November 28, 2005

Can The New Testament Be Both Influenced By Plato and Inspired by God?

The God Or Not Blog Carnival is a cool idea. It happens once or twice a month. For each carnival, there is a theme and the carnival host selects an approximately equal number of posts on that theme by atheists and theists for inclusion. The theme of the December 12 carnival is miracles. I have dealt substantially with miracles on this blog in a general way already, and so I've decided to post on applying my views to one very specific miracle which is central to the claims of Christianity and especially Evangelicalism: the inspiration of Scripture.

The story so far: nearly a year ago, I posted on what I referred to as "Christian naturalism". In this post I argued for a view that I continue to hold quite strongly: the view that traditional monotheists should not believe in exceptions to the laws of nature, as this would undermine the constancy of God. This, of course, creates a problem for miracles. I addressed that problem briefly in that post, but dealt with it more precisely in a recent post on Leibniz's discussion of efficient and final causes. In that post, I showed how the efficient/final cause distinction could be used to differentiate the miraculous from the mundane. I argued that the distinction was purely subjective, so that every event could be viewed as either miraculous or mundane depending on the disposition of the observer.

In the latter of these two posts, I briefly mentioned that fellow Christians, especially Evangelicals, with whom I have discussed this tend to be especially uneasy with my application of this theory to the inspiration of Scripture. This is the issue I intend to discuss here.

In Donald Bloesch's book, The Essentials of Evangelical Theology, he says, "the Bible is not partly the Word of God and partly the word of man: it is in its entirety the very Word of God and the very word of man" (vol. 1, p. 52). He goes on to say that, "inspiration is both conceptual and verbal, since it signifies that the Spirit was active both in shaping the thoughts and imagination of the biblical writers and also in guiding them in their actual writing ... The divine activity does not supersed the human but works confluently with the human so that the Scriptures are the joint product of both God and man. The writers are not to be thought of as simply the pens of the Holy Spirit ... but as partners with the Spirit so that the end product can be attributed to coauthorship" (p. 55).

Like Bloesch, I believe that, from one perspective, it is the case that the writings which came to be included in the Christian Bible came about in precisely the same fashion as any other books: that is, human authors sat down and wrote, and when they wrote they had particular views, thoughts, current issues, and so forth in mind which they wished to address. Their thoughts were influenced by those that came before them. I think, for instance, that it is clear that the theory of the self contained in the Pauline epistles must have been influenced by Plato's Republic (compare Paul's division into pneuma [spirit], psuche [soul], and sarx [flesh] with Plato's division into the philosophos [wisdom-loving], philotimos [honor-loving], and philochrematos [money-loving] psuchai [souls]), and the Johannine literature must have been influenced by Heraclitus (compare the use of logos [word]), although this influence may have been indirect (it has been suggested that it may have come through Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher who lived from about 20 BC to about 40 AD). However, this does not undermine inspiration. The Holy Spirit was active in shaping their life experiences so that their beliefs, ideas, thoughts, intentions, etc. would be such as to write down the Word of God, and also in imparting ideas to them at the time of writing.

Christians often seem to assume that if they Bible is inspired by God it must have come from nowhere - that is, it must have fallen from the sky (in the King James Version, of course), or the human authors must have experienced a sort of divine possession in which they did not write anything that they wanted to write or that they would have thought of, but merely "channeled" God's word in a highly supernatural way. Now, clergy, theologians, and others who have devoted a great deal of time to serious study of Scripture, tend not to take views that are so extreme as all of this (and I'm exaggerating even the popular view here), but they still seem to think that if the New Testament was influenced by Greek Pagans this would undermine its spiritual authority. But why should it?

