The Philosophers

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.

Colossians 2:8

When we think of the great philosophers, our minds instinctively gravitate to names like Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle; however, it’s not as if philosophy was somehow “invented” by the Greeks.  Indeed, since philosopher literally means “one who loves wisdom,” it would be fair to say that Solomon and even Nebuchadnezzar’s wise men were also philosophers in their own right.  And yet even though philosophy isn’t something that is uniquely Greek, it reached its zenith in ancient Greece and impacted the world in ways that few other civilizations have either before or since. 

By the time Christ comes onto the scene of history the most influential ideologies were arguably those of Plato and the Stoics, with Aristotle running a close third.  To draw an analogy, think of them like Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism today: three religions that address common themes and questions, albeit from very different perspectives.  So too with competing Greek philosophical systems, while each one has a distinctive point of view, they are nonetheless trying to resolve the same basic problem.  For having rejected the Olympian gods as causal agents, they were challenged with presenting a coherent framework that reconciled two competing observations about the physical world:

  • There is an inherent order to the universe that provides consistency and predictability to our world. That’s why humans give birth to other humans instead of goats, why water freezes when it gets cold, and why certain things are edible while others are not.  In other words, the universe exhibits a level of stability and design that we are able to rely upon.
  • Although there is an aspect of predictability to the material world, it is changing every second, of every minute, of every day. People are born, they age, and they eventually die.  Days get warmer or colder depending upon the time of year. Food that starts out as edible can spoil and rot.  So in spite of the apparent order of the world in which we live, we experience a world that is constantly changing, decaying, and being re-made.

In philosophical terms they were wrestling with the notions of “being” and “becoming,” and their conclusions would prove to have a profound impact upon philosophical and religious thought well into the Middle Ages!  Hence the concepts and theories of these men not only clashed with Judaism prior to the first century AD, but also collided with Christianity and subsequently impacted the formulation of the Trinity.

Accordingly, what follows is a synopsis of some of the most important philosophical concepts to come out of the ancient world.  By no means does it attempt to exhaustively survey the ideas of these philosophical titans; rather, it is meant to highlight the most relevant ideas with regards to understanding their eventual impact upon the Trinity.  Towards that end, the student of philosophy will no doubt take issue with some of the generalizations and omissions herein; nevertheless, every effort has been made to capture the essence of each philosophical system without distortion or misrepresentation. 

So without any further ado…

Plato’s Theory of Forms

Plato was the most famous student of Socrates and is widely regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of all time.  He proposed two distinct realms of reality, one realm of “being” and another of “becoming.”  The realm of “becoming” is the material world where we exist and things are constantly changing; moreover, our realm of “becoming” is merely an imperfect reflection of things within the transcendent, unchanging realm of true “being.”  Plato believed that this realm of “being,” which he referred to as the realm of “Forms,” was the higher of the two realms because it embodied universal, absolute truth.

According to Plato, the realm of “Forms” contains one eternal, immaterial, and immutable “form” for every conceivable thing.  Each individual “form” is just an abstract idea about something that can only be apprehended by our minds, a cosmic blueprint of sorts that specifies something’s essence.  For example, consider all of the dogs in the world.  Although there are clearly lots of different kinds of dogs, Plato believed that they were all recognizable as dogs because they had been fashioned from the one “form” that specifies what a dog is like; alternatively, all dogs possess the essential characteristics of “dogness” due to the common “form” from which they are derived.  So far so good, but the obvious question, then, is why doesn’t every dog look exactly the same?

In addition to an eternal realm of “Forms,” Plato also believed that the matter of the universe has eternally existed as five essential elements: fire, water, earth, air, and “the heavens.”  He views these as the building blocks from which all other material objects are fashioned, such that every object manifests different characteristics based upon the proportions of the elements that compose them.  Moreover, since he considered the elements in their basic state to be “formless” and inherently unstable, he reasoned that it was therefore impossible to combine them in a way that perfectly captures any given “form.”  This means that the “ideal dog” only exists conceptually, never in reality, which led Plato to conclude that the physical realm where we exist is therefore “less real” than the abstract realm of “Forms.” 

