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