The nature of the relationship between Christian theology and hellenistic thought, or ‘natural theology’, has been variously presented and debated, often with less care or subtlety than they are due. “[C]harges and countercharges of ‘Hellenization,’ together with the question of whether Hellenization represented ‘apostasy’ or ‘progress,’ have shaped theological controversy, philosophical speculation, and historical interpretation” (p. 21). In this published version of his 1992-3 Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen, Jaroslav Pelikan seeks to redress the neglect of the ‘natural theology’ or hellenistic intellectual milieu that permeated the world in which the fourth-century orthodoxy emerged. He does this by pursuing an investigation into the thought-worlds of the Cappadocians: Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Macrina, sister and tutor of the last two.
‘Natural theology’ is taken in a general sense, at one point connoting the process of conceptual translation that took place when ideas expressed in the Greek New Testament were expressed in other languages, and at another referring to “moral and natural philosophy” which was to be joined to divine revelation (p. 136). Pelikan treats each of ten central topics in relation to the two horizons of refuting opposing opinions – that is ‘natural theology as apologetics’ – and one’s own dogmatic proposals, or ‘natural theology as presupposition. This results in two parallel sets of ten chapters.
In the course of his investigation Pelikan delineates the Cappadocians’ relationship to Greek language, rhetoric, and epistemology. Although prioritising Hellenistic skills of communication, they “all claimed to be putting their logoi as language into the service of Christ as the Logos of God” (p. 15). Significant shifts in theological epistemology and the ways of knowing impacted the Cappadocians’ ideas about the relationship between language and divine ontology. The Christian doctrine of God entailed a reformulating of tradition cosmologies, and correspondingly, of anthropology. Many of these themes converged in a teleology of the vision of God “which was end and goal and ceaseless attraction” (p. 165).
Continuing his familiar two-column style adopted for The Christian Tradition, Pelikan’s format allows for straight-forward access to original sources, though this does preclude placing any text in footnotes and results in a sometimes convoluted or fragmented read. Overall, Christianity and Classical Culture portrays the historical, theological, and philosophical care for which Pelikan is known and provides an alternative assessment to strands of modern thought which have viewed this period as an intellectual surrender of ‘pure’ Christian theology to Greek philosophy. The Cappadocians were neither so easily beguiled by, so pessimistic about, nor so uniform in their relation to Hellenistic culture as some have believed.