Nowadays, many leaders including myself are attempting to apply the Bible to contemporary culture so the church can function as salt and light and disciple the nations. This is nothing new. The early church grappled with the same issue of being biblical but relevant to contemporary society.
Soon after the first generation of its birth, the church faced the need to proclaim the Gospel in terms intelligent people could understand. Greek philosophy was the language of the intelligentsia during this time period.
To some in the church, like Tertullian, being relevant to society in these terms was a compromise with the world. He said, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Thus, through the centuries the church has always grappled with the tension between “detachment and involvement” and “separation from the world yet penetration of the world.” This has caused divisions in the church because “witness to some is compromise to others.”
The first Christian apologist to successfully preach Christianity in the language of the philosopher was Justin, who preached while clad in the garb of the typical philosopher.
Around 180 A.D. Pantaenus established a school of Christian Gnosticism in Alexandria and lectured there on Christianity as the true philosophy. His teaching was called gnostic because it asked the big questions of meaning, but it was Christian because it retained orthodox answers. Clement was a student of his for 20 years before he became his successor.
Clement was not only versed in the Scriptures but in the knowledge of his time, including Greek philosophy and classical literature. He understood the problems and questions of the young who came to him from all over the empire and enrolled in his school. Clement’s goal was not to win arguments but people to Christ as an apostle to the Hellenistic world. Clement viewed philosophy as a schoolmaster to lead Greeks to Christ in the same way the Law of Moses led Jews to Messiah.
The results of Clement’s ministry were astounding! From this point on, Greek thinking united with Christian thought and influenced all the great saints, theologians, and church councils to come.
A persecution forced Clement to flee and leave the school in the hands of a brilliant 18 year-old named Origen. Origen was an even more successful leader than Clement, whose influence spread all over the empire with his exhaustive writings, including a vast study of six versions of the Old Testament entitled the Hexapla, scores of commentaries, and hundreds of sermons. He also introduced the mode of biblical interpretation known as allegorical interpretation of Scripture, which teaches that there are three levels of interpretation of Scripture: a literal interpretation, a moral application to the soul, and an allegorical or spiritual sense which refers to the mysteries of the Christian faith.
Although known as a Christian philosopher, Origen felt that his main calling was the exposition of the Scriptures. His enormous work enabled intelligent Christians to believe the Bible. Origen was also among the first systematic theologians of the church, and was the first theologian to set forth the whole intellectual framework of the Christian faith. He realized that if Christianity were to succeed in shaping civilizations, it must justify itself to the intellect as well as to the heart of mankind.
Note: This article is a summary of Church History in Plain Language by Bruce L. Shelley, pages 78-86.