Category: Philosophical theories

Christianity and Middle Platonism

The birth of Christian philosophy for apologetic purposes was affected by Middle Platonism and represented by important thinkers as Justin and Clement of Alexandria.

The influence of Platonism in the development of Christian thought and the formulation of its doctrine is a central issue of earlier and contemporary scholarship. As to the first centuries of Patristic thought and mainly to the Apologists (second to early fourth century) we need to focus on their relationship with Middle Platonism that –even though it was not a coherent stream of thinking– was the form of Platonism that Christianity came first in contact with.

The Platonic work and the main views of Middle Platonism helped Christian thinkers to shape –synthetically or antithetically– their own conceptual language, beyond the simple language of the New Testament, present apologetically their doctrine to Pagans and set up a kind of a Christian philosophy. Among these views are (a) the theory of the creation of the world, as set out in Timaeus, which was then the most popular Platonic dialogue, emphasizing the goodness of the Father creator; (b) the theory of ideas and the distinction between perceptible and intelligible; (c) the predicates of uncreated, inexpressible, unchangeable and unspeakable God; and (d) the notion that human reason and intellect face difficulties in accessing to the transcendent reality.

Some of the Christian thinkers that entered into conversation or disputed with Platonism and ancient philosophy in general are Justin, Tatian, Athenagoras, Aristides, Hermes, Clement of Alexandria and the unknown author of the Exhortation to the Greeks.

Justin

Life

The so-called Philosopher and Martyr Justin was born about 110 in Flavia Neapolis in Samaria (Palestine) and was of Greek and at any rate of Pagan origin. At his youth he studied philosophy, with special interest on on metaphysical problems, trained in several schools of his time and, probably, in various places (not only in his homeland but perhaps in Athens as well). He started with stoicism but he was disappointed by the lack of a transcendental theology and by the identification of the Word of God and the Universe –thus by the lack of knowledge of God. He distanced himself from his peripatetic teacher because he asked for fees, and from his Pythagorean teacher because he demanded prior knowledge of astronomy, geometry, etc. Thus Justin settled on his Platonic teacher enchanted by the thinking on the non corporeal things and the contemplation of ideas.

However, as he describes and dramatizes in his Dialogue with Tryphon (chapters 2-8), a discussion on a deserted beach with an unknown old man who followed the Socratic method led them to abandon his former Platonic conceptions of the immortality of the soul and reincarnation and to adopt the view that man alone cannot approach intellectually God but only with the help of the Spirit –and so Justin turned to Christianity and to the study of the Bible.

In a two-day discussion (placed in 136 and recorded in his Dialogue –that has a Platonic source of inspiration) Justin tries to convince his Jew interlocutor Tryphon of the preparatory value of the Mosaic Law and the meaning of Incarnation.In the same year Justin settled in Rome, opened a school (the first known Christian school), always wearing the philosophical worn garment, and attempted to replace ancient philosophy with the Christian teaching. He had a lot of students, mainly from the East, among them Tatian and Irenaeus. His teaching was not unhindered because of the interventions of political power, especially by the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and possible complaints of other philosophers-teachers who were his competitors, such as Cynic Crescens. To defend and explain Christianity, Justin wrote two apologies. Eventually, he was beheaded together with six of his students, probably in 165

Teaching and Platonic influence

The Apologies of Justin are one of the earliest evidence for the systematic treatment of the relationship of Christianity with ancient Greek philosophy and especially its dominant form, Platonism. Dealing with particular issues the Christian writer draws freely from philosophical sources and attempts sometimes to harmonize philosophy and Christianity, sometimes to prove the weakness of the philosophy in order to dismiss it, and sometimes to adapt certain ancient beliefs through their Christian interpretation.

Justin himself admits his (initial and temporary) joy with the teachings of Plato. While still a Platonic philosopher he evaluated positively the attitude of the Christians face of death. The presence of philosophical views of Middle Platonism is evident in the work of Justin, since he was influenced by the Platonic education of his day (in which Platonism prevailed); but we can also recognize certain stoic influences, that we already find into the context of Middle Platonism. Of special interest is to compare him with the Handbook of Alkicous (mid-second century A.D.).

The influences from the Greeks are integrated in Christianity, according to the theory of seminal reason and thanks to a philosophical eclecticism not unknown to the philosophy of that time: ‘All these that at times were proclaimed well and found by the [ancient] philosophers and legislators, were nicely produced by them when they find and contemplate the part of the Word that lies inside them’ (Apology II, 10.2). Justin presents himself as struggling to be found a Christian, ‘not because the teachings of Christ are alien to Plato, but because they are not completely identical.’ This is because philosophers like Plato had only a faint view of the innate Word, thanks to Reason that is inherent to everyone. Therefore Justin expresses densely early Christian eclecticism that wants to undertake and continue the search for the truth: ‘what has been said by all rightly belong to us Christians’ (Apology ΙΙ, 13); those who lived according to the Word, Greeks and barbarians, atheists and pious men, are Christians (Apology I, 46.3).

We can identify several Platonic influences, verbal or substantial, in Justin always taking into account his Christian perspective.

Theory of the first principles: Metaphysics as a discourse ‘on the principles and the incorporeals’ (Apology II, 7.8); the creation: God thought and created the world by word (Apology I, 63.5); ‘we have been taught that God in the beginning did of His goodness, for man's sake, create all things out of unformed matter; and if men by their works show themselves worthy of His will, they are deemed worthy of reigning in company with Him, being delivered from corruption and suffering.’ (Apology I, 10.2). Justin when he is referring to the narrative of Genesis (1.1-3) states his belief that Plato received his account of the creation from ‘our teacher, the prophetic Word’ (Apology I, 59.1) and comments on particular passages of Timaeus to prove it.

Theology: the difficulty of knowing the Father and creator through human reason, but also of the precise wording of this knowledge is documented with reference to Timaeus (28c). Moreover divine is considered comprehensible only by the intellect, ‘as Plato says and I am convinced by him’ (Dialogue I, 3.7). At the same time, however, Justin proposes the overcoming of that kind of knowledge thanks to the power of the incarnated Word (Apology II, 10.6-8). Thus Christianity completes what existed only as a shadow and offers the contemplation of truth.

It has been suggested (e.g. Andersen 1953) that Justin being a middle Platonist was essentially a religious philosopher and that before he converted to Christianity he already believed in the existence of a God that deals with every individual human being through providence and decides on the moral life of man and his posthumously fate. However, Justin develops his teaching rather by starting mainly from the Bible and throughout its interpretation he carries his cultural and philosophical baggage from his earlier engagement in Pagan thinking, dominated by Platonism.

Author: George Zografidis
  • Chadwick, H, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition. Oxford, 1984.
  • Droge, Α. "Justin Martyr and the Restoration of Philosophy." Church History 56 (1987)
  • Edwards, M. J. "On the Platonic Schooling of Justin Martyr." Journal of Theological Studies 42 (1991)
  • Nahm, C. "The Debate of the "Platonism" Of Justin Martyr." The Second Century. A Journal of Early Christian Studies 9 (1992)
  • Winden, J.C.M. van. An Early Christian Philosopher: Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho. Leiden, 1971.
  • Holte, R. Studia Theologica. 1958.
  • Félix, V. L. Studia Patristica. 2013.
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