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Platonic Limerick

I had to share this, as it relates to last week’s discussion of Platonic philosophy.  (h/t Futility Closet)

Said Plato: “These things that we feel
Are not ontologically real,
But just the excresence
Of numinous essence
Our senses can never reveal.”

– Basil Ransome-Davies


Hebrews 8:6-13 – NT

2 Corinthians 3:5-11

If we claim to be under a New Covenant, we must say something about the old.  We must explain the Old.  Why did it exist?  Was it insufficient to its purpose?  Why has it been superseded?

I’ll address the first question (the why) here.  Perhaps tomorrow’s look at the Hebrews passage will help shed some light on the others.  The Old Covenant can be seen to do three things: teach morality, identify sin, and establish a pattern of sacrifice and atonement.  In order:

The Old Covenant, as embodied in the Law of Moses, sets forth a standard of behavior.  Some of these, such as reproductive, dietary, and hygiene-related laws, were historically specific, providing people in a Bronze/Iron Age environment in the Near East with patterns of cleanliness and health that would help stave off infection and plague.  Others capture a core set of restrictions necessary for any group of people to sustain a government and a society: dont’ steal, don’t kill, don’t lie, etc.  Still others make explicit the ‘moral code’ we talk about common to all humans, this sense that there is a right and wrong and that given behaviors fall on one or the other side of that line.  These are the kinds of rules that you’ll find in most law codes throughout the modern and ancient world, the Law of Moses included.  This is not exhaustive, and some of these categories no doubt overlap, but this is an idea of how the Old Covenant acts as a teacher of morality to God’s people.

Additionally, the Old Covenant convicts people of their sinfulness.  As Paul so deftly points out, sin is a slippery concept without the Law.  Only by setting aside certain behaviors and attitudes as unacceptable can we all realize that we invariably and continually fall short of God’s holiness.  If the New Covenant is the good news of the Gospel, the solution to the problem of sin, then the Old Covenant provides the question, the tension that needs to be solved.

Lastly, the Old Covenant establishes a precedent (a pattern, even) of sacrifice, priesthood, atonement, and salvation.  It sets forth the language and the mechanisms to understand how we stand in relation to God and how our sin separates us from Him.  It lays out how that sin is removed and gives us the necessary concepts to recognize and understand Jesus’ redeeming death and resurrection.

Hebrews 8:6-13 – OT

Jeremiah 31:31-34 … a thought experiment* …

Listen up, you should know that the days of democracy and freedom in the United States are coming to a close.  It’s going to be very different around here.  The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are antiquated documents from a time bearing little to no relation to our own.  The men who wrote those documents, who argued for the freedoms you all enjoy, made some assumptions about you that have not proven sound.  In other words, you let them down.  They thought you would use freedom as a means to pursue virtue; you haven’t.  They thought that you could conduct yourselves in such a way that your way of life would become a beacon that led the rest of humanity to a better place; you couldn’t.  In retrospect, these were foolish and naive assumptions, rendering the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights deeply flawed documents unfit for serving as a foundation for rational government in today’s world.

A new government based on a new philosophy is in order.  Gone are the ridiculous assumptions about people being made equal.  Gone are the guarantees of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Gone is the ridiculous charade of choosing leaders.  Once rid of these outdated ideas and priorities, people will be able to live together in peace and security.  The US will dissolve and submit to a global hierarchy of regulators and experts.  There will be no need to petition the government or stand trial for crimes because the government will always know what you need and what you’ve done.  Utopia is coming.  The past is gone.

Now, I thought about leaving this to stand alone as my post today, but I didn’t think it worth the misunderstandings that might arise.  What I wanted to do, though, is capture some of the shock and offense that the Jews of the first century might have had in reaction to all this language about a New Covenant. 

Perhaps even in Jeremiah’s time, people would have been offended by the passages I link to above.  But definitely Paul and our author’s comments about a New Covenant being established to take the place of the old is offensive and shocking to Jews in a way that I don’t think most of us would readily grasp.  We think, ‘Oh, okay.  So they are being told that all the hoops they had to jump through are no longer needed.  That has to be good news.  At worst, they might feel a bit disoriented about what proper religion is supposed to look like, but that’s not too big a deal.’ 

