10:13 AM

can you be a christian platonist?

This is a dangerous question because so many people have claimed to be exactly that. I trust that the real issue at hand is whether it is logically consistent to be a Christian Platonist, not whether people have tried very hard or actually pulled it off via compartmentalization. My answer, as a Christian, is no.

In the phrase “Christian Platonist,” “Christian” operates as an adjective, while “Platonist” is a substantive adjective. This means, frankly, that the most significant weight of this phrase is the “Platonist” part. That just won’t work.

Philosophy and religion are both difficult issues, particularly when they meet. In order to have consistency in your beliefs about the world, you have to have some sort of governing principle. You must have a foundation. For a Christian, that foundation should always be the Gospel. Scripture, then, is the final authority since it is the way God speaks to us and the primary way that we know Him. In itself, this is not something we can explain using only reason, and neither is much of what the Bible says. God incarnate? Virgin birth? Resurrection? These things are far from explicable, yet we have it on good authority – divine authority – that they happened. The rationality of Platonism would not accept this.

The Gospel is essential to Christianity, and it is in this particular area that we can examine the problem of Christian Platonists. Paul sums up the Gospel in Romans 5:6-10:

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God.”

The basic assumptions here simply are not compatible with Platonism. Here we learn that the equation of Christianity includes the fallenness of man, the sacrificial love of God, and a heroic rescue by Christ from divine wrath. Let us look at these issues point-by-point.

Firstly, Plato’s dialogues assume quite the opposite state of man. Where Christianity pronounces mankind to be sinful and incapable of living a life pleasing to God, Socrates and his compatriots seek the good life, which they believe could be summed up by pursuing philosophy. People are fundamentally capable of using their minds to live the best way possible. But if that were true, then the sacrifice of Christ was ridiculous – people would need to be an example, not a sacrificial lamb. Any attempt to live the good life without Christ, to the Christian way of thinking, would be ultimately fruitless.

Secondly, Plato’s definition of love does not deal in terms that would allow this kind of radical sacrifice for one’s enemies. His stance on love, as displayed in the Symposium, is fundamentally about lack. God does not lack something that would compel Him to love us, but He loves us anyway.

Finally, the stance that the substitutionary atonement assuaged the wrath of God stands preposterous before the ideals of the Platonist. Part of what is required for all of this to work is the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, which Paul in I Corinthians refers to as far from popular among “reasonable” people: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (I Corinthians 1:22-24)

Ultimately, the issue at hand is brought up by Paul in verse 25: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” Christianity requires that we yield to the superior wisdom of God. Plato is not such a fan of submitting to anything but your own reason.


iconoclasm said...

So would Augustine and Western Christianity be in your "actually pulled it off via compartmentalization" category or do you believe that Plotinus and the Neo-Platonists were substantially different from the Platonists?

You're probably a mathematical platonist since you don't like math.

iconoclasm said...

Or a mathematical fictionalist.

Darren said...

Sorry if this is an unwanted comment. I was perusing the list of people who were interested in Christian Hedonism and I found you and this blog. I was also a philosophy minor so your post piqued my interest. My question is this:
At the beginning of the blog you disect the structure of the term "Christian Platonist". You remark that the weight of the phrase lands on "Platonist." However, this isn't the case with a very similar term (as far as structure goes): "Christian Hedonism" As John Piper explains it, the weight of this phrase Christian for the definition of hedonism requires a change for it to work with Scripture.

However, even as I think about it now, I am not convinced of my own argumentation, for Piper's term rests on the fact that we seek our joy in God, so the emphasis does land on the term "hedonist" it just needs to be a little redefined (although in a dramatic way). Anyway, I was thinking of some argument that would counter yours (just in terms of the criticism of the structure) but I now see that I cannot. I thought your essay was very good and exactly right. Your first point about philosophy (Plato in particular) assuming that man can make his or her life better through philosophy is its own condemning thought. As I have found, philosophy tries to find a way to explain things without God so that it doesn't have to be accountable to God. Anyway, I've said enough (and probably too much). I liked your essay.

Laur said...

thanks, darren. i hope my professor likes it as much. i tried to load it up with the gospel. so as to make it inescapable.

Darren said...

I admire your commitment and courage. Praise God that, no matter what the outcome, you put the gospel in there and God promises that it won't return empty. It will have an affect. I regret not having done that more in my philosophy classes, however I did get to do that in a lot of my communication classes, including an entire paper on Jonathan Edwards and "Sinners in the Hands of Angry God." We can only put it out there and trust that God will do with it what He will to the praise of His name.

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