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It’s All in Lewis, All in Lewis, Bless me!

It is no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of evangelical Christians today recognize the name of C. S. Lewis. It is also no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of evangelical Christians today would not have the slightest familiarity with the idea of “Christian Platonism.” And yet, I have been tasked to write on the importance of Lewis’s Christian Platonism. This means that either (a) Lewis, for all the evangelical fame his writings now enjoy, remains a vastly underappreciated figure with depths most of us have not come close to exhausting, or (b) that I have my work cut out for me in turning such a clearly-spoken figure into a wax nose (for the clearer a person is with his words, the more difficult it is to put words into his mouth, and Lewis spoke with razor-sharp clarity). Trying to make Lewis out to be saying something he does not in fact believe is no easy task. If Lewis wasn’t a Christian Platonist, this article will not be easy to write.

In reality, I do have my work cut out for me, but not because of a dearth of evidence for his Christian Platonism. Rather, the ubiquity of signs we can point to in an attempt to get an appreciative look at his Christian Platonism is so overwhelming, mapping out a path forward can be difficult. Where to even begin? In the spirit of Lewisian clarity, perhaps we can begin with definitions.What does Christ have to do with Plato, that pagan philosopher who lived hundreds of years before Christ was born? Click To Tweet

What is Christian Platonism

Before we can examine the question of Lewis’s Christian Platonism, we should clarify what Christian Platonism even is. At first blush, the term can appear nonsensical. What does Christ have to do with Plato (427-347 BC), that pagan philosopher who lived hundreds of years before Christ was born? Jesus was a Jew who lived in first-century Palestine and claimed to be the Messiah of Israel’s Scriptures: Yahweh in the flesh. Plato was a Greek philosopher who believed in the eternality of matter and the pre-existence of the soul. Considered in this light, these two don’t seem to have much in common. Indeed, there are many ways in which Christianity and Platonism are at odds with one another, not the least is regarding the incarnation of the Logos. How so? To get at why this idea bristles so irritably against Platonism, let’s take some time to get Plato’s metaphysic before us.

For Plato, the world that you and I inhabit is the world of shadows—the objects and ideas with which we interact are partial and incomplete expressions of their true form in the world of Forms or Ideas. The true essence of a thing is not exhausted in its finite manifestation, the finite manifestation is rather a reflection of its perfect form which occupies a space somewhere metaphysically between the Good and the world of shadows. The difference between the world of Forms and the world of shadows is the difference between the world of Being and the world of Becoming—and the world of Becoming does not have existential autonomy, it derives its existence from the world of Being. This is the heart of Plato’s metaphysic, and so far, there are some things that can overlap with Christianity. But the notion that the divine would come from the world of Being into the world of Becoming would have been nonsensical and even repugnant to Plato. And yet, to insist on such is at the very heart of Christianity. The incarnation, then, affirms explicitly what Plato would have most stridently denied.

It would seem from this fact alone that “Christian Platonism” must be disregarded as an oxymoron. This would be a mistake, however, for the central insights of Plato’s metaphysic harmonize well with the biblical conception of reality. One Plato scholar, Lloyd Gerson, summarizes Ur-Platonism (i.e., pre-Platonism) as being marked by five things: antimaterialism (i.e., the denial that material reality is all there is), antimechanism (i.e., the denial that reality can be fully explained by nature’s mechanical functions), antinominalism (i.e., the denial that reality is comprised of atomized objects that are not essentially joined together. Such a notion would deny that there is any such thing as humanness, but merely individual creatures we call “humans” for categorical convenience. Antinominalism denies this), antirelativism (i.e., the rejection that knowledge or morality are relative to the individual), and antiskepticism (i.e., the rejection of the idea that truth about reality is impossible to grasp). As such, all forms of Platonism share at least these five characteristics. If Gerson is correct in this summary, it would seem as though Platonism and Christianity have a great deal in common.[1] Christianity, too, is anti- all those things!

Does the apostle Paul not insist on that which is eternal and invisible being more real than that which is visible and transient (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)? Does he not claim that our heavenly dwelling is more real than our earthly tent (2 Corinthians 5:1-10)? Does he not assure us that our earthly, fleshy, and perishable bodies which are buried in death are raised as spiritual bodies that are more real by their spiritual character, not less (1 Corinthians 15:35-49)? Does the author of Hebrews not remind us that the earthly tabernacle is a shadow and a copy of the heavenly reality (Hebrews 8:5)? As Paul Tyson says, “the New Testament maintains that the Word of God is the non-material source of all that is tangible in the cosmos, that eternal realities are primary and material realities are derived from and depend on primary reality for their existence and that the reality of immediate tangibility is not the ultimate realm of reality.”[2] Such a description sounds remarkably Platonic.“Christian Platonism” is therefore that catch-all designation we give to the tradition that embraces central aspects of Plato’s metaphysic and places them in a Christian context—which is actually their natural home. Click To Tweet