Those who believe in the truth of the Christian Scriptures believe that Pauline Christianity is an accurate representation of Christ's intentions for the Church. What is the chief thrust of Pauline Christianity? It is nothing other than the God of the Hebrews reaching out to the Gentile (in that time, primarily Hellenistic) world. I do not mean to say that this is the only thing Christianity is about, or even the core of the message, but the idea that God has taken action to reach the whole world and not only Israel is certainly the thing that Paul was most surprised by and continued to be most excited about. We often talk about, for instance, Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as being a symbolic action based on prophecy in the Hebrew Bible in which Jesus declared himself to be Messiah. Now, in light of the thrust toward reaching the Greeks, consider the story of the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Remind you of Greek mythology? How often do Greek gods disguise themselves as mortals, enter a home, and make their identities known only after eating dinner? The meaning of this story in light of Greek myth is outisde the scope of this post (and really beyond my knowledge - I don't know my mythology very well), but my point is, doesn't it make perfect sense that in the same way Jesus takes symbolic actions to reveal himself to the Jews, he would take symbolic actions to reveal himself to the Greeks?

If, then, Christianity can be influenced by Greek Pagan religion in this way, why should it not be influenced by the likes of Plato? If Plato is right about something (and can someone as smart as Plato possibly be wrong about absolutely everything?), or provides a good vocabulary for speaking in very precise terms about an issue important to Christianity, why shouldn't God use Plato's writings to form the views of the authors of Scripture in order to bring it about that they write down his word?

The objection that Scripture can't be inspired if it has outside influcences is essentially the same as the objection that the parting of the Red Sea wasn't a miracle if it had a naturalistic explanation, and this is simply false. A world in which physical laws were broken ad hoc would be a world unworthy of the Christian God. Why should the miracle of inspiration of Scripture be any different? Are there not "laws" about the ways human beings come to knowledge and form opinions, just as there are laws about how physical objects behave? Couldn't God construct the circumstances in the lives of the authors of Scripture in such a way that their words would coincide with his? And wouldn't this be a much greater miracle than his using his unlimited power to override the free will and individuality of the Biblical authors in order to "channel" his thoughts through them?

According to the definition I gave previously, if the Bible is the living word of God it should be easy for those who have been affected by it to see the miraculous nature of its inspirtation: its effect on us is clearly miraculous, in so far as it changes our lives by drawing us into relationship with God. This is its final cause, and it is immediately apparent to those who have had this experience. It's efficient causes, however, require extensive historical research and literary study to ascertain. In this sense, the Bible is a very miraculous collection of literature.

Finally, a word on use of miracles as proof of the existence of God: David Hume argued that we are never justified in believing a miracle has occurred. I'm undecided as to whether his reasoning is valid, but it is based on his (in my view, flawed) conception of miracles as exceptions to the laws of nature. Suppose we concede Hume this point. On my view, no such miracles occur anyway. But "miraculous" (in my teleological sense) events can still be accepted as proof of the existence of God. When the world seems to manifest purpose where humans have none, there may be a miracle. If many such events occur, such that the world appears to have a direction, a purpose, an intention, this may be evidence for God. Furthermore, as to the miracle of the inspiration of Scripture, we can be justified in believing it is inspired and hence miraculous because of a strange series of coincidences surrounding it (consider, for instance, the detailed discussion of the conflict between the Ptolemy and Seleucid dynasties at the end of Daniel, and consider the fact that the book of Daniel was translated from Hebrew into Greek decades before said conflict occurred. Consider also the events surrounding the foundation of the Christian church, and the various miracles reported in that connection). But all of these things require detailed historical analysis and there is a great deal of uncertainty about them. More immediately there is, along the lines of the argument from "religious experience," the fact that the text of the Bible has impacted the lives of millions in ways that are in line with the effects the God depicted in the Bible would want to bring about. There is a sort of inherent purposiveness to the Christian Scriptures that exceeds the purpose and planning of the original authors and compilers and reaches forward to present day circumstances the authors and compilers could not have had any knowledge of. This, above all, is evidence for the miraculous nature of Scripture, and if it is miraculous then it serves as an argument for God. Don't understand what I'm talking about? Go read it.

