The Religious Antithesis
Taken by itself, the word antithesis means no more than “opposition.” At an early stage it was given a special meaning in philosophy, particularly in the dialectical way of thinking. This must be considered at the outset, in order to prevent a possible misunderstanding with respect to a discussion of the place of the antithesis.
The Theoretical Antithesis
There are some who hold that dialectical thought does away with every absolute antithesis. According to them, the dialectical method bridges and relativizes whatever is contradictory, including Christianity and humanism. I do not mean to say that this idea is prevalent in the Dutch National Movement, but it undoubtedly claims adherents in certain intellectual circles, especially those oriented toward Hegel.
The dialectical way of thought, which originated already in Greek antiquity, is not content with simple, logically determined opposites, such as motion and rest. It attempts to reconcile them in a higher unity. This unity is then understood as the synthesis or connection between a thesis and an antithesis. The great Greek thinker Plato, for example, found the higher synthesis of motion and rest in the idea of “being,” arguing that both, with equal right, “are.” And it is of course true that in concrete, time-bound reality, motion and rest continually appear together.
Taken in this strictly theoretical sense, “antithesis” means no more than the logical opposition of what belongs together in reality. The key to this antithesis is that it must acknowledge a higher synthesis. Although one obtains the concept of motion by logically opposing motion to rest, a logical distinction of this sort cannot lead to or reflect a division in reality itself.
Let me explain further. The consistent reflection of the dialectical method demonstrates that mutually opposed concepts stand together in a mutual relation. In this relation they are each other’s correlates; that is, in it one concept cannot exist without the other. Without the thought of something at rest it is impossible to determine motion, and vice versa. The premise here is that the opposites which the method resolves are relative and not absolute. The method must proceed under that assumption. As such it is merely theoretical in character. Certainly the dialectical way of thought is legitimate if, in using the tools of logical contrast, it searches for the higher synthesis of relative opposites. When used correctly, the method illustrates that nothing in temporal life is absolute.
The Religious Antithesis
But the case is quite different with the antithesis that has been established in the world through the christian faith. This antithesis pertains to the relation between the creature and his creator, and thus touches the religious root of all temporal life.
The religious antithesis does not allow a higher synthesis. It does not, for example, permit christian and nonchristian starting points to be theoretically synthesized. Where can one find in theory a higher point that might embrace two religious, antithetically opposed stances, when precisely because these stances are religious they rise above the sphere of the relative? Can one find such a point in philosophy? Philosophy is theoretical, and in its constitution it remains bound to the relativity of all human thought. As such, philosophy itself needs an absolute point of departure. It derives this exclusively from religion. Religion grants stability and anchorage even to theoretical thought. Those who think they find an absolute starting point in theoretical thought itself come to this belief through an essentially religious drive, but because of a lack of true self-knowledge, they remain oblivious to their own religious motivation.
The absolute has a right to exist in religion only. Accordingly, a truly religious starting point either claims absoluteness or abolishes itself. It is never merely theoretical, for theory is always relative. The religious starting point penetrates behind theory to the sure, absolute ground of all temporal, and therefore relative, existence. Likewise, the antithesis it poses is absolute.
To arrive at the true and decisive meaning of this antithesis and, at the same time, to penetrate to the real source of the differences of opinion concerning its significance, it is necessary to take into account the religious ground motives [religieuze grondmotieven] of western civilization. They have been the deepest driving forces behind the entire cultural and spiritual development of the West.
One can point to such a ground motive in every religion. It is a spiritual force that acts as the absolutely central mainspring of human society. It governs all of life’s temporal expressions from the religious centre of life, directing them to the true or supposed origin of existence. It thus not only places an indelible stamp on the culture, science, and social structure of a given period but determines profoundly one’s whole world view. If one cannot point to this kind of leading cultural power in society, a power that lends a clear direction to historical development, then a real crisis looms at the foundations of culture. Such a crisis is always accompanied by spiritual uprootedness.
A spirit is directly operative in the religious ground motive. It is either the spirit of God or that of an idol. Man looks to it for the origin and unshakable ground of his existence, and he places himself in its service. He does not control the spirit, but the spirit controls him. Therefore specifically religion reveals to us our complete dependence upon a higher power. We confront this power as servants, not as rulers.
In this way a religious ground motive is a communal motive. A ground motive can never be ascertained through the personal conceptions and beliefs of an individual. The spirit establishes community and governs its individuals even when they are not fully conscious of that spirit or when they do not give an account of it.
Finally, the religious ground motive can never be an object for a special science (social psychology, for example). Scientific analysis and explanation never penetrate to the spiritual root and religious centre of communal life. The special sciences touch only life’s temporal “branches”: feeling, thought, art, morality, law, faith, and so on. They address only life’s temporally distinct expressions. The point of departure for science is governed by a religious ground motive; science is thus never neutral with respect to religion.
The Religious Ground Motives of Western Culture
The development of western culture has been controlled by several religious ground motives. These motives acquired their central influence upon the historical development of mankind via certain cultural powers, which, over the centuries, successively gained leadership in the historical process. The most important of these powers have been the spirit of ancient civilization (Greece and Rome), Christendom, and modern humanism. Once each made its entrance into history, it continued in tension with the others. This tension was never resolved by a kind of “balance of powers,” because cultural development, if it is to be sustained, always requires a leading power.
In classical Greek civilization the leading power was the polis, the Greek city-state. It was the carrier of the new culture religion of the Olympian gods. In classical Roman times it was the res publica, the Roman commonwealth, and later the emperor as the figure who personified the religious idea of imperium. The idea of the sacrum imperium (the holy empire) remained in the Byzantine period, having accommodated itself externally to Christianity. The tradition of the “Holy Roman Empire” continued in the christian rule of Charlemagne and his successors. By that time the Germanic peoples had accepted the heritage of ancient civilization and had adopted the christian religion. It should be noted that the adaptation of Christianity to the Roman idea of imperium at the end of the third century signified a crisis in the foundations of ancient culture.
During the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church managed to secure the role of leadership. It established a unified culture, placing all the spheres of life under the dominion of the church.
But in the fifteenth century, after the church’s grip on life had weakened during the spiritual decay of the late Middle Ages, the rise of the modern Renaissance movement ushered in the church’s downfall and the next great cultural crisis. When the content of the religious ground motive of the Renaissance was transformed by the emergence of humanism, the classical component of western culture began to tear itself loose from the guidance of the church. At the same time the great movement of the Reformation challenged the ecclesiastical power of Roman Catholicism, though from a principially different standpoint.
Meanwhile, in the countries that remained largely faithful to the church, Roman Catholicism regrouped its forces in the CounterReformation. It created room for the absorption of Renaissance culture, just as it had previously adapted itself to classical civilization. In protestant countries, cultural leadership shifted temporarily to the Reformation.
Gradually, however, a new direction in the development of western civilization became apparent. Both Roman Catholicism and the Reformation were driven back as leading cultural factors by modern humanism. Initially, humanism had aligned itself partly on the side of the Reformation and partly on the side of Roman Catholicism. But in the Enlightenment it broke away completely from the faith of the christian church. Then it began to display its true colours and became the leading cultural power in the West. Of course, humanism did not eliminate Roman Catholicism and the Reformation as factors in cultural and historical development; they continued to function, partly in an effort to oppose the new world view that had transformed Christianity into a rational, personal religion, and partly in an effort to synthesize Christianity with the new humanistic ideas that were shaping history. But unlike before, they could not imprint western civilization with the stamp of Christianity. The power struggle for the spirit of culture pushed Roman Catholicism and Protestantism into the defensive for nearly three centuries. For the time being the leadership came to rest with humanism.
But in the last few decades of the nineteenth century a general process of decay entered the humanistic world view. Out of this decay emerged the antihumanistic cultural powers (marxism, darwinism, Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Superman) which pushed humanism itself into the defensive. This turn of events heralded a tremendous period of transition in world history and sparked a fierce battle for the spiritual leadership of western culture. Its outcome is still undecided.
The first world war, together with bolshevism, fascism, and national socialism, greatly accelerated the internal degeneration of humanism. Fascism and national socialism battled the humanist “ideology” with their religious “myths of the twentieth century.” The reactionary and intensely antichristian power of fascism and nazism was broken by the second world war, at least on the political terrain. Nevertheless, the spiritual crisis that set in long before the war was not overcome. Today the “new age” exhibits the features of spiritual confusion everywhere. One cannot yet point to a definite direction that cultural development will follow in the near future.
