Paul's Passing Thoughts

The History of Western Philosophy and Its Societal Impact on the Church – Part 2

Posted in Uncategorized by Andy Young, PPT contributing editor on February 1, 2017

The following is part two 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 three
Click here for part four
Click here for part five
Click here for part six
Click here for part seven
Click here for part eight

My job is explaining cultural impact. That’s a tall order. There are three reasons for that because diagnosing a cultural disease requires being an epidemiologist, or one who studies and analyzes the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions in defined populations.  To be an epidemiologist you have to know:

  1. What the pathogen is
  2. Where the problem starts
  3. How to respond to it

Explaining the complex factors that impact all this takes a lot of time. So when I was thinking about this and what all it needed to entail, I decided that for us to really understand where we are in history intellectually, the only way to do that was to do a review of the development of Western thought. We need to pretty much start at the beginning. And that means we are going to have to put on our thinking caps.

What we are discussing is, in my estimation, of incalculable importance. Those who make it their aim to understand these subjects will be at the forefront of being able to withstand the tide of collectivism that we see washing across the face of this earth. To be sure, the resurgent Neo-Calvinist ideology is merely a subset of a broader collectivist trend. If history is any measure, the Neo-Calvinist movement and its intellectual children will go a long way to paving the way for the tyranny that is on the horizon.

Since I am going to start with the basics, I fully expect what I am about to tell you to be disturbing.

If you look at your life, your greatest miseries are when chaos prevails. Your greatest joys and pleasures are when you bring order to the world in which you live. I don’t care if the world in which you live is as narrow as cleaning up your children’s toys in the living room. You will take great satisfaction in taking that chaos and bringing it back to order. I believe this is part of the nature of how we are built. I contend that the nature of human existence is this: we are the “order-bringers.” Having been created in the image of God, since God is an order-bringer, man is as well.

With that understanding, the nature of our challenge in this earth has always been to rule and subdue the chaos that is around us and to produce order in whatever we choose. This is going to be a radical thought for many of you. The purpose of life is the purpose of your life, whatever you choose that to be. It is your job to find your meaning and identity in the context of the work that you do in bringing order to the world in which you live.

You are the order-bringer of your life. The absolute that you are seeking is staring you in the face every time you look in the mirror. Pain and misery are the result of looking outward at the surrounding chaos in an effort to find order. Satisfaction and joy come when man finishes his work, deems it good, and then wants to share it with others.

This is exactly what God did. God created the world and all that is in it, deemed it good, and took joy and satisfaction in what He accomplished, so much so that He shared it with man, a creature designed and created in God’s very own image with the ability to appreciate exactly what God accomplished because he shares that same sense of satisfaction in accomplishment.

When you understand that context, you will be able to understand what happened in Western thought. The reason Western thought stands so profoundly unique is that it arrived at some revolutionary concepts independent of anything else.

Man looked around and saw the tides of change everywhere, chaos. He saw oceans rolling, mountains upheaving, volcanoes erupting, tornadoes, earthquakes and all manner of natural disasters. He saw social evolutions, conquest, counter-conquest, wars and famines and destructions. And he looked at all of this and said, “where can we find order in the chaos?” The constant disarray told him there is in fact no order. The question was how do we make sense of this all?

While not every thinker is represented in the timelines that follow, each person represents a new idea in the evolution of human thought. It is by design that I purposefully chose to stop at St. Augustine, and the reason why will become evident as we go on. In the west, we are the direct recipients of this progression.

The progression itself isn’t specifically evil. There is no nefarious intent in what these men were seeking to accomplish. They are trying to answer a very fundamental question, and it is the same question that we ask ourselves when we were old enough to look at the world and say, “This is scary!”



The first man who tried to make sense of the world was Thales. He was one of the first people in Western thought to take a stab at answering this question. And for this reason he is regarded as the father of philosophy. He lived in a town called Miletus in Asia minor, hence the name of the school he founded, the Miletians. Only four sentences from his works survive, however we can reconstruct his ideas from his disciples and other sources that reference the Miletian school’s tradition in subsequent centuries.

