Emotionally Healthy Discipleship: A Study Worth the Time

This week, I return to a theme that has been covered in the past. I am convinced that the most important gift pastors and leaders can give to their churches is developing disciples who exhibit authentic Christian spirituality. In the past, I have reviewed the work of Peter Scazzaro and this emotionally healthy series. For the record, Scazzaro and his wife, Geri, are the leaders of a ministry known as “Emotionally Healthy Discipleship, the title of his latest book. [1] The Emotionally Healthy website is https://www.emotionallyhealthy.org/. The materials necessary to lead folks through emotionally healthy discipleship training are available on their website and most Christian and secular internet book sales sites.

Peter and Geri Scazzero

Years ago, Peter and Geri Scazzero reached a crisis in their marriage, ministry, and lives. The Emotionally Healthy series of books and studies emerged from their commitment to seeking healing and wholeness. In a series of books and programs, the couple has covered such areas as emotionally healthy spirituality, emotionally healthy relationships, emotionally healthy discipleship, emotionally healthy churches, and emotionally healthy leadership. For women, they have developed a course known as “The Emotionally Healthy Woman.” Once again, all these studies are readily available.

One great value of their books has to do with the transparency of Peter as he describes his journey. Peter came from an Italian immigrant family. His father worked hard, and his mother raised the children. He was not from the perfect family. However, his family life left him with an innate desire to please people and solve problems. Those character traits and intellectual gifts made him ideally suited for ministry. However, there was an element of brokenness as well.

Eventually, Peter became active in a campus ministry program. He went to seminary and became a missionary in Costa Rica with Geri, by now his wife. After a time in mission work, the couple moved to New York City and founded what is today New Life Fellowship Church. It grew and prospered. By 1986, Peter and Geri were experiencing problems that many pastors experience: chronic overwork, emotional exhaustion, family stress, staff and interpersonal issues, betrayals, etc. In the end, after a church split, Peter had to come to grips with the fact that he was angry, bitter, tired, and depressed. Geri had to come to grips with the fact that she felt like a single mother because of the programming of her husband’s life, and no longer felt a call to be a part of Peter’s ministry. You must read their books to hear the story in their own words, but it’s a wonderful and potentially life-changing read.

The Emotionally Healthy Series

Some years ago, during a difficult time in my ministry, one of our children gave me Scazzero’s book, The Emotionally Healthy Church. [2] I read the book with great interest. Subsequently, I purchased and went through his major work, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. [3] Kathy, my wife, and I have later taught Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and used Emotionally Healthy Relationships in our churches and marriage. In at least two churches, I have had the opportunity to put to work the principles of Emotionally Healthy Discipleship and The Emotionally Healthy Leader. [4] We have personally seen the results in our marriage and congregations. Today, the Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and Relationship Courses are available as the “Emotionally Healthy Disciples Course,” which includes books, study guides, teaching videos, devotional guides, and teaching helps.

The fundamental principle that lies at the base of all the studies is quite simple: Many Christians and their leaders cannot experience the joy of their salvation or attain the level of discipleship of which they are capable of because of unaddressed emotional problems, usually stemming from their childhood. Addressing those issues releases a Christian’s emotionally-stymied discipleship capacities, promotes emotional healing, and unlocks hidden potential for churches, leaders, and individual Christians. Since churches are made up of human beings, creating an emotionally healthy congregation increases effectiveness in making and maturing disciples.

Emotionally Healthy Discipleship

Emotionally Healthy Discipleship leads students through seven marks of healthy discipleship:

  1. Become Emotionally and Spiritually Formed as a Person
  2. Follow the Crucified Lord, not the Americanized
  3. Embrace God’s Gift of your Personal Limits
  4. Discover the Treasures Hidden in Grief and Loss
  5. Break Free of the Power of Your Past
  6. Lead out of Weakness and Vulnerability

Emotionally Healthy Discipleship can be contrasted with Emotionally Unhealthy Discipleship, which is characterized by the following:

  1. Using God to run from God
  2. Ignoring the emotions of anger, sadness, and fear
  3. Dying to the wrong things
  4. Denying the past’s impact on the present
  5. Dividing our lives into “secular” and “sacred” compartments
  6. Doing for God instead of being with God
  7. Spiritualizing away conflict
  8. Covering over brokenness, weakness, and failure
  9. Living without limits
  10. Judging other people’s spiritual journey. [5]

Many of us in professional ministry can identify with the list personally and from observing our own, staff, and congregant lives.

Biblical Background

In Matthew, Jesus gives the Great Commandment, which forms the basic characteristic of Emotionally Healthy Disciples:

An expert in the law tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (See Matthew 22:35-40, Mark 12: 28-34, and Luke 10:27).

Over and over, the command to love God and other people is repeated in one way or another in the Old and New Testaments. Unfortunately, the problem for some people is that they need more emotional maturity and health in order to be able to obey the command. Addressing emotional blockages to spiritual maturity and discipleship is, therefore, essential. If we are going to love God, and especially if we are going to love other people, we must have the emotional capacity to do so.

Why This Blog This Week?

This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday. I spent much time deciding whether to post strictly on a Palm Sunday theme, continue with the blogs on political theology, or do this blog on emotional health and discipleship. Finally, I decided that this particular blog was important. As a deacon, elder, pastor, transitional pastor, and now as a retired pastor and spiritual friend, I have seen in the lives of people I care for the terrible scars that we human beings can inflict and carry from our past into the present. I have also seen the way less terrible scars most of us carry can warp lives, promote personal and professional failure, cause unnecessary suffering, and harm families, friends, small groups, and congregations.

Interestingly, as Scazzero points out, Jesus over and over again demonstrated his human emotional maturity as well as his spiritual presence as the Light of the World. Jesus accepted the gift of limits. He was willing to be born in human form, live an ordinary childhood, delay his ministry until the right time, resist temptation, pray, rest when needed, and disappoint followers who expected the mistaken things from him. Ultimately, he was willing to accept the grief and suffering of betrayal, desertion, injustice, violence, and death—a terrible death on a cross.

Imagine the temptation Jesus experienced on Palm Sunday. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey as had kings of Israel in the past. He was surrounded by crowds cheering him on and waving palm leaves, a symbol of the entry of the Messiah into the city. He knew everyone in the crowd expected him to raise an army, begin a Civil War, defeat the Romans, and re-institute the kingdom of David. All he had to do was the “human thing,” the “natural thing,” and give the crowd what they wanted. Instead, he gave them what they needed—a suffering and rising Messiah for the Nation of Israel and the Jews and Gentiles alike. Jesus was willing to live in relative poverty, minister in a relatively small group in an unimportant nation at the fringe of the Roman Empire, and die in relative obscurity for the love of the human race and to glorify God. Resisting the temptations he faced required human emotional strength as well as a divine character.


I cannot speak for all pastors, but I spent much of my ministry trying to be successful by the standards of the American Evangelical movement. Church growth, good Biblical programming, the exemplary leadership structure, and a thousand other semi-important things crowded my days and nights with ceaseless activity. In the end, when it was over, like many pastors, I had to ask the tough questions, “Did I do any good?” and “Was it worth it? “Were all the nights spent away from family and friends really necessary?” I had to face some critical personal and social failures.

The Emotionally Healthy series of books is not without weaknesses, but the failings are minor when compared with the strengths of the series. Though using secular psychological models and tools, Scazzarro is careful to remain grounded in Scripture and the Christian tradition. One of the series’ strengths is the wide range of thinkers quoted and used, especially in the devotional guides, names stretching from the Desert Fathers to contemporary writers like Henri Nouwen. The devotional guides, designed to introduce readers to the notion of the Daily Office, are significant and many people who take the courses read and use them.

The books and video guides are well crafted and helpful, as are the workbooks. I have found myself returning to the devotional guides and workbooks to think about certain questions again and again, they are so meaningful.

I recommend The Emotionally Healthy Discipleship courses for church leaders, my dear churches, and the many congregants I love for one simple, straightforward reason: I love you and regret that I did not do more to help members, visitors, leaders, and churches in the way Peter and Geri Scazzero recommend in their writings. Doing the work the studies require will change your life, improve your walk with Christ, and unlock your hidden potential for joy in Christ.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Discipleship: Moving from Shallow Christianity to Deep Transformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021).

[2] Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003, 2010).

[3] Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality updated ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017)

[4] Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming your Inner Life will Deeply Transform your Church, Team, and World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017)

[5] See, Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, at 22 and Chuck Olson, Lead with Your Life at https://leadwithyourlife.com/book/emotionally-healthy-spirituality/ (Downloaded March 28, 2023).

Plato No. 6: Critique of Democracy

I have already given space to Karl Popper and his critique of Plato, particularly his opposition to democracy. However, one cannot summarily dismiss the ideas of the founder of Western philosophy without a sympathetic look at his critique. In so doing, it allows one to look more critically at his critics, such as Popper.

Background to Republic

As previously indicated, Plato came from an aristocratic family, well connected in Athens, and was active in its political life over generations. His life experience enabled him to see some of the worst aspects of political life, including the degeneration of democracy into mob rule. The result was a pessimistic view of political life. His experience with the various regimes of Athens, some of which he initially supported, ended with disappointment and despair:

Consequently, although at first I was filled with an ardent desire to engage in public affairs, when I considered all this and saw how things were shifting about anyhow in all directions, I finally became dizzy; and although I continued to consider by what means some betterment could be brought about not only in these matters but also in the government as a whole, yet as regards political action I kept constantly waiting for an opportune moment; until, finally, looking at all the States which now exist, I perceived that one and all they are poorly governed; for the state of their laws is such as to be almost incurable without some marvelous overhauling and good-luck to boot. [1]

Plato’s conclusion, repeated in the Republic, was that political life was hopelessly evil and could not be cured unless philosophers acquired political power, presumably including Plato. [2] Without such a divine intervention into political life, political society was doomed to endless decline into tyrannies, oligarchies, and democracies, and those “who hold power in them cannot endure so much as the mention of the name of a just government with equal laws.”[3]

The Republic

An excellent place to begin this blog is with a story, like the story of the cave included in the Republic. Plato imagines a ship or even Aa number of ships under common ownership. Although the ship owner is bigger and stronger than everyone else, everyone on board, he deaf, a bit blind, not intelligent, and does not understand seafaring. The sailors constantly quarrel, each trying to become the captain. Unfortunately, they have no relevant experience, education, or talent in ship management. They continually crowd around the owner, trying to get the ship owner to give them the captaincy. If they can’t persuade the owner to give them control of the ship, they execute whoever is elected or will throw them overboard. As to the ship owner, if they cannot corrupt the ship owner or stupefy the ship owner with drugs, they take over the ship violently, wasting its cargo and sailing recklessly. [4]

To Plato, this story describes the Greek city-state of his day. Like seafaring, it takes a particular kind of education, experience, and ability to guide the ship of state. Unfortunately, even though citizens have some degree of education and involvement in public life, they do not have the requisite talent, education, or ability to guide the ship of state. Worse, many people involved in politics need more capacity for the task of government. Nevertheless, many of them, especially in a democracy, think they can guide the shape of state. The result is wasteful constant strife, violence, political upheaval, and poor decision-making regarding governance matters.

Various Kinds of Polity and their Decline

As mentioned in prior writings, Plato analyzed the various ways political life is organized. Shared by Aristotle and others. In his dialogue, The Statesman, Plato names three main types: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, with each type having a degenerate form: tyranny, oligarchy (plutocracy), and mob rule. Plato, like Aristotle, sees the best form of government as an aristocracy. This is consistent with his social location and, perhaps even more importantly, his experience of his day’s politics. He had seen the decline of Athenian democracy into a terrible and violent tyranny.

In the Republic, Plato analyzes how various forms of government decline into tyranny, which he regards as the worst possible form of government. He begins with a process view of how governments rise and fall. His entire program starts with the assumption that all governments, indeed all human creations, are subject to flux and change, so the only permanently stable government must be ideal, as close to the perfect form of government as human knowledge permits.[5] Furthermore, Plato’s Kallipolis depends upon the existence of ideal individuals, the philosopher-kings or guardians, who would be educated and bred to be immune to the changes, corruption, temptations, and difficulties of political life.

One indication of this is the story told in the Seventh Letter concerning Plato’s unsuccessful attempt to create a version of his ideal city in Sicily by educating its ruler and his son in the nature of ideal government. The experiment failed. At one point in his letter, Plato observes:

Of necessity, these States never cease changing into tyrannies, oligarchies, and democracies, and the men who hold power in them cannot endure so much as the mention of the name of a just government with equal laws. [6]

In the end, Plato’s political philosophy is pessimistic.

Even assuming a perfect state could be formed, such states are subject to decline, decay, and division. [7]Just as humans age, decay, and die, the ideal state cannot escape the law of change implanted in the physical universe. Therefore, once a perfect state is established, there will still be the desire for money, violence, and division. In particular, the warrior class will be tempted to take power, and it is from this fact that a timocracy arises. For all of its virtues, the warrior class is violent and attached to honor rather than truth. The result is that such a form of government decays.

This timocracy resembles the ideal state and will be devoted to many of the ideals of the perfect state. Still, because philosophy has been abandoned, the rulers will ultimately develop an extravagant desire for wealth. This, in turn, results in the emergence of oligarchy, the rule of the wealthy. Once the ancient virtues of the philosopher-king and the warrior class are extinguished, the love of money takes the place of the love of honor. In time, wealth is concentrated in political power devolved upon the rich.

The rule of the rich is inherently unstable, resulting in the development of two classes: the rich and the poor. The rich desire to maintain and defend their wealth and prosperity. The poor desire to become rich. In the end, the result is social chaos. It does not take much imagination to see the situation developing in American democracy today. Wealth has become increasingly concentrated in a wealthy few who have significant control over our government.

In the end, as Plato analyzes the situation, oligarchies are doomed to become democracies. The cause is the decline in morals, love of extravagance, and love of money endemic to such a society. [8] Eventually, democracy evolves out of an oligarchy as the poor revolt out of opposition to the rule of the rich, giving power to the poor and unqualified to rule wisely. [9] Initially, when the masses take over, there is great freedom of speech and action. [10] Paradoxically, in a democracy, the rich continue to rule, but the rulership depends upon placating the mass of people. [11]

In a democracy, the result of the love of money, extravagance, lack of restraint, and the necessity to redistribute wealth to the masses to retain power eventually results in tyranny. When democratic leaders redistribute wealth, they always retain as much as possible for themselves. [12]  The result is another corrupt oligarchy of the political class. Eventually, there arises a man who flatters the masses, claims to be their selfless champion, and makes all kinds of promises to gain power. [13] In response, the people choose a champion, a man with the character of a tyrant, and the result is tyranny.

Tyranny is the worst form of government, and tyrants are the worst sort of person. As mentioned earlier, tyrants come to power by making promises to the people that cannot be sustained. Because of how they gain political power, tyrants always fear the rich, the powerful, the honorable, and the moral. They live in a constant state of fear and paranoia:

He must, therefore, keep a sharp lookout for anyone brave, large-minded, knowledgeable, or rich. And so happy is he that he must be the enemy of them all, whether he wants to be or not, and plot against them until he has purged them from the city. [14]

The natural result of this situation is the development of an unjust, unfair, and unwise government, far worse than any other form imaginable. As Plato puts it:

You mean that the tyrant is a parricide and a harsh nurse of old age, that his rule has become an acknowledged tyranny at last, and that –as the saying goes—by trying to avoid the firing pan of enslavement to free men, the people have fallen into the fire of enslaving people as their masters, and that in place of great but inappropriate freedom, they enjoyed under democracy, they have put upon themselves the harshest and most bitter slavery to slaves. [15]

Analysis and Conclusion

Fairness to Plato requires stepping away from the defense of democracy to which this blog is devoted, seeing the potential fairness of his critique, even seeing in our current state of political decline the operation of forces that wise people have seen operative in other societies. Plato sees several factors as contributing to the decay of a social order:

  1. The power of money corrupts those who possess it.
  2. The temptation to use public funds to purchase political influence.
  3. The potential for liberty to turn into license.
  4. The ability of people lacking knowledge or experience to gain power in democracies.
  5. The ability of certain personality types to manipulate people to gain control.

The founders of American democracy read Plato and others previously covered in this series. They were aware of the dangers inherent in a democratic constitution. One reason the checks and balances were placed in the Constitution was to create barriers against the potential excesses of democracy, which they knew to be prone to degeneration into mob rule and then tyranny. Over time, the public commitment to these checks and balances has declined, and the electorate has become unaware of the reasons behind the limitations on political power they felt necessary for a functional democracy.

Perhaps even more troubling is how the power of the media has enabled people with little or no experience in government to serve at high levels in the executive and legislative branches of government. As a result, our government’s fundamental structure may need to account for changes in our society and the dangers of a world in which nuclear weapons exist and can be used by rogue nation-states. Again, this is a matter for study, conversation, and dialogue.

As mentioned before, the Republic has as its theme justice and the best structure for a just society. In Plato’s mind, a society characterized by unceasing political strife could not be or remain a just one. He lived through times of upheaval and social change. Although he could not have known it, the days of Athenian democracy were over, and the rule of Macedonian warrior kings was just over the horizon. His attempt to maintain the virtues of the society where he grew up was perhaps noble. But it was also doomed.

