Friday, December 1, 2023

Christian Platonism


The Great Tradition’s critical appropriation of Platonism is apparent in both the East and the West.

The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, by Matthew Barrett

Having reviewed the Reformation’s connections to Thomistic thought and having provided an overview of Platonism, Barrett now moves to reviewing how some aspects of Platonism were utilized to better understand and explain theological realities: faith first, then understanding. 

Neoplatonists would incorporate the transcendental of Plato with the concreteness of Aristotle, one strengthening the other while clearing away certain weaknesses in both.  Ultimately, both Augustine and Aquinas would locate Plato’s exemplary causes in the mind of God. 

However, The Great Tradition did not crudely transfer raw Platonism into Christianity.  For example, Platonism held to an idea of the pre-existing soul, something foreign to Christian understanding.  Further, Platonism knew the goal – to ascend to heaven – but did not know how to get there.  They thought that the philosopher could be his own savior; however, for the Christian, the only savior was Christ. 

“By the time of the Council of Nicea in 325 CE,” says Lloyd Gerson, “self-declared Christians who wanted to reflect philosophically on their religion did so almost exclusively within a Platonic context.”

Other philosophies, such as Epicureanism and Stoicism, wouldn’t work.  One or the other of these would hold to ideas such as: The gods didn’t care, all was material, there was no idea of man reaching the highest place or the gods reaching down to man.  If one was to utilize a philosophy of the time to tell the Christian story, it was only through this Neoplatonist lens that the Christian story could properly be told.

The gospel gave Augustine the map needed to reach the homeland the Platonists could only gaze at from afar.

As an aside: Jacob’s Ladder and The Tower of Babel are instructive here.  God moves first.  Jacob did not attempt to climb the ladder up to God – the method of the philosopher as his own savior.  He did not say, “If I will be with God.”  Instead, he said “If God will be with me….”  The same issue holds in The Tower of Babel: men attempting to climb to God, instead of the Christian understanding that it is God who first comes down to us.

And it is right here that all of the Jordan Peterson twelve rules falls short.  The philosopher cannot be his own savior.  Rules designed to climb will never suffice; we must first understand that we are fallen and must be picked up.  (Glen Scrivener at Speak Life explains this very well in his reaction to Peterson’s speech at ARC.)

Returning to Barrett: Christian Platonism offered building blocks for early Christian doctrine: anti-materialism – bodies and properties are not all that exist; anti-mechanism – the natural order cannot be fully explained by physical or mechanical causes; anti-nominalism – reality is not made up merely of individuals, as two individual objects can be the same in essence; anti-relativism – human beings are not the measure of all things; and anti-skepticism – the real can, in some way, be present to us.

When the apostle Paul cited classical Greek philosophers – In him we live and move and have our being – he described God’s transcendent reality with a participation metaphysic.  And this may be the key word: participation. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Repaying Stolen Honor


From the theme on which it was published I have called it Cur Deus Homo, and have divided it into two short books.  The first contains objections of the infidels…and also the reply of the believers…[and] proves, by absolute reasons, the impossibility that any man should be saved without [Christ].

Cur Deus Homo: Why God Became Man, St. Anselm (also available online)

Anselm begins by stating that his purpose is not to satisfy believers of their faith through reason, but to offer to believers reasons for their faith such that they may stand against anyone who demands these.  It is necessary to accept the deep things by faith, but then helpful, even necessary (in defense), to delve into these through reason.

The issue being addressed here:

… for what cause or necessity, in sooth, God became man, and by his own death, as we believe and affirm, restored life to the world; when he might have done this, by means of some other being, angelic or human, or merely by his will.

All the while, Anslem recognizes that what ought to be sufficient on this topic has already been said by the fathers (as I have previously offered the words of St. Atanasius as one such example).

Boso cautiously plays the role of the infidel, asking questions and raising objections.  For example, that we dishonor God by claiming that he descended into the womb of a virgin and grew on the nourishment of men.  Anselm offers that it is no injustice, but cause to give to God the highest honor and thanks.  God offered to us the greatest love possible.