Figure 6 – Plato’s Theory of Forms

Thus each different kind of dog is merely an imperfect representation of the ideal, a variation that is attributable to the instability of the basic elements that compose each dog (and by extension, any material object) yet we are able to distinguish dogs from horses because every dog – however imperfect it may be – still retains the essence of the dog’s “form.”  Furthermore, due to the inherent “formlessness” of matter every dog is also destined to age and eventually die as each element inexorably returns to a state of being raw material.  In short, the instability and imperfections of matter itself are responsible for both variation and change…for all “becoming.”

While this dualistic framework provides a working model that accounts for the phenomena of “being” and “becoming,” Plato still had a bit of a problem.  On one hand, his building blocks have neither the ability nor the inclination to come together themselves…in fact they naturally resist form!  Not only that, but each “form” is merely an abstract idea that lacks the power to actually do anything.  So Plato’s dilemma was one of causality: how does a “form” actually become a physical object? 

Plato recognized that just as every blueprint needs a builder in order to become a house, his “Forms” needed a supernatural being with the power to handle the basic elements of matter and transform them into recognizable objects.  He called this entity the Demiurge, a god-like being who transcends the material world and is therefore neither subject to change nor the imperfections of matter.  Furthermore, since the Demiurge is not part of the physical realm, he is able to have perfect knowledge of all “Forms” by which he takes the elements of the material world and fashions them into physical objects.

Figure 7 – The Demiurge, Plato’s “Creator”

Practically speaking, Plato’s Demiurge has a lot in common with the God of historic, Jewish monotheism: they are both benevolent, supernatural beings (i.e. not material) who never change and subsequently function as creators of the material world.  Furthermore, if you think of “Forms” as being the “mind of God” rather than a completely independent realm of reality, it isn’t hard to conceive of Plato’s Demiurge as just another name for God. 

That being said, the Demiurge is a far cry from the God of the Bible.  For whereas the God of Scripture is personal – He has feelings, He has a will, He interacts with and governs His creation – the Demiurge is merely an intelligent, rational force that mechanically re-constitutes pre-existent, formless matter into objects derived from the realm of “Forms.”  Nothing more, nothing less. The Demiurge is simply a supporting actor in Plato’s script, a necessary role of limited volition, function, and authority.  Thus even referring to the Demiurge as the “creator” is somewhat misleading, since by Hebraic standards God not only fashioned the universe in accordance with His own will and purpose, He created it from nothing to begin with.

Aristotle’s Substance Theory

As Plato’s star pupil, Aristotle made a name for himself by putting his own spin on the concepts of form and matter.  Unlike his mentor who separated form and matter into distinct realms of “being” and “becoming,” Aristotle sought to explain both phenomena from the standpoint of the material realm alone.  Hence he rejected the notion of a transcendent realm of ideal “Forms,” choosing instead to focus his attention on the study and categorization of actual, physical objects, which he referred to as “substances.” 

To be clear, Aristotle did not repudiate the concept of “form” per se, just the idea that “Forms” existed as a separate, higher realm beyond the material world.  So whereas Plato saw “form” as something that was external to and existed independently of material objects, Aristotle proposed that matter and form were inseparable, necessary components of every “substance.”  In other words, Aristotle believed that “forms” weren’t separate from material objects but in fact an integral part of every object.  To draw an analogy, if Plato views “form” like a chemical formula that specifies how to create something new from the five elemental building blocks, then Aristotle’s understanding of “form” would be more like an object’s DNA…an intrinsic design that organizes the matter of the “substance” accordingly. 

Aristotle’s distinction with respect to the immanence of “forms” is only possible, though, due to his divergent understanding of matter and its relation to “forms” in general.  In contrast to Plato, who believed that matter was reducible to the five essential elements that had always existed in a formless state, Aristotle’s perception of matter was much broader and always relative to actual substances.  He defined matter as simply the “stuff” that comprises any given “substance”: trees are made of wood, bricks are made of clay, and people are made of flesh and blood. 

According to Aristotle, not only was it impossible for matter to exist apart from an actual substance, but substances themselves could also be considered as matter to the extent that they were combined with other forms to create new substances.  For example, when you combine bricks with the form of a house you end up with a new “substance” that is a house; alternatively, those same bricks combined with the form of a wall give you a new “substance” that is a wall.  So even though bricks themselves are distinct, identifiable substances, the key point is that any substance can also be regarded as matter to the extent that it represents the potential to become something else.