Our nation’s founders tried as best they could to avoid the dangers of the forms of the political organization of which they were aware. They were children of the Enlightenment, and their times preceded the industrial, service, and information revolutions. The society of some 350 million we live in is far from the agricultural communities of 2,500,000 with which the founders were familiar. It is our duty to preserve and adapt our inheritance for the sake of our children and children’s children.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Plato, Seventh Letter Section 325e www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0164%3Aletter%3D7 (downloaded March 16, 2023), hereinafter, “Seventh Letter”.

[2] Id, at 326a.

[3] Id, at 326c.

[4] Plato, Republic tr. G. M.A. Grube rev. C.D.C Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), at 162. This is found at section 489. Future cites will be to this number.

[5] I believe that Plato must have understood that no ideal, even his Kallipolis, could not be permanently established within human history, for all created, substantial things, unlike ideal Forms, are subject to inevitable change. This conclusion flows logically and obviously from his premises about the relationship between Forms and reality.

[6] Seventh Letter, at 326d

[7] Republic. at 546.

[8] Id, at 560.

[9] Id, at 557.

[10] Id, at 557.

[11] Id, at 564.

[12] Id, at 565.

[13] Id. at 566.

[14] Id, at 567.

[15] Id, at 569.

Plato 5: Justice, Leadership, and a (Misguided) Utopia

In the Republic, Plato spends a lot of time talking about the nature of a perfect Greek city-state (aKallipolis” in Greek) [1] and the education and character of such perfect rulers for such a perfect city. In so doing, he sheds additional light upon his view of justice and sets himself up as a defender of a fundamentally aristocratic form of government. Some scholars view his position as supportive of tyranny. Plato’s purpose in the Republic was, however, not to promote tyranny but to develop an ideal form of government.

Plato came from an aristocratic family, a life situation that probably impacted his political views. [2] On both his mother’s and father’s sides, he was descended from very prominent families with historical involvement in Athenian politics. The political instability young Plato observed, and the death of Socrates deeply impacted Plato during his youth and early adulthood. Plato experienced the end of one constitution, the emergence of a dictatorship (the dictatorship of the Thirty), and the subsequent democratic excesses that ended with the death of Socrates.

During his travels and sojourns outside of Athens, he observed the limitations of other states in Italy and Sicily. He experienced the uncertainty and unfairness of much political life. Although attracted to politics, Plato ultimately preferred the philosophical life to the life of action and practical politics. Nevertheless, his early interest in politics never deserted him. His greatest work, the Republic, is dominated by the search for a stable definition of justice and a means by which a completely just city-state might be created.

Karl Popper, in his great work, The Open Society and its Enemies, puts the issue this way:

Plato lived in a period of wars and political strife, which was, for all we know, even more unsettled than that which had troubled Heraclitus. While he grew up, the breakdown of the tribal life of the Greeks had led in Athens, his native city, to a period of tyranny and later to the establishment of a democracy which tried to jealously guard itself against any attempts to reintroduce either a tyranny or an oligarchy, i.e. a rule of the leading aristocratic families. [3]

Popper and other thinkers believe that Plato was haunted by these experiences and by the philosophy of Heraclitus, with its emphasis on change. He never entirely escaped the instability of his youth and the challenge of Heraclitus, both of which were motiving factors for his attempt to create a model for a perfect society in the Republic.

Plato’s Forms

In the Republic, Plato relates his famous “Allegory of the Cave.” [4] According to Socrates, the human race is pictured as living imprisoned in a dimly lit cave in which only shadows of reality can be seen. The light is far above them. Most people live and think in the shadows. To reach the light, one must undertake a journey towards the light. Those who seek freedom from the shadows must endure both the journey and the pain of enlightenment, but those who escape the cave realize that the shadow realities to which they are accustomed are shadows.

Socrates explains the meaning of the allegory to Glaucon as follows:

The visible realm should be like into the prison dwelling, and the light a fire inside it to the power of the sun. And if you interpret the upward journey and the study of things above as the inward journey of the soul, to the intelligible realm, you’ll grasp what I hope to convey, since that is what you wanted to hear about. Whether it’s true or not only the god knows. But this is how I see it: in the knowable realm, the form of the good is the last thing to be seen, and it is reached only with difficulty. Once one has seen it, however, one must conclude that it is the cause of all that is correct, and beautiful in anything, that it produces both light, and its source in the visible realm, and that in the intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to ask sensibly in private or public, must see it. [5]

The ascent of the soul from the cave of the shadows of ignorance to the light of wisdom is a journey from the darkness of the visible, material world into the ideal world of forms.

For Plato, true knowledge and wisdom are found in an unchanging ideal world of ideas, which constitutes the form, pattern, essence, and ideal perfection of every actually existing thing. The form is a kind of plan or paradigm of the perfection of the material world of human experience. This includes the political world and our political experience. To comprehend this ideal, human beings must be educated and undergo the difficulties and challenges of leaving a state of ignorance and entering a state of true knowledge. This intelligible realm “controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to ask sensibly in private or public, must see it.” [6] In other words, understanding the intelligible realm is necessary in public life and private affairs.

The Kallipolis of Plato, his Ideal State, was an attempt to outline the form, the pattern, and the absolute ideal of what a Greek City-State might be like. It was what I call a “Transcendental Ideal.” [7] While it is certain that Plato would have liked to see Athens approach this ideal, I believe he understood that it could not be achieved. In the Republic, Plato sets out ideas that he believes, if implemented, would create a more stable Greek City-State. And avoid the conflict, revolution, violence, and injustice he had seen in his youth.

His ideas have been criticized much, and I happen to agree with many of the criticisms. A deceptive, unwise, destructive idealism fuels the revolutionary idealism of Marxists, Leninists, Nazis, and others. We see much evidence of this in contemporary society. As Karl Popper shows in his The Open Society and its Enemies, ideas have consequences, and ideas that are unrealistic and revolutionary are dangerous to human life, property, and the public good.

The ideas of Plato, however, cannot be dismissed as simply dangerous. One cannot deny that modern ideals of justice and notions of a “perfect society” have been influenced by Plato, especially his idea of a perfect society. The progress of society needs Transcendental Ideals, which drive human beings to improve the condition of the poor, the outcast, the rejected, and the lost. Our notion of the best kind of political state continues to be influenced by his work, and our ideas of justice are deeply influenced by Plato and those who have extended his work.

Most importantly, I think that the defect of the Republic flow from Plato’s notion of the forms, an ideal world that can be discerned only by pure reason. As we have reflected in these blogs, transcendental ideals are built on the foundation of human experience. We cannot reason or way to a perfect society; we can only work toward a more just and equitable society. The methodology of Plato was flawed from the beginning.

Power and the Ideal State

Plato sees that an ideal state requires ideal rulers who will administer its political and governmental affairs. If these rulers are to be able to rule effectively, then the various social classes that make up any society must be harmonized. Otherwise, there cannot be anything like justice. Any society is made up of different classes of people. Plato was familiar with Greek societies and those of the surrounding area. In these societies, there were six fundamental groups.”

  • Rulers (charches)
  • Soldiers (polymystes)
  • Farmers (perioikoi)
  • Craftsmen (tekton)
  • Laborers (helots)
  • Slaves (douloi)

The first two groups are related, for the rulers generally came from an aristocracy (aristoi) with military training and ability. In the Republic, Plato reduces the various groups to three: rulers, warriors, and everyone else.

 As indicated above, traditional Greek society was highly structured and aristocratic. Homer’s Iliad glorified war, and traditional Greek society was military at its roots. In Athens, the traditional rule of kings was replaced by tyranny and democracy, both of which Plato had seen decay into violence, injustice, and mob rule. [8]  In Plato’s analysis, there can never be peace until philosophers, not the traditional leaders of Greece, rule. Thus, he has Socrates observe in the Republic:

Until philosophers rule as kings in cities or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils. [9]

Warriors, who generally seek glory, make poor rules, for they are given to violence and overreaction. Craftsmen are given to greed and wealth accumulation and, therefore, cannot be good rulers. Slaves cannot be rulers, for they are not even citizens. Farmers and laborers lack the education and ability to be rulers. This leaves the need for an ideal philosopher king, which Plato calls “Guardians.” The guardians trained to be philosopher-kings are capable of guarding and maintaining the way of life in the city. [10] Unfortunately, this group of people does not exist, so it must be created.

The Role of Education

If an ideal city-state is to be achieved, leadership must be competent to create and maintain this ideal. A just and stable society cannot be achieved without leadership capable of ruling in a just and stable way. This requires special education. In Plato’s mind, the proper education for society is one in which each member of society is educated for the role they will play. In Plato’s day, Greek society was reasonably well fixed, with little chance for people to move between social classes. Plato’s much-criticized educational views tend to solidify society and limit the potential for positive and negative social change.  This is a much-commented-on weakness in his views.

In his book, The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper makes a sustained critique of the totalitarian tendencies of Plato’s description of the ideal society and his educational views, which were designed to make it nearly impossible for social evolution to occur. [11] One unfortunate adaptation of Plato’s views in modern education has been his use to justify a kind of education that educates children with the views of the ruling academic class, which have been almost uniformly secular. Plato’s educational theories were unabashedly political and designed to solidify the rule of the Philosopher Kings, which he envisioned world rule in the ideal state.

As to the curriculum Socrates recommends, he begins with stories, not all stories but those which teach virtue to the young. Such stories are to be of a type that encourages courage, moderation, holiness, and thoughtfulness in the young. [12]

Third, an ideal education does not ignore the physical health of those educated. Since the Guardians are taken from the warrior caste, they must be physically hardened for the life of a soldier: Thus, Plato writes:

Then our warrior athletes need a more sophisticated kind of training. They must be like sleepless hounds, able to see and hear as keenly as possible and to endure frequent changes of water and food, as well as summer and winter weather on their campaigns, without faltering in health. [13]

One supposes that Plato has in mind a kind of philosopher-king who spends his early years as a Special Forces officer. In my experience, such people are scarce and not necessarily possessed of the best judgment about matters outside of making war.

The next important for Platonic education is music and mathematics. This may seem odd, but it reflects Plato’s interest in Pythagoras and mathematics as an ideal form. Music is mathematical and rhythmic in harmony, grace, rhythm, meter, etc. For Plato, this harmonic character should be characteristic of the words and the music. Such music and poetry create a harmony of the soul compatible with Plato’s theory of forms, for music and harmony seek perfection in the forms themselves. [14]

Finally, a philosopher-king must be trained in philosophy and dialectic, for dialectic is the path of reason applied to political affairs. Plato’s dialectic is the ability to reason towards the ideal form in every part of life and argue rationally about practical governance matters to maintain the ideal state.

Lest I be unfair, underneath Plato’s educational system is an interest in justice as he perceives it. Since justice requires the achievement of harmony in society, those who can best create that justice will have achieved a certain harmony in their souls created by fine literature, harmonious music, and physical training that Plato believes will allow them to develop a love of order and beauty and perceive the best way forward for society. [15] We might disagree with his exact methods, but we can see that his ideal was well-meaning.


As I mentioned earlier, I think critiques of Plato, such as that mounted by Karl Popper in his works, are valid. In my view, Plato’s idealistic notion that one can create a perfect society or even envision one by using pure reason is a mistaken move. The betterment of society does not depend upon envisioning an ideal in the abstract but by studying the current state of affairs in any society and taking measured, practical steps to improve it. In gathering facts and analyzing the results of particular policy initiatives, one can discern the path of justice and improvement for an actual concrete society. Any other path is foolish and riven with the danger of excess and the unwise and destructive use of power.

[1] Kallipolis in Greek means “beautiful city,” and describes Plato’s vision of a perfectly organized, harmonious, ideal Greek City-State. This city would avoid the calamity of destructive conflict and violent change because it would be ordered in accordance with reason and embody an ideal form. Scholars differ as to whether Plato felt his Kallipolis was likely to be embodied in any existing state.

[2] In the aftermath of Athens’s defeat in the Peloponnesian War (431-405 B.C), a pro-Sparta party was installed in leadership and created a “reign of terror.” They became known as the “Thirty Tyrants” because of their cruelty. Once they were overthrown, because several of the Thirty and their supporters had been students of Socrates, he was arrested, tried, and executed, even though Socrates had served with honor in the Peloponnesian War and refused to support orders of the Thirty Tyrants. He was executed around the year 400 B.C.

[3] Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 17.

[4] Plato, Republic tr. G. M.A. Grube rev. C.D.C Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), 514-

[5] Id, at 517b-c.

[6] Id.

[7] As I use the term “transcendental ideal,” it refers to an optimal future that cannot be achieved within history but towards which political and other actors can move within history. The Biblical notions of the “Kingdom of God” and the “Heavenly City” of Revelation embody two such ideals. I have dealt with these ideas in “Niebuhr 10: The End and Meaning of History” at gchristopherscruggs.com, published January 17. 2023.

[8] See, Plato’s Seventh Letter, at www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0164%3Aletter%3D7 (downloaded January 30, 2023).

[9] Republic, 473b.

[10] Id, at 384b.

[11] FS&E, at 126-132.

[12] Republic, 395-399.

[13] Id, at 404b.

[14] Id, at 400e.

[15] Id, at 403a.

Plato No. 4: The Republic and Justice

The nature of justice is the central question around which the Republic is structured. [1] In his greatest work, Plato discusses the nature of justice, defends its reality, and indicates the kind of society and polity he views most likely to produce a just social order. Plato was primarily an ethical and social philosopher. His metaphysical speculations were driven by an interest in achieving a good and righteous life amid the fluctuations of political fortunes and the temptations and pressures of practical life.

Plato was born around 348 B.C. into a prominent family. His father was descended from the last king of Athens, and his mother was descended from Solon, the great lawgiver of Athenian history. It was Solon who gave a form to the democratic constitution of the city-state. In a famous letter, Plato describes his various political activities and the disillusionments that resulted from his life experiences. [2] There is no question but that these experiences impacted Plato’s views on Justice.

Justice in the Time of Plato

Before dealing with specifics of the argument in the Republic, it is useful to look at the meaning of dikē, the ancient Greek word for “justice.” By Plato’s day, Dikē was largely replaced by its cognate, dikaiosynē, the word used for Plato’s cardinal virtue, justice. Important for understanding Plato is that Heraclitus used the term “justice” to refer to a proper balance among the forces of strife which he thought fundamental to the functioning of the universe. [3] This is a view held by other Greek philosophers.

In the New Testament, dikaiosynē refers to righteousness and often translates the Hebrew term “tsadique”. To the traditional Hebrew mind, a just or righteous person follows the law of God (the torah) and the teachings and wisdom of the past regarding proper behavior between people. This traditional usage is close to what might have been the traditional view of the Greeks as to the nature of justice. Perhaps more importantly for understanding Plato, the traditional world implies that justice must be achieved despite political life’s flux, change, and strife.

Three Views of Justice in the Republic

In the Republic, Plato outlines several competing theories of Justice:

Traditional Group Ethics. The dialogue of the Republic begins with the views of Cephalus, an elderly friend of Socrates who represents the traditional wisdom of the Greeks. For Cephalus, justice is speaking truthfully and giving each person their due. It is roughly equivalent to what Jewish wisdom literature considered just or righteous in a human being. A just person gives to each what is their due in society and their social and personal relations. After Cephalus leaves the conversation, his heir, Polemarchus, defends a more sophisticated version of the traditional view. “Justice” for Polemarchus is doing good to your friends and harm to your enemies. This may seem a harsh and limited sense of justice until one understands what Polemarchus is defending. We might call him a defender of a “group” or “tribal” loyalty. [4]For Polemarchus, a just person acts righteously towards family, social class, friends, fellow workers, church, neighborhood, city, and perhaps the nation. Justice is a social virtue practiced within a particular society, in the case of ancient Greece, the city-state.

Socrates argues that this is not necessarily true. For example, if my neighbor should give me some explosives to store in my barn and then later comes and asks for them so that he can blow up his place of employment, justice would not dictate that I give him his due despite our bond of friendship. The argument, which may seem obvious, points to a limitation on any tribal standard of justice: There are times when we are faced with a call to do justice greater than our loyalty to those closest to us.  Therefore, no traditional, tribal, or group ethics can be an infallible guide to action, not even our loyalties to those most important to us.

Power Ethics. Thrasymachus, a prominent sophist, then states his view, which should be familiar to modem people.  For Thrasymachus, justice is what those in power say it is:

This, then,  is what I say justice is, the same in all cities, the advantage of the established rule. Since the established rule is certainly stronger, anyone who reasons correctly will conclude that the just is the same everywhere, namely the advantage of the stronger. [5]

According to this argument, justice is simply that which those in power hold to be in their best interests.

Socrates attacks this argument by stating that the stronger and those in authority do not always know what is in their best interests and make mistakes of judgment, which we all call “injustice.” [6] It simply cannot be that justice is whatever those in power consider it to be at one moment, whether it is a king, a group, or the people.

