Thursday, January 12, 2012

Plato: All BUT Christian

Introduction

    Platonian thought bears a striking resemblance to many Christian doctrines. Indeed, it is almost amazing, upon initial observation, to discover the similarities and parallels between Plato and Christian dogma, especially that of the Augustinian and Reformed schools.  This reflection leads to the question, were Plato’s doctrines Christian? Justin Martyr, who himself was an enthusiastic admirer of Plato before he found the Gospel# suggests, “The Platonic dogmas are not foreign to Christianity. If we Christians say that all things were created and ordered by God, we seem to enounce a doctrine of Plato; and, between our view of the being of God and his, the article appears to make the only difference.#”
    To deal adequately with this issue which has been raised, it will be important to look at the similarities between Platonism and Christianity. What are the similarities and parallels between these two subjects? This discussion can not cover every theme; as a result, the author will discuss what he believes to be the most prominent similarities and make comments as progression is made through the body of this discussion.

 

Plato’s Doctrines
    “Passages which bear a striking resemblance to the Christian Scriptures in their picturesque, parabolic, and axiomatic style, and still more in the lofty moral, religious, and almost Christian sentiments which they express, are scattered thickly all through the dialogues, even those that treat of physical, political, and philosophical subjects.”#
Platonic Philosophy is Theistic
    Plato, it seems, makes no apologies for being “theistic.” This is one of the most easily recognizable points of Platonic philosophy as well as the ground upon which certain other dogmas arise#. The Platonic θεός is “the supreme mind or reason, the efficient cause of all things, eternal, unchangeable, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-pervading, and all-controlling, just, holy, wise, and good, the absolutely perfect, the beginning of all truth, the fountain of all law and justice, the source of all order and beauty, and especially the cause of all good.”# The Westminster confession states in Chapter Two, “Of God, and of the Holy Trinity”, these words,
“There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute”

    The usage of the term θεός throughout the New Testament, its relation to the Septuagint, early church beliefs, and the historical development of Christian doctrine are important topics of consideration which are worth far more discussion than can be devoted to at present. According to Plato, “God is reason; but he is also the artificer, the maker, the Father, the supreme ruler, who begets, disposes, and orders all. He is θεός and ό θεός.’’#  It suffices to acknowledge the similarities between Plato’s idea of θεός, and to remember this as one interprets the historical events and mindset of the Hellenistic world in which our New Testament is so rooted.#
Platonic Philosophy is Spiritually Minded
    In Plato’s dogma, the realm of the spirit is emphasized because of its position; that is to say, soul precedes body and exists after the body is past. Resultantly, the body, the natural world, and all that is in the realm of the physical senses are less important, not unimportant, but less important. “Perhaps the most obvious and striking feature of the Platonic philosophy is that it is preeminently spiritual. Hegel speaks of ‘this direction toward the super sensuous world,’ this, ‘elevation of consciousness into the realm of the spirit,’ as ‘the peculiarity of the Platonic philosophy.”#
    “At the heart of Plato’s philosophy is the doctrine of the two worlds, a development of the ideas of Heraclitus# and Parmenides#. Plato shares with the former the view that the world of experience is in constant flux, offering no firm foothold for thought. He shares with the latter the idea that this world is one of appearance. In contrast…there is the world of unchangeable being, the realm of the ideas.”#
Theory of Forms
    Following upon the heels of the last clause in the quote above, namely, that “there is a world of unchangeable being, the realm of ideas” a fuller discussion on Plato’s Theory of Forms can be conducted as it bears resemblance to truth given in the New Testament. A simple concept concerning the theory might look something like, “there are two worlds, the one is the prototype of the other. Man belongs to both worlds, that of ideas and that of sense.”# The realm of ideas is the true realm; in contrast, the realm of sense is the shadow or type of the real form or idea. The striking similarity between this and the Bible is seen in the revelation of the book of Hebrews where it is stated, “Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the actual form of those realities, it can never perfect the worshipers by the same sacrifices they continually offer year after year” (Heb 10:1–2).# Likewise, Paul explains, “Therefore don't let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is the Messiah” (Col 2:16–18). Again, it would seem as though Plato was on to something.
Anthropology
    It is through Plato’s anthropology where the whole Platonic system begins to unravel and come apart, showing itself to be a counterfeit system lacking the essence of  true Christianity. First and foremost, Plato argues that people are preexistent before birth; this teaching is not consistent with orthodoxy. Secondly, his view of mankind’s nature in general is deficient; for instance, “Plato saw no serious impediment to the willing of the good. Once it is truly known, to choose it should present no problem.”# An active evangelism ministry, for instance, proves that not all people “will the good,” who are presented with what is truly good. So what is the issue? Sin. There is none who seeks after God, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Sin leads to the conclusion of this discussion concerning Plato.
The Real Issue
    So, what is the bigger issue? Listen to the words of the Apostle Paul, “Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom,” (1 Cor 1:20–21a). The issue with Platonian thought is not the striking similarities but the deficiencies. How many deficiencies are allowed? If a system of thought is off in even one area, that should be grounds enough to hold the system as untenable. It has already been shown how Plato is off in anthropological understanding.  It is paramount to remember, indeed, to insist that Satan masquerades as an angel of light. Similarities have been shown because there are many people who seek to tie Platonism and Christianity together as if Christianity would not be complete without Platonism. Some even go so far as to say that Plato was a sort of forerunner to the Greeks and gentiles as John the Baptist was to Israel.

    “But a passing glance may be given to the radical defects and imperfections of Plato’s best teachings—his inadequate conception of the nature of sin as voluntary, the result of ignorance, a misfortune, and a disease in the soul, rather than a transgression of the divine law; his consequent erroneous ideas of its cure by successive transmigrations on earth, and protracted pains in purgatory, and by philosophy…his utter inability to conceive of atonement, free forgiveness, regenerating grace, and salvation for the masses, a fortiori for the chief of sinners…and the utter want in his system of the grace, even more than of the truth, that have come by Jesus Christ, for , after, all Platonism is not deficient in the wisdom of God as it is in the power of God unto salvation.”#

There has been evidence in the body of this paper to suggest that there were three primary ways which Plato used to gain the philosophical worldview he had, the worldview which bears such striking resemblance to the worldview of special revelation. The means by which Plato arrived at his deductions were general revelation#, human understanding#, and Jewish monotheism.
To state the issue another way: Is Platonian thought consistent with special revelation? The answer is no. To expound still further, consider the words given by Paul on this vary subject:
    “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved. For it is written: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the understanding of the experts. Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish?  For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached.  For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Brothers, consider your calling: Not many are wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth.  Instead, God has chosen  what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world —what is viewed as nothing—to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one can boast in His presence.  But it is from Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became God-given wisdom for us—our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, in order that, as it is written:  The one who boasts must boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:18–31).

Numerous deductions can be made in relation to the current subject. Significantly, it seems, Paul is combating the numerous and popular worldviews of his day. The more significant of those views all included forms of philosophy, scholarship, debate, and all those seemingly significant aspects of human intellectualism that cast the veneer of the world’s wisdom upon one’s understanding of the ultimate meaning in life. The nexus of Paul’s doctrine found in the above passage is to reveal that neither human intellectualism nor human experience has “what it takes,” but only the foolishness of God given through the avenue of special revelation. Only revelation, namely, special revelation is what distinguishes true Christian doctrine from all the counterfeit systems of human philosophy. It is clearly evident, of all the figures in the history of philosophy, Plato was about as close to so many truths as any one human being in their natural mind could ever come. The saying is true concerning Plato: “after, all Platonism is not deficient in the wisdom of God as it is in the power of God unto salvation.”

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