Friday, December 1, 2023

Christian Platonism


The Great Tradition’s critical appropriation of Platonism is apparent in both the East and the West.

The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, by Matthew Barrett

Having reviewed the Reformation’s connections to Thomistic thought and having provided an overview of Platonism, Barrett now moves to reviewing how some aspects of Platonism were utilized to better understand and explain theological realities: faith first, then understanding. 

Neoplatonists would incorporate the transcendental of Plato with the concreteness of Aristotle, one strengthening the other while clearing away certain weaknesses in both.  Ultimately, both Augustine and Aquinas would locate Plato’s exemplary causes in the mind of God. 

However, The Great Tradition did not crudely transfer raw Platonism into Christianity.  For example, Platonism held to an idea of the pre-existing soul, something foreign to Christian understanding.  Further, Platonism knew the goal – to ascend to heaven – but did not know how to get there.  They thought that the philosopher could be his own savior; however, for the Christian, the only savior was Christ. 

“By the time of the Council of Nicea in 325 CE,” says Lloyd Gerson, “self-declared Christians who wanted to reflect philosophically on their religion did so almost exclusively within a Platonic context.”

Other philosophies, such as Epicureanism and Stoicism, wouldn’t work.  One or the other of these would hold to ideas such as: The gods didn’t care, all was material, there was no idea of man reaching the highest place or the gods reaching down to man.  If one was to utilize a philosophy of the time to tell the Christian story, it was only through this Neoplatonist lens that the Christian story could properly be told.

The gospel gave Augustine the map needed to reach the homeland the Platonists could only gaze at from afar.

As an aside: Jacob’s Ladder and The Tower of Babel are instructive here.  God moves first.  Jacob did not attempt to climb the ladder up to God – the method of the philosopher as his own savior.  He did not say, “If I will be with God.”  Instead, he said “If God will be with me….”  The same issue holds in The Tower of Babel: men attempting to climb to God, instead of the Christian understanding that it is God who first comes down to us.

And it is right here that all of the Jordan Peterson twelve rules falls short.  The philosopher cannot be his own savior.  Rules designed to climb will never suffice; we must first understand that we are fallen and must be picked up.  (Glen Scrivener at Speak Life explains this very well in his reaction to Peterson’s speech at ARC.)

Returning to Barrett: Christian Platonism offered building blocks for early Christian doctrine: anti-materialism – bodies and properties are not all that exist; anti-mechanism – the natural order cannot be fully explained by physical or mechanical causes; anti-nominalism – reality is not made up merely of individuals, as two individual objects can be the same in essence; anti-relativism – human beings are not the measure of all things; and anti-skepticism – the real can, in some way, be present to us.

When the apostle Paul cited classical Greek philosophers – In him we live and move and have our being – he described God’s transcendent reality with a participation metaphysic.  And this may be the key word: participation. 

…the Fathers utilized the Platonist concept of participation to ensure Christ is not subordinated to the Father.  The creature participates in the likeness of God by grace, said Athanasius.  However, “the Son does not exist by participation” since he is the eternal “Wisdom and Word of the Father in whom all things partake.”

The Creation participates in the likeness of its Creator.  This participation is not necessary for the Creator, as God’s existence relies on nothing outside of God.

For that reason, God alone deserves to be worshipped and enjoyed for his own sake, while everything else in creation is but a means to that ultimate purpose.

Augustine would take the universals of Platonism and locate these in the divine intellect.  For example, when God began creation, He already had the universal Idea we call humanity in mind.  The dignity and virtue of humanity was not arbitrary, nor was the moral law that governs humanity. 

God’s commands align with who he has made man to be, and who he has made man to be aligns with God’s own moral character or essence since man is made in the image of God…

Natural Law was already baked in the cake from the beginning – call it on day one of Creation.  God’s goodness is the final cause, explaining the ultimate telos of the creature.  Thomas would build on this realist tradition when he erected a mature participation metaphysic, albeit he sympathized more with Aristotle than Plato.  He agreed with Augustine: The Ideas are in the mind of God; they do not exist on their own.

…anything that has its being by participation must be caused by God who is uncaused himself, a God who exists by necessity. …without participation everything else evaporates….

It is something I have considered regarding the term “omnipresent” as applied to God.  Yes, He is omnipresent, but is it because He fills everywhere, or is it because the only places that exist do exist because God is present in these?  In other words, if God wasn’t present in a place, would the place not exist?  I used to understand it as the former, but I have come to see that it works better as the latter.


Barrett now brings us to the turning point, where he sees the crux of the matter that drove the Reformation.  This view – Christian Platonism as further developed by many Church Fathers – was transformed, even rejected, by later Scholastics such as Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Gabriel Biel.  I will come to these in the next post.


In the back of my mind, I am recalling some pushback from Eastern Orthodox sources regarding this integration of Neoplatonism and Christianity.  Maybe I am remembering incorrectly.  

This has always seemed strange to me as it was first through Orthodox discussions that the idea of this integration first dawned on me – not that the discussions said any such thing explicitly.  For example, I don’t know how to understand Pageau’s constant references to symbols and patterns as anything other than a Neoplatonic lens through which we can better understand the Christian story.


  1. About 20 years ago I took a course called Perspectives in World Missions. It covers missionary history, the Biblical imperative, the rise of the Missionary Movement in the West, leading to the modern approach, which is quite different from the old fire & sword approach.
    The key idea is the commandment to "disciple all nations"; this is "pane te ethne",
    "all the tongues". This means the missionary comes to the new people as a learner, learns the language, their culture & legends, & then teaches them the Bible, working on a translation on the side.
    The key is to plant a church in the soil of the alien culture, for this is how the church grows robustly & rapidly. "You take them a seed, not a potted plant." When the initial church has begun planting more churches, it is time to leave.
    The Western Church is what was planted in Greece & Rome. Plato & Aristotle are part of our soil. The Bantu get somebody else.

  2. I really like the idea that the creature "participates" in transcendental universals but God just exists or the forms simply exist within Him.

    I also think that both Plato and Aristotle are useful to understand objective, universal reality and how the material world relates to it. We are particular expressions of the universal and find our purpose by living out what the universal principle is. According to Aristotle the ideal form exists within us, maybe you could say it is projected within us like a light is projected onto a surface from which it is reflected. Then according to Plato the ideal form is within God's mind outside of space-time. The link between Plato and Aristotle is the ideal form. Plato explains where it originates. Aristotle explains how it ends up being expressed within particular subjects on earth.