Socrates also argues against the sophist position by analogizing political leaders to craftsmen. Insofar as they practice their profession, all craftsmen seek something other than their advantage. For example, doctors seek the health of their patients, and if they do not do so, they are poor doctors. Artists seek to create a piece of art desired by their benefactors. By analogy, political leaders are craftsmen in the art of government. Their art involves seeking the public good. If they seek their advantage and not the public good, they are not good craftsmen or use a word appropriate to political affairs, and they are acting unjustly. Thus, justice cannot be simply those in power seeking their advantage.

In response to this argument, Thrasymachus violently argues that Socrates is merely naive. He does not understand how the world operates. Justice is created as those who can dominate others and seek their own benefit. The only people interested in justice are the weak and naïve. They become just by following the dictates of the strong. We call justice simply a name given to the norms the powerful prefer.

For Thrasymachus, Socrates simply refuses to understand that justice and injustice relate to the advantage of the stronger and the ruler. What the ruler desires is automatically just, even though it is detrimental to the subject who obeys and serves. One who serves well is just. Injustice, then, consists in not doing what the rulers desire and serving the advantage of the stronger.[7] “Justice,” according to Thrasymachus, is attributable to only the weak who must serve the strong. They are just when they serve the strong and unjust when they do not.

Socrates replies with an argument applicable to our current society. If the views of Thrasymachus were to be put into practice, the moral fiber of the society would be destroyed, for no citizen would care about justice. Those who believe, like Nietzsche, that power is everything are ultimately unwise and foolish. They destroy the state. A sound political system requires wisdom and virtue, and wisdom and virtue can only exist where there is justice. [8]

A Utilitarian View of Justice. Glaucon presents a view of justice that is communitarian and utilitarian. Originally, societies were formed at the will of the strong. This is the root of Thrasymachus’ view of justice. Human nature is such that our natural competitiveness and desire for honor inevitably cause human beings to act without reference to justice toward others. [9] Justice, then, is not a natural virtue; it exists to place limits on human injustice. As to each person, what is important is to be seen as just for social reasons, but being a just person is not necessary for human happiness:

When fathers speak to their sons, they say that one must be just, as do all the others who have charge of anyone. But they don’t praise justice itself, only the high reputations it leads to, and the consequences of being thought to be just, such as public offices, marriages, and other things…. [10]

Justice is not natural, so to speak, but social in its nature and benefits. It results from our human need to place limits on power. It is unnatural and onerous for those who seek it. [11] Therefore, justice is doing things necessary to maintain the peace in order of a society, protecting the property and rights of those within it.

A Socratic View of Justice

In the end, Socrates defends the view that justice is found in a well-ordered society. In such a society, there is social peace because people of different groups receive what they are due. Only in such a society can the traditional view of justice and a social view of justice be combined so that all people receive their due. In so doing, Socrates tries to achieve the best of the prior theories without their flaws. He rejects the view that justice is merely traditional, the result of power, or utilitarian. Justice is an independent reality based on human nature and the nature of human society.

Socrates argues that justice can be discerned by analogy to what constitutes a just person. A just person keeps the three constituents of the human person, mind, body, and soul in a rational order. By analogy, a just society exists where the major groups of society are in order. Plato divides Greek society into three classes whose characteristics mirror the human psyche: philosophers (mind), honor seekers (soul), and money lovers (body). [12] A just society is, by analogy to the human person, a society in which the instincts of each class can exist in harmony.

Socrates’ view of justice as based on reason indicates that philosophers should rule because the love of wisdom is connected to the human capacity of reason which creates order in personal human affairs. According to Greek thought, the person guided by reason and controls his mind, emotions, and appetites accordingly is righteous. Society must also be ruled by reason to achieve justice. As Socrates put it:

Therefore, when the entire soul follows the philosophical part, and there is no Civil War in it, each part of it does its own work exclusively, and it’s just, and in particular, it enjoys its own pleasures, the best and truest pleasures possible for it. [13]

This conclusion leads Socrates to a consideration of that kind of society would most frequently achieve justice. The ideal city of the Republic is Plato’s answer to that question.


The sophist arguments in the Republic should be familiar to modern people, for it is implicit in all Marxist and Nietzschean views of justice. It sits behind the view of Oliver Wendell Holmes that justice is whatever the majority believes it to be. As Holmes observed in his essay on “Natural Law,” reprinted in Harvard Law Review:

I used to say when I was young, that truth was the majority vote of that nation that could lick all others. Certainly we may expect that the received opinion about the present war will depend a good deal upon which side wins (I hope with all my soul it will be mine), and I think that the statement was correct insofar as it implied that our test of truth is a reference to either a present or an imagined future majority in favor of our view. [14]

Modern people cannot ignore the views of Thrasymachus because they are the views held by many elites: “Justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.[15] The result of such thinking is evident everywhere around us. It is, as Socrates predicted, the result of a sophistic social order is “civil war, hatred, and infighting, while justice brings friendship and a sense of common purpose.” [16] For our society to heal, it will be necessary to recover belief among elites in the reality and importance of justice, not as a slogan to attain power, but as an invisible reality to seek.

Karl Popper, in his great work, The Open Society and its Enemies  makes what I think is a fair critique of the limits of Plato’s analysis and conclusions. Popper points out that the Republic does not deal with certain egalitarian ideals present in Greek society and which had been upheld by its democratic leaders. He begins his critique by pointing out that Plato omits to discuss what we would consider the most important fundamental ideals of justice:

… most of us, especially those whose general outlook is humanitarian, means something like this: (a) equal distribution of the burden of citizenship, i.e. of those limitations of freedom, which are necessary in social life; (b) equal treatment of the citizens before the law, provided, of course, that (c) the laws show neither favor nor disfavor towards individual citizens, or groups or classes; (d) impartiality of the courts of justice; and (e), an equal share in the in the advantages (and not only in the burden) which membership of the state may offer to its citizens. [17]

In Popper’s view, Plato’s omission is due to his fundamentally anti-democratic view of the state, which reduces justice to the convenience and maintenance of what Plato sees as the ideal state. [18] In this sense, Popper sees Plato as fundamentally totalitarian in his view of justice. In particular, this kind of view of justice views the needs of the ruling class of society as paramount and as superior to individual claims to freedom and justice in the sense set out above.

While I agree with Popper’s critique, I would argue that Socrates’ argument in the Republic is fundamentally sound. He considers justice as an independent reality. It cannot be reduced to power, utility, or any other lesser thing. Justice is related to the creation of social peace and harmony, a harmony that requires that society be governed by reason. In this way, Plato upholds basic ideals that may be under attack in the modern world. Plato was, however, limited by his view of the ideal state, which few contemporary thinkers would view as ideal in any meaningful way. His aristocratic leanings and the development of his philosophy from an unachievable and unwise totalitarian ideal reveal his social location.

Copyright 2923, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Plato, Republic tr. G. M.A. Grube rev. C.D.C Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992).

[2] The letter in question is the so-called “Seventh Letter of Plato.” Plato’s Seventh Letter, at www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0164%3Aletter%3D7 (downloaded January 30, 2023). Some scholars question its authenticity.

[3] “Justice” at/www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dike (downloaded January 30, 2023).

[4] It is a view called, “tribal” by some thinkers today. I think this appellation is unfair. The idea is that the society to which I belong has a set of standards that are natural to it, standards that its members uphold. The weakness of this notion is only seen as my standards come into conflict with the standards of others.

[5] Republic, 339.

[6] Id, at 339d. In making this argument, Thrasymachus illustrates a problem that is causing the decline of our own democracy. His view means that tyranny, oligarchy, and mob rule are all equally able to call their decrees “just” even though they harm others. This problem is endemic to modern American politics. Those in power feel justified in doing whatever they please.

[7] Id, at 343c-d.

[8] Id, at 351d.

[9] Id, at 359b-c-d.

[10] Id, at 363a

[11] Id, at 364

[12] Id, at 581c

[13] Id, at 586c

[14] Oliver Wendell Holmes, Natural Law” Harvard Law Review (1918).

[15] Republic, 338c.

[16] Id, at 351d.

[17] Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 86

[18] Id.

Preparation for Leadership in the Apostolic Era.

Life within God’s family after Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension is not identical to the life of discipleship when Jesus was physically present, nor can it be precisely how today’s church prepares leaders. When Jesus was physically present, his call was to come and physically follow and be with him (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:2-11). When Jesus ascended into heaven, the apostles’ call was to trust and believe in the Risen Christ and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, continue to follow Jesus as leaders of a small, unpopular, and sometimes persecuted fellowship of Christ-followers. He would be invisibly present by the power of the Holy Spirit. After the resurrection, the call was (and is) to follow Jesus, who is present in his people by the power of the Spirit. The call at the time of the apostles is identical to the call for training leaders within the church today.

First Deacons. After Pentecost, we are told that the early church met in intimate fellowship:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the people’s favor. And the Lord added to their number daily those being saved (Acts 2:42-47).

As the number of disciples increased, there was a need for more leadership. The intimacy of the community was being tested by the difficulties associated with growth. The apostles, therefore, had to appoint additional leaders. Here is how it happened:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them (Acts 6:1-6).

How had these men been prepared? By spending time with the apostles, hearing their teachings, participating in the community, practicing hospitality, and sharing their lives and faith with others. They had no formal education. They had what might be called “relational education.”

Paul. Paul is another unique example. His conversion was unique, dramatic—and doubted by some leaders of the early church and with good reason (Acts 9:26). Barnabas, a great leader of the early church, had confidence that Paul’s conversion and talents were important and real. Therefore, we are told:

But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul, on his journey, had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord (Acts 9:27-28).

If we read between the lines, we can see that Paul was spending time in the fellowship of the Apostles, receiving the same intimate discipleship training and preparation, experiencing the communal life of the church, and using his gifts as he matured as a disciple and prepared for further leadership in the church.

As the church grew beyond the limits of the Holy Land, there was an additional need for leadership. The church eventually sent Barnabas to Antioch to see how things were going there and ensure that the rapidly growing congregation was healthy. At that point, Barnabas brought Paul into the leadership team of the church:

News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and many people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people (Acts 11: 22-25).

Paul’s preparation for leadership was not complete. He spent another year under the leadership and guidance of Barnabas, who kindly prepared him for ministry. Then, the Holy Spirit spoke to the church at Antioch, and Barnabas and Paul set out on their first missionary journey.

Now in the church at Antioch, there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch), and Saul.  While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:1-3).

The order of names is important. Paul is still apprenticing with Barnabas. A close reading of the events of the First Missionary Journey shows that Paul was nearly ready to lead and was beginning his career as the greatest missionary of the early church. [1]

John Mark. After returning from the First Missionary Journey, there was a period of rest and reporting. When the two missionaries prepared to leave on their second trip, intending to communicate the decisions of the Council at Jerusalem to the churches, Barnabas and Paul had a disagreement that sheds more light upon the training of leaders in the early church.:

Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches (Acts 15:37-41).

John Mark had left the little missionary company during the first Missionary Journey, perhaps from homesickness or some other reason. Paul was unwilling to forgive and forget and continue to train John Mark for ministry, but Barnabas was. Therefore, they split up, and Barnabas, true to his character, continued to train John Mark while Paul undertook to disciple another missionary in the making, Silas.

History records that John Mark eventually became the traveling companion of Peter was with Peter near the end of his life, wrote the gospel we have as Mark, and was a leader of the post-Apostolic Church. He was not ready for leadership when Paul rejected him, and Barnabas continued his training, but he became a leader of the early church.

Church tradition holds that Mark was Peter’s interpreter in Rome. In addition, tradition has it that he wrote the gospel that bears his name. Finally, Mark is also said to have been an evangelist and responsible for establishing the church in Alexandria in Egypt. Paul, Barnabas, and Peter were all a part of his preparation for leadership.

Silas. Silas was a leader of the church in Jerusalem, sent by that church to Antioch, and a traveling companion of Paul until his death. Silas both traveled with Paul and ministered independently of Paul with others, including Timothy, on occasion (Acts 15:14Silas was with Paul at Thessalonica and is mentioned as a co-author of the letters of Paul to that congregation (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess1:1). He seems to have ministered with Peter at some point in his ministry (I1 Peter 5:12)). Legend makes Silas the first bishop of Corinth. Paul and Peter seem both to have been responsible for his development as a leader.

Timothy. During the second Missionary Journey, Paul attracted yet another disciple he trained for leadership. Timothy was the child of a Greek father and a Jewish/Christian mother (Acts 16:1-2). He was a good potential cross-cultural missionary because, like Paul, he could move comfortably in both the Greek-speaking society of Asia Minor and the Jewish culture of the diaspora of the day. He was well-liked in Lystra (v. 2). Timothy would remain a companion of Paul until Paul’s death. He was with Paul, probably in Rome, when the letter to Philemon was written (Philemon 23). Tradition has it that he later served in leadership in the church, eventually becoming a bishop and martyr to Christ.

Luke. The second missionary journey produced yet another future church leader, Doctor Luke, the writer of Luke and Acts and one of the most important figures in transmitting the apostolic witness to future generations. [2] He was with Paul on the Second and Third Missionary Journeys. Luke was with Paul in Rome when Paul wrote his letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:11) and with Paul when Philemon was written (Philemon 23). Church tradition holds that he survived Paul’s death and completed his books about the life of Christ and the actions of the Apostles before his death.

Onesimus. I want to deal with one more early church leader who was subject to intense personal discipleship training by Paul, Onesimus, whom we know of because Paul interceded for him in the book of Philemon. Onesimus was a slave. He escaped from Philemon, his master, and eventually joined Paul and acted as a surrogate son and helper for the now-imprisoned Apostle (Philemon 10-11). Onesimus has become a dear brother and friend to the apostle, who sends him back to his master with a plea for mercy (17-18). Tradition has it that Onesimus later became the bishop of Ephesus, where he may have been instrumental in collecting the letters of Paul. He was put to death, and the church recognized him as a martyr for Christ.

Implications for Pastoral Training

It should come as no surprise to any reader that the Scriptures of the Early Church and the witness of the Gospels support and encourage changes in the way pastors and other church leaders are trained. It is not primarily the duty of Christian Colleges and Seminaries to train church leaders. It is primarily the responsibility of the church to train leaders from among those who have shown promise to existing church leaders.

The second conclusion is that church leadership training must be personal, intimate, and authentically mentoring. Jesus mentored the Apostles in a close, personal relationship. The Apostles and their immediate followers mentored the next generation of church leaders in just the same way Jesus mentored them. By the time the New Testament closes, we are at least in the third generation of mentoring leaders in life-transforming life and community. [3]

As the church of the 21st Century comes to grips with the need for a new generation of apostolic leadership, it should revisit the role of mentoring and personal relationships in the preparation for ministry. Traditional seminaries, online training, and other “cognitive-alone” based strategies will not solve the problem of training a new generation of church leaders.

A possible complaint to my conclusions might be that they underestimate the need for cognitive training and seminary-level curriculum for church leaders. This would be a misinterpretation. I am both happy and grateful for my seminary education and the education that has borne fruit in the lives of many leaders I have known. Such training is important and necessary for many leaders to develop their potential for service to the church. However, cognitive learning is not enough, as the decline in many churches served by traditional seminaries illustrates.

I am arguing for the idea that existing pastors and leaders must make mentoring the next generation of church leaders a priority. Denominations and other groups should act to make this an expected task of church leaders at all levels. The future of the church is at stake.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] It is not the purpose of this essay to go into the details of Paul’s missionary techniques or success. I hope to cover this in a future essay on the leadership and training of missionaries.

[2] Both Timothy and Luke had daily intimate contact with the Apostle. Timothy was recorded as having been given special duties, for he was well-liked in the Jewish-Greek diaspora. I will give more time to Timothy later as we look at the two letters Paul wrote to him; however, the length of this blog means it will have to wait for another writing.

[3] Jesus mentored the Apostles, who mentored Paul and Barnabas, who mentored John Mark, Silas, Timothy, Luke, and Onesimus.

Jesus Prepares Leadership for the Apostolic Church

Training new church leaders is of the utmost importance for the future of Christianity in our society. There is a deep and growing lack of leaders equipped to grow the church under the conditions we face in America and Europe. In many denominations and fellowships, there have been dramatic examples of a decline in faith, morals, and fidelity to the Biblical witness and traditions of the church. Congregations are entitled to view their pastors and leaders as examples of Christian spirituality and character for themselves, their families, and community members.

It is foreign to a Christian understanding of Christian leadership that spiritual and moral standards either do not exist or are not modeled and transmitted by the leadership of local congregations. This means that, in addition to intellectual preparation, there must development of Christian spirituality and character among church leaders of all kinds. We see this exact kind of holistic preparation in the New Testament, beginning with the ministry of Jesus.

The Community Jesus Formed

The New Testament gives Christians insight into how Jesus prepared his disciples for future leadership. [1]The process was personal and communal. Scripture records that Jesus began his ministry by inviting the disciples into a personal relationship. Matthew describes it like this:

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and Simon’s brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once, they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and father, and followed him (Matthew 4:18-22).

