Philosophy & Religion

One of the hottest theological topics is Calvinism and Arminianism. The debate divides churches, and denominations like the Southern Baptists have been at odds over it for some time. One thing that bothers me about this whole discussion is that it seems to operate from a mistaken understanding of divine and human agency.

In his excellent introduction to the volume Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment, John Barclay outlines three models of divine and human agency, two of which are relevant to this issue:

1) Competitive: In this model divine and human action negate each other. When God acts the human is passive; when the human acts God is passive. Barclay writes, ‘Divine sovereignty and human freedom are mutually exclusive; human freedom must be understood as freedom from God’ (p.6).

2) Non-contrastive transcendence: According to this model, divine sovereignty indicates that God works outside the realm of the human agent. Humans act out of their own freedom. The two agents do not negate each other since they operate on different levels. Barclay writes, ‘The two agencies stand in direct, and not inverse proportion: the more the human agent is operative, the more (not the less) may be attributed to God’ (p.7).

The debate about Calvinism and Arminianism operates in the first model. Both views treat the two agents as opposing agents. Calvinists stress divine agency, not only because humans are sinners, but because any action that is attributed to humans impinges on God’s sovereignty. Arminianists emphasise the human agent in order to uphold human freedom. In both views the actions of one agent impinge on the other. True human freedom is only established and maintained in the absence of divine action. Conversely, divine freedom and sovereignty is only established and maintained in the absence of human action.

I wonder, though, if this competitive understanding of divine and human agency is right. Paul’s view seems more in line with the ‘non-contrastive transcendence’ perspective when he writes of grace (1 Cor 15.10) or the Spirit (Rom 8.4-13) working in him and believers in general. Paul holds that human action is established and maintained precisely because God is at work in believers. It is not an either-or, but a both-and. In his book Faith and Perseverance Berkouwer writes,

Preserving ourselves is not an independent thing that is added paradoxically to the divine preservation. God’s preservation and our self-preservation do not stand in mere coordination, but in a marvellous way they are in correlation. One can formulate it best in this way: our preservation of ourselves is entirely oriented to God’s preservation of us. (p.104)

If we shifted the philosophical model behind the Calvinist-Arminian debate, I wonder if it could bring about different conclusions and clarify how the salvation process works and the place of the divine and human agents in it.

I’ve been poking around recently in Greco-Roman philosophy and found this website as a quick resource for looking up stuff: The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  While it’s not much more detailed than wikipedia, it is ‘professionally peer-reviewed’ (at least it says it is).

I’m sure we’re all still trying to get over the Judaism-Hellenism divide, so this detailed and extensive annotated bibliography by Greg Boyd concerning the possible influence of Hellenistic philosophy on Christian theology will be helpful.  It ranges from NT to patristic and includes a wide variety of views.  One can’t miss his emphasis on the free will/determinism issue.

My esteemed collegue John Goodrich, recently pointed me to this collection of Greek and Latin classical texts online, along with a collection of other helpful items.  Many are old Loeb translations that have gone out of copyright.  They include: Dio Chrysostom, Plutarch, and many more.  Enjoy.


While doing some reading on the Stoics, I came across this interesting discussion about Calvin and the Stoics.  He wrote a commentary on Senaca’s On Mercy (1532).  Sellars writes:

In his own preface, Calvin defends Senaca against both ancient and modern critics, proclaiming that ‘our Seneca was second only to Cicero, a vertiable pillar of Roman philosophy’ (Battles & Hugo, 11).  Having worked on the text so closely, Calvin was inevitably influenced by Seneca, whether positively or negatively, but the extent to which Seneca’s Stoicism contributed to Calvin’s later religious thought is much harder to determine.  Some have suggested that Stoic notions of determinism and an internal moral law helped to shape his religious outlook (Beck, 110), and others have gone so far as to suggest that ‘Calvinism is Stoicism baptized into Christianity’ (see Battles & Hugo, 46*), but no doubt the truth of the matter is somewhat more complex than this emphatic statement claims. p. 142

John Sellars, Stoicism (Bucks, UK: Acumen, 2006).
FL Battles & AM Hugo, Calvin’s Commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia (Leiden: Brill, 1969).
LW Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and his Predecessors (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1969).

