Platonism and Jeremiah 1:5 by Jack Kettler
In another study, I mentioned some nice young people from a Utah based religion. These same young people told me that they had lived in a prior or preexistent spirit life. Having explained to them I believe that the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments is complete and the authority for all of my life and beliefs. And if they wanted me to give up my beliefs and adopt theirs they will have to convince me from the Bible. On the topic of pre-existence, they referred me to the following passage from Jeremiah.
“Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)
As in previous proof texts offered by these young people, I could see nothing in this verse about a pre-existent life. The verse is dealing with God’s foreknowledge, sanctification and Jeremiah’s prophetic calling. When doing a general search on the topic of pre-existence, you find Plato. Are these young people promoting a form of Platonism? This is fair question, since beliefs arise from somewhere.
On Platonism, from the New Dictionary of Theology, we find this:
“Platonism inspired the belief that souls enjoyed some higher existence prior to their entry into individual human bodies. This view often coexisted with notions of a pre-cosmic fall and the transmigration of the souls. Among Gnostics and others, it presented the soul as an emanation from the divine substance itself. Although championed by Origen, it was widely condemned in the 5th and 6th centuries.” (1)
In Plato’s Meno, Socrates reasons that our knowledge is not something learned, but recollected. For example, Plato uses a slave named Meno that has never learned the principles of mathematics to make his point about recollection. The geometric principles were revealed to the slave. Plato in the Socratic dialog, asked some probing questions to Meno. In conclusion of the matter, Socrates concludes that slave’s knowledge must be a priori or in-built into his soul and remembered throughout life. Thus, Plato is arguing for some type of pre-existence.
For the reader’s interest, Plato’s Socratic dialog with Meno is as follows:
Soc. And this spontaneous recovery of knowledge in him is recollection?
Soc. And this knowledge which he now has must he not either have acquired or always possessed?
Soc. But if he always possessed this knowledge he would always have known; or if he has acquired the knowledge he could not have acquired it in this life, unless he has been taught geometry; for he may be made to do the same with all geometry and every other branch of knowledge. Now, has any one ever taught him all this? You must know about him, if, as you say, he was born and bred in your house.
Men. And I am certain that no one ever did teach him.
Soc. And yet he has the knowledge?
Men. The fact, Socrates, is undeniable.
Soc. But if he did not acquire the knowledge in this life, then he must have had and learned it at some other time?
Men. Clearly he must.
Soc. Which must have been the time when he was not a man?
Soc. And if there have been always true thoughts in him, both at the time when he was and was not a man, which only need to be awakened into knowledge by putting questions to him, his soul must have always possessed this knowledge, for he always either was or was not a man?
Soc. And if the truth of all things always existed in the soul, then the soul is immortal. Wherefore be of good cheer, and try to recollect what you do not know, or rather what you do not remember. (2)
The idea that the soul is immortal and already knows things is one of Plato’s significant philosophical ideas. This was Plato’s solution to the problem of how we can find out about something we do not know. Thus, Socrates can advise Meno to; “recollect what you do not know, or rather what you do not remember.” According to Socrates, this will work because: “the truth of all things has always existed in the soul, then the soul is immortal.” This would imply preexistence. At this point we can reason that the young people for the Utah religion have a belief similar to Platonism.
* Foreknowledge: The knowledge which God has because he knows his own plan for the world: his knowledge of what actually exists, what has existed, and what will exist; also called the knowledge of vision.
* Sanctification: An ongoing inner transformation in which the Holy Spirit works to make the believer more and more like Christ in every way, including desires, thoughts and actions; most frequently simply called sanctification. Note: In Jeremiah’s case his sanctification was being set apart and pre-pared for his prophetic calling.
Back to Jeremiah:
As mentioned earlier, this verse in Jeremiah 1:5 is dealing with God’s foreknowledge, sanctification and Jeremiah’s prophetic calling. What do commentators think?
From the reliable Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers, we learn:
(5) I knew thee. —With the force which the word often has in Hebrew, as implying. not foreknowledge only, but choice and approval (Psalm 1:6; Psalm 37:18, Amos 3:2).