Why our salvation had to come through a man (as opposed to through an angel or simply a decree from God) is considered: as death came through the human race, life had to also come through the human race; as the first sin was through a woman, restoration of life had to come through a woman; and as sin came through the eating of the tree, life had to come through a man suffering on a tree.

But it is not sufficient to consider that man alone could do this work:

Do you not perceive that, if any other being should rescue man from eternal death, man would rightly be adjudged as the servant of that being?

We were created to be servants of God, not servants of man or servants of angels.  In sum, there is necessary reason that Christ was man and necessary reason that Christ was God.  But as I am only on page ten (at this point of the argument) of eighty-four pages, there is clearly much more to be said on this topic: Boso doesn’t let it go at this, therefore neither does Anselm.

Boso: For if he could not save sinners in any other way than by condemning the just, where is his omnipotence?  If, however, he could, but did not wish to, how shall we sustain his wisdom and justice?

We will find, through this study, that, once again, God can do anything except the nonsensical.

Anselm: For the Father did not compel him to suffer death, or even allow him to be slain, against his will, but of his own accord he endured death for the salvation of men.

To which Boso again objects: there are many passages which seem to indicate obedience as opposed to Christ’s free will.

It was obedience that demanded of Christ that he maintain truth and justice, and it was for this that the Jews persecuted him unto death.  It seems clearly inconceivable that God might be capable of violating the perfect law that God created.  Hence, Christ had to be obedient to this law of truth and justice, because He created it perfectly.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Blessed are the Meek…


…for they shall inherit the earth.

“Meekness is an immovable state of soul which remains unaffected whether in evil report or in good report, in dishonour or in praise….it is a mark of extreme meekness, even in the presence of one’s offender, to be peacefully and lovingly disposed towards him in one’s heart.”

-          John Climacus, as quoted by Metropolitan Alfeyev

Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, by D. Martin Lloyd-Jones

Jesus Christ: His Life and Teaching, Vol.2 - The Sermon on the Mount, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev

The world understands that the opposite of meek, as the world commonly understands the term, is necessary if one is to succeed: to “inherit the earth.” Strength, power, self-assurance, and aggressiveness.  These are the characteristics of those who will inherit – at least this is how the world sees it.

DMLJ: Once more, then, we are reminded at the very beginning that the Christian is altogether different from the world.  It is a difference in quality, an essential difference.  He is a new man, a new creation….

And if we are not “altogether different” and a “new creation,” this speaks to us and where we stand in our Christian faith, not to the teaching of Jesus.

MHA: Jesus’ commandments can seem difficult to fulfill, but fulfilling them brings peace to the soul, because doing so frees the soul from the burden of earthly cares.  The means of acquiring this inner peace is meekness and humility.

John Chrysostom paraphrases this as follows:

“…if thou duly perform His words, the burden will be light… But how are they duly performed?  If thou art become lowly, and meek, and gentle.”

I am reminded of a Jordan Peterson story: he would ask a student if he would like to play a game.  After an affirmative reply, Peterson would simply state: “You go first.”  No discussion of rules, objectives, etc.  No game board.  Nothing like that.  Of course, with this unlimited and absolute freedom, the student stood frozen, unable to do anything.

Fulfilling Jesus’s commandments frees us; doing this bring peace to our soul.  This gives us freedom to now play the game.

Lloyd-Jones reminds that Matthew was writing primarily to the Jews, and the Jews had a different idea of the kingdom: materialistic, military, with a Messiah that would lead them to victory (not much has changed in this regard).  Therefore Matthew, early in his gospel account, strives to disabuse the Jews of this notion.

DMLJ: Meekness is essentially a true view of oneself, expressing itself in attitude and conduct with respect to others. … It is my attitude towards myself; and it is an expression of that in my relationship to others.

Metropolitan Alfeyev examines the word “meek,” and how it is used in the Septuagint to translate a whole range of Hebrew words (and then offers these in English): whole, perfect, in both a physical and religious sense; humble, stooping; destitute, poor, needy, uncomplaining, submissive.  There is another Greek word also close in meaning that can be understood as calm or soft.

