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The Infinite Heresy

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Throughout church history, the difficulty of comprehending the infinite and finite has played itself out in many ways, just as it has in philosophy. While the divine revelation of the Bible may have helped to delineate the line between God and man, the Christian church has still had its difficulties in accepting and practicing it. The first-century Jewish philosopher Philo, whose doctrine of the Logos was something of a concoction of the Jewish scriptures and Greek philosophy, heavily influenced early Christianity. His teaching of the literal and allegorical understanding of scripture is still being applied today, to differing degrees. The Gnostics of the early church took much of their fanciful interpretations of scripture from Philo’s hermeneutics. His “two interpretations, however, are not of equal importance: the literal sense is adapted to human needs; but the allegorical sense is the real one, which only the initiated comprehend. Hence Philo addresses himself to the μύσται (‘initiated’) among his audience, by whom he expects to be really comprehended.”[1] This clever twist of teaching removed the possibility of understanding for most common men and women, essentially making the Infinite unattainable.

Justin Martyr, a second-century convert to Christianity, “searched in vain for truth. Several non-Christian philosophies attracted him but he could not find satisfaction in any of them. Then, one day, walking by the sea-side, he fell into conversation with an old man, a Christian, who convinced him of ‘the truth as it is in Jesus.’” [2] Justin’s later writings made clear that he understood Philo’s Logos to be the person of Jesus Christ, but not quite exactly the same Logos that the apostle John wrote of in his gospel. However, Justin was clear that this Logos was the infinite in finite form, the “god-man.” Despite the difficulties that he had in expressing his view of how this worked together, Justin was “neither Arian nor Athanasian; but his whole theological tendency, in opposition to the heresies, was evidently towards the orthodox system, and had he lived later, he would have subscribed to the Nicene creed.” [3]

In similar fashion, Tertullian recognized the futility of trying to marry Greek philosophy with the revealed Word of God. His famous question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” was meant to show the impossibility of comprehending the infinite by exclusive means of finite reasoning. He understood that self-revelation was necessary from the Infinite Himself. Further, if this has occurred—as Tertullian believed that it had—finite methods will always fall short; being arbitrary at best and deceit at worst. This conflict is woven throughout the next eighteen hundred years of church history and is no less prevalent in the church today than it was in Justin and Tertullian’s day.

If one begins to consider the Christian system as a total system, one must begin with the infinite-personal triune God who is there, and who was communicating and loving before anything else was. If one begins to consider how sinful man can return to fellowship with God, one must begin with Christ, His person and work. But if one begins to consider the differences between Christianity and rationalistic philosophy’s answers, one must begin by understanding that man and history are now abnormal. It is not that philosophy and Christianity deal with completely different questions, but that historic Christianity and rationalistic philosophy differ in their answers—including the important point as to whether man and history are now normal or abnormal. They also differ in that rationalistic thinking starts with only the knowledge finite man can glean for himself. [4]

The tension between the infinite and the finite continuously rears its head through the two-thousand years of church history in the never-ending battle between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Pelagius and Augustine debated vigorously over Augustine’s phrase in his Confessions, “give what thou commandest, and command what thou wilt” (Book 10, Chapter 29). Pelagius took issue with this and argued that God would never command something that man is not able to do. But for Augustine, “the confrontation of God and soul will always be resolved in favor of the absolute authority of God and the contingency of the soul.... For him to have provided a coherent picture would have been for him to fall into what he conceived as the Pelagian trap, claiming to know on human authority what can be surmised only by the divine.” [5] Similarly, over a thousand years later, Jacob Arminius found philosophical fault with the Reformed doctrine of total depravity and began teaching that fallen man still has a fragment of the divine within him. Man, in Arminius’ view, was not utterly and completely dependent upon the revealed Word from the Infinite God. Both Pelagius and Arminius were declared to be heretics, but their Greek philosophical doctrines of the “divine” nature of man are still taught in many churches and denominations, even today. We would do well to remember that there is “nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9-10). The tension between the infinite and the finite will always exist, and we, the finite, will always be on the futile side if we insist on reasoning on our own terms.

Footnotes:
[1]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philo
[2] S.M. Houghton, Sketches From Church History (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1980), 11.
[3] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume 2: Ante-Nicene Christianity A.D. 100-325 (Peaboby, MA: Hendrickson, 2002 [1858]), 550.
[4]
Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer: A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture, 5 volumes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1982), 1: 113-114.
[5]
Richard H. Popkin, editor, The Columbia History of Western Philosophy (New York: MJF Books, 1999), 136-137.

 

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