Jesus the Avatar

The Influence of Greek Philosophy


by Vengal Chakkarai Chettiar (17 January 1880 – 14 June 1958)

V. Chettiar was an Indian Christian theologian, missionary, independence activist, politician and trade unionist.[1] He was the former president of AITUC – All India Trade Union Congress,

Chakkarai was born to a Hindu Chettiar family. He was educated at the Scottish Mission School, Madras Christian College, graduating in 1901 after majoring in philosophy. He then studied at Madras Law College, and practiced for some time as a lawyer.

In 1913, Chakkarai joined the Danish Mission Room as a Christian preacher and worked as a missionary for twenty years. During these years, he also became a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi and participated in the Indian independence movement. He served as mayor of Madras from 1941 to 1942. He was the president of All India Trade Union Congress from 1954 to 1957.

Chakkarai tried to explain the Christian faith through the Hinduism point of view.[1] This can be seen when he tried to find the meaning of cross for the followers of Christianity with how to get moksha.

Some of the Chakkarai’s point of view about Christianity:

Jesus is truly human (Sat Purusa).
Holy Spirit is Christ himself who continues to exist and work until now.
God can not be seen as the creator of sin.
Humans themselves are responsible for the sins that they commit.
Knowledge of God is not something that is intellectual (jnana), but a personal experience of God (anubhava).
Sin is seen as the handcuffs (pasa), which prevents the human soul (pasu) to reach God.
The essence of sin is the desire to find “the mystery of the forbidden”.

Chapter 14


In describing the development of the idea of the Incarnation we are on the bed-rock of essential experience and history on the soil of Judaea. Under the pressure of the overwhelming fact of Jesus Christ, the so-called monotheistic conception of God began to give way.

Instead of God dwelling in the solitude of heaven, undisturbed by any other presence or being, in the apostolic consciousness this painful and oppressive loneliness of heaven is invaded by Jesus Christ, the Son of Man and the Son of God. In a word, the God of the early “Christians is not a solitary God, the one without a second, as the Upanisads would describe Him, but the Father of our Lord, plus His Son Jesus.”

This seems to be the religious dichotomy or dvaifa introduced into the mystery of the abstract and transcendent God by the revelation of Jesus. But it can be readily seen that such a dualism could not satisfy any but the unspeculative Palestinian Jewish mind that did not see the antithesis between this new Christian conception and the contemporary Jewish belief.

If Christianity should succeed in claiming the allegiance of rational minds, it could not hold such a theory of God. Therefore, when it passed beyond the fertile soil of Palestine, not a barren and rocky Soil as Gibbon says in the chapter describing thetheories of the Incarnation, it struck its roots into soil rich in intellectual speculations, and drew from it the nourishment it required for growing into a mighty tree.

In the first instance, it was not pure Greek metaphysicians that took up Christianity and Jesus, but the Jews of the Dispersion who had been influenced in their interpretations of the Bible by Greek philosophy. St. Paul and the author of the Fourth Gospel (let us at least for the sake of brevity call him by his traditional name John) supplied the necessary philosophical explanation for the mystery of the personality of Jesus. Without entering into any lengthy discussion regarding the indebtedness of Paul and John to Greek philosophy, Plaionism or Neo-Platonism, and the mystery religions of the Roman Empire, we would admit that some pregnant conceptions were seized by them from these non-Christian systems for the formulation of the facts of Christian experience and history.

John in his preface to the Gospel introduces the revolutionary conception of the Word of God or Logos. To the Greek-speaking Jew and the Gentile who became a follower of Jesus, the term the Son of Man must have appeared rather strange and unintelligible. Besides, it was so associated with Jewish nationalistic hopes and aspirations that the Greek and Roman would have regarded it as entirely foreign and even repugnant to their sentiments, Some term was therefore neces- sary which would serve the same purpose to the Greek as the Son of Man to the Jew of Palestine. The casket in which the glittering jewel of the mystery of Jesus. was now placed was the Logos or the Word of God

A few remarks will make clear the implications of such a term.  In that book of the Old Testament, Proverbs and in the apocryphal book, The Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom assumes a most extraordinary place as the Logos. It may be admitted that Greek influence had something to do with this new phenomenon of the Jewish mind. In Chapter viii of Proverbs, Wisdom is a personalized being who says, ‘The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.’ (Verses 22, 23.)

When we turn to the Wisdom of Solomon, we read even more ‘striking words, ‘She (Wisdom) is the breath of the power of God, and a pure influence flowing from the throne of the Almighty ; therefore can no defiled thing ‘fall into her. For she is the brightness of the ever-lasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of ‘God, and the image of his goodness.’ (Chapter vi. 25, 26.)