In this apparently chaotic stage of transition the West’s older and spiritually consolidated cultural powers, Roman Catholicism and the Reformation, have again joined the spiritual fray. This time they fight with modern weapons. Their aim is not just to defend the christian foundations of modern civilization but to reclaim leadership for a future which is still so unknown and bleak.
The Religious Dialectic
The development of western political systems, social structures, sciences, and arts demonstrates time and time again that all the public expressions of society depend upon spiritually dominant cultural powers.
By and large, four religious ground motives have dashed in western history. Three are internally dualistic and fragmentary. Their discord pushes one’s posture of life to opposite extremes that cannot be resolved in a true synthesis. We call these extremes “polar opposites” because they are two spiritually “charged” poles that collide within a single ground motive. Each pole bears the seed of a religious dialectic.
To analyze the meaning of the “religious dialectic,” we must once again sharply contrast the theoretical and the religious antithesis. By way of orientation, let us briefly recall our earlier discussion. We observed that the two antitheses are entirely different. We noted that the theoretical antithesis is relative while the religious antithesis is absolute. We concluded that any attempt to bridge an absolute antithesis with the method of the theoretical dialectic rests on the illusion that a higher standpoint exists outside of religion.
The theoretical dialectic is concerned with relative opposites. Insofar as these opposites are bound together in a higher unity, they resist any effort on the part of theoretical thought to absolutize them. Thus, for example, the proposition that motion and rest exclude each other absolutely makes no sense; it is not difficult to determine that motion and rest simply make the same temporal reality visible in two different ways. Instead of excluding they presuppose each other. Their mutual dependence points to a third element in which the two are united, even though they are mutually exclusive from a purely logical standpoint.
The task of theoretical dialectic is to think through a logical opposition to its higher synthesis. Therein lies its justification. Whether or not it successfully reaches this synthesis depends upon its starting point, which is governed by a religious ground motive.
The true religious antithesis is established by the revelation found in God’s Word. We come to understand this revelation when the Holy Spirit unveils its radical meaning and when it works redemptively at the root of our fallen existence. The key to God’s revelation is the religious ground motive of Holy Scripture. This motive sums up the power of God’s Word, which, through the Holy Spirit, not only reveals the true God and ourselves in unmeasurable depth but converts and transforms the religious root of our lives, penetrates to life’s temporal expressions, and redemptively instructs us. The biblical ground motive, the fourth in the development of western culture, consists in the triad of creation, fall, and redemption through Jesus Christ in communion with the Holy Spirit.
The biblical ground motive is not a doctrine that can be theologically elaborated apart from the guidance of God’s Spirit. Theology in and of itself cannot uncover the true meaning of the scriptural ground motive. If it presses that claim, it stands against the work of God and becomes a satanic power. Theology makes God’s self-revelation powerless if it reduces the religious ground motive of revelation to a theoretical system. As a science, theology too is totally dependent upon a religious ground motive. If it withdraws from the driving power of divine revelation, it falls into the clutches of an idolatrous, nonchristian ground motive.
From the beginning the Word of God stands in absolute antithesis to every form of idolatry. The essence of an idolatrous spirit is that it draws the heart of man away from the true God and replaces Him with a creature. By deifying what is created, idolatry absolutizes the relative and considers self-sufficient what is not self-sufficient. When this absolutization appears in science, it is not science itself but a religious drive that leads theoretical thought in an idolatrous direction. As we have repeatedly stressed, science is always determined by a religious ground motive.
The religious dialectic arises when a religious ground motive deifies and absolutizes part of created reality. This absolutization calls forth, with inner necessity, the correlates of what has been absolutized; that is, the absolutization of something relative simultaneously absolutizes the opposite or counterpart of what is relative, since one relative part of creation is necessarily related to the other. The result is a religious dialectic: a polarity or tension between two extremes within a single ground motive. On the one hand, the ground motive breaks apart; its two antithetical motives, each claiming absoluteness, cancel each other. But on the other hand, each motive also determines the other’s religious meaning, since each is necessarily related to the other.
Because it is religious, the religious dialectic tries desperately to rid itself of this correlativity. Without ceasing, it drives thinking and the practice of life from pole to pole in the search for a higher synthesis. In this quest it seeks refuge in one of the antithetical principles within the ground motive by giving it religious priority. Concomitantly, it debases and depreciates the opposite principle. But the ambiguity and brokenness of the dialectical ground motive do not give it access to reconciliation in a truly higher unity; reconciliation is excluded by the ground motive itself. In the end a choice must be made.
The religious dialectic, in other words, entangles life and theory in a dialectic that is utterly incomprehensible when measured with the yardstick of the theoretical dialectic. Unlike the theoretical dialectic, the religious dialectic lacks the basis for a real synthesis.
Let no one, therefore, try to correct the religious dialectic by way of the theoretical dialectic-the method attempted by the hegelian school. That approach is an utterly uncritical form of dialectical thought, because at the root of its overestimation of the theoretical dialectic lies a religious dialectic that is hidden to the thinker himself. Certainly it is true that the two motives in a dialectical ground motive are no more than correlates in temporal reality; nevertheless, in the ground motive they stand in absolute antithesis to each other. The religious drive of an idolatrous spirit absolutizes them both. This religious force can never be controlled or corrected by mere theoretical insight.
Another kind of religious dialectic arises when one attempts to strike a religious synthesis between the ground motive of Christianity and the ground motive of either Greek antiquity or humanism. In that event the tension between the two antithetical poles is different from the tension within a strictly idolatrous ground motive. It originates in the effort to bridge the absolute antithesis by mutually adapting divine revelation and idolatry. Their mutual adaptation requires that both tone down the pure, original meaning of their ground motives. But the antithesis between them remains in force and continually drives the two motives of this apparent synthesis apart.
Those who defend this synthesis often recognize the christian antithesis to a certain degree, at least in the “spheres” of faith and religion. Generally, however, a distinction is made between the specifically christian issues of temporal life that directly involve the christian faith and the so-called neutral issues that do not. Or, by contrast, occasionally a partially christian ground motive is structured so that the christian pole almost completely controls the adapted nonchristian pole. Then indeed the universal significance of the antithesis is recognized. Nevertheless, the antithesis would have been understood differently if the scriptural ground motive had worked itself through completely. This is the case with Roman Catholicism, which from the outset aimed at assimilating the Greek ground motive (and later the humanistic ground motive) to Christianity. The same misunderstanding arises whenever those whose life and thought have been fostered by the Reformation cling to the ground motive of Roman Catholicism.
The central issue in this religious dialectic is the pseudosynthesis which, time and again, threatens to fall apart into an absolute division or opposition between christian and nonchristian “areas of life.” We must subject all such attempts at synthesis to a thorough investigation, for here, and here alone, lies the real source of disagreement among Christians as to the scope of the antithesis.
A Final Warning
Four religious ground motives have controlled the development of western culture. We must focus on each in succession, for one cannot penetrate to the core of today’s questions on the antithesis until one sees which religious forces have been operative in our culture, and understands how these forces have been central in the resolution of life’s practical problems.
Once more I must warn against a possible misunderstanding. We are not about to engage in a learned academic discourse. What is at stake in the issue of the antithesis is the relation between religion and temporal life. This is not a purely theoretical matter of interest only to theoreticians. Since the antithesis touches the deepest level of our existence as human beings, it is a problem that concerns everyone. Whoever delegates it to theory shirks his personal responsibility. One cannot escape from oneself behind an impersonal science, for the only answers science gives to the central questions of life are religiously biased.
The antithesis is to be “discussed.” Let it be a serious discussion. This is not possible if we are not willing to penetrate to the deepest drives that determine the various points of view. Neither is it possible if anything that seems foreign and strange in the religious motivations of our fellowmen is brushed aside as being “not to the point” or “of perhaps merely theoretical interest.” In a serious dialogue we must faithfully support one another. Perhaps some are not aware of their deepest motives in life; if so, then we must help bring these motives out into the open. We, in tum, must be willing to learn from our opponents, since we are responsible both for ourselves and for them.