While the nuances of Aristotle’s theory can be difficult to grasp (and we have just scratched the surface) it hinges on the idea that individual substances naturally undergo change as they move from their current state of existence to their ultimate state of existence.  This process is governed by both the form of the substance as well as the matter it is composed of, and Aristotle reasoned that at any given point in a substance’s existence it possessed both “actuality” and “potentiality.”  He defined actuality as what an object is – as governed primarily by its form – and potentiality as what it could become – as enabled by its matter. 

Consider two related substances: a German Shepherd puppy and a statue of a German Shepherd.  The puppy is a substance resulting from the form of a German Shepherd that is realized in flesh and blood; the statue results from that same form being realized in wood or marble.  The former is a substance with the potential to become a full-grown dog due to the inherent characteristics of flesh and blood, while the latter substance is effectively fully realized and lacks the potential to become something more. Due to their shared form they are both recognizable as German Shepherds, yet on account of the matter they are composed of they have very different levels of potentiality.

Furthermore, not only does form and matter dictate what a given substance actually is and what it could become, they naturally preclude anything else.  In other words, on the basis of both the matter and form that make a puppy a “potential German Shepherd,” it is likewise impossible for it to become a Chihuahua, a tree, or a dog made of wood.  Thus the essence of every “substance” is a function of both the underlying matter from which it is fashioned as well as the form that gives the matter its identity.   

And so, armed with his theory that physical substances are both self-defining (due to their form) and predisposed to realize their potential (based upon their matter) Aristotle was consequently able to account for both “being” and “becoming” within the material realm alone.  This not only eliminated the need for Plato’s separate realm of pure being – which even Plato acknowledged was ultimately beyond our comprehension – but also made Plato’s “Chemist,” the Demiurge, superfluous.  As such, it would seem as if Aristotle had succeeded in formulating a completely naturalistic model of the world; nevertheless, he had a dilemma of his own to solve. 

Similar to Plato, Aristotle likewise had to deal with the issue of causality.  He reasoned that nothing happens apart from an antecedent cause, whether that cause is the innate form that gradually transforms a puppy into a full-grown dog, or the sculptor who picks up a block of wood and whittles it into a statue of a dog.  Thus every change (i.e. all “becoming”) is caused by something that preceded it, leading Aristotle to conclude that the state of our world at any given moment represents the latest link in a chain of causes and subsequent effects…which leads us to his problem.

Since Aristotle perceived reality as chains of events to which “links” are constantly being added, he recognized that if you work backwards in the chain you eventually have to address the question: where did the “first link” come from?  At some point in the past, Aristotle understood that there logically had to be something that was both uncaused and changeless in order for anything else to have happened.  So in the same manner that Plato postulated the existence of an immaterial being that was immune to change, Aristotle proposed the existence of a singular substance that was the one exception to his cardinal rule with respect to all other substances – that nothing exists without both form and matter.  This substance was effectively “pure form” or “pure actuality,” an eternal substance that never changes and is therefore able to serve as the “first cause” that sets things into motion.  Hence Aristotle called this unique substance, appropriately, the Prime Mover. 

In the final analysis, then, Aristotle had not really eliminated the need for the Demiurge, he simply pushed the “creator” back to the beginning of the chain; moreover, just as Plato proposed the Demiurge out of logical necessity, Aristotle’s Prime Mover exists because otherwise his framework completely collapses.  Indeed, given that both men set out to explain the world apart from supernatural causes, it is more than a little ironic that they inevitably ended up with something they could not explain by appealing to purely natural phenomena.  In short, although they initially rejected theism as the basis for understanding the world, they both ended up reintroducing “god” into the house through the back door.

The Logos of the Stoics

There is one additional concept from the ancient Greeks which warrants our brief consideration: the logos.  Roughly 500 years before Christ, a Greek philosopher by the name of Heraclitus suggested that the logos was the organizing principle which brought order to a universe that was always changing.  It was the “logic” of nature, so to speak, the ultimate cause for all that exists, and on account of the logos we live in a world that is intelligible and coherent.  To put it differently, apart from the logos nothing made sense. 

