“What then shall we say if we would restore the medieval bridge from Homer, Plato and Virgil to Christ, the Bible and the church? Shall we say that Christianity is not the only truth? Certainly not! But let us also not say that Christianity is the only truth. Let us say instead that Christianity is the only complete truth. The distinction here is vital. By saying that Christianity is the only complete truth, we leave open the possibility that other philosophies, religions and cultures have hit on certain aspects of the truth. The Christian need not reject the poetry of Homer, the teachings of Plato, or the myths of the pagans as one hundred percent false, as an amalgamation of darkness and lies (as Luther strongly suggests), but may affirm those moments when Plato and Homer leap past their human limitations and catch a glimpse of the true glory of the triune God.
I reject the all-or-nothing, darkness-or-light dualism that Luther at times embraced. But I also reject the modern relativist position that truth is like a hill and there are many ways around it. Yes, truth is like a hill, but the truth that stands atop that hill is Christ and him crucified. To arrive at the truth of Christ, the people of the world have pursued many, many different routes. Some have only scaled the bottom rim of the hill; others have made it halfway. But many have reached the top and experienced the unspeakable joy that comes only when the truth they have sought all their lives is revealed to them. …
If we are to accept these verses [Romans 2:14-15] in a manner that is in any way literal, we must confess that unregenerate pagans have an inborn capacity for grasping light and truth that was not totally depraved by the Fall. Indeed, though the pagan poets and philosophers of Greece and Rome did not have all the answers (they couldn’t, as they lacked the special revelation found only in Jesus), they knew how to ask the right questions—questions that build within the readers of their works a desire to know the higher truths about themselves and their Creator.”
—Louis Markos, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (IVP Academic 2007), pp. 13-14
32 thoughts on “Homer, Plato, Virgil, and the Cross”
This is good. I have been meaning to fit some of the classics into my reading schedule for some time but I have only managed a few so far, too little time I think.
I recently come across a book by John Mark Reynolds called ‘When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought’ which looks quite good. I know Dr. Reynolds has a high regard for Plato so it will be interesting to see how he relates this to Christian theology.
I enjoy the blog. I hate this quote.
Christ and Him crucified does not sit atop a hill as though waiting for natural man to ascend! The Truth steps down to meet us in ignorance, just as the Life steps down to meet us in death. And besides, which natural mind has ever drawn near to the crucified God. Such truth has only ever appeared as folly to the world, yet this *is* the power and wisdom of God
This quote is epistemological Pelagianism. Salvation and knowledge go together. We must oppose synergism in the one as strongly as we oppose it in the other. No wonder Luther shows the way. We’d do well to heed his cautions.
I’ve had Plato in my hands since I was a toddler.
But Markos is very harsh on and very unfair to Luther.
“Cicero was the wisest man. He wrote more than all the philosophers and also read all the books of the Greeks. I marvel at this man who, amid such great labors, read and wrote so much.” Martin Luther, Table Talk, as recorded by Conrad Cordatus
Far better off are we to be guided by Gerrish’s council:
“In any case, [Luther] calls it mere philistinism to be ignorant of Aristotle’s natural philosophy. AFter all, the Greek philosopher’s views form an integral part of culture and rest upon sound arguments. Clearly, as long as the distinction between theology and philosophy is kept in mind, there is nothing to prevent one from passing favourable judgment upon Aristotle.”
Grace and peace,
I love this feedback. It’s usually the questionable ones that produce the most fruitful discussions. Gerrish is helpful here (thanks Tom). And Leithart is also very good at distinguishing the philosophy from the theology. It’s interesting that Markos essentially copied Leitharts work in many ways. And it seems this philosophical/theological distinction is what made you not like the quote yourself, Glen. Thanks for the (much appreciated) feedback. T
I for one am not too embracing of the quote due its distinct lack of regard of man’s sinfulness. Though I wholy agree with the notion that Christianity is the only complete truth, I am of the belief that neither Pagan literature nor philosophy is a partial truth.
Literary classics are worthy to be read because they can grow a Christian in discernment for, appreciation of, and skillful wielding of the truth (and various philosophical discourses can be useful for the same end) but to state that they are partial truths because a person is only partially depraved simply does not seem to line up with scripture: for all have fallen short of the glory of God and no one does good.
I do not even think that Christians are capable of proclaiming the complete truth (although we are learning it and apprehending it in greater degrees daily), hence we have all kinds of known false doctrine and we will probably find out that important parts of doctrine that we thought to be true will be false in heaven and hence we need God to do the work for us in using our sinful presentation of the Gospel for His good to change hearts.
The writer shows forth Romans 2:14-15 in an exegetically irresponsible way as clearly all of man’s understanding is darkened. What Romans 2:14-15 means is that (when applied to this scenario), man’s search for truth and justice shows forth the law, not the results of that search because outside of Christ he will never find anything truthful or right and if it appears to be right, it still isn’t because the unsaved man’s method of approaching that truth is wrong or incorrectly emphasized and completely misapplied and is, therefore by default, totally wrong. This is why your college math teacher made you show all of your steps to the terminus of various assigned problems and results in much of the irresponsible scientific inquiry that goes on today.
