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Reading the Signs of the Times Rightly

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Randall B. Smith - published on 10/25/14


Adonai in Hebrew, translated by Jews of the third century B.C. with the Greek word Kyrios, then translated into Latin as Dominus, thus the English word “Lord”) is the word the Jewish people would use instead of saying the sacred four letters (YHWH) that, according to Exodus, represented God’s reply to Moses’s question:  “Who shall I say sent me?”: “Tell them that ‘I am who am’ sent you.”  Thus, when Paul says that Jesus is the one “whose name is above all other names” and in calling him “the Lord,” it was not unclear that these early Christians were claiming that Christ was the same as the one God they all worshiped, since all Jews were dedicated monotheists and defined themselves over against other cultures and faiths precisely in this way.  

But now let’s say I’m a Christian living in the Greek world of the Fourth Century A.D., and I’m talking to Greeks and Romans. For many of them there is not merely one “God,” there are many gods.  So when Christians preach that Jesus Christ is the “Son of God,” someone schooled in classical Greek literature might be asking himself: “Do you mean ‘son of god’ like Hercules was the son of Zeus — part god, part human?  Or do you mean ‘son of god’ like Apollo was the son of Zeus — fully a god?  Or do you mean ‘son of God’ the way, say, Achilles or Aeneas was a ‘son of a god’ — fully human, but with divine parentage”? There was plenty of room for confusion.

To make matters worse, some bishops trained in Greek philosophy were suggesting that “the Son” was something like the “first emanation” from the God-head in accord with what were thought to be very sophisticated neo-platonic ideas at the time. Church leaders like the Bishop Arius were teaching the Son was the first creation of the Father, and that, to use the official phrase: “There was a time when He [the Son] was not.”

To make a long story short, in response to these challenges (both cultural and intellectual), representative bishops from around the world and from all parts of the Church got together in 325 A.D. at the Council of Nicea to, in essence, “scrutinize the signs of the times in light of the Gospel message.” And although the Council fathers found a lot of good things that Greek thought and Greek philosophy had contributed to the Church, they recognized that there was a new element of confusion that had arisen as well. The Council fathers did not reject Greek philosophy outright; indeed, the definition they would eventually promulgate, clarifying that the Son is “one in being” (homo-ousios) with the Father, a phrase that, controversially, appeared nowhere in the Scriptures, was in large part drawn from the categories of Greek philosophy. But by no means did the Council fathers merely “give in” to the “spirit of the age.” They understood the challenges they faced; and they responded in such a way as to restate and clarify the Gospel message within this new historical, cultural, and intellectual context.

It goes without saying that we aren’t exactly facing today the same challenges Council fathers faced. Unlike our forebears, we don’t have Christians around the world willing to beat up bishops and throw them out of their cathedrals because they have become entranced with the categories of neo-platonic philosophy—but they did in the fourth century. We might think they were a bit ridiculous, but then again, they might find it more than a bit odd that people in our time are invading Churches to deface them because bishops were denying that two men can get “married,” have “sex,” and raise children.  

Each age thinks of its own controversies as eminently sensible, whereas future ages tend to find them somewhat ludicrous. Did people ever really argue (with what were thought to be real, “scientific” arguments) that Negroes were not “fully evolved” humans, or that interracial Jewish marriages were damaging the “purity” of the Aryan state?  Yes, they certainly did. And plenty of people believed them — just as plenty of people now think that whether or not a fetus is a “human person” is a very legitimate question.

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