Posted by Kenny at November 28, 2005 11:29 AM
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Comments

I may be misreading this, but is Christianity necessarily influenced by Greek pagan religion? Could it be that God uses recurring themes within the pagan religion to draw the pagans closer to Him, in the same way that God doesn't cause sin but can use it to work good (like using Assyria's sin to punish Israel, Isaiah 10:5-19)? I have no problem with ideas of Plato, etc being used as "human" inspiration for Scripture, but I'm not so sure that I can accept God including pagan themes in Christianity. Did God necessarily plan the road to Emmaus event in order to make Christianity "closer" to the pagan religion, or is it a "coincident" in the same sense that God uses Assyria's sin to "coincidentally" punish Israel, and thus not causing Christianity to be based on pagan religion any more than He causes Assyria to sin?

Posted by: Lauren at November 28, 2005 9:20 PM

A further thought:
...unless, of course, you're trying to say that Luke's conscious thought when he was writing about the road to Emmaus was something along the lines of "hey, that's like those Greek myths, I should include that so we can reach out to those Greeks". In that case I'd say you're talking more about why that event was including in Scripture, and not why the actual event itself occurred, as seems to be implied by the statement about Jesus taking symbolic actions to reveal Himself to the Greeks. It's not clear whether you're talking about the "human" inspiration or the "Divine" inspiration here and whether you're talking about why the event occurred or why the event was included in Scripture. Or it could be me misreading you again.

Posted by: Lauren at November 28, 2005 9:48 PM

My suggestion is that God knew that people familiar with Greek mythology would interpret this event in a certain way, and, because he was trying to reach out to Greeks, he performed this action that was symbolic to their culture. I don't mean to say that Christianity is based on Pagan religion, or anything like that, but merely that the Christian revelation is aware of the surrounding cultural context of Greek Paganism and may contain information or actions which are given their significance by that context. There is absolutely no reason to believe that God wanted to "make Christianity 'closer' to the pagan religion," as you say, and there is in fact much reason to believe that he did not. However, he did want the Christian revelation to be easily understandable to (former) Pagans. This is very much like Paul's Sermon on the Areopagus in Acts 17:22-32 where he uses Greek religion as a jumping off point to reveal Christ. He uses the objects in Greek religion (particularly the altar to the unknown god) to help the Greeks understand what he is trying to communicate to them. In the same way, Christ may have brought about the Emmaus incident specifically because he was aware of the symbolic meaning given to it in the context of Greek mythology.

Of course, it is also possible, as many Christians believe regarding all the myths about the incarnation of various gods and certain other recurring themes in Paganism which are also found in Christianity, that these are later manifestations of things that were earlier revealed (as, e.g., the prophecy in Genesis 3:15, which should have been passed down to all people, having been given to Adam). However, I think this is unlikely in the case of the Emmaus incident because I know of no prophecy related to it in the Hebrew Bible, and I think that if it was revealed to man in advance at all, it would probably be in the Hebrew Bible (but I could be wrong about that).

Posted by: Kenny at November 28, 2005 10:30 PM

More concisely: I do not suggest that Christ is adopting any actual content from Greek Paganism, but rather that his actions in this particular incident may speak the language of Greek Paganism.