Though there may be truth to be gleaned by Christians in Pagan literature, this is due to illumination. When one’s eyes are open and one knows what to look for and is shown truth, it is easy to spot it everywhere, but, if one does not know something they will never spot it anywhere. Would you ever see a rabbit in the clouds if you never knew what a rabbit was? Of course not. You would see something else that you know up in the stratosphere and conform the shape of the cloud to that idea in your head.
Due to illumination I can appreciate and apply Plato/Socrates’ correct view of justice, although they were still wrong in it. Does God see and reward partial righteousness? Do sinners that do a single non-sinful thing in their life go to heaven? No. God neither sees nor rewards partial righteousness and he neither sees nor rewards partial truth. We recognize partial truth because we are sinners and we are quick to compromise truth. So, while Pagan (and much Christian) philosophy has items that are useful, they are not true in themselves because they are not applied in the context of the glory of God.
I agree with the idea that Christians should read Pagan literature and study Pagan philosophy, but I attribute the ability to enjoy and use these means of grace due to our illumination and Christian liberty to be able to do and enjoy all things to the glory of God (that are of a grey area).
Praise and glory be to God that he uses evil for good and unrighteousness to show forth his majestic and infinite righteousness!
Shall we say that Christianity is not the only truth? Certainly not! But let us also not say that Christianity is the only truth.
Am I going crazy or did he just contradict himself?
I think I would have to be mostly with Glen. One can admit that the Greeks did say some true things (contra the Luther of Markos- I am utterly unqualified to say whether this is the real Luther) without being quite so positive. Markos does seem to downplay the fall in a way that goes beyond the Bible’s teaching. The result is an implied relationship between Nature and Grace that says that Grace (special revelation) completes or makes up for what is lacking in nature (mankind’s reasoned observations of the creation). I think the reformers were correct in saying that Biblically, grace restores nature.
Notice, for example, that Plato and Homer “leap past their human limitations” to see God’s glory. The implication seems to be that the principal thing holding us back from perceiving God’s glory is the finiteness inherant to our creatureliness, which is remedied by special revelation (Grace augments and completes nature). In Romans 1, however, Paul says that God’s glory is plain to us all and that the thing that holds us back from seeing it is that we are falling over ourselves to avoid seeing it. What we need (to skip Paul’s entire argument and go to chap 12) is “the renewal of our minds” (grace restores corrupt nature). Our problem is not simply the infinite height to leap from earth to heaven, but the infinite abyss into which the human heart has fallen.
You could say this is all picking over words, and I have wondered myself, but the phrasing is particularly objectionable I feel when he says that Plato and Homer “catch a glimpse of the true glory of the triune God”. This seems to say much more than Markos appears to be trying to say elsewhere. It goes well beyond saying “Homer and Plato struck on some moral precepts which are graven on the human conscience because they are inherant to being God’s creation in God’s world”. I wonder how readers of this blog would respond to a similar quote to the effect that there are statements in the Qu’ran which are not absolute falsehoods. I cannot help but believe that we would all be rather more critical if he had said “Mohammed transcended his natural limitations and caught a glipse of the true glory of the triune God”
I understand – and strongly feel – the temptation to give the classics a special place of respect. For those of us who are westerners they had a formative influence on our cultures and until very recently every great thinker in our culture from the Church Fathers, through the reformers almost to the present, had to interact with them. Much of our philosophy until the modern age was phrased in their terms. But ultimately, they did not know God and we have to read them the way we’d read any thinker from another religion. Which is not to say there is nothing to be gained from reading them, or for that matter confucious, the qu’ran or the Buddha nor that there is nothing true in their writings. Rather, we can see in them the truth that there are things which are so graven on the heart of man that despite the idiosyncratic ways each individual culture corrupts the truth (I can certainly say as a Brittish person living in Spain that there are some truths that are more clearly seen in Brittish culture than in American or Spanish culture, but equally some which are more obscured) we still know enough to be held accountable and (mercifully) enough to maintain a society. Markos’ argument about asking different questions is certainly valid, and a good argument for the study of other cultures full stop.
Ultimately, Jesus says the Pharisees are the children of the devil (John 8 ) despite the fact that their worldview was surely in many ways further up the hill than that of Ancient Greece. (I share Glen’s reservations regarding the hill metaphor) I suppose at the end of the day I could join Seneca in commending clemency in a ruler, the Stoics in commending moderation of desires (at least, the subordination of desires for created things to the desire to know, glorify and enjoy God) and perhaps if they were alive today we could vote for the same politicians and come to a reasonable level of agreement on how to build a good society – but to clothe that agreement in quasi or even overtly religious language to the extent Markos does seems not to do the Bible justice. Again, if they were here now, I cannot help but think it would be misleading in a rather unloving way to tell them they had transcended human limitations and seen the divine. Much better to highlight their inherent knowledge of the covenant relationship they have to God in Adam – and the serious peril that knowledge puts them in.