Finally, when tracing the religious ground motives of western culture, we must constantly remember that they concern us personally. We are children of this culture; it has borne, bred, and moulded us. By and large, modem man has not reckoned with western culture’s religious ground motives and their origin. Even in christian circles these have been taken too lightly. Unfortunately, however, the lack of critical reflection on the religious foundations of cultural development is one of the deepest causes for estrangement among the different spiritual currents confronting each other in our cultural setting. It is essential for the welfare of contemporary culture that the religious roots of its various streams be uncovered and explored.
Matter and Form
The religious ground motives in the development of western civilization are basically the following:
- The “form-matter” ground motive of Greek antiquity in alliance with the Roman idea of imperium.
- The scriptural ground motive of the christian religion: creation, fall, and redemption through Jesus Christ in communion with the Holy Spirit.
- The roman catholic ground motive of “nature-grace,” which seeks to combine the two mentioned above.
- The modem humanistic ground motive of “nature-freedom,” in which an attempt is made to bring the three previous motives to a religious synthesis concentrated upon the value of human personality.
It is absolutely necessary to consider the Greek ground motive first, since, despite its modifications, it continued to operate in both Roman Catholicism and humanism.
Although the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle first coined the term “form-matter,” the “form-matter” ground motive controlled Greek thought and civilization from the beginning of the Greek city-states. It originated in the unreconciled conflict within Greek religious consciousness between the ground motive of the ancient nature religions and the ground motive of the more recent culture religion – the religion of the Olympian deities.
The Matter Motive
Outside of their primeval Greek core, the nature religions contained much that was pre-Greek and even of foreign origination. These religions differed greatly in local ritual and in specific faith content. Reconstructing all the early forms of nature religions is largely guesswork for lack of information, but it is clear that from at least the beginning of the so-called historical age (the age documented by written records), the communal ground motive of these religions sustained a great influence on Greek culture.
What was at stake in this ground motive was the deification of a formless, cyclical stream of life. Out of this stream emerged the individual forms of plant, beast, and man, which then matured, perished, and came to life again. Because the life stream ceaselessly repeated its cycle and returned to itself, all that had individual form was doomed to disappear. The worship of the tribe and its ancestors was thoroughly interwoven with this religious conception. Closely related to this belief was its view of time: time was not linear, as in Newton’s modem conception, but cyclical.
Mysterious forces were at work in this life stream. They did not run their course according to a traceable, rational order, but according to Anangke (blind, incalculable fate). Everything that had a life of its own was subjected to it. The divine was thus not a concrete form or personality. On the contrary, the nature gods were always fluid and invisible. The material names used to indicate them were just as undefined as the shapeless divinities themselves. Instead of a unified deity, a countless multiplicity of divine powers, bound up with a great variety of natural phenomena, were embodied in many fluid and variable conceptions of deities. The state of constant variation applied not only to the “lesser” gods (the so-called demons: shapeless, psychical powers) and to the “heroes” (worshipped in connection with the deification of life in tribe and family), but with equal force to the “great” gods such as Gaia (mother earth), Uranos (god of the skies), Demeter (goddess of grain and growth) and Dionysus (god of wine).
In this context it is understandable that the rise of relatively durable, individual forms in nature was considered an injustice. According to the mysterious saying of the Ionian philosopher of nature, Anaximander (sixth century B.C.), these individual forms would “find retribution in the course of time.” With a genuinely Greek variant on Mephistopheles’ saying in .Goethe’s Faust, one could express this thought as follows: “Denn alles, was entsteht,/Ist wert, dass es zugrunde geht” (For all that comes to be/Deserves to perish wretchedly).
On the other hand, it is also understandable that in this nature religion one’s faith in the continuity of a divine stream of life provided a certain comfort with respect to the inevitable destruction of all definite, visibly shaped and formed individual life. “Mother earth” sustained this religion; out of it the stream of life began its cycle.
The Form Motive
The newer culhge religion, on the other hand, was a religion of form, measure, and harmony. It became the official religion of the Greek city-state, which established Mount Olympus as one of history’s first national religious centres. The Olympian gods left “mother earth” and her cycle of life behind. They were immortal, radiant gods of form: invisible, personal, and idealized cultural forces. Mount Olympus was their home. Eventually the culture religion found its highest Greek expression in the Delphic god Apollo, the lawgiver. Apollo, god of light and lord of the arts, was indeed the supreme Greek culture god.
This new religion, which received its most splendid embodiment in the heroic poetry of Homer, tried to incorporate the older religion in its own ground motive of form, measure, and harmony. It was particularly concerned to curb the wild and impassioned worship of Dionysus, the god of wine, with the normative principle of form that characterized Apollo worship. In the city of Delphi Apollo (culture} and Dionysus (nature) became brothers. Dionysus lost his wildness and took on a more serious role as the “keeper of the souls.”
Early in this period of transition the ancient Greek “seers” and poet-theologians (Hesiod and Homer) sought to convince the people that the Olympians themselves had evolved out of the formless gods of nature. Hesiod’s teaching concerning the genealogy of the gods, which deeply influenced subsequent Greek philosophical thought, gave the ground motive of the older nature religions a general, abstract formulation: the basic principle of all that comes into being is chaos and formlessness.
But the inner connection between the culture religion and the older nature religions is most evident in the peculiar part played by Moira. Originally, Moira was nothing other than the old Anangke of the nature religions: inexorable fate revealing itself in the cycle of life. But later it was adapted somewhat to the form motive of the culture religion. Moira is related to meros, a word that means “part” or “share.” Among the Olympian gods Moira became the fate that assigned to each of the three most important deities a “share” or realm: the heavens to Zeus, the sea to Poseidon, and the underworld to Hades (Pluto). This already implied something of design instead of blind fate. Moira actually became a principle of order. Its order, however, did not originate with the Olympian gods but with an older, impersonal, and formless divine power. Thus Moira still revealed its original dark and sinister self when it decreed the fate of death upon mortals. Even Zeus, lord of Olympus, father of gods and men, was powerless before Moira (although sometimes Homer designated Zeus as the dispenser of fate). Moira, the fate that held death for all the individual forms of life, was incalculable, blind, but nonetheless irresistible.
At this point, where both religions united in the theme of Moira, the culture religion revealed an indissoluble, dialectical coherence with the religions of nature. The religion of culture is inexplicable without the background of the nature religions. With intrinsic necessity, the ground motive of the culture religion called forth its counterpart. Moira was the expression of the irreconcilable conflict between both religions. In the religious consciousness of the Greeks this conflict was the unsolved puzzle standing at the centre of both tragedy and philosophy. Likewise, it was the threatening antipode to the Greek cultural and political ideal.
We have seen that the new culture religion of Olympus and the poetic teachings regarding the origin of the gods sought to reconcile the antithetical motives of the older religions of nature and the newer religion of culture. These attempts failed for at least three reasons, the first of which is decisive.
- The newer culture religion neglected the most profound questions of life and death. The Olympian gods protected man only as long as he was healthy and vigorously alive. But as soon as dark Anangke or Moira, before whom even the great Zeus was impotent, willed the fate of a mortal’s death, the gods retreated: But death is a thing that comes to all alike. Not even the gods can fend it away from a man they love, when once the destructive doom [Moira] of levelling death has fastened upon him. (The Odyssey of Homer, trans. and intro. Richmond Lattimore (New York: Harper & Row,1965. 3:236-238).
- The Olympian culture religion, given mythological form by Homer, came into conflict with the moral standards of the Greeks. Even though the Olympian gods sanctioned and protected Greek morality, the Olympians themselves lived beyond good and evil. They fornicated and thieved. Homer glorified deception as long as it expressed the grand manner of the gods.
- The whole splendid array of deities was far too removed from ordinary people. The homeric world of the gods suited Greek civilization only during its feudal era, when the relation between Zeus and the others served as a perfect analogy to that of a lord and his powerful vassals. But after feudalism had run its course, the divine world lost all contact with the cross section of the people. Thereafter it found support only in the historically formative Greek polis, the bearer of culture. The critical years of transition between Mycenian feudalism and the Persian wars marked a religious crisis. The Greek city-states withstood the ordeal brilliantly. Nilsson, the well-known scholar of Greek religion, characterized this crisis as a conflict between an ecstatic (mythical) movement and a legalistic movement. t The first revived and reformed the old suppressed religions, and the second, finding its typical representative in the poet-theologian Hesiod, stood on the side of the Olympian culture religion.
