Friday, November 15, 2019

Neo-Platonism and the Early Church

A History of Philosophy: 19 Neo-Platonism and the Church Fathers; Arthur Holmes, Wheaton College

This is taken from a series of eighty-one videos, presumably the lectures from a year-long course.  I truly find the entire series thus far fascinating.  First, something on Holmes:

Arthur Frank Holmes was an English philosopher who served as Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College in Illinois from 1951 to 1994. …Wheaton College President Philip Ryken said "It would be hard to think of anyone who has had a greater impact on Christian higher education than Arthur Holmes."

He was involved in the creation of the Society of Christian Philosophers, what is today the largest subgroup of the American Philosophical Association (APA).  When he started teaching at Wheaton, he set an objective to produce 100 graduates who would go on to earn Ph.D.’s in philosophy.  Some time after his death, a count was taken: there were 116 identified.

Holmes wanted to separate the philosophy department from the theology department at Wheaton; this generated severe pushback from the faculty, believing it would serve to separate human reason from God’s guidance.  He was called to task on his desire:

When he arrived, they asked him to affirm the college’s Statement of Faith. Holmes replied in his English-American accent, “Sir, I wrote Wheaton College’s Statement of Faith.”

Now, on to the lecture.  In this lecture, Holmes offers the beginnings of the connections of Greek philosophy and Christian theology:

Justin Martyr, from his address to the Greeks: from every point of view it must be seen that in no other way than only from the prophets who teach us by divine inspiration is it at all possible to learn anything about God and true religion.

As if to demonstrate this:

Martyr cites Homer, Pythagoras, and Plato when they had been in Egypt and had taken advantage of the history of Moses, they afterwards published doctrines concerning the gods quite contrary to that which they formerly had promulgated.

The reference to Homer isn’t clear to me, but I take the point overall.  Back to Martyr: he then seems to contradict this point, or at least offer some room for nuance:

We have been taught that Christ is the firstborn of God.  We have declared that he is the logos of whom all men are partakers, and those who live reasonably (live with the logos) are Christians even though they had been atheists – among the Greeks, Socrates, Heraclitus and men like that.

How did they know so much of the truth – without the prophets?  We know that all men are in search of God, but this does not necessarily make them all Christian.

Holmes summarizes Martyr’s logic: all Christians are enlightened by the logos; Socrates and Heraclitus are enlightened by the logos; therefore, they must be Christians.  But this logic doesn’t quite hold: they could all be enlightened by the logos, but not all be Christian.  Both Christians and non-Christians are enlightened by the logos; the two sub-groups need not intersect.

In other words, to varying degrees, all men are so enlightened (all men seek God); yet not all men know the (meaningfully) full truth.

Clement of Alexandria: Truth is illuminated in the dawn of Light (capital L) – the barbarian and Hellenic philosophy is torn off a fragment of eternal truth; not from the mythology of Dionysus but the theology of the ever-living logos.

Holmes points to the first eighteen verses of John’s gospel – this is what the early church fathers are “playing with” (in Holmes’ wording), integrating or tying together Greek philosophy and Jesus Christ as the logos.  This same kind of identification continues throughout the Middle Ages – from Augustine to Aquinas; it is lost sight of when we get into modern times, but it is part of the medieval conception of the framework.

It is this that underlies their view of the appropriateness of learning from the Greeks, because the source of truth is the same – but we know that the Greeks only had fragments of the truth.

Holmes then cites from a book summarizing the attitudes of the early Church fathers toward Plato, and the chief things of which the Church fathers approve: the censure of mythology; his ideal of morality; it is better to suffer than to do wrong; his rejection of materialism; his affirmation of the immortality of soul; the pictures of future rewards and punishments; his proclamation of one God – Father and maker of all, whom it is hard to discover; his view of the beginning of creation and the goodness of the creator.

The things which they censure Plato for: his concessions to popular religion; his belief in the pre-existence and transmigration of souls; his assumption of a pre-existing chaos reduced to order instead of creation out of nothing.

Regarding the early Church fathers, they are discriminating; they don’t buy into everything; they prefer Plato over the others; they don’t seem to even know Aristotle as he is not much talked about at all. 

But it’s not eclecticism.  They are working with their Christian convictions as a foundation and then select what is supportive or what amplifies from the Greek philosophy and language.  But they detach it from connections that are alien to Christian faith.

“Had they not taken close attention to Plato, I don’t think Christian theology would have developed with the comparative rapidity with which it developed.  They didn’t have the conceptual tools.”

Perhaps the ultimate example of the pen being mightier than the sword.

Holmes notes: there is nothing abnormal or devious in such a path.  He offers: It’s hard to find any developed theology which isn’t dependent on some philosophical scheme.  Luther?  Ockham’s nominalism; Calvin?  Seneca, Cicero, Stoicism; Charles Hodge (Presbyterian)?  Scottish Realism; Augustus Hopkins Strong (Baptist)?  Personal Idealism.

All leaned on conceptual tools from some philosophical strand or another.


In very broad strokes, I had such concepts in my head.  Holmes has provided some real depth to my understanding.


  1. Keep up the good work BM. This is a grand journey you are taking us all on.

  2. Mr. Holmes wrote: "... from every point of view it must be seen that in no other way than only from the prophets who teach us by divine inspiration is it at all possible to learn anything about God and true religion ..."

    As you may have already summarized, Bionic, this heretic must disagree with this statement. I would bring your attention to the many scriptural instances where the prophets themselves teach that men can receive revelation for themselves and thereby learn about God and "True Religion" - how else would you be sure that a man was an actual prophet except it was revealed to you? Further, it's a rare occurrence in the scriptures that a prophet arises through selection by another prophet - how did some random guy become a prophet if not through revelation to him directly from God?

    We must, at all times, expect to find fragments of truth among people who are not Christians. We should, therefore, humble ourselves or, in other words, lower our pride and learn from non-Christian sources - after all, the scriptures teach us that the logos or, in other words, the light of Christ is given to every man that he may judge good from evil. As Christians, we should never assume that we are in possession of all the truth.

    1. Woody, Holmes was summarizing Justin Martyr. If I recall correctly, Holmes did not agree with this view.

  3. Apart from divine revelation there is very little one can learn about God and the proper worship of him. For sure, there are things that can be understood from observation of human nature and creation, Romans 1.

    But starting with nature and creation will cause you to also come up with some incorrect views of man and God. Genesis 1-3 is key to understanding the Fall and sin which distorts drastically any picture of God or man we get from observing nature.

  4. "Genesis 1-3 is key to understanding the Fall and sin which distorts drastically any picture of God or man we get from observing nature."

    Translation: If you just look at reality, you will not take the proper dim view of humans and their inborn evil. Those ugly views require a good grounding in religious faith.


    1. You have no understanding of the history of philosophy.

      Philosophers who didn't consider the Fall claimed that God as described in the Bible couldn't exist because of all the evil in the world. These philosophers were atheist and were justifying their atheism and the push to secularize society. The evil is there if you observe nature. It doesn't take faith. It just takes sight.

  5. Hope you are okay Mosquito. Maybe you are enjoying an extended Thanksgiving. But the break in articles is irregular for you.

    1. RMB, it is one of those periods where the real world is overwhelming bionic's world. I don't really see an end in sight until the new year - albeit I am sure I will write occasionally between now and then.