…on the problem of evil, a recent debate in San Francisco.  See here for the audio.

A few of us have started taking out different lecturers for lunch to pick their brains about academic life in the UK and other things.  Last term we had an enjoyable lunch with Prof Robert Hayward, who teaches ancient Judaism and OT. I had the pleasure of sitting in on his Genesis Rabbah midrash reading group last year. 

One of our common questions is what books would one recommend for PhD students, especially for those in biblical studies.  For the most part he didn’t give specific books, but he recommended specific areas of reading.  These are: 1) the main Dead Sea Scroll documents, 2) something on church history, 3) something on enlightenment, 4) something on the development of scientifc thought in late 19th c. and critical methods for the Bible study, and 5) post-modernism.  He thought people should understand the factors that influenced the rise of marxism and fascism in the 2oth c., particularly because their fruit has been so murderous.  It wasn’t what we were expecting, but I thought it was good to have reminder that we don’t need to get so tied up into just one small area of thought and to think more widely about the faith.

Last week I went to Durham’s Religion and Society Seminar and heard Steve Bruce from a sociologist from Aberdeen speak about the ‘Future of Religion in Britain’.  He showed a clear decline in british church attendance over the past 100+ years but no corresponding increase in other religions.  There is some growth, and even a proliferation, of alternative religions, but no popular adoption of these.  The only growth in the UK has typically been only through birthrates, though some new style churches in large urban areas are doing better, but these only represent a very small percentage.  He then offered his analysis of the decline:

His primary thesis is that religion is not innate but rather a cultural construct.  Thus when the cultural supports for Christianity were dismantled due to modernism and post-modernism, Christianity in western Europe began to decline.  In particular, he argued that the egoism, or individual consumerism, that is the basis of the british mind is what is now the context.  This mindset fights against the ‘universal truth’ and institutionalism basis of organised religion.  This is evident from the growing hostility against religion, especially among those that are younger. 

Being a cultural construct, Bruce offered the comparison to that of a people’s language.  When the language is dominant–both parents speak it, the neighbors speak it, the children can easily marry others who speak it, etc.–the language will survive and prosper.  He offered (Welch/Scottish) gaelic as the most dominant parallel.  With English (secularism) as the dominant language, gaelic (Christianity) is increasingly spoken only by those who either 1) live in an isolated area or 2) who choose to.  Eventually, those in group 1 will dwindle and so will those in group two.  Group 2 is what will eventually be where Christianity ends up.  He offered the fact that the US, even with its high egoism/individual consumerism, still has a strong subculture of relgious activity.  He noted particularly, that in the US one can go to fundamentalist education from birth to PhD without any serious interaction with those outside one’s tradition.  With the educational structure in the UK, this would be very difficult. 

This is a difficult pill to swallow, and it comes from a decidedly secularist point of view.  I don’t whole heartedly accept his thesis, but the evidence seems to strongly support it.  It does give one a diffrent view of one’s religion when it isn’t the dominant perspective.  His thesis depends on the egoism of postmodernism remaining dominant, but just as all dominant philosophical paradigms change so will this one.  The question is how long this individualism can survive.  But even beyond that point, I hold a supernatural faith that includes the work of God beyond philosophical worldviews.

Here’s an interesting passage near the very end of Plato’s Timaeus on the proper care of the soul…

