Review: From Plato to Jesus: What Does Philosophy Have to Do with Theology? @Kregelbooks

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“Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, bor drink water from a well. We will go along the King’s Highway. We will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” (Num 20:17 ESV)

]] is a Baptist minister “fully committed to the evangelical tradition.” This singular thought keeps running through my head as I read this work, especially when I read the kindness, nay, admiration, bestowed upon the likes of ]], ]] and ]], his admission in the open theism debate (233) and his denial of cessationism (265-266; 272). I don’t mean this to be derogatory, but in a way, it makes what the author says that much more valid. He is coming from both a conservative theological stand point and an unbiased notion of what philosophy is and for that, Pate is to be lauded. Further, he is able to show that through his philosophical method, he is able to find a proper balance which many of us, frankly, lack in our theological positions due to our denominational pasts.

The book is neatly divided into two parts, with the first part serving as an overall introduction to a mostly Western history of philosophy and the second part showing how to put what our ancestors in the field have worked out into action in regards to (re)building Christian theology. After a brief introduction which shows, easily enough, that the Christian can wear the philosopher’s pallium (as Justin is famous for, actually), Pate rehearses the history “From Socrates to Sarte.” The author takes the four eras of philosophy and introduces the reader to the main players as well as their ideas. For the author, it comes down to essentially two world views. Either philosophers tend to go with the one over the many or they go with the many over the one. Pate sees the danger in this and calls for a balance, or, the one in the many, which is why he has such a favorable view of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant, those philosophers who have helped at one time or another to restore the metaphysical balance. This view is easily tied to the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the one (God) in the many (humanity). Throughout this first section, it is difficult not to notice the great depth of knowledge which the philosophers have given the world and it should quickly become apparent to the reader why the study of this science is essential to our minds. It is difficult not to see the route of where Pate will go with part two.

I do have so issues with the first part. First, he chalks everything on one extreme up too easily to pantheism and never once introduces the thought of panentheism which I happen to believe would play well into his thesis of of the one in the many. This leads to my second issue which is that with the exception of several Islamic philosophers (which were Spanish and still Western), the intellectual decedents of Aristotle, the philosophers mentioned are  Western. I would have liked to seen Eastern Christians brought into the mix, especially given the exclusion of panentheism. Finally, and this is nothing more than a historical pet peeve, but Pate, when discussing Locke, confuses the Declaration of Independence with the U.S. Constitution, specifically with the mention of life, liberty and happiness (Jefferson, who had nothing to do with the Constitution, was a follower of Locke, employing the previous generation’s greatest mind to the writing of the Declaration of Independence). This would not be his last foray into bad history, however, as he accused the 1835 work, The Life of Jesus, of influencing Jefferson’s so-called bible (1820). Even this minor quibbles, which are more subjective (exclusion of the East and panentheism) than objective (except for the latter), Part I is a tour de force as an introduction to philosophy proper and well worth the book.

Part II begins by discussing the Incarnation. Now remember, for Pate, the Incarnation is the supreme example of the one in the many, his philosophical viewpoint, so it is only natural for him to begin here. He takes the reader through the various extremes, from an almost denial of Jesus’ humanity to the denial of his divinity. This is taken through the various eras of philosophy, while he shows how each era moved the balance a little off. Of course, he comes to use Aquinas, and thus Aristotle through Aquinas, significantly to address the imbalances of certain theological strands. From Christology, he moves to Theology Proper, through General and then Special Revelation, to the Trinity, Anthropology, Divine Sovereignty, Ethics, Ecclesiology, and right before his conclusion, Eschatology. Each section is somewhat the same, although Kant seems to be moved further and further out of existence so that Aquinas reigns supreme. Each section is masterfully done and speaks well to the very human capability of exploiting one side or the other. I do have my disagreements, but they are with some of his outcomes, and not his methods. And to be sure, his motivations. Indeed, for Special Revelation (II:8) I tend to go with Tyrone Inbody and consider Pate here to be somewhat errant. Not that he has too, but he makes this up with his consideration of Hauerwas, Open Theism, and the Sacraments. He uses ]] and Calvin, Aquinas and others to either mystify the reader, or to show that balance can actually be achieved. His allowance, especially in the Atonement (II:12) for a variety of different views, including Catholic, shows a mind that is well measured in what he advocates. Throughout each topic, Pate travels through the eras, refutes the balances, and draws a tighter conclusion.

I started this review by noting my amazement that Pate could write in such a profoundly philosophical way, especially coming from a conservative evangelical background; but the truth is, is that after reading him, I feel somewhat out of balance myself. I look at these sometimes disparaging views which we have of one another – conservative, liberal, moderate; Methodist, Baptist, Catholic; traditional, emergent, mystic – and I have to wonder if Pate’s work here couldn’t offer us come guidance in our ecumenical fellowships. By this, I refer to his constant focus on the one in the many, achieving a balance between the two extremes, something he has repeatedly shown is not just possible, but profitable. Perhaps this work on philosophy is a philosophical work showing us how we can achieve a balance which has, in the past, been product in other ventures.

There is much to be learned here and employed. Pate has delivered a masterful work on the overview of philosophy, from Plato to Jesus, and beyond. More than that, however, Pate gives us examples of how Philosophy can be used in Christian theology not to the detriment of it, but to the betterment of it. He seeks balance, not in some holistic, Eastern way, but through the denial of the extremes and the dangers which they have produced. Both fundamentalists and liberals suffer in this process, and as well they should, due to their often unbalanced methods. He shows no hint of partiality, except to that of the one in the many.

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