What Plato’s Cousin Knew

Theological disputes are often matters of great moment, even when those outside the dispute cannot track with what is going on. I think it was Gibbon who once displayed his ignorance by saying that the debate over homousia and homoiousia was somehow over the letter i — which is pretty similar to saying the debate between atheists and theists is over the letter a.

But at the same time, theologians are capable of talking past each other simply because they are used to different terminology, or perhaps because they are worried about the trajectory of those who use that other terminology. Take, for example, the distinction between natural revelation and natural law.

Now before opening this particular worm can, I want to acknowledge that two positions represented by these phrases can be quite different indeed. But this is a historical fact, not a logical one. I believe the two essential positions can be collapsed into one another with 5 minutes of questions.

Say you are comfortable with the phrase natural revelation. You believe that the triune God of Scripture revealed Himself through the things that have been made, and that this fact leaves all men everywhere without excuse. It sounds to me like this is an ethical obligation, and another fine word for natural ethical obligation would be natural law. Honoring God as God is not optional, and it is therefore law.

Say you are comfortable with the phrase natural law. Laws do not arrive by themselves, coming from nowhere in particular, but rather laws come from a lawgiver. And the giving of law is a form of communication, is it not? One might even say that communication reveals things — natural law is therefore a form of natural revelation.

No, no, no, someone will cry. Cornelius Van Til disagrees with John Locke and Thomas Aquinas. And I cheerfully grant it. This doesn’t mean that the hearts of the two positions are inconsistent. The God who reveals Himself through the things that have been made, and the God who embeds His law in the natural order of things, and even deeper in every human conscience, is the same God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of The Lord Jesus Christ.

I mean, the source of natural law is what? The true God or another one? Right, it couldn’t be another one, because he isn’t there — non-existence presents certain barriers. This means that the source of natural law would have to be the true God, there being no other options. This means the world and the Word are not two books from two gods, but rather two books from the one and the same God.

Now this does not mean that we somehow have to induct Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle into our honorary Christian hall of fame. We know too much about what they taught to put them on the “same page” with us, as some overly charitable Christians have sought to do. But it does mean we have to accept Plato’s cousin, the one who studied with rabbis at Westminster East for a bit. There were plenty of pagans who knew about the Most High God — Jethro, Nebuchadnezzar, Melchizedek, the king of Nineveh, and others, not excluding Plato’s cousin. I called them pagans, but it would be better to call them Gentiles — those for whom God reserved a special place in His Temple. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves.”

When special revelation tells us that a hymn to Zeus — declaring that we are all His offspring — is a hymn that is tracking with something good, then special revelation is telling us that natural law, and natural revelation, and special revelation provide us with a three-fold testimony to the triune God. No autonomy anywhere, no neutrality anywhere, and the ghost of Van Til, who haunts my dreams, is perfectly happy with me. So is the ghost of C.S.Lewis, who visits me in my waking hours. Not only that, but those two get along with each other now, and this gives me the chance to say something I have been aching to say for years, which is, “I think we’re all saying the same thing, really.” Of course, you can only say this every once in a while, like every decade or so.

This is just like the two kingdoms issue. I don’t care how many kingdoms you think there are, I care how many kings you think there are. I don’t care how many forms of “natural” communication you believe have happened, but rather how many gods you think fit under the heading of “Nature’s God.” There is only one — the true God.

The problem arises when advocates of either position adopt, for whatever reason, a silo mentality — a silo that they will not allow to connect at the top with what every form of creational law or revelation must connect to, the Lord Jesus. Ardent Vantilians can give the raspberry to natural law theorists because of party spirit. And natural law theorists can reject the rigor of Vantilian thought because they imagine a generic Enlightenment God spending eternity humming “Don’t Fence Me In.”

But it all connects. All of created reality is Christian at the top, and for the consistent Christian, Christian at the bottom. All of created reality is Christian at the top, and for the Gentile, partial at bottom. All this is just another way of saying that natural law is just fine if Jesus is the Lord of it.

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9 comments on “What Plato’s Cousin Knew

  1. “Ardent Vantilian” sounds like a great comic villain.

  2. Still trying to shape my lips around “pagan Melchizedek”. Abel too?

  3. Perhaps this is a symptom of the scale of the task of figuring out the Bible. Some brave explorer lands on the eastern shore, and another on the western shore. They give the same continent different names and bring a different culture. I haven’t read a great deal of theology, a fact which sometimes lets me down, but other times allows me to see beyond the quibbling and name dropping to the heart of the matter.

    What if we turned back to Genesis and followed the order given to us? In Genesis 1, Adam is a physical creature, part of the created order. In Genesis 2, the focus zooms in on Adam to tell his story as a social creature. This involves cutting flesh and reuniting flesh, something which did not occur with the animals. Genesis 3 tells the story of Adam as an ethical creature, one who is not only to represent the created order to God above, but to represent the heavenly order to the creation below. Of course, this is where he fails.

    If we thought of revelation/law/order in the same categories, it might be more helpful in sorting out our terminologies and associations.

    The entire created order was destroyed — all flesh — when the sin of Adam, who represented all flesh before God, was full grown.

    To avoid another physical cataclysm, God cut flesh in circumcision and the history deals with a social creation, that is, Israel and her Tabernacle as a microcosm of the physical world. The revelation at this point is fundamentally social. When Israel sins, the flood that comes is not water, but the restless sea of the nations, first Babylon, then Rome. This explains why the prophets use “creation” language in their “social” judgments.

    History moved to an ethical revelation at the baptism of Christ and the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost (head and body). The serpent was finally crushed, and the revelation given to us now is the mind of Christ, not an inflexible moral code but an organic, living, adaptable one (which is why the Pharisees had so much trouble with Jesus — they did not understand the spirit of the Law).

