Christianity and Intellectual Freedom: Part III, the New Testament


In Part II of this series of posts, I made the argument that the Old Testament is a set of foundational texts for the development of intellectual freedom. That argument was based on the idea that God’s law provides a stable and ordered universe in which the boundaries of possible action are able to be discovered and mapped out. Flowing from that idea is the development of the rule of law, illustrated in Israel’s universal application of the Mosaic law. Just as God limits himself by his natural law decree, so too was the king in Israel limited by the open knowledge of God’s codified law. I want to continue to develop these thoughts by moving into the New Testament and the way its writers developed these ideas. Just as with the Old Testament, I assert that the New Testament is a set of foundational texts for the development of intellectual freedom. To advance this argument, I’ll focus on three concepts in this post: (1) the Logos, (2) the Natural Law, and (3) the dissenting conscience. 

The Logos

The term logos (λόγος) is most recognizable from a Christian perspective because of its usage in the prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-18) and its identification of Jesus as the Logos, or Word, of God. Before John’s Christological application of the term, logos had established but diverse applications within both Greek and hellenized Jewish philosophy. First expressed by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, the term came to take on the meaning of the rational principle by which the universe is ordered. A similar meaning was developed, albeit somewhat inconsistently, by Plato in several of the myths he develops in his dialogues. Aristotle backed off, somewhat, from Plato’s metaphysical theory of logos. Later, the Stoics would reignite the metaphysical emphasis along lines similar to Heraclitus with their idea of logos as the eternal divine reason. Finally, Philo of Alexandria–a contemporary of Jesus and the apostles–applied Greek thought to Jewish cosmology in which the logos represents the divine source of all that exists. To be clear, there is a certain commonality that runs through each of these, however there is diversity also, even within the body of work for each of these writers. It is almost certain that John was aware of this history when he applied the term to Jesus. 

My purpose here is not to present an exhaustive history of the term logos and its various uses throughout the philosophical and theological literature. Although, I have tried to link to enough sources to get any reader started down that path. Instead, what I want to focus on here is the idea–whether in the context of the God of the philosophers, or of Christology–that the universe can be perceived, interpreted, and understood because God has acted within the universe in such a way as to make it so. When Jesus said, during the Sermon on the Mount, that he did not “come to abolish the law or the prophets” but rather “to fulfill” them (Matt 5:17), I think he was saying something very specific that was consistent with John’s application of the logos to his identity. Significantly, John identifies the Logos as the Creator himself (John 1:3). That is that the logos is neither demiurge nor impersonal force but is the active reason and word (both legitimate translations of the grammatical λόγος)  of God himself. It is not a demiurge because it is of God, and it is not impersonal because it is God–thus we move from logos to Logos. 

While God’s Law (Greek νόμος) points towards God’s reason (λόγος), it is not coterminous nor identical to the Logos. I think one way of putting it is to say that the Law presents us with inductive and abductive evidence for the Logos. Stated another way, if we were capable of fully comprehending God’s Logos, then God’s Law could be deductively derived from the Logos. Of course, we are not capable of fully comprehending God’s Logos except insofar as he has revealed it to us either through an explicit revelation of his Law or, as John’s Gospel points out, by direct revelation through his Son. Thus, when Jesus said he was not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, I think he was making a kind of evidentiary argument to a Jewish audience that could understand the evidence. But these are not the only two revelations we have recourse to. 

The Natural Law

While some of my friends in the Reformed Protestant traditions have tended to resist natural law thinking, at least as I perceive it, there are good reasons to accept a doctrine of natural law. Not the least of those reasons being that there is good biblical evidence supporting it. The most obvious and probably most cited instance being Romans 1, where Paul writes that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are “understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rom 1:20). Those who lean Calvinist in their soteriology will usually reply that this knowledge is necessary for guilt but not sufficient for salvation. For now, I will decline the invitation to engage the never-ending debate and simply read this text in conjunction with Acts 17. There, in Paul’s address to the Areopagus, he seems to indicate that this general revelation in natural law can lead to a definitive knowledge of the true God who is responsible for it. And reading this in conjunction with John’s prologue, that God must by necessity be the Logos, through and by whom God created–that is, Jesus. Thus, like the Law proper (“law and prophets” in Jesus’ words), natural law presents as inductive and abductive evidence for the Logos. Contra Calvin–and his later interpreters–it seems inescapable to me that the natural law points to the Creator, who by all orthodox accounts is the pre-incarnate Christ-as-Logos. It is inconsistent and incoherent only to then claim that the knowledge of Christ obtained in this fashion is insufficient for salvific grace. 

At this stage, I am in danger of travelling down a theological digression that is only tangentially related to my major argument here, which is that, like the Law revealed to Moses and fully revealed/fulfilled in Christ, so too the natural law revealed in creation is fully revealed/fulfilled in Christ. And furthermore, no matter which starting point you choose: Eden, Noah, Abraham, Moses or the natural revelation, you still end up at Christ as the full embodiment of divine Reason. In this sense, I don’t think I am too far off from Barth’s doctrine of the Word of God. I would even go one careful but speculative step further and say that this view of the Law, the natural law, and Christ has a certain affinity to trinitarian thinking in that the specific revelation of the Law and the general revelation of nature are both fully embodied, experienced, and demonstrated in Jesus. Of course, I still haven’t explained how I think all of this relates to intellectual freedom. That comes by tying all of this together through the concept of the dissenting conscience. 

The Dissenting Conscience

One of the major developments accomplished by the New Testament writers, particularly in Paul, is the universalization of biblical religion. We often get caught up in trying to figure out what Paul was saying when he pitted the law against the gospel. In Paul, this issue comes up often in the context of Jewish and Gentile believers together (c.f., Gal 2:11-21; Rom 2:17-29; 2 Tim 1:8-11). In a lot of the discussion that has taken place over the centuries, the law and the gospel have been cast as opposing forces. I do not think they’re opposing forces at all. Everything revealed in the Bible is the gospel. When Paul spoke of the law and the gospel, he was contrasting the Law given to the Jews at Sinai with the gospel he preached to Gentile believers. Essentially, I read him as telling Gentiles that they do not have to become Jews in order to be Christian because they’d already arrived at the right conclusion about Christ through means other than the Law (i.e., natural law). Whether they believed in Christ by recognizing him as the Logos or as the fulfillment of the law and prophets, the end result is the same. If they’d come to faith absent the Law, then adopting Jewish customs amounted to taking unnecessary steps, nothing more than returning to one’s point of origin just to take a different route to a destination already arrived at. Both the Mosaic Law and the natural law are sufficient means to the necessary end, neither mutually exclusive of the other but neither requires the other either. All that is necessary, in the end, is to believe in Christ and who he is (c.f., 1 Cor 15:3-7).

This is important in that both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were dissenters from the wider culture, both Roman and Jewish. Both of them had arrived at the same dissenting opinion based on (theoretically) separate bodies of knowledge. One group via a directly-revealed law, the other by perceiving God through the things he had made. In terms of intellectual freedoms, this means several things. First, it means that people can come to the same conclusions based on different evidence, implying that God has given us the ability to reason . . . for a reason. Second, it means that people can disagree–even vehemently–on particulars while agreeing on broader issues. Third, it means one can dissent without being disloyal to the wider culture, system, or regime. Jewish Christians were no less loyal or faithful to their Jewish culture. Nor were Christians generally disloyal to the Roman government simply by the fact of their Christian faith (c.f., Rom 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13, 17). Finally, it means that an objective and true standard of things like right and good, ethics and morals, does exist and is accessible to everyone in such a way that, at the very least, we can even have a discussion about what is right, good, ethical, and moral. The imprimatur of the Logos is not just stamped on each one of us but is discernible through the things we know and experience. Like God’s law in the Old Testament, this presents as a common basis upon which to reason. 

The existence of a common basis for reason is often overlooked as a source of freedom. In our individualistic way of thinking about and defining freedom, we too often want to believe that being without boundaries is the definition of freedom. However, as the Anglo-American political tradition has long recognized, true liberty only exists as ordered liberty. The existence of the Logos and his natural law define the boundaries of our existence and, just as importantly, these boundaries can be known and understood if only we’re willing to look. That means being intellectually free to explore them (non-destructively, of course) as well as to debate them, but, importantly with a recognition that they do exist and exert a certain power over us. 

Conclusion

I realize this post was a bit more theological and speculative, so if you made it this far, thank you for sticking with me. As I said in the original post in this series, I’m writing in order to try working out these thoughts. You are essentially reading my thinking as it develops on these issues. Also, I abandoned the footnotes and academic format in this post in favor of a format more typical of blogs with links to related information. If you have read previous work and prefer this format, please drop a line in the comment box and let me know. Unless readers (not that there are many) pine for a more academic format, I’ll try sticking to a more blog-ish format in the future. 

This post has tried forwarding my underlying argument that Christianity forms the only rational basis for intellectual freedom by examining issues within the New Testament context. Specifically, I argue that the philosophical concept of logos provided a basis in the Gentile world for a recognition of natural law in the biblical context. Like the direct revelation of the Law at Sinai, this Logos-centric natural law provided both a rational basis for objective discovery of truth as well as a rational basis on which to come to faith in Christ during the evangelization of those outside the Jewish context. This forms a basis for the dissenting conscience based on a discoverable and objective knowledge of truth from different bodies of evidence. In the next post, I will move on to the early centuries of the Church.

7 thoughts on “Christianity and Intellectual Freedom: Part III, the New Testament

  1. So, correct me if I am wrong, but taking into account the major influence of Jewish and Christian thought through history, we can say then that Christianity influenced greek and roman philosophies like Stoicism and Platonism (Like Justin Martyr said), if so, to what extend? Or there is no comparison between Christianity/Judaism and other philosophers (Like Tertullian said)? You mentioned Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Stoics, and Philo, but are there deeper influences we can find in other philosophers? Or are these the only philosophers in which we can observe the influence of Judaism and Christianity?

    1. Hi Miguel,

      Thank you for interacting, and my apologies for not responding sooner.

      I would not claim that Judaism and Christianity influenced Greek and Roman philosophy. I don’t think that is what Justin meant in his attempt to “baptize” Plato. Rather, I think that what Justin saw in Plato was his ability to recognize truth–however distorted–and since all truth belongs to God, Plato’s philosophy was directed God-ward, even if Plato didn’t know it. I think Justin probably thought Plato did know it, but in an incomplete way. I would say something similar regarding the various parallels that writers have asserted between Christian thought and Stoicism (although it ought to be remembered that, unlike Plato, Stoicism was a contemporary philosophy of early Christianity).

      You’ve got me to jump ahead a little bit. I plan on covering these topics more in the context of the early Christian centuries. However, to answer your question, I do not dismiss or discount the ability to discern some truth-value or, at the least, some lesson or knowledge in non-Christian philosophies. For example, I’ve mentioned Marx a time or two on this blog. While I do not think that anyone can be a consistent Christian and call themselves a Marxist, I do think that we can learn things from Marx. For example, Francis Schaeffer called Marxism a form of Christian heresy in the sense that it addresses problems recognized by Christianity but in a distorted way.

      As for philosophy–classical or otherwise–I think we can similarly find value in them as well as recognize that, to the extent that they’re genuine endeavors to discover truth, they can discern things that are true and good and right, even if they are missing much of the context and meaning that is supplied by the biblical worldview. I guess one way of putting it would be that non-Christian philosophies can be fairly accurate descriptions of reality but with significant gaps. Here I would agree somewhat with the Calvinist distinction between common and special grace. I think that what those philosophies and philosophers discovered was true in the Romans 1-2 sense. I tend to draw less of a stark line than Reformed traditions and rely more heavily on a natural law perspective. Essentially, I’m advocating a universally-discernible natural law along the lines of C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man.

      I hope that addresses what you were driving at. If not, let me know. Thanks again for the interaction!

      R.

  2. This has been an interesting series, and certainly nothing I have thought of before, but I am honestly not entirely following you. Let’s take this from the opposite direction. If the stability rooted in the Judeo-Christian God did not exist, then people could not dissent? Or that people would have no grounds for arguing against censorship? I am not quite seeing the connection you are making between the Biblical examples and intellectual freedom. It is thought provoking though.

    As far as your format, it depends on who your target audience is. If you are writing for your more academic peers, then your old format would be good. If you are trying to reach a broader audience, I would suggest keeping the current format. I personally keep a document on my computer with any non-online sources I quote from for future reference, just in case anyone would ever ask. I doubt they will. Or perhaps I will revisit the topic someday and want to re-read some of that information.

    1. Hi Kevin,

      I appreciate the criticism. I will dedicate my next post to trying to make what I’m thinking more clear. My apologies. Like I said, this is still a somewhat undeveloped idea in my mind and these posts are functioning, at least in part, to help me get this idea out. Thanks for bearing with me.

      As for my point, I’ll try to put it in brief terms. Basically, I’m saying that the existence of a universally discernible standard of right, or good, or just, or whatever term you want to insert, is a necessary precondition for having any kind of public debate or discussion.

      In a sense, yes, I’m saying that not having an ordered universe with the ability for everyone to apprehend that order would prevent dissent. Otherwise, from what and to what would that dissent be directed?

      I’ll try to make that a bit more clear. Thank you again for the feedback!

      R.

      1. No need to apologize. I started my blog for much the same reasons, to work out my own thoughts and hope that others might benefit. I think I am understanding where you are leading, but look forward to you next posts.

Leave a Reply to Colorful Sisters Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s