Posted by: Kenny at November 28, 2005 10:34 PM

Thanks, but I'm still a little confused on two points (although I do agree completely with you that God did not base Christianity on paganism).
1) I think you're saying God was using paganism as a 'language' to communicate with the pagans, without actually determining any of the content of Scripture based on it. What does it mean for God to communicate in this 'language' without that at least partially determining the content? I can understand this with actual languages but not with the language of symbolic actions. If God did bring about the Emmaus incident specifically because He was aware of the symbolic meaning given to it in the context of Greek mythology, then isn't the Greek mythology in some sense determining the content? If this is so, then in some sense doesn't this make Christianity closer to paganism? I guess you could say that God knew this would speak to the Greeks in this manner but that is not the reason He included it. (I guess it'd be a "coincident" brought about by His omnipotence like Assyria's choice to sin "happening" to also punish Israel.) In this case the paganism wouldn't be determining the content; God's other reason, whatever it is, would be- is this something like what you think? But then what does it mean for God to communicate in this language- did He really "choose" to communicate in this language if the action that's part of the language was not determined by the action but by something else?
2) How does this relate to the rest of your post? I think you're saying that the content of Scripture, while still being the infallible Word of God, is also derived from human thought (the "human" inspiration), and so there's something like a "Divine" inspiration and a "human" inspiration. Does the paganism come in from the "Divine" inspiration side or the "human" inspiration side? It seems from your reply that God may have chosen to perform this event and place it in Scripture because He knew that it would communicate to the Greeks. It seems to me this would be on the "Divine" inspiration side, but then that doesn't really have anything to do with the "human" inspiration from the likes of Plato.

Posted by: Lauren at November 28, 2005 11:27 PM

1) Most of God's actions are taken for multiple reasons. This is part of the wisdom of God. Many of the actions in Scripture are symbolic. That is to say, the action really occurs, but (part of) the purpose of the action is to communicate some abstract proposition. In this case, I am suggesting that (part of) the purpose of the action may have been to communicate an abstract proposition to people familiar with Greek mythology. Greek religion would thus determine the action, but it would not determine the proposition communicated. The content of the communication would be completely independent.

2) It relates to the rest of the post in that it shows the influence of cultural context upon the Bible, and if I am correct it would also show that it is silly for Christians to balk at the idea of a Platonic or Heraclitean influence. Furthermore, it is indeed significant, as you suggested earlier, that Luke is the one who selected this event for inclusion, since Luke's gospel belongs primarily to the genre of Greek historical writing. I suggest that Christ's familiarity with Greek Paganism may have been one of the reasons for the action (which means it is coming from both the human AND the divine side), and, if so, then Luke's familiarity with Greek Paganism probably led him to grasp the intended significance of the action and therefore to include it in his gospel. Luke's understanding of the significance of the action would also affect which details he includes. For instance, it may be significant that, while Greek gods usually reveal themselves after the meal (I think), Christ reveals himself in the breaking of bread before the meal is over. Luke sees the fact that Christ was made known to them in the breaking of bread as being deeply significant (see v. 35), and this is probably due to the reference to communion, and this probably hints at the symbolic meaning of the action, insofar as it demonstrates particular ways in which Christ differs from the Greek gods. I don't know enough mythology to explore this in depth, and so I don't know quite how to interpret the passage in this way (and obviously there is some other content to it that doesn't require knowledge of mythology to figure out), but this is the basic idea. Luke gives this story in a very Greek sort of framework, but highlights the ways it differs from Greek mythology, and in this way the mythology has a significant affect on Luke's writing, without Christian doctrine being in any way based on Greek myth.

Posted by: Kenny at November 28, 2005 11:46 PM

This comment is not about paganism or Plato in the Bible. Just so no one gets confused.

Your general ideas about miracles remind me of (but do not match) those put forward in C.S. Lewis's aptly named book, "Miracles." His position is more or less in between yours and the alternate positions you mention. Basically, he agrees with you that natural laws are never broken in the performance of miracles. However, I don't think he would go as far as to say that there exists a naturalistic explanation for all miracles. Rather, he faults those who don't believe in miracles for believing in conservation of energy within the universe as a closed system.

By closed system, Lewis means the belief that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth by fiat from nothing. At this moment, God created all the energy (and matter, as a form of energy) that would ever exist. If you limit yourself to believing in conservation of energy, it becomes hard to believe in miracles without naturalistic causes because those would almost always break the laws of conservation. Lewis argues, however, that we don't live in a closed system because God, being God and all, reserves the right to create new energy (and/or matter) by fiat whenever he so desires. This mechanism would allow for all natural laws to be kept and energy to be conserved, but still allow for non-naturalistic causes of miracles. (I may be misusing your term, but I hope you know what I mean anyway.)

If you ever get a chance to read "Miracles" in its entirety, I'd be interested to hear your take on it. Lewis by no means argues a rigorous philosophy or theology, but rather writes what makes sense to him as a layman, so I'm not sure how his theory would stand up under scrutiny.

Posted by: Paul Ferree at November 29, 2005 10:33 PM

There are plenty of ways that parts of the Bible have been influenced by pagan thought. Stoic ethical views clearly shaped Paul's ethical thinking, particularly in his attitude toward putting aside earthly things in favor of heavenly things. It isn't Stoicism, but he was clearly influenced by their thought, though his appropriation of it is framed in a Christian way. The ethical lists in many epistles, e.g. II Peter 1, often show influence from philosophical writings of the time.

One of the problems with thinking of natural laws behind every occurrence is that people will think you mean something you don't. You mean, I take it, that the resurrections recorded in scripture and various other miracles happened through preestablished natural laws that God set up according to a plan from the beginning so that things would go a certain way. You don't mean, I take it, that these laws will be what physicalists and materialists will call the laws of physics. There might still, therefore, be a breaking of the laws of physics for miracles even though the broader natural laws will allow for that given certain higher laws that determine when physical laws can and can't be broken. If my reading of you is correct, I have no problem at all with this. It reminds me very much of Malebranche and Leibniz. What would be funny is if you wanted to subsume something clearly beyond the physical world under physical laws. I don't think the biblical data would support that sort of view. You talk that way, but is my presentation of this closer to what you meant?

By the way, the view you present from Bloesch seems to me to be the dominant Protestant view. I'm not sure who you've been talking to, but my guess is that they're not very informed about the standard views among scholars who deal with the doctrine of scripture. People as diverse as Bloesch, Charles Ryrie, John Piper, John MacArthur, and John Stott all defend exactly that view. The only serious evangelical I've ever seen even toy with a different view was Daniel Wallace at Dallas Theological Seminary, and his wasn't really a view he was defending but a potential view that he was suggesting someone try to develop.

One thing that I've always thought funny about this view is that it seems to assume compatibilism, and yet no Arminian I know would deny it. It doesn't seem to me to be consistent with a hardline libertarian view of human freedom to hold a view that a human being and God can both be fully responsible for the same actions.

I do have one hesitation about your application of this to all scripture. There do seem to be some cases of scripture where someone is just delivering a message. It's unclear how much in the prophets is like this. Some of it clearly has an author's voice, with an author's favorite terms, grammatical constructions, metaphors, and themes. It's hard to deny the differences between the styles of Isaiah and Jeremiah, for instance. It's also not completely explained by different settings, because Isaiah and Micah's ministries were at the same time in the same place, as were those of Hosea and Amos. Yet we do have cases where it's purely slavish. The clearest case is Balaam. We have the funny case of Caiaphas prophesying but not intentionally, which does fit with your view because there are two causes, God's final cause and his own efficient cause. This is similar to God's and the Assyrian king's causes in Isaiah 10. But Balaam wanted to give a completely different prophecy. I supposed you could say that the compiler of Numbers put it together deliberately, but not every word is inspired originally in the same way. Those speeches are completely slavish in their origin, though God may have deliberately delivered them through Balaam's own style. It wasn't from his own will, though.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at November 30, 2005 8:15 PM

Jeremy, thanks for your discussion. Let me (briefly) express my philosophical view in a more comprehensive way. I am a phenomenalist with regard to matter; that is, I think that it is a phenomenon experienced by minds and were it not experienced by minds it would not exist (but, of course, God is always thinking of it, and this provides the ground for it's persistent existence - I only talk about Leibniz all the time because I'm taking a class on him this semester, I'm really more of a Berkeleian). I believe that the (phenomenal) material world can be understood as a completely closed system, so that everything that occurs is governed by the laws of physics, and any alleged exceptions are due to misunderstandings either of the laws or of the event.

