Category: Philosophical theories

Platonism and early Christian theology. The formation of the Christian doctrine

The Christian doctrine was formed during the first centuries A.D. as an explanation of the biblical teaching. Apart from other factors (religious, sacramental, social, etc.), a major role in its conception and formulation played the philosophical discourse of the time, especially Platonism, both in its middle-platonic and (more) in its Neoplatonic version.

The transition from the simple discourse of the New Testament to the theoretical discourse that culminated in the dense wording of the Christian Credo articles of the first two Ecumenical Councils and in the great syntheses of the Fathers of the early centuries was a difficult process, both in practical-religious and theoretical (theological and philosophical ) level.

The ‘fishermen’s way’ and the inner message of the Christian gospels in their encounter with the prevailing atmosphere of the philosophical Hellenism could only be formed in the most appropriate way and adapt itself in order to penetrate, to converse, and, ultimately, to convince the educated Pagan (non Christian) public.

The shift of the first Fathers to Platonism did not happen only because this was the dominant philosophical trend or a kind of a philosophical common language of the second and thir century –i.e. an inevitable shift. It happened because it appeared that Platonic views and formulations were, or they could be interpreted as being close to what the Christians already believed in or understood that they believed, after they had come into contact with philosophy. And this was more expected in the cases that Christian scholars had been Pagan philosophers before their conversion. The fundamental belief of Platonism that this life we live is not the real life and that God is not part of this world, along with the theoretical justification and the anthropological and ethical implications of this belief, lead educated Christian in exploiting this philosophy.

From the eclecticism of 'Platonism' of the first Fathers, that was not systematic, we gradually pass after Origen’s synthesis, to the influence of Neoplatonism (and first of all of Plotinus himself) in the most critical period for the final shaping of the Christian doctrine in the fourth century.

If we assume that Platonism, as interpreted in its history, is a metaphysical “top-down” view of the reality, its key aspects can be schematically summarized (Gerson 2006):

(1) The universe has a systematic unity, something that allows its systematic understanding. All fields (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc.) are based on the same theoretical principles.

(2) The systematic unity is a hierarchy (ontological and cosmological), in which the simple precedes the complex and the intelligible the sensible –and the former explains the later. This reductionism leads to a simple and indivisible principle that is the ultimate explanation of everything.

(3) The Divine is an irreducible explanatory category. In the top of the hierarchy is God, who explains the creation and the order of the sensible world; in this sense ontology and theology are indissoluble. The relation between the divine and the world (the Providence and charity) is considered an essential element. Still controversial is whether the divine is personal, as may indicate the basic Platonic exhortation for 'assimilation to God’.

(4) Soul is an irreducible explanatory category. The universe itself is alive, therefore the soul is the principle of life.

(5) Persons belong to the above hierarchy and their happiness implies their restoration to the position they had lost in this hierarchy. If the identity of the human person is the immortal soul, his "aim" is ‘assimilation to God’ something, however, that exceeds what already is in order to raise it to what it should be. This is the principle of morality.

(6) The epistemological order is included in the metaphysical order. The modes of knowledge correspond to the hierarchical levels of reality. At the top, therefore, lies the knowledge of the first explanatory principles while lower lies the sensory knowledge.

The Christian thinkers of the first centuries keep the basic elements of this “top-down” Platonic metaphysical approach; and here we must acknowledge the structural analogy of the thought of both sides.

They accept the ontological hierarchy and division of reality; however, the ontological distinction they draw is not between intelligibles and sensibles but a rather radical ontological difference of two levels: the uncreated (which is only God) and the created (which is anything other than God). Thus, everything is created both intelligibles (e.g. individual souls or angels) and sensibles. This means that they did not come out from the essence of God; there is no essential emanation from the One. Everything comes out from nothing and could always return to it.

In epistemology, as to the sensible world they accept an empiricism of Aristotelian origin, albeit the known reservations about the validity of sensory knowledge. The only valid knowledge of intelligible beings is their intellectual apprehension, although the latter is diminished when the emphasis is given to the cognitive status of personal religious experience. In some Fathers the very concept of knowledge is expanded to include a form of faith.

In psychology, soul is believed to be immortal but not uncreated –since this would make it eternally co-existent with God. Furthermore, it is exclusively personal and was created for a particular body, into which it enters at some certain time (the exact moment is an open issue for the Fathers). This excludes its wanderings after its separation from its body to other bodies, i.e. reincarnation. Antiplatonic is also the belief in bodily resurrection.

The Christian conception of the world’s creation is based on the interpretation of the relevant biblical narrative; but even so it cannot be understood without the exegetical tradition of Timaeus. It is obvious that Christians utilize the interpretation that puts the examples for the creation not as self-existent ideas but as thoughts in the God-creator’s mind. The teaching about the withdrawal from the world, introspection, communication with God as the highest good, reveal –at least in terms of their wording– Neoplatonic influences.

In the core of theological teaching, the echoes of NeoPlatonism are also discernible. The conception of the deity both as simple (simplicity is the main divine property) and as triune caused many interpretive problems (and the consequent heresies). While there is no evident correspondence between the three Plotinian hypostases and the three divine hypostases of the Christian God, the relation within the Trinity needs to be explained. The birth of the Son can mean neither a temporal act nor a division of the divine essence.

The apophatism of Christianity about a God beyond the intellect, ineffable, that is best described with negative predicates and becomes known through ignorance or he is better worshiped in silence (Augustine) has certain parallels with apophatism about the One, the first hypostasis of the Neoplatonic triad.

Finally, a fundamental difference is that, even if they treated Platonism of their time (enriched with Aristotelian views) as a philosophical paradigm, Christian thinkers had a main aim that was not strictly philosophical: it was primarily the interpretation and experience (personal and communitarian) of the biblical message. The creation of a Christian philosophy, i.e. a comprehensive and rational explanation of God, of the world and man (as far as it is possible), was a significant but collateral aim; perhaps, in other words, an instrument –from the most effective ones– to achieve the main objective.

The prevalence of Christianity (beyond ideological, political, social, cultural, organizational reasons) was prepared at the theoretical level, in one aspect, by the development of the late Platonism: the philosophical life it proposed was a life of study and practice/exercise (askesis), a contemplative life. Thus Platonism was considered as a form of evangelical preparation. On the other, it can be argued that Platonism, as the principal representative of the Hellenism in late antiquity, was the main opponent of Christianity. This seems to justify the sometimes fierce Christian attack (from the second to the fifteenth century). This fierceness, however, can be interpreted inversely as also a result of the feeling that both sides were close enough in certain fundamental views, so that they had to emphatically illustrate their differences, given the conflictive framework of their encounter and their aim was the ideological hegemony of one side over the other. Even if Nietzsche’s sentence that Christianity is nothing but a Platonism for the masses sounds extreme, it shows that their relationship was constituitive for the development of European philosophy and culture.

Author: George Zografidis
  • O'Daly, G. Platonism Pagan and Christian. London, 1981.
  • Beierwaltes, W. Platonismus im Christentum. Frankfurt, 2014.
  • De Vogel, C. J. "Platonism and Christianity: A Mere Antagonism or a Profound Common Ground?." Vigiliae Christianae 39 (1985)
  • Gerson,, L.P. Aristotle and other Platonists. Ιθάκα και Λονδίνο, 2005.
  • Ivanka, E. von. Plato Christianus: Übernahme und Umgestaltung des Platonismus durch die Väter. Einsiedeln, 1964.
  • O' Meara, D. J. ed. Neoplatonism and Christian Thought . New York, 1981.
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