Issue #628 -------
August 7, 2014
A little philosophy inclineth man's mind
to atheism, but depth in philosophy
bringeth men's minds about to religion.
Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
The many mysteries of the universe in which we dwell, and the various problems and challenges which the world about us poses for its inhabitants to ponder and puzzle over, has always brought about a need among thinking men to find rational, logical answers to the perplexities of life. Where did we come from? Where are we going? What is the nature of man? What are good and evil? Why do good men suffer and wicked men prosper? Is there a God, or is man himself the ultimate conscious being? These are the types of questions which have confounded men of every generation. Many have found satisfactory, comforting answers to these questions within various forms of religion: Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the like. Others, however, have felt the answers provided by the world's religions are woefully inadequate. Therefore, men have devised various systems of philosophy in order to cope in a rational and logical way with these challenges. Some of these philosophies are somewhat spiritual in nature in that they acknowledge a Supreme Being of one form or another, and even advocate a morality that is above that of the world about them. Others, however, are blatantly materialistic and self-oriented, dismissing the concept of a Supreme Being as either ridiculous or simply unnecessary.
Many of the philosophies which either originated or were popular during the so-called "Intertestamental" period of history had a ring of logical truth about them. They sounded good, and they appeared at first glance to make tremendous sense. Thus, they were readily embraced by a large number of people who were having great difficulty finding any meaning to the seemingly meaningless existence they were experiencing. Some of these philosophies were so logical and popular that they even came to be embraced by the Jewish people, and later by many within Christendom. The apostle Paul warned the Christians living in Colossae not to be "taken captive through philosophy," or through teachings and systems of thought which have "the appearance of wisdom" (Col. 2:8, 23).
Paul should not be misunderstood here in this passage! He is not condemning philosophy per se, but rather the attitude that seeks life's answers in the teachings of mere men (philosophers) rather than in the teachings of the Lord God. Philosophy, to the degree that it sheds light upon Truth, or reveals Truth, is beneficial to us. It is when it detracts from Truth, or parades itself as Truth, that it becomes detrimental. Paul himself was well-studied in the philosophical thought of his day, and was even able to quote freely from these pagan writers and poets (Acts 17:16-31). It is only by understanding how other people think and reason, and by knowing what they believe and why they have come to believe as they do, that we can ever truly hope to reason with them and ultimately reach them with the Truth.
The following are some of the major philosophical systems that were prominent during the time of the "Intertestamental" period, as well as during the years which came afterward. Some of these are specifically mentioned and discussed in the pages of the New Testament writings, and all had a definite impact upon the thinking of the early church. Thus, our appreciation and understanding of various doctrines and practices presented in the New Testament writings will be enhanced by a familiarity with these foundational philosophies.
This was a philosophical system based upon the teachings of a native of Athens, Greece named Epicurus (341-270 B.C.). He purchased a house and garden near the market place in Athens in 307 B.C. and established a school at this location. Soon he had gathered quite a following. He is said to have written over 300 books, none of which are in existence today. His teachings spread to Rome after 146 B.C., and during the first century B.C. he became identified with the philosophy of Hedonism. In fact, some regard him as the founder of Hedonism.
Epicurus believed that true human happiness consisted in pleasure, so he and his followers devoted their lives to the pursuit of personal, individual happiness. This was considered the most important goal in life. One of his sayings was, "Pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily." It should be noted that for Epicurus the pleasures of the mind were considered to be more important than the pleasures of the body. Indeed, he tended to discourage the "lower, sensual delights" of the flesh. His concept of pleasure was the "lack of disturbance" in one's mind; the attainment of mental peace; the removal of emotional and psychological pain. In contrasting the flesh and the mind, he taught that "the intense, throbbing ecstasy" of the body "is less desirable than a tranquil state of mind." Perpetual peace of mind is superior to the fleeting physical pleasures of the moment. Thus, to avoid trauma to one's mental state, he promoted a simple lifestyle, simple foods (mostly water and barley bread), and little to no involvement in social or political matters.
The Epicureans did not deny the existence of God, or of gods; they merely believed that the gods, in order not to distract from their own happiness, simply did not involve themselves in human affairs. There was no ultimate standard by which men should live, thus there was no sin and no final judgment as an accounting for sin. Since there was no resurrection, and this life is all that is given to us, we should live in such a way as to achieve the most pleasure and the least pain. Epicurus wrote, "Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come; and when death has come, we are not." It's little wonder that in the only mention of this group in the NT (Acts 17:18) we see some of them "sneering" at Paul for teaching about "Jesus and the resurrection" (vs. 32).