Someone out there (I’d have a stab at John Frame or Vern Poythress) has said this better than I can, but when we say these things about the classics, or other cultures and religions, even other theological traditions, I think it’s important to remember as well that truths don’t stand alone so much as they stand in webs. Distortions in one part will have a more or less distorting influence on the whole. The knowledge that clemency is good (to take one example) is incomplete without the fear of God as the matrix of truths into which that truth fits. And to the extent that it is incomplete it is untrue. If you are merciful because you don’t want your citizens to stage an uprising because they hate you your understanding of clemency is rather different than if you are merciful because God sees what you are doing and will judge tyrants, but has shown you unfathomably great mercy in Christ. In this sense piety is requisite for true knowledge.
In similar fashion (and perhaps the closest Biblical parralel to the question at hand), many Proverbs appear very similar to things that Egyptian wise men said. But the book affirms that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. In that sense, while the writer of proverbs appreciates some things Egyptian wisdom schools says, his conclusion is that they are foolish. “Like a lame man’s legs which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools” Proverbs 26:7
Thus like Solomon among the Egyptians we may allow that the Greeks maintained some precepts which bear a semblance of truth, but yet they have been so thoroughly disconnected from the fear of the covenant God of Israel that they lie dead and useless, gutted of the Truth (capital T) from which all other truth derives its life and, verity(to avoid saying truth again in a confusing way). What at first glance and out of its context might seem to be light is, as we draw back, torn from the fabric of the Biblical wordlview and sown into a tapestry of deep darkness.
Thanks for a thoughtful post which I caught over on facebook.
I think it is simple prejudice to dismiss classical learning or the reading of secular thinkers and writers — especially when, as John Mark Reynolds demonstrates, my use of logic, syllogisms, argument, and concepts are inherited from some of them. I think of someone I read who critiqued the reading of philosophy using the law of non-contradiction. It is a bit like biting the hand that feeds them.
I owe much to pagan thinkers — from public speaking rules, to insight into clarity of ideas, to categories of thought.
This is not to deny the truthfulness of Scripture — nor to deny that all that the Bible says is true — but it is to say that the Bible is not all truth. I just took some medicine today — and I take it everyday — because medical science knows some truth about thyroid disease and how to treat it. I do not think I would take my car to a mechanic who only reads his bible.
I think we would all be surprised to see how much Greek thinking there is in the NT — especially Hebrews. I think we would all be surprised to read the list of sources in the back of Calvin’s Institutes.
I am someone who values the breadth of education I have received — not as sanctifying in the least, but as illuminating and illustrating and clarifying. I have taken what I have learned about art, music, philosophy, logic, history, literature, cinema, math, economics, and science — and used it repeatedly in my life. It is no substitute for Scripture, but it is helpful.
As an aside, I also value literature and not just theology, history, and “factual” learning. I have learned more about heaven from CS Lewis than Calvin — Lewis has captured my imagination and stirred by hopes in a way that theologians do not do. “Further up and further in” as developed in The Last Battle or his insights into the joy of heaven in The Great Divorce have moved me to tears.
John Mark Reynolds new book, mentioned above, is outstanding. My daughter studied under Reynolds and he is remarkably clear and thoroughly biblical.
One last word — the Gospel is for the educated and the uneducated. Not all have minds that love to read — and they can be exceptionally godly, or more godly than the intellectuals. But that does not mean those with mental gifts should shun learning.
To co-ordinate ‘Christ and Him crucified’ with the wisdom of the world (which is precisely what the hill analogy does) is to join together what God has put asunder and the offspring will not be pretty. It is not Luther who opposes this idea so much as Paul. Read 1 Corinthians 1-3 (which is where ‘Christ and Him crucified’ comes from!) and see whether the term is being used in a way that fits its original setting!
Or, here’s another test, exchange the word ‘salvation’ for the word ‘truth’ in that extract and you’ll see the Pelagianism in every sentence.
It is incontestably and trivially true that pagans can write meaningful novels, develop life-saving medicine, pursue world-enlightening science, make correct philosophical and moral observations. And it’s equally true that pagans can work for peace, give blood and generally be very, very nice people. No-one’s saying unbelievers can’t say true stuff, just as no-one’s saying unbelievers can’t do good stuff. The trouble comes when someone tries to co-ordinate nature and grace in either knowledge or salvation. Whenever the natural is seen as a stepping stone into grace alarm bells must go off. Whenever co-ordination, stepping-stones, bridges, spectrums, pilgrimmages, ascents up hills are discussed flags have to go up. Read the hill analogy again – I might be wrong but I don’t think that anyone here would be happy if a synergism of think nature and grace
As for Romans 2. It seems very clear to me that Paul is talking about Gentile Christians who have the law written on their hearts a la Jeremiah 31. To make these verses an argument for natural law or natural theology… I don’t get it. Are we really going to suggest that the route to divine truth is to look within?
When it comes to epistemology, ‘Grace alone’ means ‘Revelation alone.’
oops – just ignore the last “sentence” of the third paragraph. I should have deleted it.
