Why Should We Affirm Christian Platonism? Part II: Systematic Reasons
In Part I, we looked at three historical reasons for affirming Christian Platonism. First, it is part of our Augustinian theological heritage, which is an integral part of historic Christian orthodoxy. Secondly, Christian Platonism is intricately bound up with the Nicene doctrine of God as expressed in the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon and cannot be separated from it without damaging orthodoxy. Thirdly, Christian Platonism is the broader context for the scholastic realism of Thomism, which undergirds both Roman Catholic and post-Reformation Protestant theology. If we are concerned about catholic orthodoxy and ecumenical consensus, we should not reject the metaphysics shared by the entire orthodox tradition.
In Part II, I will focus on systematic reasons why this metaphysical system is essential to Christian theology. I will show that Christian Platonism expresses truths that derive from the biblical doctrine of creation and undergird both the natural moral law and also the laws of nature discovered by natural science. If the biblical doctrine of creation is rejected, Christian Platonism loses its plausibility, and the result is that confidence in the natural law and the ability of science to discover truth about nature crumbles. This is exactly what we see going on all around us today in late modern Western society. Ideology has largely displaced philosophy in late modern Western culture.
If the biblical doctrine of creation is rejected, Christian Platonism loses its plausibility, and the result is that confidence in the natural law and the ability of science to discover truth about nature crumbles. Click To Tweet Lloyd Gerson, in Platonism and Naturalism, argues cogently that Platonism just is philosophy, and that the history of Western philosophy is best understood as the history of Platonism in the ancient period, the integration of Platonism into Christian thought in the patristic-medieval period, and the struggle between Platonism and naturalism in the modern period. The modern period consists of a series of attempts on the part of those in the broadly Platonist stream to negotiate compromises of various sorts with naturalism, all of which result in confusion and incoherence. This futile endeavor ends in the triumph of naturalism after Kant. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the exception of the Thomistic revival, see an eclipse of Platonism. If this historiography of Western philosophy has any validity, and I would argue that it has, then one could build on it to suggest that Christian Platonism is the best label we can give to what is basically “Christian philosophy.” It is the metaphysics that arises out of creedal orthodoxy.
Whereas philosophy is dangerous, as Paul warns in Colossians 2:8, it is so precisely because it is not entirely devoid of truth. It is rather a mixture of truth and error in need of being purified. This is what Paul is talking about when he speaks of taking every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:5). Christian philosophy comes into existence as the sanctified reason of theologians contemplating general revelation in the light of special revelation. General revelation need not result in a natural theology that conflicts with or replaces the special revelation given in Scripture, as Barth feared would be the case. However, in order for this to be avoided, general revelation needs to be contemplated in the light of Scriptural revelation and corrected and supplemented where necessary by the results of biblical exegesis, that is, by doctrines. When this is done, philosophy becomes the handmaid of theology.
1. Christian Platonism Is Implied by the Christian Doctrine of Creation
The early Greek philosophers discovered that the natural world operates according to laws that humans can discover and express in the language of mathematics. This was the beginning of both natural science and philosophy. The development of physics raised the question of the ontological status of the laws that were being identified, for example, in the observation and prediction of eclipses. Why does nature have regular laws? Why can they be grasped by the human mind and expressed in mathematics? What causes nature to operate according to laws? Is there a unifying principle of some kind behind the laws?
Christian Platonism is the conceptual framework in which the moral natural law and the laws of nature (scientific laws) make sense. Click To Tweet Platonism was the theory that things have natures, and these natures participate in universals in the intelligible realm. The nature of a thing determines how it behaves and reacts to external stimuli, and natural laws are basically description of these natures. But as science progressed the question arose of whether all of nature can be described by natural laws or whether there is an element of chance. Is some sort of reason at the core of reality or is chaos the basic reality and what we call natural laws just a surface phenomenon? This pushed the discussion into what Aristotle called “first philosophy,” which we usually call “metaphysics.”
The philosophers, however, were outliers in Greek culture. They constituted a small group of intellectuals in a sea of polytheism and superstition. Greek culture was primarily mythological in essence and it was dominated by polytheistic religion. Science and philosophy were activities undertaken by a small number of intellectuals who did not function as cultural authorities. Greek religion was based on myths in which the gods were in eternal conflict with each other and in which arbitrary will and fate were more important than reason or law. Greek science and philosophy never broke through to become shape the culture as a whole.
It was only later, after the rise of Christianity to power in the Roman Empire, that the cultural conditions were set in which science could really take off. The Christian doctrine of creation did two things. It displaced the arbitrary will of the gods and the mythological belief in chaos at the heart of reality and it gave ordinary people (rather than just the intellectuals) reasons to believe in the possibility of science and the moral law. The idea that an omnipotent God created the world according to Logos provided a powerful incentive to believe that it is fundamentally law-governed rather than chaotic.
