Category: Philosophical theories

Christianity and Platonism

The relation between Christianity and Platonism, both as historical phenomena and theoretical discourses, is one of the most important aspects of the history of philosophy of late antiquity and the Middle Ages, because for the larger part of this period Platonism was considered almost synonymous with philosophy.

The problem of interpretation

The question of the relation of Platonism with Christianity can be discussed through two, though not necessarily distinct, perspectives: the historical-philosophical and the systematic one. For the first approach the most important thing is to understand the conditions of the encounter of these two historical phenomena, Platonism and Christianity, in the philosophical, theological and ideological field from the second century to this day and to examine the outcome of this encounter at any given time and its interpretations. Through the systematic approach becomes possible a phenomenology of the relation of Christianity and Platonism, more as ideotypes or systems of thought and worldviews, and the identification and the philosophical interpretation of their bonds and differences.

The essential question is whether Platonic philosophy, Platonic tradition in general, and certain key positions in particular are compatible with Christianity. It is a question whose answer is decisive for (or dependent on) the perception of the relation between philosophy and theology, Hellenism and Christianity -pair fields and historical events that shaped European culture. Therefore, the intensity of this interpretive controversy that lasted many centuries is reasonable and historically explicable.

The approaches of these two perspectives are numerous. The approaches that reveal historical sensitivity and understanding of the philosophical and intellectual context into which the encounter of Christianity with Platonism took place each time tend (and are able) to recognize both (programmatic or simply inevitable) affinities and discrepancies or intersections of both traditions. They also achieve not to remain at the external aspects of the controversy between the two worldviews and not to be satisfied by the mere recognition that the opponents explicitly condemn each other. Rather, they understand that, in the early centuries, the two worldviews in their struggle for the prevalence of their own truth, on the one hand they tend to conceal their internal tensions and contradictions as to present themselves as a cohesive whole (e.g. a unifying interpretation of Plato or an Orthodox Christianity) and on the other hand they disguise the similarities with the opponent and highlight their differences.

The two historical phenomena were in different phases of development and did not remain the same throughout the course of their relation. Platonism of the imperial period, with which Christianity had the first contact (Middle Platonism, Middle Platonism and Christianity), differs in certain aspects from Neoplatonism, while pre-nicaean Christian theology (before the First Ecumenical Council, 325 A.D.) differs from the classical synthesis of the Cappadocean Fathers –let aside “heretical” and other variations and divergences. The dynamics and their validity also vary by period and explain further the rhetoric of opposition: Platonists, as far as they represent the established order, despise the marginal Christianity and its texts, while as they begin to feel that they are left alone to defend the philosophical pride of the ancient world they intensify their philosophical efforts and are engaged in more serious disputes with the representatives of the new world that tends to dominate. Respectively, educated Christians, when they are being suppressed and felt obliged to apologize, usually avoid the attack and prefer to promote the common elements that can led to an agreement; but when they realize that the historical pendulum directs toward their side they claim to replace Platonism together with the intellectual world it founded and supported. So it seems that if one does not understand the problem of Platonism-Christian relation in its historical and intellectual setting will be most probably leaded to unhistorical and deceptive interpretations.

The approaches that privilege the systematic comparison of both sides’ theories can lead to significant results regarding the similarities or differences, both in level of positions and methods. They usually require or reconstruct Platonism, Hellenism and Christianity by themselves as ideotypes, unaffected by historical unfolding and their interpretations, in an attempt to avoid the substantialization of these concepts.

However –and yet frequently– there is still a double risk. On the one hand of anachronisms, since the very content of the concept of philosophy (and its practicing) has changed within the various philosophical paradigms and nothing can warrant that if we use the present day conception of philosophy we will understand better (or more accurately) the activity also called philosophy in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, and therefore Platonism. On the other hand there is the risk of a unhistorical perspective, if (or rather, to the extent that) the thinker or researcher shall necessarily proceed in historical abstractions to highlight the 'essence' of Christianity and Platonism; and taking this essence as standard, he/she judges and evaluates them. From a historical point of view, we can say that such approaches many times are tend to offer militant and biased interpretations, as they are more dependent on the preconception usually advanced by the interpreter him/herself.

The historical dimension of the relation

The relation of Hellenism and Christianity in late antiquity is the primary historical context within which one must attempt to understand the relation between Platonism and Christianity. As Christianity is an emerging small group of believers it first attempts to define itself by marking out its boundaries with philosophy and, consequently, with Platonism. Therefore its attitude towards philosophy is explicitly stated already in the activity and the letters of St. Paul; in fact it is a dual attitude: on the one hand, the effort to diffuse the new teaching into the old established culture (diminishing the differences), on the other hand the claim for exclusivity on truth.

