Divine Blessedness in Non-Christian Theologies [Part 2]

Article by   January 2015
Blessedness and Hellenization

Christians ascribe blessedness to our God, but we were not the first to call a God blessed. Other worshippers in other religions, and other thinkers in other theological systems, have also considered beatitude to be an attribute of divinity. In fact, even the key terminology used in the Christian tradition for the theology of blessedness is language taken over from the pre-Christian Greco-Roman theological background: the crucial Greek word makarios, by the time it shows up in the New Testament to describe God (most prominently at 1 Tim 1:11 and 5:16), has a long history of attachment to those unscrupulous characters, the gods of Olympus. The terminology was pagan before it was Christian.

The fact that pagan gods are also blessed has sometimes been considered, pardon the expression, an Achilles' heel for the Christian theology of blessedness. What could be more Olympian than a deity who reposes in a heaven of bliss, serenely unaffected by what goes on among the mortals on the battlefields below? The aloofness of Zeus is certainly a stark contrast with the covenant-making of Yahweh, the cross-bearing of the Word made flesh, the complex and costly self-giving of the Trinity. 

The contrast is obvious enough, but can helpfully be drawn out a bit more. The worst thing about the happy home of the gods of Olympus ("forever the seat of the blessed gods" as Hesiod says) is not that they stay there in isolation from humanity. Rather, the worst thing is that they don't stay there: the driving force of Greek mythology is the occasional sorties the Olympians make into the world below. Zeus and company intervene in human affairs now and then to direct the course of a battle, father an offspring or two on a mortal woman willing or unwilling, swat down the proud, prop up a favorite, and make sure their names are being honored. And when their work is done, the gods fly away to Olympus, "the abode of the gods that stands fast forever." Homer praises the serene climate of this divine retreat: "Neither is it shaken by winds nor ever wet with rain, nor does snow fall upon it, but the air is outspread clear and cloudless, and over it hovers a radiant whiteness. Therein the blessed gods are glad all their days." The whole mythological picture is of pillowy celestial couches which the immortals only leave to interfere with humans rather mischievously and with no consequences to themselves. 

That's about as far back as you can trace "blessed gods" in the history of Greek usage, and it's admittedly an unlikely place to find the vocabulary necessary for Paul to call the God of Jesus Christ "the blessed and only sovereign." Both in their activity and passivity, the Olympians fail to enact the kind of blessedness Paul ascribes to the God of the gospel.

For too many modern theologians, simply leveling the charge of Hellenism is enough: if an idea has been Greekified, then it is a sign of the paganizing of Christianity. How much worse, then, for the doctrine of blessedness, which looks not so much like a Christian idea gone Greek, but a Greek idea taken over by Christians. If the doctrine of blessedness has fallen on hard times in modern theology, one of the reasons is that in some vague way the charge of Hellenization has been attached to it. Admittedly, anybody who accepts the Pastoral Epistles as inspired Scripture will be chastened in their criticism of blessedness, since the key word stands there in the text a handful of times. But for critics who already take the Pastorals to be sub-Pauline, and a transposition of primitive Christianity into a bourgeois key (see Dibelius and Conzelmann's influential Hermeneia commentary), the fact that blessedness shows up in a vocabulary already tellingly overloaded with the key words of Hellenistic moralism (piety, prudence, moderation, self-control, and good reputation) is all the more damning.

But it is not hard to defend the doctrine of divine blessedness against the charge of Hellenization. First of all, the lexical case is not decisive. To imagine that the blessedness of the "blessed gods" of Homer and Hesiod must have the same content as the "blessed God" of 1 Timothy because the word makarios was used by Homer and then later by Paul is to ignore what nineteenth-century lexicographer Herman Cremer called "the language-molding power of Christianity." Cremer's Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek gave special attention to the way the gospel message transformed the meaning of key words from Greco-Roman usage. The Septuagint had of course already begun to enact the great transformation of Greek words into bearers of biblical meaning, but apostolic proclamation went even further. "As Christianity fulfilled the aspirations of truth," Cremer says, "the expressions of that language received a new meaning, impress and a fresh power." The complex implications of the apostolic writings being in Greek are often overlooked by critics alleging that Hellenization has transformed the early Christian message. As Werner Jaeger points out, "the original meaning of the word Hellenismos" was simply that something had been "translated into the Greek language," so that "the language question was by no means an irrelevant matter."

