Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artes intulit agresti Latio

“When Greece was captured, she captivated her wild conqueror, and introduced the Arts into savage Rome” — Horace, Epistles, II.1.156 (trans. Laura E. Ludtke)

missionary christianityChristopher Dawson has identified Six Ages in the history of the Church. In Dawson’s First Age, we witness a unique encounter of the “Barbarian” East with the Greco-Roman West. It is in that First Age, I argue, that we can first see the Christian religious principle of secondarity at work. In that time, the Church defines its relation to both Judaism and Greco-Roman culture.

The mission to the Gentiles, exemplified above all in St. Paul, is what Dawson has called an “act of creative revolution” that “marks the beginning of a new era in world history, and, above all, in the history of the West.”[1] This creative revolution is an act that draws upon the essence of Christianity. By this same act, the Christian religion is able to penetrate the culture of the Roman Empire in a subterranean way.

In the first phase, the so-called “Hellenization of Christianity,” what happens in the encounter with the Gentiles does not betray the essence of Christianity. As Remi Brague has pointed out, Christianity’s essence in relation to Judaism itself is one of creative secondarity. Likewise in relation to the Greeks, Christianity does not betray itself by adopting a Roman cultural attitude to the Greeks, for this Roman attitude consistently mirrors its own unfolding self-understanding in relation to the Jews.

In this first era of the Church, Paul’s crossing over into Macedon (Acts 16:9) is therefore not an act that betrays the essence of Christianity. This is because history is not a zero-sum game between Jerusalem and Athens. The zero-sum thinking that has tried to keep score of a so-called “Hellenization of Christianity” has missed the more salient reality. Pope Benedict XVI has famously argued against the crude “Hellenization of Christianity” thesis and tried to point out that more salient reality:

“In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was an initial inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux. This thesis is not simply false, but it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.”[2]

Therefore, let us explore further this essence of Christianity, the “nature of the faith itself.” We can state its cultural essence with brevity: Christianity would not have spread as it did in this first era of the Church without the Roman attitude towards the Greeks,[3] which is required in the first place to make any “Hellenization” possible.

This Roman cultural attitude would not have resonated as strongly as it did with the new religion if the essence of Christianity were not to be already found in its relation to the Old Covenant. To show how the Roman model is key to understanding the process of rapid expansion in this era (i.e., to show how “Hellenization” must be better understood in terms of what is at the heart of the “mission to the Gentiles”), I point to St. Paul’s second missionary journey.

St. Paul

St. Paul

Recall that St. Paul met with very limited success and much vigorous and violent opposition in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, and in Athens. Apart from a couple of famous converts (remember Dionysius the Areopagite), the response for the most part was polite indifference.[4] Only in Corinth did he flourish, in an extended stay made possible by his encounter with the fellow tent-making Jews Aquila and his wife Priscilla who had come there from Rome (Acts 18:1-4, 18-21).

I suggest to you that the Roman attitude of Aquila and Priscilla made all the difference, but not so much because of the location. True, with Aquila and Priscilla we find Romans in Greece, i.e., in wealthy Corinth, a land of opportunity. True, we find Romans making a local success of things there. But how do we account for the success of these particular Romans, such that their “success brushed off on” Paul?[5]

I say that it was because of the example of their quintessential Romanity. Aquila and Priscilla were “innovative and inclusive” in their mediation of Athens and Jerusalem, thereby “becoming the most influential agents of Jesus’ message in the Greco-Roman world.”[6]

The local proconsul Gallio can also be seen as presiding over Corinth with exemplary Roman secondarity in Acts 18:11-17, thus enabling the political conditions for this cultural encounter that turned the world upside down.[7] Of Gallio, it can be said that he:

“showed an intellectual attachment that was outside the ken of the magistrates in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. But then Corinth was different from those Macedonian cities, and Gallio was a different kind of ruler. Gallio was an aristocrat, appointed directly from Rome, and lavishly educated: his brother was none other than Seneca, the Stoic philosopher. Secure in his standing [like Rome itself], he had nothing to prove by persecuting pathetically small religious groups.”[8]

The fruits of “Hellenization” (more accurately: the first success of Christianity among the Gentiles) were thus enabled by quintessentially Roman cultural conditions. This phenomenon can be seen as peaking about 250 A.D., since it is at that point that the initial expansion met with a resentful cultural backlash, mobilized by the edict that year of Decius (r.249-251), to suppress Christianity.[9]



The cultural milestone of this peak moment in the First Age is also marked by the presence at the same time of the greatest mind of this first era of the Church: namely, the Church Father, Origen of Alexandria. We must recognize his intellectual stature on the basis of the greatness and magnitude of his subsequent influence. As von Balthasar says, Origen “is all-present in Christian theology” and “flowed for centuries like a broad stream through the riverbed of Christian thought,”[10] such that it would be “all but impossible to overestimate Origen and his importance for the history of Christian thought.”

To rank Origen beside St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas (which we find at the cultural peaks of Dawson’s Second and Fourth Ages respectively) “simply accords him his rightful place in this history.”[11] All these great men exhibit the Romanity of Christianity at its best: i.e., how it is creatively open to the Other.

In this openness, the cultural essence of Christianity is such that it can always generate a fruitful rebirth according to the Christian principle of the Incarnation. In the humble, self-emptying encounter of the Incarnation, we have a divine exemplar for human cultural renewal. It consists in what we may call “the divine generosity” of the principle of secondarity.

5424Because the persecutions of Diocletian (r.284-305) in the First Age of the Church betray the essential openness (the “Romanity”) of the Empire, we can see things brought to a low point with the decree in 302 to “suppress Christianity throughout the empire”. Nevertheless, the abdication of Diocletian in 305 makes it possible for Constantine’s political stroke of genius to usher in the Second Age of the Church.

We may say that the Emperor Constantine’s new policy reversed that recent decline of Romanity. It thereby renewed the world-historical destiny of Rome. The new policy was quite simple: in his war against Maxentius, Constantine, in “declaring both for Christianity and religious toleration, … was able to unite his troops in the face of his enemy, who was against both Christianity and toleration”.[12]

Simply put, it is always a return to the essence of Romanity that is eminently compatible with the divine mission of secondarity at the heart of Christianity’s mission to the Gentiles.

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[1] Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (New York: Doubleday, 1958 [1950]), 27-8.

[2] Benedict XVI, lecture at Regensburg, Sept. 12, 2006.

[3] Remi Brague, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization (St. Augustine’s Press, 2002), 4-6, on “consciousness as the criterion” (5) for defining what belongs to Europe.

[4] Cf. Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Paul (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 151-161.

[5] Ibid., 162.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 163-170.

[8] Ibid., 166.

[9] Not to mention the backlash among Christians against apostates, which St. Cyprian of Carthage met by arguing that the Church is not for the perfect but for penitents.

[10] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Origen: Spirit and Fire (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2001 [1984]), 5. Cf. Henri de Lubac, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007 [1950]).

[11] Ibid., 1.

[12] John Deely, Four Ages of Understanding (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 166.

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