Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Our Big, Fat Greek Presuppositions (or "The Platonic Captivity of the Church")

"The longer I live" is something you start to say when you notice hair growing in your nose and ears, but why fight reality...."The longer I live and pastor in the church, the more I think we are the unwitting children of the Greeks."  Now, the Greeks were wonderful --Socrates, Plato and Aristotle deserve their places in the intellectual hall of fame.  They asked big questions, and formulated some of the best answers that one could, short of Biblical revelation.

(If your eyes glaze over reading this, just hang with me, I'll bring it home)

And yet....

Anyone who knows anything about history and doctrinal development knows that Roman doctrine, particularly after Aquinas, relied heavily on Aristotle.  Aristotle, it is said, reasons from man up to God, and in pondering how the human can possibly relate to the divine, posits a heirarchy of beings (one can see why it so resonated with Catholicism --think of those medieval pictorial representations of the universe with God at the top, man at the bottom, and a bevy of intercessors and mediators in between).

But, at least Catholics are honest.  The Western mind was a Protestant mind --that legacy is slow to die.  Even if it has died out in academia, it still permeates the understanding of the average person, even if he's never taken a philosophy course, and knows nothing more of Plato than his name.  Plato, it is said, reasons from God down to man, and the central feature of his school of thought is dualism.   Dualism discounts the physical world --sees it as a shadow (at best) or a deception (at worst).  The early church had to contend with dualism --it's why Paul got laughed at on Mars Hill.  The last thing a Greek wanted in the afterlife was a disgusting body, with all its filth and limitations.  But, perhaps even more difficult was the ingrained but opposing ideas that either the body was nothing, and so no deed in the body could affect the real you, and you could therefore be as immoral as you wanted, without affecting your soul (libertinism), or the body was in its very nature evil so all physical pleasure was therefore evil (asceticism).  So, in the early church, you get the detestable rites of the Gnostic sects, or Simeon Stylites on his pole for decades.  The saddest conclusion reached by Plato-drinking Christians was a denial of the resurrection, so pointedly refuted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.

We have to admit, the Scriptures posit some duality --there is a distinction between body and soul.  Traditional Christian theology (though some challenge it now) teaches an intermediate state --a time when body and soul are separated.  We are quick to note that this is an unnatural separation, and not one that God  intended originally, nor will such a state go on everlastingly.  We are meant to be bodies and souls together.  The body and the soul are two different things, but they are friends, not enemies.

Essentially, the problem of Plato is that he (and we) make enemies out of things that are supposed to be friends.  Body and soul are meant to be together.  I don't think that evangelicals of the Reformed stripe would argue that point, but the presupposition sneaks its way into other nifty arguments --any time we put in opposition things that ought to hang together, we are channeling Plato.  Things like:
  • should a church be concerned about doctrine or about saving souls?
  • Should Christianity be more an affair of the head or the heart, more about reason and belief or emotion and love?
  • should a church be concerned about teaching or the poor?
  • Is truth or love more important?
  • Which is  more destructive:  lust or greed?  
  • Is emotion or reverence more appropriate for worship?
You can probably add to the list.  But the point is that each of those questions forces us to make a relative comparison --we value (or eschew) one more than another.  This is a false choice.  The right answer is "all of the above."

How can we in the church escape our Platonic captivity?


  1. Believe everything the Bible says, and do everything the Bible commands, and stop objecting to how the Bible makes friends out of the things that we think are supposed to be enemies.

    In short: just be submitted to the Bible, and if it seems to you like what it says doesn't fit together, then assume the problem is with us, not with God's Word.

  2. James, I know you're not a Pelagian, but I think the "just do it" argument fails to take into account the noetic and epistemological effects of sin. We are, by nature, blind to our presuppositions. That's why Paul says we have to tear down strongholds and demolish lofty opinions and arguments.

    I agree with you --the problem is very much with us, but that's the problem. We are in the prisonhouse of our own subjectivity unless and until the Spirit breaks through. And, even then, we dare not underestimate the residue of continuing sinful blindness, individually or corporately.

  3. Thank you from wilthom for calling attention to the trouble God’s people continue to have from the Trojan horse “gift” from humanistic Greeks whose myths are filled with heroic demigods. Indeed, such Greek thinking may denature revealed examples of faith in Hebrews into heroes, objects of worship. In biblical perspective we instead are to view this chronicle of faithful saints as examples of faith to be respected for their work in the sinful world of their not so different day under the sun.

    The Greeks have indeed left us with false dichotomies especially the presumed dichotomy between spirit and body at odds with the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ as evidenced at Mars’ Hill (Acts 17:31-32).

    Our service as Christians is “reasonable” (Romans 12:1). It requires clarity about presuppositions in iron sharpening iron discussions with brethren. Such analysis of presuppositions is also crucial in our defense of the faith as “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, . . . against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:12).

    In Asian nations, such as China, traditional culture encourages worship of family ancestors at the expense of individuals and civil rights. Cultural presuppositions in the West foster worship of the individual as the expense of the Family, Government . . etc.

    The corrective for worship of the “heroic” individual is, of course, to read the Bible as urged by James above. The Bible reveals both individual and social facts required to avoid worship of the state under tyranny on the one hand or worship of the individual amidst rising anarchy on the other.
    In this reading there are no victimless individual sins (crimes).

    Adultery, for instance, is not a matter of “consenting adults.” It is a deadly, treasonable assault against the family. Unhappily, we are culturally disposed to gloss over biblical social facts which give a larger picture, the rest of the story.

    For example, we often fail to see how important it is that a man’s family name not perish as in the book of Ruth (4:1-12). We fail to see that this great love story was in no way romantic (aversive to the family), but an unselfish, objectively faithful keeping of God’s law by all three principals, Ruth, Naomi and Boaz, David’s ancestors who were ordinary in work and extraordinary in faith.

    Churches are not to be assemblages of individuals vying with one another for romantic love and/or chief seats. Rather, we in the body of Christ are gatherings of families and per force partial families working together as children of Abraham to the glory of God (Romans 4:8-16).

    Lacking this vision which began turning Rome right side up (Acts 17:6) we often become ruthless in work and worship to our sorrow.

    Thanks again for an opportunity to share mutual concern about the Platonic Captivity of the Church.