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What Do We Know About the Influence
of Philosophy on the Church's Concepts
of the Omniscience and Being of God
in the Light of the Bible?

By Gordon C. Olson

Col. 2:8 - "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit..."

In our consideration of what we know apart from Biblical revelation, we pondered the yearnings of our minds as expressed by the Psalmist, "Give me understanding, and I shall live" (119:144). We concluded that a God who had manifested such amazing plans in the creation of the universe and man would certainly provide man with authoritative information on the whole scheme and relation of things. These many explanations from God would have to be in language that man could understand. Then we faced the promises, remarkable history, and claims of the Bible, and saw that it was a unique book and gave every evidence of fulfilling the longing expectations of our minds for truth. Happily, therefore, we came to its pages and have been reading from its treasures the mysteries concerning the Godhead. We are entirely dependent upon its revelations for our knowledge of the details of the unseen world. It is our source book. To it alone must we look.

I. So the apostolic church of Christ regarded the Bible and its truth. Socrates has been regarded as "the parent of philosophy." He gave impetus to a spirit of inquiry and a method of searching for truth during the last part of the 5th century BC. His pupil Plato worked out a philosophy under his influence nearly 400 years before apostolic times, his work had been carried on by Aristotle his pupil of 20 years. Greek philosophy was known by some leaders in the early church, notably the Apostle Paul, who was raised in Gentile surroundings. Nevertheless he wrote, that he "determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified," I Co.2:2. This is another way of saying that he had fully decided to stay with Biblical truth, as centered in the death of Jesus for the sins of the whole world. This is exactly where the Church of Christ should always have remained. God knew what he was doing when he gave us the Bible, and therefore its revelations should be enough. Paul rejoiced in the concept that, in Christ "are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge," Col. 2:3. He wrote this in the confines of a prison toward the close of his ardent ministry. In his extensive contact with Greek philosophy, it was in no sense to be given a place along side the revealed treasures of God. Philosophers said many noble truths, certainly under influence of the Old Testament writings, but they also hatched out many theories and therefore could not be looked to for final authority. The Bible, with its New Testament books coming forth from their inspired penmen could, and this is what the apostolic church did. Its enemies once said, "These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also," Acts 17:6. It must have been the simple Biblical concept of truth, as energized by the Holy Spirit, that was responsible for this phenomenal result, even as Jesus said, "the truth shall make you free," Jn. 8:32. Why was not the church satisfied to remain in this simple understanding of divine things? The theological confusion of the church must ever remain the mystery of the ages. A paralysis and impotence set in which has largely prevailed down through the annuls of history to our day.

II. The Bible was given with the intention of being plainly understood. The New Testament was written in the colloquial Greek of the common people, not in the Classical Greek of the scholars. The most obvious meaning is the one intended. We are not to become mysterious and give long complicated interpretations of plain statements. Long commentaries on simple assertions are uncalled for and unnecessary. God's plain Word should be enough. Deductions of common sense were to be relied upon. For example, Paul made an all-inclusive statement in Acts 17:30-31. The fact that God commands it "in righteousness" should forever settle the matter of the freedom of man's will. Man is able of himself to repent or God would not have commanded him to do so, on pain of eternal death for not doing so. What endless complications would have been spared in the last millennium and a half if this had been heeded!

III. The early church fathers begin to give too much attention to the realm of philosophy. The word "philosophy" simply means the love of wisdom, and is generally applied to those who investigate the facts and principles of reality and of human nature from a human intellectual point of view. It is basically an elevation of the human mind to the place of supreme authority, and generally has endeavored to go beyond what man is capable of comprehending. It endeavors to place theory on top of theory and thus deduce the mysteries of the unknown. The Apostle Paul wrote a word of warning about the maneuvers of philosophy in Col. 2:8, but some of the succeeding century leaders did not heed it very well.

Justin (the) Martyr (about 100-165) was an enthusiastic admirer of Plato before his conversion, and while he regarded his new-found faith in Christ as supreme, he regarded Platonism as a preliminary stage to Christianity. He doubtless exerted an influence in favor of the philosophical approach, even though he may not have gotten very far afield himself.

Clement of Alexandria (about 150-220) called philosophy "a sort of preliminary discipline for those who lived before the coming of Christ ... perhaps we may say it was given to the Greeks with this special object; for philosophy was to the Greeks what the law was to the Jews, -- a schoolmaster to bring them to Christ." Errors and corruption began to creep into the church more and more. It has been written: "There are many imperfections in Platonism: its low idea of sin, its notion of matter as the origin of evil, its ignorance of atonement and grace, its frequent tone of uncertainty, etc., but its excellencies are many and great."

Origen (185?-254?) of Alexandria wrote about A.D. 250 the first systematic treatise of Christian theology. He "sought to create, with the aid of the philosophy of his day, a science of Christian doctrine whose systematic structure should be equal to the systems of the philosophers." He certainly greatly furthered the trend of theological speculation and has been considered to be in error on several important doctrinal points, particularly on the person of Christ and his speculations on the Trinity. He developed the allegorical form of interpretation at great length with all its vagueness, or the system of interpretation that regards Scripture statements as involving mysterious meaning rather than plainly stated facts. This opened the door to almost any sort of visionary interpretations and led to an endless search for hidden meanings, rather than acceptance of the most obvious meaning.