In the light of these reasons it is understandable that the Greeks observed the ancient rites of nature religions in private but worshipped the Olympians as the official gods of the state in public. This also explains why the deeper religious drives of the people became oriented to “mystery worship,” for in this worship the questions of life and death were central. Hence it is not surprising that the culture religion in its homeric form began to lose its strength already in the sixth century B.C. Criticism against it grew more and more outspoken in intellectual circles and the sophists, the Greek “enlightenment” thinkers of the fifth century, enjoyed relative popularity, although there was a reaction against them in the legal trials dealing with “atheism.”
Throughout, the dialectical ground motive remained unshaken. Born out of the meeting between the older religions of nature and the newer Olympian religion of culture, this ground motive maintained its vitality even after the myths had been undermined. In philosophical circles it was able to clothe itself with the garments of creeds that answered the religious needs of the times. The old conflict continued to characterize this religious ground motive; the principle of blind fate governing the eternal flux of all individual forms in the cyclical life stream stood over against the principle of the supernatural, rational, and immortal form, itself not ruled by the stream of becoming.
The same conflict found pointed expression in the orphic school, founded by the legendary poet and singer Orpheus. This school, basically a religious reform movement, gained great influence in Greek philosophy. Following the old religions of the flux of life, the orphics worshipped Dionysus. This, however, was a reborn Dionysus. After the titans had devoured him, the original Dionysus, the untamed god of wine, reappeared in personal form as the twin brother of Apollo, the Olympian god of light. The transfiguration of Dionysus illustrates the sharp distinction in orphic religion between life in the starry heavens and life on the dark earth, which moved in the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth.
The orphic view of human nature clearly expressed the internal discord of the Greek ground motive. At one time, according to the orphics, man had an immortal, rational soul. It originated in the heavens of light beyond the world. But at a certain point the soul fell to the dark earth and became imprisoned or entombed in a material body. This imprisonment of the soul meant that the soul was subject to the constant cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Not until it had been cleansed from the contamination of matter could the soul cease its migrations from body to body (including animal bodies) and return to its true home: the divine, imperishable sphere of starry light. As the orphic inscription, found in Petelia, declares: “I am a child of earth and of the starry heaven/But heaven is my home.”
The imperishable sphere of light in the heavens points to the combination in orphic religion between the culture motive and the so-called uranic nature religion which worshipped the sky and its light-giving bodies. Like the older nature religions, the uranic religion did not know of an immortal form. Even the radiant sun rose from the earth and returned to the earth’s bosom after it set. The orphic movement transferred the Olympian concept of divine immortality to the rational substances of the soul that made their home in the starry sky. The soul had an imperishable form, but earthly bodies, subject to the cycle of the ceaselessly flowing life stream, did not. Clearly, the religious contrast between form and matter determined this entire conception of “soul” and “body.”
The Greek motive of matter, the formless principle of becoming and decay, was oriented to the aspect of movement in temporal reality. It gave Greek thought and all of Greek culture a hint of dark mystery which is foreign to modern thinking. The Greek motive of culture, on the other hand, was oriented to the cultural aspect of temporal reality (“culture” means essentially the free forming of matter). It constantly directed thought to an extrasensory, imperishable form of being that transcended the cyclical life stream.
The Greek idea of theoria (philosophic thought) was closely linked to the culture motive. The form of being could not be grasped in a mere concept but required contemplation as a suprasensible, luminous figure. This too was a typically Greek tendency which is foreign to us in its original sense. Just as the Olympian gods could only be conceived of as imperishable figures of light standing beyond sense perception, so also “immutable being” could only be conceived of as a radiant form. Theoria was always contemplation directed to an invisible and imperishable form of being which contained the divine. From the outset Greek philosophical thought presented itself as the way to true knowledge of god. It tied belief to the sphere of doxa (uncertain opinion), which belonged to sense perception.
Form and matter were inseparably connected within the Greek religious ground motive. They presupposed each other and determined each other’s religious meaning. The dialectical tension between them pushed Greek thought to polar extremes and forced it into two radically conflicting directions, which nevertheless revealed a deeper solidarity in the ground motive itself. The Greek conception of the nature (physis) of things, for example, was determined by this tension. The Greeks viewed nature sometimes as a purely invisible form and sometimes as an animated, flowing stream of life, but most often as a combination of both. Likewise, this tension shaped the Greek community of thought and culture. Greek philosophy, which so profoundly influenced roman catholic scholasticism, cannot be understood if this ground motive is left out of consideration. The same holds for Greek art, political life, and morality.
The connection between the Greek religious ground motive and the Greek idea of the state may serve as an illustration. In the classical age of Greek civilization the state was limited to the small area of the city-state (polis). The city-state was the bearer of the Greek culture religion and hence the Greek cultural ideal. A Greek was truly human only as a free citizen of the polis. The polis gave form to human existence; outside of this formative influence human life remained mired in the savagery of the matter principle. All non-Greeks were barbarians. They were not fully human since they lacked the imprint of Greek cultural formation.
The ideas of world citizenship and of the natural equality of all men were launched considerably later in Greek philosophy by the cynics and the stoics. These ideas were not of Greek origin. They were essentially hostile to the Greek idea of the state, and they exerted little influence on it. The radical wing of the sophists was similarly antagonistic. Guided by the Greek matter motive, it declared war on-the city-state. Even more radically foreign to the classical Greek was the christian confession that the religious root community of mankind transcends the boundaries of race and nation.
The Greek ideal of democracy that emerged victorious in Ionian culture was quite different from the democratic ideal of modern humanism. Democracy in Greece was limited to a small number of “free citizens.” Over against them stood a mass of slaves and city dwellers with no rights. “Freedom” consisted in total involvement with the affairs of state, and “equality” meant only that ownership of capital was not a prerequisite for full citizenship. Labour and industry were despised and left to workers and slaves. Soon every aristocracy, whether material or spiritual, became suspect and liable to all sorts of confining regulations.
The idea of sphere sovereignty was therefore utterly foreign to the Greek mind. Rooted in the christian view that no single societal sphere can embrace man’s whole life, sphere sovereignty implies that each sphere in society has a God-given task and competence which are limited by the sphere’s own intrinsic nature. The Greek idea of the state, however, was basically totalitarian. In accordance with its religious ground motive it demanded the allegiance of the whole man. Or rather, man became truly whole only as an active, free citizen. All of life had to serve this citizenship, for it alone granted a divine and rational cultural form to human existence. The Greek state, realized in the “democratic” city-state, was not founded on the principle that the state’s authority is inherently limited by its inner nature. Neither was it governed by the principle that man has inalienable rights over against the body politic. The Greek had only formal guarantees against despotism.
The Roman Imperium
Greek culture became a world culture when Alexander the Great, the royal pupil of Aristotle, created the Macedonian empire. This empire (the imperium), which stretched from Greece to India, had little connection with the small city-state. As it arose, certain eastern religious motives began to mingle with Greek motives. Alexander made use of the Asiatic belief in the divine ancestry of monarchs in order to legitimize and give divine sanction to the Greco-Macedonian world empire. He allowed himself to be worshipped as aheros, a demigod, and later as a full god. From east to west, from Greece to India, the worship of Alexander was added to the existing cults. In 324 B.C. Athens decided to include Alexander among the city’s deities as Dionysus. The worship of Alexander was the foundation for the religious imperium idea, which became the driving force behind the Roman conquest of the world and continued in a christianized form with the Germanic-Roman idea of the sacrum imperium, the “Holy Roman Empire,” after Rome’s fall.
The religious idea of imperium lent itself toward a combination with the ground motive of Greek culture. It was not by chance that Alexander was worshipped as Dionysus in Athens. We noted earlier that the cult of Dionysus expressed the matter motive of the older nature religions, the formless stream of life moving in the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. It is even likely that this cult was originally imported from Asia. In any case, the fatalistic conception of the cycle of life meting out death to everything that existed in individual form was eminently suited to a deification of the monarch as the lord over life and death. The monarch soon displayed the same mysterious power as Dionysus, the demon, the dynamic soul of the ever-flowing life stream. Carried forward by a deified ruler, the imperium became surrounded with a kind of magical halo. Like fighting the inexorable fate of death, resisting the imperium was useless. The imperium idea was already well established in hellenistic culture when, after Alexander’s death, his world empire broke up into several large realms which eventually yielded to Roman might.