Now, of course, this is not to say that either the biblical authors or early Christians would have insisted on calling themselves Christian Platonists. They saw themselves merely as Christians. The Neoplatonists (i.e., the Platonists who were around during the time of the early Christians) would have objected to Christians calling themselves Platonists, and Christians wouldn’t have been tempted to try. Yet they also saw no problem whatever with taking insights from Greek philosophy in general—and Platonism in particular—and appropriating them in the Christian worldview. For example, in The Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa advocates for doing just this at a number of points. The most obvious place is in his allegorical reading of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, armed with Egyptian treasures. Says Gregory,

Our guide in virtue [Moses] commands someone who “borrows” from wealthy Egyptians to receive such things as moral and natural philosophy, geometry, astronomy, dialectic, and whatever else is sought by those outside the Church, since these things will be useful when in time the divine sanctuary of mystery must be beautified with the riches of reason.[3]

More explicitly, Augustine says it like this:

“If… the Platonists have said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared; rather, what they have said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use.”[4]

“Christian Platonism” is therefore that catch-all designation we give to the tradition that embraces central aspects of Plato’s metaphysic and places them in a Christian context—which is actually their natural home. Plato’s conception of eternal Ideas, for example, is not far off from the truth, but whereas he places them in the barren wasteland of the ethereal “World of Forms,” Christian Platonism has brought them to their proper home in the mind of God. Within this tradition, we find figures like Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, John Owen, and yes, C.S. Lewis.

The vision of reality within this tradition stands in stark contradiction with the non-realist tradition of Nominalism, which leads inevitably to skeptical naturalism. Over and against the brutal conception of a cosmos fundamentally non-governed and random, where isolated facts bear no relationship with one another or any transcendent meaning, Lewis penetrated the immanent domain of modernity’s suffocating malaise with an irresistibly beautiful vision of an enchanted cosmos. Most readers of Lewis are unaware that this is in fact what he is doing. They do not realize that in his chastisement of chronological snobbery—or his high praise of transcendent Truth and Goodness and Beauty, or his revelry in Christianity as the Myth-made-fact, or his embrace of Nature and metaphysical hierarchy, or his imaginative storytelling in children’s fantasy novels—he was exploding the glass house of naturalism and erecting in its place a Christian Platonic cathedral, but that is precisely what he did (and, to the degree that his works are still widely read and heralded, what he is still doing).The vision of reality within this tradition stands in stark contradiction with the non-realist tradition of Nominalism, which leads inevitably to skeptical naturalism. Click To Tweet

Lewis’s View of Truth

We can be sure that Lewis was prepared to incorporate Platonic thought into his Christianity with philosophical self-awareness and consistency, at the very least, because of the way he viewed truth in general. Indeed, it is not simply that Lewis was prepared to concede that Christianity could tolerate certain ideas that did not originate with Christianity per se; Christianity’s ability to do this was a fundamental stress test. If real truth in pagan writings before the time of Christ could not harmonize with the claims of Christianity, this, for Lewis, would not be a sign of Christianity’s superiority, but rather its deficiency. This can be seen from the typical way in which Lewis addressed the so-called problem of “pagan Christs”:

But Christians also need to be reminded… that what became Fact was a Myth, that it carries with it into the world of Fact all the properties of a myth. God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there… For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.[5]

What is true here for pagan myth is also true of pagan philosophy. Here’s the point: in Lewis’s journey toward Christianity, he acquired genuine truth. What he needed was not a complete overhaul, as if every single thing he had learned and desired and enjoyed and admired up until that point were a complete lie;[6] he needed rather a point of integration. He needed a vision of reality that harmonized the many truths he had learned from philosophy, mythology, and the highs and lows of the human experience. The Christian faith was this point of integration—the harmonizing principle—for everything. This is why he can go so far as to say that the Incarnation of Christ “begins to illuminate the whole rest of the manuscript. It lights up nature’s pattern of death and rebirth; and secondly, her selectiveness; and, thirdly, her vicariousness.”[7] Or, as he says in a well-known quote: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.”[8]The Christian faith was this point of integration—the harmonizing principle—for everything. Click To Tweet

