The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Christian Platonism and the Church Fathers

I don’t post here often these days. But I’ve noted from a peep at a thread here that Christian Platonism has been under discussion in a certain sense. I also note that in her most recent video interview with Peter Hiett, Professor Illaria Ramelli stresses the continuities between the Church Fathers who taught the doctrine of Apocatastasis with the tradition of Hellenistic philosophy (as well as looking at some of the discontinuities). And I started asking myself exactly what these continuities and discontinuities are? And what is a ‘Christian Platonist’? I’m no great expert in anything – and I’m certainly not a Classics scholar or a Biblical scholar. However, I’ve some idea of the territory here, but I feel the need to clarify this and make some connections that I’m a bit ‘iffy’ about so that I can properly follow Dr Ramelli’s train of thinking.

I thought the process of me trying to do this might be of interest to come here. I’m not seeking to make points in a theological argument one way or the other. I’m simply trying to think about what the basis of early Christian philosophy with its Platonist elements is all about – in a non specialist way - and to describe.

Please do comment if you know of any historical details that might be interesting.

My first post is about how the Christian philosophers justified drawing on classical philosophy in their theological reflections (rather than what specific ideas they found useful and drew upon). There are a couple of pages from a book by an American scholar Leo D. Lefebure that I’ve found useful in their clarity. So rather than reinventing the wheel I’ve used these but added a number of my own thoughts and bits and bobs that I’ve squirreled from reading the Christian Classics scholar Rev. M.A. Screech.

Here, we go 

‘’Justin Martyr (c.100 – c.165 AD) was the first Christian philosopher whose writings are extant. He taught in Rome and was finally martyred there with some of his students in 165 AD.In relating to Hellenistic society, Justin Martyr proposed Christian revelation as the true philosophy, the answer to the search of the ancient philosophers. He hailed Socrates as a model and stressed that Christians are like Platonists. Everything about Hellenistic culture was affirmed and accepted and related to the Logos. Justin and other apologists stressed the possibilities of integrating Christian revelation into Hellenistic thought and culture.

Justin wrote that -

‘’But lest some should, without reason, and for the perversion of what we teach, maintain that we say that Christ was born one hundred and fifty years ago under Cyrenius, and subsequently, in the time of Pontius Pilate, taught what we say He taught; and should cry out against us as though all men who were born before Him were irresponsible — let us anticipate and solve the difficulty. We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious.” (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 46).

“Our doctrines, then, appear to be greater than all human teaching; because Christ, who appeared for our sakes, became the whole rational being, both body, and reason, and soul. For whatever either lawgivers or philosophers uttered well, they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Word. But since they did not know the whole of the Word, which is Christ, they often contradicted themselves. (Justin Martyr, Second Apology, 10).

Note from the latter quotation that Justin, the forerunner of Patristic philosophy, was inclusivist in his understanding of the Logos. However, he was not suggesting a syncretism between Christianity and ancient philosophy. He acknowledged that the philosophers ‘did not know the whole Word’ and therefore could and did err in many ways. However, he affirmed that the ideas of the philosophers that accorded with the full revelation of the Logos in Christ Incarnate were actually inspired by the Eternal Christ/Logos.

Clement of Alexandria who taught at the Cathecetical School Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 AD - ) also argued that the Logos enlightens all people: ''No one is a Cimmerian (in Greek mythology this people lived far in the north where it was always dark) in respect of the Word’’ (Exhortations to the Greeks 9.72). Clement exhorted the Greeks: ‘’ But there was of old implanted in man a certain fellowship with heaven, which thought darkened through ignorance, yet at times leaps suddenly out the darkness and shines forth,’’ and he proceeded to quote verses out of the Greek tragedian Euripides as examples (Exhortation 2.21). Thus all people know something of God, and pagan philosophy can be instructive. Philosophy was give by the Greeks as a preparation for the gospel. Human reason is itself a gift from God and can know something of God from reflecting on the universe itself. Moreover, the Logos has inspired some Greeks to speak in a manner analogous to the Hebrew prophets: ‘’The Greeks spoke as they were moved’’ (Miscellanies God guides some leaders from other nations with a special inspiration so that they can help the multitudes.

