Essay / Theology

Let’s Get Classical: Reynolds’ New Book on Greek Thought

This is an occasion for celebration for anybody connected to the Torrey Honors Institute: John Mark Reynolds has published his long-awaited introduction to Greek thought for Christians. When Athens Met Jerusalem is now available from InterVarsity Press. As J. Budziszewski says on the back cover of the book, for anybody who suspects that “it must be a treat to sit in John Mark Reynolds’s classroom,” this book is “the next best thing.”

For those of us (students and colleagues) who actually do get to sit in JMNR’s classroom from time to time, this book is remarkable for capturing in print what has freely flowed in his teaching. Reynolds has taught hundreds and hundreds (more than a thousand!) of three-hour discussion sessions on the great books since founding Torrey about thirteen years ago, and it must have been a monumental task for him to boil all that discourse down into a concise, focused volume like this one. Now that he’s done it, instead of saying, “You had to be there” to hear his take on the great Greek philosophers, we can just hand people the book and say, “Here. This is the basic idea.”

How long has this book been germinating in the fecund mind of John Mark Reynolds? I can’t say anything about his upbringing or his early years. But I know that when Reynolds founded the Torrey Honors Institute on a wing and a prayer in the mid 90s, he was writing a dissertation on Plato’s worldview at the same time. That dissertation eventually saw publication as Toward a Unified Platonic Human Psychology, a fine academic book that No Normal Person would ever read. It’s a book for the professional guild of ancient philosophers.

But now the book for Normal People is here, and it is a zippy, compelling, witty, and accessible book written in common english instead of technical language.

Let’s admit one thing right up front: This is a book about Plato. I know it claims to be “an introduction to classical and Christian thought,” and neither Reynolds nor the publisher is fibbing about that. But of the eleven chapters, five of them are devoted entirely to Plato, and the other six are haunted by his presence in various ways. Socrates, for instance, gets a chapter which shows that the thought of this man who wrote nothing can scarcely be disentangled from the books of his greatest student, Plato. And Aristotle’s two chapters begin with a reflection on “Breaking with the master” and taking “the other path.” Sandwich that between the pre-Socratics on one side and the Hellenistic schools on the other, and you’ve got When Athens Met Jerusalem.

So it’s a Plato sandwich, and far from that being a weakness of the book, it’s a strength for three reasons: First, Reynolds is persuaded that the most important contribution of classical thought to Christian thought is the philosophy of Plato, and he is trying to persuade you likewise. A thesis running through the book is that Plato is the most helpful dialogue partner for thoughtful Christians. Other opinions are possible –Thomists would surely take Aristotle to be more important for Christian thought than Plato– but Reynolds builds the case that Plato is the man.

The Plato-centrism is a strength of the book, secondly, because it doesn’t prevent Reynolds from being generous to the rest of the philosophers. Aristotle may not get as many pages as one might wish for, but in those two chapters, Reynolds plays the role of a partisan of Aristotle, a salesman convincing you to buy the wisdom of Aristotle. And the pre-Socratics are not treated as Plato-wannabes; in fact, Reynolds’ treatment of the Ionian nature philosophers is one of the most believable overviews of these thinkers I have ever read. The pre-Socratics are usually presented as a series of one-idea men who had big disagreements over whether everything was basically made out of water or fire or air. What a dreary and pointless chapter of philosophy that usually is! But Reynolds has a clear view of the big picture, and represents these thinkers in their struggle “to free Greek culture from the dreadful fear that chaos was at the bottom of the world order. By thinking rationally about the world, they hoped that it was a cosmos –an orderly place –not chaos.” Reynolds talks his readers into caring about these thinkers with a host of tricks and hooks:

Many Christians sing the old hymn “This Is My Father’s World.” They may not realize it, but when they sing of the “music of the spheres,” they are repeating a bit of Pythagorean philosophy. Is that good or bad? To answer that question, Christians must understand what the Pythagoreans believed and how it came into the Christian faith.”

And behind the pre-Socratics is the Homeric world, which Reynolds warns his readers about, though he obviously feels the tremendous power and attraction of it.

Finally, the emphasis on Plato is a strength of the book because those five chapters on Plato are so very good. Chapter three is a wonder of condensed summary, telling Plato’s life story and boiling his contribution down to three big ideas (recollection, the forms, and the soul). As a cheater’s guide to What’s In Plato, this can’t be beat. But the remaining chapters take the reader far beyond a cheater’s guide, as Reynolds turns to specific works by Plato. He judiciously selects a central thread of the most significant dialogues and provides a running commentary on them. These chapters are simultaneously satisfying in their completeness and motivational in that they constantly refer the reader back to the Platonic texts themselves. It would be a very sluggish reader who did not feel the urge to go take up Plato and read for himself, after reading Reynolds on Plato.

In the first half of the twentieth century, there was an influential Christian philosopher who was passionate about Plato and passionate about Christian apologetics. His name was A. E. Taylor, and he wrote voluminously on both subjects. With this well-argued, informative manifesto calling on Christians to “act quickly, for Athens and Jerusalem are dying and each needs the other to thrive,” John Mark Reynolds has stepped into the shoes left empty by A. E. Taylor decades ago.

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