Jesus found Peter, Andrew, James, John, and the other disciples as they went about their ordinary day-to-day lives. He did not say, “Stop what you are doing for a few moments and accept me as your Lord and Savior before going on with your life as before.” He did not ask for a merely intellectual commitment, “Recognize I am the Son of God, then you can go back to living the way you did before.” He did not ask them to read his latest book or enter a training program so that they could read and interpret the scriptures according to a confessional ideal. He said, “Come, follow me.” In other words, he invited them into an intimate, interpersonally intense relationship that would end with their becoming leaders of the Christian movement. [2]

This commitment involved more than their minds. It involved a break from the past and physically following him in a life-changing encounter. Jesus began his ministry by creating a family-like group of disciples, unique individuals he was forming into a community of faith. [3] This should encourage contemporary people to see that there are limits to what classroom-centered and online training can accomplish. It was true in the time of Jesus and it is true today.

Jesus called ordinary people into whom he poured his life so that they could pour their lives into the lives of others. In the beginning, they were not ready for leadership. They were not even believers. Nevertheless, Jesus saw their potential. He trained them. He lived with them as if they were his family for three years. He put up with their failures, folly, and shortcomings. He loved them enough to sacrifice his life for them (and us), just as if they (and we) were his biological children. In the end, he called his disciples “Brothers.” Then, he set them loose to change the world and build the same community wherever they went. They did exactly that.

Jesus’ Method of Pastoral Preparation

How did Jesus manage to form and sustain his earthly family of disciples and get them ready for their future ministry? Here are a few concrete things he did:

  • He called his community of disciples into being (Luke 5:1-11).
  • He shared his life with them in a deep and meaningful way (all four Gospels).
  • He prayed for them (John 17:6ff).
  • He taught them (Mark 1:21).
  • He enabled them to see the power of God (Luke 7:11-17, as one example).
  • He loved them (John 13:39).
  • He allowed them to lead (Mark 6:6-7).
  • He rebuked them (Mark 9:36-39).
  • He gave his life for them (Mark 10:45).

These things were experienced and witnessed in the context of a personal, intimate relationship. From beginning to end, Jesus’ conducted his mission in and through relationships with people who were so close to him that they became his new family (Matthew 12:50). This is how Jesus fulfilled the most central part of his ministry: getting a small group of men and women ready for the day when they would lead others to faith in God the Father, whom Jesus called “Abba,” or “Daddy,” by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus trained those he met so that they too would become children of God (John 1:12). As part of this discipleship group, his disciples learned the character and skills they would need to share the faith throughout the Roman world.

Jesus Mighty Deeds and Empowering Mission

Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels are interspersed with mighty deeds of power and his preparation of the disciples to do likewise. For example, in Luke, Jesus chooses the Twelve and then demonstrates to them his power over sin and death:

One day soon afterward Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night. At daybreak, he called together all of his disciples and chose twelve of them to be apostles. Here are their names: Simon (whom he named Peter), Andrew (Peter’s brother), James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas,James (son of Alphaeus), Simon (who was called the zealot), Judas (son of James), Judas Iscariot (who later betrayed him). When they came down from the mountain, the disciples stood with Jesus on a large, level area, surrounded by many of his followers and by the crowds. There were people from all over Judea and from Jerusalem and from as far north as the seacoasts of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases, and those troubled by evil spirits were healed. Everyone tried to touch him because healing power went out from him, and he healed everyone (Luke 6:12-18).

Soon after this event, Jesus sent out the Twelve to engage in the ministry for themselves. (Luke 9:1-4). In Mark, we are told that Jesus sent the disciples out “two by two,” that is in a community with instructions as to how to carry out their mission (Mark 6:7). They went out and preached as they had seen Jesus preach and performed the same kinds of deeds they had witnessed (Mark 6:13). They were able to do these things not just because of what Jesus taught them, but because of what they had witnessed in community with him.

This same cycle of community formation, learning, watching, and then experiencing ministry and mission is the proper formula for training leaders today, just as it was for Jesus. To do this, however, the means and methods we use for leadership training must be modified in the direction of a communal, hands-on mentoring experience. This is not just true for seminaries and the professional training of pastors but also for training lay people.

In my case, I was a Sunday School Teacher, Youth Leader, Deacon, and Elder in a good church before I went to seminary for professional training. When I arrived, I had many basic skills to lead a congregation. I had watched competent leaders, professional and lay, manage a congregation in good times and bad. I had seen successes and experienced failures. I needed a better understanding of theology and ministry, but I was prepared to move into a new phase of leadership. This is exactly how the church should train leaders today. They should be identified and trained in local congregations, mentored significantly, given opportunities to prove themselves, and then sent for professional training. This does not let seminaries off the hook for character and spiritual training. They too must not just give “professional education” but also provide spiritual and moral training for leadership by those who have proven themselves.

Transmitting the Story and its Meaning

The gospel writers are univocal as to the wisdom, character, and spiritual depth of Jesus of Nazareth and the formative influence he had upon his followers. The Gospels are the “mediated memories” of the Apostles, either directly by someone who personally knew Jesus or as mediated by those who received the memories of Jesus from an apostolic source. They represent a recollection after time had passed and the disciples had time to ponder the meaning of what they had learned and heard from Jesus. What the disciples had learned was life-transforming.

All we know about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we know that the disciples told the story to others, who also retold the story. Eventually, some hearers wrote the story down for future generations. Matthew tells the story from the perspective of a Jew for a primarily Jewish community of faith. Mark tells the story from the perspective of the disciples (Peter), who are portrayed as clueless a good bit of the time about the meaning of Jesus’s life. [4] Luke tells the story from the perspective of a Gentile follower of Jesus trained by Paul. John tells the story from a distance in time through the eyes of someone who has thought about the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the gentile world.  In the end, however, they remembered his life, his love, his teachings, and his mighty acts, which they did not so much study as observe in action and life

Every Christian leader should have a similar life-transforming experience as a significant part of the preparation for ministry. Small groups of believers, which call people into a relationship with Christ and each other, allow people to share their Christian walk, deepen their prayer lives, and experience a life-transforming community, are primary vehicles for the Christian life. These groups are a source of Christian teaching, places of loving care, a source of guidance in difficult times, and provide leadership for a growing fellowship of Christians. From the ranks of growing disciples, the church can and should choose some for additional training and leadership in the church.

Jesus’ Interpretation of his Life and its Meaning

Near the end of Luke, on several occasions, Jesus reflects on the meaning of his life and its importance to the disciples. When he met the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, he said to them:

How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:25-27).

When Jesus met the disciples for the last time, according to Luke, he gave them final instructions as to the meaning they were to attach to his life, death, and resurrection:

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44-49).

It is interesting where in his gospel, Jesus places these teachings—in the end, after all the mighty deeds were done, all the sermons preached, and after they had witnessed in community what God was really like. Then, as his final teaching, Jesus gave them a lesson in Old Testament interpretation. To the Jews, the Old Testament had three parts: The Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, which included the Psalms. It is most likely that Jesus undertook to explain his messiahship by teaching from each of these sources, showing how he fulfilled the clues and prophesies of scripture concerning the nature and mission of the Messiah. He did not do this at the beginning of his ministry and then send them out. Instead, throughout his ministry, he showed them, taught them, and brought them to a deeper understanding of the scriptures, an understanding that would continue to grow as time went by.

I have placed the issue of Biblical and Theological training last in this essay, not just because of the ending of Luke, but because it seems to me that it does come last. First, we meet Jesus. Second, we decide to follow Jesus. Third, we experience Jesus in the community of faith. We worship Christ in community. We listen to sermons. We take communion. We pray. We learn how to be in a small group and lead it. We learn a good deal as we go along. We attend Bible studies and retreats and the like. Finally, we are ready for a deeper dive into theology and the meaning of Christ as we are fully and finally prepared for ministry.


This is only a brief review of some of the central events through which the original Twelve were prepared for their sending into the world to fulfill the Great Commission. Today, many scholars and church leaders believe that we are in a “New Apostolic Era.” Western Christians largely live in secular, post-Christian societies. Existing churches are faced with great obstacles not just in sharing the Gospel with new believers but even in maintaining the faith and life of their existing members.

The solution to the decline of the churches goes beyond teaching. It involves creating a new generation of leaders who can form small communities of believers, just as the First Century church created small communities of believers. This requires leaders who understand group dynamics, not just intellectually but practically. It requires that those who lead congregations have experience in leadership at the most basic level of discipleship and Christian formation and more technical education. This means that denominations and churches will have to revise how they train leaders and churches will have to take a more active role in leadership development. There is no other way.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The apostolic preparation of leaders, exemplified by the book of Acts, will be considered in a future essay, as will the Pastoral Epistles of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus.

[2] See G. Christopher Scruggs, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Discipleship (College Station, TX: VirtualBookworm, 2022), 27-28. A good deal of the material within is based on research done while preparing Crisis of Discipleship.

[3] Id, at 110-111.

[4] Although the disciples seem to have hoped he was the expected Messiah, and Peter at some point declares him to be so, that declaration does not prevent them from denying Jesus and drifting away, even betraying him.

Philosophy Before Plato No. 2

This is our second week on the Pre-Socratic Philosophers. Their work is essential, and philosophers today struggle with many of the same questions that motivated the earliest thinkers. This week, we will see that struggles in our time between materialism and idealism, between a world that works from power and a world that honors love, and between a world in which justice is merely a name the winners of the struggle of life place on the fruits of their victory were present in the ancient world, just as they are present today. In particular, we will look at Empedocles because his work, in some ways, leads to the work of C. S. Peirce.

Years ago, while studying a thinker in the tradition of narrative ethics, I wrote a paper critiquing the narrative move because of its infinite malleability based on the prejudices and preferences of interpreters. I compared this modern narrative thinker with Augustine, whose ethics are based upon love and the insight that “God,” the ultimate principle of the universe, is “love” (I John 4:8). My thesis was that an ethic based upon an ontological view of the world, what the world “really is” is always superior to a view that floats on some interpretation of a narrative.

My catchline was, “Ethics should follow ontology”—a conclusion from which I have not wavered. In my subsequent thinking, that insight has been a guide and spur to deeper thought. These blogs are fundamentally a look at political philosophy and theology, but the attempt is also an attempt to think through a defendable ontology that supports and undergirds respect for human freedom of thought, speech, and action. Empedocles considered that Love, similar to what Peirce called “Agapism” was a fundamental aspect of reality. This insight matters, for if there is an attractive, cherishing principle at work in reality, there are consequences of ethics and politics.


Democritus (460-370 B.C.) is credited with initiating that movement of physics and philosophy which we might call “materialistic atomism.” The word “atom” comes from a Greek word, atomos, which means “uncuttable”. For the atomist, all material things are reducible to particles, out of which all other material objects are composed. Democritus was a materialist and skeptical of any explanation of human behavior, including moral behavior, not grounded in his materialistic ontology. Democritus believed that human life was originally like that of animals. As such, Democritus sees human beings and society as developing evolutionarily. He sees the gradual development of human communities as motivated by the need for mutual protection and cooperation in the quest for survival. Thus, human institutions, including governments, have evolved and continue to evolve to meet human needs. [1]

His work remains important today. There is an element of materialistic evolution at work in the development of society, and much of what occurs in our world can be studied and understood in materialistic terms. While post-modern physics casts doubt on the view that material forces can be the complete explanation, they continue to explain a great deal.


The name of Protagoras (490-520 B.C.) is connected in the history of philosophy with the school of “Sophism.” Plato condemned sophists as consisting of those who conducted philosophy for gain and the pleasure of debate without any real interest in truth. Protagoras is credited with the phrase, “Man is the measure of all things,” which is interpreted as meaning that there is no objective truth, only human opinion. In this way, Protagoras is a forerunner of post-modernism. Philosophy is not the search for truth but an endless discussion of topics of philosophical interest.

Protagoras investigated what he called “orthoepeia” (proper use of words) and was one of the first philosophers to write on grammar (syntax). In this endeavor, he is the first representative of a school of linguistic analysis so prominent in the 20th Century. He is important for this reason, if for no other.

Protagoras disbelieved in the Greek gods and was an atheist by the standards of his day. His views on the existence of the good, true, and beautiful, which he considered mere names, make him the first nominalist, or at least the fountain of the idea from which nominalism emerged in the Middle Ages. [2]


Empedocles (492-432 B.C.) was, like Pythagoras, a mixture of a philosopher, scientist, and poet. He was active in a democratic movement against tyranny and an orator of note. He developed the cosmogenic theory that the universe is composed of four classical elements: earth, air, fire, and water.  Empedocles also saw the world as a cosmic cycle of change, growth, and decay. His philosophy is similar to that of Heraclitus but with the difference that instead of strife being the fundamental principle of the universe, the cosmic cycle results from the interplay of Strife and Love or what we might see as a combination of blind material forces and attractive, relational and noetic forces.

For Empedocles, Love involves the attraction of different forms of matter into unity, while Strife involves their separation. Empedocles taught that there was a time when the fundamental elements and Love and Strife existed in a condition of rest and inertness, without mixture and separation, in the form of a sphere (representative of God). The uniting power of Love predominated in the sphere, and the separating power of Strife guarded the extreme edges of the sphere. Since that time, however, Strife has gained more sway, and the actual world is full of contrasts and oppositions due to the combined action of both principles. [3]

Thus, Empedocles writes:

Twofold is what I shall say: for at one time, they [i.e., the elements] grew to be only one. Out of many, at another time again, they separate to be many out of one. And double is the birth of mortal things, double their death. For the one [i.e., birth] is both born and destroyed by the coming together of all things, While the other, inversely, when they are separated, is nourished and flies apart.

These [elements] incessantly exchange their places continually,

Sometimes by Love all coming together into one,

Sometimes again, each one carried off by the hatred of Strife. [4]

Love and strife are dual agents in the formation of the universe from its elementary components. Empedocles’ views are somewhat similar to C. S. Peirce, whose triad of Chance, Order, and Love mirrors, in some ways, Empedocles’s ideas. Peirce’s “Chance” is similar to Empedocles’ “Strife” and Empedocles’ Love is similar to Peirce’s notion of agapistic cherishing. Peirce also adds the notion of order or regularities, what he sometimes called “habits of nature.”

Empedocles was similar to Pythagoras in that he believed that the mind was primary and then the importance of numbers. As a scientist, Empedocles believed that the world was spherical, as it is, and that it did not rest on water but floated freely in space. For Empedocles, the universe was made up of fundamental elements, fire, water, earth, and air— the elements that Empedocles observed in the physical universe.


By the time of Plato and Aristotle, Greek thinkers had deduced in a crude but real way some of the fundamental ideas with which modern metaphysics and physics struggle. The visible world we observe and in which we live (what might be called the “Newtonian World”) is made up of stable elements, particles that we might call material. This world is largely deterministic. However, underneath that Newtonian world is another stratum of reality that is not material and not deterministic (the Quantum World), from which the Newtonian World emerges. This Quantum World is not material but rather mathematically discerned and structured and is best described as waves existing in a quantum field. It is the most fundamental reality we can currently observe and understand.

Thus, our world has characteristics that early on were discerned by philosophers:

  1. The seen world is made from entities that cannot be seen but are subject to physical laws that the human mind can discern.
  2. This seen world is, in some sense, not material. Today, we think of this non-material aspect of reality as disturbances in a universal field. Aristotle called the potential of the universe “Potentia,” constantly changing and emerging into new patterns.
  3. Not only is the invisible world constantly changing and evolving, but so also is the visible world in which we conduct our daily lives, including our political lives. This gives rise to Heraclitus’ view that flux is the only constant.
  4. Finally, some of the Pre-Socratics believed that there is a principle active in the world that seeks “justice” or a right and sustainable ordering of reality. This notion of Justice bears some resemblance to the Hebrew notion of Shalom, or everything being in its proper place and related to others properly. Socrates denied the sophist view and defended the reality of abstract ideas like justice. Plato’s Republic is an attempt to give further understanding of the idea of Justice and what it might look like in an ideal society.

The Great Synthesis

By the time of Plato and Aristotle, Greek thinkers had deduced in a crude but real way fundamental ideas, which modern physics and philosophy have extended in fruitful ways. They also developed important ideas fundamental to politics and government. Plato struggled with the status of ideals, of general concepts such as “Good,” “True,” “Justice,” and others, including what we would call general concepts like “human.” To respond to the nominalist critique, he developed his theory of Forms. In his view, the ideal world, which Pythagoras had outlined and defended, was made up of eternal Forms in which individual objects participated as imperfect copies. Thus, the term “Human” became concrete in every human being as an imperfect copy. All human justice becomes concrete in every human political act in relative terms but can never be absolute.

Aristotle disagreed with Plato’s conclusions concerning Forms. In his view, universals cannot be separated from particulars. Aristotle is also interested in the relationship between the flux of experience, or change, and what he calls “potentia,” or the possible future, which is implicit in the notion of change. Actuality (energeia) is that power that brings things into being or be brought about by them, the realm of events and facts. Potentiality (dynamis), on the other hand, is the power to effect change, the capacity to make a transition into different states.[5]

Aristotle believed what Plato described as Forms are, in reality, common features shared by individual objects. Aristotle is not a nominalist (generals are merely words for particulars), but his thought can lead in that direction. In the realm of political philosophy, Aristotle, unlike Plato, was not so interested in the perfect state (the form of political entities) as in the workings and emergence of actual polities. The same is true of justice. Aristotle was not so interested in the ideal of justice as he is in the concrete form it takes in human affairs. In this way, Aristotle is a forerunner of modern political science and a great philosopher of continuing importance.


