I have heard the claim that the early church fathers were from pagan
backgrounds and their basis for explaining the godhead come from Plato and
Aristotle and cannot be trusted in terms of their view of God. Is this

First of all, the statement that the early church fathers were
from a pagan background is true to a significant extent. The only writer
of the New Testament who may have (repeat may have, as we are not sure)
had a pagan background is Luke. For this reason, the statement you have
heard would not apply to the New Testament. It would only be relevant to
some of the writings of the early church fathers such as Irenaeus or
Polycarp or Clement of Rome and so forth. Many of these early church
fathers wrote extensively on Christianity, and were of pagan (mainly
Greek) background. Because we are talking about non-biblical writers,
this issue is not of great relevance to most Christians, as most do not
even read the early church fathers. If one restricts oneself to the New
Testament, the answer is that this claim does not hold up.

However, let us get back to the early church fathers. Yes, it
is true that many of them were from pagan backgrounds. As time passed,
some of them did allow themselves to be influenced to some extent by their
pagan background. Platonic or neo-platonic philosophy began to influence
some writers. The Gnostics were a good example of this. This group had a
belief that Jesus was a spiritual, but not a physical being. The book of
1 John was written in part to counteract this pagan-influenced movement
within the church (“that which we have seen and handled and touched” in 1
John is specifically spoken to refute gnosticism). By the second century,
there was some subtle influence of Greek philosophy even in the mainstream
church. One example of this influence was the tendency to use allegorical
interpretation of the Bible. A theological movement in Alexandria was
especially prone to this method of interpretation, while others, such as
Basel opposed it. You would do well to find a good, thorough history of
early Christianity–especially in the period before AD 400 so you can
familiarize yourself with these issues.

There is a subtle underlying aspect to the claim you have
heard. I am thinking that the one who made this claim may be trying to
insinuate that Greek/pagan ideas made it into the New Testament itself.
This claim is much harder to prove. In fact, I would say that it is not
well supported by the evidence. I am not sure that I can absolutely and
categorically deny that any pagan ideas had any influence at all on any of
the writers of the New Testament. However, the idea of the one God of the
universe coming to earth as a physical being and taking on the sin of all
humanity as a sacrifice for sin is not parallel with any idea of Aristotle
or Plato that I know of. On the other hand, the Old Testament is filled
with foreshadows, prophecies, prefigures and types which anticipated
exactly this idea. I do not believe many people would have the audacity
to claim that Isaiah was influenced by pagan philosophy. For information
on the Old Testament foreshadows of the gospel message, you can read my
new book, now available at www.ipibooks.com

Getting back to your original question, I would say that the
claim of the writer is true to some extent. Although you can surely trust
the New Testament for good theology (ideas about God), you should read the
writings of the early church fathers with a grain of salt, knowing that
even though most of them were sincere and were believers in Jesus, they
may have been influenced by their pagan backgrounds in ways which may have
influenced their theology.

John Oakes, PhD

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