As the Roman empire expanded, it was understandable that the religious ground motive of Greek culture would influence Roman culture. The Romans had already made acquaintance with the Greeks when the latter conquered southern Italy. The Greeks had established colonies there and had named that part of the Italian peninsula “Magna Graecia.” After the Romans occupied Greece itself they adapted the worship of their own gods to Greek culture religion. Moreover, the Roman religion of life, which worshipped communal life in the tribe and clan, had much in common with the older Greek nature religions. Finally, the religious imperium idea found fertile soil among the Roman conquerors.
The Motive of Power
The motive of power deeply penetrated the Roman world of thought. Yet it did not become embodied in the person of a ruler until the emperor Augustus replaced the ancient republican form of government.
Even then, however, the deification of the office of emperor was first associated with the common Roman practice of ancestor worship. The emperor Tiberius, successor to Augustus, still resisted veneration of a living emperor and allowed worship only of his predecessor. But after him the infamous Caligula dropped this restriction and the existing ruler came to be worshipped as a god.
In the religious consciousness of the Romans the deification of the imperium was the counterpart and antipode to the typically juridical tendency of their ancestor worship. Roman worship was sober and businesslike. It had a stern juridical bent. The gods of the state had their own sphere of competence next to the old gods of home and hearth who represented the continuity of family life throughout the generations. The claims of both spheres regarding sacrifices and worship were precisely defined and balanced.
The religious motive of power and law thoroughly pervaded the old folk law (ius civile) of Roman tribalism. This motive rested on a strict juridical delimitation of different spheres of authority. Each sphere was religiously sacred and unassailable. The large patrician clan (gens) defined the sphere of authority, centred in the religious communal life of the family. With the head of the clan as its priest, the family deified and worshipped its ancestors. This sphere was carefully distinguished from the sphere of authority belonging to the Roman tribe (civitas ), where the public tribal gods maintained an inviolable religious sway. When in the course of time the Roman state as the res publica slowly cut itself off from this still primitive and undifferentiated societal structure, the power of the great patrician clans was broken. The clans then dissolved into narrower spheres of authority: the Roman familiae or domestic communities.
The familia was not like our modern family. Like the old gens, the familia was undifferentiated. It displayed the traits of many different societal spheres which diverge into well-defined communities, such as the family, the state, industry, and the church in a more highly developed culture. One might compare this undifferentiated structure with the lack of specialization in lower animals, such as worms, which do not develop specific organs for the various functions of life. Each familia was a family community, an economic unit, a miniature state, and a community of worship. Above all, it was the embodiment of the religious authority of the household gods, who represented the communion between the living and dead members of the familia. The head of the familia was usually the oldest male member, the paterfamilias, who wielded the power of life and death over all – over his wife, his children, his slaves, and his so-called clients. He also presided as the priest.
The sphere of authority of the pater familias was juridically distinct from the power of the state. It was religiously inviolate and absolute, and the state could not interfere with it. Its territorial basis was the plot of Italian soil on which the familia was situated, just as the sphere of authority of the older patrician clan had been territorially based on lands owned by the clan. To this piece of land, which, under solemn invocation of the god Terminus, had been ceremoniously marked off with boundary stones, the paterfamilias had the rights of absolute ownership and exclusive use. This ownership was not at all like our modern civil legal right to ownership which is strictly a right to property and does not include any authority over persons. The right to absolute ownership held by the Roman pater familias was rooted in the familia’s religious sphere of authority. For those who belonged to the ancestral lands it was an authority that disposed of their life and death. It was exclusive and absolute. In this still undifferentiated form of ownership, legal authority and property rights were indissolubly bound together. The paterfamilias, for example, had power to sell the children and slaves that resided under his jurisdiction.
Roman folk law (ius civile) can never be understood apart from the religious ground motive of Roman culture. For example, this motive permeated the contractual laws of Roman society. The household heads were mutual equals; the one had no jurisdiction over the other. But if one were indebted to another and did not discharge his debt immediately, then a contract (obligatio) was established. Originally this meant that the debtor was brought within the religious jurisdiction of the creditor. A prescribed legal formula dictated the severity of punishment. Payment (solutio) released him from this sphere of power which, like a magic bond (vinculum), held him captive. If he failed to pay, then his whole person fell to the creditor.
Like ancient Germanic and other primitive folk law, Roman folk law (ius civile) was exclusive. It made one’s entire legal status dependent upon membership in the Roman populus. Banishment from the community resulted in the total loss of one’s legal rights. A foreigner too had no rights and could only secure juridical protection ·by placing himself under the patronage of a Roman paterfamilias, who took him into the familia as a “client.”
Public Law and Private Law
When Rome became an empire the need arose for a more universal law that could apply to the private interrelations between both citizens and foreigners. This universal law, the ius gentium, was what we today would call the civil law of the Romans. It was no longer bound to the religious sphere of authority of the undifferentiated gens or familia. It raised every free person, regardless of birth or nationality, to the status of a legal subject, a status which endowed him with both rights and obligations. It created a sphere of personal freedom and selfdetermination that offered a healthy counterbalance to the jurisdiction of the community (both the state and the familia). It was a product of the process of differentiation in ancient Roman society. Certainly the Roman state as the res publica, though founded on the power of the sword, had the public good as its goal when it acknowledged over against itself a civil legal sphere of freedom for individual personality in which the individual could pursue his private interests.
Public law, then, as the internal sphere of jurisdiction in the Roman state, began to distinguish itself in accordance with its inner nature from civil, private law. This distinction had already appeared in the old folk law (ius civile) but, as long as the Roman community was still undifferentiated, public and private law could not be distinguished in accordance with their inner nature. Both were rooted in a religious sphere of authority which, because of its absolute character, embraced the entire temporal life of its subordinates. Both had sway over life and death. The difference between them depended strictly on who or what carried authority. If it was the Roman community, one was subject to the sphere of public law; if it was the paterfamilias, one was subject to the sphere of private law. This undifferentiated state of communal life allowed room for neither a constitutional law nor a differentiated civil, personal law. All law was folk law. Differences within this law were due to differences as to who wielded authority.
The development of a universal civil law common to all free people presented the Roman legislators with a deeply religious problem. The universal law (ius gentium) could not be based on the religious authority of either the old gens, the familia, or the Roman community. Where then could its basic principles be found? Here Greek philosophy provided assistance with its doctrine of natural law (ius naturale). Natural law resided not in human institutions but in “nature” itself.
Stoic philosophy (influenced by semitic thought) had introduced into Greek thought the idea of the natural freedom and equality of all men. It had broken with the narrow boundaries of the polis. The founders of stoic philosophy lived during the period when Greek culture became worldwide under the Macedonian empire. Their thinking about natural law, however, was not determined by the religious idea of imperium but by the old idea of a so-called golden age. This age, an age without slavery or war and without distinction between Greek and barbarian, had been lost by man because of his guilt. The stoic doctrine of an absolute natural law reached back to this prehistoric golden era. For the stoics, all men were free and equal before the law of nature.
The Roman jurists based the ius gentium on this ius naturale. In doing so, they made an outstanding discovery. They discovered the enduring principles that lie at the basis of civil law according to its own nature: civil freedom and equality of persons as such. Civil law is not communal law and cannot be made into communal law without distorting its essence. As one says in modern times, civil law is founded on the rights of man. The Roman ius gentium, which still legitimized slavery, actualized these principles only in part, but the doctrine of the ius naturale and the pure principles of civil law lived on in the consciousness of the Roman jurists.
At the close of the Middle Ages most of the Germanic countries of continental Europe adopted this Roman law as a supplement to indigenous law. It thus became a lasting influence on the development of western law. The fact that national socialism resisted this influence and proclaimed the return to German folk law in its myth of “blood and soil” only proves the reactionary character of the Hitler regime. It failed to see that the authentic meaning of civil law acts as a counterforce to the overpowering pressure of the community on the private freedom of the individual person. But the process of undermining civil law, which is still with us, began long before national socialism arose.
The Roman ius gentium was a gift of God’s common grace to western culture. The Roman jurists masterfully developed its form with a great sensitivity to practical needs. Many profound principles of law so familiar to us today because of modern civil law came to expression here. Some of these principles are good faith (bona fide) in contractual relations, equity, and the protection of good morals. Nevertheless, the religious ground motive of Greco-Roman culture continually threatened this blessed fruit of God’s common grace. Roman civil law stood at the mercy of the religious motive of power that had governed the development of Roman law from the outset. Personal freedom was limited by the demands of empire. Civil law placed the individual person squarely over against the all-powerful Roman state mechanism. Within his private sphere of freedom the individual stood opposite the state, which was to promote the “common good” of the Roman imperium.
