The Metaphysics of Exodus: Mascall on the intersection of Hellenism and Judeo-Christian Thought

I know I’ve been quite forward with my being a fan of Eric L. Mascall, but he just nailed it so many times. Here in his book “He Who Is” (which can be read free online, see link), he speaks to the reality of how Hellenism and the Christian project intersected by the design of divine providence, and so we don’t need to become Tertullianites and begin speaking Tertullianese about the bifuration of Jerusalem and Athens. I might quibble about omitting some earlier thinkers on the synthesis of Greek thought and Christian revelation. Surely, as Mascall notes later in the book, the early Fathers did lean on Platonic structure and thought in the framing of doctrine, even if they were not expressive of doing so.

Another antidote to be found here is for that form of apologetics which shuns philosophy and/or foundational epistemology (from the ground up). Too often classical thinkers are thought of as believing everything (the sum of doctrine) is to be guaged by naturalist theology, or that my mixing the two the genuine Christian revelation can be distorted to become something it isn’t. I can’t imagine telling this to St. Maximus the Confessor.

Enough of me. Mascall writes:

“Historically speaking, the Christian doctrine of God arises from two main sources: Jewish religion, with its culmination in Jesus of Nazareth, and the philosophy of the Graeco-Roman world. For the Christian Church emerged from the self-contained milieu of Judaism, with its rigid, and indeed almost fanatical monotheism, into the syncretistic culture of the Roman Empire with its Gods many and Lord many. And the history of the Christian controversies of the first five centuries is very largely the story of the adaption of the categories of Greek thought to the Christian revelation and of the successful resistance on the part of the Church to all attempts to distort her Gospel in the process. “The contrast between the Jewish and Greek approaches to the problem of existence is very largely the contrast between effective and formal causality. We might perhaps say that, while the Greeks were interested to know what sort of thing the world was, the Jews wanted to know what was the power behind it. But even to say ‘the Jews wanted to know’ is to attribute to them an interest in philosophy which was, except where they became hellenized, foreign to their character.

For the Jews were quite certain that they did know, since God had revealed himself to them. In his mighty redemptive acts, when he had delivered them, first from slavery in Egypt and then, centuries later, from captivity in Babylon, and in his disclosure of himself in the teaching of the great line of prophets — of Moses, Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the rest — he was manifested, not as a mere principle of philsophic explanation, nor as just the basis of man’s moral aspirations, but as the Living God, who made heaven and earth out of nothing, who had chosen the Jews out of all the nations of the earth to be his own peculiar people… “The God of the Jews was living, personal, and creative; he was supreme being and transcendent act… The revelation of God’s true name and nature had been made to Moses at the burning bush, in words which became the basic text of the Christian doctrine of God… “the metaphysic of Exodus.” His name is… ‘I AM that I AM” or “I WILL BE that I WILL BE’.

“In contrast to the Jews, the Greeks were almost devoid of any historical sense, and the Jewish conception of a Great Day at which the end of time when the Living God would finally vindicate his supremacy over his creation and destroy the powers of evil was entnirely alien to them. Their interest was not in what was happening in the course of history but in what was going on around them. How was the multiplicity of the world to be explained? What was its principle of unity? Who could solve the problem of the many and the one? What was the world’s formal cause, its unifying principle? The answers to these questions were many and diverse, and there were almost as many philosophies as philosophers…

“There had , of course, been some contact between Greek and Jewish thought, especially in the neighborhood of the city of Alexandria, with its large colony of Jews and its extraordinary cosmopolitan setting. Indeed, this provided Christian thought with at least one of the ideas that it needed for the proper formulation of its doctrine (namely, the Logos/Word). But in spite of this clash of the Jewish religion of Christianity with the world of Greek thought was like the impact of flint upon steel — the fire was kindled by it…”Notwithstanding the work of the great Christian apologists and Fathers, the final synthesis did not appear until the thirteenth century, and then in the west of Europe. The immediate cause was the production at various times in the previous two centuries of some of the works of Aristotle in inaccurate… St. Thomas Aquinas, with his clear delimitation of the spheres of philosophy and his doctrine of an ordered and organic relation between them, achieved the final synthesis of the Judeo-Christian revelation with Greek philosophical thought.”

He Who Is, 5-7

1 thought on “The Metaphysics of Exodus: Mascall on the intersection of Hellenism and Judeo-Christian Thought

  1. “In contrast to the Jews, the Greeks were almost devoid of any historical sense, and the Jewish conception of a Great Day at which the end of time when the Living God would finally vindicate his supremacy over his creation and destroy the powers of evil was entnirely alien to them.”

    So to the Jews, Yahweh created the world to vindicate his supremacy over his creation. But to the Greeks, Zeus created it to enjoy it. Gee, which sounds like a more rational God? Gee Zeus obviously.

    Its interesting, btw, that not believing history is finite, and has an end, and that its whole purpose is for a god to prove to himself that he is superior to his creation, is described by the author as “devoid of any historical sense.” The Greeks wrote more histories than anybother people, but are alleged to be “devoid of any historical sense” because they don’t believe the world was created merely for a middle eastern mountain god from Sinai to show he is superior to men and then destroy the world.

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