Clement, clearly echoing Paul in Galatians 3:24 (the laws of Moses was ‘ our pedagogue to bring us to Christ’) actually wrote in several places of his belief that the best of Greek philosophy had been inspired in terms of it being a ‘‘pedagogue to bring the Greek mind to Christ, just as the Law had brought the Jews’’. The term ‘pedagogue’, which the Authorised Version translates as meaning ‘school master’, does not actually refer to a teacher. In the classical world the pedagogue was often a slave and his work was to guide and protect a boy on the journey to and from school holding the lamp in the dark early mornings, walking in front of the boy to prevent any attackers; and to sit behind the boy with a long stick during lessons and administer a sharp thwack if the boy slacked or misbehaved. In this vein, the Church historian Eusebius Pamphilus( c.265 – c. 340 AD) wrote of Plato in his ‘On the Preparation for the Gospel’ as being the ‘The Attic Moses’.

However, the inclusiveness of Clement is balanced by a sharp critical judgement. Clement is fierce in his polemics against the licentiousness and the violence of the Greek gods and goddesses: ‘’Your gods are inhuman and man hating demons, who not only exult over the insanity of men but go so far as to enjoy human slaughter’’ (Exhortation to the Greeks 3.36). Clement warns against the immoral example of the Greek deities: ‘’Cease the song Homer. There is no beauty in that; it teaches adultery’’ (Exhortation 4,52) [Here Clement is alluding to the central story of Homer’s Illiad – the abduction of Helen the Queen of the Greek King Menelaus by the Trojan Prince Paris. This is the occasion for the terrible ten year war between the Greek confederation and the City of Troy in modern Turkey – which Homer celebrates as glorious and spurred on by rival elements in the High Council of gods, but which Clement viewed as an enormity]. Clement understands the Psalmist to be condemning the Greco-Roman gods: ‘’With the utmost plainness and brevity the prophetic word refutes the custom of idolatry when it says, ‘All the gods of nations are images of daemons’’ (Exhortation. 4.54).

Like Clement, Origen (184/185 – 253/254 AD), who was Clements’s successor at the Catechetical School of Alexandria but who was probably never Clements’s pupil, combined trust in the universal working of the Logos with a polemic against the violence and idolatry of other religions. Responding to the pagan polemicists Celsus, who argues that each nation should follow its own customs of worship, Origen drew out the consequences of accepting all traditional l religions because they are old and established: ‘’It follows from his view that the Scythians do no wrong because they indulge in cannibalism according to natural customs’’ (Against Celsus 5.36). In contrast to … Celsus, Origen stresses that it is precisely the violence of concrete religion that forbids acceptance of all religious customs. If custom is king, as Celsus urges, then there is no basis for rejecting the practice of child sacrifice.

When Celsus mocks the claim of the Jews to be chosen by God, Origen defends the claim by pointing to their manner of life. Their rejection of idols and the ethical ideals that they proclaimed and lived distinguished them from other nations (Against Celsus 5. 42043). Origen also proposed a critical appropriation of elements of other religions and cultures based on their coherence with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He praised Plato and used Platonic though extensively in the constructing his own system of theology.

Of course the tradition of Christian Philosophy was not loved by all early Christians. It had a notable detractor in Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240 AD - the Christian leader from the provinces in North Africa. Thus Tertullian wrote -

“Writing to the Colossians, he [Paul] says, “See that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the Holy Ghost.” He had been at Athens, and had in his interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects. What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.” Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!” (Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, 7)