These words would recall to the minds of our readers passages in St. Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews in which in almost identical words our Lord is described in relation to God. 

In Greek philosophy the Logos or Reason of God remained ‘a purely impersonal conception; or it possessed a sufficient amount of personal consciousness so as not to be confounded with a mere mechanical force.

When this idea of the Logos was taken up by Jewish Hellenists like Philo and the author of the Wisdom of Solomon, it became somewhat changed. The Jewish-mind did not indulge in mere abstractions. And so the Wisdom of God – Logos – became personalized, without ceasing to be ‘a pure influence flowing from the glory of the Almighty.’ Although in the later speculations of Christians in the Greek speaking Churches, the Logos doctrine became dominant in conceiving Jesus as the Logos or Wisdom of God, Paul adhered to his Jewish view that He is the Son of God. 

In the Logos doctrine the early Christians had a metaphysics that was deemed sufficient to preserve the unity of God while giving to Jesus a place of pre-eminence as the Logos. It was from God that the Logos came out as the first influence or emanation, and as such it had, so it was thought, the attributes of Deity, For many a devout soul among the Greek Christians and many a sophist from the schools of philosophy, such a description of our Lord as the Logos of God was the most satisfactory solution of the transcendent problem presented by the person of Jesus whose influence they felt within the depths of their reason and conscience.

With the introduction of the Logos doctrine as the explanation by the Greek mind of the person of Jesus Christ we enter on a wide theatre of intellectual activity. This was not effected by the Gnostic heretics but by the author of the Fourth Gospel himself. The facts that became prominent and required reconciliation in some coherent formula were these :

1. There was the Jewish idea of one God. This was no doubt, as some scholars point out, a mere- nominal monotheism. It is doubted by Wernle in his ‘The Beginnings of Christianity’ whether there was any monotheist in the days of Jesus either among His bhakias or among the Jews. We might be pardoned for doubting and we shall show later on whether Christians are monotheists at all. But inthe days of the heretics there was this Jewish conception ot one ‘God.

2. Then there was the Logos who became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. If God and the Son of Man of Jewish apocalypse had remained on the mental horizon, receiving simultaneous worship from Christians, it would have been still unsatisfactory to the strict monotheists. In some indefinite way God and the Son of Man would have been reconciled but the Logos doctrine disturbed the seeming harmony by the intro» duction of an intellectual category that kad a rich wealth of associations in the current philosophical ‘schools.

3. Were the Christian thinkers to interpret the Logos as Plato and his later interpreters did, or were they to make any gistinctions ? Christian thinkers like Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Arius and others became fervent students of Platonism. The way was thus opened up for fertile speculations and subtle distinctions. The problem was to maintain the unity of God and at the same time the dignity, the equality, and distinctness of the Logos or the Son of God. It cannot be said that the orthodox Church put forward any explanation ultimately of the mysteries of Jesus and God, but it merely contented itself by affirming what it regarded as the fundamental facts that had become prominent in the controversies with the heretics.

The following forms of heresies emerged successively :

(1) The Logos or the Word of God is an emanation from God, like Him but not having the same reality. ‘The Logos, in other words, is equal to God but not really distinct from Him. Many of the Fathers of the Church who are regarded as ‘very orthodox used language of this kind. The Logos is like the sun’s light proceeding from the sun, or like the water proceeding from a fountain.

{2) The Logos is utterly distinct from God and equal to Him. Some of these thinkers were unconscious polytheists. They really believed in three Gods, though they would have been horrified if they had been called polytheists. This reminds us of the popular notion current among Indian Christians. Most of them really believe in three gods, and place three chairs (what kind, we wonder) in heaven for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

(3) The Logos was a creature of God made long, long ago, and yet as it were once upon a time. He is therefore not equal to God but His substitute on a lower plane. Some of the heretics said that it was useless to measure the distance between God and His Logos with any mathematical instrument. Such was the opinion held by Arius, one of the boldest of the heretics. This doctrine differs fundamentally from the modern humanitarian view of Jesus. Arius conceived the Logos that dwelt in Jesus as superhuman and Divine, though not as complete Deity.