Here is Thales’ theory. The universe is made up of one substance. Computers, animals, stars, theologians; they all boil down to one “stuff”.  This is called monism. His reasoning went like this. If there is a universal “stuff”, man can explain how everything is related. The first question then was why was this an important thing to identify? The answer was that if everything was one substance, then we would be able to explain change. Now in this context, “change” means chaos. In Thales’ mind, it followed that all the chaos around us is really just another form of this universal “stuff”. This would be the common denominator to tying everything together.

For Thales, this universal “stuff” was water. While it seems absurd to us, from his point of view this seemed completely logical. Water was the “stuff” that took three forms: solid, liquid, and gas. Water seemed to be able to turn into air (what we know as evaporation). If you dug into the earth deep enough, eventually you would find water. After the rain it seemed that you would find things living in the puddle left behind.

Even though he got the wrong answer, here is what is important by geometric factors. He is the first person in recorded history to employ a scientific approach. He observes the world and draws a conclusion. This is the essence of science. For the first time he offers an explanation of the cosmos that isn’t related to some god somewhere.

We have a hard time from our perspective in history because we are so familiar with the scientific method. From the time we are very small, our minds are geared to make these rudimentary observations. This was not so in the ancient world, where everything was some kind of a god. The air you breathe was a god. The grass you walked on was a god. There was a water god, a sun god, a fire god, a moon god, fish god, harvest god. So the universal explanation for everything that happened had been because some god of something caused it. What Thales did is the intellectual equivalent of going from a three-year-old who still believes in Santa Clause to a twelve-year-old who is finally being introduced to calculus.



Heraclitus used the word logos to describe the defining force behind the universe. However he didn’t use it like the Christians used it. Logos has a number of interpretations and usages. Most Christians are familiar with the Stoic interpretation that logos = the word of God. Heraclitus thought that the logos had immeasurable properties as if it were some extra-worldly entity.

According to Heraclitus, man is not able to understand the logos. The universe is in constant change. His aphorism describing these concepts survives to this day.

“Ever newer waters flow on those who step into the same river.”

Heraclitus is basically telling us that no matter what you do, it is in constant change. He describes reality as a unity of opposites, which meant all existing entities are characterized by pairs of contrary properties. He described his idea like this: the path up and down are one in the same.

Here is Heraclitus’ explanation for change.

“Reality’s essential nature lies in being both the same as itself and different from itself. In order to change, a thing must become different from itself. If it remains the same as itself, it hasn’t changed. But also after it has changed it must still be the same thing. Otherwise there has been no change but simply the substitution of one object for another. If a changing thing then is an identity of opposites it is both “is” and “is not”, and what “was” and “was not” what it will be.”

Clear as mud, right? When Heraclitus looks at reality he doesn’t see one “stuff” as Thales’ did. Instead, he sees nothing everywhere. He sees everything changing. He sees everything “becoming”. His conclusion was that everything changes all the time. It is change that is the governing force of the universe.

Now his river metaphor makes sense. Now you can understand why Heraclitus arrived at this disastrous conclusion – there is no such thing as a universal “stuff”. On the contrary, there are no things at all because everything is changing.  A contemporary historian of philosophy summarizes Heraclitus this way:

“All things flow. No man can ever step twice into the same river.

“How could he?

“The second time he tried to step, new waters would have flowed down from upstream. The waters would not be the same. Neither would the bed and the banks be the same, for the constant erosion would have changed them, too. And if the river is the water, the bed, and the banks, the river is not the same river at all. Strictly speaking, there is no river.

“When people talk about a river, they suppose that a name applies to something that will remain there for a time at least. But the river remains there no time at all. It has changed while you pronounced its name. There is no river. Worse yet, you cannot step into the same river twice, because you are not there twice. You too changed. And the person who stepped the first time no longer exists to step the second time. Persons do not exist.

“When anyone says that something exists, the meaning is that that something does not change, at least for a short time.

“An object that is real must be an object that stands still.

