The Church And Plato

Painting of ancient men in a public place
Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus Sermon in Athens, by Raphael, 1515.
DRESSED IN THE GARB OF GREEK PHILOSOPHY

So, who is this Plato guy and what does he have to do with the church? 

Plato (428 – 347BC) was a Greek philosopher and mathematician and, given that he lived 400 years or so before Christ, he had nothing to do with the church.  His writings, however, have. Plato has had a tremendous influence on Western thinking1:

  • Plato was an essential figure in the development of Western thought.  Along with his teacher, Socrates, and his most famous student, Aristotle, he laid the foundations of Western philosophy and science.
  • He founded the first institution of higher learning in the Western world
  • His theory of forms launched a unique perspective on abstract objects
  • His dialogs have been used to teach a range of subjects, including philosophy, logic, ethics, rhetoric, religion and mathematics.
  • Alfred North Whitehead, a well known 19th century English mathematician and philosopher, once noted that a generalization of European philosophy is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

Plato’s writing also influenced the teaching of the early church in fundamental areas.  One such subject is what the church believes and teaches regarding the state of the dead.

As we have seen from chapter one, The Soul of Western Thought, the original words, nephesh and psuche’, translated as “soul” in many versions of the English Bible, have also been rendered as “person”, “life”, “heart” and a number of other renderings having to do with the individual. These two words mean the same thing and there is little indication that when the Bible speaks of the soul that it is referring to an abstract part of our being that is conscious and lives on after we die.  The chapter also advanced the idea that the concept of an immortal soul has its origins exclusively in Greek Philosophy – and by that, I mean Plato.

This leads us to a question: When did Greek thought infiltrate Christian teaching on the afterlife?

In the period following the death of the Apostles, the Church Fathers were faced with attacks on the new Christian religion from two sides: heresy from within and the intellectual reaction of paganism from without.

The first few hundred years of the Christian era was a time of the establishment of doctrine – the teachings of Christian theology.  This body of teaching was organized and taught in response to the intellectual attack of the pagans and in order to counter the many false doctrines (heresies) that sprung up continuously all over the known Christian world at the time.2 It is referred to as Patristic Theology.

False teachings about the person of Christ, how a Christian should live, and the nature of God abounded – then and now.  Just some of the false doctrines which the church fought during the early church era are listed below:

  • Jewish Legalism – probably the first heresy with which the young church had to deal.  This false doctrine taught that circumcision and the Law of Moses were still binding on Christians.
  • Gnosticism – possibly the most dangerous heresy of the 2nd century Christian church, it taught that the world was created and ruled by a lesser deity called the demiurge and that Christ was an emissary of a remote supreme divine being.  Wisdom and knowledge, or a “higher truth”, was gained only through divine revelation and known to only a certain few.  Gnostics asserted that matter, the world and the flesh, is inherently evil and spirit, the non-material world, is inherently good – ideas that are all firmly entrenched in Plato.
  • Asceticism – is the belief in severe self-discipline, self-mortification and avoidance of all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons.
  • Antinomianism – anti, “against”, and nomos, “law”, are the two root words from the Greek, “against the law”.  This was a heresy that taught that there were no moral laws that God expected Christians to obey.
  • Docetism – the belief that Christ’s body was not human but either a phantasm or made of real but celestial substance and therefore His sufferings were only apparent.  This was an important part of Gnostic belief and had its roots in the belief that all matter was inherently evil.

The pagans, early on, did not pay a lot of attention to the religion of Christ.  As a matter of fact, they scoffed at what seemed to them to be an absurd sect of Judaism which worshipped a dead-and-crucified God.  But as Christianity acquired greater influence and began to reach the higher classes the pagans sat up and took notice.  The intellectual attacks began, and the new religion went to defend itself.2

The defense took the form of philosophical arguments advanced so that Christianity would be seen as legitimate in terms of the Greek philosophical concepts that permeated the world view of the day.  These formulated doctrines, some of which are called orthodox today, ended up assimilating ideas that originated with Greek writers such as Xenophon, Homer and, of course, Plato.3

This assimilation was inevitable because many of the crafters of the defense “wore the mantle of the philosopher”4.  The Ante-Nicene Fathers (those who wrote prior to the Council of Nicaea in AD 325), aka the Apologists, were heavily influenced by Greek thought.  Higher education of the day consisted of schools of philosophy that taught the ideas of Plato.  These men were highly educated, some even taught in these schools before their conversion and continued to do so afterward.

Justin4,5, Irenaeus6, Tertullian7, Origen8, and Augustine9,10 – a who’s-who of early church scholarship – ALL key architects of the defense against the pagans; ALL heavily influenced by Plato.  The writings of these men were influenced by Greek philosophy so much, and the passionate embrace of “Christian-Platonism11” was so enthusiastic that hundreds of years later, Socrates and Plato were frequently regarded as divinely inspired pre-Christian saints12. Though he wrote in the late 4th century and the early 5th century, I included Augustine with the others listed above because of the shear weight of his influence on Christian doctrine and apologetics.

So, to sum it all up – at a time when the early church is finding its legs, it finds itself defending its religious beliefs against the attack of false teaching from within and Greek philosophy from without.  The written defenses, called Apologies, form a body of work which is found in the creeds, statements of belief, and theology of virtually every church organization in the world today.  But the writers argued for Christianity from the point of view of Greek philosophy and, in doing so, opened the door to the influence of pagan thought on Christian doctrine.  It is going to sound like I am being rough on these men, but that is not my intent and I am in no way calling into question their faith and love for Christ. What I am being rough on is a system of beliefs that has been too long without a challenge.

One of the doctrinal tenets compromised was the biblical teaching on the state of the dead. Biblically, we find that the dead are dead until the resurrection of the dead (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, 10; Daniel 12:1-2; Revelation 20:5) and nothing of an immortal soul.

Endnotes

1Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, p. 17, in Wikipedia, Plato, (accessed 5/3/2021)

2Julian Marias, translated from the Spanish by Stanley Appelbaum and Clarence Strowbridge, History of Philosophy, Dover Publications, New York, ©1967, pp. 107-108, in Morehead, Keith G., Fictional Foundations of Trinitarian Thought, ©1988

3Avrum Stroll and Richard H. Popkin, Introduction to Philosophy, 3rd edition, New York: Holt, Reinhart & Winston, ©1979, p. 342

4Pressense, Edmond de, The Early Years of Christianity: A Comprehensive History of the First Three Centuries of the Christian Church, Volume 2,

5John McClintock and James Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, (First published by Harper and Brothers, 1867-1887, reprinted by Baker Book House Co., 1981, Volume IV, p. 1109.

6Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., ©1910, Reprinted February 1985, Volume II, pp. 747-756

7Schaff, Volume II, pp. 819-820

8Schaff, Volume II, p. 791

9Schaff, Volume III, pp.997-998

10Marias, p. 115-116

11Encyclopedia Britannica, “Christian Platonism”, Christian Platonism | philosophy | Britannica

12Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World, Ballentine Books, New York, ©1993, p. 103, in Garry Petty, What Does the Bible Say About the Immortal Soul, posted on 7/15/1999 to Website: Beyond Today, (accessed 5/3/2021).

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