I can think of how the Christian philosophers would have answered his accusation – but will save this for another post. Obviously Tertullian is the bad boy for Universalists; an unmerciful Father, the originator the abominable fancy – that the elect will look down and relish the torments of the damned. However for the moment I simply observe that Tertullian’s tirade contains a pretty paradox – in no way did he transcend classical culture. He was trained as a Roman lawyer – and he learnt his ideas of church discipline from Roman law, as he learnt his skills of sarcasm, his invective and his need to annihilate any opposition with his words. He never appears to have reflected on this. Roman law was at this time extremely adversarial .Not long before Tertullian’s time, in a way that still influenced the forms of legal proceedings, the prosecuting council that lost the case was in danger of having a large ‘K’ for ‘Kalumniator’ (‘slanderer’) branded on his forehead. So the stakes were high and the need to annihilate opposition had a sharp and painful focus. Tertullian, at first the defender of orthodoxy in violent polemic, in the end joined the heretical Montanist group and then proceeded to turn his invective against the Orthodox Church as ‘nothing but a club run by a bunch of Bishops’.

1 Like

Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC) was the founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution for Higher Education in the Western World, and is considered the big figure in Western philosophy whom philosophers to this day return to. For the next post – when I’ve written it (and this time it will be all my own work) I’m going to consider why Platonism appealed to many of the early Christians intellectuals. The Christians selected various ideas from the whole body of Plato’s writings and often modified these; at the same time they discarded other ideas.

However, I think that before looking at the ideas of Platonism that chimed with the Fathers the first thing I need to do is look at those aspects of the figure Socrates that they were drawn to. Socrates was Plato’s teacher and Plato employs Socrates as the teacher of wisdom in his early writings as the purveyor of a sort of wisdom that is not of this world – a wisdom that confounded the ‘wisdom of the wise’ - and as a sort of very shadowy prefiguration of Christ as the suffering servant. :slight_smile:

In his dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, Justin describes how, as a disciple of Plato, when he was trying to “see God with the eyes of his soul” as Plato taught, he met an old Christian who showed him that Plato was wrong, and who led him to becoming a Christian. After becoming a disciple of Christ, Justin no longer looked to Plato for instruction, but retained his philosopher’s garb because he now considered himself to be a Christian philosopher:

I am only trying to understand what Dr Ramelli means by placing the Fathers in the context of the wider tradition of Greek philosophy :slight_smile:

Some notes and quotations from Justin to clarify his complex position regarding pagan philosophy after reflecting on Paidion’s post (given the different bits of evidence)

I note from Paidion’s post that Justin’s conversation with the Old Christian man leads him to realise that

''Christianity was the only true and worthwhile philosophy.”

So Justin the philosopher in his dialogue with the Old Man is converted and realises the emptiness of human philosophy to which he had been dedicated. This is plain – and I read last night that pagan philosophers also used the word meatanoia/conversion in the sense of coming to one’s right mind through the practice of their various speculations and ethical teachings. But here Justin finds the only true metanoia when he comes to know Christ

Then he becomes a Christian philosopher, which means he engages in dialogue with people who are not Christians and questions their assumptions to provide the best answer to the inconsistencies in their beliefs and practices which is Christ. He does this using the skills of classical rhetoric and debate as a way if demonstrating the Truth. For Justin God is the source of all reason and all knowledge and therefore he believed that any reasonable person would want to serve the Reason (Logos) of God.

In doing so he is strongly critical of the pagan philosophy that he has come to reject…

As well as the conversion testimony in which he rejects the Platonic notion of transmigration of souls as false and unreasonable, I also note the following from the Second Apology –

‘‘It is impossible for a Cynic, who makes indifference his end, to know any good but indifference’’. (Chapter 3)

‘‘For I myself, too, when I was delighting in the doctrines of Plato, and heard the Christians slandered, and saw them fearless of death, and of all other-things which are counted fearful, perceived that it was impossible that they could be living in wickedness and pleasure. For what sensual or intemperate man, or who that counts it good to feast on human flesh, could welcome death that he might be deprived of his enjoyments, and would not rather continue always the present life’’. (Chapter 12) (People in the first and second centuries thought Christians ate human flesh because of communion)

Here the pagan Platonist in Rome who he once knew have slandered the Christians as being unspiritual and carnal in their ‘cannbalistic rites’ (nothing but a slander)

However, he also acknowledges the good in some pagan philosophers inasmuch as they accord with the Logos –

