Hellenic Man, Origen, and Image as Knowledge

I found myself in a surprising discussion.   I was talking with hard-core, truly Reformed types on why I think we should prioritize “hearing” over “seeing images,” especially when it comes to Christian spirituality.  Normally nobody would disagree with this.  The rub came when I labeled the image-approach as “Greek” and “Hellenistic.”  I then drew the next corollary:  the hearing approach is Hebraic.  I suppose they were wont to avoid any dichotomizing Hebrew and Greek thought.  I suppose there isn’t an absolute split, but a split there is.

I suppose I should give some historical background.  Robert Jenson’s fine intro volume on systematic theology explains why the concept of image was so important to ancient man.  The immediate context to this discussion is the ancient Christological logos debates, but I believe it allows for wider applications.  The reason this became a problem was because of biblical statements that Jesus was the image of the Father.  What does image allow us to think about Jesus?  Be careful answering this.   When you see the term “Logos” below, substitute “Image,” (which John and Colossians, I believe, allow us to do). Jenson writes,

In this discourse, deity is a quality…Since deity is a quality, it must, by Greek ways of thinking, admit participation in lesser degrees:  as something can approach to being more or less red, so it can approach more or less to deity (I:94).

Pagan antiquity’s Logos, in sharp contrast, need not be actual speech at all; the order it constitutes may as well or better be otherwise expressed…The Logos, precisely as subordinate in deity, as God from the viewpoint of temporal beings but temporal from the viewpoint of God, bridges being’s chasm” (I:97).

The gap to be bridged may therefore be discerned as one space, requiring one mediator, or as indefinitely  divisible, allowing a descending chain of arbitrarily many mediators…what kept the apologists’ religiously trinitarian was not their theology but their church’s liturgical life” (I: 98).

On Origen

He conceived the work of Father, Son, and Spirit as a sort of inverted stepped cone: the Father gives being to all creatures, the Son opens the knowledge of God to creatures capable of knowledge…

Origen perfected the Logos-theology by exploiting late-antiquity’s most powerful notion:  image (I:98).  Jenson writes,

A statue or painting is not its archetype but neither is it not its archetype:  the image in the parthenon is not Aphrodite herself, yet is nothing but an Aphrodite…Late antiquity’s desperate need for mediation exploited the possibility thus opened to construct descending hierarchies of images, in which each level below absolute deity and above absolute nothingness is ectype more a timeless level above and a prototype of a more temporal level below (I: 98-99)

Origen then drew the conclusion:  the Logos is the image of the Father (which is biblical in a sense).  Why is this problematic?  Origin didn’t stop the logic-train.

In that God knows himself there subsists God as the object of this knowledge; and that this knowledge is expressed with divine perfection, God-as-his-own-object is an actual other than God himself (I:99).

This was devastating for Christology.  The Arians simply said aloud what the philosophy demanded: “If the Logos is an ontological step down from God himself, the Logos must be a creature” (I:101).  This is why Rowan Williams (Arius: Heresy and Tradition, Eerdmans) said that Arianism was not radical.  It was status quo philosophy.

Therefore, I don’t think I am entirely radical by saying, “Maybe the Hellenistic view of image and knowledge–and the two are inseparable–is not the best way of theology.”

Published by J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics

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