Christianity and Platonism Part II: How Platonism was Introduced Into Christianity

Sanzio_01_Plato_AristotleBack in June, I posted an article on the subject of Christianity and Platonism. I intended to begin a series, but I ended up being too busy to do the research for any follow up posts, and so I wrote a post on the topic of living an effective life and then sort of forgot about the series. However, the time has come for some of those follow ups.

It’s been a while, so let’s quickly review the concept of Platonism before continuing the discussion.

“Platonism is rooted in the ideas of the great ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. Plato was one of the first philosophers to argue that reality is primarily ideal or abstract. With his ‘theory of forms,’ he asserted that ultimate reality is not found in objects and concepts that we experience on earth. Instead, reality is found in ‘forms’ or ‘ideas’ that transcend our physical world. These forms operate as perfect universal templates for everything we experience in the world. For example, all horses on earth are imperfect replicas of the universal ‘horseness’ that exists in another dimension.” (Prof. Vlach, “Platonism’s Influence on Christian Eschatology”)

Essentially, Platonism is the idea that there are ideals. Platonism states that Justice, Love, Peace, Reason, and Beauty, for example, are real. Notice that those concepts were capitalized. That is because Platonism makes a distinction between concepts such as temporal, earthly justice and eternal, perfect Justice.

As the Herzog-Schaff Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge says:

“Platonism, as well as Christianity, says, ‘Look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, only for a season; but the things which are not seen are eternal.'” (Dr. Herzog, Prof. Schaff, “The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. IX”)

Platonism and Christianity obviously have some similarities. Platonism states that there are these perfect, unchanging, eternal objects which cannot be seen by man’s eye. Christianity makes some very similar claims. Let me ask, in Christianity, for example, what is perfect, unchanging, eternal, and cannot be seen by men’s eyes? Obviously, the answer is God. Christianity also states that God is Love, Justice, Peace, Reason, and Beauty, to list a few. It should be easy to see that there is some correlation between this philosophy and the Christian faith.

How was Platonism introduced to Christianity? Well, around the time of Jesus there was a Hellenistic Jewish Philosopher named Philo of Alexandria who tried to incorporate Platonism into Judaism.

“Platonism carried over to Judaism as evidenced in the writings of the Jew, Philo.” (Prof. Vlach, “Platonism’s Influence on Christian Eschatology”)

Jews of the time may have been familiar with the concept, either through Philo’s writings or through those of the Greek philosophers. The gentiles of the day were also becoming familiar with the concept through the philosophical writings of the time. However, Neo-Platonistic literature a number of years later helped more than anything to further the spread of the belief.

“Neo- Platonism was a complex system for understanding reality that was founded by the Roman philosopher Plotinus (A.D. 204–270). The Egyptian-born Plotinus carried on some of the main ideas of Plato such as (1) there is an immaterial reality that exists apart from the physical world; (2) a strong distinction exists between an immaterial soul and the physical body; and (3) the immortal soul finds its ultimate fulfillment as it becomes one with an eternal, transcendent realm.” (Prof. Vlach, “Platonism’s Influence on Christian Eschatology”)

Church Fathers from Origen to Augustine and Aquinas were influenced by Neo-Platonism. In fact, Neo-Platonism may have helped in the conversion of Augustine from Manicheaism to Catholicism. Indeed, many of the early Church Fathers’ writings reflected Platonistic ideas, and that is how Platonism really was introduced to Christianity, and that is why it has had such a lasting impact.

In June, I had no intention of taking so long to write this follow up, and I hope that the next post in the series will come a little bit more quickly. Platonism raises some very interesting questions and is evidence for many theological issues, so keep looking out for the next post in the series. Who knows, it could discuss anything from origins to transcendence.

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