Picking up from the end of part 2 of this series, wherein we are looking at arguments against a Trinitarian interpretation of John 1:1-3 as they are laid out in a series of posts from the site One God Worship, we come to the final part of that series, wherein the unnamed author (UA) purports to reveal the influence of Greek philosophy on second century interpreters.
As a matter of recapping the arguments so far, this series has focused on interacting with the grammatical concerns related to interpreting John 1:1-3 in the original Greek of the biblical text. As such, it has been noted that UA regularly makes arguments that either ignore the fundamental grammar rules of the original languages or cherry-picks translations that fit his arguments, without recognizing the subsequent considerations the relevant factors that fundamentally refute his assertions. UA is furthermore unaware of any bias driving his own assumptions and assertions as he regularly accuses others of having.
In his third and final entry on this subject, UA sets out to prove how certain factors of Greek philosophy, “paved the way for interpreting John 1 as proof that Jesus pre-existed in heaven as the Word of God.”
The Intersection of Philosophy and Theology
“Many of the Church Fathers were originally pagan philosophers who followed the teachings of Plato and others. When they converted to Christianity, instead of renewing their minds (as Paul instructed the Christian converts in Rome to do), they synthesized their Platonic-inspired worldview with that of Christianity. (footnote removed)
UA quotes from an article in the Cyclopeadia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, volume 10, wherein the author admits that among the early Patristics, there was a measure of embrace of the philosophical school of Plato. And while there is an aspect of truth to this claim, it fails to recognize that those early Christian fathers lived in what could be called the “second-hand smoke” of Platonic philosophy. The central failing in this line of argumentation is that it assumes that all of these believers had access to all the same information at the same time and this is simply a false supposition.
Platonic philosophy itself was seen, first by Jews such as Philo and later by Christians such as Justin Martyr, to be a common touchpoint with their beliefs, a perception that was shared by pagan Greeks looking into Judaism first and Christianity later. This often means that the influence of Platonism on the apologists of the second and third century has to be seen as secondary to their faith in Christ.
For apologists, such as Justin Martyr and Origen, their Christian faith brought coherence to what they already believed as Platonists, bringing harmony and sharpening the focus to their worldview rather than producing contradiction, thereby serving as something like a tuning fork to their mental instruments.
Further, UA’s argument fails to ask a fundamental question that underlies John’s original context as a Jew who lived and wrote during the second temple period. Namely with regard to how he might have understood his own argument in light of Jewish theology at the time.
Rather, the only question on UA’s mind is,
“What were the errors and corruptions that crept into the Church and influenced our understanding of God and His logos?
The Soul of the Matter
Citing Plato’s relationship with Socrates and his work Timaeus, UA notes that,
“…Plato believed that all souls literally pre-existed in heaven before coming down, incarnated on the earth.
“It was this belief in the eternality of souls that would make it possible for future generations to embrace the concept of Jesus’ pre-existence before being incarnated in Mary’s womb.
Well, in pre-Christian Judaism, discussion of the pre-existence of the soul can be traced back to as early as first century BC, with explicit statements being found in the apocryphal book of 2 Enoch. There is no doubt that this influence occurred in Judaism due to Hellenizing forces and exposure to Platonic philosophy. However, it is an over-simplification of both Platonism and the overall socio-cultural philosophical milieu of the early Christians living in Greek society, as well as being naive to assume that just because such a position existed that it was held by everyone who identified as such.
Interestingly, UA provides no substantiation for this claim. It’s just left hanging, asserted as if true. Now, to his credit, he does write,
“But this idea is foreign to the traditional Hebrew thought found in the Bible…
As I’ve noted elsewhere, in the biblical context, especially in the OT, the words that are often translated as either “soul” or “spirit” in reference to man, often refer to either a person’s emotional and intellectual faculties or what animates life in general. And while the Greek of the NT used the same language as Greek philosophy, the authors expressed no ontological distinction between body and soul, thereby maintaining conceptual consistency with their theological predecessors. Moreover, a key theological disconnect between Christianity and Platonism is the belief in a bodily resurrection. But UA doesn’t seem to recognize any of this as he continues,
“…where all things first “existed” with God in His plan or foreknowledge, but not in a literal sense.
This is simply asserted as fact without any corroboration. Also we need to note that UA wants his reader to conflate two related, yet distinct concepts: the plans of God and the foreknowledge of God.
That is to say that if “plan” here is equivalent to God’s decree to create the world (in the Reformed sense), and therein all of the causes, conditions, and orders of events in time, and from that his knowledge of those events and actors who would participate in those events then we can speak of God’s foreknowledge, but only in relationship to that decree. Moreover, whenever God’s “foreknowledge” is mentioned in Scripture, it is usually tied to people with regard to who they are and not what they will do.
