What is Christian Platonism? Why do I advocate a return to it? Why is it so controversial today?
In this article I will address these questions. First, I will focus on defining the term “Christian Platonism” and summarizing its development in the history of Christian thought. You may very well discover that it is not what you thought it was. Of course, my historiography can be questioned, but it would be good to remember that what I am presenting is the standard account shared by almost all your theological heroes prior to 1800. So, before you dismiss it, make sure you are not dismissing theologians you look to as orthodox and helpful to us today. (If you don’t have any theological heroes who worked prior to 1800, get some.)
Second, I will focus on systematic reasons why this metaphysical system is essential to the Christian doctrine of God as the transcendent Creator and also for basic elements of our culture that are based on the Christian doctrine of creation, such as the scientific enterprise and the natural moral law. I will also discuss the relationship of Christian philosophy to general and special revelation.
I first encountered this term by reading patristic theology where it is used as a fairly neutral historical description of how the fourth century pro-Nicene fathers made use of Platonic ideas in the Arian controversy and integrated certain of these ideas into their Trinitarian theology. Within the patristics guild there is no “moral panic” over the idea that Christianity and Platonism had dealings with one another. They have always known that Christian writers made use of certain Platonic ideas over against other ancient systems such as the atheism, materialism and relativism of figures like Lucretius, Democritus and Epicurus. This is not seen as a problem.
No reputable patristics scholar would say either that Christianity was absorbed into Platonism or that Christianity remained unaffected by it. The idea that Christian theologians did not, inevitably, interact critically with their surrounding culture would strike any historian as implausible. The question is which ideas are accepted, which are modified, and which are rejected totally. The idea that historical influence is a one-way street where Greek philosophy can influence Christian writers, but Christianity cannot in any way transform Greek thought, which seems to be an assumption made by many today, would strike patristic historians as completely unwarranted by the facts. As Robert Wilken puts it, the church fathers did not engage in the Hellenization of Christianity, but in the Christianization of Hellenism.
Let me make three, general, broad-brush assertions about Christian Platonism in history, even though there is hardly space here to go very deeply into any of them.
1. Christian Platonism is Historical Augustinianism
The first point to make here is that Christian Platonism is a description of Augustinianism. Augustine’s theology was massively important for the West including both sides in the Reformation debates. So, if Augustine is a heretic, we are pretty much all heretics and we had better convert to Russian Orthodoxy en masse. (Of course, even then we would not have escaped the influence of Augustine’s metaphysics.) My point is that we need to understand that rejecting Christian Platonism means rejecting Augustine on a fundamental level and that is hardly feasible, since he is such a biblical theologian.
I describe Augustine’s encounter with Platonism in chapter 3 of my book, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition (Baker, 2018). I will not repeat that story here, but I just want to point out that Augustine used biblical revelation to supplement and correct the doctrines of the Platonists. What he accepted from them was the idea that the visible world depends for its existence on an intelligible world that is not known empirically, but only through reason. He found this concept to be compatible with Scripture but its metaphysical implications more developed and nuanced in Platonism. The Platonic concept of a spiritual substance helped him escape the Gnostic religion of Manichaeism, in which he had been caught up for nine years prior to his conversion.
Augustine accepted the Platonic idea that the creation is caused by a simple, immutable, eternal, self-existent First Cause and he identified that First Cause with the God of Scripture. He had to add the doctrines of Trinity, incarnation and atonement from special revelation and these elements constitute the uniquely “Christian” part of Christian Platonism. So, Augustinianism can be described as theology that uses certain Platonist ideas to develop the metaphysical implications of the biblical doctrine of creation. Augustinianism, in this sense, became an integral aspect of Christian orthodoxy.
2. Christian Platonism is the Metaphysics of Nicene Orthodoxy
The second point that needs to be made is that creedal orthodoxy is bound up with Christian Platonist metaphysics in ways that make disentangling them nearly impossible. Let me give just two quick examples.Augustinianism can be described as theology that uses certain Platonist ideas to develop the metaphysical implications of the biblical doctrine of creation. Click To Tweet
First, the doctrine of Divine simplicity, as Khaled Anatolios notes in his book Retrieving Nicaea (Baker, 2011), was taken for granted as true by all Christian theologians at the end of the third century. Throughout the fourth century debates, both sides continued to affirm it and both sides appealed to it in different ways to support their position. A key problem for the pro-Nicene side was how to give a non-contradictory account of the Father and Son as distinct from each other in some way but both sharing in the Divine simplicity. It is hardly a stretch to say that the homoousios versus hypostasisdistinction was developed in part to address this very issue. So, to look at simplicity as an optional doctrine or to see it as revisable by modern theologians is to open up a very large can of very big worms.