He also offers a few verses from Proverbs that contrast meekness with envy, wrath, or anger.  Some other Old Testament passages about meekness are interpreted in the New Testament as foreshadowings of Jesus Christ.  Christ, who is called or referred to as a lamb multiple times, offers a picture of meekness.

Friday, November 24, 2023

Letting Go of the Reins


We, in the name of a demented constitutionalism, have dashed out the brains of far more infants than Hamas could ever dream of. That’s the problem with those Third-World pikers—they simply don’t know how to scale. And not only does their ineptitude not know how to scale, these ignorant barbarians slaughtered the infants of their enemies instead of doing what civilized Westerners do, which is to target their own citizens.

Evangelical Doctors, Coughing Up Blood, Doug Wilson (video, blog)

Setting aside that I still don’t know that there is any evidence of Hamas deliberately targeting infants, the line is humorous, biting, and profound.  Wilson introduces this post with the vote in Ohio to enshrine abortion in the state constitution.

So am I about to lay the responsibility for America’s condition at the feet of the evangelical church? Why, yes. Yes, I am. … In a time when our nation has declared open war on the God of heaven, despising His law/word, we, ostensibly His people, have responded with a farrago of lame theological excuses…

He then goes on to describe some of these lame theological excuses – the taking of the two kingdoms idea not just to an extreme but to two different corners; a concern that “any Presbyterian attempt to save the babies is just a trick that will enable them to flog Baptists again…” (a reference to the paranoia and misunderstanding of what Wilson, at least, means by Christian nationalism).

That “vixen” known as secularism has had its way with everyone in town; everyone knows what’s going on except for the evangelicals.  What these evangelicals, and others, don’t see is that we are already, now, today, living in under the wrath of God. 

Wilson points to Romans 1 to demonstrate that God does not have to do anything to demonstrate His wrath; He just stops doing.  I also have described this as one of God’s purposes for giving us the natural law ethic: when we violate it so blatantly and extensively, God does not have to do anything – the ramifications of such prolonged violations will do all the doing necessary.

God just lets go of the reins:

This stallion has long fancied himself a Pegasus, and so the moment the rider gets off and lets go of the reins, that idea is immediately put to the test at the very first cliff.

I guess time for me to insert: as the stallion is falling at free fall speed, he can still report “OK so far!”  Which is how many see our situation today: OK so far; unfortunately this includes many Christian leaders.  But it isn’t as if the judgement is somewhere ahead of us; we are living the judgement today.

…the sins of woke America were revealed when the permit for the first pride parade was obtained.

And we are living in His judgement for our agreeing to slaughter tens of millions of babies, which comes to the quote with which I opened this post.  And this in a land of tens of millions of Evangelical Christians, many of whom still can’t get it through their heads that you’ve got to serve somebody; there has to be something at the top of the value chain.  Not just that there has to bethere will be.  And if it isn’t God and God’s law, it will be something else.

So, we keep pretending that belief is optional, personal; everyone can have their own god at the top – this is our secular society and it is the society acceptable to Christians who believe that there is no concern about God’s Kingdom until after we see Jesus coming down in the clouds.

We have read this story before, many times in the Bible:

This is supplemented with claims that all those gnarly things the Bible talks about are not the same thing as what we are doing. Our Sodom is not like their Sodom. Our Moloch is not like their Moloch. Our scribes who mutter deceits are not like their scribes who muttered deceits.

Oh, but they are, like peas in a pod.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Yes, it is Genocide

Imagine a minority population, in the midst of a land surrounded by people of a different religion and ethnicity, where there has been violence against the minority by the majority in authority, and where the minority is treated, both by law and custom, as second-class citizens – not afforded the full rights of citizenship despite having lived on the land for countless centuries.

Imagine that this minority is then subject to the worst atrocities by the majority – a majority that has all of the advanced weaponry.  Death and destruction ensue, with most of this poor minority population displaced, and many of them killed.  Men, woman, children, combatant or not – all subject to the same devastation.