IV. In A.D. 313 Constantine and his Coemperor Licinius granted to the Christian Church freedom of worship. As late as 303 to 305 A.D. determined attempts had been made to stamp out the church by terrible persecution. It has been said that "the number of martyrs which it produced was greater than all of the men who had died for the faith of Jesus Christ from the beginning to the year 300." Christianity now became favored by the state, with the emperor a professed member. By 380 Christianity had become the exclusive religion of the state. Any who would hold any other religion was subject to punishment. Most of the population of the Empire became members of the Church. The great majority did not have the vivid spiritual birth that the New Testament church had insisted upon. It had to have an established clergy who specialized on a speculative theological education. It did not have the simple preaching of the Gospel "with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven," as Peter spoke about. Formality of worship took the place of real spiritual joy and heart worship. Shall we be astonished at the great influx of intellectual speculation which was fostered during this period?

Preachers for the most part were not bent upon reconciling the hearts of sinners to the living God through the simple atonement of Christ. They were bent upon pacifying men's minds by amazing deductions. The early church did not attempt to work into the unrevealed mysteries of God, but accepted at face value the simple concepts of the Bible. The Bible was their guide--not philosophy nor philosophical statements. Anyone who undertakes to review the unending attempts to word-down the inscrutable doctrine of the Trinity, and the interrelation of its personalities, can see for himself how far afield they went. A technical article was recently written under the intriguing title, "Hip Boots for the River of Words," and we certainly need "hip boots" to wander back through the maneuvering of men's minds when they should have been satisfied with simple statements of Biblical truth.

This restless curiosity began to tamper with the natural attributes of God. We have seen from a few representative passages on the subject that the Bible presents the Godhead as living personalities who are inseparably connected with time. Personality is the equipment to do something with. To do anything involves succession. It is a process of putting one thought after another, one action after another, one reaction after another. We cannot form any concept of personality that does not have the area of time to operate in. We are created in the image of God according to the Bible statement, and have a right to understand this much as to the functioning of God's personalities. But thus the Bible describes the being of God in plain assertions. Our only authority, the Bible, the only key to the certainties of the unknown world, pictures God as living in time, as having successions, as having a past, a present, and a future, as having thought and acted, as now thinking and acting, and as planning future activity. Where is the clear assertion to the contrary? If God cannot exercise great intelligence and form a new decision today which he had not formed before, what right do we have to say that he ever could have done so. This is the very meaning of prayer.

We confess our sins in great humility and are directed by faith to the cross of Christ that we may be forgiven today, right now. As God forgives us he is moved with compassion and as a result fills our hearts with blessing. This is grace. When in distress we beseech God to consider our situation and grant help in our present hour, it is in expectation that he will actively look upon us and take action according to promise. When in the struggles of repentance the will seems so tragically free and unstable, and we are conscious that we hold the destiny of our choice in our very hands, theologians have speculated that this is not so, that everything is in reality fixed, that we are deceived in our consciousness of freedom and terrible responsibility, that every action that we shall ever take throughout eternity is now a fixity and is inerrantly known to God and has always been so. And here is the total incompatibility. Although the future is absolutely fixed, it is said, so we are seen right now within the confines of either heaven or hell, we can nevertheless manifest our freedom and change this fixed destiny, although God, who supposedly does not live in time, foresees it as a certainty. Some go a step further, as did Augustine in the early 5th century, and assert that God knows every event that is coming to pass simply because he is the cause of every such event. And yet, amazingly enough, man is supposedly accountable for every event that God so induces him to bring to pass! Augustine (354-430) was bishop of Hippo (396-430) in North Africa, and had his great controversy with Pelagius, from which Semi-Pelagianism arose as appearing to be the more Biblical view. God moves upon man toward holiness and obedience, but man has been given the power by virtue of his creation in the image of God to frustrate the will and purpose of God. It is the power of contrary choice, which alone can account for the tragic world of strife about us in the presence of a good and righteous God.

Forsaking the obvious, simple, conscious meaning of free will, theologians became curious as to whether this self-consciousness was not after all deceptive. In connection with their theories on the existence of God, they affirmed that the future did not involve uncertainties or contingencies. And yet we are not to believe in fate--certainly without fate!

Theological speculation has also brought forth a concept of God to their own making. They have imported from the curious speculations of philosophy, and from the concept of infinity in mathematics, ideas that they have applied to God. They have constructed a God who is so-called "eternal now", or who lives in the past, present, and future all at once, or who is above time. God is supposed to be able to move into the realm of time at any moment and perform acts in time without time being vital to his existence, and then become timeless again. God is supposed to know every action he will ever take through all eternity, and is always supposed to have known this, and yet is supposed to have made the decision "let us make man," etc. If God cannot have a new thought now and as a result make a new decision now, what right do we have to think that he ever could have had a new thought or made a new decision?

So on these theories of God and man, not only is man a subject of fate but God himself is also a subject of fate. I should most certainly like to see a systematic and thorough-going investigation of the Bible that would come up with Proof of these tremendous ideas, taking Biblical language at its face value as God intended us to take it. If this thinking has been complicated, let us remember that it is not the Bible which is responsible, but the snow-ball effect of rolling up the philosophical maneuverings of centuries. Let us put them to the test of the Word of the living God. There, happily, we are relieved of these complexities and find a God who has the simple qualities of personality. Although great beyond all words in intelligence and power, He pleads with sinners with great compassion, "Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions ..." Ez. 18:30-31.