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Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel

In Him We Live, and Move, and Have Our Being (part one)

In the preface to Christianity and Civilisation, first delivered as Gifford Lectures in 1947, the Swiss theologian Emil Brunner sought “to formulate and to justify [his] conviction that only Christianity is capable of furnishing the basis of a civilisation which can rightly be described as human”(v). A civilization is largely determined by the prevailing answers that its various cultures give to basic questions about being, truth, time, man’s place in the universe, meaning, justice, freedom, and creativity, and these are the topics Brunner examines in Christianity and Civilisation. In his lecture “The Problem of Meaning,” he asserts:

Apart from the answer of the Christian Gospel…the most important solution of the problem of meaning within Western history is that of Greek philosophy(63).

Narrowing his exploration to these two worldviews, Brunner traces each of their origins and principles, and the effects of each upon Western civilization throughout historical periods and into our own modern time.

In this preface, Brunner speaks of his hesitancy to take on this work, feeling a disproportion between the topic and his “equipment for dealing with it,” as it is a vast subject requiring expertise in many areas. He commits himself to this labor, however, as he believes it to be a topic in urgent need of explication.

A feeling of urgency likewise compels me to look at these two prevailing Western worldviews, but within a greatly narrowed scope: one encounter between a minister of the Christian gospel and some Athenian philosophers: Paul’s sermon given in the middle of the first century on the Areopagus (Hill of Ares) to the Stoics and Epicureans, as recorded in Acts 17. This encounter is the earliest record of the Christian gospel confronting Greek humanism, and so Paul’s impressions, actions, and statements are worth close examination, as they provide inspired insight into the fundamental differences between these two worldviews, differences that were apparent to each of their proponents, but whose significance was fully understood only by the Apostle who, having been given Christ, the wisdom of God, had superseded the parameters of mind-bound philosophy. As George Fox said, “They that have Christ within have that which is above the heathen philosophies.”

Through this exercise, I hope to introduce Friends to the claim (or to substantiate it, for those already familiar) that original prophetic, primitive Christianity differs from the precepts informing Liberal Quaker belief and practice today, based as they are upon suppositions whose roots lie in Greek metaphysics, and not prophetic faith. The one thing needful–discovered, proclaimed, and suffered for by early Friends, as well as the prophets and apostles before them–has been lost to our religious society, and I hope that those who share my concern for reclaiming prophetic Quaker faith–or who are willing to hear more of this matter–will later turn to Brunner’s lecture series for a more comprehensive treatment of the differences between these two worldviews: Gifford Lectures.

In the following paragraphs, which are taken from his lecture “Man in the Universe,” Brunner sets out the fundamental conception of Greek humanism; in the second paragraph, he presents the contrasting principle of Christian humanism:

[Greek humanism] Man discovers in himself that which distinguishes him from the animal and nature as a whole and elevates him above, the Nous or the Logos, that spiritual principle which underlies all specifically human activity and gives man’s work the character and content of human dignity. Now, this Nous or Logos is, at the same time, the principle which links mankind with the divine; the Logos is not merely the principle of human thought and meaningful action, but also that divine force which orders the world and makes it a Cosmos. It is the divine spark in human reason by which alone man emancipates himself from nature and places himself above it. It is that same divine spark in his reason in which he experiences the divinity of his innermost being….Just as the divine Logos permeates nature and orders it, so it also permeates and orders man. But in man this divine principle becomes conscious knowledge. It is in the recognition of himself as partaker in the divine Logos that man becomes conscious of his specific essence and value; his humanity is, at the same time, divinity. [Underlining is mine in this and other quoted passages.]

In Biblical revelation the continuum of primitive mind is disrupted in an entirely different manner….God is no more the immanent principle of the world, but its Lord and Creator. He, the Lord-creator, alone is divine….Man in spite of every thing he has and is, with his spiritual as well as natural powers, is not divine. He is a creature…Man alone is created in the image of God…And this imago dei is the principle of Christian humanism as distinguished from Greek….man’s being created in the image of God does not imply any kind of divine spiritual substance in man, but only his relation to God….Christian humanism therefore, as distinguished from the Greek, is of such a kind that the humane character of existence is not automatically a possession of man, but is dependent on his relation to God, and remains a matter of decision (77-79).

Some forms of false worship–idolatry–are easier to recognize than others: the lust and determination to secure social position and power; to indulge in animal sensuality; or to wield brute force are obvious signs of error. More difficult to discern are the indicators of a subtle idolatry in which natural human power is worshiped for its ability to orchestrate the good life, indicated by elevation of values and principles to highest prominence. Such idolatry is rarely challenged in Scripture, perhaps because it comes to the fore only when civic life is stable and free from grosser error. Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus is the earliest example of a challenge to this form idolatry, namely, a challenge to the proposition that divinity resides within human beings as a natural attribute.

(I hope to post the second part of this paper tomorrow.)

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