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Teleological Thinking

Teleological Thought

Paul, in common with almost everyone steeped in a pre-modern culture, thinks teleologically – meaning, he assumes that any given phenomenon – whatever it might be – is governed by a fixed destiny; and it’s that destiny – what Aristotle called “telos” – which defines its real nature, its consummation, its perfection – or, to use Aristotle’s terminology, its “entelecheia.” Thus, a premodern teacher, like Paul, can hold in his hand an acorn and call it an oak tree - because its “telos” – meaning its ultimate destiny – is Acorn Oak Treethe form of an oak tree, not the form of an acorn.

That’s precisely what Paul does for example in Romans 8:9 – where he categorically asserts that believers “… are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit.” He’s holding, so to speak, justified believers in his hands and insisting that they’re all fully sanctified. Why? Because that’s their destiny - that’s the “telos” God has imparted to them - that lays claim to, governs, and directs their lives. Believers are – to use another Biblical word laden with teleological meaning – sealed, meaning their destiny is fixed.

Likewise, in Romans 6:18 Paul is speaking teleologically.

…and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.

Romans 6:18

The sense here is that believers can’t help but be righteous – which is true, but only teleologically. In short, believers are ultimately cast in the form of perfect righteousness. And though their lives may not at present reflect that righteousness, its attainment is a certainty.

A simple “dictionary” definition of “telos” is usually inadequate. Why? Because the lexicologists compiling the dictionary seldom take the time to mention its dynamic nature; moreover, many seminary graduates haven’t been trained in classical Greek philosophy and are, therefore, unaware of that omission and the inadequate definition they’re left to work with. It’s certainly true that for Plato telos was, by and large, a static concept; but for Aristotle, whose concept of telos is far closer to the original, more culturally rooted definition, telos is not inert; it’s dynamic – an overriding impulse that draws to itself the phenomena possessed of it. Telos, properly defined, then, is not just a fixed destiny, it’s a self-propelling, self-actuating fixed destiny.

The nature of telos is underscored again and again in scripture, but nowhere more emphatically than Romans 5:12 – 5:21 where Paul contrasts Adam’s humanity – basically, Adam’s telos – to Christ’s humanity – basically, Christ’s telos; and, then, high-lights the irresistible dynamic propelling both. In short, anyone possessed of Adam’s telos is destined to sin and death; whereas anyone possessed of Christ’s telos is destined to righteousness and life.

It’s not just Paul’s epistles that reflect a teleological bent, Peter’s epistles do so as well - especially 1 Peter 1:23...

Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which lives and abides for ever.

1 Peter 1:23

The “corruptible seed” corresponds, of course, to Adam’s telos; whereas the “incorruptible seed” corresponds to Christ’s telos - which guarantees a believer’s eventual transformation into the image of Christ. Many more examples could be marshaled, item8but these suffice.

For anyone familiar with Greek philosophy, Aristotle’s “telos” is nothing more than Plato’s “archetype” rescued from pure transcendence and inserted into existential phenomena. Thus, in some sense, both Plato and Aristotle are wholly teleological in their thinking. And it was Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical categories that dominated Hellenic thought and, hence, the entire Roman Empire, including Palestine, at the time of Paul in the First Century. The concept itself, however, was an integral part of both a Greek’s and a Jew’s cultural baggage long before either Plato or Aristotle got hold of it.

The bottom line is simple: telos was not merely “one of many” concepts swirling about in the minds of premodern scholars and academicians - whether semitic or non-semitic; it was the very framework within which they formulated and developed their concepts; it was the paradigm that governed their intellectual discourse

Freedom

Freedom, for example, is a concept Paul grounds in telos – and not only Paul, but virtually every other premodern thinker as well. For Paul, freedom is not cast in a negative light, “freedom from,” but in a wholly positive light, “freedom for.” I’m truly free only when I’ve bound myself to the telos God has assigned me. Romans 6:18 is, once again, a case in point.

…and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.

Romans 6:18

It’s not when I’ve been liberated from the chains of sin that I’m truly free; it’s when I’ve been enslaved to the righteousness of Christ, the telos that governs and guides redeemed humanity, that I’m truly free. Plato’s Republic is no different. A citizen is only truly free when he’s “enslaved” to whatever political, social, and economic status or role best serves the well being of the “polis.”