But this ignores the fact that the Covenant of Abraham and Moses was more than a set of rules or religious rituals.  They form the very identity of the Jewish people.  What it means to be Jewish is to have this arrangement set out by God especially for you to interact with Him as His chosen people.  Jeremiah and Paul and our author are attacking the very core tenet of Jewish identity. 

What is more central to the identity of modern Americans than the enlightenment values of democracy, equality, freedom, and liberty?  We are not a nation based on common ethnic ties.  We are not a nation based on struggle against outside oppression.  We are a country whose very existence is justified by the principles enshrined in our founding documents.  To be an American is to represent this idea of mankind and human nature.  To insult these things and sweep them away is to destroy any concept of what it means to be an American.  Only thinking of the New Covenant language this way can, I think, give the modern reader (at least the modern American reader) the proper sense of how jarring and offensive this language is to the audience of Hebrews.


* Which means nothing in the following two paragraphs represents the real opinions or analyses of NatNav or anyone that the NatNav community considers a respectable thinker.

Thus Quoth – 6.26.11

CS Lewis:

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past.  Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

Weight of Glory, ‘Learning in War-Time’

Thus Quoth – 6.25.11

GK Chesterton:

It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.  To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would have indeed been obvious and tame.  But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.


No Blog is an Island – 6.24.11

It’s time for some high-class linkery:

  • Michael Patton gives a really good, basic primer on the differences between Protestantism and Catholocism, describing how the institutional church developed over the centuries to become the Roman Catholic Church, against which Luther et al protested:

The unwritten traditions that were meant to preserve the essence of the Christian faith had developed to such a degree that one could not even see the Christian faith. The essence, which was important before, took on a secondary status to the authority of the institution. In the midst of this, the Gospel began to be obscured to such a degree that a major reformation was needed.

This passage I’ve included is a useful check against those, like myself, who tend to value tradition as an interpretive tool.  I recommend reading the whole thing.

  • JohnDave Medina was a lapsed Catholic and then joined a Oneness Pentecostal group until going to seminary, where he was moved to recommit to the Catholic Church.  He gives a few personal reasons why he did so.
  • Josh Etter explains twelve ways that we can glorify God in the workplace.  I think the first way is the most fundamental: ‘Believe that all legitimate work is holy or unholy before God based on our faith, not the nature of the work itself.’
  • Jeff Dunn, the publisher of, shares a humbling testimony of how he worked for 40 years in the Christian publishing/broadcasting industry until 2009, when he lost his job and took employment at his local Target, selling electronics.

Life seldom—if ever—works as we want it to. If I can encourage you in one thing, it would be this: God orders our circumstances, no matter how hard or crazy or rough they may be. No matter how hard you try to prevent these circumstances from being in your life, it is God who directs the path on which we walk. The best thing you can do is to give up control and float on God’s endless sea of grace and mercy.

  • Michael Patton finishes us off where we started by outlining ten arguments for the existence of God.  They are all good, but I think my favorite (though not necessarily the most persuasive) might be no. 5:

5. The Argument from Aesthetic Experience: This is the argument from universal beauty and pleasure. Beauty and pleasure are universally recognized as such. Even subjective variation in one’s definition of what is beautiful are not distinct enough to relativize this principle. From the beauty or the sunset over the Rockies to the pleasure of eating certain foods, there is a common aesthetic experience that transcends the individual. This transcendence must have a ultimate source. This ultimate source is God.




Hebrews 8:1-5

Philosophy is central to our author’s argument this week, specifically the distinction between noumena and phenomena.  Noumena are abstract ideals or essential concepts; phenomena are manifestations of the noumena that can be perceived with the senses. 