A second philosophical group mentioned in Acts 17:18 is the Stoics, who were one of the most important groups of the Hellenistic period. This system of thought was established by a native of Cyprus named Zeno (332-260 B.C.). Zeno did not believe in a "personal, living" God, but rather that the universe was governed by "Absolute Reason." Nature was orderly, logical, reasonable; it obviously followed certain "laws." It was the "Law of Nature," or the basic orderliness of the universe, that Zeno would have defined as "God." Deity was not so much a living being which created and governed the universe, as it was a logical order that was inherent within the universe.
The highest goal of life, in Zeno's own words, was "living in agreement with nature." To be "god-like" one must live one's life governed by reason and logic, just as nature was governed. Virtue consisted of finding the "thrust of destiny (or nature)" and adjusting one's life to the natural order or course of existence. Passions and emotions interfered with logical behavior, thus mastery of one's emotions and passions became the ultimate virtue. Paul quoted Aratus, one of the stoic philosophers (from his poem Phaenomena), in Acts 17:28, and emphasized that the One, True God was not limited to the material world, nor was He the product of the thought processes of mere men.
Cynicism, like a great many other philosophies, evolved from the teachings of Socrates (470-399 B.C.), a great Athenian philosopher and teacher. One of the disciples of Socrates, a man by the name of Antisthenes (445-365 B.C.), was the actual founder of this philosophical movement. Socrates taught that the man who had only simple wants and needs was more likely to survive and prosper than the one who had numerous, elaborate wants and needs. In other words, the less you desire and require in life, the more likely you are to find genuine happiness.
The Cynics took this concept a step further and reasoned that in order to achieve the goal of absolute happiness and virtue, one should have no wants and needs at all. Thus, they sought to abolish all areas of human desire from their lives. To demonstrate that they had no respect for the standards of others, they abandoned all the standards of the society of their day. They dressed differently from others, talked differently, behaved differently. They allowed their clothes to literally rot off their bodies to demonstrate their lack of desire and concern for material things. Some have characterized them "the hippies of the ancient world."
The major flaw in their reasoning was their behavior was a demonstration of the desire to be different, and thus superior to others. This led to pride, which was not a virtue. Thus, by desiring to abandon desire, they had failed. Socrates criticized Antisthenes on this very point, saying, "I can see your pride through the holes in your cloak!"
Pyrrho of Elis (365-295 B.C.) was the Father of the Skeptics. He argued that there is no ultimate standard of right or wrong, but rather each man sets his own standard of what is ultimately right or wrong. He based his reasoning upon his observation of the nature of things in the world around him. For example, what may be considered right and proper in one nation, might be considered a crime and an abomination in another. Who is right and who is wrong?! The only logical explanation, he felt, was that both were right by virtue of the fact there is no ultimate standard. Thus, each man, and each society, becomes a standard unto itself. By eliminating an Ultimate Standard, one also effectively eliminated God. Thus, Skepticism is largely humanistic and atheistic in outlook. Cynicism and Skepticism both arose from the abandonment of outside and ultimate standards, although their emphasis was somewhat different.
This is a system of beliefs founded by the Greek scholar Plato (428-348 B.C.). Plato believed that everything in this world, whether it be a tree, a chair, an animal, or even a person, was merely a copy of the ultimate objective ideal. The real world (ours is just a shadow world) was the world of the IDEAL, which existed somewhere unseen by the eyes of mere men. In the real world there existed the ideal chair, tree, etc., of which all other humanly observable chairs, trees, etc. are merely imperfect copies or shadows. (Some see a parallel between this and the discussion in Hebrews of the eternal Substance versus the many temporal shadows.) Although Plato never knew of Christ Jesus, he might have reasoned that God (the ultimate IDEAL) chose to reveal the ideal man (Jesus Christ), of whom all men are mere imperfect copies. Thus, in Jesus the ideal man is revealed to a world of imperfect, shadow men.