The pre-Socratic philosophers set the stage for the insights of Plato and Aristotle, the two greatest Greek philosophers, and in many ways, set the stage for all the philosophic work to come. They made the first step of insight that the perceived world was not ultimate but instead was based upon unseen principles that could be rationally discerned. They began a debate about the nature of that ultimate reality that continues today. They also discerned the foundations of the justice problem and began the insight that our human notion of justice is somehow “natural” but different from natural law in the sense of the laws of nature. Nevertheless, the idea that nature and human society seek a situation of peace or shalom, where everything and everyone is in a proper and equitable place, is present.

The pre-Socratics began the process of asking ontological questions upon which future theories of justice might be based. They were concerned with the reality and the nature of the reality, of concepts like the good, the true, the just, and the like.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] “Democritus” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/democritus/#7 (downloaded November 10, 2022).

[2] Nominalism refers to the view that universals or abstract ideas, such as “justice,” do not exist but are mere names. There are at least two main versions of nominalism. One version denies the existence of universals – things that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things. The other version specifically denies the existence of abstract objects – objects that do not exist in space and time. See “Nominalism” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nominalism (downloaded February 13, 2023). In this series, I have defended the position of C. S. Peirce that universals and abstract ideas are real though they lack physical existence being noetic realities.

[3] “Empedocles” in The Basics of Philosophy https://www.philosophybasics.com/philosophers_empedocles.html (Downloaded February 11, 2023)

[4] “Empedocles” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/empedocles/#RootForc (Downloaded February 11, 2023)

[5] Tim, “Actuality vs Potentiality in Aristotle, June 4, 2012, ” in Philosophy & Philosophers, June 4, 2012, https://www.the-philosophy.com/actuality-potentiality-aristotle (downloaded October 28, 2022).

Philosophy Before Plato No. 1

This week, we are going back in time to the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. Alfred North Whitehead, in his book Adventures in Ideas, made the oft-quoted observation that all philosophy is but a commentary on Plato. [1] It might equally be said that all of Plato is but a commentary on, and an extension of, pre-Socratic thought. The pre-Socratic thinkers have continuing relevance for philosophy. [2] In particular, Heraclitus, who maintained that the world is constantly in flux and conflict was important for Plato. Heraclitus is also important background for understanding Nietzsche and modern process thinking. The problems that consumed the pre-Socratics are the problems that challenge all human beings and remain relevant in every age.  Although the answers human beings give to fundamental questions become more sophisticated, there is continuity in both the questions and answers.


Histories of European philosophy normally begin with Thales of Miletus (circa 585 B.C.). Thales had some knowledge of mathematics and geometry and was famous for predicting an eclipse in the year 585 B.C. He speculated that all things humans observe can be reduced to water. If this sounds a bit simplistic, it helps to recognize what lies behind this conclusion. Thales believed that what we observe in the world is fundamentally explainable by something deeper that we do not directly observe. The idea that what we observe is not ultimate but that there are deeper layers of reality than appear on the surface of things is a major step in the emergence of a way of thinking  we would call “theoretical.” Thales’ insight was not the result of observation alone but required an act of contemplation as to what lies beneath observable phenomena.


Thales’ follower, Anaximander (610-546 B.C.), speculated that the world we observe is not made up of any kind of earthly substance, such as fire, water, earth, or what have you. Instead, Anaximander believed that reality is made up of a “primal substance” that is infinite, eternal, and ageless. This primal substance can transform itself into the actual, physical substances we observe in the natural world. This is a major step beyond Thales. Anaximander had two insights of continuing importance:

  • The world we see is made up of things we cannot directly see and observe. Today, we would call this unseen primary substance, “fundamental particles”.
  • Second, the fundamental substance is not like other substances, bounded by space and time. It is, in fact, not a “substance” at all. Postmodern science would also agree with this observation. What is fundamental is not a “substance” as we use that term in ordinary life. Fundamental particles are wave-like disturbances in a universal field.

Plato, as we shall see, was motivated to locate what is eternal and foundational for the changing world of everyday life in something that is not a substance, but an ideal. This is the foundation of his theory of Forms. For Plato, forms are a non-material building block of reality.

Anaximander also began a way of thinking that we might call “evolutionary.” He theorized that the things we see were not so much “created” as “evolved” from a primary substance as a result of a principle of motion or what we might call “process.” The world as it exists today has not always been as is but has evolved over time. Modern science would agree with this idea.

Important for the development of political philosophy, Anaximander felt there was a kind of cosmic principle of justice at work in nature by which the world is seeking a state of equilibrium, what in Judeo-Christian terms we might call, “shalom,” or a state of proper relationships resulting in natural, personal and social peace. This insight is the beginning of the idea that there is a principle of justice or order at work in the natural world that might also be observed in human society and among human beings. Justice is somehow coordinated with the notion of a proper relationship between people.


Pythagoras lived from four 570 to 490 B.C. He was originally from Samos, an island off the coast of modern Turkey. He eventually immigrated to southern Italy, where most of his philosophical activity occurred. Pythagoras was also important in the development of Plato’s thinking. In many situations, Plato seems to be expanding upon ideas that begin with Pythagoras. In particular, Plato’s theory of the Forms (ideal forms of reality) extends Pythagoras’s view that mathematics is the fundamental reality. It is likely that Plato’s idea of forming the Academy, the first philosophical school in western history, was somewhat pattered upon the community formed by Pythagoras in southern Italy.

If Anaximander represented an evolutionary, scientific move in Greek thought, Pythagoras represents a movement towards an idealistic, mystical, and mathematical interpretation of the world and human life. Pythagoras saw the physical world as a representation of an immaterial, spiritual, and ideal reality, of which mathematics represents the supreme achievement. In this view, the fundamental reality was mathematical.

Plato also looks beneath the flux of ever-changing material reality and seeks an ideal world of order upon which the material universe depends. He identifies the Pythagorean notion of mathematical reality with his idea of Forms, which possess a kind of Pythagorean ideal reality. Beyond the flux of everyday life and experience, there is an unchanging noetic world of Forms that yield unity instability to the world. The ideal world of the Forms gives an order to notions of truth, goodness, justice, and morality. It ties the ideal world of philosophers with the concrete world of ordinary life. In later life, Plato was even more attracted to Pythagoras, and the abstract ideal of mathematics was important in his developing thought.

For Pythagoras, numbers are fundamental to reality. They are real and exist, not in this material world but in a world of completely abstract ideas. Let us take the so-called “Pythagorean theorem”. It states that the square of the hypotenuse of a triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Pythagoras is normally described as having “discovered” this relationship not created it. The word “discover” implies that the relationship existed before it was discovered. It is a part of reality, not just a “calculating convenience” human beings have adopted. In other words, the Pythagorean theorem is in some sense a description of an invisible realm of numerical relations that exists whether we understand it or not.

Pythagoras’s idea that the world is made up of numbers resonates with both modern idealistic philosophy and the writings of those who regard information as fundamental and the world as something of a gigantic computer. In these interpretations of fundamental reality, consciousness, and human perception (ideas) cannot be excluded from our definition of reality, and in some sense, human consciousness is fundamental to reality. Mind and matter are related so that matter is not fundamental—an observation that modern quantum physics supports. In any case, in any such interpretation, the ultimate building blocks of the universe are not material but ideal or “noetic.”


This brings us to Heraclitus (5th-6th Century), a philosopher of the first rank, famous for considering the ultimate reality as a kind of flux or motion. He wrote in an aphoristic style, and his most famous saying has to do with the observation that in some sense, “One never steps into the same river twice,” for the water into which we step flows downstream, and, when we step again into a river, in some way it is a “new river.” For Heraclitus, the world and human existence are not stable but constantly changing. Many philosophers see in Heraclitus the beginning of what we call “process philosophy,” which in the 20th Century produced the work of Bergson, Hartshorne, Peirce, Royce, Teilhard de Chardin, and Whitehead, among others.

Commensurate with his idea of reality as a relational process, Heraclitus believed that the fundamental element of the universe was fire. Fire is not a strictly material thing. Fire exists as heat consumes whatever is burned in the fire. The heat of a fire is not a visible, tangible reality. It might be that Heraclitus is a materialist of sorts, but it is not clear to me that this is the case.

Heraclitus represents another aspect of a process notion of reality: the idea that the world we perceive is in a constant state of motion and change. For Heraclitus, there is no stable structure to the universe. It is “one colossal process” of events, changes, evolving facts, and the like. [3]  Material things are not fundamental. The ever-changing process of the world is fundamental. Heraclitus’ choice of fire as fundamental indicates a tendency to see matter as a derivative of something powerful that is in itself fully material, an observation shared by modern quantum theory.

Heraclitus had a political philosophy that derived from his theories (or was perhaps the cause of his theories). During his lifetime, Heraclitus, a member of the royal family, experienced the dissolution of the ancient laws of Ephesus. He experienced the excesses of a democracy that descended to mob rule. He saw an older, traditional way of life disappear. Thus, his notion of the inevitability of change extends to his political thought. He did not believe that any concrete set of social institutions or political order could sustain itself forever. Not only was the universe subject to the law of change, but so were human institutions. [4]

Heraclitus had a “Darwinesque” vision of political reality as determined by force and conflict.  Heraclitus saw what he called “strife” as a fundamental aspect of reality, evident in nature and human striving. He felt that this strife, what we might call the “struggle for survival,” is fundamental to human life and human society. Thus, he glorified war and minimized the persuasive and relational forces of society and human relationships. Not only is Heraclitus the founder of what we might call process philosophy, but he is also a forerunner of modern theories of power politics. Heraclitus viewed strife as a fundamental principle of reality and social life and viewed war as a fundamental fact of social revolution.

Heraclitus was a cynic concerning political virtue as a separate ideal and seems to have supported existing institutions. In political theory, he represents the view that personal virtue is the source of political morality. He criticized his fellow citizens for banishing a distinguished leader. He distrusted political democracy and thinks that few people possess the virtue necessary for a polity to thrive. Like Plato, Heraclitus believed that just laws reflect and grow out of the implantation of universal principles by the state. His notion of justice may also have been an outgrowth of his belief in reality as emerging from a conflict of opposites. [5]


Karl Popper sees similarities between Heraclitus and modern political theories and between the times in which Heraclitus lived and our times:

It is surprising to find in these early fragments dating from about 500 BC, so much that is characteristic of modern historicist and anti-democratic tendencies. But apart from the fact that Heraclitus was a thinker of unsurpassed power and originality, and that, in consequence, many of his ideas have (through the medium of Plato) become part of the main body of philosophical tradition, the similarity of doctrine can perhaps, be explained, to some extent, by the similarity of social conditions in the relevant periods it seems as if his store assist ideas easily become prominent in times of great social change. [6]

During times of social change, it is easy to abandon stable notions of justice and adopt radical, even revolutionary, and harmful ideas. The dislocations of the Industrial Revolution (with the consequent emergence of Marxism) and the current dislocations of the information age revolution and the emergence of a “Post-Modern Era” (and the temptation towards a technological oligarchy) are symptoms of the results of vast and not clearly understood intellectual, social, and political changes.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] A. N. Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas (New York, NY: Free Press, 1933),

[2] See, Bertrand Russell, History of Philosophy (New York, NY: Simon & Shuster, 1945) for an extended treatment. My rendition of the pre-Socratic philosophers is based primarily on Russell’s work.

[3] I owe this insight to Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 11.

[4] Id.

[5] Graham, Daniel W., “Heraclitus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/heraclitus/>. (Downloaded November 1, 2022).

[6] Popper, at 16.

Francis & Edith Schaeffer, L’Abri, & Future Disciplemaking

I intended to continue a series on the Pre-Socratics and Plato this week. It will have to wait because the Lord put another blog on my heart. For the past several years, these blogs have been on political philosophy and theology. One of the major issues our society faces is the decline in community. This decline is found everywhere, and it lies behind the decline in many institutions. This blog is about discipleship and theological education but can be extended to other areas. Rebuilding and building a community is a central task of our era in every area of life.

Impact of Francis and Edith Schaeffer

Just after the Second World War, Francis Schaeffer, a Presbyterian minister and graduate of Westminster Seminary, felt called to move to Europe as a missionary to an increasingly religiously alienated and unchurched population. After a time, Francis and Edith Schaeffer began opening their home in Switzerland as a place where people might find satisfying answers to religious questions and a practical demonstration of Christian hospitality. [1]

The Schaeffer home became a place where people could find answers to their questions and a practical demonstration of Christian care. In other words, iL’Abri began as a community of Christian Love and Truth. Theologian and writer Os Guinness writes of Schaeffer, “I have never met anyone with such a passion for God, combined with a passion for people, combined with a passion for truth. That is an extremely rare combination, and Schaeffer embodied it” [2]

I am among those who benefitted from the life and work of Francis and Edith Schaeffer though I never met them nor visited L’Abri. [3] In the 1970s, I was part of a small Bible study one of the teachers and founders of which had been at L’Abri. My wife, Kathy, visited L’Abri briefly while in Europe. In my early years as a disciple, I read and profited from the books of Francis and Edith Schaeffer.

In Crisis of Discipleship, I acknowledged his impact on my  life:

Francis Schaeffer moved to his family in Switzerland and created a community known as L’Abri. Over the years, many people came to L’Abri and participated in the community. Many came to Christ and became Christian leaders. Scholars have critiqued some of the things Schaeffer taught. However, it is not possible to deny the reality and importance of L’Abri as a healing community. Francis Schaeffer was important in my early Christian walk as both a writer and example. Today, while I do not agree with many of his ideas, his example of relational discipleship continues to be important to me and to all Christians. [4]

L’Abri was successful in reaching so people precisely because it combined Christ-centered, Biblically sound, and theologically informed teaching with a transforming community based upon deeply sharing the love of Christ. Schaeffer was not a scholar. He was an apologist. For many young people, he was a window into the Christian faith and important in early faith development.

What Made L’Abri Life Changing

What made L’Abri so successful and life-changing for so many people? Without going into detail, it seems to me that there are three factors:

  1. A Community of Love created through Edith Schaeffer’s unselfish hospitality which eventually became a characteristic of the community itself;
  2. A Foundation in Historic Christian Faith and Doctrine; and
  3. A Conversational Process of questions and answers conducted in the context of a relatively small group. [5]

Community of Love

The term “L’Abri” means “Shelter” in French. The concrete “L’Abri founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer embodied the notion of a shelter in which lost seekers of a generation in Europe could find refuge, companionship, community, and training. As one former student put it, “…L’Abri was a genuine community where Christian faith was practiced.” [6] This former student, while recognizing some of Schaeffer’s limitations concludes:

L’Abri lived up to its name for me – it was a true shelter that fortified me in the truth of historic Christianity: its intellectual heritage and its practical piety. It exhibited the reality of living before God by faith, and seeking to worship and serve him as a whole person in the community of God’s people. [7]

The purpose of L’Abri was: “To show forth by demonstration, in our life and work, the existence of God.” [8]Schaeffer believed that the Spirit of Love that Christ embodied required they welcome visitors into their home in Huemoz, Switzerland. From this initial hospitality,  a community of discipleship emerged characterized by common meals, communal interaction, common work, and study. As the years have passed, I have come to see that the community Schaeffer created, both physical and the relationships that the community nurtured was and remains the most important element of his legacy. He and Edith are both gone, but the community remains and continues to touch people.

Historic Christian Faith and Doctrine

Schaeffer was committed to communicating  historic Christian faith to a new generation. He affirmed the truth of Christian doctrine and committed to acting upon this truth in daily life. This essential conviction is stated in the “basic principle of practical operation” of L’Abri, which involved a commitment to exhibit in word and in deed: the reality of the existence of God, the character of God revealed in Christ and. the reality of supernaturally restored relationship among those who, through faith in Christ, are brothers and sisters. [9]

Schaeffer put his educational theory as follows:

True Christian education is not a negative thing; it is not a matter of isolating the student from the full scope of knowledge. Isolating the student from large sections of human knowledge is not the basis of a Christian education. Rather it is giving him or her the framework or total truth, rooted in the Creator’s existence and in the Bible’s teaching, so that in each step of the formal learning process the student will understand what is true and what is false and why it is true or false. It is not isolating students from human knowledge. It is teaching them in a framework of the total Biblical teaching, beginning with the tremendous central thing, that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. It is teaching in this framework, so that on their own level, as they are introduced to all of human knowledge, they are not introduced in the midst of a vacuum, but they are taught each step along the way why what they are hearing is either true or false. That is true education. [10]

Many people, myself included, have critiqued the limitations of the scholarship and theology of Francis Schaeffer, but no one can deny that he was interested in communicating “the Faith Once Delivered” from a Reformed perspective. [11] Before he died, Schaeffer wrote twenty-two books with an apologetic focus involving faith, Bible, theology, philosophy, and culture. He taped innumerable teachings and sermons over his years of ministry. In recent years, the scholarship of Schaeffer has been attacked from many quarters, including among evangelicals. This critique often forgets that Schaeffer was not a professional philosopher or theologian. He was a missionary and apologist—a practical practitioner of the art of evangelism and disciple-making. Like the Apostle Paul, he was a restless person, who in later years spent his time traveling around the world carrying the message of Christ.

