Plato’s Place in Christian Theology

I’ve said many times that a lot of Christianity has as much if not more to do with Plato and other Greek philosophy than it does to do with the Bible and Jewish thought. In Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Diarmaid MacCulloch summarizes the impact in two dimensions.

First, he uses Plato’s analogy of the cave in The Republic to explain the Platonic idea that all we experience “in this life are shadows of the ideal ‘Forms’, truer and higher versions of reality.” We shouldn’t settle for what we can see and hear, therefore, and our path to the higher reality is through our intellect. It should be easy to see how this influenced a lot of Christianity’s emphasis on getting your ideas correct about God and in many cases ignoring this world, even though Hebrew/Scriptural thought says the opposite and the Gnostics were condemned as heretics for essentially this idea.

The second major area of contribution from Plato came with the idea of God, particularly radical in contrast to the terribly flawed Greek pantheon. MacCulloch says this about Plato’s reaction:

Although Plato’s supreme God is unlike the fickle, jealous, quarrelsom gods of the Greek pantheon, his God is distanced from compassion for human tragedy, because compassion is a passion or emotion. For Plato, the character of true deity is not merely goodness, but also oneness. Although Plato nowhere explicitly draws the conclusion from that oneness, it points to the proposition that God also represents perfection. Being perfect, the supreme God is also without passions, since passions involve change from one mood to another, and it is in the nature of perfection that it cannot change. This passionless perfection contrasts with the passion, compassion and constant intervention of Israel’s God, despite the fact that both the Platonic and the Hebrew views of God stress transcendence.

We still hear arguments like Plato’s occasionally, with Open Theism for example. I’ve had people tell me that God cannot change his mind because that would make God less than perfect. They simply assume this to be true. But I want to ask why this is assumed. It isn’t assumed in Scripture or elsewhere in Jewish thought; we got it from the Greeks.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.