I’m currently on the “philosophy” chapter of the latest book I’m reading, a short history on ancient Greece. From the day I first learned of Plato’s idealist theory of Forms, Socrates’ penchant for tiresome, hair-splitting dialogues, and Aristotle’s flare for categorization, I have been struck by the these ancient thinkers’ zeal for the pursuit of absolute, immutable, and totally unavoidable Truth.
Philo-sophia, as you may know, is a Greek word, meaning “love of wisom.” The first philosophers were traditional sages, more or less, who gradually assumed a new job description for themselves. Though they were regarded as mystical magi, they actually were engaged in something we would define as more scientific than oracular. In essence, they wanted to find out what made the universe work.
These men had no Book of Genesis to consult. No Moses to pronounce laws, initiate feasts and rituals, and enlighten them unto the holiness of God. And no prophets to foretell the coming of a Savior who would fulfill the Mosaic Covenant and embody the holiness of its Creator. All they had were sketchy myths about cosmic origins and, I must say, a rather spot-on conviction that the world – or kosmos, meaning “elegant order – had always been there and always would be.
What interested them most was not the eternal, but the mutable – the things that move and change, live and breathe, die and decay. To them it was impossible to make sense of what is mutable and fleeting. They observed that because there is a pattern of permanence stitched into our world of flux, there must be an underlying thing that never changes. This thing was an uncreated material giving birth to all created material, and they were dying to identify, analyze, and rationalize it.
Some philosophers, such as Thales, said this “thing” was water, since most substances contain water. (Makes sense to me.) His successor Anaximander proposed that the “thing” was something entirely unnameable and without specific traits. Another thought the “thing” was air. Heraclitus posited that the “thing” was fire because fire is ever-moving, ever-volatile. He is the philosopher whose words Panta rhei, “All things flow,” made the hair on my arms stand up, because as I read those words, the angelic doxology (a word formed form the Greek words for “glory,” “grandeur,” “splendor,” and “speaking”) sung every Sunday at my childhood church rang in my ears:
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Heraclitus may not have recognized the profundity of his philosophical claim; indeed, all things, the Bible tells us, are held together by Christ. Paul even said to the Athenians in Acts 17:28:
“For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’” (emphasis mine).
Paul was quoting a pre-Christ poet named Aratus, who was also from Tarsus, and whose original line was a hymn to Jove, king of the gods. Of course, Paul applies the popular pagan snippet of verse to the one, true God, Jehovah, thereby proving that these pantheistic philosophers’ beliefs contained elements of a “pure, personal, spiritual Theism,” as the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary puts it.
The early church fathers marveled at the similarities between Socratic and Christian presentations of ethics. They even came up with an odd formulation to explain how the similarities could have happened: homo naturaliter Christianus, the “naturally Christian man.” What they meant by this was that even unsaved, heathen men without a divinely inspired canon to guide them seemed to be attracted to goodness and moved to lead moral lives. They had seen “God’s invisible qualities” and were chasing after them as best they knew how.
Now, I must add, that no man or woman is ever “naturally” born a Christian. And no matter how attracted to goodness or moved to morality we are, we can never be good enough to earn an eternity in heaven, the most beautiful sector of the kosmos. If we could do-good our way into paradise, then Jesus’ excruciating death on the cross would have been needless.
“Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.” -Hebrews 9:22
“There is no one righteous, not even one.” -Romans 3:10
“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” -Romans 3:23
So what about our friends Plato and Socrates, and other philosophers deemed “naturally Christian” by early church fathers? Will they and other morally-minded, “thing”- searching people who lived before the time of Christ and thousands of miles away from the Law of the Holy Land be in heaven? I think it’s possible, and here is a verse that may help explain why:
“The message has gone throughout the earth, and the words to all the world.” –Romans 10:18
In this verse, Paul quotes Psalm 19:4 in which the psalmist proclaims that the works of God are evident everywhere, in water, in air, in fire, in the inexplicable soul-deep conviction inside each one of us that the “elegant order” has always been here and always will be, and the only Uncreated Being is responsible for all of it, and indeed, holds all of it together.
Jesus didn’t leave the way to the Father, to Heaven, ambiguous or unclear. He said plainly:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” -John 14:6
No more animal sacrifices or strict cleansing rituals, no more wondering what composes that ineffable”thing” the ancient Greeks devoted their lives to rationalizing. What we have is grace, a grace that doesn’t come from our inward spirituality or our outward works but from Jesus Christ, the One who was, and is, and is to come (Revelation 1:8).
I thank God that you and I have the revelation of the Messiah not only whispered in the heavens but shouted in the Scriptures! We don’t have empty man-made philosophies to study but an empty tomb to celebrate! And no matter our intellect, our wealth, righteousness, or good works, we can all ascend to the heights of the ultimate Beauty Plato chased after and be forever in the presence of the unchanging Father of Lights, the Prince of Peace, and the Lord of Lords!
I hope you take time to enjoy one of my favorite worship songs, “Hosanna.” Have a blessed Easter!