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Plato, Paul, & Augustine

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 ASK THE PASTOR BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor, Oakwood Presbyterian Church

      Question: “Some people claim that the Apostle Paul and some early church theologians like Augustine were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, in particular the writings of Plato. Is this assertion of Platonic influence on the writings of Scripture and Christian theology accurate? How does this affect our view of the inerrancy of Scripture?

     Answer: These are excellent questions. I'll separate your question about the Apostle Paul from the one about Augustine since one deals with the doctrine of inspiration and the other doesn't.

 1. Paul - The question you raise goes to the heart of our understanding of how God inspired men to write the Scriptures. One view, that few hold to anymore, is that of "mechanical inspiration" - the idea that the writers of Scripture were passive and had no personal involvement with the revelation given to them by the Holy Spirit, lest their sinfulness corrupt the pure truth being communicated in writing through them (for instance, some believed that their writing took place while they were in a trance of some sort). The widely accepted view is that of "organic inspiration," which states that the Holy Spirit superintended the entire context of the writing of the Scriptures so that what Paul and the other authors of Scripture wrote were exactly what God intended to be written. This fits the Biblical teaching on Providence, which states that God sovereignly controls every moment and event of history, even our free choices as human beings.

The Holy Spirit used Paul's training, experiences, culture, and temperament as elements in guiding him to write down the truth inerrantly. We can see how Paul's personality, education, and context are reflected in his writings, and those factors must be studied alongside Scripture so that we can interpret God's Word accurately. Just as there is the mystery of God's sovereignty and man's choice in the doctrine of election (we freely choose Christ because we were first chosen by God) there is a similar mystery in the doctrine of inspiration (Paul freely chose his exact words because they were first chosen by the Holy Spirit).

There were many true ideas in the writings of Plato and other classical Greek philosophers and writers. As a matter of fact, my philosophy professor in college, a Christian, saw so much truth in Plato that he expected to see Plato in heaven, based on Plato's remarkable grasp of the truth that could be known before Christ's birth (I disagreed with him vehemently...it got me thrown out of class one day!). I would attribute the truths found in the teachings of pagan philosophers and false religion to be a result of God's common grace and general revelation through creation, as well as the vague echoes of God's special revelation in Scripture that have spread through most civilizations in history. It doesn't surprise or bother me that Paul, led by the Spirit, would take the proverbial baby out of the bathwater of classical philosophy, refine it in accordance with what God had revealed, and then communicate that absolute truth in similar terms.

One clear example of this is in John's Gospel, chapter 1, where he calls Jesus "the Logos" (the Word). This was a popular term in Greek philosophy, which referred to an impersonal rational principle that governed all of life. John purposely used this term from his culture, but, by the Holy Spirit's leading, added to it the truth that the powerful force of Reason and Light that governed the universe was actually a divine Person, the Lord Jesus Christ, and He had taken on human flesh and dwelt among us. John, like Paul, was a student of philosophy, history, and culture, but his writing wasn't shaped by those forces - instead he shaped that knowledge and experience to fit what the Spirit had revealed to be true.

 2. Augustine - the issues are, of course, different with Augustine, because he didn't write under the Holy Spirit's inspiration and his writings aren't inerrant. As a matter of fact, there are quite a few things in his writings that I don't believe are consistent with Scripture. But I do believe that, like other great theologians such as John Calvin and Martin Luther, he was given an extraordinary insight into what God had revealed in Scripture and was used by God to formulate and clarify doctrines of Scripture for the benefit of the church for these many centuries since.

Again, he was a student of the classical Greek and Roman philosophy and worldview and saw much truth in it. There are undoubtedly places in his writings where he is more influenced by his classical studies than he was by his Biblical studies, just as there are clearly places in his writings where he was influenced by unBiblical teachings that had been embraced by the Church in that day. As with any author writing about Scripture (instead of writing Scripture itself), we must carefully compare everything he writes with God's Word, accepting the good and rejecting the bad. As we do so, we must be vigilant to try to discern the non-Biblical philosophies and values that have crept into our own thinking.

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Faithfulness in Showing Up

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BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor, Oakwood Presbyterian Church   

     I came across an interesting quote in the newspaper the other day - Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.” Of course, I wouldn’t expect much more from a pragmatic atheist like him; he’s the same guy who once said, “What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.” But is there any truth to the idea that the biggest part of being successful in life is just being where you are supposed to be when you are supposed to be there?

     Of course, you must do more than just show up to be successful in almost any activity in life. So, I guess, for Mr. Allen’s statement to be true, we’d have to define “showing up” as not only being where you are supposed to be, when you are supposed to be there, but also doing what you are supposed to do. But then that begs another question – who decides the where and when, and who dictates what you are supposed to do? Does the answer to that question change depending on your context – sometimes it’s your boss, sometimes it’s the police, sometimes it’s your spouse, etc.? Or are you the one who ultimately determines the “supposed to”s of your life? And, finally, what is “success?” Being wealthy? Being powerful? Being popular?

     If you are a child of God, isn’t it a relief to find the answer to those questions when Jesus Christ invades your life with His grace and power? Being not only your Savior, but also your Lord, He is the one who wisely and lovingly guides you to where you are supposed to be, when you are supposed to be there, and what you are supposed to do in life. “Success” means for you the joy and peace of knowing and serving Him.

    Okay, now that we’ve properly qualified all the terms in Mr. Allen’s statement (qualified to the point that he not only wouldn’t recognize the statement, but would also, no doubt, disavow it!), let us look at it again: “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.” Within the standards of Christ’s Kingdom, I would say that sounds a lot like plain old faithfulness, one of the most underrated Christian virtues. Success for us is not only found in doing the right thing, but in doing it consistently and reliably – in season and out of season, when it gives pleasure and when it gives pain, when it makes us popular and when it makes us outcasts. Eddie Murray, the long-time first baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame, in spite of the fact that he had many good but never any great seasons, statistically speaking. Jayson Stark, a baseball commentator for ESPN, explained his vote for Murray by saying, “He was the same guy every day, every year, every decade…one of the most important qualities any great player can exude is dependability. And Eddie Murray was one of the most dependable players of all time. He was one of those rare players in life whom you could look at in spring training and know exactly what you were about to get over the next six months.” It is the same way in the kingdom of God. The Lord isn’t looking for intermittent and spectacular service in His name; He’s looking for dependability… faithfulness.

     Success in the kingdom comes not to the most gifted or the most dynamic, but to the most faithful. It is the essence of Christ-likeness; as Hebrews 13:8 puts it, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Isn’t that what we mean when we call the Lord our “Rock?” He’s steady, dependable, unchanging… He’s faithful.

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