But even on the grounds of pre-Christian Greek thought, the story of divine blessedness is considerably more complex than is often allowed. Homer and Hesiod are the first word, not the last, in the story. In fact, the entire mythological matrix of blessedness was widely considered to be a problem by the more philosophical side of Greek culture. Almost all of the philosophical schools of thought showed some signs of being embarrassed by the straightforwardly Homeric way of depicting divine bliss -- Zeus on a couch -- and sought more conceptually satisfying ways of describing it. In a refined form, blessedness continued to be apparently universally presupposed as a necessary attribute of divinity. Even the skeptic Sextus Empiricus makes his arguments against everybody else's view of the gods on the basis of the shared conception that what it means to be a god is to be "blessed and imperishable." And Cicero argued that the notion of gods and the notion of their blessedness arise together in the human mind, and come from the same source: "For nature that gave us the idea of gods as such, has also engraved in our minds the conviction that they are blessed and eternal." Even when their arguments were more about cosmic processes and the theology of nature, Hellenistic thinkers would appeal to divine blessedness as proof that their conceptions of how the world was created and governed were more adequate theological ideas. Arguments like "the god of Democritus works too hard to be blessed" was considered a knock-down argument.

Since the Greek conversation itself moved from mythology to philosophical theology, the dialogue partner for a Christian theology of blessedness is in fact a set of very interesting thinkers: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and company all have their contribution to make. Nor is it up to contemporary theology to begin that dialogue, since the patristic tradition already took up the task and the resulting Christian doctrine of God is one that already critically incorporates the results. This is precisely what the loose charge of Hellenization so often misses, and what the bogeyman of a paganized "classical theism" ignores: the early fathers engaged the classical Greco-Roman world of thought in order to press it into the service of Christian theology. In a stimulating 1959 essay, Wolfhart Pannenberg treated "The Appropriation of the Philosophical Concept of God as a Dogmatic Problem of Early Christian Theology." His goal was to "clarify what the task was which Christian theology set for itself with regard to the concept of God it encountered in the Hellenistic intellectual world." For Pannenberg, critical appropriation was crucial. To fail to take up the task was to abandon the attempt to proclaim the gospel in an intelligible form; while to fail to note the divergence between the Greek concept of the divine and the Christian concept was to compromise the faith. But
A "hellenization" in the sense of being overcome by foreign interests, e.g., by the philosophical idea of God, does not necessarily appear already where theology undertakes to come to grips with it, but only where theology fails in the midst of this struggle by losing its assimilative, transforming power.
In this regard, Christian theology should count itself fortunate to have the ancient philosophy of pagan blessedness as a dialogue partner. As we develop and articulate a Christian theology of divine blessedness, we have at hand a full stock of conceptual elaborations worked out by profound thinkers at great length. We can take our place in an ongoing conversation about the nature and status and implications of the true blessedness of the true God, and our answers will be driven by biblical insights and perceptions.

A Christian theology of divine blessedness stands to profit from what it has in common with other theological projects as well as what distinguishes it; an appreciation of the former will ground the latter and make it more incisive. All gods worth calling divine are blessed, but the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, is blessed in the costly gospel, blessed in triune perfection, blessed in an engagement with history unthinkable by pagan theologies of blessedness.

As the conversation extends beyond the ancient framework, another obvious dialogue partner would be Muslim theology: what, for example, is the Qur'anic view of the blessedness of Allah? In what ways is the blessedness of Allah similar to, and in what ways dissimilar from, the blessedness of the God of the Bible? Agreeing that the right questions to be asking are questions about blessedness, our doctrine of God can be sharpened helpfully by contrast with other doctrines developed on their own internal logics.

The rhetorical question "what has Athens to do with Jerusalem" is an old one, and has not always evoked the same response that Tertullian expected it to. When it comes to the blessedness of God, Athens knew something about it, and it behooves us to learn that something rather than attempting to speak a language of Zion that we imagine to be too pure to be informed by the classical philosophical discussion of antiquity. All putative gods are blessed, but the true and comprehensive notion of blessedness will, we can hope, be vindicated as the blessedness of the blessed Trinity.


Fred Sanders is Professor of Theology at Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. His recent books include The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Crossway, 2010) and Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love (Crossway: 2013). He writes regularly atThe Scriptorium Daily


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