I sanctified thee. —i.e., consecrated thee, set thee apart as hallowed for this special use.
Ordained. —Better, I have appointed, without the conjunction, this verb referring to the manifestation in time of the eternal purpose.
Unto the nations. —i.e., to the outlying Gentile nations. This was the distinguishing characteristic of Jeremiah’s work. Other prophets were sent to Israel and Judah, with occasional parentheses of prophecies that affected the Gentiles. The horizon of Jeremiah was to extend more widely. In part his work was to make them drink of the cup of the Lord’s fury (Jeremiah 25:15-17); but in part also he was a witness to them of a brighter future (Jeremiah 48:47; Jeremiah 49:39). It is as though he had drunk in the Spirit of Isaiah, and thought of the true prophet as one who was to be a light of the Gentiles (Isaiah 49:6).
In this way, seemingly abrupt, yet probably following on a long process of divine education, was the youthful Jeremiah taught that he was to act a part specially appointed for him in the drama of his nation’s history. He could not see a chance in the guidance that had led him thus far. The call that now came to him so clearly was not the echo of his own thoughts. All his life from infancy had been as that of one consecrated to a special work. Could he stop there? Must he not, like St. Paul, think of the divine purpose as prior to the very germ of his existence? (Galatians 1:15.) (3)
Going to the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary:
5. knew—approved of thee as My chosen instrument (Ex 33:12, 17; compare Isa 49:1, 5; Ro 8:29).
sanctified—rather, “separated.” The primary meaning is, “to set apart” from a common to a special use; hence arose the secondary sense, “to sanctify,” ceremonially and morally. It is not here meant that Jehovah cleansed Jeremiah from original sin or regenerated him by His Spirit; but separated him to his peculiar prophetical office, including in its range, not merely the Hebrews, but also the nations hostile to them (Jer 25:12-38; 27:1-21; 46:1-51:64), [Henderson]. Not the effect, but the predestination in Jehovah’s secret counsel, is meant by the sanctification here (compare Lu 1:15, 41; Ac 15:18; Ga 1:15; Eph 1:11). (4)
Concluding with Matthew Poole’s Commentary:
Before I formed thee in the belly, i.e. womb, Isaiah 46:3. Having spoken before of the time of his call, Jeremiah 1:4, he now speaks of the manner of it.
I knew thee, i.e. approved and appointed thee, as a fit minister for this work. Words of knowledge among the Hebrews note affection, as hath been formerly noted.
I sanctified thee, viz. not with saving grace, though that need not to be excluded; but accordingly I prepared and ordained thee for this public service; and thus with Paul, Galatians 1:15, where both are expressed. See the like use of the word Isaiah 13:3. He speaks thus to Jeremiah, not to the other prophets, because he stood in need of greater and more direct encouragement than they, both in respect of the tenderness of his years, and also of those insuperable difficulties which in those most degenerate and corrupt times he must unavoidably encounter with, which might cause him to decline the work, Jeremiah 1:6.
Unto the nations; either with reference to place, to other nations besides the Jews, as appears, Jeremiah 43 Jer 46 Jer 47, &c, taking the Jews in among them, as Jeremiah 25:17,18, and so
unto may be taken for against, as it is often expressed in those places and elsewhere; or with reference to time, to people of all times, who may be instructed by this book, or whose words are made use of, both by several prophets of the Old Testament, as Daniel, Ezekiel, Nehemiah, &c., and by our Saviour in the New; by Matthew 2:17,18; by Paul, 2 Corinthians 6:18; and by St. John, Revelation 2:23. (5)
Thoughts and Comments:
Are these recognized commentators who were competent to read the text of Scriptures in the original languages missing or overlooking something in the Jeremiah text? The task of the commentator and all readers of Scripture is to ascertain what the particular passage of Scripture is saying. This is known as exegesis, bringing out of the text, what is there. We should use the same tools of rational thought by God’s grace when examining Scripture as we would Plato. We must guard against reading into Scripture ideas or notions that are not there. This is an error called eisegesis, or reading into the text. It is a common mistake among people today to read into ancient texts, Twenty-First Century ideas. This is called an anachronism. It is a fallacy.