Imagine that the justification for this heinous act is that a small handful of individuals from this minority population have committed what is considered some form of terrorist action against the majority population.  Not justifiable, perhaps, but very much understandable given the harsh treatment for as long as any of the minority population (as well as parents and grandparents) has been alive.

Imagine further justification for this devastation was the fear that the minority population would side with the enemy in any instance of war.  Again, maybe true for a handful of this minority population, but not for any meaningful percentage.

There once was such a genocide:

The first non-colonial genocide of the twentieth-century was the Armenian catastrophe in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. It started in early 1915, when the Young Turk regime rounded up hundreds of Armenians and hanged many of them in the streets of Istanbul, before beginning the genocidal deportation of most of the Armenian population to the desert, in which up to a million died or were murdered en route.

The Armenian minority in Ottoman Turkey had been subject to sporadic persecutions over the centuries. … From 1915, inspired by rabid nationalism and secret government orders, Turks drove the Armenians from their homes and massacred them in such numbers that outside observers at the time described what was happening as ‘a massacre like none other,’ or ‘a massacre that changes the meaning of massacre.’

In this genocide of the Armenians by the Turks, all of those imaginings were realized.  Every single one.  Of course, they are all just as true of Israel’s current actions against the Palestinians.

From a video of Norman Finkelstein on Gaza, with Aaron Mate; Finkelstein succinctly lists statements made by senior Israeli officials on October 8, one day after the incursion by Hamas:

Monday, November 20, 2023

The Provocation


This chapter is one of the most important chapters in this book because it is one hinge on which its argument turns. … This chapter is so important because it identifies the provocation of Luther’s Reformation.

The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, by Matthew Barrett

In this chapter, Barrett will begin to examine, in detail, the change in medieval Scholastic thinking, from that of Anselm and Lombard to the changes that began with Duns Scotus: the departure from the realism of Thomas toward the nominalism of the via moderna.

This transition opened the door to Semi-Pelagianism and even Pelagianism.  Certainly, the Reformed view of sola gratia and imputation was beyond the views of Thomas, but in neither camp did the idea of human perfection achieved by free will have traction. Barrett sees this transition in the Scholasticism after Thomas.

Further, it is the Reformers that have been tainted with the charge of cultivating the nominalism of Ockham, hence abandoning the realist conception of participation and opening the divide between the sacred and the secular:

However, this chapter, as well as parts 2 and 3, will lay a foundation that demonstrates such a thesis could not be more mistaken.

This will take patience on all of our parts, as part three ends about 550 pages from now!

This charge can be laid against Ockham and those that followed his path.  The Reformers reacted against this nominalist soteriology, with a doctrine that made room for the double grace of justification and sanctification.  Yes, in some Reformers, there was a nominalist influence in epistemology and metaphysics, yet these still reacted against its soteriology. 

In short, the Reformation’s reaction against the nominalist soteriology of the via moderna (see chapter 8) is proof that in the minds of the Reformers they remained catholic while the via moderna was radically uncatholic.

For reference, this post begins chapter 5.

To begin this examination, Barrett walks through the influence that Plato and Aristotle had in early Christianity, through “The Great Tradition” that encompassed Christians both east and west.  By Great Tradition, think of C.S. Lewis’s great hall in Mere Christianity:

When [Lewis] then proceeded to write Mere Christianity, Lewis did not just write any old—or new—theology.  He aimed with great success “to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”  … In other words, he was trying to articulate the Great Tradition—those bedrock beliefs of the Bible, the early church, the creeds, the Reformers, and orthodox Christians throughout the ages.

Platonism offered a perspective that explained transcendent reality.  Unlike nominalism, Plato understood that universals were real (hence, realism).  In this way, goodness was not left to chance, to material or mechanical processes.  The world participates in the Good; room was made for a transcendent divinity. 

Not any philosophy would do – one looks in vain for Christian Epicureans.

All truth is God’s truth, a view that runs from Augustine through Aquinas through Calvin – even the truth from “profane authors.”  Per Calvin:

Friday, November 17, 2023

Blessed are They That Mourn…


…for they shall be comforted.