The hill analogy is poor, I think that should be granted. The issue, however, is whether or not unbelievers can have knowledge of truth, not does natural theology lead to revealed theology.
It takes some doing to restrict knowledge to Scripture only and depending on how you state this position you will wind up in all sorts of trouble.
People have already made some good points on the hill analogy. One thing that I don’t think that’s been mentioned about it is that Jesus Christ is not just the destination, he is also THE Way as well. You may be introduced to the way through different means, but you are not on the way until you come to Christ. Until you come to Christ, the end of what you have and know is death, both physical and spiritual.
Thanks for the comments Charles. It may be helpful to keep in mind that Markos is talking here about BC authors not AD authors. This should factor into how we view his hill analogy.
Who would Paul be referring to as representatives of the ‘wisdom of the world’ if not precisely these kinds of BC authors??
It certainly could be. But based upon Isa 29:14 Paul’s use of “wisdom of the wise” may actually reference the contemporary political powers, those aligned with selfish motives not the divine purpose. … Glen, in your opinion what truth can/can’t the unregenerate learn from general revelation? Curious.
Ah, nice cross reference. Even (and perhaps especially!) the power players of the covenant people must be resisted in favour of a theologia crucis. Good one.
To address your question (a little!) – obviously salvation is not a case of adding up discrete propositions until a certain level of saving truth is reached. Therefore we’re not committed to a ‘truth-limit’ on the unregenerate. Instead I think truth is relative – relative to Christ, the Truth (good name for a blog I reckon). His subjectivity is the one objectivity. There are therefore whole worlds of understanding that make some kind of sense within their own terms of reference and which make some kind of sense of the world but are falsely related to the true Logos. Therefore in toto and at root they are utterly false. And there can be no bridge between these worlds and the world in which Christ crucified is central. There can only be redemption from these worlds. Such a redemption will require wholesale rethinking (metanoia – change of mind).
Just think of something like Saul of Tarsus’s knowledge of the law. Did he know true things? Many. Did he have a true understanding of the law. Absolutely not. Every aspect of it had to be turned right-side-up. Even the ‘true things’ he had known would have to be reinterpreted through the proper grid. Even if Paul now makes statements that sound identical to “Saul’s” they are true for very different reasons. I think all knowledge is like this.
I go into this kind of stuff here. But happy to interact here if you want.
Every blessing in Jesus,
Appreciate your thoughts on this. In Acts 17:28 Paul cites from two poets. “For we are indeed his offspring.” This was an excerpt from the famous Greek poet Solensis Aratus (died in 240 B.C.) and his poem Phainomena. The poet attributed this statement to Zeus in the hymn to Zeus. Scholars, and the early church fathers, believed that Paul quotes Epimenides of Crete, a poet/prophet of Zeus. He may have lived in the 6th century B.C. or he may have been purely a mythical figure. Epimenides’ poem Cretica is quoted from twice by Paul (see Acts 17:28a for one example). Any idea why Paul would integrate–even build–his theological points off these Pagan sources?
Again I think that’s a function of the relative nature of truth. On Paul’s lips such statements are gloriously true. On Aratus’s lips they mean something very different – false actually.
For a modern example – when Deepak Chopra says we’re all God’s children, does he know what he’s talking about? I’d say a strong no. Now the fact he says such things might be a way in which God’s ever-present revelation in creation has impressed itself on him. But I’d also say that the truth suppression of Chopra is such that he condemns himself by his words without understanding the truth of what he says. Nonetheless, if you were engaging him you still might respond to him “Well Deepak, if we are God’s children, how could you possibly think X…”)
I think the thing Paul builds his theological points off of is v23 – they’re ignorant and need Paul to declare the truth to them. In the light of Paul’s gospel metanarrative, those statements that the pagans spoke (though they did not intend Paul’s meaning), can be taken captive against their will and pressed into Christ’s service (2 Cor 10:5). There they truly fit and are truly true.
On their own and in their own context these statements lead only to falsehood and damnation. They are not half way up the mountain! And they do not represent an attempt to ascend the right mountain – the very opposite. Instead they must be crucified and raised again with Christ, they must be redeemed, there must be wholesale metanoia. Only within the world of the gospel in which Christ is proclaimed as LORD are these things rightly related to the eternal Logos. Only when these statements are uttered and understood from within this context are they truly true. But when they are commandeered as such they can be used to affect those who have falsely uttered them.
That’s the gist of where I’m coming from. Comments, corrections gladly received.
I understand what you are saying Glen but does it not work both ways?
If a proposition is true only through it’s relation to other propositions then no proposition in isolation can be true. So to know anything at all I must know everything.
It is insufficient to say in relation to Christ because Christ is not a simple object of knowledge. So which propositions must be known about Christology before the other things I believe become true? Who is Christ? What is the atonement? What is the resurrection? These are not simple objects of knowledge either and so I find myself looking for solid ground but I can only find greater depth.
I agree that propositions gain significance because of relationship but I also think I can know one true thing no matter if everything else I believe I know is false.
There’s a big sense in which I’d agree that “Christ is not a simple object of knowledge”. But that’s because He is a knowing Subject! And He first grasps us. (Election is so key in this discussion). But once we are grasped I believe this is the solid Ground we need for true knowledge. And yes, through the Spirit we’ll need to build on this Ground even such knowledge as christology and atonement etc, (as well as of everything else). But the foundation is not ‘certain propositions’ nor even ‘certain propositions about Jesus’. We’d never arrive if this were the case! The Rock is Christ Himself who knows us and claims us and raises us up to then know Him. I think that this is a foundation for knowledge that no proposition or system of propositions could ever offer.
So I’m not saying ‘everything must be interpreted in the light of everything.’ Such a proposal would indeed break down in just the ways you suggest. But what I’m saying is that everything must be interpreted in the light of Christ. And that this is a markedly different proposal. One thing that makes this such a different proposal is that Christ is not first discovered, He is our Discoverer. He is not first illuminated. He is the Illuminator. And in His light we see light. (Ps 36:9)
Without His light, all is darkness.
Appreciate your thoughts, Glen.
Acts 17:22-34 is valuable because I think it makes the hill analogy tenable. As I see it, this passage shows that Paul descended the hill to dovetail the gospel into the religious impulses of the Athenians. And I think the text suggests this for two reasons.
First, the temple “to the unknown god.” Paul does not call them pagan fools for building a temple to the unknown god. The Athenians know their god/goddess complexes are insufficient. There is something more needed. And Paul says yes, there is something more needed. Let me introduce you to Him, the living, triune God. Let me tell you more. But it’s interesting that Paul dovetails special revelation into their religious presumption. This matches how Paul approaches the pagan poets as well, naturally building off their truths to the Living God. The Athenians are at lest at the base of the hill, feeling their way along, albeit ignorantly (v. 27).
Second, Paul nowhere mentions Christ. Given that Paul is cross-centered and cannot speak long about anything without returning to the cross, it’s amazing that in this meeting he makes no mention of Christ and Him Crucified. This tells me, again, that Paul was taking his time in connecting their cultural religious impulses (general revelation) to special revelation. And they were so low on the hill that they were unable to see the cross at the top. But they were on the hill.
At the end of this sermon, some follow Paul. And there Paul becomes a guide as they climb higher on the hill. Paul does not condemn the Athenians outright for not believing in the gospel. Rather, Paul seems to say that they are on the hill but of course they are ignorant if left there.
If our image of Paul is that he only rushes into a city and starts pronouncing the gospel, tramples on the pagan shrines and literature and throws it all in the trash as the wisdom of the world, I don’t think either of these points will make sense. I don’t think this entire episode will make sense.
I have to say I see Acts 17 quite differently
Paul is provoked in spirit (angered!) by their idolatries(v16).
He’s been talking about Jesus and the resurrection so much they think he’s been talking about two divinities (v18)
V21 is really very dismissive of Greek philosophy!
v22: “religious” might be as well translated “superstitious”
v23 – Paul is saying, “The only thing you’ve got right is that you don’t know. So now, what you philosophers don’t know, I – a babbler – can plainly declare to you.”
He then gives them creation and an Adam Christology – the one man of v26 answered by the one man of v31.
He does indeed proclaim Christ.
And Acts 17 is your best shot at a natural/special revelation dovetail!
Perhaps three questions, and then I really must get back to my sermon:
If the Athenians are at the base of the hill – in which direction are they feeling?
Can you make this statement gel with Paul’s teaching in any of his epistles: “[Paul is] naturally building off their truths to the Living God.”
And is Paul really so hamstrung by a culture’s ignorance that he can’t or won’t proclaim Christ?
I realise my commenting tone can be a bit curt. I assure you that I’m smiling sweetly and benignly as I type. And wishing you all blessings in the Beloved :)
Must get back to my sermon…
I take your point about Christ being a knowing subject but I don’t understand how this helps. I am thinking about this from our perspective.
I don’t want you to think, though, that I am trying to limit this to some kind of propositional system. The reason I have brought this up is because I think this where your position breaks down.
So just for this I accept everything you are saying on the part of Christ as the logos which enlightens the mind of believers.
What must a man know about Christ before his other knowledge becomes true? Since we both agree that Christ is not a simple object of knowledge must a man know everything about Christ or only some things about Christ?
Are statements about Christ different from whom or what Christ is? Can a man know Christ if he denies the proposition that Christ is the Son of the Father? If no, can a man know Christ if he denies the proposition that Christ was a carpenter? Yes, why?
If we are going to interpret things through Christ then it is essential we know who Christ is. And since Christ illuminates converted minds with knowledge of Himself, and this is essential for knowledge, all illuminated minds will agree on who and what Christ is. But all Christians do not agree on who and what Christ is. So if we are all Christians it must be what is common between us concerning Christ that is essential. Chalcedon maybe? But do not Protestants believe that justification is by faith alone whereas Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and others add in meritorious works? So whatever all traditions confess about Chalcedon we don’t agree on justification (I am using justification as an example).
From what you are saying knowledge is contemporaneous with union with Christ. Does this mean that as Protestants we should refuse to read the works of other traditions which insist on heresy at this crucial point?
Anyhow, these are the problems I am having with your position. If I have missed the point completely I would be glad to be correct.
I’m not really grasping why these are problems for my position as opposed to fascinating questions that we all should engage.
I’m happy to say that there’s provisionality to all our knowledge short of the eschaton. “Then we shall know, even as we are fully known.” When I’m face to face with Christ I shall truly know Him and therefore truly know through Him. In the meantime I’m happy to say, 1) I’m upheld in this knowing relationship by His perfect knowledge, which allows me to be ok with, 2) my knowledge now is through a glass darkly.
I’m happy to say: to the extent that I don’t know Christ, I don’t know His world. And I’m happy to admit that even the believer has all sorts of compromised and incomplete knowledge.
Now what is the threshhold of knowledge at which point I can say I’ve crossed over from not knowing Jesus at all to knowing Him (somewhat)? I dunno! I’ve got some thoughts. And you’ve pointed us in some good directions for answers. But I don’t understand why you think this is a unique issue for me and not for every Christian?
Surely whatever side we’re on in this discussion, knowledge of Christ Himself is the ultimate truth to be sought? Therefore we’ve all got to wrestle with these questions.
To give an example, you say:
“If we are going to interpret things through Christ then it is essential we know who Christ is.”
I’d just say – ‘Don’t we all agree that it’s essential to know Christ?’ Therefore, aren’t these issues for all of us and not just me?
And I still think that ‘being known’ by Christ provides a much needed corrective to considering things always on our side. For me, knowing is covenantal and Christ’s prior knowledge of us should be the first affirmation we make in such discussions. And it has ramifications for ‘our side’ too. It draws us into that knowing relationship apart from works (i.e. apart from placing the emphasis on my ability to correctly formulate doctrine!). This takes us away from the ‘how much is enough’ knowledge-threshhold discussions which can prove unhelpfully anthropocentric. A true knowledge of Christ is guaranteed from His side, even though my knowledge on this side is sketchy and compromised. As I continue in this covenant relationship, hopefully my response in knowledge will be increasingly conformed to His truth. But such knowledge gets off the ground because of His initiative, not mine.
Sorry. To be honest I’m not sure exactly where we’re disagreeing or how my position ‘breaks down.’ It might be my famed illogicality and love of big-picture, it might be the limitations of blog discussion, it might be that it’s late. :)
Glen thanks for your reply,
I sometimes fumble to explain myself so I think I haven’t been clear enough. I will try again.
My problem is that ‘being known by Christ’ is something you claim to know. So whatever ‘being known by Christ’ means you are the one that claims to know it. How?
As I said before Christ is not a simple object of knowledge and knowing who Christ is, at least, is knowing propositions about Christ. So whether it is ‘being known by Christ’ or ‘knowing Christ’ you must know who Christ is and what He does. Otherwise claiming anything based on the proposition ‘being known by Christ’ is pretty useless. There is no escape from ‘our side’.
So how do you know who Christ is?
You have also identified ‘being known by Christ’ and so ‘knowing Christ’ as necessary to knowing anything else. So, my knowledge that roses are red and violets are blue depends upon my being known by Christ and so my ‘knowing Christ’.
Before I was known by Christ I didn’t know Him and I foolishly thought that roses are red and violets are blue but now that Christ knows me and I know Him I know that roses are red and violets are blue.
So the same proposition, not sentence, is both true and false when believed in and outside of Christ.
When you claim to know anything else, sheep have wool and dogs have teeth, the law is not of faith and justification is by faith alone, you are claiming that you know these things because Christ knows you and you know Christ. But unless you can tell me who Christ is everything else you say, on your own terms, is either meaningless or false.
The reason you must answer this and not me is because I do not require knowledge of Christ to know something else whereas this is your stated position. It could be that Christ is the logos that enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world. Your position, however, is explicitly you must have a ‘personal encounter’ with Christ before you can know anything else.
If you asked me how I know Christ I would answer I read it in a book.
Ah, ok. Maybe I’m seeing a bit more the disagreement.
“I do not require knowledge of Christ to know something else whereas this is your stated position. It could be that Christ is the logos that enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world. Your position, however, is explicitly you must have a ‘personal encounter’ with Christ before you can know anything else.”
Maybe here’s where some disagreement can be cleared up.
First of all, let me remind you how I’ve stated my position in previous comments:
“It is incontestably and trivially true that pagans can write meaningful novels, develop life-saving medicine, pursue world-enlightening science, make correct philosophical and moral observations. And it’s equally true that pagans can work for peace, give blood and generally be very, very nice people. No-one’s saying unbelievers can’t say true stuff, just as no-one’s saying unbelievers can’t do good stuff. The trouble comes when someone tries to co-ordinate nature and grace in either knowledge or salvation. Whenever the natural is seen as a stepping stone into grace alarm bells must go off. Whenever co-ordination, stepping-stones, bridges, spectrums, pilgrimmages, ascents up hills are discussed flags have to go up.”
“There are therefore whole worlds of understanding that make some kind of sense within their own terms of reference and which make some kind of sense of the world but are falsely related to the true Logos. Therefore in toto and at root they are utterly false. And there can be no bridge between these worlds and the world in which Christ crucified is central.”
So you see I’m not really that interested in calling all unregenerate knowledge false. I’m concerned that we don’t see their knowledge as leading them up the hill.
I’m happy to call any number of pagan statements ‘true’ – just as I’m happy to call any number of pagan actions ‘good’. (For me this parallel between knowledge and salvation is key.)
It allows me to say:
1) such ‘truth’ or ‘goodness’ is of great benefit to the world.
2) such ‘truth’ or ‘goodness’ can be truly seen by the regenerate as evidences of common grace.
3) such ‘truth’ or ‘goodness’, viewed from the pagan themselves, does not lead towards but away from Christ and Him crucified.
A pagan’s goodness leads them away from the grace of Christ, a pagan’s wisdom leads them away from the revelation of Christ.
And as I’ve said earlier ‘Grace alone’ means ‘Revelation alone.’ Or as Charles said brilliantly in #12:
“Jesus Christ is not just the destination, he is also THE Way as well. You may be introduced to the way through different means, but you are not on the way until you come to Christ. Until you come to Christ, the end of what you have and know is death, both physical and spiritual.”
My concern is not to call all Christ-less knowledge false so much as to deny that there can be any synergism between Christ-less and Christ-centred knowledge. There can be no synergism whereby natural knowledge is considered some kind of bridge to divine truth.
Of course roses are red and violets are blue and of course unbelievers can know this. It’s of relatively minor importance to me the difference Christian faith makes to those sorts of propositions. The issue that’s at stake is whether there is a hill with Christ crucified at the top while pagans feel their way up the hill from one independently verified truth (like ‘roses are red’) to another. The issue is whether natural knowledge ever leads you to Christ. I say an emphatic No to that and I think the gospel requires such a No.
I think a great example of what I’m trying to say is your last line – you came to know Christ through Scripture. Praise God, me too. And what’s fascinating is that not even God’s Book functions like some natural stepping stone into saving knowledge. Jesus says to Christless bible students in John 5 that they don’t know God because they refuse to come to the One the Scriptures are constantly testifying. According to Jesus there isn’t a Christ-free meaning helping them to get to the Christ-centred meaning. There’s Christ-free darkness and there’s Christ-centred light. And actually of themselves the Scriptures aren’t any kind of bridge from one to the other. Isn’t that astonishing? But it’s what Jesus says.
Now if not even the bible by itself is a bridge from darkness to light – then surely nothing on earth is.
What is the bridge? Precisely what I keep banging on about: divine grace / the work of the Spirit / revelation / election / Christ’s breaking in and first knowing us. That’s the miracle that needs to happen and it always needs to happen from His side of things.
I could tell you all sorts of propositions that surrounded my saving faith in Christ, but I’d be reflecting back on a miracle. I wouldn’t be telling you the natural steps that secured salvation any more than the servants at Galilee would be telling you how *they* drew wine out of those stone jars.
Maybe I’ve completely misunderstood you, but I feel like you’re saying my position breaks down since I don’t have a proper bridge from nature to grace. On the contrary I feel that the search for such a bridge is precisely the problem.
Just as there are no discrete human deeds that add up to divine righteousness, so there are no discrete human understandings that add up to divine knowledge. All must be of grace, all must be of revelation.
Do the unregenerate know many things? Yes, many. Will any of those things provide a foot-hold for their ascent up the hill? Absolutely not. Christ must come down.
Now I wouldn’t be surprised if this long comment has completely missed your points. Terry Eagleton recently said of Richard Dawkins that most of the time Dawkins ‘bangs on an open door or shoots at a straw man’. I fear I might have been doing exactly that here. If it turns out that you agree entirely with what I’ve ranted here then I’ll be very content to grant you anything else. It’s the nature-grace synergism I’m concerned for – I’m happy to let anything else slide.
[…] all these sorts of thoughts were circling through my head when I came across this quote posted on Tony Reinke’s blog. It’s all about how we should ‘restore the bridge’ from classical literature to […]
Hi Glen, thanks for taking the time to reply.
I’m not so much interested in defending ‘natural knowledge as a bridge to divine knowledge’. I do not think you can know, amongst other things, Christ apart from Scripture.
I’m quite happy to agree that a man will not believe what the Bible says concerning God and salvation expect by supernatural grace. I do think the unregenerate can understand Scripture and know what it means though.
I know that you said pagans can know true things but from what else you have said I don’t see how you can justify that. (I didn’t make this clear which has maybe caused some confusion).
The propositions roses are red and violets are blue cannot mean the same thing for the believer and unbeliever because ALL knowledge [true knowledge] is known in covenant with Christ.
A single proposition is making the same truth claim regardless of the knower (I think this is true). So it is not that Believer Bob and Pagan Patrick attribute different meanings to the proposition as such(they mean the same thing) but for Bob the proposition is true and for Patrick it is false. This makes truth relative or contradictory. A dialectic where truth cannot be conveyed by language. Under these conditions propositions must lose their meaning and because propositions have no inherent meaning any proposition can convey truth, even false ones. This is devastating for theology and destructive of the gospel.
Now if this is not what you mean then you must mean that propositions have a different relation [logical?] when known in and outside of Christ. Issues arise from this but I’m not getting into them. The point is simply, and if this is your position you have explicitly stated the conclusion already, unbelievers can know truth. The hill analogy is poor but on the basis that unbelievers can know truth I am quite content to say that you can learn truth from reading the classics. And what is more an unbeliever can learn truth from reading the classics.
But if any man is to come to saving knowledge he must believe what is written in Scripture concerning Christ, even the words that He speaks they are spirit and they are life and if any man keeps His doctrine they shall never see death.
Glen is a fidiest, me too [qualified like, Glen].
Andrew, did you know Christ when He was on the cross? Were you on the cross, with Christ?
Knowledge of God in Christ, per the implications of the incarnation, is vicarious; we think ‘out’ of Christ’s life ‘for us’ by the Spirit. Christ is both the object and subject of knowledge of God (Jn 1:18); w/o spiritual union with Him, we will continue to worship ourselves, and not the Creator.
Obviously, I don’t hold to a “Natural theology,” nor does, Glen; it is just Pelagian to think that “I” have to be able to “know” God apart from Christ, and this is the implication of what you’re saying, Andrew — I’ve seen no mention of the Holy Spirit in your discussion on Knowing God.
“propositions have a different relation [logical?] when known in and outside of Christ.”
Yes indeed. That’s my position. You can think of it as exactly parallel to the affirmation: “moral actions have a different relation when performed in and outside of Christ.” In fact they have a very different moral value. The relationship changes everything.
There’s a non-Christian way of performing works that are in one limited sense ‘good’ – but in an ultimate sense they are evil and even their goodness is a flight from the grace of God. In just this way there’s a non-Christian way of reasoning that produces ‘truth’ in one limited sense. But in an ultimate sense such thinking issues forth from liars and this reasoned inquiry is a flight from the revelation of God.
(btw – Christians too can act and think in non-Christian ways).
But this is what I’ve been saying all along.
And I’ve never for a second denied that you can read the classics profitably. But of course you have to do the hard work of taking their thoughts captive to Christ (2 Cor 10:5)- bringing them kicking and screaming out of an idolatrous paradigm and under the gospel. I hope we all do that with the films we watch, the news we read etc etc.
So at the end of the day I’m wanting to put bold quotation marks around the “truth” that the unregenerate know and I want to erect every possible barrier to the attempt to work from such “truth” to Christ.
Now I think I’ve banged this drum so much the skin is worn through and the sticks have smashed to bits. I don’t have many drums to hit, so the ones I bang I bang hard. I’m a bit simple like that.
Think I’ll bow out.
Thanks for the exchange Andrew (and Tony).
Thanks for the comments Glen. I appreciate your challenges and respect you for investing the time in this discussion. This series of exchanges is one excellent example of how the blogosphere can be used to engender civil discussion on matters of great importance. And I appreciate your input. Tony
Thanks for taking the time to reply to my questions, I hope it hasn’t been too exhausting repeating much of the same thing over and over. I may have missed the point, I dunno; but as you are seeking to guard a position I am seeking to defend truth as absolute and eternal.
There are questions unresolved but at least we can agree on some things.
Andrew, did you know Christ when He was on the cross? Were you on the cross, with Christ?
I’m not sure what you mean by this first question. There is a sense in which I would say yes to the second question but it should go without saying that I physically wasn’t on the cross with Christ.
Obviously, I don’t hold to a “Natural theology,” nor does, Glen; it is just Pelagian to think that “I” have to be able to “know” God apart from Christ, and this is the implication of what you’re saying, Andrew
All knowledge is not saving knowledge. This is a distinction that must be maintained. Other distinctions must also be maintained in line with this. God, like Christ, is not a simple object of knowledge. The heathen know God as creator and judge but this is not saying they know God as the beneficiaries of His free and sovereign grace in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
Throwing terms like ‘Pelagian’ about is well and good but that is a term with an historical meaning and cannot be redefined at liberty to, unjustly, tarnish the opinion of others.
I’ve seen no mention of the Holy Spirit in your discussion on Knowing God.
I haven’t been discussing knowledge of God per se, I do believe that all knowledge is knowledge of God but that comes a little down the line. As to the Holy Spirit, I think that has been implied in much of what I have been saying. If this does not satisfy then I can only say that every point cannot be covered in a discussion like this.
At any rate, since Glen has bowed out I will too, I do not mean to drone on or to outstay my welcome. So thanks Tony for bringing this subject up I have enjoyed the discussion.