Did Plato Read Moses?

or Collision II


In the movie Collision, Christopher Hitchens relies a lot on the idea of a moral consensus, the idea that humanity has an innate sense of what’s right and what’s wrong and that we all agree on the basics. Is there any merit in this assumption? Or is Hitchens assuming that the benefits of Christianity are the result of human reason? Peter Leithart argues that Calvin, as an heir of 1200 years of Christendom, made exactly this mistake.

(I present below just the head and tail of Dr Leithart’s argument. I highly recommend getting a hold of the essay and reading his full argument and evidences.)

Excerpts from Did Plato Read Moses?

Peter Leithart on Middle Grace and Moral Consensus

The Bible presents a bleak view of the moral potential of the natural man. In this respect it seems to fly in the face of the facts. What are we to make of the empirical phenomenon of the “good pagan”?

Though Christians can agree that pagan goodness is insufficient to gain entrance to the kingdom of God, the fact that the good pagan exists at all seems to undermine the New Testament’s assertion that the “flesh is hostile to God” and that unredeemed sinners approve those who break God’s commandments. How, moreover, can a Christian explain the moral consensus that is said to exist among all cultures and religions, a consensus ably summarised in C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man?

I am very skeptical that any such universal moral consensus exists. Reformed discussions of this question have generally been highly nuanced. At a very general level, Calvin said, there is a consensus of moral principle, but when one gets down to specifics the consensus disappears. This argument is confirmed by history and experience. Every society says murder is wrong. But is killing an unborn child murder? Many, perhaps a majority of groups, would say no. Seneca and Zeno say no, and even advocated infanticide and exposure of infants. Everyone says murder is wrong, but are human and child sacrifice wrong? Many cultures have practised such rites. Every people says murder is wrong, but is it murder to befriend a member of a neighbouring tribe, win his confidence and trust, invite him to your hut for dinner, and then fall upon him and beat him to a pulp? Don Richardson, a missionary to the Sawi people of Irian Jaya, reports that in the tribe among whom he worked it was considered a badge of honour to befriend and then betray a member of a neighbouring tribe.

Nuanced as he tried to make his formulation, I believe Calvin was too sanguine. Living in Europe as an heir of 1200 years of Christendom, Calvin observed that everyone, whether Protestant or Catholic, heretic or Jew, held to the same basic moral perspective, and he apparently took this as a universal phenomenon. In late twentieth century America, we should not be so blind…

…on the contrary, the Bible indicates that special revelation was transmitted through the ancient world in written form, and no doubt in oral tradition as well. Extra-biblical evidence supports this conclusion. I would thus generalise Augustine’s final conclusion about Plato: It is impossible to determine whether whatever moral or theological consensus existed in the ancient world was the product of general or special revelation. The evidence shows that ancient cultures were exposed to both.

What is true of the ancient world is even more obviously true of Western civilisation. The Word of God has been so intertwined with our civilisation that the two are nearly impossible to separate. Distinctly biblical moral precept seem to the Western mind to be precepts of nature, accessible to every reasonable man with a modicum of common sense. Nature has been permeated and therefore transformed by grace. The God in whom Western atheists disbelieve is the biblical God (not Baal or Kronos), and many relativists claim that the one absolute is that preeminent Pauline virtue, love. One ancient near eastern flood myth recorded that the gods sent a flood because the people swarming over the earth were so noisy that the gods could not sleep at night. To the extent that moderns find this quaint or appalling, to the extent that biblical religion–not some abstraction called “common grace”–has shaped our conception of what conduct is proper to God. What the West has held in common is precisely what is, theological speaking, special.

The practical conclusion of the argument presented here is that the moral foundations of civilisation as opposed to barbarism are the product of the working of God’s grace as it is distributed through His Word and Spirit, not the product of some vague and abstract general grace of God. Or, to put it differently, the general grace of God is not a constant, but is directly proportional to the spread of the special saving grace of God. If this is the case, then any moral consensus in American civilisation will increasingly vanish as people abandon the Word of God. Romans 1 says that God abandons idolaters to moral confusion, so that they approve what they know to be evil. This is our future; increasingly, this is our present.

If this is true, encouragement to virtue is a paltry and ultimately foolhardy response to the crisis of Western civilisation. The only answer is to be found in the universal and uncompromising proclamation of an undiluted gospel.

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10 Responses to “Did Plato Read Moses?”

  • Hiram Says:

    Mike, I thoroughly enjoyed this :)

  • Basilides Says:

    “Don Richardson, a missionary to the Sawi people of Irian Jaya, reports that in the tribe among whom he worked it was considered a badge of honour to befriend and then betray a member of a neighbouring tribe.”

    And the ancient Israelites, under instructions from the Christian god, considered it a badge of honour to kill every man, woman and child in Canaan.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    God told Abraham that he would not give the land to him but to his descendants because the sin of the Amorites was not yet “full.” In other words, they had some time left to either believe what Abraham proclaimed and avert God’s judgment, or disregard it and continue in their sins, which included child sacrifice.

