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Saturday, 19 May 2018

From Hebraic roots to Greek philosophy! (Part 2)

Having just returned from Scotland, where my wife and I attended the funeral service for her mother, I am publishing this post quickly, as we return to Scotland on Tuesday for a wedding, and for our mid-year visit to family and friends.

If you haven't read the first instalment, I would recommend that you do so before you read this second part!

So, let's jump into our personal Tardis (I hope that you know at least that much about Dr Who!), and fly back some 400 years! Malachi, the last of the prophets whose writings are recorded in the Tanakh, has recorded his message – and then there is silence, until the angel Gabriel appears to a Jewish priest named Zechariah, and informs him that, in their old age, he and his wife, Elizabeth, are going to have a son.

But that 400 year-long gap is important. Malachi spoke of the coming of “… Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of YHWH comes.” (4:5). But there was no timetable issued! It was to be a long wait – and still is!

Meanwhile, Artaxerxes II was ruling the mighty Persian empire; the Romans were slowly building up their republic; the Carthaginians were suffering defeats – and, in Athens, a man named Socrates, the first great philosopher of the modern age, was soon to drink the hemlock that ushered him out of his controversial, and influential, life.

And it is on Greece that the spotlight shines during those years of silence. There were many clever people around; people who thought deeply about the world around them, and what made it tick. Following Socrates was his pupil, Plato, whose ideas were to become almost as influential as those of Jesus Himself in the development of Western Christianity – especially his “Theory of Forms”. This is something that is difficult to explain in just a few sentences but – here goes my attempt!

He explains that most human beings live as if they were in a dimly-lit cave. We are chained, and facing a blank wall, with a fire at our backs. All that we can see are flickering shadows playing across the wall of the cave, and this we take to be reality. Only if we turn away from the wall, and the shadows, can we hope to see the true light of reality.

Or, to put it in slightly more philosophical terms, Plato taught that everything we perceive around us – sailing-ships and sealing wax; and cabbages and kings – is merely appearance. The true reality is the realm of ideas, or Forms, from which this appearance derives. This true reality is perfection; what we see is but a poor reflection.

Plato did think that it was possible for a man to escape from the cave of shadows. Those who did would be the “guardians” – specially gifted and trained individuals; the philosophers, of course! These guardians would be rewarded by being granted a view of the “higher Good” – the source of all truth and reason

This “Higher Good” is the ultimate Form – top of the Forms. It is, effectively, Plato’s concept of God – an eternal reality that exists in a higher realm. Our senses are not equipped to see any more than a pale reflection of this “Higher Good”. Plato likens the concept (for this is not a ‘personal’ God, i.e. a God with personality) to the sun. Both, he taught, cause things to exist and grow; and both are sources of light.

Just one more important point (although we have missed out so very much). Plato believed that we are a body and a soul, but that these are totally separate entities, temporarily bound together during a person’s physical lifetime. This is the concept of the duality of man. In Plato’s view, the soul is good and the body is bad (again, this is the basis for some of the teaching of the later Gnostics). If you forget everything else I’ve just shared on Platonic philosophy, please remember this. It’s the Big Consequence of Plato’s Big Idea: Soul = Good; Body = Bad.

We're not even going to look at Aristotle, but merely mention him as a pupil of Plato, who may be thought of as the father of the academic discipline of logic, as he gave himself the task of thinking logically about every aspect of human life.

So, a brief summary of all of that: in the four-century gap, a whole flood of new ideas and ideals was pouring out from Greece – a Hellenistic mind-set as opposed to an Hebraic mind-set. I recently came across this comment in an SU Commentary on Revelation: “As soon as the Hebrew Christian was squeezed out of the church, and the OT was increasingly neglected, Christian theology was poisoned by this Greek concept.” That, I would contend, was the beginning of the corruption of the Body of the Christ! We'll move on in the next section!

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