What Hath Socrates to do with Melchizedek?

James Schall is a smart man but reading him makes me wonder if an important difference between Protestants and Roman Catholics is the lens through which each side views Jesus. Is Jesus part of the narrative of the West that begins with the Greeks? Or is Jesus the culmination of the law and the prophets?

Schall seems to adopt the former:

The trial of Socrates is replicated in the trial of Christ. In both cases, we have noble and good men before the courts of the best cities of their time. The governor/judge at Christ’s trial even wanted to know what “truth” was, or at least he asked about it. In the reflections of Plato on the trial of Socrates, we have the human mind at its best knowing the issues that must be confronted by a mind. In the case of Christ, the history and explanation of who He was, who He claimed to be, lies in what we now call “revelation.” This revelation stretched through long periods of Hebrew history.

This history even had an account of “the beginning.” The heavens and the earth were said to have been created by God “in the beginning.” It is strange, but when the Gospel of John began its explanation of who Christ was, it also used these words “in the beginning.” But this beginning is one step back from the beginning in Genesis. The world begins in the Godhead, in the activity of the Father who sends the Word, His Son, into the world.

The account of revelation itself contains intelligibility. It can be understood in its outlines. The curious thing about this revelation is how it addresses reason. Indeed, Christian revelation first presented itself not to other religions but to the Greeks, to Athens, to philosophy. It could not properly begin unless it met human reasoning at its best. Revelation is mind addressed to mind as mind—insofar as it knows what it can know, and what it cannot.

Thus, when revelation read Plato, it encountered something familiar. It knew of the death of Christ, the just man rejected and killed by the state. The experience of Christ followed that of Socrates and, as I argue, completed it. Plato was right. Ultimate justice is not found complete in any actual city. But it exists nonetheless. When the young Plato asked if the world was created in injustice, he sought to save justice. Here, political philosophy and revelation meet on their own terms, but terms intelligible to each other. The logic of reason and the logic of revelation meet and supplement each other. In the end, the world is not created in injustice.

The completion of Plato lies in the resurrection, in the reality that sees not just the immortality of the soul but the acting person as the source of all reason. Revelation completes the logic of reason because it answers a question that reason by itself is unable to answer.

That is not how the New Testament writers conceived of Jesus’ relation to what went before. Consider Hebrews:

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.

This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. For it is witnessed of him,

“You are a priest forever,
after the order of Melchizedek.”

For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, fa better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.

And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, 21 but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him:

“The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind,
‘You are a priest forever.’”

This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. (Hebrews 7:11-22)

Seeing Jesus in relation to Socrates or Melchizedek could explain why Roman Catholics stress philosophy more than Protestants emphasize the Bible, or why Roman Catholics regard virtue and human nature more like Plato and Aristotle than Protestants who follow the prophets and Paul on sin and sanctification.

But why Roman Catholics don’t take the Old Testament more seriously, since their observance of communion stresses sacrifice and long OT lines, is a mystery.

7 thoughts on “What Hath Socrates to do with Melchizedek?

  1. Well said, thank you. The NT without the OT is called the castrated Bible. How can you understand Jesus and what He taught without understanding He is mentioned from Genesis to the very end? How can we gather and build on the power He gave His life for us to have without studying the Prophets?


  2. Schall has been a great writer for my autodidactive purposes the last 3 decades, but the sprinkling of Christ here and there isn’t what P&R would call spiritual sustenance.

    And you are dealing in the world of Plato here…. things about universal and eternal ideals and the right amount of historicism to mix into it, along with many other theories in the Strauss/Voegelin/Bloom realms….. it does interfere with the unlettered enjoyment of something a little brainy at times…


  3. If water is the instrument of regeneration, and if the sacrament during church is the means of grace, then there is not so much need to contrast the one time death and resurrection of the great High Priest with our present faith working by love and sacrifice. Levi and his seed were no less in the same “essential substance” of “the covenant of grace” than Melchizedek, despite different “administrations”. Even if there is to be a second coming to earth and future resurrection, what still matters most is where the immortal soul goes when the body dies. And it still helps to read the Old Testament as if it were the New Testament, and both as if they were written by Plato.

    Alexandra Walsham—By focusing on the religious life of Protestant people, rather than the treatises of Protestant theologians, Scribner discovered that the Reformation “modified and curtailed, rather than wholly rejected, the traditional economy of the sacred. The Reformation did not entirely dispense with holy persons, places, times, or objects. The Reformation engendered rituals and even a magic of its own.”
    Both the Protestant and Catholic reforming agendas grew out of a common set of impulses and shared many priorities. Both wanted to eradicate ‘superstition,’ to police the boundaries between sacred and secular more tightly, and to intensify the interior faith and moral fervor of the laity.


  4. Tremendous post that really helped me.

    These two excerpts are particularly helpful:

    “Is Jesus part of the narrative of the West that begins with the Greeks? Or is Jesus the culmination of the law and the prophets?”


    “…Or why Roman Catholics regard virtue and human nature more like Plato and Aristotle than Protestants who follow the prophets and Paul on sin and sanctification.”

    The more I study the Reformation, the more I believe the core issue was that of anthropology. At Heidelberg in 1518, Luther taught against the philosophical approach you outlined above (i.e., beginning “with the Greeks”) and went back to the apostle Paul. All the other categories of theology were shaped by Luther’s beginning with “Paul on sin and sanctification.”

    Anyway– thank you for this post.


  5. Chuck,

    The more I study the Reformation, the more I believe the core issue was that of anthropology.

    Bingo. All of Rome’s errors stem from a faulty view of man pre- and post-fall. And if you study Aristotle even slightly, it soon becomes clear that Roman views on virtue and the abilities of natural man come straight from Aristotle, not Scripture. I taught a class on Aristotle a few years ago, and in preparing for it I was astonished to see how much anthropological overlap there is between Rome and Aristotle. It’s not simply a borrowing of categories or using Aristotelian language to apply Scripture. Effectively, it’s full-on use of Aristotle as a divinely inspired source.


  6. Hi Robert,

    Thank you for your comment. What textbooks(s) did you use for your class? Are there some out there that point out the similarities of Aristotle with scholasticism? I recently completed my MA thesis on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation and had to do the tough work of trying to figure this out on my own! (Why, specifically, was ML so ticked off at Aristotle. Now I see why) 🙂

    May God continually bless you in your vocation of teaching.


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