How did orthodoxy meet the speculations of the heretics? Not in the spirit of the Master for whose honour it professed to fight. From the time that Christianity, instead of being a ‘persecuted way,’ became successful, the spirit of John and James, the ‘sons of thunder,’ took possession of the leaders of the orthodox Church. To Christianity success  has always been more of a danger and tragedy than defeat and persecution. Till the time of Constantine, heretics and the saints of orthodoxy dwelt together, not indeed in unity but like the wheat and tares in the immortal parable of the Lord. But Constantine corrupted ecclesiastical morals and degraded the tone of theological debate when by his fatal gift of patronage: he included Christianity as one of the departments of the Empire. The arm of the flesh was stretched out to protect the swaying ark in which were enshrined the profoundest mysteries of the Christian faith. And yet the profane hand of the Imperial theologian was not struck down by the wrath of God; but it was kissed ‘by all the saints and fanatics of the Church as the very hand of the Lord. To such a deplorable pass had the Christian Church come when under imperial orders. the Council of Nicea consisting of eminent divines. and bishops of the Church met in 325,

We shall now point out some important features of the creed in order that a correct understanding of the efforts of the Greek intellect to estimate the Logos who was incarnate in Jesus Christ might be possible. It is not our purpose to go into any details regarding this basic formula of Christendom which, with one- modification, has been accepted by most of the Churches. Before the Indian mind can attempt anything like an idea of its own concerning the deep: things of the faith, it ought to acquaint itself with the history of the doctrine of the Church. Otherwise, it might spend its efforts in vain by a mere repetition of one of the many forms of speculation that the Greek Christian mind threw out in trying to comprehend. the incomprehensible. We ought to lament that a more philosophical spirit did not animate the disputants of theology in those days, let alone the charity of the Holy Spirit that would reason with love and a deep sense of the baffling mysteries of God, man and Jesus. It is to be hoped that the heady wine of theological fanaticism will not be drunk or distributed in the Indian churches. In the final decision reached by orthodoxy there are certain matters that should receive our special attention:

1. As has been already remarked, it was felt that the distinction of the Logos should neither be sacrificed for His equality, nor His equality for His distinction Thus, two distinct and equal entities, though not Gods, were posited as a result of these discussions,

2, Man and God were conceived as separate entities. The Jewish idea that God is God and man is man received the most fervent support and became the stereotyped formula. Man is the creature of God the Creator; and creation was regarded as the bringing into existence of something by the fiat of God. That was the hall-mark of nature and man,

3. The Incarnation could not be interpreted as God becoming man, for the infinite God could never be transformed into finite man. Nor can man ever be exalted to the position of God, for the finite can never soar to the height of the infinite. In the Incarnation therefore there is neither the deification of man nor the humanization of God. :

In order to give no loophole to the heretic Arius, certain terms and distinctions were used by the theologians. Everything, animate and inanimate, human and divine, had a nature of its own that was, as it were, the foundation of its being. If there was a difference in the substance, it was shown in the order of being. God had a separate nature from man, and therefore must be conceived as a separate substance. Man must be considered to possess a separate nature from God and must have, therefore, 2 separate substance. This was a form of Platonism that had entered into Christian theology. God and the Logos, the Father and the Son were consubstantial, or of the same substance. This consubstantiality or Homoousion became the keyword of the orthodoxy party. Arius was prepared to ascribe not the same substance but 2 similar substance, Homorousion, but it was anathema to the orthodox mind, Thus as Gibbon humorously remarks, only ‘a single diphthong’ parted the two, and yet how great and irreconcilable were the differences felt to be! By the adoption of the Arian formula, the Son became only a creature; a creature should not be worshipped, but only the Creator.

4, Who then are the Father and the Son and how are they metaphysicaily related? Father and Son are of the same substance, equal in power, though not in the order of rank. Father and Son are distinctions in the very being of God, but such should not be regarded as model distinctions, as aspects, or modifications ite substance. They are hypostatic distinctions having reality in themselves, and not mere phenomenal differentiations. Later on these distinctions hardened into personal distinctions in the Latin legal mind. The Father and the Son became distinct persons like Ramaswamy and Krishnaswamy.

And yet the orthodox party claimed that such a differentiation did not involve more than one God. Here was the most formidable difficulty to be faced in conceiving the Trinity of the orthodox formula. It was regarded as insuperable, and any explanation tended only to deepen the darkness. As Athanasius said, the more he pondered on the prob;em, the more incomprehensible it became. This ought to have led him to be more tolerant toward those who differed from him on such a perplexing problem; but he became the unbending champion of the orthodox formula, at least after it was promulgated. In this respect there would seem to be nothing to choose between the orthodox party and the heretical party. Both moved towards the brink of the precipice and, locked in each other’s arms, wrestled as if the honor of God and His Christ depended on its issue.