If you’ve ever heard of Plato’s cave, this essentially the central element to his illustration.  In the cave, people are strapped down to chairs and can only look forward onto a blank wall where shapes move around that are silhouettes of models and puppets that are being backlit by a fire in the rear of the audience.  (It’s very similar in design to a modern movie theater, really.)  Those models and puppets are of trees and people and animals and every real thing you’d find outside the cave in the real world.  But to the people strapped into the chairs in the cave, those shadows of models of real things are all the reality they will ever know.  They cannot perceive (or likely conceive) of anything more real than the dancing black blob on a blank wall in front of them.  The people-shaped shadows are people as far as they will ever understand.  The interactions of the shapes on the wall are the world as they know it.

Now, Plato was making a political point about philosopher kings and who should rule, but the concept became central to Platonic philosophy through the centuries.  The shadows are phenomena; they are the perceivable reality.  The real trees/people/animals/etc. that the puppets are based on are noumena; they are (to the cave-bound viewer) abstract forms which are unknowable except through the crude translation of the phenomena. 

The argument this week about the Tabernacle and the Heavenly throne room is that the Tabernacle is a phenomenal form of the noumenal Heavenly reality.  The only way we can understand and conceive of the throne room is through the process of translating it into an object perceivable by the senses.  Exodus does this by using acacia wood and precious stones and metals and precise measurements.  Revelation does this by using words that conjure visions of clouds and mirrors and jewels and hybrid creatures.  It’s no less a phenomenon because it’s a figurative vision; John saw these things, and that means that the vision was a translation of the reality. 

It follows that a noumenon such as God’s dwelling place would be superior in every way to any phenomenon that is a translation.  For something as pure as God and Heaven, any translation is going to imply a degree of corruption.  What our author is saying in Hebrews is that the Levitical priesthood and the rituals and sacrifices of the Old Covenant are corrupted phenomena that imperfectly represent the Heavenly reality of atonement and justification and communion with God. 

The one time noumenon and phenomenon have been united is in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus was not corrupted by the Incarnation, but He was perceivable to the human senses.  Jesus, and the Kingdom He inaugurates, is a meeting point between noumena and phenomena, between Heaven and Earth, between eternity and creation.  As such, He is far superior to the Old Covenant of which He is the culmination, the Old Covenant that points (however imperfectly and corruptly translated) to Him.

Hebrews 8:1-5 – NT

Revelation 4:1-8

Yesterday, I noted how the plan of the Tabernacle as laid out in Exodus is patterned after the throne of God in Heaven.  Today, the passage in Revelation (and the two bonus passages in the link*) is an attempt by a sinful, mortal man to describe the scene within the severe limitations of human language and understanding.

We get creatures with multiple animal heads covered in eyes.  We get fire and glass and jewels and haze.  It seems like God had His throne room designed by David Lynch or Tim Burton.  Also, unless I missed something, there are no multi-species/multi-headed, eye-covered creatures mentioned in Exodus; so where’s the similarity that we would expect to be borne out if the Tabernacle was patterned after God’s dwelling place in Heaven?

The first thing I have to remind myself is that the Tabernacle is a model of the Heavenly throne room, not an exact replica.  What’s in Heaven is not going to actually be on Earth until the end of history.  Until then, we get analogies and models and patterns. 

Additionally, I have to remember that John’s description here is not a complete depiction of the reality that he saw in his vision.  His understanding and language limit his ability to describe what he saw and force him to pass it through the interpretive lens of his words.  It’s like Lewis says with Jesus described as ascending to Heaven or walking through walls to where the disciples were eating dinner.  Did he really go up to Heaven the way a balloon goes up into the sky?  Did he really walk through walls, either dematerializing on one side and materializing on the other or passing through the wall via osmosis?  Who knows?  All we do know is that the prepositions we’re limited to, like ‘up’ and ‘through,’ best capture the reality that was seen by the disciples on those occasions.  The post-Resurrection Jesus, like the Heavenly throne room, inhabits a spiritual plane, a dimension for which we have no normal frame of reference, no prepared set of prepositions. 

Because of this, we can look at both the Tabernacle described in Exodus and the throne room described in Revelation as interpretations of the reality of God’s presence, some degree removed from the real thing.