#48. Fitness of Mind… ‘As we have said more than once, there are housed in us three distinct forms of soul, each having its own motions. Accordingly we may now say, very briefly that any of these forms that lives in idleness and fails to exercise its own proper motions is bound to become very strong; hence we must take care that these motions are properly proportioned to each other. We should think of the most authoritative part of our soul as a guardian spirit given by god, living in the sumit of the body, which can properly be said to lift us from the earth towards our home in heaven; for we are creatures not of earth but of heaven, where our soul was first born, and our divine part attaches us by the head to heaven, like a plant by its roots, and keeps our body upright. If therefore a man’s attention and effort is centered on appetite and ambition, all his thoughts are bound to be mortal, and he can hardly fail, in so far as it is possible, to become entirely mortal, as it is his mortal part that he has increased. But a man who has given his heart to learning and true wisdom and excercised that part of himself is surely bound, if he attains to truth, to have immortal and divine thoughts, and cannot fail to achieve immortality as fully as he is permitted to human nature; and because he has always looked after the divine element in himself and kept his guardian spirit in good order he must be happy above all men. There is of course only one way to look after anything and that is to give it its proper food and motions. And motions that are akin to the divine in us are thoughts and revolutions of the universe. We should each therefore attend to these motions and by learning about the harmonious circuits of the universe repair the damage done at birth to the circuits in our head, and so restore understanding and what is understood to their original likeness to each other. When that is done we shall have achieved the goal set us by the gods, the life that is best for this present time and for all time to come.’ (89e-90d)

Rather than his typical discussion of the city-state in comparison to the human, in the Timaeus Plato discusses the creation of the universe in comparison to the human. With his use of the terminology of a ‘creator’, ‘father’, ‘demiurge’, etc., his description of the creation of the world continued in popularity with the church because it sounds very monotheistic at its core. As one of Plato’s later writings, it retains the dialogue format but really in form only because Timaeus and later Critias give extended speeches about their respective subjects.

[I'm working from the Penguin Classics version by Desmond Lee, 1977. It is divided into sections, which I mark with '#' as well as the line numbers of the Stephanus 1578 Edition.]

#1. Setting: a discussion by Socrates, Critias, Timaeus, and Hermocrates. Socrates begins by quickly summarising his view of the ideal city state. This includes having a separate ruling class who are only involved in leading in both internal and external affairs. They would have proper training and all property would be communally owned. There would be no husband-wife relationships, but all would be in communal relationships. Accordingly, all adults would be the parents of all children. The conclusion of this discussion comes when Socrates notes that this is just an ideal, but that it is incomplete because it has not been exhibited in a real city.

#2. Critias then brings up the story of Atlantis before it was destroyed in the sea. He gives a brief description and sets up the later speech by Critias that will show how the city-state described by Socrates did exist in Atlantis. However, they wanted to see how this city-state fit within the world, so Critias nominates Timaeus to describe the creation of the world up through the creation of mankind. Then Critias will then return to Atlantis. So Timaeus (T) describes the following:

#3. T gives the basic division between ‘that which always is and never becomes from that which is always becoming but never is. The one is apprehensible by intelligence with the aid of reasoning, being eternally the same, the other is the object of opinion and irrational sensation, coming to be and ceasing to be, but never fully real’ (27e-28a). The world came to be because it is visible, made by the ‘maker and father of this universe’ (28e).

Main Section I: The Work of Reason ~ focusing on the creation process
#4. The framer of this universe ‘was good, and what is good has no particle of envy in it; being therefore withoug envy he wished all things to be as like himself as possible’ (29e). ‘In fashioning the universe he implanted reason in soul and soul in body, and so ensured that his work should be by nature highest and best. And so the most likely account must say that this world came to be in very truth, through god’s providence, a living being with soul and intelligence’ (30c). There is one living universe that contains all things.

#5. The body of the world is spherical and it is composed of earth, air, fire, and water. #6-7. Like all motion, the motion of the world is caused by it having a soul. This soul is composed of rings of Same and Different that explain the motion of stars, sun, moon, and the planets. #8. There are four kinds of living creatures: gods, birds, water animals, and land animals. The gods include the heavenly bodies (sun, moon, etc.) and the gods of mythology.

#9. The gods are not by nature immortal because they are created, but they will never taste death because of the strength of the maker’s will. The gods then are the agents of mortal creation: ‘There are three kinds of mortal creature yet uncreated, and unless they are created the world will be imperfect, as it will not have in it every kind of living creature which it must have if it is to be perfect. But if these were created and given life by me, they would be equal to gods. In order therefore that there may be mortal creatures and that the whole may be truly whole, turn your hands, as is natural to you [the gods], to the making of living things, taking as your model my own activity in creating you’ (41d). Mortals then are a mix of immortal and mortal.

#10. The soul of a mortal is of the same substance of the world soul. A person starts as a man, but if he doesn’t lead ‘a good life’, he will return as a woman. Accordingly, women return as ‘some animal suitable to his particular kind of wrongdoing’. Good living is subduing irrational feelings. #11. When the gods made humans the mixture of soul with the mortal caused confusion and it was difficult for order to reign in the midst of chaos, causing evil. #12-14. The head is the seat of human soul, which we can see by it’s being the most spherical. And sensation of sight is in the head.

Main Section II: The Work of Necessity ~ focusing primarily on the physical aspects of the universe
#15. Not only is reason (or intelligence) directing the world, but necessity as an indeterminate cause (or something irregular or unpredictable) as influences the world. #16. There is not just the two realities: being and becoming, but also a third–the receptical of becoming.

#17-20. There was originally chaos until the maker brought things to order by the four elements. The four elements are not different substances but a substance with different qualities, as we can see by their changing from one to another (e.g., water freezes). These qualities are formed inside of Space (the receptical). So there are 1) the Forms, which are unchanging (‘being’), 2) the Copies, which are modeled on the forms (‘becoming’), and 3) Space, ‘which is eternal and indestructible, which provides a position for everything that comes to be’ (52b).

#21-26. The four elements are ultimately 3D shapes, made up of different combinations of different right triangles–showing Plato’s reliance on mathmatical concepts for his thought. And as the triangles break down and are reassembled, they form a different element. ‘Rest and equilibrium are always associated, and motion and equilibrium always dissociated.’ (57e). #27-36. Varieties of compounds and sensations are caused by the mixture of the different elements and their shapes.

Main Section III: Reason and Necessity Working Together ~ focusing again on human physiology and divine intention
#37. There are two kinds of cause: divine and necessity. ‘All these things [the nature of the physical described in MSII] were so constituted of necessity and teh maker of what is fairest and best in the realm of change took them over when he produced the self-sufficient and perfect god, using this type of cause as subordinant but himself contriving the good in things that come to be. We must therefore distinguish between two types of cause, the necessary and the divine. The divine we should look for in all things for the sake of the measure of happiness in life that our nature permits, and the necessary for the sake of the divine, reflecting that without them we cannot perceive, apprehend, or in any way attain our objective’ (68d).

#38. The human soul is made up of reason, emotion, and appetite. The first is element is divine, the latter two elements are mortal. ‘An since they [the god's who formed humans] shrank from polluting the divine element with these motal feelings more than was abolutely necessary, they located the mortal element in a separate part of the body’ (69e). Emotion is connected with the heart, and the appetites in the belly. ‘The part of the soul which is the seat of courage, passion, and ambition they located nearer the head between the midriff and neck; there it would be well-placed to listen to the commands of reason and combine it forcibly restraining the appetites when they refused to obey the word of command from the citadel’ (70a). Timaeus goes on to explain the functions of the differnt human organs and structures in #38-42.

#43-48. Speak of growth and decay, the cause of sicknesses, and the source of being fit. Essentially, balance in the elements within a person is the source of health and unbalance is a source of disease and sickness both phycially and mentally. For proper health, proportion between physical and mental training must be balanced and not one over the other. #48. With the three divisions of Soul, one is most encouraged to focus his thoughts on that of the immortal aspect.

#49. ‘The men of the first generation who lived cowardly or immoral lives were, it is reasonable to suppose, reborn in the second generation as women; and it was therefore at that point of time the gods produced sexual love…’ (90e). Other animals were formed from other men who produced certain faults. Fish are the lowest life form.

Critias begins to explain how the lost city of Atlantis exemplified the ideal city-state of Socrates, even though it was the enemy of Athens. He describes how it was created by Poseidon, who had children by a human woman. Much time is spent talking about the general structure of leadership and the structure of the city layout. Then the story stops abruptly in the midst of the discussion of how the Atlantis society began to degrade. It is thought that Plato decided this story wouldn’t capture his thought in the best manner so he gave it up to work on his Laws.

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