Modern thinkers – thinkers nourished in the tradition of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment – have severed completely the link that once bound freedom to telos. For us, freedom is not “freedom for;” it’s only “freedom from;” it’s the freedom of the void.

The distinction Sartre draws between “en soi,” “being in itself,” and “pour soi,” “being for itself,” sheds a telling light on just how far contemporary intellectuals have embraced “freedom of the void” and, correspondingly, have distanced themselves from teleological presuppositions – and how terribly difficult it is for us, living in the 21st Century, to accommodate ourselves to a teleological mind-set. “Being in itself” corresponds to Plato’s archetype and Aristotle’s telos – a fixed destiny; “being for itself” is the very opposite: it’s an on-going, never ending “project” with no fixed destiny. Sartre makes “being in itself” the refuge of cowards – anyone who refuses to assume the terrifying burden of continually redefining himself – and that, of course, includes the vast majority of men and women. It’s a point he makes the centerpiece of his best known novel, Les Jeux Sont Fait. “Being for itself,” on the other hand, is embraced only by the courageous few – those willing to shoulder that burden. In short, contemporary intellectuals – from Nietzsche to Sartre and culminating with the postmodernists – have heaped scorn on teleological presuppositions and anyone who embraces them – including, of course, Christians.

That freedom could possibly consist of being bound – of being restricted – that’s a wholly alien notion for most of us! That freedom could possibly consist of being “enslaved” – that’s hard for us to wrap our minds around! But unless we do, Paul’s epistles will always remain a bit enigmatic.

Predestination

Predestination is still another of Paul’s concepts that can only be grasped against the backdrop of telos – its meaning and the implications that follow in its wake. There’s no doubt whatsoever that the Bible teaches predestination; but it’s not what’s usually taught from the pulpit or, for that matter, from the lecterns of many of our best Bible schools and seminaries. Boice and his fellow Calvinist John Piper are two cases in point: for them, specific individuals are the focal point of predestination – the hub around which its meaning revolves; but that’s not the meaning Paul gives to predestination. Ephesians 1:11 illustrates well the meaning Paul gives to predestination – and it’s a meaning grounded in telos…

In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will…

Ephesians 1:11

The word “purpose” translates the Greek word “prothesin” – which can also be translated “plan.” The two words are virtually interchangeable. What Paul is saying here is simple and straightforward: it’s not the fate of specific individuals that predestination turns upon; it’s God’s eternal plan – and the purpose that plan reflects. In short, predestination is conceptually grounded in God’s plan, not in the fate he supposedly assigns specific individuals. Put slightly differently:

  • God’s plan is God’s choice – that’s where his sovereignty is anchored – that’s its real situs – that’s where it’s found.
  • The fate of specific individuals is left to those individuals – whether or not they choose to conform their lives to that plan. That’s their choice, not God’s.

Calvinists, of course, deny that man is any longer capable of “choosing God” - of seizing the pardon God has graciously tendered him. They insist he’s too depraved to make that choice. But Romans One and Two make it abundantly clear that man is not totally depraved; that, even in his fallen state, he’s neither devoid of a moral sensitivity or a God consciousness - a point I’ll expand upon shortly.

Ephesians 1:4 illustrates just how profoundly a teleological perspective alters the usual interpretation of certain key passages.

… just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love…

Ephesians 1:4

If Ephesians 1:4 is read without imbedding it in a teleological framework, personal choice appears to have been written out of salvation. However, when we set it within a teleological framework, what we have is quite different:

  • it’s not that God has predestined specific individuals to be holy and blameless before him in love;
  • it’s that God’s plan for man is that he be holy and blameless before him in love – that’s the telos he has predestined for him – the purpose to which man must conform his life if he’s to be truly human.

In the first instance, the focus is on specific individuals; however, in the second instance, the focus is on God’s purpose – God’s plan.

In short, Ephesians 1:4 tells us nothing about the personal fate of each individual man or woman. Within a teleological framework, that choice is left to them – whether or not to conform their lives to that telos – and, in so doing, become fully free – meaning fully human. And that’s no different from what we find…

  • in any of Plato’s writings, from The Apologia to The Republic;
  • or in any of Aristotle’s writings, from The Politics to The Nicomachean Ethics.

 

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