A terrific introduction to the similarities and differences between Paul and other philosophers.
I have been interested especially in how Christianity interacted with Stoicism. This book has much to offer in that regard. The various contributions are balanced and wise.
Recently, I interviewed C. Kavin Rowe on his influential book, One True Life. There is an entire chapter in Paul and the Giants of Philosophy dedicated to looking at the strengths and potential weaknesses of Rowe’s book. That chapter alone made this book a worthwhile read.
For the first half of this book, I felt the author was a bit redundant. That criticism probably still stands, but I found the second half of the book terrific. It’s not that the first half is worth skipping over. It still offers much, but I think the examples of dying and rising with Christ could have been reduced.
I greatly appreciated the illumination Miller brought to bear from ancient history. His exegesis of some key passages is also well done.
In a minister’s recent sermon (outside our hometown), he made a common error that I have heard many Christians make. I thought it important enough to write him. To his credit, he responded favorably. Here is what I wrote:
In today’s sermon, you mentioned the importance of looking back rather than forward. I agree but was concerned about where you described our spiritual anchor should be placed. You instructed us to look back at times “where God was faithful.” In that regard, you mentioned two things: your wife rebounding from a perilous situation, and your friend receiving a favorable answer with unexpected help.
I certainly believe God answers prayer. My journals are full of many examples. I don’t think it wise, however, to tether God’s faithfulness to getting the answers we want. I know you don’t believe this, and you later said bad things happen, and we die, but it was not clear that God is faithful irrespective of whether the circumstances turn out in our favor.
This is why I try to steer clear of using the word “when” with God’s faithfulness other than describing the completed work of Christ. Asking about “when God was faithful” at least raises the question of when He might not have been.
God certainly answers prayer in the ways we desire at times, but what about when He doesn’t? He is still faithful. Thinking about God’s faithfulness with when He answered a prayer in the way we desired results in at least wondering whether God is faithful when the favorable answer never comes. Again, I know you believe God is faithful irrespective of us getting a favorable answer to prayer, but I don’t think it was clear.
I’ve heard many times, as I am sure you have, a fellow Christian describe how God favorably answered their prayer with the commentary “Isn’t God good?!” or simply “God is faithful.” Yes, God is, but not just when He answers one’s prayer favorably.
Yes, we look back, but we look back to the finished work of Christ. That is where our anchor should be placed. Nothing or no one can take that from us no matter how bad things get (Hab. 3:17-19).
Your evident desire to honor God made it easy to send this note, so for that, THANK YOU!
Your Brother in Christ,
In 2003, my commentary on Ecclesiastes was published. In it, I included a few lines from Stephen Crane’s poem about the utter indifference of nature to man’s plight:
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
a sense of obligation.”
Like nature, secularism is eerily silent and offers no hope:
“The epidemics [during the early Church] swamped the explanatory and comforting capacities of paganism…”
“Indeed, the pagan gods offered no salvation…Galen [distinguished medical researcher, born 129 AD] lacked belief in life after death. The Christians were certain that this life was but prelude. For Galen to have remained in Rome to treat the afflicted would have required bravery far beyond that needed by Christians to do likewise.”
(From Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity)
And then there is Jesus:
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Jesus raises and answers the most important question of life.
The Black Plague (1348-49) brought terror on an unimaginable scale, wiping out up to half the population of Europe. One work, Piers Plowman, written shortly after the disaster, included these arresting lines:
Kings and knights, emperors and popes;
Death left no man standing, whether learned or ignorant;
Whatever he hit stirred never afterwards.
Many a lovely lady and their lover-knights
Swooned and died in sorrow of Death’s blows…
For God is deaf nowadays and will not hear us,
And for our guilt he grinds good men to dust.
(As quoted in Norman F. Cantor, In the Wake of the Black Plague)
Sadly, the conclusion that “God is deaf” does not comport with what we find in Scripture. Circumstances, as many of us were well reminded this past Sunday by Pastor Andrew Forrest, are hardly an accurate gauge to determine whether God is with us or not. As Andrew said so well, Genesis mentions several times that “God was with Joseph” when Joseph’s circumstances were dire.
In a much earlier epidemic around 260 AD, Christians believed they were the hands and feet of Jesus. Bishop Dionysius described them this way:
Many of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took care of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ…The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen…
(As quoted in Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity)
Perhaps our responsibility will not involve loss of life, though we should never count it out. We do know that it should include kind gestures and acts of everyday generosity. And we should never fail to tell stories to one another. The therapeutic effects of good storytelling are attested throughout human history:
The Italian Renaissance author Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the Decameron in the wake of the plague outbreak in Florence in 1348. The disease ravaged the city, reducing the population by around 60 per cent. Boccaccio described how Florentines “dropped dead in open streets, both by day and by night, whilst a great many others, though dying in their own houses, drew their neighbors’ attention to the fact more by the smell of their rotting corpses.”
According to Pace University’s Martin Marafiot, Boccaccio’s prescription for an epidemic was a good dose of “narrative prophylaxis.” That meant protecting yourself with stories. Boccaccio suggested you could save yourself by fleeing towns, surrounding yourself with pleasant company and telling amusing stories to keep spirits up. Through a mixture of social isolation and pleasant activities, it was possible to survive the worst days of an epidemic.
(As quoted in André Spicer, “The Decameron—the 14-Century Italian Book that Shows Us How to Survive Coronavirus,” accessed at www.newstatesman.com)
The Decameron tells bawdy and humorous stories. It sought to help people keep their wits about them during a time of great upheaval. Christians may not believe in telling bawdy stories, though some of us feel more freedom in that regard than others! Wholesome humor, however, is always a good idea.
Telling stories to one another ought always to be part of our spiritual repertoire. The greatest story is of a God who comes near, suffers for us, and one day will fix all that is broken. What a hope not only during the challenge of coronavirus, but for each day no matter how catastrophic the circumstances.
HT: To Roger Berry for the picture. I am writing a book with Professor Michael Haykin on Ralph Waldo Emerson. It seems the president likes Emerson. I don’t think it is quite accurate to say, “I love Emerson,” but he has been a very productive conversation partner.
And now to the matter of this post…
Some of you know about my critical piece on Trump which was cited favorably on the Gospel Coalition and elsewhere. I still stand by everything I wrote. Here it is:
I did not vote during the 2016 election when it comes to president. For everyone else, I cast a vote. And I still stand by that decision. And yes, I think it was my patriotic duty to not vote.
But things can change…
I regularly preach (really I teach it) that true education is many things, but one thing for sure: painful. The ancient Greeks had a name for it: mathein pathein. “To learn is to suffer.” If you are truly learning, you have to face deficient views/ideas you previously believed.
Do I think my previous thoughts on Trump deficient? Largely, I do not, especially because I was addressing some specific areas of concern and those have not changed.
And yet, I want to remain open to new dynamics.
I’m still not sure what I will do in the upcoming election, but this is the best piece that is causing me to consider Trump:
I read a lot of history. Usually, I have to read long books (400 pages plus) to get as much insight as this much shorter one by Gregg. In only 166 pages the author gives intellectual insights on every page. It is a feast for both heart and mind.
The writing is clear and compelling. Gregg knows the flow of Western ideas very well. He communicates with ease some of the main currents of thought.
It is rare that the number of my markings (or marginalia) exceeds the number of the pages of a book I have read, but this is one of those rare times.
I highly recommend this balanced and beautifully conceived book!