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Philosophies of Men

Posted by nebula0 on September 8, 2008


Mormons, among others (Jehovah’s Witnesses even more so) are very suspicious of what they see as the philosophies of men- after all, Lucifer did try to trick Adam with “the philosophies of men mingled with scripture” in the Endowment ceremony.  But, what if the “philosophies of men” weren’t mingled with scriptures in the apostasy, what if the philosophies of men were mingled in scripture as the scripture was being written?  To put this another way, what if the writers of Bible inserted their philosophical understandings of the world in with their inspiration from God?  What if “those darned Greeks” were such a part of the thinking of New Testament authors, for example, that Greek philosophy has its mark all over the finished product?

If this is true, the results are profound for our understanding of what scripture is.  But really, why should we expect anything different?  After all, we are finite humans, with finite understanding of how the cosmos operate, trying to communicate with each other through imperfect, clumsy language. 

The Bible is written in this clumsy language, penned by human authors.  Suppose that the Bible were written in these times, wouldn’t we expect to see reflections of our modern scientific understanding of the basics reflected within the writings?  We’d expect to see hints of our knowledge about the earth orbiting the sun, the sun being one of many stars, there being many planets, of atoms and so forth.  But, these were not things known to antiquity, the universe to the writers of the Bible looked very differently.  One obvious example of this is revealed right at the get go in Genesis.  We see that God divides the waters and creates a dome or vault and calls that heaven.  If we were to reconstruct what the cosmos of Genesis looks like, we’d see the earth as a flat island with a large dome over it, with vast waters laying beyond.  This is obviously not how the universe is.  Does that mean we ought to toss out Genesis as useless and give up on the whole thing?  Of course not, this is exactly what we should expect.  God speaks to humans using language and concepts comprehensible to us.  If His goal is to teach us spiritual truths, wouldn’t giving ancient people’s a complex astronomy lesson simply detract from the ultimate goal of revealing His existence and His care for humanity?  I would think so.

Now on to examples from the New Testament.  The basic Platonic cosmology was accepted by the ancient world as the standard understanding of the order of things.  It would be like assuming the model of the solar system that third graders create today using foam balls to represent the planets.  The basic idea of this Platonic cosmology entails various levels of existence in concentric spheres.  Think about a golf ball encased by a tennis ball, encased by a basket ball and so forth.  The farther one got from the center, the better things were, the more perfect they were– the more heavenly and real.  The closer one got to the center, the more degraded things were, the more earthly, the more material.  Lying outside of all the ‘balls’ is God, or the realm of the pure forms.  A basic idea of Platonism is that all that we see in our material, earthly world is mere shadows or copies of a perfect form.  Out there, somewhere, is the model of the perfect cat, and all the kitties we see running around today’s are merely imperfect copies of that one perfect form, like that same third grader who made that model solar system for us trying to trace a cut out kitty but never quite getting it completely right.

The basic ideas of levels of heaven and shadows and copies are represented in the New Testament.  That doesn’t mean the authors accepted everything that Platonism represented, not at all, merely that the ideas of Platonism were so popular, so widely accepted, that they constituted the standard way of thinking about things so it was natural for the authors to share their ideas with others using those ideas.  Think about Paul’s journey through the three levels of heaven in 2 Corinthians.  This screams Platonic cosmology (sorry Mormons, unless you want to agree that Plato was inspired by Heavenly Father to conceive of these three levels, Plato came first).  Or, think of the Word/Logos of God in the Gospel of John.  The perfect, immutable God does not create material things Himself in the Platonic world, He thinks things into being– He creates through His Logos, His Word, His reasoning.  A very obvious example is the entire book of Hebrews. The whole thing is about how Old Testament ideas are mere shadows or copies of the true Form, which is Christ.  You have the earthly vs heavenly tabernacle, the levitical high priest vs Jesus the Melchizedek High Priest, imperfect animal sacrifices vs the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus, Moses as a servant in the house of God vs Jesus as the Son, and so on.

So what should we make of agreeing to see the “philosophies of men” in scripture?  Obviously this topic is very deep, and may be troubling to some.  Let me state that just because Paul or other New Testament writers use Platonic concepts to explain concepts to their readers does NOT mean they accepted everything Platonism entails, not at all, simply that they were using the common concepts of their place and time to communicate as effectively as they could.  It also implies that we readers of the Bible are using philosophies of men that we may not even be aware of to read the scriptures.  It means that we ought to learn all that we can about the Bible, about the place and time of its writing to really, and fully, comprehend everything written.   God speaks to us humans where we are, as embodied, finite, limited beings, embedded within a certain history, with a certain culture and with a certain language. 

