Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A response to David Quine on why the Greeks and Romans got God wrong (and it's not what he thinks)

I have been in a debate in the comments section of another post with Christian curriculum developer David Quine about whether the Christian worldview is in fundamental conflict with the classical (or "Graeco-Roman") worldview. This is part of a larger disagreement over whether classical education is appropriate for Christian educators. 

David argues that the "Graeco-Roman worldview" is in opposition to the Christian worldview and because classical education reads and studies Greek and Roman authors as a part of its program, classical education is not a legitimate part of Christian education. 

As I do occasionally here at Vital Remnants, I am bringing this debate on a previous post back out to the main blog.

He also claims that this is the Reformation position, which it most definitely is not, since the Reformers were unanimous in their use of Greek and Roman authors in their works and in the systems of education they themselves took and often taught to their students (and in Luther's case, recommended) . But I am dealing with this in another set of posts.

In his most recent comments in an earlier post, the reason Quine gives for believing that the classical and Christian worldviews are in conflict is that the Greeks and Romans held to certain erroneous beliefs about 1) God, 2) origins, and 3) truth.

It seems to me there are several problems with this argument. We can see these by just considering the Greek's erroneous view of God, although it is the same problem with the issue of their beliefs about origins (I will talk about truth in another post).

Were the flawed classical beliefs about God due to a bad worldview?
First, his assumption is that the worldview of a culture is flawed if the beliefs of that culture about God are flawed (David may not think this is sufficient, but he seems to think it is necessary). But how do we know this? How could you ever know that it was specifically the Greek's worldview that was the origin of their flawed theology? The only way you could say this is if you believed that it was possible for people to whom God did not reveal themselves to have a correct view of God.

I would be surprised (in fact, shocked) if David believed this, since what it would require is the belief that you could come to a knowledge of God through reason. And I know David does not believe that.

If, in order to have a correct view of God, you have to have it revealed to you, then how could the Greeks have had a correct view of God, since it was not revealed to them? In other words, the obvious reason they had a flawed view of God was that they had no divine revelation. And if that's the case, how can Quine attribute their incorrect theology to their worldview?

We can no more blame the classical world's flawed theology on a bad worldview than we can praise the Hebrew's correct theology on a good one. If you believe that the only factor in the correctness of a culture's view of God is its worldview, then we would have to conclude not only that the Greek worldview was bad, but that the Sumerian worldview was good (since Abraham was from Ur of the Chaldees).

The Greeks could have had a perfect worldview and never attained a correct view of God because the only way you can have a correct view of God is for God to tell it to you. But, in accordance with His inscrutable will, God didn't do that.

David says that the Christian view of truth is based on divine revelation, and the Greek's view of truth was based on human reason. To say that reason is somehow in conflict with the Christian worldview is, needless to say, completely inaccurate, but I'll get to that in a later post. But the relevant question here is, without divine revelation, what else did the Greeks and Romans have but reason?

In his post on truth he says that sometimes the Greeks sought knowledge from a god through oracles such as that at Delphi, but more often through their own reason.

That means that either the Greeks sought their truth through divine revelation from the only gods they knew, which on Quine's view would constitute a good worldview practice (even though the gods they were seeking it from happened to be the wrong ones), or they sought it through human reason, which, having no real divine revelation, was the only thing they could do (In the absence of divine revelation, what were they supposed to use?).

Therefore, either the Greeks used a good worldview practice or they did the only thing they could do. I'm trying to determine why I should think badly of the Greeks for this. And, since I am only using Quine's assumptions here, I'm wondering how he can either.

Why the Greeks believed what they believed about God
The Greeks were all over the map on their beliefs about God, a phenomenon that would be hard to account for if there were some underlying worldview dictating their religious beliefs. The Greeks were searching and using the only tools they had at their disposal: reason and imagination. That is why there seem to have been two general categories of such beliefs among them, one based on imagination, and the other on reason.

Chesterton talks about the first of these in his book The Everlasting Man. He points out that classical pagan polytheism was the result of the practice of trying to make sense of the world solely on the basis of the human imagination:
Certainly the pagan does not disbelieve like an atheist, any more than he believes like a Christian. He feels the presence of powers about which he guesses and invents. St. Paul said that the Greeks had one altar to an unknown god. But in truth all their gods were unknown gods. And the real break in history did come when St. Paul declared to them whom they had worshipped. The substance of all such paganism may be summarized thus. It is an attempt to reach the divine reality through the imagination alone.
... Mythology, then, sought god through the imagination; or sought truth by means of beauty.
The second kind of classical religious thought was that of the philosophers. Here, rather than imagination being used as the sole avenue to knowledge of God, it was reason. As Chesterton points out, one of the problems with the Greeks was that the thought traditions based on imagination were disconnected with the thought traditions based on reason. There was a conflict between their priests and their philosophers and it was only the larger, deeper thought system of Christianity that could bridge the divide.
It is vital to view of all history that reason is something separate from religion even in the most rational of these civilisations. It is only as an afterthought, when such cults are decadent or on the defensive, that a few Neo-Platonists or a few Brahmins are found trying to rationalise them, and even then only by trying to allegorise them. But in reality the rivers of mythology and philosophy run parallel and do not mingle till they meet in the sea of Christendom. Simple secularists still talk as if the Church had introduced a sort of schism between reason and religion. The truth is that the Church was actually the first thing that ever tried to combine reason and religion. There had never before been any such union of the priests and the philosophers.
For now I'll just point out that the religious mistakes made by the Greeks and the Romans were not the result of something bad they possessed (a mistaken worldview), but of something good they didn't possess (divine revelation).

I'll address some other issues that I think Quine gets wrong, including the issue of the relation of revelation and reason.


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

David Quine said...
Hi Martin,

You amuse me. Instead of letting your readers actually read my thoughts on this subject, you start new blogs without including my original thoughts. Because you have now moved "this debate" three times and each time you omit my posting, I think it best we simply go our own ways.

Have a nice day,

Daniel said...


What on Earth? He linked to the post where your comments were made, no?


Martin Cothran said...


I placed a link to the earlier post in the body of this post so people could read both of our earlier comments. I often take debates that go on for a while on stale posts which no one is reading anymore and put them back out on the main blog so everyone can benefit from hearing them on a new post.

I really don't understand why you have taken offense at this, and had I known it would upset you, I would have found a way to do it differently.

In any case, I will continue to address your comments on this and other posts. You're welcome to respond. In fact, if you would like me to include your actual comments from here on out (I'll even copy your earlier comments onto this post), I would be happy to do that.

In fact, I'll go one step further and offer you the opportunity to respond to me as a separate main post. You post your comment, and I'll post it as a separate main post.

I have only done that for two other people (my own son included) in the ten years this blog has been in existence, but I will gladly do it for you.

I am benefiting from the spirited discussion on this subject, since it has helped me to think this thing through a little bit more. I would hope it would be the same for you.

In any case, if you choose to continue the discussion, I will post your comments on the main blog as their own posts.


Martin Cothran said...

Also, if you would like to do this, put a title at the top of your comment that I can use as the title of the post.