The christian idea of the sovereignty of the differentiated spheres of life was as foreign to the Romans as it was to the Greeks. How could the individual person maintain his private freedom in the face of the Roman leviathan? It was not by chance that the individual’s freedom soon fell victim to the absolute authority of the imperium. Certainly, this was not the case when Rome flourished. At that time one found a sharp demarcation between the sphere of the state and the sphere of individual freedom. Essentially, however, this was only due to the fact that the old undifferentiated familia still maintained itself. In the familia structure lay the ancient division between the absolute and impenetrable religious authority of the head of the household (paterfamilias) and the authority of the Roman state. Throughout the duration of the Roman empire the familia continued to protect the freedom of trade and industry. The
workshops and plantations in and beyond Italy belonged to the familia and therefore fell outside of state interference. Wealthy Romans were thus able to maintain the plantations with great numbers of slaves. This mechanical delimitation of private and public jurisdiction naturally led to a capitalistic exploitation of labour; personal freedom was purchased by the head of the household.
In the days of the Byzantine emperors (beginning in the latter part of the third century A.D.) the Greco-oriental idea of the sacrum imperium advanced further. This spelled the end of civil freedom for the individual. The Greeks did not know of the Roman familia, and the idea of marking off its religious jurisdiction from that of the state was foreign to them. In this period the only stronghold for the Roman idea of freedom was destroyed. It was replaced by an unrestrained state absolutism, against which not even the ius gentium could offer resistance. Trade and industry were forced into the straitjacket of the Roman state structure, which established a strictly hierarchical “guided economy.” Everyone became a civil servant. After Constantine the Great accepted the christian faith, this absolutism even subordinated the christian church to the state. The church became a “state church.” In christian style, the divine ruler of the world empire called himself “Caesar by the grace of God,” but he claimed absolute temporal authority, even over christian doctrine. The “caesaropapacy” was a fruit of the Greco-Roman motive of power.
Creation, Fall, and Redemption
The second ground motive which shaped the development of western culture is the motive of creation, fall, and redemption through Jesus Christ in the communion of the Holy Spirit. The christian religion introduced this motive in the West in its purely scriptural meaning as a new religious community motive.
The Creation Motive
Already in its revelation of creation the christian religion stands in radical antithesis to the religious ground motive of Greek and GrecoRoman antiquity. Through its integrality (it embraces all things created) and radicality (it penetrates to the root of created reality) the creation motive makes itself known as authentic divine Word-revelation. God, the creator, reveals himself as the absolute, complete, and integral origin of all things. No equally original power stands over against him in the way that Anangke and Moira (blind fate) stood over against the Olympian gods. Hence, within the created world one cannot find an expression of two contradictory principles of origin.
Influenced by its motive of form and matter, Greek philosophy could not speak of a real creation. Nothing, the Greeks argued, could come from nothing. Some Greek thinkers, notably Plato, did hold that the world of becoming was the product of the formative activity of a divine, rational spirit; but under pressure from the ground motive of culture religion this divine formation could only be understood according to the pattern of human cultural formation. With Plato, for example, the divine mind, the Demiurge, was the great architect and artist who granted the world its existence. The Demiurge required material for his activity of formation. Due to the influence of the Greek matter motive, Plato believed that this material was utterly formless and chaotic. Its origin did not lie in divine Reason, since the Demiurge was only a god of form or culture. The Demiurge does not create; he simply furnishes matter with divine form. Matter retained the self-determining Anangke or blind fate, which was hostile to the divine work of formation. In Plato’s famous dialogue Timaeus, which dealt with the origin of the world, the divine Logos checked Anangke merely by means of rational persuasion.
The same principle was expressed by the great Greek poet Aeschylus. In his tragedy Oresteia, Anangke persecuted Orestes for matricide; Orestes had killed his mother because she had murdered his father. Likewise, for Plato’s great pupil Aristotle pure form was the divine mind (nous), butAnangke, which permeated matter, was still the peculiar cause of everything anomalous and monstrous in the world.
The earlier philosophers of nature gave religious priority to the motive of matter. Plato and Aristotle, however, shifted religious priority to the motive of form. For them matter was not divine. Nevertheless, the god of rational form was not the origin of matter. The god of form was not the integral, sole origin of the cosmos. Therein lay the apostate character of the Greek idea of god.
The Greek notion of god was the product of an absolutization of the relative. It arose from a deification of either the cultural aspect or the movement aspect of creation. It thus stood in absolute antithesis to God’s revelation in the Bible and to God himself, the creator of heaven and earth. Consequently, a synthesis between the creation motive of the christian religion and the form-matter motive of Greek religion is not possible.
God’s self-revelation as the creator of all things is inseparably linked with the revelation of who man is in his fundamental relationship to his creator. By revealing that man was created in God’s image, God revealed man to himself in the religious root unity of his creaturely existence. The whole meaning of the temporal world is integrally (i.e., completely) bound up and concentrated in this unity.
According to his creation order, Jehovah God is creaturely mirrored in the heart, soul, or spirit of man. This is the religious centre and spiritual root of man’s temporal existence in all its aspects. Just as God is the origin of all created reality, so the whole of temporal existence was concentrated on that origin in the soul of man before the fall into sin. Therefore, in conformity with God’s original plan, human life in all of its aspects and relations ought to be directed toward its absolute origin in a total self-surrender in the service of love to God and neighbour. As the apostle Paul said: “Whether you eat or whether you drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” [I Corinthians 10:31. The Revised Standard Version is the translation used here and elsewhere, unless indicated otherwise.]
Scripture teaches us not only that the heart or soul is the religious centre of the entire individual and temporal existence of man but also that each man is created in the religious community of mankind. This is a spiritual community; it is governed and maintained by a religious spirit that works in it as a central force. According to the plan of creation, this spirit is the Holy Spirit himself, who brings man into communion and fellowship with God.
Not only the temporal existence of human beings but that of the whole temporal world was concentrated upon the service of God in this religious root community. God created man as lord of creation. The powers and potentials which God had enclosed within creation were to be disclosed by man in his service of love to God and neighbour. Hence in Adam’s fall into sin, the entire temporal world fell away from God. This is the meaning of apostasy. The earth was cursed because of man. Instead of the Spirit of God, the spirit of apostasy began to govern the community of mankind and with it all of temporal reality.
In contrast to mankind, neither the inorganic elements nor the kingdoms of plants and animals have a spiritual or religious root. It is man who makes their temporal existence complete. To think of their existence apart from man, one would need to eliminate all the logical, cultural, economic, aesthetic, and other properties that relate them to man. With respect to inorganic elements and plants, one would even need to eliminate their capability of being seen. Objective visibility exists only in relation to potential visual perception which many creatures do not themselves possess.
Along these lines the modern materialists, overestimating the mathematical, natural-scientific mode of thinking, tried quite seriously to grasp the essence of nature completely apart from man. Nature, they thought, was nothing more than a constellation of static particles of matter determined entirely by mechanical laws of motion. They failed to remember that the mathematical formulae which seem to grasp the essence of nature presuppose human language and human thought. They did not recognize that every concept of natural phenomena is a human affair and a result of human thinking. “Nature” apart from man does not exist. In an attempt to grasp “nature” one begins with an abstraction from given reality. This abstraction is a logical and theoretical activity which presupposes human thought.
In a similar fashion the scholastic christian standpoint, influenced by Greek thought, held that inorganic elements, plants, and animals possess an existence of their own apart from man. The scholastics argued that the so-called material “substances” depend on God alone for their sustenance. But in the light of God’s revelation concerning creation, this too cannot be maintained. In the creation order objective visibility, logical characteristics, beauty, ugliness, and other properties subject to human evaluation are necessarily related to human sensory perception, human conceptualization, human standards for beauty, etc. Both the former and the latter are created. They consequently cannot be ascribed to God the creator. God related all temporal things to man, the last creature to come into being. Temporal reality comes to full reality in man.
The scriptural motive of creation thus turns one’s view of temporal reality around. It cuts off at the root every view of reality which grows out of an idolatrous, dualistic ground motive which posits two origins of reality and thus splits it into two opposing parts.