* Fifty Nat-points to the first person to identify the bonus passages by book!

Hebrews 8:1-5 – OT

Exodus 25:8-9, 40

Ah, Tabernacle dimensions; everyone’s favorite part of Exodus.  Experience the thrill as we find out just how much acacia wood is required to build a proper ark.  Dazzle your friends as you tell them how many almond blossom-shaped candle cups are required for the lampstand.  Laugh derisively at the yokels unaware of how wide the gold-molded rim around the bread table should be.*

But note the verses that I’ve linked to above.  The key word repeated in both v. 9 and v. 40 is ‘pattern.’  This detailed set of instructions, and much of the mind-numbing minutiae to come in the next few books, isn’t meant to be a recipe for access to holiness, or some kind of secret formula without which the Israelites cannot experience God.  He gives them this template because it is patterned after His throne room in Heaven.  He is having them recreate a dwelling place for Him on earth as a symbol of the Kingdom of Heaven descending to earth to be a venue for man’s communion with God.  More on this as we proceed this week.

I will admit, in the interest of honesty, that knowing this doesn’t make the minutiae any more interesting or seem any more worth reading…



* Everyone who’s anyone knows it’s a hands-breadth.  Duh!

Thus Quoth – 6.19.11

CS Lewis:

The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life.  The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life — the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination.

— Letters

Thus Quoth – 6.18.11

GK Chesterton:

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.  An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.

All Things Considered, ‘On Running after One’s Hat’

No Blog is an Island – 6.17.11

Let’s have some links, shall we?

More on the Historical Adam:

  • Daniel Kirk has some great posts on looking at Adam through theological lenses, trying to capture his place in the Gospel story aside from questions of historicity: Adam as ‘Story Starter‘, Adam as a type of ‘King‘, and Adam as a model for man-woman relationships.
  • Kevin DeYoung feels as strongly as ever that Adam was a historical person.
  • Matt Emerson uses intertextual analysis to support the claim that Adam was a historical person, using the Bible’s internal references and the authority of canonicity.
  • Peter Sanlon examines Augustine’s views on the matter at hand.

In non-Adam related news:

  • Marc Cortez follows up his tongue-lashing to Calvinists from last week with a corresponding sally at the Arminians, just to keep it fair.
  • Trevin Wax shows how the Ten Commandments are more statements about God than rules to be followed.
  • Kevin DeYoung and Tullian Tchividjian have had a back and forth on the place of ‘effort’ in the life and faith of the Christian.  It’s fascinating: one, two, three, four.
  • Michael Patton shares what it’s like to have depression make him feel unqualified to minister to others.
  • Justin Taylor quotes from Os Guinness’ and David Well’s Lausanne paper on the tension inherent in the Church’s relationship with the world.
  • Marc Cortez explores the difficult and agonizing decision whether to divorce your church.
  • Gabriel Torretta is rightfully excited for the release of a new video game in  Japan called El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, which is based on Gen 5:24 and the apocryphal Book of Enoch and is about Enoch’s attempt to hunt down and capture renegade angels.  This sounds shamelessly awesome!
  • Frederich Buechner (via Jake Meador):

If you tell me Christian commitment is a kind of thing that has happened to you once and for all like some kind of spiritual plastic surgery, I say go to, go to, you’re either pulling the wool over your own eyes or trying to pull it over mine. Every morning you should wake up in your bed and ask yourself: “Can I believe it all again today?” No, better still, don’t ask it till after you’ve read The New York Times, till after you’ve studied that daily record of the world’s brokenness and corruption, which should always stand side by side with your Bible. Then ask yourself if you can believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ again for that particular day. If your answer’s always Yes, then you probably don’t know what believing means. At least five times out of ten the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears … and great laughter.

  • Joe Carter shares a video of a talk by a Dr. Peter Williams from Cambridge, who uses what Carter calls an ‘algorithm-enhanced close reading’ of the Gospels to support their authenticity.  It’s really fascinating.