Conversational Method

From the beginning, L’Abri was about conversation and dialogue. People came with questions, and those questions were discussed in small groups, in casual conversations,  and in larger sessions  Dr. Schaeffer led. One writer puts it this way:

[Francis] Schaeffer’s style of connecting authentically with his conversation partners is legendary. [H]is unique conversational style of apologetics emerged out of his own concerns over how Christians address their differences and disagreements with each other. … Anecdotes abound with respect to the conversations Francis Schaeffer had with others that led to profound thought-shifts for the other person. He had a special way of bonding with that person on a level that created trust and openness. Dorothy Woodson, one of L’Abri’s first workers, explained it this way: “When Mr. Schaeffer would talk to you, there was nothing else in the world that was going on. He was totally focused on you and what you were talking about and was very involved, very interested. It wouldn’t matter who the person was. I’d never seen that degree of concentration and having that kind of attention with anybody else. [12]

Shaeffer did not just teach. He listened intently to the questions being posed and tried to respond in a way that allowed the Christian message to be heard by an individual. Schaeffer’s attention to people, his conversational style, and his interest in answering questions and dealing with the actual concerns of people are what set his apologetic ministry apart. Schaeffer created a place at L’Abri where people were free to bring questions and explore the possibility that the Christian faith was true and also to grow in that faith.


The example of Edith and Francis Schaeffer is of continuing importance for the church today and for anyone who wants to think about a possible future for disciple-making and theological education. I have noted that a few details, even some basic ideas of Schaeffer. can be questioned. It is unlikely that his exact approach would work in contemporary America. What cannot be doubted is the basic soundness of a program involving sound teaching, dialogue, and community. One visitor wrote:

Even more than the excellent teaching content of L’Abri, its transformational communal life may be its most powerful component. Each day has a set structure that typically includes time for personal study, work to sustain the community, group discussion over a meal, and recreation. [13]

I think that there are three basic lessons to be drawn from an examination of L’Abri relevant for discipleship, and training pastors and lay leaders in the 21st century.

  1. Theological depth;
  2. Communal experience; and
  3. A conversational method of teaching and sharing the Christian faith.

In order to make disciples and prepare future leaders, lay and ordained, congregations and groups require good teaching content, communal life, and openness to discussion or, as I put it, dialogue. In the context in which we now live communication of truth cannot be accomplished without the creation of a community. Young people are hungry, not just for truth or even primarily for truth, but for a life-transforming community—which can only be found in the church or similar institutions and only finally in the Kingdom of God, the ultimate life-giving community.

L’Abri’s success and the Schaeffers’ approach are a critique of “information-only” teaching methodologies and programs, which characterizes much theological education, including much “online training and discipleship.” L’Abri was a place, a physical space made beautiful and life-giving by the work of the community and especially by Edith Schaeffer. As churches and denominations ponder the future of disciple-making and theological and other leadership training, the importance of a place that houses a healing community of Christ cannot be overlooked. When people came to L’Abri they entered an environment that was conducive to change and growth, an environment that was physically, emotionally, and spiritually healing for many. The creation of such places is one of the most important objectives of our day and time.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] L’Abri Fellowship, “The Early Years” https://labri.org/history/ (downloaded January 27, 2023).

[2] Id.

[3] Before I was a Christian in the early 1970s, while backpacking through Europe, I met a young man who just returned from L’Abri. He urged me to go, and I almost went. Unfortunately, I made a bad decision, went to Amsterdam instead, and returned to the United States. It was a big mistake.

[4] G. Christopher Scruggs, Crisis of Discipleship (College Station, TX: Virtual Bookworm, 2022), 84.

[5] For those interested in a doctoral-level analysis, see Adam J. Rasmussen, “Francis Schaeffer and Educational Ministries at L’Abri: A Historical-Conceptual Study with New Qualitative Research,” Dissertation In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirement for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy in Educational Studies (Biola University, CA, 2019) at https://www.proquest.com/openview/e165a2c9fd0abf5d639e6db6938d53ba/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y (downloaded January 27, 2023). See also, D. G. Blomberg, Apologetic Education: Francis Shaeffer and L’Abri https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/002196577501800302 (Downloaded January 27, 2023).

[6] Gregory E. Reynolds, Your Father’s L’Abri: Reflections on the Ministry of Francis Schaeffer” Banner of Truth at https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2008/your-fathers-labri-reflections-on-the-ministry-of-francis-schaeffer/ (Downloaded January 27, 2023).

[7] Id.

[8] Edith Schaeffer, L’Abri (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1969), 15-16..

[9] “The L’Abri Statements,” pp. 3-6 (1997), originally found at http://www.labri.org/statements/The-LAbri-Statements.pdf. Accessed May 18, 2018 found at Mi Young Gerin Eeaton, The L’Abri Fellowship and the Spiritual Principles of Vital Community Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 19 (2018), 33-49 found at https://journals.uts.edu/volume-xix-2018/306-the-l-abri-fellowship-and-the-spiritual-principles-of-vital-community#end25(downloaded January 27, 2023).

[10]  Francis A. Schaeffer, “Priorities 1982”. Speeches given at the L’Abri Mini-Seminars in 1982 found at https://www.schaefferstudycenter.org/francis-schaeffer-on-education/ (downloaded January 27, 2023). This material is copyrighted and may not be reproduced without permission. Copyright by Francis A. Schaeffer, 1982, “Priorities 1982”. Two speeches given at the L’Abri Mini-Seminars in 1982. Permission is granted for non-commercial purposes only, not the be reproduced for financial gain in any form. For additional information write to: Franky Schaeffer V Productions, P.O. Box 909, Los Gatos, CA 95031.

[11]  There are critics of Schaeffer’s scholarship, style of apologetics, and political associations. For a mostly critical review, see Molly Worthing, “Not Your Father’s L’Abri” Christianity Today March 28, 2008. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/march/36.60.html(downloaded January 27, 2023).

[12] Ted Lewis “Bridge-Building Conversations: Common Elements in Relational Peacemaking and Francis Schaeffer’s Apologetic Ministry” https://restorativechurch.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Francis-Schaeffer-and-Peacemaking-Dialogue-Article-.pdf (downloaded January 28, 2023). The original quotation is found in Colin Duriez, Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008),145.

[13] Jim Watkins, “Christianity, Culture and the L’Abri Community n Transpositions: Theology, Imagination, and the Arts,” July 23, 2012 found at https://www.transpositions.co.uk/christianity-culture-and-the-labri-community/ (downloaded January 27, 2023).

Plato 3: Plato on Growing Old

Having turned seventy- two last week, I could not resist the temptation to write this blog. I’m in the process of researching a series of blogs on Plato’s Republic. I hadn’t opened a copy of the Republic since I was a sophomore in college. Imagine my surprise when I opened up a copy only to remember that he begins with a discussion of old age! How timely. It’s a reminder that philosophy is the love of wisdom and involves loving wisdom in all of the stages of life. For the next few weeks, I am going to look at ancient Greek philosophy and then at one of the most important works of the 20th century, The Free Society and its Enemies by the philosopher of science Karl Popper, who reads Plato as a totalitarian.

By all accounts, the Republic is Plato’s masterpiece. Plato lives from around 428 B.C. until about 348 B.C. He came from a fine family, about which we will learn more as we begin examining his political thinking. The book was written around 375 B.C. or somewhere in Plato’s mid-50s. By this time, Plato had seen a good deal of political corruption and intrigue and wrote the Republic seeking to examine the nature of justice and outline the character of an ideal state. There is every reason to believe that, before he died, his enthusiasm for the ideal society had waned in the face of political realities. Modern people, having lived through the disappointments of the Viet Nam War, the two Gulf Wars and other political misadventures and decadence can sympathize with Plato. We all seek an ideal community, but as our look at Political Realism underscored, our ideals are not attainable in this world and the attempt to attain them creates much suffering.

Ancient Greece and Our Society

We live in a society, that worships youth, physical stamina, good looks, high intelligence, virility, power, success, and all of the external things of life. Interestingly, many observers attribute this to the victory of the Greco-Roman roots of our society over the Judeo-Christian roots. This victory gained intellectual dominance during the Enlightenment and has been gaining steam throughout the Modern world. For all intents and purposes, it is now utterly victorious.

I think that this view is incorrect. Why? Perhaps it is my training in theology, but the plain fact is that, while Greek popular culture worshiped the body, and Greek art celebrates a certain perfectionist view of the body, Greek thought was deeply ambiguous towards the physical world.  The Greek mind was captivated by the difference between the physical world,  which is always changing and in process, and the ideal world which is not physical and endures forever. In Plato’s thought the changelessness of the ideal world gives order to the changeability and instability of the material world.

By the First Century, what we call “Gnosticism” had developed as the fruit of the Greek ambivalence towards the physical world. The Gnostics held that human beings could be saved from the flux of creation by attaining secret knowledge. This idea resulted in many different Christian sects having many different ideas about the implications of Gnosticism. For some, there was a denial of the value of the body and of the physical world that resulted in asceticism. For others, the fact that the body did not matter resulted in pervasive physical immortality. In whatever form it took, Gnosticism exalted the importance of knowledge, and on that basis, we live in a deeply gnostic age.

We also live in an age in which the elderly are not necessarily respected. This is an interesting and relatively new phase of Western civilization and is not characteristic of other civilizations. For example, Confucian culture respects and honors the aged. [1] This past week, after certain public disclosures about the sitting president, a successful business person tweeted that there are too many older people in politics. I think that this was intended a jab at the former President, the current President, the current Minority leader of the Senate, and the former Speaker of the House. My take on this is that the problem with our political system is the age of its leaders, but with their basic character, which they had when younger. There must also be a problem with an electorate that continues to elect such people to public office.

The Republic on Old Age

The Republic begins with Socrates and Polemarches, the son of Cephalus, meeting on the road from Piraeus to Athens. When they arrive at his home, Socrates and Cephalus s discuss the benefits and burdens of old age. Cephalus welcomes Socrates, telling him that he wishes Socrates would come more often because as Cephalus’ physical desires have diminished his love for conversation has increased. Socrates replies, that he enjoys talking with the very old, for the elderly, possess, wisdom about aging and are further along on the road of life than those who are younger. By this affirmation, Socrates is affirming the traditional respect with which the aged were thought due.

Cephalus replies with the complaints of the aged:

A number of us, who are more or less, the same age, often get together in accordance with the old saying. When we meet, the majority complain about the lost pleasures they remember from their youth, those of sex, drinking parties, feasts, and other things that go along with them, and they get angry, as if they had been deprived of important things, and had lived well then, but are now hardly living at all. Some others moan about the abuse heaped on old people by their relatives, and because of this, they repeat, over and over that old age is the cause of many evils. [2]

The stage is set for the dialogue concerning old age. Socrates has given the traditional view that older people have wisdom denied by the young and so are to be honored. Socrates wants to know if old age is as difficult as some people claim. Cephalus, as an older man, agrees to give him wisdom drawn from his experience. He begins by relating that the old men often get together, as they still do in small towns for coffee. My father used to get together with old friends almost every day, and certainly every week to visit with his friends and talk about city politics and the like.

Cephalus is not certain that he agrees with the older men who incessantly complain about old age. He does not suffer any of the complaints that the others voiced. He does not mourn the loss of his earlier virality and the passion involved in youth: He quotes Sophocles:

I am very glad to have escaped from all that, like a slave who has escaped from a savage and tyrannical master. I thought at the time that he was right, and I still do, for old age brings peace and freedom from all such things. When the appetites relax and ceased to importunes, everything Sophocles said comes to pass, and we escape from many mad masters. [3]

We live in an age that celebrates perpetual virility. Many of us take dietary supplements designed to keep us, young, stronger, more energetic, and more virile as if the loss of youth, strength, energy, and virility were without compensation. Cephalus points out that there are both losses and compensations in the loss of youth and its passions, compensations that many of his friends could appreciate. In other words, the Athenians of Plato’s day may not have been so different from us after all.

Financial Security and Aging

The Republic then deals with one common critique of persons like Cephalus, who was wealthy, concerning age: He is well-off and therefore can afford to avoid some of the dangers of old age. [4] Cephalus defends himself by recounting his family history. His grandfather had been responsible for amassing a fortune, which his father had diminished. Cephalus has tried to leave his children better off than he was left but not devoting himself to money above all things. [5] In this, Cephalus is voicing a kind of “golden mean” that Aristotle would later adopt as a guide to moral decision-making. Cephalus is neither greedy nor does he pay no attention to material matters.

Fear and Aging

Cephalus then goes on to discuss another aspect of aging: the pervasive fear and anxiety that can accompany old age.

What I have to say, probably wouldn’t persuade most people. But you know, Socrates, that when someone thinks his end is near, he becomes frightened and concerned about things he didn’t fear before. …. And whether because of the weakness of old age or because he is now closer to what happens in Hades and has a clear view of it, or whatever it is, he is filled with foreboding and fear, and he examined himself to see whether he has been unjust to anyone. [6]

Cephalus introduces the major question of the Republic—the nature of Justice. In introducing it, he reflects upon the fact that older people, with most of their lives behind them and little time or energy to undo the mistakes of the past, are given to anxiety and fear. In particular, they are susceptible to the fear of divine justice.

There is a bit more to the passage than meets the eye. Plato probably included it primarily to introduce the major theme of the Republic, “What is the nature of Justice?” Nevertheless, the dialogue deals with the fears of the aged: the fear of death, of punishment, of leaving this earth with the business of life incomplete, of failing to undo old wrongs, and of leaving family and friends without the benefit of the love and wisdom that one might have given them.

Having been a pastor for nearly thirty years, I have often counseled the aged on just the issues that Plato raised more than two millennia ago. Many people worry about their spouses, children, and grandchildren. They fear that they may have injured them or left them without proper provisions. They fear death and what might happen after they die.

I try not to tell stories in these blogs, but a story from my past might be illustrative. Some years ago, I was asked to visit an elderly man who fought in World War II. He had been an elite soldier. He had killed many people. At least a few probably did not deserve to die and their death might have been avoided by a bit of restraint. Unknown to his family and friends, this past troubled him greatly—and he feared that a just God might just condemn him for his past deeds. Our conversations about the mercy of God helped him to resolve his fears and anxieties. I think he died without more than the ordinary fear of the future.


One of my favorite passages from Psalms reads, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). In a culture that attempts to avoid old age and even thinking about it too much, it is wise to remember that there is an end to life and before that end, there is often an end to strength, coordination, mental agility, and a variety of things our culture prizes. Approaching old age wisely is important.

Cephalus was right: old age is not a curse nor is it without its benefits. His friends were also right: old age involves losses. The Bible is not unaware of the difficulties of old age. Proverbs says that The glory of the young is their strength; the gray hair of experience is the splendor of the old (Proverbs 20:29). It also says:

Remember now your Creator while you are young, before the difficult days of age come, and the time draws near when you say, “I have little pleasure in my days”: Remember there comes a time the sun and the light, the moon, and the stars, are darkened, by age and clouds do not return after the rain. Remember there comes a time when the keepers of the house tremble and the strong men bow down, when our teeth cease to function because they are few. This is a time when our vision grows dim. … There comes a time when sleep is difficult and one rises at the sound of a bird. Also, there is a time when one is afraid of heights and fears leaving the house. Perhaps worst of all, there is a time when desire fails—even the desire to live. Then, a person goes to an eternal home, and the mourners gather for a funeral.

If you are wise you will remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher shattered at the fountain, or the wheel is broken at the well. Then, the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it. (Proverbs 12:1-7, GCS paraphrase).

The Bible is realistic. Old age carries its blessings and its dangers and difficulties. Working hard, saving for retirement, taking care of physical health needs, dealing with others fairly, and avoiding violence and injustice, all these things are important in the quest to live well and leave this world without regrets. None of us does this perfectly or without error and injustice, which is why we need grace. This is Christianity’s great contribution to the world.

Christian faith does not deny or avoid the tragedy and losses of life. It does not minimize the fears and anxiety of age or attempt to cover them up with therapeutic words. It accepts the inevitable and plans for it. In fact, as Augustine realized, Christianity answers many questions for which Platonism had no adequate answers–and grace is the most important among them.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Before this series of blogs is complete, I intend to write two blogs, one on Taoism and the other on Confucianism, which have both deeply impacted Chinese culture. In both Taoist and Confucian thought, the wisdom and importance of the elderly are important.

[2] Plato, Republic tr. G. M.A. Grube rev. C.D.C Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), 3.

[3] Id, at 4.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id, at 5.

Niebuhr 10: The End and Meaning of History

Human beings see their lives, and therefore human history, as embodied in a story. As for individuals, this story is a narrative interpretation of their own lives. As to human society, the story is a narrative interpretation of the ideas and institutions that make up that society. Niebuhr’s analysis of the end of history is profoundly narrative in its character. He begins his analysis of eschatology with this poignant observation:

Everything in human life in history moves toward an end. By reason of men’s subjection to nature and finiteness this “end” is a point where that which exist ceases to be. It is finis. By reason of man’s rational freedom, the end has another meaning. It is the purpose and goal of his life and work. It is telos. This double connotation of end as both finis and telos expresses, in a sense, the whole character of human history, and reveals the fundamental problem of human existence. All things in history move toward fulfillment and dissolution, toward the fuller embodiment of their essential character and towards death. [1]

Human beings live with an awareness, conscious and unconscious, of the fleeting nature of their own lives, and the threat age, illness, death, and the like pose to their goals and purposes. Like Huey Long, human beings cry out in their hearts, “God, don’t let me die. I have so much left to do.” [2]

Christianity does not minimize the finiteness and futility of human life. It understands the threat of death before the completion of our life projects. It also accepts the inevitability of death and futility. As creatures made in the image of God, human beings are inevitably self-transcendent, always seeking more from life. As creatures of the earth, human beings are doomed to die, and nothing can prevent this end. [3] None of us leave this life with all of our potential human projects complete. I have a bucket list. That list is never complete. As soon as I make any progress, new things end up on the list, which remains incomplete. On the morning I die, this will still be true.