Jehovah God is integrally, that is totally, the origin of all that is created. The existence of man, created in the image of God, is integrally, that is totally, concentrated in his heart, soul, or spirit. And this centre of existence is the religious root unity of all man’s functions in temporal reality-without exception. Likewise, every other creature in temporal reality is integral and complete. It is not closed off within the few aspects abstracted by the natural sciences (number, space, motion), but in its relation to man it is embraced by all of the aspects of reality. The whole of the temporal world (and not just some abstracted parts) has its root unity in the religious community of mankind. Hence, when man fell away from God, so did all of temporal reality.
The Scriptural View of Soul and Body
In the years just prior to the second world war the question as to how we are to understand the human soul and its relation to the body in the light of God’s Word was fiercely debated in Reformed circles. The arguments surrounding this question can be understood only with reference to the absolute antithesis between the scriptural ground motive and the religious ground motive of Greek thought.
Perhaps some readers impatiently wonder why I devote so much attention to the ancient ground motive of the Greeks. If it is true that our modern western culture came forth out of the conflicts and tensions of four religious ground motives, then it is simply impossible to enlighten the reader concerning the significance of the antithesis for today if it is not made clear that the present can be understood only in the light of the past. The most fundamental doctrines of the christian religion, including creation, fall, and redemption, are still influenced by the religious ground motive of ancient Greece. The Greek ground motive still causes strife and division among Christians today, and it is therefore imperative that we devote our time and attention to it.
The reader himself must penetrate to the bottom of the problems pertaining to the antithesis. In so doing he will gradually see that the christian religion itself fights a battle of life and death against all sorts of religious ground motives. In every fundamental issue of our times these motives try to grip the soul of modern man. A battle rages against those who consciously reject the christian ground motive and also against those who time after time rob it of its intrinsic strength by accommodating it to nonscriptural ground motives. It is a battle between the spirit of the christian religion and the spirit of apostasy. It is also a battle that cuts right through christian ranks and through the soul of the believer.
What is the soul? Is this a question that only psychology can answer? If so, why has the christian church considered it necessary to make pronouncements concerning the relation of “soul” and “body” in its confessions? Perhaps, one might argue, the church confessions address the soul’s imperishability, the soul’s immortality, and the resurrection of the body in the last judgment, while philosophical psychology deals with the question as to what the “soul” actually is. This, however, places the christian church in a strangely contradictory position. What if psychology comes to the conclusion that a soul in distinction from the body does not exist? Or what if psychology gives an elaborate theory concerning the “essence of the soul” that is completely oriented to the ground motive of Greek philosophy or to the world view of modern humanism? Does not the christian church build on sand if it honours philosophical constructions of the soul predicated upon the concepts of “immortality” and “imperishability”? From its beginning, scholastic theology tried to push the church into this intrinsically contradictory position by allowing the Greek conception of the soul into the roman catholic confessions. But the radical antithesis between the ground motive of Holy Scripture and the ground motive of Greek “psychology” cannot be bridged. Any conception of body and soul that is determined by the Greek form-matter motive cannot stand before the face of revelation concerning creation, fall, and redemption.
The question as to what we are to understand by “soul” or “spirit” or “heart” asks where human existence finds its religious root unity. It is therefore a religious question, not a theoretical or scientific question. Augustine once made the remark that in a certain sense the soul is identical with our religious relationship to God. The soul is the religious focus of human existence in which all temporal, diverging rays are concentrated. The prism of time breaks up the light from which these rays come.
As long as we focus our attention on our temporal existence we discover nothing but a bewildering variety of aspects and functions: number, space, motion, organic functions of life, functions of emotional feeling, logical functions of thought, functions of historical development, social, lingual, economic, aesthetic, jural, moral, and faith functions. Where in the midst of these functions does the deeper unity of man’s existence lie? If one continually studies the temporal diversity of the functions corresponding to the different aspects of reality investigated by the special sciences, one never arrives at true self-knowledge. One’s gaze remains dispersed in the diversity. We can obtain genuine self-knowledge only by way of religious concentration, when we draw together the totality of our existence, which diverges within time in a multiplicity of functions, and focus it upon our authentic, fundamental relationship to God, who is the absolute and single origin and creator of all that is.
Because of the fall, however, man can no longer attain this true self-knowledge. Self-knowledge, according to scripture, is completely dependent on true knowledge of God, which man lost when apostate ground motives took possession of his heart. Man was created in God’s image, and when man lost the true knowledge of God he also lost the true knowledge of himself.
An apostate ground motive forces a man to see himself in the image of his idol. For this reason Greek “psychology” never conceived of the religious root unity of man and never penetrated to what is truly called the “soul,” the religious centre of human existence. When the matter motive dominated Greek thought, the soul was seen merely as a formless and impersonal life principle caught up in the stream of life. The matter motive did not acknowledge “individual immortality.” Death was the end of man as an individual being. His individual life-force was destroyed so that the great cycle of life could go on.
With orphic thought the soul came to be seen as a rational, invisible form and substance. It originated in heaven and existed completely apart from the material body. But this “rational soul” (in scholastic theology: anima rationalis) was itself nothing but a theoretical abstraction from the temporal existence of man. It embraced the functions of feeling, logical judgment and thought, and faith which, taken together, comprise only an abstracted part or complex of all the various functions. Together they constituted man’s invisible form, which, just like the Olympian gods, possessed immortality. The material body, on the other hand, was totally subject to the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
The “rational soul” was characterized by the theoretical and logical function of thought. One finds many differences in the development of this philosophical conception. Plato and Aristotle, for example, changed their views throughout the different phases of their lives. I will not pursue this here, but it is important to mention that their conception of the rational soul was inseparably related to their idea of the divine. Both Plato and Aristotle believed that the truly divine resided only in theoretical thought directed to the imperishable and invisible world of forms and being. The aristotelian god was absolute theoretical thought, the equivalent of pure form. Its absolute counterpart was the matter principle, characterized by eternal, formless motion and becoming.
If the theoretical activity of thought is divine and immortal, then it must be able to exist outside of the perishable, material body. To the Greeks the body was actually the antipode of theoretical thought. For this reason, the “rational soul” could not be the religious root unity of temporal human existence. Time after time the ambiguity within the religious ground motive placed the form principle in absolute opposition to the matter principle. The ground motive did not allow for a recognition of the root unity of human nature. For Plato and Aristotle, just as God was not the creator in the sense of an absolute and sole origin of all that exists, so also the human soul was not the absolute root unity of man’s temporal expressions in life. In conformity with their Greek conception, the soul’s activity of theoretical thought always stood over against whatever was subject to the matter principle of eternal becoming. Greek thought never arrived at the truth, revealed first by Holy Writ, that human thinking springs from the deeper central unity of the whole of human life. Because this unity is religious, it determines and transcends the function of theoretical thought.
Scripture says: “Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life” [proverbs 4:231. “Biblical psychology” may not denature this to a mere expression of Jewish wisdom or understand it simply as a typical instance of Jewish language usage. Whoever reads scripture in this way fails to recognize that scripture is divine Word-revelation which can only be understood through the operation of the Holy Spirit out of its divine ground motive.
The pregnant religious meaning of what the soul, spirit, or heart of man actually is cannot be understood apart from the divine ground motive of creation, fall, and redemption. Whoever takes his stand upon this integral and radical ground motive comes to the conclusion that there is an absolute and unbridgeable antithesis between the Greek conception of the relation between the soul and the body and the scriptural conception of the christian religion. The former is determined by the apostate ground motive of form and matter while the latter is determined by the scriptural ground motive of creation, fall, and redemption through Jesus Christ. The former, at least as long as it follows the Greek ground motive in its dualistic direction, leads to a dichotomy or split in the temporal existence of man between a “perishable, material body” and an “immortal, rational soul.” The scriptural ground motive of the christian religion, however, reveals to us that the soul or spirit of man is the absolute central root unity or the heart of the whole of his existence, because man has been created in God’s image; further, it reveals that man has fallen away from God in the spiritual root of his existence; and, finally, it reveals that in the heart or focal point of his existence man’s life is redirected to God through Christ’s redemptive work.