I believe that this can be reconciled to libertarian free will (in a limited way) by something similar to Leibniz's Pre-Established Harmony (although Leibniz is in fact probably a soft determinist). The claim would be that God, being eternal, perceives as present all of your future actions (this isn't exactly foreknowledge, since for God all times are present, but the upshot is the same), and he has designed the laws of the physical world to be such that the actions of your physical body will always line up with your volitions. In this way, physical determinism is no more a problem for free will than foreknowledge, because the "truth-maker" with regard to your actions is still your free decisions.

As to the exceptions you mention in Scripture, I would explain them by saying that the utterances are explainable in psychological and/or neurophysiological terms (but of course God designed the world from the outset so that psychology and neurophysiology would work out this way), and the writers then simply recorded them. Granter, that makes these parts of the Bible pretty unusual, but by saying it came into being in the same way as any other collection of literature, I did not at all mean to say that it was normal. Quite the contrary! The Bible is, after all, the inspired Word of God, and THAT is anything but normal.

Posted by: Kenny at November 30, 2005 8:37 PM

Leibniz counts as a phenomenalist. The material world is a construct of monads' perception of other monads and is therefore only in minds.

I think your view as described counts as compatibilist. Present it to Peter van Inwagen, and he'll say that's not freedom. I think it does count as genuine freedom, but thinking it's genuine freedom doesn't amount to having presented a libertarian account. To be libertarian, you need to uphold the principle of alternate possibilities and give an account of how the agent and no event is the cause of the action. I don't think your view does either.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at December 1, 2005 11:19 AM

Whether Leibniz is a phenomenalist is the subject of some debate among scholars, due to all of his talk about "corporeal substance" and "substantial forms." The general view is that he thinks that this is a higher level component of the universe whose ontological ground is in this monad theory, but this is not uncontested (and some scholars think that he just contradicts himself, but I'm not convinced). Besides, if we take the interpretation on which the physical world is a "well-founded phenomenon," I think this is closer to representation dualism than idealism (since the material is in essence a representation of the world of monads). Furthermore, not all monads are minds. At any rate, my view of the world is nothing so complicated as Leibniz's, and I'm pretty sure I don't believe in all that monad stuff (altough some days I wonder).

I think that my view on free will counts as libertarian due to the fact that the ontological ground of your actions is your free choice which might have been otherwise. The world conforms to your will, but your will is in no way determined by the world (except insofar as it provides input to the decision making process, which is not in itself deterministic). Since I believe in a Berkeleian theory of sense perception as language I would say that by giving us a world in which it is possible (in principle) to predict your actions by means of physical reasoning, God communicates some of his foreknowledge to me, but I don't see why more than one mind having foreknowledge is a greater threat to libertarian free will than a single mind having foreknowledge. Besides, our epistemic condition may be such that, no matter what technology we develop, we will never be able to actually apply our knowledge of the physical in such a way as to predict the actions of free beings, so this will not be an issue.

Ultimately, I believe that the deterministic nature of the world is merely the communication, in some limited degree, of divine foreknowledge to certain finite minds, which leaves libertarian free will unscathed: you are free because you might have done otherwise.

Posted by: Kenny at December 1, 2005 5:13 PM

I've realized that in the previous comment I sound as if I'm saying that representation dualism and idealism are mutually exclusive. This is obviously not the case. However, Berkeley's version of idealism says just exactly the opposite of representation dualism: our perceptions are not ontologically grounded in a world that is "more real," such as the world of matter or of Leibniz's monads, but rather are real in their own right. Their source of origin is God and God alone. Leibniz says that our perceptions arise from within ourselves and, on the well-founded phenomena reading, he also says that they "arise" from the relationships between monads in the world. In this sense our perceptions represent a deeper reality. Of course on Berkeley's view our perceptions, being a language, may still convey information about the world of minds or spirits, but this is not what makes them real perceptions.

Posted by: Kenny at December 1, 2005 9:18 PM

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