Later philosophers picked up on this theme and incorporated it in various ways into their own systems of thought, but none embraced it quite like the Stoics. Similar to Plato, the Stoics believed that the universe was composed of the basic elements of water, fire, earth, and air; yet like Aristotle, they also rejected the notion that “form” existed in a transcendent realm that was separate from and superior to the material world.  And contrary to both Plato and Aristotle, whose “creators” remained detached from the worlds they created, the Stoics adopted a pantheistic view of god which they referred to as the Logos

To the Stoics, the entire cosmos was essentially a living being that was formed and sustained by the Logos; furthermore, they believed every object retained varying degrees of the Logos that fashioned it.  So whereas both the Demiurge and the Prime Mover transcended the material world, the Logos both governed and inhered within it.  The Logos was effectively the Stoics’ “Creator,” both inseparable from and immanent within the universe which it fashioned, and they saw any “form” as evidence of the ongoing activity of the Logos.  Thus the Logos was not merely some abstract principle or model by which the world was ordered, but it was an active, immanent, spiritual force that permeated physical objects, gave them life, and connected them to each other. 

Interestingly, when Paul encounters the Stoics in Athens, he draws upon their belief in the nearness and activity of the Logos as a way to introduce them to the Gospel:

A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.”
So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’
Acts 17:18,22-28

Clearly, the concept of the Logos has more in common with “The Force” than the God of the Jews, but it nonetheless had a profound impact upon Judaism.  Indeed, even though the core of Judaism was essentially preserved under Greek rule, it is not as if Jewish thought escaped three centuries of Greek influence unscathed.  For whereas the New Testament contrasts “Jews” against “Greeks” as if they were polar opposites, traces of Greek thought can be clearly seen in the intertestamental “Book of Wisdom,” as well as the writings of an early first-century Jewish philosopher who attempted to harmonize Greek philosophy with the core tenets of Judaism.  That philosopher was known as Philo of Alexandria.

Philo’s Logos

Given the intellectual chasm that separated “Jews” and “Greeks,” it would seem that bridging them would be an impossible task.  After all, how can you possibly reconcile Judaism – a worldview based upon revealed truth that comes directly from God – with systems of Greek philosophy whereby “God” is little more than a logical necessity?  How do you juxtapose the notion of a personal God who created everything by the power of His word with some vague, cosmic intelligence that robotically formed pre-existing, shapeless matter into material objects?  And how do you coalesce the utter transcendence that was the hallmark of Plato’s philosophy, the immanence that was embraced by the Stoics, and the Jewish understanding of God that affirms both?  Bringing everything together would seem like an insurmountable task, and yet that is exactly what Philo of Alexandria set out to accomplish.

Philo was not unlike the Apostle Paul, raised as a Jew and yet conversant in Greek philosophy, and in the early part of the first century AD he produced several volumes that essentially comprise a sweeping critique of Greek thought from the perspective of Judaism.  He deconstructs the cacophony of ideas that had come out of centuries of philosophical posturing, but instead of categorically renouncing Greek philosophy in favor of Judaism, Philo attempts to demonstrate how specific concepts from the Greek philosophers find their roots in the Jewish faith, specifically the writings of Moses.  In other words, he acknowledges that each philosophical school of thought has stumbled upon a particular truth and is calling them back to the Source of that truth…indeed of all truth.

As a result, Philo’s approach is eclectic and seemingly contradictory at times, since he freely borrows ideas from Plato, the Stoics, and others as they suit his purpose. That being said, Philo doesn’t merely piece together disparate concepts in an attempt to develop a unified philosophical framework; rather, he reinterprets and repurposes specific ideas from the various schools of thought which he believes to be approximations of the deeper truths to be found in Judaism.  And while Philo has been both praised as well as criticized for his efforts, there is no debate that his writings give us an invaluable glimpse into the mind of 1st century Jews as well as Greeks. 

Of all the themes in Philo’s works, none is more central to his thinking than “the Logos.” He portrays “the Logos” as the chief intermediary between creation and an utterly transcendent, holy God, similar to the way in which Plato’s Demiurge sat between the material world and the transcendent realm of “Forms.”  But Philo’s “Logos” is much different than Plato’s Demiurge, for like the Logos of the Stoics he is immanent within creation and actively involved in keeping things in balance. 