The problem of human finitude and death is made more difficult by the human propensity to create what Niebuhr calls, “False Eternals,” and what the prophets and theologians might call “False Idols.” [4] Human beings are inclined to place their trust in and worship created realities that themselves are doomed to fall into dissolution. This is particularly true of our personal political and economic ideals. There are things on my bucket list that are of no eternal or other significance.

The Kingdom of God

The prophets Old Testament warned of the danger of placing trust in human institutions and powers, including the earthly kings of Israel. Israel was to make God its king and await with patience his Kingdom, which in the person of the Messiah would be brought to a concrete realization in human history. The Messianic Kingdom was the goal, the end, the telos, of human history. Despite Israel’s messianic hope, idolatry and apostasy were present and led to destruction.

In the New Testament, the messianic kingship of the people of God is identified with Jesus of Nazareth, and the Kingdom of God is identified with his presence and power in human life and human affairs. While a future consummation is expected, the Kingdom of God has already come in the revelation of Christ. The telos, the goal of history, has been revealed and its meaning fulfilled. It is not fully revealed but will be fully revealed at the end of history, its finis. [5]

One implication of the notion of an already present kingdom is that human beings need not fear the end of history or their lives. The end has been revealed and its gracious results experienced in the presence of Christ. “The light of revelation into the meaning of life illuminates the darkness of history’s self-contradictions, its fragmentary realizations of meaning, and its premature and false complications.” [6] The Cross and Resurrection signify the victory of God over the threat of ultimate meaningless and give an assurance of the meaningfulness of human existence.

The New Testament and the Idea of the End

By using the phrase “signify,” Niebuhr alerts us that the Second Coming, the realization of the Kingdom of God at the end of history is a symbol. Thus, he says:

The symbol of the second coming of Christ can neither be taken literally nor dismissed as unimportant. It participates in the general characterization of Biblical symbols’ which deal with the relationship with time and eternity, and seek to point from the standpoint of the conditioned. If the symbol is taken literally the dialectic conception of time and eternity is falsified and the ultimate vindication of God over history is reduced to a point in history. The consequence of this falsification is expressed in the hope of a millennial age. [7]

There is a great deal in this passage that illuminates the eschatology of Niebuhr.

  • He does not believe that the Second Coming is a literal event.
  • He does not believe that a human utopia is possible within history.
  • He believes that any literal interpretation of the Second Coming is dangerous and falsely portrays the human situation.

On the other hand, Niebuhr opposes those who think that the Biblical imagery of the Second Coming is unimportant. Like all imagery, the Second Coming expresses the ability of the human spirit to conceive of and seek a transcendent good beyond the possibility of realization in the historical present or concrete future.[8] This transcendent ability creates a constant flow to human history as human beings seek greater justice than experienced in the present. The imagery of the New Testament enables Christians to live within history without hope but without false expectations.

Three Aspects of Niebuhrian Eschatology

Niebuhr outlines three symbols that are central to Christian thinking about the end of human life and human history. The three symbols are the Second Coming, the Last Judgment, and the Resurrection of the Dead. These symbols should not be taken literally but interpreted as windows into important features of the nature of human life and God.

For Niebuhr, the symbol of the Second Coming is important for it upholds the ultimate victory of God, and therefore of justice, over the threat of finitude and failure, and the sufferings of the oppressed. It thus undergirds constructive action. The Second Coming is not to be seen as an event in history, but as a transcendental goal outside of history not to be completed within history. It signifies the final victory of the love and harmony God intends for human existence.  [9]

The Last Judgement functions as a symbol of God’s ultimate victory of good over evil, of justice over injustice, and of the ultimate justice over the historically limited results of human striving for justice. [10] It validates and supports the moral strivings of Christians throughout history.

In his analysis of the Last Judgment, Niebuhr makes an important distinction. Human failures in history result from both sin and finiteness, that is human limitation and finitude. The final judgment is a judgment against sin not finitude. [11] The judgments of God are judgments against evil, not mistakes. It is our deliberate choices for selfishness and self-seeking that are judged. The Last Judgment functions to drive the human spirit into the mercy of God because no human achievement of justice is ever free from the taint of sin. No human work of justice will finally survive the perfect judgment of God. [12]

The final eschatological symbol is the symbol of the Resurrection. The symbol of the resurrection implies that “eternity will fulfill and not annul the richness of the historical process.” [13] By faith, Christians believe and live on the promise that, as the Apostle Paul put it:

… in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:37-39).

All the structures of meaning that human reason can build face the chasm of meaninglessness when human beings discover that no humanly constructed edifice of meaning is possible. Only faith in a God of love has an answer to that problem. For Christians, the answer to the ultimate meaningless of life is faith in God revealed in Christ, and from his love, from which neither life nor death can separate us.[14]

The doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body embodies faith that God will not only bless our spiritual yearnings and desires but will vindicate our physical existence as well. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul gives significance to the spiritual part of the human person. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body assures believers that there is a meaning to the unity of human physical existence and human history as a whole. [15] The God who loves us will, in the end, vindicate not just our spiritual longings but our physical strivings as well.

Unfortunately, the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Dead can be interpreted in an overly concrete way. The idea of human history being consummated at the “end of time” carries with it the implication that the “end of time” might be within human history as we understand it. Niebuhr believes that this interpretation is both false and misleading. The End of History is an event outside of history as we know it. At the Parousia, Resurrection, and Last Judgement human history as we experience it has already ended. Whatever these terms mean, they must be interpreted as signs of something that we cannot fully know in material terms.

Niebuhr argues for this interpretation based on the implications of I Corinthians 15. In his discussion of the resurrection, he tries to explain the spiritual meaning of the resurrection. He is clear that the resurrection appearances of Jesus involve a body, but not exactly a body as it was before the crucifixion.

The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. I Corinthians 15:42-44).

The Christian doctrines of the Second Coming, the Resurrection, and the End of History is more logical and more humane than the materialistic explanations and more satisfying to the human spirit. [16] The excesses and violence of Communism, Nazism, and all forms of Imperialism testify to the fact that all attempts to create an end of history, within history and on the terms of our physical existence, not only fail, but they create enormous human suffering as well. Every attempt to create an end of history, and a perfect world within the boundaries of human history, ultimately relies upon finite, imperfect, and fallen human persons and institutions. This inevitably involves fanaticism and a resort to violence.

The End and Meaning of History

From the standpoint of the Christian faith, any effort to understand human history must derive from three aspects of life:

  1. The life of individuals who are born, create finite meanings and die.;
  2. The partial fulfillment and realizations of human striving seen in the rise and fall of civilizations and cultures; and
  3. The unfolding process of history revealed in human and social histories. [17]

To make sense of the process of history, it is necessary to create a narrative explanation of current history in light of a perceived process and end of history as a whole. Within history, human beings live and die and human cultures rise and fall. In each case, there is created a meaning, that is to say, a relationship of the individual life in society to human history as a whole. Materialists believe that this end of history is to be seen in material terms and the full functioning of history is conceived as a result of historical forces. This ignores the human spirit and the fact that human cultures are influenced by the choices, made by individuals and societies. [18]

As one might expect given neighbors, Christian realism, he gives a fatalistic analysis of the potential of human civilizations:

Every civilization makes some fatal mistake in the end and perishes. But these mistakes are not under the law of natural necessity. Unlike individual life, the collective and social organisms of history could ideally be perpetually replenished by new life and strength. But this would require that they be perpetually adapted to new historical circumstances. Their final failure to do so is always a fate into which they are tempted by their freedom and is not due to natural necessity. [19]

Civilizations perish for various reasons. Sometimes, they perish because pride and power tempt them to extend themselves beyond physical limits. Sometimes, an elite that was instrumental in organizing the society becomes repressive. Sometimes, through foolishness and error, outmoded strategies and techniques are applied to new situations and problems. Sometimes, leaders flee from an understanding of the realities of history to some mystical, ideal divorced from any reality. [20]

And what I think may be one of Niebuhr’s most pertinent observations to contemporary society, he notes that modern technical civilization may perish because it falsely worships technical progress as a final good for human life. In a technical society, one part, an economic and technical elite, may harness technology as a vehicle to control society as a whole for its purposes, which may turn out to be destructive. [21]


It is impossible in one or an entire series of blogs to do complete justice to the depth and wisdom of Niebuhr’s analysis of the nature and destiny of human beings and the societies they create. While I find myself disagreeing with some of his ideas and conclusions, he is a constant spur to further thought. As I sometimes do, I think I will give the last word to the author:

Thus wisdom about our destiny is dependent upon a humble recognition of the limits of our knowledge and our power. Our most reliable understanding is the fruit of “grace” in which fruit completes our ignorance, without pretending to possess its certainties as knowledge; and in which contrition mitigates our pride without destroying our hope.

In the end, Niebuhr’s Christian realism is based upon a recognition that human sin and fallibility—our capacity to be ignorant and self-deluded concerning the most pressing and important matters of life—should drive the human race as a whole and each of us individually to a deep humility and a sense of our fallibility, however great our powers of thought and action.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 287. Hereinafter “NDM.”

[2] These are the reputed last words of the Governor of Louisiana, Huey Long, who was assassinated while governor. https://quotefancy.com/quote/1570522/Huey-Long-God-don-t-let-me-die-I-have-so-much-left-to-do (downloaded, January 10, 2023).

[3] NDM, at 287.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 288.

[6] Id.

[7] Id, at 289.

[8] Id.

[9] Id, at 290.

[10] Id, at 290-291.

[11] Id.

[12] Id, at 293.

[13] Id, at 295.

[14] Id, at 295.

[15] Id, at 296-297.

[16] Id, at 298.

[17] Id, at 301. I have somewhat reordered and restated in different terms Niebuhr’s insights.  The third aspect which Niebuhr gives, the process of history, reflects an impact of both Hegel and Darwinism, as well as merging process thinkers, on his thought.

[18] Id, at 298. Niebuhr gives a most interesting analysis of both Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. I cannot take time to explore the differences between them, but recommend reading Niebuhr’s analysis and the primary sources.

[19] Id, at 303.

[20] Id, at 303-304.

[21] Id, at 304.

Niebuhr 9: Justice, Love, and Human Institutions

Niebuhr recognizes that the human search for justice is an inevitably communal project. Solitude creates no need for justice, but a community does. Individuals are inevitably communal and become themselves in the context of a specific, historically bound community. In its fundamental nature, love properly understood is an inevitable element of justice. [1] The capacity of human beings to reach out of themselves in self-giving love creates the potential and necessity for the creation and maintenance of community.

Human Nature and Justice

Human nature, however, limits the realization of justice in any specific context due to both the nature of human sin and the limitations of reason, both fundamental and practical within the boundaries of any human society. The vital forces of human nature create limitations on human reason as well as provide the power for its realization. [2] In addition, the capacity of human beings for self-transcendence also creates the potential for good and evil, just and unjust social structures.

Because of what Niebuhr calls, “the indeterminate character of human possibilities” (i.e. the human capacity to transcend nature and natural instincts), human societies are dynamic, and characterized by change. Liberal Protestantism, Marxism, and the various “isms” of the post-Enlightenment era came to view the trajectory of change as inevitably progressive, a view that Niebuhr challenges. There is no inevitable “right side of history” to which selfish and self-centered human beings will agree. There is a slow process of seeking to make change within the constraints of human history at any given point in time. Therefore, a Christian view of human destiny must take into account both the transcendent aspects of human nature (made in the image of God) and its sinful limitations (cast out of Eden).

The Relationship of Justice to Love

Niebuhr makes a distinction that is central to his approach to law and principles of justice. For Niebuhr, the term “nature” refers to the currently existing historical possibilities of justice in society while “grace refers to the ideal possibility of perfect love potentially present in any society. [3] In every society, the search for justice is always a process whereby a set of institutions are for med and a degree of justice is attainted, but there remains an unfulfilled quality to the justice attained which is illumined by love.

The process Niebuhr is describing might be described as follows:

State A: A society achieves a degree of justice (The historical phase).

State B: Love illumines the limitations of State A and new possibilities of justice (Grace).

State C: New ideas of justice and institutions of justice are created (New Historical State).

This process is a never-ending process within human history because historically bound and limited human institutions can never achieve perfect justice and the melding of justice and love. Love in this analysis has a twofold character. Mutual love is a disinterested love in the other that evokes a historical response. It is a love that can be achieved within history. Sacrificial love represents the self-giving love of God that is never fully realized in history.[4]

Law and the Principles of Justice

In discussing law and justice, Niebuhr begins with another distinction, this time between the principles of justice and the institutions of justice. The principles of justice are abstract ideals, that are reflected in our notions of justice and in theoretical principles of law. The institutions of justice are the actual structures of justice that are embodied in a concrete human community within human history. [5] In any given society, these rules and institutions are only approximations of the ideals of a society as regards justice.

Systems and principles of justice are the servants and instruments of the spirit of brotherhood in so far as they extend the sense of obligation toward the other, (a) from an immediately felt obligation, prompted by obvious need to a continued obligation expressed in fixed principles of mutual support; (b) from a simple relations between a self and one “other” to the complex relations of the self and the “others”; and finally, from the obligations discerned by the individual self to the wider obligations which the community defines from its more impartial perspective. These communal obligations evolve slowly in custom and law. [6]

Niebuhr’s idea may be a bit difficult to grasp without an example. Let us take the modern Social Security and Medicare system as an example of what Niebuhr is getting at. In the beginning, an individual or individuals saw the predicament of elderly parents in an industrial society when they could no longer work. Over time, a fixed principle of justice, the notion that we should provide some minimum amount of financial security for the aged, evolved. This personal sense of justice became over time a communal obligation and was seen as such by the majority of people. In the end, a set of laws were enacted that embodied a wider communal sense of obligation. The Social Security Administration and Medicare were created, institutions that embodied this moral ideal. Over time, these institutions have further involved bringing drug prescriptions and other items within the ambit of the initial ideal intuited by members of society.

Beginning with a sense of mutual obligation (mutual love), the intuition of love is translated into ideals of justice and then into laws and institutions that embody that initial intuition. This is a social process and the results are communal, not individual. In one particularly illuminating passage, Niebuhr states:

The definitions of justice arrived at in a given community or the product of a social mind. Various perspectives upon common problems, have been merged and have achieved a result, different from that at which any individual, class or group in the community would have arrived. The fact that various conceptions of a just solution of a common problem can be fully synthesized into a common solution, disproves the idea that the approach of each individual or group is consistently egoistic. If it were, society would be an anarchy of rival interest until power from above subdued the anarchy. [7]

Here Niebuhr sets out a democratic ideal amid the struggles for a justice society in which, at least in the West, people are involved. The “social mind” is different from the individual minds that make it up, and cannot be reduced to something more fundamental. A society’s social mind evolves as debate, disagreement, dialogue, and further study merge to improve a concrete set of social problems, and solutions that become “common” over time. The fact that Western democracies have been able to achieve the degree of justice that they have achieved is a testimony to the human potential for change and social progress.

But Niebuhr includes a final warning: If a society degenerates into egoistic self-seeking of individuals and groups, a kind of social anarchy results, and tyranny can result. Western democracies at the time of Niebuhr had shown themselves capable of the kind of reasoned practical adjustments that are required in a functional democracy. There is room for hope.

If the hope that Niebuhr outlines is to be achieved, people must be willing to live within a society in which there are constant adjustments, pressures, and counter-pressures characteristic of a human community. There must be a willingness to move from calculations of personal self-interest, what Niebuhr refers to as egoistic calculations, to a broader social calculation based upon a communal reason. [8]

Structures of Justice

Niebuhr begins his analysis of the structures of justice with a helpful distinction. The structures of justice are the laws and institutions enacted by a particular community to guide its communal life. Niebuhr refers to these structures as positive, meaning created by the participants of a society. Natural law, on the other hand, consists of those rational principles of justice that guide the formation of law and institutions. These abstract principles have a normative power and reflect a society’s ideals of justice. [9]

In any living human community, there is constant interaction, dialogue and inevitable tension between the normative conceptions of morality and law and the laws and institutions that are developed as a result of the interplay of reason and vitality, which readers will remember is the vital search for power that human beings possess. In any existing society, there is always tension and a balance between moral and rational forces and the organizing and coercive power of government. [10] This balance is important for any society that wishes to remain free, for the coercive and organizing principles may result in tyranny, and a failure of a society to maintain order can result in anarchy. [11]

As any political scientist understands, power has a place in all political thinking. Because human beings are embodied, physical creatures with powers of reason and the vitality of the body, there can be no society in which the use of power is not present. On the other hand, because of human sin, that power can always degenerate into the tyranny of individual or group self-seeking. The duplicity of human nature is such that human reason, even moral fervor, can be used to create tyranny. [12]

Against this danger, free societies attempt to create an equilibrium of power among groups. This equilibrium of power is always capable of dissolving into either tyranny or anarchy.