UA does appeal to Scripture in order to provide justification for the claim that, “Scripture teaches that we are foreknown by God and a part of His plan,” first by appealing to Psalm 139:15-16, where the psalmist speaks of a “book” wherein, “the days that were formed for me” are “written”. The problem with this is that it simply reflects the idea in the mind of the writer that their destinies were certain due to a common belief in a kind of heavenly bookkeeping.
A second prooftext provided by UA poses a problem in that in the citation of 1 Peter 1:1-2, he highlights the prepositional phrase that begins v2, “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father”. This phrase is describing those who Peter has referred to in v1 as “elect exiles”. The “foreknowledge” indicated here indeed involves a plan on God’s part; however it also includes a purpose in being “elect”: obedience. What cannot be ignored is that the “plan” involves two others: the Spirit and Jesus Christ. Namely that Peter clearly indicates that the purpose brought about in God’s plan is to sanctify believers to obedience via the blood of Christ in the regeneration brought by the Spirit.
This text is especially interesting because it is clearly built upon a clearly defined, coordinated, thoroughly divine effort that involves God’s choice, Christ’s blood atonement, and the Spirit’s consecration of believers. This threefold work, while not fully developed Trinitarian doctrine, cannot be understood or adequately appreciated apart from it.
In other words, one of the very texts that UA is appealing to in order to substantiate his claims is built upon and only understandable in Trinitarian terms.
UA then appeals to Ephesians 1:3-4, in particular highlighting the phrase from v4, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world”. UA wants to center his argument in the timing of the choice rather than the fact and of the choice and the grace expressed in it. There is also a personal aspect that UA overlooks in God’s act of choosing, and that it’s in God’s choice to save a particular person, in a particular way, that God conceives of a plan of action by which to accomplish that salvation. And again, UA is blind to the fact that Paul’s benedictory statement is built upon, not merely the act or the timing of the Father’s choice, but the work of Christ and the Spirit in accordance to such as active participants, and thereby establish believers as an adopted family by Christ through the Spirit, an act that is only understandable and actionable in Trinitarian terms.
UA has to change translations for his final prooftext to support his argument, Revelation 13:8. Up to this point, UA has regularly been appealing to the NASB translation for his proofs. Suddenly he has had to switch to the KJV, as it reads,
“And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
Compare this to NASB,which he had been using up to this point which reads,
“All who live on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written since the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slaughtered.
Or even the ESV,
“…and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.
Commentators have noted that there is some difficulty in rendering the relationship of the timing phrase “απο καταβολης κοσμου” (apo katabolēs kosmou) due to the fact that there are two genitive clauses that it could possibly modify: either “the book of life” or “the Lamb slain”. The timing phrase refers to the creation of the world and poses this difficulty in application as it begins with a particle and not a preposition. The phrase is applied later to the “book of life” itself and lends itself to a predestinarian understanding in that case. However, if it applies to “the Lamb slain”, then it finds echoes in OT apocryphal ideas of mediatorship. However trying to understand the timing as a reference to simple foreordination in God’s plan, as UA wants to, is a forced interpretation as it would mean that it actually occurred outside of time.
This poses a problem for UA as he insists that, “the Lamb of God, wasn’t literally slain before the world was created,” when even a plain reading of the text in his preferred translation at this point, leaves one with just that impression. Furthermore, it serves to demonstrate that UA has not proven his claim that this is in fact a “classical Hebraic view of pre-existence” is demonstrable from the text. It is merely assumed.
Furthermore, there’s nothing in the text that would allow it. In fact, the author’s very words forces it to move the act from a figurative or idealized state in the mind of God to an actualized state that occurred in the past due to the main verb being in the perfect indicative form. The use of that verb form for the verb γράφω (grapho) therefore eliminates even the possibility of such an understanding.
Not to be derailed, but rather to ride the train of his circular logic at this point, UA cites two more passages, Acts 2:22-23 and 1 Peter 1:20, prefacing them by writing,
“He did not literally exist in heaven before the world began, as Plato’s followers would have understood it, rather, he was foreknown by God and a part of His pre-determined plan.
Aside from the overtly broad generalization of Platonist thought and its influence in the context of 1st century Judaism and second century apostolic father thought, UA is still assuming what needs to be proven.
Moreover, the difference in grammar needs to be discussed as Acts 2:23 uses nouns and 1 Peter 1:20 uses a verb. This means that while both are representative of the person speaking (Peter) they refer to different things in their respective passages.
In Acts, the focus is on the action of Christ’s crucifixion by the Jews at the hands of the Romans, and that God was not merely a passive observer, but an active participant in the proceedings. The determination that such acts would occur in time flowed from divine will, guaranteeing both the intentions of those who carried it out as well as justifying the outcome.