What are some other possible ramifications of these ideas?  It means that as we learn more about the world around us, as we discuss what is revealed to us in the scriptures more, that we can add to our understanding.  It is not improper to reflect on the philosophies of our day and age that we use, compare it to that of the biblical writers and do our best then to get at the transcendental truths, those truths which go beyond either our culture or those of the Biblical writers. 

What does any of this have to do with Mormonism?  Mormons reject those ‘abominable creeds’ as products of an apostasy which erroneously introduced those darned Greek philosophers into the pure, unadulterated message conveyed in the Bible as ‘properly translated’.  Given what I’ve stated above, I think it’s obvious as to why this argument falls flat on its face before it can ever get going.

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6 Responses to “Philosophies of Men”

  1. Seth R. said

    I think we overdo this at times and verge on anti-intellectualism.

    However, there is one thing I do appreciate about this stance. It does prevent people from taking philosophical endeavor too seriously. If there is one thing I learned studying philosophy in college, it was that ideas change. And even stuff that looked perfectly logical at the time that one philosopher wrote it, is subject to a complete deconstruction by later minds.

    I think we should take philosophy seriously and use the tools we have at hand. But we need to keep firmly in mind the fact that this is all “arm of the flesh” sort of stuff.

    This is why I tend to remain skeptical in the face of theological declarations based on the thinking of figures such as Descartes, Plato, Plotinus, Augustine and such. Great thinkers, all of them. And well worth studying and taking seriously. But I’m also all too aware that their ideas have met serious challenges at the hands of other philosophers. I’m simply not willing to take their word over God’s revealed word.

    Sorry.

  2. nebula0 said

    Seth,

    You miss the point of the post. The point is that you don’t have the choice of taking the ‘revealed word’ of God over philosophy because as soon as you begin to read the text you are already using philosophies whether you like it or not. Even more than that, philosophies, ‘alien’, foreign philosophies, permeate the Biblical text already. It’s not a matter of whether or not you want to privelege philosophy over revealed text– there is no such choice.

    Given that state of affairs, if you want to really do a good job of understanding what the text says, you MUST understand the philosophies that the writers took for granted to really understand the concepts they are getting across. If you don’t, you’re simply not really understanding the Bible at all- all that you are doing in that case is reading your own presuppositions/philosophy right into the text without ever being aware of it.

  3. Seth R. said

    Yes, I only addressed half of your post.

    I do not share the common LDS view that we are basically an exact re-creation of primitive Christianity (we aren’t) that was later corrupted by them nasty Greeks (as you point out, Greek influence in Palestine far pre-dated Jesus’ own ministry).

    My own view is that the seeds of apostasy were already at work during the life of Jesus and continued throughout the ministry of the apostles. I think there was actually some falling away going on under Paul as well – some of it possibly of his own making! I do not separate the circumstances from the scriptural authors.

    I also do not hold the authors of the Book of Mormon as being above this sort of thing either. For example, what’s up with Mormon’s obsession with the character of Captain Moroni? Mormon, as you know, compiled the abrigement that makes up the current BoM. And he spends a lot of time engaging in hero worship of a character who reminds me uncomfortably of Gen. Douglas MacArthur screaming at Pres. Truman to cross the Yalu River and start bombing China (Korean War).

    I’ve never liked Captain Moroni that much (except as a boy when I liked play swordfighting and stuff). He seems to me like a perfect example of why we don’t allow generals to run our country. But Mormon just worships this guy and even names his son after him!

    Well, the reason is obvious. Mormon is a general himself and gets a kick out of this kind of stuff. It’s something he relates to, and it colors his narrative.

    Same thing with why so much of the Book of Mormon is obsessed with a series of battles (the Alma “war chapters”). Just a general giving unequal airtime to what he knows best.

    And then you have Nephi having his life saved by the pleading of one of “the daughters of Ishmael” and he doesn’t even give us her name?

    How’s that for gratitude?

    Orson Scott Card once gave a theory on this that the reason Nephi never gave her name was because she was probably Laman’s fiance. It is unlikely that Laman would have listened to Nephi’s girl. But Nephi, writing his own slanted propaganda years after the separation between him and his brothers and the years of bloodshed, is hardly going to give shout-out to the probable queen of the Lamanites.

    I see the same thing in his views on the “curse” of the “skin of blackness.” My own view is that Lehi’s gang probably found the new Promised Land already occupied, and Laman and Lemuel, being the unfaithful Jews that they were, probably had no problem intermarrying. Nephi probably took the resulting skin change color as a mark of God’s displeasure for his evil siblings.

    So yeah, I don’t separate the scripture from the surrounding context.

    But I was never much for the scriptural inerrancy viewpoint anyway.

  4. nebula0 said

    So here’s the question Seth, falling away from what then? How do you determine what the original thing is that people, including Paul, were falling away from?

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