“Suppose a cleaver sculptor takes a lump of children’s modeling clay and begins to work it rapidly, it shortly takes on the appearance of the child’s teddy bear. And if the sculptor should stop, we would call it a teddy bear. But he doesn’t stop. His nimble fingers keep working, and the momentary bear turns into a small statue of Zeus, only quickly to disappear into the form of the Empire State Building.

“But, ‘What is it?’ you ask. The answer is not that it’s a bear or a god or a building.

“Under these circumstances, all we could say is that it is modeling clay. And we could call it clay because the clay remains the same throughout the changes. But if the clay itself never remained the same, if it changed from clay to wax to paper maché and so on and never stopped changing, we could call it nothing.

“Nothing, that is, it does not exist. It is unreal.”

~Gordon H. Clark: Thales to Dewey, A History of Philosophy

This is the implication of Heraclitus’ philosophy, and he was profoundly influential.

Is your head spinning yet? If it is, this is by design.

Question: if you think that chaos (i.e. change) is the core of existence, what does that do to man’s senses? Answer: It strips him of any effectiveness whatsoever. It makes man’s senses invalid, because while they show us solid things, “reason” explains that everything is changing, therefore man’s senses must be too base, too unrefined to understand reality.

This poses a huge problem for human existence. The solution, therefore, was to divide reality, because we also know that things can’t always change. This is the source of the two “realms” philosophy

  • The Realm of Reason – The capacity to understand the constant change.  True reality is a Heraclitean flux.
  • The Realm of Appearance – Shaped by incompetent human senses. Reality as it appears to man.

Anytime you hear someone talking about dividing reality somehow, they are utilizing a Heraclitean philosophy.

“Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”
~ John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter 1, Section 1



In opposition to Heraclitus, Parmenides bases his entire thought on this one principle:

What is, is. What is not, is not.

He contended that nothing cannot be. In other words, you cannot have “nothing” and have it be something. He made his point this way:

“For never shall this prevail, that things that are not, are… Thinking and the thought that it is are the same; for you will not find thinking apart from what is, in relation to which it is uttered…For to be aware and to be are the same… It is necessary to speak and to think what is; for being is, but nothing is not.

“[In criticism of Heraclitus] Helplessness guides the wandering thought in their breasts; they are carried along deaf and blind alike, dazed, beasts without judgment, convinced that to be and not to be are the same and not the same, and that the road of all things is a backward-turning one.”

His conclusion was that existence is an obvious fact. Existence is universal. Existence is eternal. Therefore non-existence is impossible. A thing cannot disappear, and something cannot originate from nothing. So man can’t even think about what does not exist. That which does exist is called the Parmenidean One, which is timeless, uniform, and unchanging.

Lastly, Parmenides goes on to argue that movement was impossible because it required moving into the void. Now here is the thing, he’s got existence, but now he has to figure out how to deal with the implications of change, and so his solution is to decide that change is really not possible. Here is his logic:

“How could what is perish? How could it have come to be? For if it came into being, it is not; nor is it if ever it is going to be. Thus coming into being is extinguished, and destruction unknown.”

I want you to notice that Parmenides is actually the early form of Aristotle’s laws of existence. “A” is “A”. The law of identity. What you see is exactly what you see. There is no disconnect here, which is a substantial leap forward in the evolution of human thought. Unfortunately, Parmenides drew an erroneous conclusion, which is understandable when seen from the context of the Heraclitean Flux that he was trying to counter. He concluded that the word is packed completely full. There are no holes and no spaces, but rather one big slab of “stuff”.

When he concluded that change was impossible, he meant change of any type; motion, alteration, course correction. And of course the logical conclusion of this premise is that there is no such thing as talking, moving, smiling, vibrating, waves on the ocean; it is all a gigantic illusion. Therefore he concluded there is no change at all, this world is completely motionless in every respect.  The way we explain change is that we are calling man’s senses into question.

Now notice, even though Heraclitus and Parmenides disagree about the nature of chaos and change, both of them blame man’s senses as the culprit in the explanation. The failure is not a faulty assumption. The failure is man.

To be continued…

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