With this acceptance of the Christian faith did come with it the necessary discarding of certain previously cherished ideas, but no love was ultimately lost in this kind of “intellectual repentance,” because those ideas never truly fit into a coherent vision of reality anyway. In accepting Christ, Lewis was able to do away with pagan and unbelieving ideas that were incoherent with reality anyway, and those that he kept were brought into their proper home in the Christian worldview. “And it should (at least in my judgment) be made clear,” writes Lewis, “that we are not pronouncing all other religions to be totally false, but rather saying that in Christ whatever is true in all religions is consummated and perfected. But, on the other hand, I think we must attack wherever we meet it the nonsensical idea that mutually exclusive propositions about God can both be true.”[9] When Lewis became a Christian, the truths he had found from—and which previously sat uncomfortably within—rival religions and myths and philosophies took their rightful place under the lordship of Christ. They assumed their position in the orchestra of creation and contributed to the Triune God’s symphony of transcendent Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

Boethius: A Christian Platonic Role Model

Lewis in fact had good role models in this endeavor. For example, one of Lewis’s favorite philosophers was Boethius (477-524). In his book, The Discarded Image, Lewis offers his readers an introductory crash course on Boethius and a brief summary of the 6th century philosopher’s most popular work, The Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius was a Christian Platonist of the highest order, and Lewis intimates this very point as he describes Boethius’s argument toward the end of The Consolation’s third book:

The argument now climbs to the position that the whole and perfect good, of which we usually chase only fragments or shadows, is God. In the course of proving this—though it needed no new proof either for Platonists or Christians—Boethius slips in, as axiomatic, the remark that all perfect things are prior to all imperfect things.[10]

Lewis goes on to say of Boethius in general, “I cannot help thinking that Boethius has here expounded a Platonic conception more luminously than Plato ever did himself.”[11] What he says of Boethius here, we can easily say of Lewis himself. Many readers will be familiar with this striking quote: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”[12] But too few of us appreciate the Christian Platonism of what he says immediately after this:

If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.[13]

This is as good an example of Christian Platonism as we can ask for. Lewis takes the insights of Plato on desire and pleasure as pointers to the Good, and identifies that Good as none other than the Christian God himself. And this explains why Lewis felt so liberated to write on so wide a range of topics. The fragmentation of nominalism has done a number on us (as it had even in Lewis’s time), and so when we meet a “man with a chest” like Lewis,[14] we do not know what to do with him.Lewis takes the insights of Plato on desire and pleasure as pointers to the Good, and identifies that Good as none other than the Christian God himself. Click To Tweet

In his own day, Lewis received considerable criticism for writing too broadly and not—as was the custom of his colleagues and countless academics today—writing strictly within the confines of his specialized disciplined. He refused to “stay in his lane,” not because he was a rebel or an iconoclast, tearing down the dividing walls of specialization for the sake of being disruptive, but rather because for him there were no walls. Lewis’s Christian Platonism gave him a vision of reality that harmonized everything. Every “lane,” for Lewis, connected at some point to every other, and his Christian Platonism gave him the liberty to explore all of reality at leisure.

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[1] Lloyd P. Gerson, From Plato to Platonism (Cornell University Press, 2013), 9-19. Hans Boersma helpfully summarizes this in Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew (IVP Academic, 2021), 42-43.

[2] Paul Tyson, Returning to Reality: Christian Platonism for Our Times (Cascade Books, 2014), 84.

[3] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, Translated by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (HarperCollines, 2006), 63.

[4] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine (Prentice Hall, 1958), ch. 26., 76.

[5] C.S. Lewis, “Myth Become Fact” in God in the Doc, (Eerdmans, 1970), 59-60.

[6] It is worth mentioning that the Canons of Dort would agree with Lewis on this. See Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine, Article IV.

[7] C.S. Lewis, “The Grand Miracle” in God in the Doc, 83.

[8] C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory (HarperCollins, 2001), 140.

[9] C.S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics” in God in the Doc, 102. Emphasis added.

[10] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1964), 85.

[11] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, 89-90.

[12] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperCollins, 2001), 136-137.

[13] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 137. Emphasis added.

[14] This is a riff off Lewis’s notion of “men without chests,” which he describes in The Abolition of Man (HarperCollins, 2009), which is also a good example of Lewis’s appropriation of Platonic thought. He is leaning on a Platonic anthropology which distinguishes between three parts of the soul: the rational (corresponding to the head), the spirited (corresponding to the chest), and the appetitive (corresponding to the belly).

Samuel G. Parkison

Samuel G. Parkison (PhD, Midwestern Seminary) is associate professor of theological studies and director of the Abu Dhabi Extension Site at Gulf Theological Seminary in the United Arab Emirates. Before coming to GTS, Samuel was assistant professor of Christian studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and pastor of teaching and liturgy at Emmaus Church in Kansas City. He is the author of Revelation and Response: The Why and How of Leading Corporate Worship Through Song (Rainer, 2019) and Thinking Christianly: Bringing Sundry Thoughts Captive to Christ (H&E, forthcoming). You can follow Samuel on Twitter.

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