews view Paul. They say that Jesus created a sect (kat) within Judaism, but Paul turned it into a religion (dat). Such a view makes it difficult to understand Paul’s writings which are an elucidation of the very old Messianic Tradition that he received from his Horite Hebrew ancestors (his Horim).

Paul received his rabbinical training at the feet of the great rabbi Gamaliel the Elder. Gamaliel was the grandson of another great rabbi, Hillel the Elder (65 B.C. - 20 A.D.). These men believed in the bodily resurrection, a belief of their Horim, but which had been set aside by the ruling party, the Sadducees. This may have been one reason that Gamaliel came to the defense of the Apostles.

When the Apostles appeared before the Sanhedrin they gave testimony to Jesus as the Messiah and when the Sanhedrin “heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”(Acts 5:33-39)

Paul's writings assume that Messiah has come in the person of Jesus Christ, and Paul addresses the implications of that for the Church, for the individual believer, and for the whole world. He concerned himself with doctrine because he believed that he was divinely appointed to deliver to the churches what he had received (Received Tradition). He regarded himself not only as a defender of the Received Tradition, but also as one with no authority to change it. Paul takes this charge very seriously to that point that he demands that his letters be read in the churches. He writes, “My orders, in the Lord’s name, are that this letter is to be read to all the brothers” (I Th. 5:27). He gives the same order in Second Corinthians 1:1 and in Colossians 4:16. Paul defended his apostleship and chastised the church at Corinth for tolerating those who “preach a Jesus other than the one we preached” (II Cor. 11:4).

Paul was well versed in Greek philosophy. Gamaliel taught his students Greek philosophy so that his pupils would return to their Greek-speaking provinces prepared to be leaders. In addition, Paul absorbed much philosophy while growing up in Tarsus. In his hometown there was an outstanding philosophical academy. The Greek geographer Strabo considered the Tarsus academy to be better than the academies of Athens and Alexandria. We do not know whether Paul received a formal education in philosophy, but it is almost certain that he would have listened to great discussions and debates in the public houses and in the town square where forums were held. (See Risto Santala's "Paul's Childhood and Education".)

The Stoic philosopher Athenodorus governed Tarsus. He died before Paul came of age, but his teachings were upheld by his successor Nestor, who Paul would have heard speak. Athenodorus said, "Every man's conscience is his god” and regarded duty to be a matter of the conscience, a concept that Paul develops in his epistles. In Titus 1:15-16, Paul warns against those whose "minds and consciences" have been corrupted so that their actions "deny God." (For other examples, see 1 Cor. 10:28-30 and Hebrews 9-10). The word “conscience” is not found in the Hebrew Bible, but it appears three places in the Septuagint: Job 27:6, Ecclesiasticus 10:20 and Wisdom 17:11.

Christians often overlook Paul's application of Greek philosophy and miss some of the more subtle points of his theology. There is a tendency to dismiss the influence of Greek philosophy on Paul because of his warning to the Corinthians not to seek salvation through philosophy which Paul contrasts to the “Wisdom of God” hidden in Christ. Apparently in the Corinthian church there were people who viewed the human soul as belonging to another realm but fallen into the sense world. In this view philosophy was necessary to purify the soul and thereby return to a disembodied life in which one could enjoy true reality.

Writing to the Galatians, Paul faced a different problem. Here he contrasts Christ, the “Righteousness of God” with attempts to gain righteousness through human efforts, specifically adherence to the Law.  He writes, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us…that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:13-14). It is clear that Paul is not dismissing Greek philosophy, but rather striking contrasts that he wants his readers to heed.

Paul's use of Plato

Plato’s theory of forms is easily incorporated by Paul because it is consistent with the Biblical worldview. In fact, Plato studied for 13 years in Memphis under a Horite priest. (Abraham's people were Horites.) In Egypt Plato became acquainted with the ideas of the eternal soul, the resurrection of the body, and the belief that the patterns of earth reflect the eternal patterns of heaven. This last belief is expressed in the Lord's prayer that God's will be "done on earth as it is in heaven."

Paul's training in Greek philosophy is evident as we examine his approach to Old Testament figures. Consider 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5 which demonstrate a Platonic approach to Christology. The first man, Adam, is imperfect but the second Man, Jesus Christ, is the perfect and true Form of humanity. God made humans in God’s image and likeness, but sin marred that image so that the first is imperfect. In Platonism, types are imperfect reflections of the true eternal and immutable Forms. Paul uses Platonic language to explain Jesus Christ to the Corinthians and the Romans who would have been familiar with this language.

In Colossians 2:16-22, Paul uses Platonism to argue against his adversaries. He writes, "Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ." These point to what is found in Christ, but they are not the real thing because they all perish (v. 22).

