Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Philosophy Reformed Irenicism

Shedd, Plato, and the Nature of Human Thinking

In the first chapter of Homiletics and Pastoral Theology, “Relation of Sacred Eloquence to Biblical Exegesis,” W.G.T. Shedd discusses what “originality” might mean for the “sacred orator,” for he has just said that the study of sacred revelation does indeed grant an originality to “religious thinking and discourse.”

Shedd writes:

Originality is a term often employed, rarely defined, and very often misunderstood. It is frequently supposed to be equivalent to the creation of truth. An original mind, it is vulgarly imagined, is one that gives expression to ideas and truths that were never heard of before,–ideas and truths “of which the human mind never had even an intimation or presentiment, and which come into it by a mortal leap, abrupt and startling, without antecedents and without premonitions.”

But Shedd finds such vulgarizing silly, and its silliness is predicated on a failure to observe the distinction between creature and creator. For creatures, such “originality” is impossible. He goes on:

But no such originality as this is possible to a finite intelligence. Such aboriginality as this is the prerogative of the Creator alone, and the results of it are a revelation, in the technical and strict sense of the term. Only God can create de nihilo, and only God can make a communication of truth that is absolutely new. Originality in man is always relative, and never absolute.

Shedd then takes Plato as an example. Shedd gives Plato the highest praise and comments:

Select, for illustration, an original thinker within the province of philosophy,–select the contemplative, the profound, the ever fresh and living Plato. Thoughtfully peruse his weighty and his musical periods, and ask yourself whether all this wisdom is the sheer make of his intellectual energy, or whether it is not rather an emanation and efflux from a mental constitution which is as much yours as his. He did not absolute originate these first truths of ethics, these necessary forms of logic, these fixed principles of physics. They were inlaid in his rational structure by a higher author, and by an absolute authorship; and his originality consists solely in their exegesis and interpretation. And this is the reason that, on listening to his words, we do not seem to be hearing tones that are wholly unknown and wholly unheard of. We find an answering voice to them in our own mental and moral constitution.

Plato the exegete of nature–this is how Shedd views him. He was only an “inventor” in the etymological sense of the term: he discovered what was already there, and to do so he used the capacities that are implanted in every human being by virtue of his divine creation. And note the realms in which Plato made such discoveries: ethics, logic, physics. This sort of appraisal of Plato is of a piece with the Reformed tradition in general.

Shedd continues:

In no contemptuous, but in a reverential and firm tone, every thinking person, even in the presence of the great thinkers of the race, may employ the language of Job, in reference to self-evident truths and propositions: “Lo, mine eye hath seen all this, mine ear hath heard and understood it. What ye know, the same do I know also; I am not inferior unto you.”

What Shedd’s position leads to is a kind of anti-elitist humanism–the ground from which one can view nature is level, as it were. “Reason” and “common ideas” are something we share simply by virtue of being human. Because this is so, one need not fear reading and appreciating thinkers like Plato. Great thinkers themselves, too, recognize that they share in something common to man as such, leading Plato to grasp for the doctrine of the pre-existence of the soul as a way of accounting for this obvious commonality:

And these great thinkers themselves are the first to acknowledge this. Upon the fact of a community in reason, a partnership in the common ideas of humanity, Plato himself founded his famous argument for the pre-existence of the soul. The very fact that every human creature recognizes the first truths of science and of morals as no strange and surprising dogmas, but native and familiar, would imply, in his judgment, an earlier world, a golden time, when their acquaintance was make under brighter skies, and under happier omens, than here and now.

We recently saw Calvin to make reference to the same idea in a similar context. The Christian faith accounts for our commonality in a different way, viz. by a shared participation in the imago Dei–thus Plato was wrong regarding this particular doctrine, but he was wrong only because he was seeking an explanation of something he was right to recognize. He was incorrect about the details as a by-product of his being right about the question the details were meant to explain.

So what, in more rigorous terms, constitutes “originality”? For Shedd, it can be re-described as “exegesis.” Though this was already implicit in what has already been stated, he explains as follows:

Originality, then, within the sphere of a creature and in reference to a finite intelligence, consists in the power of interpretation. In its last analysis it is exegesis,–the pure, genial, and accurate exposition of an idea or a truth already existing, already communicated, already possessed. Plato interprets his own rational intelligence; but he was not the author of that intelligence. He expounds his own mental and moral ideas; but those ideas are the handiwork of God. They are no more his than ours. We find what he found, no more and no less, if he has been a truthful exegete. The process, in his instance and that of his reader, is simply that of education and elicitation. There has been no creation, but only a development; no absolute authorship, but only an explication. And yet how fresh and original has been the mental process! The same substantially in Plato and in the thousands of his scholars; and yet in every single instance there has been all the enthusiasm, all the stimulation, all the ebullient flow of life and feeling that attends the discovery of a new continent or a new star.

The conditional is significant, and represents what has always been the mainstream Protestant understanding of the way in which intellectual and theological traditions are to be engaged and appropriated (i.e., critically). But the dominant note–the matter of first importance–in Shedd is not one of “Let’s try to figure out where all the mistakes are, haha!” It is rather the thrill of discovery that nature is universal and that the author of nature is divine. Thus he appropriately quotes some lines (slightly modified) from Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” to elucidate the sensation of the new-within-the-old, the ever fresh vitality that continually springs forth from ancient things:

Then feels he like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific, and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise,
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
What is the connection of all this with sacred eloquence and biblical exegesis, which his title indicates his subject to be? The same truth holds in the study of nature and of Scripture: the task of the human thinker and expositor is to exegete, to interpret. Both are given by God, and both must be read aright by man. Shedd puts it this way:
Originality in man, then, is not the power of making a communication of truth, but of apprehending one. Two great communications have been made to him,–the one in the book of nature, and the other in the book of revelation. If the truth has been conveyed through the mental and moral structure, if it has been wrought by the creative hand into the fabric of human nature, then he is the most original thinker who is most successful in reading it just as it reads, and expounding it just as it stands. If the truth has been communicated by miracle, by incarnation, and by the Holy Ghost; it it has been imparted by special inspiration, and lies before him an objective and written revelation; then he is the original thinker who is most successful in its interpretation,–who is most accurate in analyzing its living elements, and is most genial and cordial in receiving them into his own mental and moral being.1
The “book of nature” (my concern in this post) relates to the passage in bold: it has been communicated through the “mental and moral structure” of the world; it exists in the very “fabric of human nature.” It is there, objectively, already. The duty of man as thinker is to read it out, to exegete its truths. The goal is not to reject all Egyptian gold, but neither is it to tart oneself up with it. For that is a false alternative. The goal is the wise interpretation of reality in all of its manifestations, with help from our forebears (wherever they may be found) and with gratitude to God for our common humanity.


  1. All quotations in this post are from pp. 7-11; underlining represents italicized emphasis in the original; bold represents my own emphasis.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.