September 19, 2017

Ecumenism Then and Now

Noel Smith

faith-for-the-familyAlexandria in Egypt on the coast of the Mediterranean was founded by Alexander the Great, one of the most remarkable men in history, in 332 B.C. It was a splendid city. Its harbors formed by the island of Pharos and the headland Lochias, were suitable for commerce and war. Its merchant ships were the largest and finest of the day.

Alexandria had magnificent buildings, an abundant supply of pure water, and a healthy climate. Its library became the largest and best in the world. In different eras it possessed from 400,000 to 900,000 books and rolls. The Alexandrian Lyceum, the authorities tell us, was more like a modern university than any institution of the ancient world.

There was the Pharos of Alexandria, a lighthouse completed about 280 B.C. on the peninsula of Pharos. It was a white marble tower in pyramidal stages between 400-600 feet tall, and is still known as one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

Alexander the Great became a great and valuable friend to the Jews. Josephus, the historian, tells us that when the seven months of the siege of Gaza were over, Alexander decided to go to Jerusalem. The news terrified the Jews. But—so Josephus tells us—the high priest, Jaddua, had a dream. All would be well.

On the day of the Macedonian’s arrival the high priest, clothed in his official purple and scarlet with mitre on his head, and the priests clothed in white linen, followed by a multitude, went to the outskirts of the city to meet and greet the conqueror. Alexander was profoundly impressed. He too had a dream. He gave his right hand to the high priest.

On reaching Jerusalem, Alexander went into the temple and offered a sacrifice to God according to the high priest’s directions. He was shown the Book of Daniel. His attention was called to the passages where Daniel declared that the Greeks, symbolized by a he-goat and by a winged leopard, would destroy the empire of the Persians. He was deeply impressed.

And so it was natural that the Jews would be attracted to the city founded by their great friend. Alexander settled 8,000 of them in his city, and before the Christian era, when Alexandria had become the most cosmopolitan city of the world, the Jewish population had grown to a million. The Jews had equal privileges with the Greeks and Egyptians.

Jerusalem was still “the holy city.” But Alexandria was now the metropolis of the Jews throughout the world. Their governor (ethnarch) was a person of great distinction. They had their Sanhedrin, and its members sat on golden seats.

Alexandria was a Greek city. The atmosphere was Greek. The god of Alexandria was Plato (427-347). Philosophy and religion were Plato-oriented. The Greeks would regard the Gospel of Christ as foolishness (I Corinthians 1:23). To them it was silly. The Greek philosophers would regard the Apostle Paul as a philosophical sparrow picking up crumbs that had fallen from their tables. “What will this babbler say?” (Acts 17:18). “What will this seed-picker, this sponger, this loafer, this trifler in talk, say?”

That was their estimate of Paul and his religion, and right there in Athens, in Plato’s city.

•••

In Alexandria the fusion of Greek philosophy and Jewish religion took place. One of the greatest and most influential Jewish philosophers and Old Testament expositors was Judaeus Philo (20 B.C.-A.D. 50). The son-of a wealthy priestly family, Philo was a clean, honorable man. In that Greek atmosphere it was easy for Philo to believe that the Greeks had derived from the Jewish Scriptures everything wise, lofty, and true in their philosophy. Philo would show, as others had, that there was complete harmony between the Old Testament and “the best” in Greek philosophy.

How did Philo (and the others) harmonize the written Word of God in the Old Testament with Platonic philosophy-the philosophy that would regard the Christian faith as silly and its greatest apostle as a seed-picker?

It was easy.

They applied to the Old Testament the allegorical method of interpretation just as the Greeks had applied that method to the interpretation of Homer. That method explained away everything in the Old Testament that was out of harmony with the popular Greek philosophy that pervaded the atmosphere of Alexandria. That method promoted ecumenicism. “That method promoted inclusivism; the Greeks and their hogs could fellowship with the Jews and their lambs.

What is meant by allegory? A series of actions are symbolic of other actions. You figuratively treat one subject under the guise of another subject. Or, plainer, you spiritualize wherever your interests demand it.

First of all, there was the basic dictum that “only the allegorical interpretation contributed to real knowledge.”

A second basic dictum was this: “One should not believe anything that is unworthy of God.”

And, of course, they got that second one from Plato.

The Old Testament’s philosophy of sin was unworthy of God. The Old Testament’s demand of blood atonement was unworthy of God. The miracles of Moses in Egypt were unworthy of God. The Pillar of Cloud by day and the Pillar of Fire by night were unworthy of God. The 12th chapter of Exodus was unworthy of God. The 53rd chapter of Isaiah was unworthy of God.

Anything and everything in the Old Testament that was out of harmony with Platonic philosophy was unworthy of God.

But it was all there in the Old Testament, in plain words, for all to see. But the words didn’t really mean what they said; the words pointed to a deeper, more important knowledge.

How could they arrive at such a conclusion?

It was easy.

Words had no relation to reality. There was no objective truth. Truth was subjective; it was what you wanted it to be, what you felt it to be, what your social, political, and monetary interests required it to be.

This Alexandrian perversion of the Scriptures was a curse to the early churches. It has remained a curse throughout Christian history. It is a curse to Christianity today.

Make the written Word of God conform to the contemporary philosophy, religion, and politics. Do it by spiritualizing what you don’t like. Do it by divorcing words from reality.

•••

As it was — so it is.

This is a world-church age, an ecumenical age. “The threat of universal destruction must be considered above our theological differences.” The interpretation and application of the Bible must be oriented to this universal threat. Evangelism must be pragmatic, utilitarian, a means to an end — the end being unity, harmony, peace, and security.

Unity, harmony, peace, and security between those who believe the Bible to be the sole rule of faith and practice and those who believe that the Bible and tradition are the sole rule of faith and practice.

Unity, harmony, peace, and security between those who believe in the Christ of the Bible and those who reject the Christ of the Bible. Unity, harmony, peace, and security between those who believe in baptismal regeneration and those who reject it.

But what do you do with the Bible’s plain teaching on every one of these basic, decisive questions? What do you do with the Bible’s plain teaching on the people of God not being conformed to the spirit of the age whose god is Satan?

It is easy.

Allegorize and look for the “deeper and more important truth.” Divorce language from reality.


Noel Smith (1900-1974) was the founding editor of the Baptist Bible Tribune. This article was first published in Faith for the Family, May/June 1973 and is republished here by permission.


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