Over the years, I have met a number of these young people from the Utah religion. Not one of them when asked, said they could read Greek or Hebrew. Then the question has to be asked, where are they getting this unusual interpretation of the Jeremiah passage from? From what I can ascertain, they are getting this interpretation from their leaders who according them, are divinely inspired. Thus far, I have never been able to verify that any of these leaders are competent to work professionally in the ancient original languages of Scripture either.
In trying to interact with these aforenoted young people, it becomes problematic, since biblical scholarship is rejected, not on biblical scholarship grounds, but because the leaders in Utah have been given a divinely inspired interpretation that is supposedly superior. In discussing the Jeremiah text in under consideration, you reach an impasse, namely, that Scripture is not what is says according to the young people from the Utah religion.
What criteria do you use to verify if what the leaders have said it true? At this point the astute reader will understand we have left the authority of what Scripture has said, and are now in the realm of what a man has said. In asking what process do you use to verify the word of leaders, it seemingly all comes down to trust and feelings. There is really no objective way to verify if what the Utah leaders have said is true. I’ve been told that praying about this, is how one can know. This is arbitrary and subjective. In another study, we will examine if this praying approach is a God directed method to determine truth. Even if you thought that you received an answer to prayer, how could you prove it what God and not your own subjective feelings or mental confusion?
Back to Plato:
Pre-existence of souls and men. Plato taught this belief. In the work called Phaedrus we read:
“This soul shall at her first birth pass, not into any other animal, but only into a man….” (6)
It must be asked, is the Utah based religion dependent upon Plato for their idea of preexistence? If not, where did this idea come from? As seen in the Jeremiah text, there is nothing that would support such a notion. The young people from the Utah religion could not show me textually, they could only repeat things they were told. This is parroting things told them by their leaders. Where did the leaders from Utah get this notion? Ideas come from somewhere. Their short answer, is from God. Yet again, how does one know this? How do you overcome feelings that may be mistaken or possible mental confusion to know for sure?
Rather than answer the question of the possibility of Platonic influence, I’ve been told by professors at a college in Utah, the real problem is that Christianity has been influence by Platonism. I believe this is a dodge on the part of the professors, but is this so? As an aside, I will take some time to head of needless questions.
What about historic Christianity, has it been influenced by Platonism?
Philosophy professor Gordon Clark’s Thales To Dewey is helpful concerning Christianity and alleged pagan influence.
Clark makes the following summary on paganism and Christianity:
“For such reasons as these it may be concluded that paganism and Christianity are radically distinct. Any points of similarity are superficial and trivial. To speak of them as alike is no better than identifying Epicureanism and Platonism on the ground that both were founded by men. This conclusion is not weakened by two cautions that should be observed. First, since the New Testament was written in Greek, it uses words found in pagan writings. John even used the term Logos. But the point in question is not the use of words but the occurrence of ideas. Logos in John and hypostasis in Hebrews are not evidences of pagan ideas. Nor should one find Aristotle in the Nicene Creed because it says God is a substance or reality. One cannot forbid Christian writers to use common words on pain of becoming pagans. The second caution is that while Christianity and the Greek philosophies, as systems, have no element in common, the Christians, as people, often held pagan ideas. They had been converted from paganism and could not divest themselves of familiar modes of thought all at once. Therefore, when they came to expound and defend Christianity, they inconsistently made use of Platonism or Stoicism. By a long and arduous struggle these inconsistent elements were gradually removed from a few fundamental areas, and thus a purely Christian Nicene Creed came into being. But on other topics, and especially in cases of individual authorship, the struggle was not so successful. Then, too, as time went on, the attempts to escape pagan ideas and to preserve the purity of New Testament thought grew weaker, and one might say, almost ceased.” (7)
Back to the Scriptures:
“It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man.” (Psalm 118:8)
“Thus saith the LORD; Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the LORD.” (Jeremiah 17:5)
“He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool: but whoso walketh wisely, he shall be delivered.” (Proverbs 28:26)
Now someone may ask, am I not trusting in man by thinking I understand these above texts against trusting man and accepting the above listed commentator’s analysis of the Jeremiah passage? It is possible, but not necessarily. Am I not trusting in my feelings and my heart? It is possible but not necessarily. My answer to the possibility, I maintain, Christians have a coherent theory of knowledge. God is soverign, meaning He is able to preserve His Word from corruption. Because of God’s soverignty, we have confidence that we have the pure Word of God. God has spoken.to us in the Scriptures with human language utilizing logically structured sentences in which He tells us the difference between right and wrong. God speaks in human language that we can understand. There are some difficult passages in Scripture to be sure, but for the most part, Scripture is understandable. We believe this because of the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture
The Westminster Confession of Faith on perspicuity (1.7)
“All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all (2 Pet. 3:16); yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (Ps. 119:105, 130).