The principle of the equilibrium of power is thus a principle of justice in so far as it prevents domination and enslavement; but it is a principle of anarchy and conflict in so far as its tensions, if unresolved, result in overt conflict. [13]

As a result of the compromises and tensions that inevitably result in any concrete set of laws and institutions, human governments are always morally ambiguous. [14] for this reason, every free society must embody some ideals and institutional protections for resistance to a government where necessary.

The Christian Attitude towards Government

For Christians, secular governments have a two-fold character. Governments are an ordinance of God for the maintenance of social order. On the other hand, governments are morally dubious as the creations of fallen human beings, always tempted to oppress certain groups, particularly the poor and outsiders. [15] The result is a paradoxical relationship. Christians are to render unto Caesar and obey rulers (Matthew 21:21; Romans 13:1-3). On the other hand, those same rulers are subject to judgment and prophetic criticism.[16]

Augustine, in his City of God, analyzed the problem with human governments as resulting from the inevitable conflict in which they were constantly engaged, both internally for power and among the nations of the world seeking security and power. [17] In the Middle Ages, Roman Catholic teaching only partially embodied Augustine’s critique. The Medieval synthesis combined the Stoic view that governments are relative goods and required for human flourishing with an understanding that human governments as relative, human-created institutions can be criticized and changed. [18]

Calvinism accepted the basic Augustinian notion of human governments are protections against evil. Calvin was extremely reluctant to justify disobedience to established rulers. He was familiar with the damage the Radical Reformation had done in Germany and how even well-meaning radical reformers had damaged the cause of the Reformation in fruitless revolt against authorities. Nevertheless, Calvin finds some room for disobedience captured under the caption “Obedience to man must not become disobedience to God” (4.20.32). Obedience to earthly rulers must not be such that it leads to disobedience to God, for public officials are subject to God and owe obedience to God. Where Christ has spoken, “he alone must be heard” (4.20.32). [19]

Justice and the World Community

As Niebuhr was giving his lectures, it had become obvious that the League of Nations had failed. The results of World War I, and the reparations that the victors demanded of Germany, had created the very conditions that caused the Second World War. Niebuhr realized that the economic interdependence of the world created a need for an enlarged human community with principles and structures of law that might eliminate or mitigate conflict. Nevertheless, Niebuhr is also aware that the factors that make justice difficult to achieve on a national level are also present on an international level. These factors are often ignored by the idealists most in favor of creating a viable international system of government. [20] For a viable international system to evolve, Niebuhr foresaw that there would need to be a system of checks and balances so that dominant powers did not take advantage of their situation, just as national governments require such checks and balances for freedom to flourish.


Next week, we will finalize this look at The Nature and Destiny of Man with a look at the notion of the Kingdom of God as it impacts Niebuhr’s thought.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 244.

[2] Id.

[3] Id, at 246.

[4] Id, at 247. One of the limitations of contemporary understanding of Niebuhr and of the limits of human achievement has to do with the notion that “justice/love” implies the possibility of the achievement of such a thing within human history, something Niebuhr denies.

[5] Id.

[6] Id, at 248.

[7] Id, at 249.

[8] Id, at 250-251.

[9] Id, at 256-257. I must add that I have included the formation of institutions, such as a judicial system within the ambit of what Niebuhr refers to as law.

[10] Id, at 257.

[11] Id, at 258.

[12] Id, at 258-259. In this section of The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr speaks particularly about Gandhi and his notion of soul force, and how even pacifism can be misused. One questionable feature of Niebuhr’s thought is his constant dislike of Gandhi and of pacifism.

[13] Id, at 266.

[14] Id, at 267/

[15] Id, at 269.

[16] Id, at 271.

[17] Id, at 273.

[18] Id, at 272-275.

[19] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion Volumes 1 & 2, ed. John McNeill. trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960). The quotation in the text is from this version of the Institutes in the form: book.chapter.section. This paragraph is largely taken from an earlier blog.

[20] NDM, at 284-285.

Niebuhr 8: Tolerance, Freedom of Speech and Thought

Reinhold Niebuhr’s view of human nature leads inescapably to a kind of fallibilism. (Fallibilism is the view that all human knowledge is limited, and we can always be mistaken, even concerning our most fundamental beliefs.) We live between the creation and consummation of all things. Within history, the final meaning of all things cannot be known. God is the author of creation and human history. Like any good mystery story, the ending of the story, and its ultimate meaning will not be fully and finally revealed until the end of history.

As a result, all of human history is lived within what Niebuhr refers to as “the Paradox of Grace”. [1] The Paradox of Grace means that all human activities are limited by our sin and finitude. All of our achievements are partial. All of our achievements of knowledge and understanding are capable of revision. At any given time, we have and do not possess the truth, particularly the truth about the ultimate nature of things. In the end, human beings, including Christians, live within the ambit of grace and are reliant on grace for any and all achievements, however great. All of our human, historical activities, fall under the paradox of grace. In particular, our request for truth, and our request for a just and fair society are subject to human limitations.[2]

All of the historical strivings of the human race take place under the shadow of the paradox of grace. That is to say, no aspect of human life is untainted by human sin and finitude. In particular, our rational apprehension of the truth is likely to be tainted by our ideological convictions. [3]  These convictions are apt to predispose human beings to make premature decisions concerning the truth or falsity of socio-political views.

Classical, Renaissance, and Enlightenment View

In classical culture, the problem of ideology was avoided by the view, that reason, and the eternal truths of reason, could overcome the finiteness and imperfections of history. In the renaissance era, and increasingly, in our own time, there is the view that history itself is a process of overcoming finiteness and imperfections of humanity. This is evident in all progressive thinking, including Hegel and Marx. I might add, that it is also present in the often-quoted statement by political persons in the United States, left, and right, that the other side is “not on the right side of history.” This political statement embodies the enlightenment view that human progress is inevitable, and can be known by human beings through the exercise of reason.[4]

The Christian Alternative

For Christians, the emphasis of the Christian faith on humility, and our belief that the truth was not revealed in prepositional form, but in the form of a person, should provide some defense against the human propensity to make absolute our personal or group ideological convictions. The Doctrine of the Fall, and the Christian view that all human life, including our thinking about social and political views, is corrupted by sin and finitude, should create a constant sense of human fallibility that is conducive to tolerance. Unfortunately, neither Catholics nor Protestants have been able to c avoid human sinful self-assertion and will to power. [5] As Niebuhr eloquently puts it:

The history of Christianity proves that such grace as is manifested in the Christian life, does not lift men above the finiteness of the mind; nor yet save them from the sin, of claiming to have transcended it. [6]

All major streams of Christian faith have been from time to time guilty of intolerance to their detriment. For Roman Catholics, the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope and the Church forecloses proper humility in many circumstances. For Protestants, the view that the absolute truth is revealed in an errorless scripture can also prevent proper humility about our own opinions. This is particularly true of our political and social opinions. [7] In all cases, the problem is the difficulty Christians have in recognizing the contingent and sinful elements that remain present in whatever truth claims are made by sinful humans, even those possessing the truth of Christ. [8]

Niebuhr’s analysis of the problem of Christian intolerance flows naturally from his view of the fall. The anxiety and self-centeredness of human beings are bound to impact everyone, Christians and non-Christians. All human beings are prone to intolerance, and Christians cannot assume that they are untainted by the same flaws that afflict human beings generally. In my view, what is missing in Niebuhr’s analysis is a recognition that the danger of intolerance in post-Enlightenment Western society comes not from the church, which has been decentered from power, but from secular governments.

The Renaissance Alternative

Niebuhr sees the hope for continued tolerance in Modern western civilization (and by inference, post-Modern civilization) in a recapturing of the synthesis of faith and reason that gave Western civilization its entry into the modern world:

The toleration, whether in religious or in socio-economic disputes, which has made life sufferable amidst the cultural and social complexities of the modern world, and which enabled modern society to achieve a measure of domestic tranquility without paying the price of tyrannical suppression, is obviously the fruit, primarily, of the movement which we have defined broadly as “Renaissance.” [9]

Following the Renaissance, various groups contributed to the maintenance of tolerance in Western societies, especially in America. The lack of an established religion and the many sects that inhabit American culture contributed to the high-value Americans placed on tolerance. From the secular side of culture, the philosophical tradition of Anglo-American philosophy and religious thinkers all supported the value of tolerance in Western society. Two arguments, have particular importance:

  1. The utilitarian argument that truth has a power of its own to triumph and does not need coercion to triumph where beliefs conflict;
  2. The progressive belief inherent in Enlightenment thought that societies were progressively evolving and that progress would allow truth to emerge as victorious on its own without the assistance of coercion. [10]

By the time Niebuhr wrote The Nature and Destiny of Man, it was obvious that these two arguments are limited. Both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia engaged in extreme persecution of religious and other minorities. In Germany, both Jews and Christians experienced persecution. In Russia, terrible atrocities were committed against Jews and Orthodox Christians, with the communist party engaging in a deliberate attempt to exterminate the Russian Orthodox Church. Communism and practical Marxism had not been able to achieve a free, tolerant societies.  Unfortunately, we see a similar form of intolerance emerging in the United States of America.

Niebuhr’s analysis of the sinfulness of human nature means that tolerance will always be a fragile value in the face of social and political pressures. [11] Niebuhr recognizes this problem. In a particularly important passage, he writes:

It is significant that so much of modern toleration applies merely to the field of religion; and that the very champions of toleration may be exponents of political fanaticism. It is simple enough to be tolerant on issues which are not believed to be vital. The real test of tolerance is our attitude towards people who oppose truths which seem important to us, and who challenge realms of life and meaning towards which we have a responsible relation. [12]

Achieving a tolerant and just society requires more than the elimination of religious and other prejudice. It requires faith, faith in the truth, as well as faith in the ability of human beings to sort out the truth over time. It requires patience because it normally takes time for a society to sort out its largest and most central disagreements. It requires humility and a sense of our own fallibility even where our most deeply held convictions are at stake. These are not normal human qualities. They require education and the formation of the heart, a kind of formation of the heart that religion provides.


Niebuhr’s proposed solution to the problem of human intolerance is a combination of the best aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Renaissance. His solution is also similar to that proposed in this blog on more than one occasion.

As he ends his analysis, he sets out his conclusion:

Loyalty to the truth requires confidence in the possibility of its attainment; toleration of others requires broken confidence in the finality of our own truth.[13]

In other words, for a community to achieve tolerance, it must believe in the reality of truth and the possibility of human beings attaining it. It must believe in the reality of justice existing outside of and beyond our historically limited understandings of justice.

At the same time, freedom and tolerance require humility that flows from a deep belief in our fallibility and the potential that we are wrong as regards our deepest and most strongly held beliefs. If human beings do not believe in the existence of truth, they ultimately give up the disciplined search for truth. If human beings think that they already possess the truth, then they will be intolerant of those who think differently. This is the precise situation in which Western civilization finds itself today.

Niebuhr warns that under such circumstances human beings either embrace a hopeless nihilism or a fanatical assertion of their version of the truth. In either case, the result is disastrous to the creation of a just and tolerant society. The behavior of the far right and left of our society demonstrates the accuracy of his warning.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 213. One author puts it this way, “The paradox itself can be summarized as follows. The moral vision of the New Testament, specifically as revealed in the life of Christ, declares the Law of Love to be the normative ideal for Christian behavior. Given the conditions of history, however, this norm is impossible to follow. Alongside the Impossible Ideal is the possibility of approximating those ideals. Given these options, in the face of sufficiently grave political evil, the Law of Love requires that we overrule love.” Mark LiVecche, “Reinhold Niebuhr and the Problem of Paradox” https://providencemag.com/2017/07/reinhold-niebuhr-problem-paradox/ (July 7, 2017), downloaded December 18, 2022. The result is that we human beings are completely reliant upon God’s grace within the boundaries of human history.

[2] Id, at 213.

[3] Id, at 214. The term ideology is a consequence of the Enlightenment and his emphasis upon the importance of ideas. An ideology is a manner or way of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture. It includes the political and sociological of a group.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 217.

[6] Id, at 219.

[7] Id, at 220-231.

[8] Id, at 225.

[9] Id, at 231.

[10] Id, at 234-235.

[11] The legacy of John Dewey’s view that religious thinking was outmoded and his confidence that it would be ultimately eliminated from public life has contributed to this problem, Dewey’s analysis of intolerance supposes that religion is the problem, failing to understand that human nature is the problem. Secularists have turned out to be just as intolerant as religious believers. Id, at 237, footnote 23.

[12] Id, at 238.

[13] Id at 243

The First and Last Word

John begins his gospel with the well-known words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind” (John 1:1-4). Matthew begins his account in a more earthy way, “The birth of Jesus Christ occurred in this way. When his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came to live together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.19 Her husband Joseph was a just man and did not wish to expose her to the ordeal of public disgrace; therefore, he resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:18-19).

In the first quote, the emphasis is upon the eternal word of God, that wisdom of God which was brought forth before the beginning of creation (Proverbs 8:22-23). In the second, the emphasis is on the incarnation, the coming of Immanuel, God with us. The Greek mindset, to which John was writing, and which is so common in the modern era, will always prefer the first description. At Christmas, however, we celebrate the earthy, Hebraic, physical description given by Matthew and Luke.

The God who created all things and which is in all things while being utterly different from them, was present in Jesus of Nazareth in a special way, a way we can only describe in physical terms. He was born as a human being and lived among us as a human being. He grew up as we grow up. He was tempted as we are tempted. He was victimized as we are victimized. He was betrayed as we are betrayed. He died as we die. There is but one difference: He experienced all this without sinning, that is without defacing his essential humanity.

In our power-mad society, where the search for wealth and power consumes many people, the earthy story is one we most need desperately to hear, believe and act upon. A society atomized by personal striving to the point of dissolution, seeking material things to the point of bankruptcy, in which the most basic things, like faith, hope, and love are ignored, needs to stop at least once each year and ponder a truer, healthier story. Our society needs to ponder the story that begins, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his One and Only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). [1]

It is Christmas Day and the first day of the last week of 2022. This week’s post reminds us that Jesus Christ is the first and last Word of God, he was with God in wisdom at the creation and incarnated in love for our salvation at the beginning of the end-times in which we live and have lived for more than twenty centuries. When they will end, we cannot know. What we do know is they will end with the victory cry of wisdom and love, first revealed in the cry of a helpless baby in a manger. Merry Christmas.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] In Greek, it is monogenes, which is best translated, “only begotten.” This translation emphasizes the uniqueness of Christ as bearing the “genetics of God” that is the God of Light and Love is uniquely present in the life, deat,  and resurrection of Christ.

Light in the Darkness

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:1-2). There is a paradox in the life of faith. We believe that through faith in Christ we can have a relationship with God, who dwells in light inaccessible, and whose wisdom transcends any human wisdom. In the words of the Nicene Creed, we believe that Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” This Sunday, we will celebrate the Great Light that can illuminate and renew our world.

On occasion we human beings all feel as if we are walking in a great darkness separated from the True Light of God’s Presence. Our human plans are unfulfilled and seemingly blocked. Our well-meaning prayers are unanswered. Our most important relationships are troubled. Our employment is uncertain. Our character flaws seem impossible to overcome. In such situations, we can easily feel overwhelmed. Our sin and selfishness seems unescapable and devastating to our hopes and dreams.

When we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” physically or symbolically, the assurance that there is a God of Mercy and Love who cares for us makes an incredible difference. The blessings of God may be delayed. The salvation of God may be impossible to humanly predict. The darkness may seem impenetrable. But, the Creating and Renewing God who can do anything is still there.

How can we human beings know this? There is more than one reason, but the reason we celebrate at Christmas is this: Because God sent his one and only Son into the world, we can know that the Divine Presence is never far from us in steadfast and self-giving love, even if we cannot sense its reality at the moment.

In The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr puts it this way:

In Christian faith, Christ mediates the confrontation of the self with God; for it is in Christ that the vague sense of the divine, which human life never loses, is crystalized into a revelation of divine mercy and judgement. In that revelation, fear of judgement and hope of mercy are so intermingled that despair induces repentance and repentance hope. [1]

All human beings are strange conglomerations of darkness and light, of good and evil, of love and indifference, of justice and injustice, of diligence and laziness, and the like. We are all imperfect creatures, made in the image of God but in whom that image has been defaced to some degree. Nevertheless, God loves us and desires for us to be restored to the original image placed within every one of us.

At Christmas, we celebrate the mystery that the love of God was so great that he bridged the gap between time and eternity, between heaven and earth, between the spiritual and the physical, between love and law, and became one of us, so that we might be restored and become like him. Therefore, this Saturday night, we can all join in singing:

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in the dark street shineth
The Everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight. [2]

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 109

[2] Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” music by Peter Christian Lutkin. (Chicago, IL: C. F. Summy Co., 1867).

Christian wisdom for abundant living