In this central spiritual unity man is not subject to temporal or bodily death. Here too the absolute antithesis obtains. In distinction from the Greek-orphic belief in immortality that permeated scholastic theology by way of Plato and Aristotle, scripture teaches us nowhere that man can save a “divine part” of his temporal being from the grave. It does not teach us that an invisible, substantial form or an abstract complex of functions composed of feeling and thinking can survive bodily death. While it is true that temporal or bodily death cannot touch the soul or spirit of man, the soul is not an abstraction from temporal existence. It is the full, spiritual root unity of man. In this unity man transcends temporal life.
Fall, redemption through Jesus Christ, and the revelation of creation are unbreakably connected in the christian ground motive. Apostate ground motives do not acknowledge sin in its radically scriptural sense; for sin can only be understood in true self-knowledge, which is the fruit of God’s Word-revelation. To be sure, Greek religious consciousness knew of a conflict in human life, but it interpreted that conflict as a battle in man between the principles of form and matter. This battle became apparent in the conflict between uncontrolled sensual desires and reason. Sensual desires, which arose from the life stream and ran through the blood, could be bridled only by reason. In this view reason was the formative principle of human nature, the principle of harmony and measure. Sensual desires were formless and in constant flux; they were beyond measure and limit. The matter principle, the principle of the ever-flowing life stream, became the self-determining principle of evil. The orphics, for example, believed that the material body was a prison or grave for the rational soul. Whoever capitulated to his sensual desires and drives rejected the guidance of reason. He was considered morally guilty in this Greek conception. Nevertheless, reason was often powerless before Anangke, the blind fate that was at work in these boundless drives. Hence the state with its coercive powers needed to help the average citizen grow accustomed to virtue.
Modern humanism recognized a battle in man only between sensual “nature” (controlled by the natural-scientific law of cause and effect) and the rational freedom of human personality. Man’s moral duty was to act as an autonomous, free personality. If he showed a weakness for sensual “nature,” he was considered guilty. Humanism, however, does not show man a way of redemption.
The contrasts between matter and form in Greek ethics and between nature and freedom in humanistic ethics were operative not in the religious root of human life but in its temporal expressions. However, they were absolutized in a religious sense. This meant that the Greek and humanistic notions of guilt depend strictly on the dialectical movements between the opposing poles of both ground motives. Guilt arose from a devaluation of one part of man’s being over against another (deified) part. In reality, of course, one part never functions without the other.
We shall see that roman catholic doctrine circumvents the radically scriptural meaning of the fall with the idea that sin does not corrupt the natural life of man but only causes the loss of the supratemporal gift of grace. It does admit that “nature” is at least weakened and wounded by original sin. But the dualism between nature and grace in the roman catholic ground motive stands in the way of understanding the real meaning of sin, even if roman catholic doctrine far surpasses Greek thought and humanism with respect to the notion of guilt.
In its revelation of the fall into sin, the Word of God touches the root and the religious centre of human nature. The fall meant apostasy from God in the heart and soul, in the religious centre and root, of man. Apostasy from the absolute source of life signified spiritual death. The fall into sin was indeed radical and swept with it the entire temporal world precisely because the latter finds its religious root unity only in man. Every denial of this radical sense of the fall stands in direct opposition to the scriptural ground motive, even if one maintains the term radical, like the great humanistic thinker Kant, who spoke of “radical evil” (Radikal-bose) in man. Any conception which entails this denial of the biblical meaning of radical knows neither man, God, nor the depth of sin.
The revelation of the fall, however, does not imply a recognition of an autonomous, self-determining principle of origin opposed to the creator. Sin exists only in a false relation to God and is therefore never independent of the creator. If there were no God there could be no sin. The possibility of sin, as the apostle Paul profoundly expressed it, is created by the law. Without the law commanding good there could be no evil. But the same law makes it possible for the creature to exist. Without the law man would sink into nothingness; the law determines his humanity. Since sin therefore has no self-determining existence of its own over against God the creator, it is not able to introduce an ultimate dualism into creation. The origin of creation is not twofold. Satan himself is a creature, who, in his created freedom, voluntarily fell away from God.
The divine Word -through which all things were created, as we learn from the prologue to the Gospel of John-became flesh in Jesus Christ. It entered into the root and temporal expressions, into heart and life, into soul and body of human nature; and for this very reason it brought about a radical redemption: the rebirth of man and, in him, of the entire created temporal world which finds in man its centre.
In his creating Word, through which all things were made and which became flesh as Redeemer, God also upholds the fallen world through his “common grace,” that is, the grace given to the community of mankind as such, without distinction between regenerate and apostate persons. For, also redeemed man continues to share in fallen mankind in his sinful nature. Common grace curbs the effects of sin and restrains the universal demonization of fallen man, so that traces of the light of God’s power, goodness, truth, righteousness, and beauty still shine even in cultures directed toward apostasy. Earlier we pointed to the meaning of Roman civil law as a fruit of common grace.
In his common grace God first of all upholds the ordinances of his creation and with this he maintains “human nature.” These ordinances are the same for Christians and nonchristians. God’s common grace is evident in that even the most antigodly ruler must continually bow and capitulate before God’s decrees if he is to see enduring positive results from his labours. But wherever these ordinances in their diversity within time are not grasped and obeyed in the light of their religious root (the religious love commandment of service to God and neighbour), a factual capitulation or subjection to these ordinances remains incidental and piecemeal. Thus apostate culture always reveals a disharmony arising out of an idolatrous absolutization of certain aspects of God’s creation at the cost of others. Every aspect, however, is just as essential as the others.
God’s common grace reveals itself not only in the upholding of his creation ordinances but also in the individual gifts and talents given by God to specific people. Great statesmen, thinkers, artists, inventors, etc. can be of relative blessing to mankind in temporal life, even if the direction of their lives is ruled by the spirit of apostasy. In this too one sees how blessing is mixed with curse, light with darkness.
In all of this it is imperative to understand that “common grace” does not weaken or eliminate the antithesis (opposition) between the ground motive of the christian religion and the apostate ground motives. Common grace, in fact, can be understood only on the basis of the antithesis. It began with the promise made in paradise that God would put enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman out of which Christ would be born. The religious root of common grace is Christ Jesus himself, who is its king, apart from whom God would not look upon his fallen creation with grace. There should no longer be any difference of opinion concerning this matter in Reformational-christian circles. For if one tries to conceive of common grace apart from Christ by attributing it exclusively to God as creator, then one drives a wedge in the christian ground motive between creation and redemption. Then one introduces an internal split within the christian ground motive, through which it loses its radical and integral character. (Radical and integral here mean: everything is related to God in its religious root.) Then one forgets that common grace is shown to all mankind – and in mankind to the whole temporal world – as a still undivided whole, solely because mankind is redeemed and reborn in Christ and because mankind embraced in Christ still shares in fallen human nature until the fulfilment of all things. But in Christ’s battle against the kingdom of darkness, Christ’s kingship over the entire domain affected by common grace is integral and complete. For this reason, it is in common grace that the spiritual antithesis assumes its character of embracing the whole of temporal life. That God lets the sun rise over the just and the unjust, that he grants gifts and talents to believers and unbelievers alike – all this is not grace for the apostate individual, but for all of mankind in Christ. It is gratia communis, common grace rooted in the Redeemer of the world.
The reign of common grace will not cease until the final judgment at the close of history, when the reborn creation, liberated from its participation in the sinful root of human nature, will shine with the highest perfection through the communion of the Holy Spirit. God’s righteousness will radiate even in satan and in the wicked as a confirmation of the absolute sovereignty of the creator.
Shown to his fallen creation as a still undivided totality, the revelation of God’s common grace guards scriptural Christianity against sectarian pride which leads a Christian to flee from the world and reject without further ado whatever arises in western culture outside of the immediate influence of religion. Sparks of the original glory of God’s creation shine in every phase of culture, to a greater or lesser degree, even if its development has occurred under the guidance of apostate spiritual powers. One can deny this only with rude ingratitude.
It is the will of God that we have been born in western culture, just as Christ appeared in the midst of a Jewish culture in which GrecoRoman influences were evident on all sides. But, as we said earlier, this can never mean that the radical antithesis between christian and apostate ground motives loses its force in the “area of common grace.” The manner in which scriptural Christianity must be enriched by the fruits of classical and humanistic culture can only be a radical and critical one. The Christian must never absorb the ground motive of an apostate culture into his life and thought. He must never strive to synthesize or bridge the gap between an apostate ground motive and the ground motive of the christian religion. Finally, he must never deny that the antithesis, from out of the religious root, cuts directly through the issues of temporal life.