In Hebrews 10:1, he writes, "The Law is only a shadow (Greek skian) of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. The Apostle expresses his epistemology in Platonic terms in 1 Corinthians 13:12: For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."

Paul's use of Aristotle

For the Apostle Paul the ontologically significant state is not “saved” but “justified.” Consider Romans 8:29-31:

For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?…

Paul seems to be saying "once justified always justified." He most certainly is not saying "once saved, always saved" because for Paul salvation is something that is working in us and that we are working out until the day of Christ's appearing. He tells the Philippians: So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-13)

Likewise, sanctification is a process whereby God brings us to the fulfillment or realization of our potential. Having been created in the divine image, the justified are becoming conformed to the image of His Son. This too continues until the day of Christ appearing. For this Paul gives praise to God, writing "…to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us…be glory." (Eph 3:20-21)

Paul wants the Christians to whom he writes to be confident of God’s power to do all of this. He writes, "For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus." (Phil. 1:6) For Paul, the synergistic working out of the divine energies is such that he can say with confidence: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." (Gal. 2:20)

Paul continues an idea found in both Plato and Aristotle, namely that the human telos is achieving a likeness to God (homoiōsis theōi). Our part is to co-operate. St. Basil referred to the operation of divine power as the "divine energies" (Treatise on the Holy Spirit). St. Basil argued the ontological and teleological synergistic integration of the material and supernatural realms. For St. Basil the world intones the hymns of God; it manifests itself as an expression of the Creator and therefore is a proper tutor for increasing wisdom.

In Paul’s epistles the outworking of divine purpose and power is called energeia, a term first used by Aristotle. For Aristotle, the term had various applications: energy, active, operation or effectiveness, but the earliest application, according to Dr. David Bradshaw, pertains to activity as the exercise of a capacity. Dr. Bradshaw writes, "For example, Paul refers to himself as 'striving according to Christ's working (or energy, energeia), which is being made effective (or actualized, energoumenēn) in me' (Col. 1:29). Here it would seem that the divine energy serves two distinct functions. It is at work within Paul, transforming him, so that from this standpoint he is the object of God's activity; at the same time it finds expression in Paul's own activity, so that he may also be seen as the agent or conduit through whom God is working." (From here.)

In Paul's writings this concept is linked to another Aristotelian concept - that of telos: the realization of an entity's end purpose; the actualization of potential. It is clear that without the divine energy, without the divine power at work in us, that we can accomplish nothing of value. In this, Paul echoes Jesus' own words: "Apart from Me, you can do nothing." (Jn. 15:5)


  1. Of interest to note that the Scot David Hume, despairing of Hebrew mythical intrigues and theological squabbles after the English Civil War and the defeat of Cromwell, suggests polytheism as a reasonable approach. A. Beattie

  2. Hume's objection to miracles was based on false information he had received about the received tradition from a "learned" Anglican cleric. See this:

  3. One Greek word/concept that St. Paul uses that I do not discuss in this article is pleroma. It means the fullness of all things in heaven and on earth, both invisible and visible. The term "pleroma" was used among the Gnostics to describe the metaphysical unity of all things. However, Paul uses the term to speak about how the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ in bodily form (Col. 2:9). Paul’s use of pleroma, as well the appearance of this idea in other New Testament writings, suggests that the term was widely circulating in apostolic times. Against the Gnostics, the biblical writers used it to explain that the mystical Body of Christ is the church, which fills heaven (glorified Saints) and earth (militant Saints). The Church is the depository of the fullness of all things hidden in Christ. Paul wants us to know that we are “those entrusted with the mysteries of God”, that we may proclaim the Word so that hearers “may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (I Cor. 4:1, Eph. 3:9 and Col. 2:2).

    There is a significant difference between the Gnostic application of “pleroma” and Paul’s application. For the Gnostics, the pleroma is vague and undifferentiated, but for Paul the pleroma is the manifestation of the benefits of the “blood of Jesus.” Paul never allows us to wander far from the blood of Jesus. The cross is central in Pauline theology.

    1. I am amazed at the nuances of the bible in general, show the interrelatedness of God's creation. I searched for the topic of Paul and the Greek philosophers, because my uncle said that the Greek philosophers came before Christianity.Thanks!

    2. This is such an excellent article. Thank you so much for this. I am trying to see if such ideas have any implications to Paul’s concept of God, the father, and the son. An interesting case that comes to mind is his use of those terms in 1 Corinthians 11. Can we have an email discussion and I hedge these concepts out with you? Or can you continue those thoughts above with their possible implications for 1 Corinthians 11?

  4. Robert, I encourage you to join the Facebook group The Bible and Anthropology where we can discuss this further. We are talking about Greek philosophy at this very moment.


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