And furthermore, the meaning of scriptural words is the same for God and man. If you reject that God speaks to us in the Scriptures with human language utilizing logically structured sentences in which He tells us about Himself, where words have the same meaning for God and man, you are in an epistemological swamp of futility. If you reject a biblical epistemology, you are left with a trust in man-based epistemology. This is wholly unsatisfactory and indefensible!
If you take a man’s word over God’s Word you are in epistemological quicksand. This still holds true even if the man says he is speaking for God. It seems that the aforementioned young people’s leaders have a different epistemology, namely, that the words of God in Scripture do not mean the same for us as God. This may be denied, by asserting the language between God and man is same, the real problem is that the Bible by in large cannot be trusted because of alleged mistranslations. If biblical mistranslations are the case, then it is incumbent of those making this claim to get specific and point out where and how the passages of Scripture have been mistranslated. Mere assertions do not prove anything.
How does Christianity protect itself against the error of Greek philosophy infiltrating its doctrine?
In his book The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, Dr. Van Till says the following concerning Greek philosophy:
“The ultimate concern of the Reformers was to bring the fullness of grace in its purity to men. They therefore sought to set it free from the encrustations of Greek metaphysics which are the metaphysics of fallen man.” (8)
Van Til’s use of the word encrustation shows how pervasive he believed Greek philosophy to be. The philosophical positions advanced by the Greeks influenced to such a large extent the areas of epistemology, ontology, ethics, and teleology that the Greek argumentation is a sufficient cause for positions that have been adopted by western religions and philosophy.
Van Til’s solution and answer, is bringing “the fullness of grace in its purity to men” sets Christianity apart from all philosophies and man-made theologies. All of men’s attempts at spiritual advancement are inseparable man’s self-effort or works and are thusly doomed. Grace, biblically understood, sets Christianity apart from all man-made religions and philosophy.
For more research, see link below for Ronald Nash’s Was Christianity Influenced by Pagan Religions?
Only Christianity has been able to break free from Greek apostate thinking. This is true insofar as the Christian follows the Reformers in placing the fullness and purity of grace and the self-attesting Christ, speaking authoritatively in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as paramount in all thought.
The apostle Paul describes it this way:
“Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)
“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” (Titus 3:5)
“To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
1. Editors, Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, J.I. Packer, New Dictionary of Theology, (Downers Grove, Illinois, Inter-Varsity Press), p. 653.
2. Plato, Meno, Great Books of the Western World, (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), pp. 182-183.
3. Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, Jeremiah, Vol.4, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p.10.
4. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1977) p.596.
5. Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol. 3, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985) p.491.
6. Plato, Phaedrus, The Works of Plato, Trans. by Benjamin Jowett, (New York: Random House, 1956), p. 289.
7. Clark, Gordon H. Thales To Dewey. Jefferson: Trinity, reprinted . First printing Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 195.
8. Cornelius Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company), p. 171.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks. Available at: http://www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For a great source of theological definitions go to Rebecca Writes at:
Rebecca Writes: http://www.rebecca-writes.com/theological-terms-in-ao/
See Ronald Nash’s Was Christianity Influenced by Pagan Religions?