Plato also taught that man is really an "immortal soul" (which is an imperfect copy of God's Spirit) trapped in a "prison" (a physical body). Plato's concept of the nature of man, specifically that he was an immortal being trapped in a fleshly prison, would have a tremendous impact upon the thinking of the religious world for centuries to come. In his work The Republic he wrote, "The soul of man is immortal and imperishable." Plato believed all men inherently possess an immortal nature. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the clear teaching of Scripture which states the Lord "alone possesses immortality" (1 Tim. 6:16), and that immortality is something men must seek after, not something they already possess (Rom. 2:7), and that they may only receive it as a gift by virtue of their union with Christ Jesus! This doctrine of man's inherent immortality, however, was soon embraced by some of the Jews of the "Intertestamental" period, and it began appearing in the writings of the Apocrypha. It also penetrated various segments of the early church, and in subsequent centuries developed into the cause of tremendous doctrinal confusion about the nature of man and his eternal destiny. For those interested in an in-depth study of this fascinating topic, I would encourage you to order a copy of my new book From Ruin To Resurrection. It is 310 pages in length (27 chapters), with a Foreword written by Edward Fudge, and available through a number of online sources (including Kindle ... as are my other three books).
For Plato, God was the IDEAL with regard to every conceivable quality and characteristic. Man, who was made in the image of God, and thus, he reasoned, immortal just like God, was an imperfect copy of God (the IDEAL). The goal of man was to renounce the imperfection of this world of copies (this shadow world), and through a life of reflection, meditation and self-denial, strive to merge with the IDEAL. The goal would ultimately be realized when we discard this fleshly prison (the body), in which our "immortal souls" (a phrase never found in the Bible) are trapped, and return to the world of the IDEAL. Few philosophies have had greater negative impact upon the clear teachings of Christianity, or have led to more false teaching and confusion, than have the teachings of Plato.
From a Reader in Georgia:
Al, this article ("John's Baptism of Repentance" -- Reflections #627) was awesome; you nailed it, brother! When we allow the context to define the word, rather than insisting on our own preferred definition (such as the baptismal regenerationists insisting "eis" = "for"), we draw closer to truth. When a word has several possible meanings (as "eis" does), I firmly believe it must be the context which guides us to the correct usage. This will undoubtedly upset some who have turned baptism into a sacrament. Unfortunately for them, as you have shown in your studies, the context is clear. Does this take away from the importance of baptism as a following through of a sincere faith? No! But, it does bring baptism back into the correct context of salvation being "by grace through faith." Again, awesome job on this topic; well done! I expect you will be hearing that phrase again one day!
From a Reader in Wisconsin:
Great article, Al. I have long pointed to this verse (Mark 1:4) and its use of "eis" in conjunction with a study of Acts 2:38. If one wants to truly understand the purpose of baptism, and what Peter had in mind in that verse in Acts, then Mark 1:4 must be considered.
From a Minister in Arizona:
Al, we may part ways big time when it comes to biblical eschatology (I hold to the 70 A.D. view), but as I've grown in my understanding it has led me to exactly where you are in this very article ("John's Baptism of Repentance"). In fact, I've been working on a study of Acts 3:18ff for the last couple of days, and it has supported the conclusion to which I came concerning this a year or two back. Thanks for sharing this insight on Mark 1:4, brother.
From a Reader in Tennessee:
Brother Al, you hit a home run with this article! Thanks so much for all the work you do!
From a Minister in California:
Al, Thank You for your writing ministry! It blesses us in so many ways.
From a Reader in Tennessee:
I really enjoyed this article!! In well over 30 years of listening to preachers and teachers I have never heard anything close to a discussion of the poor understanding of the use of "eis." What a shame that so much doctrine has been built on the foundation of a single Greek word that most don't even understand.
From a Reader in Tennessee:
Al, you are the best, most knowledgeable, minister I have ever heard or read. I have attended Churches of Christ all of my life until I became 71 years old (I am 81 now). I have studied the Bible in detail at Lipscomb, and before that, as a child, on my father's knee and sitting in my chair at home. I have taught Sunday School for 55 years, until I left the Church of Christ group. Brother, you have really studied the Truth, and you deserve a pat on the back and a hardy "Thank You!" for your hard work. Please keep up the good work you are doing!
From an Author in Texas:
"John's Baptism of Repentance" is another good one! I loved it! Thank you, brother, for this excellent article. Be baptized? Yes! But not in order to be saved, rather because you are saved.