But Philo doesn’t stop there.  Whereas the Stoics conceived of the Logos as an impersonal mind that creates, permeates, and animates the physical world, Philo develops the concept of “the Logos” even further.  He  not only identifies “the Logos” as the first created being, but assigns him the highest place within the angelic realm:   

  • Philo proclaims “the Logos” to be the chief archangel, equating him with the “Angel of the Lord” from the Jewish Scriptures.
  • Since logos is the Greek word that literally means “word,” Philo asserts that every time that God speaks, His “Word” is none other than “the Logos” in action.  Thus “the Logos” is the primary agent of creation in Genesis 1, the one responsible for carrying out everything that “God said…”
  • Philo also refers to “the Logos” as the “Wisdom of God” and the “Image of God”

So according to Philo, the “Logos” is the first and highest of all created beings who in turn became God’s instrument of creation.  He was “begotten from eternity” in order to act as the mediator between God and the material world, and is “sent down to earth” both to carry out the will of God and to serve as the conduit by which mankind is able to draw near to God and know His divine will.  Philo even refers to “the Logos” as the “Son of God,” a perfect being who is responsible for procuring forgiveness and blessings from God on behalf of men.

If any of this sounds vaguely familiar, it should, because this is the same way that the New Testament authors are soon to speak about Someone else…

The Stage is Set

While it may seem counterintuitive to bother ourselves with these cosmologies and philosophies that are clearly out of step with Christianity, our ability to comprehend the New Testament is hindered without a basic appreciation of the world to which it was first written.  These notions of the created order had been accepted, developed, and propagated for centuries – hence the repeated dichotomy between “Jews” and “Greeks” – and so we simply cannot understand the New Testament without first putting ourselves in the proper mindset.

Think about it this way.  Imagine that you travel 2,000 years into the future and discover that the world is in the midst of the “Cold War,” so-named because scientists the world over had banded together to finally eradicate every last trace of disease, including the common cold.  While this would certainly be a clever way to describe such an undertaking, attempting to understand the “Cold War” of the 1950s and 1960s from this futuristic perspective would be both spurious and unwarranted.  By ignoring the actual historical significance of “Cold War” during the mid-20th century, you would completely distort your understanding of the period.

In similar fashion, we need to remember that there is a historical, cultural, and religious context to the books of the New Testament.  Its authors had to convey their message while contending with prevailing ideas about politics, philosophy, as well as theology.  So when we read the New Testament and attempt to make sense of it in our present-day context, it is vitally important that we first understand how its original audience would have heard it.  To do otherwise is to commit “historical myopia” and risk missing the message entirely.

The point is simply this: The Bible has been written for us, but it was not written to us.  In other words, as the authors of the Bible sought to convey eternal truths, they drew upon images and ideas that were familiar to themselves as well as to their audience.  As a result, if we discount the significance of the language and imagery they used – either unknowingly or intentionally – it becomes possible to not only miss their message, but also to make their words say virtually whatever we want.  (Incidentally, our perception of “the Word” from John 1 is a prime example of this problem!  We will come back to this in a subsequent chapter.) 

Thus orienting ourselves to the mentality of the first century has been an essential step in our journey.  For since we affirm that the Bible’s authors truly spoke on behalf of and under the guidance of God, it is imperative that we discover the message they were attempting to deliver – because that is the message that God intended.  And now, having looked “backwards” so that we might better understand where the authors of the New Testament were coming from, we are poised to call our next witnesses as we look “forwards” and tackle the first few centuries of church history. 

Indeed, armed with the perspective of Christianity’s first converts, we are not only able to perceive the New Testament more clearly, but we are also prepared to make sense of the events which fueled the development of the Trinity.  For as the Gospel spread across the ancient world and collided with these fundamentally incompatible beliefs about the universe and how it functioned, the result was a myriad of speculative ideas about who Jesus really was and what He actually did.  False teaching was subsequently propagated in abundance, rousing the early church to action as it fought to preserve and protect the essence of the Gospel.  And one of their main weapons in this fight was none other than the Trinity, a doctrine that was forged and re-forged with a single purpose in mind: to combat heresy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: