Paul's Passing Thoughts

The History of Western Philosophy and Its Societal Impact on the Church – Part 6

Posted in Uncategorized by Andy Young, PPT contributing editor on February 13, 2017

The following is part six of an eight-part series.
Taken from John Immel’s second session at the 2013 Conference on Gospel Discernment and Spiritual Tyranny
~ Edited by Andy Young

Click here for part one
Click here for part two
Click here for part three
Click here for part four
Click here for part five
Click here for part seven
Click here for part eight

We continue in our discussion of the major contributors in the progression of Western thought. Many concepts and doctrines that we have traditionally come to think of as Biblical orthodoxy in reality have their roots in ancient philosophies. Here is a brief summary of the thinkers and their contributions that we have studied so far:

Thales – The first scientific approach to explaining reality as opposed to a pantheistic approach. The concept of one universal “stuff” and its various forms.

Heraclitus – Because everything is in a constant state of “flux”, man is unable understand the nature of reality. The first to introduce a division of reality. Two “realms”.

Parmenides – Precursor to Aristotle’s “Law’s of Identity” and existence. Existence is real, but change is not. Change is only apparent because of man’s faulty perception.

Zeno – The Dichotomy Paradox.  Movement was an illusion and plurality and change was impossible.

The Pythagoreans – Orphic mystics.  Introduction of the soul/body dichotomy.

The Atomists – Described a mechanical model for metaphysical concepts.  Introduction of determinism.

Sophism – Used deceptive arguments as a means of persuasion. “What is truth?” There is no objective knowledge. Man’s primary social purpose is domination.

Socrates – Introduced the concept of “universals”. Man’s ability to use reason to grasp universal concepts.

Plato – First successful comprehensive system of philosophy. Two world dichotomy, universals/particulars. Only philosopher kings have access to the realm of the “forms”.

This brings us to part six, and we will pick up where we left off.


These guys could be considered the first “street preachers”. In Christian parlance they were “evangelists”. They considered themselves humanity’s watchdogs. Their favorite pastime was to publicly expose the pretense at the root of everyday conventions. The believed that is was their life task to convert the masses to what they called the declarative.

They rejected all wealth, power, sex, fame, because these pursuits were the stuff of a polluted mind with internal haze. Diogenes of Sinope, one of the founders of the Cynic movement, is reported to have lived in a tub. He refused to wear shoes in the winter, refused to bathe, ran around the streets without clothes, and wandered from street to street in the cities preaching Cynic doctrines. Those doctrines were specifically designed to save men from the bondage of their flesh. If man was liberated from the bondage of flesh they would be liberated from worldly suffering and uncertainty.

The summary of Cynic ideology follows:

  • The goal of life is mental clarity or lucidity.
  • Freedom from internal haze, which signified ignorance, mindlessness, folly, and conceit.
  • Achieving freedom by living in harmony with nature.
  • Mental haze, ignorance, mindlessness, et al, is caused by false judgment of values which causes negative heartache, anxiety, unnatural desires, and evil character.
  • Man flourishes (he truly lives) by achieving what is called “self-sufficiency”.

Self-sufficiency in the case of the Cynics refers to an internal indifference to life’s hardships. One progresses towards this life and clarity of thought by ascetic practices that help one become free from the influences of the flesh. And since they had a great disdain for fame, they tended to act shamelessly in public in a direct effort to slight all social conventions.

Here is the point I want you to grasp. How does man achieve harmony with nature? By being indifferent to all hardship. The suggestion was that the way man obtained this harmony was by constant arduous training of the body. You see this theme in the apostle Paul’s comment when he says in 1 Corinthians 9:27, “But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection…” Here he is using a reference that is influenced by the Cynics. (Editor’s note: While the expression might be familiar to his audience because of Cynic doctrine, Paul is using it in the context of a believer’s sanctification so as to not be disqualified from any heavenly reward he might receive at the Bema.)

Notice also how the Cynics have elevated the nature and importance of asceticism. Not only is the flesh bad, but the flesh must be defeated through specific violence towards it. This is crucial because it becomes a dominant theme later as we shall see.


Stoicism finds its beginnings in a school founded by Zeno of Citium in the early 4th century BC. Zeno taught in the public square located on the north side of the Ancient Agora of Athens. The name “stoicism” is derived from this square which was named ποικίλη στοά (Poikile Stoa) which means “Painted Porch”. The Stoics taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment. Someone of moral and intellectual perfection would not suffer such emotion.

Stoics were concerned with the active relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom and the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will that is in accord with logos. Remember it was Heraclitus who was the first to use the term logos. Aristotle used it to mean reasoned discourse. However the Stoics were the first to use it in conjunction with god. They said the logos was the animating force of the universe. It was this conceptual and linguistic shift that made the introductory chapter to the gospel of John possible.

Of course, later Christianity condemned Stoicism, but that didn’t stop them from using Stoic concepts and advocating the primary themes of Stoic metaphysics and ethics: an inner freedom in spite of worldly hardships, the innate depravity of man called “persistent evil” by the Stoics, and the futility and temporal nature of worldly possessions and attachments.

Stoic religion emphasized prayer, self-examination, and praise. They described spiritual pursuits like this: God is best worshipped in the shrine of the heart, by the desire to know and obey Him. Where have we heard that theme before?

The four cardinal virtues of Stoic philosophy where:

  1. Wisdom
  2. Courage
  3. Justice
  4. Temperance

Virtue alone was sufficient for happiness. A sage was immune to misfortune because he is dispassionate about all things both good and evil. Epictetus is quoted as saying, “Sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and yet happy, in disgrace and yet happy”

A sage achieved freedom by studying and seeking “universal reason”, which was their logos concept, and through practicing asceticism. Notice, now we have the correlation. Not only is it necessary to study this higher mystical concept, but it is specifically essential that the flesh is purged in the process. The flesh is beaten, and the study continues. Those who practice these virtues are enlightened and can achieve freedom from the vicious materialism and emotionalism of this world.

Stoics were determinists. They said that everything is subject to the laws of fate. The logos acts in accord with its own nature and governs matter. Souls are emanations from the logos and are therefore subject to logos dictates.

They describe the wicked man like this: he is like a dog tied to a cart and compelled to go wherever it goes. For you history buffs, you will recognize this from the Christian deterministic traditions that describe man like this: man is on the back of a horse being led around by the devil. This is Reformed Theology 101.

I want to illustrate how the Pythagoreans’ soul/body dichotomy weaved its path from their own relative hedonism to the Stoic doctrines we see before us. How did we get to the point where man must use violence against his own body to achieve enlightenment? And just so you understand, when we start talking about asceticism, we are not talking about giving up a few McDonald’s apple pies or a doughnut for breakfast in the morning. The accepted expression of virtue involved the literal beating of flesh as an ethical ideal

From the late 3rd century to almost the 1100s, here is what these people did:

  • They sat on stone pillars until their legs rotted away.
  • They drank laundry water.
  • They slept on beds of nails.
  • They inflicted on themselves personal and/or public floggings for sins.

This is the corruption implicit to these ideas. When you so divide man from reality, when you so divide man from life, you can only worship death!

…And that’s exactly where these doctrines trend.

To be continued…

Click here for part one
Click here for part two
Click here for part three
Click here for part four
Click here for part five
Click here for part seven
Click here for part eight