Monday, September 5, 2011

John the Baptist and Aristotle: The Failings and Futility of Natural Theology Revisited

I take it to be a widely accepted belief among Christians, including those who advocate natural theology in the Aristotelian vein, that from even before birth (Luke 1: 41), John the Baptist knew God in Christ (and therefore God Himself) better than did Aristotle.  If so, then the point to remember is that John the Baptist did not know Him.  We have John’s own word on it, twice.  The sinful human darkness into which we all are plunged is so deep and so all-engrossing that even John the Baptist himself did not know God when confronted by Him face-to-face (John 1: 31, 33).
We understate the case merely to say that John the Baptist was not the light (John 1: 8, 21).  It’s worse than that:  Even with his impressive devotion to God, even with his prophetic insight, even with his undaunted boldness, and even with his compelling articulation of the message of repentance -- all of which combined to make him famous -- John the Baptist himself did not know the Light (John 1: 31, 33) until it had been divinely pointed out to Him by a miraculous, historical revelation, whereby he actually saw with his own eyes the Holy Spirit descending upon Christ like a dove and (presumably) heard with his own ears the heavenly voice uttering its Divine attestation.  John himself twice admits (John 1: 31, 33) that, before witnessing that divine sign, he did not know Him, and did not recognize the only One who has seen the Father and made Him known.  But because of that divine sign, that descending Dove, which replaced John’s ignorance with knowledge, John knew and John testified (John 1: 34).  Without that miraculous sign, John the Baptist was no better off than the Pharisees, who did not know, and did not recognize, God Himself when He stood directly before them (John 1: 26).  They did not know Him Who alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14: 6).  They were human beings, and, on their own, they could not know Him.  Indeed, even with God Himself plainly and directly before their eyes, they did not know Him.  Apart from His saving grace, no one does or can.  In their depraved and debilitating solidarity, they were stuck on the wrong side of the canyon of impossibility.  They could not know God by their own devices (John 1: 18).  If, despite all their great revelational advantages, both John the Baptist and the Pharisees were blind and could not know God, how then, one wonders, without all those advantages, but with all their debilitations, could Aristotle, the pagan? 
Though he was not the light, John the Baptist was a witness to it.  But he was a witness to it only as a result of Divine intervention, only as a result of miracle.  To move from his natural condition of ignorance, even the privileged condition of an ancient Jew, to the position of witness required the action of God, an action obviously not available to all persons generally, but to those who, under the providence of God, saw the divine attestation that marked out Christ.  God made the Son known, and the Son, in turn, makes known the Father.  John had to witness the Holy Spirit descending in visible form upon the Son before he knew God, the very One Who confronted him there.  Short of that miracle, even John the Baptist did not know, and could not know, what we all need to know:  God, Who is revealed only in Christ (Matt. 11: 27).
Please remember for whom this impossibility loomed so large.  Please remember what sort of person was stranded on the island of impossibility.  It was not simply some typological everyman; it was the best and highest of us all:  not just a prophet, but one whom Jesus said was “more than a prophet” (Matt. 11: 9).  We have it on the Highest Authority that John the Baptist was simply the greatest of us all (Matt. 11: 11).  Yet, even the greatest among us is less than the lowest member of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 11: 11).  The momentous God-caused shift from John the Baptist’s (and our) natural condition to knowledge of God indicates that only by means of God’s doing, not ours, do we desperate sinners get placed above the highest of human beings.  Only then do we get to know God.
Amazingly, even then, even after that Divine intervention on his behalf, John the Baptist entertained the most severe doubts.  Even then his knowledge was shaky and required additional divine demonstration, which God in Christ supplied: “the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up,” both literally and metaphorically (Matt. 11: 5).  If the greatest among us required such remarkable divine doings both in the beginning and the sustaining of his knowing God, how much more does Aristotle need it, and how much greater is Aristotle’s darkness because he had neither?  Yet, despite that darkness, so many Christians turn to him for theological methods, rubric, support, insight and apologetics.  Jesus is no Aristotelian.  Neither is Paul.  Nor should you be.    
From the highest to the lowest, each one of us finds himself or herself in the position of Jacob and his ignorance:  “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it” (Gen. 28: 16).  For this ignorance, Aristotle’s machinations are no cure; they are one more form of its many symptoms.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Bauman,
It seems to me that John did know Jesus and did know that He was the Messiah. Augustine writes, “Was this the first revelation made to John of Christ's person, or was it not rather a fuller disclosure of what had been already revealed? John knew the Lord to be the Son of God, knew that He would baptize with the Holy Ghost: for before Christ came to the river, many having come together to hear John, he said unto them, He that comes after me is mightier than I: He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.”

John Chrysostom is in agreement that John knew him more than what you are implying. He writes, “When he said, I knew Him not, he is speaking of time past, not of the time of his baptism, when he forbade Him, saying, I have need to be baptized of You.”

There are many degrees of knowing someone and you seem to take this too far to make your point about Aristotle. What you say about Aristotle may be true but you go too far about JTB. I must also pause when you state that JTB doubted Jesus. What we do know is that he sent his disciples to ask a question of Jesus. We don’t know what his ultimate motive was. I have read that early Church Fathers believed this was for the behalf of his disciples and not for himself. That makes more sense to me. I doubt that he doubted quite frankly. JTB’s life motto should be lived by us all, Jesus must increase and I must decrease.

One final point, you write, “Short of that miracle, even JTB did not know, and could not know, what we all need to know: God, Who is revealed only in Christ.” You reference Matt 11:27, “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” This does not say God is revealed ONLY in Christ. You turn a truth statement into a false statement by adding “only”. We know for a fact from Rom. 1 that some aspect of God is revealed in creation.

Clearly, the fullness of revelation is Jesus, but you make a contradiction by saying only. You could say God is only revealed fully in Christ (Col. 2:9) because that would be true, but it would include creation and all things that come through Jesus.

Have I erred in my defense of JTB? I will admit that he is one of my heroes and I could be too biased. I know little so that is why I defer to those like Augustine and Chrysostom. There are many others but I thought you may have heard of those two even though they are long before the 1500s :0).

David U.

Dr. Michael Bauman said...


1) So as to avoid confusion, what I mean by "knowing God" is defined in the post called "Defining Terms."

2) Matt 11 says that no one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him The words "no one" here admit of no exception. Aristotle, for example, who purports to have knowledge of God, does not. He did not get his alleged knowledge by means of the Son, which means that not all god-talk is actually talk about God, even though it is meant to be, and not all that we identify as knowledge of God really is that.

3) Matt 11 also implies that the Son is revealed by the Father and the Father by the Son. It is, so to speak, a package deal. It goes together. Knowing One involves knowing the Other. To get inside that circle of knowing requires the election and redeeming grace of God. Not everyone has it. It is, according to Christ's own words here, Christocentric, and exclusively so.

4) The idea that John the Baptist did not know God in Christ apart from miraculous divine attestation is drawn from John's own words. He actually says it twice. I am more inclined to believe John's own words about himself than either Augustine's or Chrysostom's words about him centuries after the fact, especially when John's words are inspired and inscripturated and theirs are not.

5). If you like, I'll post a fuller explanation of Matt 11, which is already written.

6) Regarding the 1500 AD joke, it reminds me of something one of my Catholic colleagues, who teaches history, says about the Reformation and after: "I don't do current events."


Keythus said...

Here here Dr. Bauman!