The attitude of Christians was affected by factors such as (a) the knowledge of the Platonic tradition that was either from the primary sources (something that was not self-evident in the Middle Ages, especially in Latin) or from other textual evidence, summaries and manuals; (b) the education (sometimes philosophical, sometimes theological, sometimes of low level) and the cultural environment of the authors, who may have been former philosophers (in the early centuries) or monks (usually) and belong to a particular theological hermeneutic tradition, to a monastic order (in the West); and (c) the purpose and audience of each work, which may have been apologetic to Pagans or later to infidels, anti-heretical towards those who were considered heretics, catechetical or explanatory to the faithful, ascetic to monks etc., always within the broader context of a philosophical-theological controversy.

Therefore is justifiable the diversity of the attitudes that held these thinkers (as do hold scholars today) who placed their hermeneutical perspective (or themselves) in favor of the (or: of a certain) Christian tradition. In terms of how they perceive their own tradition they rated the Platonic tradition depending on its distance from Christianity and its suitability to serve specific needs, or they retrospectively evaluate the consequences of its impact to Christianity. Their attitude took the form of (a) an acceptance of key positions of Platonism and an attempt to its Christianization (e.g. Dionysius Areopagite); (b) an almost enthusiastic acceptance and eclectic assimilation of certain elements of Platonism, and other philosophical trends (Clement of Alexandria); (c) a critical attitude, combined with the adoption of certain views or methodology (Justin, Origen, Cappadoceans, Augustine); and, finally, (d) the absolute denial and hostility, on the bounds of hatred, for everything Greek, not only in religious but also in cultural terms (e.g. Tatian).

Points of contact and impact

Aside from the historical aspects of Platonism and Christianity, in Platonism there are many elements that were considered suitable for exploitation, especially in the context of Plato's theological interpretation by late Platonism. The ontological distinction between created-uncreated (world-God) refers to the generated-ungenerated distinction and the Platonic dualism, although it finally goes beyond that. The participation of the sensible to the intelligible. The concept of divine creation through exemplary ideas, with references to Plato's account of Timaeus and its Neoplatonic interpretations. The concept of the immortality of the soul whose origin is Platonic –although without the pre-existence of souls and reincarnation, but including the philosophically scandalous resurrection of the body). The ascent to intelligible; the intuitive tendency; the conception of philosophy as a study of death and an assimilation to God. In late Platonism Christians found many elements for the formulation of their thought: apophatism; the cosmological and ontological hierarchy that mediates the gap between the two ontological levels; the ecstatic movement of the soul for its liberation from matter; the escape from this world and asceticism, especially in its extreme or even almost unorthodox versions; and, the allegorical method of interpreting the Bible originated in the Alexandrian Platonic environment and Philo.

Platonism was one of the main theoretical factors in shaping and making of a philosophical language of Christian doctrine, of its dogmatic core (Triadology-Christology) and of several of its side aspects (cosmology, anthropology, ethics); it served as an evangelical preparation for Christianity, albeit their essential differences. Platonism offered to Early Christianity the philosophical language. The relevant question that has been raised was whether it is merely a loaning of technical terms or it was an alteration (or even a distortion) of the original message, as it was experienced and recorded by the way of the fishermen in the New Testament, or it was its philosophical reformulation.

The main lines of interpretation are: (a) There is only an external relation between the two, as Christianity did not receive at all Platonism nor was affected significantly by it, but simply borrowed its terminology; they were (and remained) contradictory religious confessions (Dörries). (b) This external relation not only left intact the meaning of Christian teaching but, on the contrary, led to a kind of a Christianization of Platonism (Ivánka). (c) Christian theology was overturned by the use of philosophical terminology, especially the Platonic, and its original biblical message was distorted; this interpretation is part of the concept of the Hellenization of Christianity (Adolf von Harnack). (d) Platonic terminology, being insoluble with the ideas that expresses, was the most appropriate vehicle for the development and theoretical deepening of Christianity (C. de Vogel).

Plato was occasionally attacked, especially in Byzantium and as a reaction to a small number of thinkers that attempted not just to teach or make use of Platonic philosophy but to use it as a substitute for Christian theology. In the western world the most severe attack was launched by Luther himself. However, many of the positions of the Platonic tradition were considered appropriate by many Christians (from Justin to Jean-Luc Marion), and sometimes even the most useful for understanding and formulating of their own positions and eventually for the establishment of a Christian philosophy.

Author: George Zografidis
  • De Vogel, C. J. "Platonism and Christianity: A Mere Antagonism or a Profound Common Ground?." Vigiliae Christianae 39 (1985)
  • Dörries, H. "Was ist ‘spätantiker Platonismus’? Überlegungen zur Grenzziehung zwischen Platonismus und Christentum." Theologische Rundschau 36 (1971)
  • Ivanka, E. von. Plato Christianus: Übernahme und Umgestaltung des Platonismus durch die Väter. Einsiedeln, 1964.
  • Pelikan, J. The Christian Tradition, A History of the Development of the Doctrine: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). Chicago, 1975.
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