Lessons from Socrates: Starting in the Wrong Place

I have a second grader at ECS named Ellie. She loves Star Wars Legos. If you’ve ever seen these Legos, you’ll know that many of them are detailed and specific, different from ordinary Legos. And if you don’t assemble them according to the directions, not only will you not have a clue what you’re doing, but what you manage to assemble will not resemble what is intended. But if the instruction sheet is available, even a seven-year-old is able to put together a veritable masterpiece.

So far in the Omnibus curriculum this year, we’ve seen repeated attempts on the part of natural men to try to make sense of the world apart from the Word of God, and it is like trying to assemble a 700-piece Star Wars Lego set without the instructions and expecting Jabba’s palace to magically and intuitively just come together. Natural men look to amoral gods to govern their morality. They attribute natural calamities to impotent gods. They recognize their own need for a savior, and look to other men or those same amoral, impotent, self-serving gods for their salvation.

As privileged Christians we can see the folly in this, but apart from the Word of God (read: the Truth) they were doing the best they could while hating the God who had written His Law on their hearts, giving them any sense of morality in the first place! This week and next we’re looking at a series of lengthy vignettes about The Last Days of Socrates, written by Socrates’ disciple, Plato. And it is at times both entertaining and frustrating.

Socrates famously posed the following question: “Is the holy approved by the gods because it’s holy, or is it holy because it’s approved?” (Euthyphro 10a). Hmm. Good question…if you’re a polytheist.

Socrates’ philosophy represents a flawed starting point: he’s operating under the assumption that multiple gods rule the universe. Further, these gods cannot agree with one another as to what is right or wrong, good or bad. If they do not themselves agree on what is right or holy, how could they possibly impose a consistent standard on mankind? And if there exists a standard of morality outside of the gods which they themselves must recognize, then who needs the gods? Why not just adhere to those objective moral standards ourselves without concern for the gods’ approval or judgment? Socrates raises serious problems for Athenian worship.

I am inclined think that Socrates would be satisfied with the Christian’s answer to his dilemma; Scripture saws the horns off the dilemma right off the bull. Holiness is identified not by what the gods love; neither do the gods approve the holy merely because it is holy (in fact, they disagree on what’s right or wrong). Rather, morality comes from the true, triune God, and what’s good is good because He calls it good; He doesn’t call it good because it’s good. Get it? When He is the source of goodness, he determines what it is good; nothing is good apart from Him.

To review, Christianity answers emphatically what polytheism cannot…and for several reasons.

The Greek gods cannot agree on what is good; the triune God knows know disagreement. Socrates offers as an example that a man prosecuting his father would find varying degrees of sympathy from Zeus and Kronos. (Zeus killed his father, Kronos). So how can the “gods” determine whether the prosecution of one’s father is acceptable or not? With the one God ruling, however, there is no disagreement, and the standard is clear, objective.

The Greek gods are subject to change; the true God never changes. The Greek gods often changed mood and mind. When man’s aim is the gods’ favor, it is a frustrating thing to be aiming at a moving target. Not so with the God of Scripture. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. He doesn’t change his mind (Heb. 13:8, cf. Num. 23:19; Mal. 3:6).

The Greek gods trickle out information in small, strategic portions; God reveals Himself in Scripture and in nature. By only answering questions when asked (and that in the form of cryptic oracles at best), the demons…er, gods keep men guessing. It’s awfully convenient if they want to changing their minds, or plan the destruction of their worshipers. Scripture however, is clear, complete, and constant.

So when natural man tries to answer the questions of the universe based on human reason and very limited resources (rocks, trees, popular opinion…), it inevitably leads to the wrong answers, whether inaccurate just incomplete.

Such was the case with Socrates. Some folks think that his dilemma refutes Christianity. But in truth, it presents no problem for Christianity at all. Socrates presupposes a falsehood: gods rule the universe. When we approach the question from the right starting point (namely, that the true God is One), it’s a whole different dilemma: Should man trust his own merit or the merit of Christ to meet the divine standard?

Finally, we get to try to make sense of God’s creation with the help of the divinely-given directions: Scripture. Jabba’s palace may finally come together with the help of the instruction sheet.

For what it’s worth, I’m thrilled that our students are getting the opportunity to train with these real bullets now rather than later. This is the sort of discussion that commonly rattles – or even defeats – many ill-prepared Christians today. Yet it is exciting that God has given us an easy defense if we would but heed His Word.