Christianity teaches that the creation is not eternal but has a beginning. Furthermore, it teaches that at the beginning of the cosmos all things were good and in harmony. Sin entered the world later and caused disorder and conflict. So, there is good reason to believe that the cosmos is a unified whole – a cosmos rather than just random matter in motion – and that it operates by law. In addition, the idea that humans are created in the image of God, which was taken traditionally to include being created with the capacity for language and logic, means that humans are designed to be able to understand how the world works. Christian Platonism is the conceptual framework in which the moral natural law and the laws of nature (scientific laws) make sense.
2. Christian Platonism Provides a Conceptual Framework for Natural Law
From Plato onward the philosophical tradition has sought to align human behavior with reality and has believed that this is the path to human flourishing. Ethics is thus not a matter of arbitrary will or individually chosen values. It is a science, and it is objective because it is rooted in nature including human nature. Since the world has order and structure, it is rational to expect that we can discover the telos of human nature by serious investigation of human nature. Once we understand our telos as human beings, it is possible to talk about what behavior is conducive to attaining that telos and which behavior prevents us from attaining it. This is the basis of ethics.
Christian Platonism is the best label we can give to what is basically “Christian philosophy.” It is the metaphysics that arises out of creedal orthodoxy. Click To Tweet So, the natural law tradition has flourished during Western Christendom. The Barthian mistake is to assume that since the natural law is not derived directly from special revelation, special revelation is not necessary to natural law. But it is not a choice between either natural law or revealed law as it if had to be one or the other. Much of what we call the moral law embedded in the Pentateuch is actually also part of the natural moral law. The Ten Commandments forbid murder and command respect for parents; but natural law known by reason also tells us the same. The testimony of non-Christian cultures all over the world confirms this fact.
But in addition to the fact that revealed law and natural law overlap, there is another way in which the natural law needs special revelation. Sin, as in our fallen condition, prevents us from keeping the natural law and so we need the power of the Holy Spirit given in conversion, to enable us to do what we know we ought to do. But sin also impairs our cognitive function in such a way as to make us unable even to tell right from wrong in many cases. So, even though knowledge of the natural moral law is available to all people, the revealed law supplies knowledge of right and wrong and clarifies the natural law insofar as it has been obscured by human sinfulness.
3. Christian Platonism Provides a Conceptual Framework for Natural Science
If humans are just animals who evolved by accident, there is no reason to believe that our minds are specifically designed to understand how the world works. Some sort of pragmatism is about as far as we can take it. Since we are here, we obviously are able to survive in our environment, but that is all we can assume on the basis of naturalistic evolution. The natures of things are opaque to us and we cannot assume that we understand truth. All we know is that when you push the green button green stuff comes out of the “black box” and when you push the blue button blue stuff comes out. But that is not really knowledge of why that is or how things work.
Take mathematics for example. For the Christian Platonist math facts are universals. “2+2=4” is not an opinion and it is not probably true based on empirical observation. It is knowledge (Gr. episteme). The human mind participates in the universals of mathematics by participating in the ideas in the mind of God. This is possible because God the Creator creates us in such a way as to be capable of doing this and, therefore, we can know certain things with certainty. So, when we do science, and we describe a scientific law in mathematical terms we actually have knowledge of that law. Of course, we often attain only imperfect (incomplete) knowledge of things but that does not mean we have no knowledge whatsoever.
The metaphysics that has developed on the basis of the Christian doctrine of creation enables us to have confidence that there is a “fit” between our minds as made in the image of God and the laws of nature created by God the Logos. Just as with the natural moral law, the doctrine of creation provides a basis for Christian Platonism, which in turn provides a basis for knowing reality.
Knowledge of scientific law and knowledge of the natural moral law both depend on the ability of the human mind to discern the truth about the way things really are. In a culture that has rejected God the transcendent Creator, it is little wonder that we are suffering from a severe loss of confidence in our ability to know anything. In our society, skepticism and relativism are rampant and the result is a loss of rationality and decline in our confidence to know right from wrong. A society that has already lost its belief in the moral law will not keep its confidence in objective scientific law for very long. We already see the ideological destruction of science in our society.
Christian Platonism is a metaphysical system in which the Christian doctrine of God as the transcendent Creator shapes our knowledge of all created things in relation to God and this allows us to transcend mythology, superstition, polytheism and bondage to Fate and Chance. Christian Platonism nourishes a flourishing and healthy culture and allows for scientific and technological progress, moral stability and space for true religion to grow.
The fact that we have lost Christian Platonism in the West is a tragedy for our culture. But as long as we remember the past, honor truth and preserve culture, the possibility of a revival of Christian civilization will always exist.