    So, all this talk about natural law could be better founded upon an understanding of this basic revelation as man as the pinnacle of creation. This is enough to leave men without excuse, because those men who had nothing more than this brought a flood upon the entire world.

    So, we have:

    Physical
    …..Social
    ……….Ethical

    but history is a chiasm, and following through deals with two heinous doctrinal misunderstandings: paedobaptism and hyperpreterism. Of course, I cannot resist completing the chiasm.

    ETHICAL: Jesus fulfilled the ethical demands of the “social law” and began the age of ethics, the era of obedience in the Spirit.

    SOCIAL: But in doing so, He created a new social body, one that was not like the old social body which concerned the cutting of flesh. It is a body of those indwelt by the Spirit because their hearts have been cut. This exposes paedobaptism for what it is. It’s a hangover from the old “social” revelation: the cutting of Adam to construct a bride. This New Covenant body does what Adam was supposed to do. It does not represent the physical creation to God, or represent a moral code to its counterpart. Filled with the Spirit, it represents God to the social and physical orders with plenipotent authority — the mind of Christ. Baptism is about mediation and representation as a co-regent with Christ. The New Covenant sociology is entirely different to the Old. It works from within, not from without.

    PHYSICAL: To complete the chiasm, the physical order must be restored. This is not what we are working towards because it is beyond our power. Our domain is the transformation of individuals and culture. The natural laws themselves are currently instruments of cursing, which is why the last enemy that will be destroyed is death. AD70 was only the end of the old social order, not the end of the corrupted physical order, although each level is a cousin of the other.

    So, we have:

    Physical (Noah – one world)
    …..Social (Abraham – one nation)
    ……….Ethical (Christ – one man)
    …..Ethical-Social (Christ+Church – all nations)
    Ethical-Social-Physical (Christ+Church+World – God all in all)

    This shows that if the Church is basically the same kind of body as Old Covenant Israel, then Pentecost did nothing. The Gospel has to be reduced to faithfulness to a moral code rather than an indwelling moral life (which is what makes the Federal Vision so confused.) And it shows that if the physical order with its natural revelation is not restored, then the work of Christ is not complete. Jesus created the physical world and it must be included in His work of redemption. The restoration of the natural order will complete the vindication of Jesus to unbelievers. They will then be without excuse, having had the testimony of the Spirit and the witness of the Church.

    The process of Covenant history (as forming and filling) is a very big stone, and it just killed two ugly birds.

  4. My only complaint is still with you saying that you’ve become comfortable with the terminology of natural law theory. What difference does terminology make? That’s like saying you’ve become more comfortable with people using French. Van Til was criticized for using idealist philosophical language instead of (if I recall correctly) analytic philosophical language. His defense was the same: what difference does it make what vocabulary I use as long as it’s Christian in content?

    You can’t say just, “Well Christ is the king of natural law.” If Christ is king of natural law, then certain things cannot be true. If natural law theologians truly let Christ be king of their natural law theology, it wouldn’t be natural law theology anymore, because they would have expunged the nonChristian presuppositions from it.

    ” This means that the source of natural law would have to be the true God, there being no other options.” Right. And natural law theology *as it is formulated* brings with it anti Christian presuppositions. It presupposes the existence of the generic Englightenment god. “Well, make God the god of natural law theology!” But then it isn’t natural law theology anymore. Natural law theology is used to describe a theology that assumed man’s mind is basically ethically neutral. Just renaming something natural law theology just because it has “Nature” and “law” in it doesn’t do any good; then you’re just using a term (natural law theology) to describe something it’s never been used to describe.

  5. Simply brilliant Pastor Wilson!

    Keep pressing on!

  6. More at Mike Bull than at pastor Wilson): Infant baptism is believers’ baptism, for infants are saved by faith, so to deny infant baptism and infant communion is to throw out sola fide (justification by faith alone). So make sure you preach the gospel to your infants, so they can hear and believe, and later on express their faith.

  7. Beautifully said. I would only add that like the elephants of the old joke, it’s Christian all the way down.

  8. Andrew,

    Infants might be saved by faith alone, but as I’ve heard someone else say, saving faith is never truly alone. Several things bear fruit out of it. So some works must be manifest from true faith. Is that true with infants?

    This is coming from someone who truly goes back and forth on the issue.

  9. Matt,

    Yeah, saving faith is active faith: Jesus, and Paul and James, did things. An infant can’t do much (John the Baptist jumped for joy in his mom’s womb). My sub-3-years Sophie has said “Jesus loves me best,” and she sometimes offers someone something she thinks they want. I pray she (and I) mature in showing faith, but maybe she’s started.

    Above I wanted to offer Mr Bull a quick reason, on his own terms, to change his view of infant baptism. (The rest of what he says is rather interesting.) I think the Bible’s doctrine of infant capacity is rather higher than what humans tend to assume infants can do (“did this man sin…so that he was born blind”?!?!?) Logic offers 3 possibilities, or perhaps more: (1) infants are lost, (2) infants are saved other than by faith, or (3) infants are saved by faith however limited their ability to show their faith. From Bible, and also logic, I draw (3); I think there’s experiential evidence for it, but I don’t claim to have come up with it by observing infants. Some big name theologians, including Augustine and Calvin, have ascribed faith (or its seed) to infants–”Infant Salvation” by one Firey, c. 1901, has a chapter on Infant Faith. (I glanced at a copy in the Covenant College library, and cited it in “Feed God’s Babies” somewhere in my blog, if you love scrolling, and in my dead web-archived? website http://www.lohr84.com.)

    FWIW. Yours in Christ Jesus, from Andrew

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