DMLJ: To ‘mourn’ is something that follows of necessity from being ‘poor in spirit.’  It is quite inevitable.  As I confront God and His holiness, and contemplate the life that I am meant to live, I see myself, my utter helplessness and hopelessness.

MHA: …in Matthew’s version mourning as an inner spiritual state is transformed into being comforted, which again is of a spiritual nature.

Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, by D. Martin Lloyd-Jones

Jesus Christ: His Life and Teaching, Vol.2 - The Sermon on the Mount, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev

It is ‘blessed,’ or ‘happy,’ to mourn.  Talk about a statement that marks off Christians as something far different than those who are not Christians, for whom this is an utterly ridiculous statement.  They say: We don’t mourn, we chase pleasure.  We do everything we can to not face our troubles.  This is the world that many inhabit today.

Instead, Jesus teaches that the only ones who are truly happy are the ones who mourn.  Here again, the idea is a spiritual one, not a physical one; it references a spiritual attitude.  A fundamental conviction must occur – one that comes with mourning.  This conviction must precede conversion (the term used by Lloyd-Jones); a real sense of sin must come before there can be the true joy of true salvation.  Instead, this defect regarding a true understanding of what sin is produces a superficial person and offers a wholly inadequate kind of Christian life.

DMLJ: They have failed to see that they must be convicted of sin before they can ever experience joy.  They do not like the doctrine of sin.  They dislike it intensely and they object to its being preached.  They want joy apart from the conviction of sin.

To be happy and blessed via true conversion, first one must mourn by seeing sin and its consequences for what these truly are.  We mourn because we see our sin.  The Christian knows this feeling of utter hopelessness: the good that I would do, I do not; the evil which I would not do, I do. 

MHA: The second Beatitude, like the first, has a rich history of interpretation.  In the Eastern Christian tradition, the interpretation that became established connected this Beatitude with the theme of repentant mourning, which must be the Christian’s lifelong labor.

There is nothing of glib joviality in the apostle Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus.  We are taught to be sober, grave, temperate; sober-minded.  The Christian examines what principles are in him that move him to act to sin.  By examining, he finds a war in his members; he hates this and mourns because of it.

MHA: Another type of mourning is found in tears of compunction.  …tears of repentance first arise out of a person’s consciousness of his own sinfulness; these tears are accompanied by bitterness of heart and contrition.

From Metropolitan Alfeyev, Isaac the Syrian teaches:

For a man comes from mourning into purity of soul. …All the saints strive to reach this entrance-way, because by means of tears the door is opened before them to enter the land of consolation.

Mourning is an attitude that Lloyd-Jones finds wholly lacking in the church of his time, and consider this was written over sixty years ago.  He is writing at a time when men are not at all attracted to the church, something that has only grown more problematic in the intervening years:

DMLJ: …men who are outside the Church always become attracted when the Church herself begins to function truly as the Christian Church, and as individual Christians approximate to the description here given in these Beatitudes.

I have heard the author Tom Holland offer, during the covid madness, that he didn’t want to hear from the Church of England the same public health mumbo-jumbo that came out of the NHS.  Instead, he wanted real meat – explain the mysteries, hold individuals accountable, teach the virtuous life.

DMLJ: But I also think that another explanation of this is the idea which has gained currency that if we as Christians are to attract those who are not Christian we must deliberately affect an appearance of brightness and joviality.

I saw a video of the worship team at Andy Stanley’s church opening with “Stairway to Heaven,” an even louder and more raucous version than the original, with band members that made Led Zeppelin look like the Osmond family.  Then again, Stanley attracts large crowds.  But does any of this indicate a life different and separate, as Jesus is teaching here?  To ask that question is to answer it.  Just because large crowds are attracted says nothing of what they are being attracted to.

Instead of joy and happiness arising from within, it is a manufactured “joy,” to use the term loosely.  It is really more of a glibness or joviality than true inner joy.  And whether by design or not, it is a superficial joy that hides or overcomes any sense of sin: