All in Plato

Last Battle“Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world… It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!” -C.S. Lewis, “The Last Battle” (Pg. 169-170)

The idea that God created the universe in two, distinct realms (heaven vs earth, natural vs. supernatural, spiritual vs. physical, etc.) finds its origination in Plato, not the Scriptures. Plato viewed reality through a lens of “metaphysical dualism” (the division of existence into two distinct realms), which involved the perfect, unchanging, and unseen “intelligible world” and the corrupt, ever-changing, and inferior “perceptual world” which we see around us.

Before long, Plato’s two realms of existence became integrated into Judaism and Christianity, the unseen world equated with the spiritual (or heaven), while the perceptual world was equated with the physical (earth).

This Platonic way of viewing reality (what Randy Alcorn terms “Christoplatonism”) has permeated the Church to such an extent that the goal of the gospel has become either “getting to heaven” or “bringing heaven down” or a mixture of both.

Platonic WorldviewSimply put, these ideas are foreign to the Scriptures. There were never two distinct realms of existence that needed to be joined together or from which one needed to escape. As C.S. Lewis said, that’s “all in Plato”. Let us look to Scripture and define our worldview there.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” as one unified house within which He sits enthroned upstairs, actively overseeing all that goes on inside (Is. 40:22, Ps. 11:4-7). At creation, “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Wrap your minds around this: Physicality is “very good”. Furthermore, who is to say that the invisible things of Creation (that which we can’t see) are any less “physical” than the visible things? In His heavenly temple, why should we assume God’s throne is any less “physical” than a chair on earth (Ps. 11:4, 103:19; Is. 6:1)? Or how could the angel of the Lord physically kill 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (2 Kings 19:35)? Plato’s worldview makes things complicated.

While it seems God has made a thin and delicate veil between what humans can see and cannot see (cf. Num. 22:23-31, 2 Kings 6:17), nowhere in the Scriptures is creation described with a division between a “natural realm” and a “supernatural realm” or a “physical realm” and a “spiritual realm”. These are modern thoughts descended from Plato.

Under a proper and Biblical worldview (unified heavens and earth), the goal of the gospel does not concern two realms (escapism or assimilation), but one unified “heavens and the earth” being restored (“new”, cf. Is. 65:13-25, 2 Pet. 3:13, Rev. 21:1-7) to its original and intended state of righteousness and blessing (life, joy, peace, abundance, etc.).

Biblical WorldviewBiblical hope always assumes a biblical worldview. Platonic hope (escaping materiality or assimilating immateriality) always assumes a Platonic worldview. Paul could say that his hope was to attain the resurrection (Acts 24:15-16, 26:6-8; Phil. 3:11) because within his biblical worldview, creation was indeed “very good” and the human body was not evil.

From another angle, I have written more thoughts on biblical hope within a biblical worldview in my post, “Misplaced Hope”.

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5 thoughts on “All in Plato

  1. Hi Truman.

    Thank you for the thoughtful post. I hope we can have a respectful discussion about this topic.

    I do not see a unified biblical worldview, and therefore, I do not see the need to derive an eschatological theology which crumbles without the support of a cohesive worldview based on the biblical writers’.

    The OT, as you pointed out, does support a perspective that embraces a naturalistic and anthropomorphic interpretation of our senses. However, this comes with its faults: they thought the world was flat; epic and legendary sea monsters were real; the sun revolved around the earth and other scientific notions which we currently deny. I am, then, not convinced adopting a ‘biblical worldview’ is the best option, because the biblical authors did not see the world properly.

    Secondly, biblical authors and thinkers were Hellenized following Alexander the Great’s conquest of the then largest world empire. This is reflected particularly in the NT, but to allow the effects of this consequence to be felt more clearly, most circa. 1st century Jewish authors show great influence from Greek thinking – in contrast to their ancestors who wrote the OT books.

    Let’s, for example, take Elijah’s ascension to heaven in 2 Kings 2. The story appears to tell an event that took place as it more or less happened – Elijah was physically taken to heaven. Even if one puts a late date on 2 Kings, the final composition either way reflects a perspective that does not separate heaven and earth like Plato did; however, I will not explore his Forms unless we both decide it’s necessary.

    NT era Jewish writers show, at the least, apparent influence of hellenization when they approach this same story. Philo, the epitome of a Grecian Jew, discusses the ‘translation’ of Enoch as: “it is here suggested, that he was translated from a visible place, perceptible by the outward senses, into an incorporeal idea, appreciable only to the intellect.” (QG I 86) He clearly is interpreting the ancient Hebrew’s story through Greek thought. He turns his attention next to Elijah; while he uses slightly different language, his explanation is saturated in Greek metaphysical thought.

    Josephus never mentions Elijah’s ascension; he only discusses his ‘disappearance’. He still defends miracles (God suspending the waters during Moses’ exodus from Egypt) but does not discuss the relationship between heaven and earth as presented in Elijah’s story (Antiquities 9.27). It is odd that he does not suggest that Elijah was taken to heaven if he has no problem with defending miracles. Perhaps he had difficultly explaining his trans-location when (arguably) he and his audience were hellenized.

    Moving to NT writers themselves, the Gospel of John is drenched in Grecian philosophy (the Logos was most likely borrowed from Philo!), not to mention all of the Johaninne literature. Luke writes, probably, as a Hellenized biographer, and the entire NT was written in Greek, which demands at least a small amount of influence from the people who formed the language.

    In closing, the reason I am writing this is to begin a conversation that focuses around an observation that the biblical writers did not share the same worldview. Times changed, and with it, perspectives did too. Due to this difference within the Bible itself (augmented by various NT era writers), I do not think ‘having a biblical perspective’ or ‘worldview’ makes sense, because there is more than one.

    I hope we can engage in a respectful dialogue!

    Have a great night – thanks for thinking and sharing your thoughts!

    1. Hello again.

      I tried to edit my initial reply, but I don’t think I’m able.

      I forgot to add an important observation: the compilers and editors of the Gk. Septuagint (which our NT authors used the majority of the time) translated Elijah’s trans-location in such a way that shies away from ‘conjoined’ view of the Universe. Instead of simply saying that Elijah was taken to heaven, they add ‘as it were’ as a preface; they did not seem to understand this account to be taken as ‘literally’ as did the original compilers of the 2 Kings 2 tradition.

      Thank you.

      1. Joe,
        Thanks for commenting.

        First off, I would agree with you that the biblical writers themselves did not share the same worldview. Indeed, every individual holds a unique and flawed perspective of reality that are influenced by the changing times and cultures. Yes, the Biblical writers did not see the world properly, but I would assume they saw reality much more clearly than the post-enlightened, 21st Century believer with our layers and layers of flawed worldview.

        To use an analogy, we are all like half-blind fish swimming around in a fish bowl of dirty, muggy water and trying to figure out what we are living in (Isaiah, David, and Peter included). None of us can truly define reality simply by our perception of it. In order to have a reliable guide to the truth of our situation, we are in need of God’s perception and definition of the ways things are.

        As a person, God has a worldview and He interprets existence a certain way. What is the worldview of the Holy Spirit? How does He view reality? Surely, as it really is. And the Scriptures He has given to us did not emerge from “an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:20-21). Thus the words of God are reliable to tell us how life really is. The Scriptures impart to us the “Divine Worldview”.

        “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). In regards to the fundamental aspects of worldview that the Bible clearly discusses (ultimate reality, protology, eschatology, soteriology), God’s oracles are a true and reliable guide to understanding and “training in righteousness”. In fact, it is by reason of Jesus’ resurrection from the grave, we have proof that God has indeed inspired the prophets and their Scriptures (Acts 17:24-31). God defines for us the field of play we are on, the fishbowl we are swimming in. Or perhaps we should all get together and use our half-dead fish brains to determine define reality.

        Furthermore, God’s worldview (revealed in His word) does not contradict itself. The God who was speaking in Genesis is the same person speaking through Jeremiah and in the gospel accounts. Because God’s revealed worldview is cohesive, within it we see a unified, Biblical eschatology: the NEW heavens and earth (Is. 65:13-25, 2 Pet. 3:13, Rev. 21:1-7) and the “restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time” (Acts 3:21). Again, though the individual worldviews of the biblical authors may have been flawed, as believers, we hold that the oracles transcend the stewards, even at a worldview level.

        There are assumptions about reality, some of which derived from Plato, that contradict the oracles of God. These worldview assumptions, once swallowed (even as C.S. Lewis swallowed Plato), thus influence one’s hermeneutics (how we interpret the oracles of God, worldview included). And when the understanding of ultimate reality changes, eschatology follows suit. As with Plato, if “the sum total of reality” equals a superior immaterial heaven vs. inferior material earthly realm, eschatology usually takes the shape of escapism and a heavenly destiny. In this case, there is a perversion of ultimate reality (a fundamental component of worldview) that drives the eschatology, both of which clearly contradict the Scriptures.

        Hope this clarifies a bit.

        Bless you, man!

      2. Hey Truman.

        Thanks for the engaging reply. It is late and I cannot respond in depth tonight, but I wanted to let you know I’ve read your response.

        Have a great night.

  2. Good morning, Truman.

    I will quote you when I feel you have made a thesis statement in your various paragraphs and will respond accordingly. Please feel free to correct any misunderstandings I may have or if I took a phrase out of context.

    “I would assume they saw reality much more clearly than the post-enlightened, 21st Century believer with our layers and layers of flawed worldview.”

    While a post-enlightened worldview is not perfect, I think it’s far better than any ancient perspective at least from a scientific or sociological point of view. What, if I may, causes you to think they saw ‘reality’ much more clearly? FYI – by ‘reality’, I am explicitly referring to a cosmological worldview. I happen to prefer several values the ANE peoples had over modern Americans, but I am not particularly referring to those.

    “In order to have a reliable guide to the truth of our situation, we are in need of God’s perception and definition of the ways things are… [t]he Scriptures impart to us the “Divine Worldview”.”

    This is the core of our disagreement and I’d love to hear your thoughts concerning it. The Scriptures, I argue, reflect the cosmological perspective of their time and place. As time progressed, views did too and the redaction of ancient ancients reflected this change (this was my argument in my first response). Martin Luther, for example, called Copernicus a ‘fool’ because the Scripture clearly gives us a geocentric model for cosmology. Well, we happen now to agree with Copernicus and find the account in Joshua 10 to simply reflect the ancient worldview. Martin Luther was wrong. In this particular case, so was the Bible. This is not surprising, however; I do not think it serves the function of a science text book but rather as God’s theological magnum opus, if you will.

    “God’s oracles are a true and reliable guide to understanding and “training in righteousness”.”

    You made many good points in this paragraph, so I attempted to snatch a phrase that represented your thought process the most. Biblical inspiration does not demand scientific accuracy in my view. I don’t think the Bible attests this, either; in the context of inspiration, the goal is towards effectiveness and ministry or trust in Jesus. None of these deal with cosmology. Prof James D G Dunn has a good book on such topics entitled The Living Word.

    “In this case, there is a perversion of ultimate reality (a fundamental component of worldview) that drives the eschatology, both of which clearly contradict the Scriptures.”

    I hear your concern. I happen, actually, to agree that most of the biblical writers in and after the prophetic age (but not before) probably thought the final hope was God returning to the world to judge the wicked and set up some sort of eternal kingdom, albeit some works in the Bible do not see it this way (John’s Gospel, for example, where the final hope is to be with Jesus where he ‘came from’; this also follows my logic that the author was drenched in hellenism and was using thought patterns akin to Philo).

    Due to the diversity, I think that attempting to find a unified worldview is very difficult, if not impossible to find in the Bible. A cosmology is different – most people thought the world was flat and we operated in a geocentric model until the Copernican Revolution. As I wrote before, times change and with them, ideas do too. The NT era writers moved further and further away from a ‘joint’ cosmology in contrast to the view of their ancestors. These ideas were reflected in the common ‘Scripture’ of the 1st century.

    In short, to give a position of where I stand, I think the Bible reflects the worldview of the author, and they used these to express theology. This does not mean their view of the Universe is correct. If it was, evidence would suggest it is so, but we have more information than they did and it is my understanding that all the biblical writers had wrong cosmology. However, this does not discount the theology therein. I don’t expect a 1st century author to know something practically impossible for them to know about the Universe in the same way I don’t expect a scientist today to fully comprehend quantum physics.

    Thoughts?

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