Modern theologians who seek to revise classical theism by abandoning or re-defining the doctrine of simplicity, often without being aware of how it functions in fourth and fifth century Nicene theology, think that what they are doing has nothing to do with the doctrine of the Trinity. They think that they can deny simplicity while remaining within Nicene orthodoxy, but they are unaware of the fact that this is not actually possible. My point is that the doctrine of the Trinity does not work in just any metaphysical system whatsoever. Modern naturalism imposes metaphysical constraints on the Christian doctrine of God that make Nicene Trinitarianism impossible to maintain. This issue is too seldom addressed by those with revisionist aspirations.Christian Platonism is ecumenical, Christian metaphysics. Click To Tweet
Second, another example is the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, which is being questioned all over the place today even by conservative reformed and evangelical theologians such as John Walton. I readily admit that creation ex nihilo does not comport well with the Hegelian pantheism and panentheism, that is often conflated with the “scientific” view of the God-world relationship. In such cases, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is working exactly as it was designed to do. Creation ex nihilo is a metaphysical implication of the doctrine of creation as derived exegetically from Scripture. It is a rejection of all mythological views of God in which God and the world are on the same plane of being interacting with each other in the way that creatures mutually affect one another. If this causes friction with “modern science” that is not because modern science is scientific, but rather because modern scientists are pantheists, which is a very different matter.
I think it is worth pointing out that much of the hostility directed against Christian Platonism (and subsets of it such as Thomism) originates in a desire to avoid challenging modern metaphysical doctrines such as panentheism, naturalism or materialism. Once a person decides to take these false doctrines on, one will find Christian Platonism to be an ally worth having in that fight.
3. Christian Platonism Underlies Scholastic Realism
A third historical point we need to emphasize is that what I am calling Christian Platonism is a very general system of metaphysics that has assumed various forms throughout history. It is broader and older than Thomism and rooted in the patristic, rather than the medieval, period. It also, for that reason, is less likely to be conflated with Roman Catholicism. It actually undergirds Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism just as much as it does Roman Catholicism. Christian Platonism is ecumenical, Christian metaphysics.
It cannot be stressed too often that Christian Platonism is not unmodified or unreformed Platonism. Modern writers only display their ignorance of over a thousand years of historical development when they assume that the Great Tradition simply assimilated Christianity to Greek philosophy. They are repeating a charge that was leveled at the Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy of the creedal tradition by nineteenth century liberal theologians who were eager to dismiss the doctrines of Trinity, creation, incarnation and atonement and replace them with watered-down, non-biblical, liberal theology – what J. G. Machen would later call “another religion.” So, we should note, Christian Platonism has exactly the same enemies as Nicene Trinitarianism and, as we have already seen, this is hardly an accident.
Probably the most widespread and successful form that Christian Platonism has taken historically is Thomism. The synthesis of faith and reason in the work of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century is a high point in the development of the Christian tradition. Scholastic realism developed on the basis of Augustinianism throughout the Middle Ages and went through a crisis because of the introduction of many previously forgotten manuscripts of Aristotle’s writings into the West. Aristotle was a Platonist, but initially many aspects of his thought seemed to threaten the Christian Platonism of the Middle Ages. It was the task of Thomas Aquinas to receive Aristotle, comment on his writings, integrate some of insights into Christian thought and reject some of his doctrines (such as the eternality of creation). Thomas did this so brilliantly and so thoroughly that his Augustinian-Aristotelian synthesis has been of central importance in Christian theology ever since. Pope Leo XIII’s call for a recovery of the thought of Thomas Aquinas resulted in a major revival of Thomism in Roman Catholic, especially French Dominican, circles during the twentieth century.Modern writers only display their ignorance of over a thousand years of historical development when they assume that the Great Tradition simply assimilated Christianity to Greek philosophy. Click To Tweet
Something interesting is now happening in the twenty-first century in reformed and evangelical circles that would have been difficult to predict forty years ago. The post-Reformation scholastic theologians are being rediscovered. All of a sudden, a tradition dominated for a century by an ahistorical biblicism is reading Vermigli, Junius, Voetius, von Mastricht, Perkins, Owens, and Turretin. Who saw that coming? A revival of scholastic realism is taking place today in front of our very eyes!
Post-Reformation reformed scholasticism makes extensive use of the basic ideas of Thomas Aquinas and is thus is rooted in patristic-medieval thought. Nothing shows the lie that Protestantism is not catholic orthodoxy more effectively than pointing to its historical roots in the pro-Nicene theology of the fourth century, Augustine, Aquinas and so on. We can trace a living tradition back to Justin Martyr and Irenaeus that sprang out of the New Testament, which itself is an interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of the incarnation of Yahweh in the person of Jesus Christ.
Conservative Evangelical and confessional Protestant theology today stands at a crossroads. One direction open to us is the way of accommodation to modernity and the revisionist liberal project that has been pursued with disastrous results by liberal Protestants since Schleiermacher. Entire denominations are literally dying of this poisonous witch’s brew of paganism and biblical ideas. The other direction opening up before us is the path of Ressourcement, that is, the path of recovering the riches of scholastic realism and thus connecting back to the confessions of the Reformation period and the Trinitarian and Christological theology of creedal orthodoxy. This path allows us to connect to the catholic heritage of the Great Tradition by means of post-Reformation scholasticism, which in turn draws on the best of the synthesis of Thomas Aquinas, the Christian Platonism of Augustine and the pro-Nicene theology of the fourth century.
Why should we affirm Christian Platonism today? We should do so, not because we desire to place Greek philosophical ideas above biblical revelation, but because we recognize that orthodox Christianity has definite metaphysical implications that have been worked out carefully over two millennia and we dare not ignore the wisdom of this tradition if we want to be faithful as we continue to inhabit the Great Tradition in the twenty-first century.
Now 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.