    The killing of the Canaanites was a judicial execution by God. He cut them out of history like a cancer. Except they didn’t did they? Israel disobeyed God and ended up adopting the Canaanite practices.

    Your indignation against God is entirely one-eyed if you are ignorant of what God did to Israel under the sword of Babylon when Israel took on the murderous practices of the Canaanites and sacrificed their children. God is not a respecter of persons. Repent, or be judged, man, woman and child.

    What is interesting is that, typologically, the sword of death prefigured the gospel, a sword that divides between believers and unbelievers wherever it goes.

  • Victor Says:

    “The ancient Israelites, under instructions from the Christian god, considered it a badge of honour to kill every man, woman and child in Canaan.”


    You seriously misunderstand the biblical story of the conquest of Canaan. If you really do want to understand how the texts are to be understood, you should read Paul Copan’s “Is God a Moral Monster?”.

  • John Says:

    Good stuff, Mike! I think there is something to the Plato-Moses connection, on multiple levels. Hmmm, “Theology that you can eat and drink”–that’s a Eucharistic reference, right?

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Hi John – yes, Israel was a blessing to all nations even back then.

    And I have a book on the theology of food coming out some time soon.

    Feel free to have a wander around. Let me know if you’d be interested in my two books in biblical structure.

    Thanks for visiting,

  • Maria Bethany Says:

    Plato was a “good Pagan” as far as “benevolent dictators” go. But I studied his works intensely, and I testify that he had not much in common with Moses. Moses brought his people out of bondage under the guidance of the Spirit of God. However, significantly, Plato believed that slavery is the prerequisite of civilization. He believed that slavery provides for the “leisure class” that civilized societies need for leadership. Consequently, he would not agree that freeing the slaves is a good idea. From this originates the immense Theo-political discrepancy between the Hellenist and the Biblical worldviews, and this is the root cause of our persistent culture war. We believe in freedom, the followers of Plato do not.

    We believe in freedom, because we believe we are able to utilize the guiding Power of the Spirit of God. Concerning the “natural man” (meaning Adam and Eve), the lesson from the story of the fall is clear. Eve had the ability to obey God, but she failed because she was deceived. She thought that by following the counsel of Satan, she, herself, would be like God. This is our major problem. We are easily deceived by evil ideas that look so good.

    Even the Pagans knew that mankind does not live up to its potential. If mankind were naturally evil, we would have no hope. In fact, if we were fundamentally evil, we could not even realize that we are evil. But Christ came to HEAL us. Healing means He is restoring us to the original spiritual health God intended.

    The Pagans, by nature, are aware of sin, but they deny the Spirit, hence they are helpless to fight it. They are pessimistic about the improvement of behavior, except by biological means, using chemicals. Christians believe that the Spirit of God can restore the human being, through faith in the Son. Consequently, Christians have hope, and they strive to be better. I learned seventy years ago that I can be better if I pray. The Christian doctrine is simple, even a child can learn it. But as adults, we disbelieve the Truth, because we cannot understand how the Power of the Spirit of God works. Thus, we put our ability of understanding in the front, using it as the measure of Truth. If we can’t figure it out, it must be humbug!!

    True, “American civilization will increasingly vanish as people abandon the Word of God.” But why are we abandoning the Word of God? Because we are idolizing Reason. As long as we think Reason is the measure of all things, we are idolaters, no better than the Canaanites. We will turn in the right direction as soon as we admit that reason has its limitations. We cannot perceive transcendental reality by reason. We are led to Truth by obedient faith. (Act 5:32)

    I was raised in a Calvinist family, but I was not taught that “the benefits of Christianity are the result of human reason.” I was taught that “The just shall live by faith”; and God helps those who help themselves. I was taught that understanding comes by keeping fellowship with God. Apparently, Calvinism “trickles down” in many forms.

  • Patrick Says:

    All of the groups Yahweh commanded Joshua to destroy had “nephilim” among them. Not sure why it’s such a difficult subject, but, it is.

    That’s another reason for the total destruction of those communities. Implacable opposition to God and the capability and desire to kill off God’s people, thus preventing Messiah.

    Had they not been whacked, the Jews would have been and Yahweh would have none of that.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Very interesting observation concerning the Nephilim.
    Jordan points out that the Babylonian “flood” disempowered all the Canaanite nations as well as Israel, that is, Ham and Shem. But only Israel, Shem rose again as a new Land, to minister to Japheth, and bring him into the tent. Japheth becomes the focus after the exile.
    The same pattern occurs in the first century, with the Church as a new Shem, the Jewish rulers as Cainites and all nations as Japheth.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Concerning the command to wipe out those living in Canaan, the Covenant made with Abraham was a shelter for them for the time being. Their sin was “not yet full.” Their destruction was the curses of that Covenant being poured out. They had used the longsuffering of God to fill up their sin.