From a Reader in Oklahoma:
I have a question for those who believe it is baptism that saves us: Isn't it Jesus, the Lamb of God, who does the saving? I find no Scripture that gives water that power. The father accepted the prodigal son immediately upon his return -- before he even had had a bath. Are these people saying God does NOT forgive and accept the sinner who turns to Him UNTIL he gets in the water? This discounts grace and one's faith in the Son, who cleanses us by His blood. Are grace, faith, shedding of blood all meaningless and powerless without baptism? Al, I am afraid many of our brothers are straining gnats and swallowing camels!
From a Reader in Texas:
Of all your articles on baptism, this one ("John's Baptism of Repentance") strikes me as being the most explanatory. Thanks for all the thoughtful digging into Scripture that you do, and for finding just the words I need. In your new book (From Ruin To Resurrection) I find the most helpful part for me personally is the section on the new heavens and earth. I always thought a hike in the mountains sounded better than walking on a golden street or sitting on a cloud singing hymns. The teaching that the earth will not be ultimately annihilated, but rather purified and made new like the Garden of Eden, offers me a hope that I previously could not have imagined. Being able to work in the garden, like Adam, and maybe having a horse to ride or a beautiful Bengal Great Dane that would never die, surely does "sound like heaven" to me! By the way, the ten copies of your new book that I purchased from you are now being distributed with much anticipation of usefulness. Thank you!
From an Author in California:
Bro. Maxey, enclosed is a check for a signed copy of your new book From Ruin To Resurrection. Your studious writing has been an invaluable service to believers! Thank you, and keep the faith!
From a Reader in Georgia:
Al, I hope you and yours are doing well. I just read your article on "John's Baptism of Repentance." Aaaamen!! Keep on keeping on, brother!
From a Reader in [Unknown]:
This article ("John's Baptism of Repentance") confirms my own thoughts that baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace. Thank you!!
From a Reader in California:
Thanks, Al. Nice message in your Reflections article on John's baptism and Mark 1:4. You have shown how we must be careful in our interpreting of a sentence: i.e., which words relate to which, and which way "cause and effect" goes. As you note, we need a broad understanding of all of Scripture (context) if we are to understand individual sentences.
From an Elder in Texas:
Have you done a study in which you define or distinguish the "one baptism" to which Paul is referring? I would be interested in your conclusions on this. I always enjoy your able and informative essays! Blessings, my brother!
I referred this brother to my following studies, which I believe will prove helpful in answering his question: "There Is One Baptism" (Reflections #505) ... "Immersed By One Spirit" (Reflections #353) ... "Putting On Jesus Christ" (Reflections #362). -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in Florida:
That was a great Reflections article, as always! It just hit me that if water baptism were redemptive, rather than reflective, then the water must have some very special power (which one would think would make it more valuable than gold). However, the fact that water is available almost everywhere, a very common element, obviously would have to make it reflective (of an inward change of heart) with no special intrinsic sacramental value in and of itself. Otherwise, every time I jump into my pool (where many have been baptized, by the way) I would be saved over and over again!
This reader is correct in saying that there is no special intrinsic value or power in the water itself. Water is just water. However, the "high church" sacramentalists (such as the Roman Catholics) would make a distinction between common water and "holy water" by declaring the latter is transformed by the special prayer/blessing of a priest. In this way it takes on special, even supernatural, powers and properties (with the same being said of the bread and wine of the Eucharist). Where the Protestants, and various evangelical and fundamentalist offshoots, would differ is: they don't see the elements themselves (water, bread, wine) being "holy," but rather the act. In other words, with respect to baptism, it is the act of being baptized that takes on certain sacramental qualities and characteristics (i.e., at the point of one's baptism in water God bestows His gift of grace ... and not a fraction of a second before). If God's gifts of forgiveness of sins, justification and salvation cannot be bestowed or received without this act, but only through this act, then the act itself becomes the very means by which God's grace is obtained, which makes the act sacramental in nature. The more biblical view is that neither the act (baptism) nor the element (water) is sacramental (in that it is the precise point of the divine blessing), but rather the act and the element are simply symbolic in nature: they represent and reflect a greater spiritual reality; a reality we have already experienced by grace through faith, and which our love and faith then prompt us to affirm and proclaim (give testimony to) in this evidentiary act. -- Al Maxey
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