‘‘And those of the Stoic school—since, so far as their moral teaching went, they were admirable, as were also the poets in some particulars, on account of the seed of reason [the Logos] implanted in every race of men—were, we know, hated and put to death,—Heraclitus for instance, and, among those of our own time, Musonius and others. For, as we intimated, the devils have always effected, that all those who anyhow live a reasonable and earnest life, and shun vice, be hated. And it is nothing wonderful; if the devils are proved to cause those to be much worse hated who live not according to a part only of the word diffused [among men] but by the knowledge and contemplation of the whole Word, which is Christ’’. (Chapter 8)

He also speaks of those so called philosophers who say that the Christians are atheists and impious, and do so (I note that Justin’s martyrdom was the result of pagan philosophers handing him to the authorities):

‘’to win favour with the deluded mob, and to please them’’. For if he assails us without having read the teachings of Christ, he is thoroughly depraved, and far worse than the illiterate, who often refrain from discussing or bearing false witness about matters they do not understand. Or, if he has read them and does not understand the majesty that is in them, or, understanding it, acts thus that he may not be suspected of being such [a Christian], he is far more base and thoroughly depraved, being conquered by illiberal and unreasonable opinion and fear. or, if he is acquainted with them, but, through fear of those who might hear him, does not dare to speak out, like Socrates, he proves himself, as I said before, no philosopher, but an opinionative man; at least he does not regard that Socratic and most admirable saying: “But a man must in no wise be honoured before the truth.” (Chapter 3)

Here Socrates is seen as admirable in his own way as begin brave to speak up against unreasonable opinions in his own times and for a most admirable saying that puts the service of truth before any other good – like the need to be honoured by men.

And (already quoted above - but reflected on more now) Justin also says of Socrates:

‘’And Socrates, who was more zealous in this direction than all of them, was accused of the very same crimes as ourselves. For they said that he was introducing new divinities, and did not consider those to be gods whom the state recognised. But he cast out from the state both Homer and the rest of the poets, and taught men to reject the wicked demons and those who did the things which the poets related; and he exhorted them to become acquainted with the God who was to them unknown, by means of the investigation of reason, saying, “That it is neither easy to find the Father and Maker of all, nor, having found Him, is it safe to declare Him to all.” But these things our Christ did through His own power. For no one trusted in Socrates so as to die for this doctrine, but in Christ, who was partially known even by Socrates (for He was and is the Word who is in every man, and who foretold the things that were to come to pass both through the prophets and in His own person when He was made of like passions, and taught these things: John 1:9), not only philosophers and scholars believed, but also artisans and people entirely uneducated, despising both glory, and fear, and death; since He is a power of the ineffable Father, not the mere instrument of human reason. (Chapter 10)

Plato – through the mouth of Socrates – in the ‘Republic’ suggest that poets should banished from the state, and Socrates elsewhere in the Platonic dialogues points out the evil committed by the Greek gods is an absurd fable because God is Goodness itself and cannot do evil. Justin seems to think that Socrates was also groping in the dark towards a belief in the one God (the evidence is mixed, but a good case can be made for this) So he argues Christ was know partially to Socrates – although in the Incarnation Christ makes himself know not only to philosophers but to everyone as the power of God. And he observes that although Socrates died for his beliefs, no one else was inspired by him to do the same – in contrast to Jesus. And he does this in order to persuade his Roman hearers to become Christians

In summary Justin –

Rejects the pagan schools of philosophy for Christ after having studied in the pagan schools

However, as a Christian philosopher he seeks to persuade as a philosopher through an examination of assumptions, sifting the false from the true – because he sees the Christina faith as reasonable and commends it to others as the only Reasonable way.

He is outright in his condemnation of some schools of pagan philosophy

However, he is still prepared to think those things that are good and true in pagan philosophy are of Christ – even if the witness is partial and cloudy. He sifts the good from the bad here – especially in decrying some teachings of Plato while applauding some of the teaching and example of Socrates (who we know about through Plato). He does this to persuade people to become Christians.