The passage from 1 Peter, can just refer to a divine plan, and doesn’t need to assume preexistence , if what one has in mind is a series of events that are designated to occur; however the notion of a preexistent savior existed in the tradition of the Jews at that time. Moreover, the passive form of the verb drives home its theological point: God intends to save and that is made clear in the coming of Christ. What it doesn’t equate to is any notion that UA asserts, thou tries by writing,
“In this passage, the apostle Peter could have written, and certainly would have if it were true, that Jesus pre-existed in heaven as God-the-Word. But neither he, nor any of the NT writers state this.
I often have to wonder if he remembers the text that he is supposed to be responding to, which is a text that makes that very claim:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
But he continues,
“Instead the text plainly says God foreknew Jesus, something that was also said of the prophet Jeremiah:
Jeremiah 1:5 (NASB) “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (emphasis original)
For this argument to be true then the Hebrew Qal form of ידע (yada) would have to convey the same meaning as the Greek verb προγινώσκω (proginosko) does in 1 Peter 1:20.
The problem here is that the Hebrew implies a choice made on the part of God that is reinforced by the fact that the prophet is also consecrated. Moreover, this choice was made in order for Jeremiah to hold the prophetic office. Also, God’s decision to commission the prophet runs concurrent with his existence in the womb of his mother, not prior to it. Furthermore, the Septuagint translators use the Greek verb επισταμαι (epistomai) in Jeremiah 1:5 thereby making UA’s assertion dubious if not dishonest upon close examination.
As I bring this part of this examination to a close, we have seen that UA often assumes what has not been proven. He is prepared to make assertions and not back them up with any evidence or additional argumentation. Moreover, when he does try to substantiate his argument, his prooftexting falls apart upon close inspection via exegesis of the text.
In the next installment of this series, we will examine his claims regarding Platonic influence on the development of the doctrine of the Trinity.
- “Trinity”. Cyclopeadia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, volume 10, edited by James M’Clintock and James Strong. Harper Brothers Publishers. 1881. p.553
- Abraham J. Malherbe. “Apologetic and Philosophy in the Second Century”. Light from the Gentiles: Hellenistic Philosophy and Early Christianity, Collected Essays, Volume 1. Brill Publishing. 2014. p.782-5
- Abraham J. Malherbe. “Towards Understanding the Apologists: Review Article”. Light from the Gentiles: Hellenistic Philosophy and Early Christianity, Collected Essays, Volume 1. Brill Publishing. 2014. p. 801
- Michael S. Heiser. “Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism: Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible”. Bulletin for Biblical Research, Volume 18, no.1. 2008, p. 1-30
- “Soul”. The Jewish Encyclopedia.
- Dennis Durst. “Soul”. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Lexham Press. 2016.
- Joel B. Green. Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible. Baker Academic Press. 2008. p.77-9/341 (Scribd)
- Green, p. 84/341(Scribd)
- Louis Berkhof. Systematic Theology. GLH Publishing. 2017. p. 45
- Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology. Zondervan Publishing. 2004. p.1557-8 (Epub)
- Shalom M. Paul. “Heavenly Tablets and the Book of Life”. Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society, volume 5. 1973. p. 345-54
- Karen H. Jobes. 1 Peter: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Baker Academic Publishing. 2005. p. 135 (Epub)
- Duane F. Watson and Terrance Callan. First and Second Peter. Baker Academic Publishing. 2012. p. 21
- Jobes, p. 138-43 (Epub)
- Watson and Callan, p. 22
- Frank Thielman. Ephesians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Baker Academic Publishing. 2010. p. 48
- Peter T. O’Brien. The Letter to the Ephesians. William B. Eerdmans Publishing. 1999. p. 186-7 (Epub)
- Thielman, p.52
- See Beale, The Book of Revelation (1999) p.1713ff (Epub), and Osborne, Revelation (2002) p.860ff (Epub) for discussions.
- Robert H. Mounce. The Book of Revelation (Revised Edition). William B. Eerdmans Publishing. 1998. p.443 (Epub)
- Grant T. Osborne. Revelation:Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Baker Academic Publishing. 2002. p. 860 (Epub)
- G.K. Beale. The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text. William B. Eerdmans Publishing. 1999. p.1713 (Epub)
- Craig R. Koester. Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Yale University Press. 2014. p.575
- William D. Mounce. Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, Second Edition. Zondervan Publishing. 2003. p.225
- Jaroslav Pelikan. Acts. Brazos Press. 2005. p.53
- Eckhard J. Schnabel. Acts: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament. Zondervan Publishing. 2012. p. 286 (Epub)
- Paul J. Achtemeier. A Commentary on First Peter. Fortress Press. 1996. p.131
- Watson and Callan, p.36
- John 1:1, ESV
- Terence F. Fretheim. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Jeremiah. Smyth & Helwys Publishing. 2002. p.49-50
- John Bright. Jeremiah: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Doubleday Publishing. 1965. p.6-7
- Fretheim, p.50
- Henry Barclay Swete. The Old Testament in Greek According to the Septuagint, Volume 4. Cambridge University Press. 1905. p. 223