Along with a growing number of my fellow evangelicals, I have learned to qualify the Reformation cry of sola scriptura by asserting the foundational authority of the ecumenical councils that formed the creeds. I have learned too to drink deeply at the patristic well: not raising Sacred Tradition to the same level as the Bible but according a greater weight of authority to the sermons and treatises of Church Fathers from Irenaeus to Athanasius to Chrysostom to Augustine. Though it is probably too early to speak of an official Protestant Resourcement, I have been cheered by the enthusiasm with which evangelical colleges, presses, and scholars have reconnected with our ancient Christian heritage. And that reconnection has been taking place as well in the more theologically orthodox sectors of the mainline.
This Protestant rehabilitation of the Fathers of the Church is, I believe, a good and healthy thing that promises to strengthen the Body of Christ and to build a much-needed bulwark around the central doctrines of the faith. Nevertheless, despite these promising signs, I sense a subtle but pervasive danger in this movement that could compromise and even pervert the very good it hopes to accomplish. For the last two centuries, theological liberals have made an art of blaming St. Paul for all those aspects of Christianity that they find distasteful or anti-modern. In parallel fashion, many neo-orthodox Protestants have been far too eager to blame Plato for what they don’t like in the Early Church.
Now it must be admitted at the outset that any Christian, ancient or modern, who would learn from Plato must do so with caution and discernment. The gnostic Neo-Platonists harbored a low view of the body and of the physical world in general that is incompatible not only with the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ but with our own status as enfleshed souls. Plato was too quick to view human beings as souls trapped inside of bodies, and the Gnostics who followed him were unwilling to accept that the Word truly and fully became flesh. Christ, they believed, only appeared to be a man; he merely wore the flesh as a man might wear a shirt that he later discards. Our imperfect physical world of becoming, Plato taught, is but a shadow or imitation of the perfect spiritual world of the Forms. For the Greek Plato the notion that a perfect God would take on flesh and become a man was the height of foolishness.
In sum, Platonic philosophy in its purest form renders not only the Incarnation of Christ but the incarnational nature of man an absurdity. But then no orthodox Christian apologist for Plato would advocate a simple acceptance of Platonism. The point at issue is not whether Plato was a Christian (of course he wasn’t), but whether or not he was a pre-Christian (who got many things partially right that would later be revealed in their fullness in Christ) and a proto-Christian (one whom God used to prepare the pagan world for the coming of Christ). Though only the Gospel of John could teach pre-conversion Augustine that the Word (Logos) was made flesh, he did learn from such Neo-Platonists as Plotinus—so he tells us in his Confessions—that the Word was with God and was God. God, that is to say, prepared Augustine’s heart for the truth of the Incarnation (Word made Flesh) by first opening his mind, via the Neo-Platonists, to the possibility that the Word existed and was with God. Augustine the convert surely remembered the vital role that Plato’s teachings played in his spiritual journey, for when he matured into Augustine the philosopher and theologian, he did not dismiss Plato’s theory of the Forms as a satanic deception, but placed those Forms (correctly, I believe) in the Mind of God.
Augustine consciously reworks Plato in his writings. The Platonic vision that appears in Hebrews, in contrast, seems to be totally unconscious. The author of Hebrews writes and argues within a Hebraic, rather than Hellenic, context; yet, Chapter 9 works out a distinction between the heavenly and earthly Temple that reads like a passage out of Plato. According to verses 23 and 24, the Most Holy Place, where dwelt the Ark of the Covenant, is but a copy or imitation of the eternal Temple which is in heaven. The temporal, imperfect blood sacrifices of the Old Testament were performed to cleanse the copies, but only the eternal, perfect sacrifice of Christ could sanctify the original sanctuary which is the Throne Room of God. The author of Hebrews is not reworking Plato’s Theory of the Forms (as Augustine is), but revealing a great truth that Plato the pre-Christian somehow managed to catch sight of. Though Plato most likely did not glimpse the Throne Room directly (as the prophets do in Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1, and Revelation 4), he did glimpse the truth behind it—that the things of our world are, in comparison to heaven, mere phantoms and shadows.
And it is with that assertion of the relative insubstantiality of our world that I shall begin my list of four reasons why Protestant, and to a lesser extent Catholic and Orthodox, Christians still need Plato today.
1. Yes, and twice and thrice yes, our world is real and substantial. It was made good by God the Creator—not poorly and by a lesser God as the Gnostics and Neo-Platonists believed—and it will be redeemed when Christ returns. Still, in comparison to the Absolute Reality of heaven, our world is a rather thin and murky affair. That is why at the end of The Last Battle (the final novel of the Chronicles of Narnia) the highly orthodox and highly Platonic C. S. Lewis refers to our present world as the “Shadow-lands.” When Jesus tells his would-be followers that they must hate their fathers and mothers (Luke 14:26), he does not mean us literally to hate them; rather, in comparison to our absolute love for and allegiance to God, our feelings to our parents will seem almost to be hatred (see Matthew 10:37, where the intent of Jesus’ hyperbolic language is made clear).
Lewis complains in Miracles that our modern world is given to speaking of God and heaven in negative terms. We are corporeal, bodily; God is non-corporeal and non-bodily. Earth is substantial and physical; heaven is insubstantial and non-physical. If anything, Lewis argues, God and heaven are trans-corporeal and trans-physical. God is not less than man, but more. Heaven is not earth with all the “stuff” taken out, but a reality that transcends and surpasses our own as the original transcends the copy or the substance surpasses the shadow. Despite the influence of The Da Vinci Code and the Gnostic Gospels, the characteristic sin of our modern age is not to make the earth nothing, but to make it everything. We need Plato to help us put things back into their proper perspective.
2. Like those guilty of avarice in Dante’s Purgatorio, we moderns are inveterate earth-gazers, forever looking down when we should be looking up. This downward orientation is in great part responsible for perpetuating the heaven-is-insubstantial myth described above; but it has also led to the insubstantialization of such key Platonic (and Christian) concepts as the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. One of the most deceptive and dangerous heresies of the Middle Ages was known as nominalism. Its followers claimed that absolutes like Goodness, Truth, and Beauty had no real existence or substance but were merely names. The nominalists saw themselves as living in a world of particulars divorced from universals, of temporal, changing concepts that neither proceeded out of nor were anchored by eternal, unchanging truths. The postmodern nominalists of today would say that we live in a world of signifiers cut off from any fixed or final signifieds; or, more simply, they would repeat the mantra of the last three generations of academics and teenagers: everything is relative.
I think it significant and revealing that the more orthodox, Plato-inspired Medievals who resisted nominalism called themselves “realists.” How strange it sounds to the modern ear, whether that ear belong to a secular humanist or an evangelical Protestant, to refer to someone as a realist because he believes that the heavenly (invisible) Idea/Form of Beauty or Truth is not only more universal but more substantial than an earthly (visible) manifestation of beauty or truth. But we would do well to struggle with that strangeness. A nascent but growing discomfort with doctrine has been slowly spreading within the evangelical world, particularly in the “emergent” church, that threatens to revive nominalism. Though the historical truth of the Incarnation and Resurrection is affirmed, adherence to such central doctrines as the Trinity and the Atonement has gotten slightly more hazy. Perhaps, thinks the Christian mind that has lost its moorings in the pre/proto-Christian truths of Plato, the Trinity is a theological concept (or name) that has come to be believed in as a reality. In fact, according to orthodox Christian belief, which, in this area, is consonant with the worldview of Plato, the Trinity is a universal, eternal Reality that has always existed and that contains its essence in its existence—the theological word “Trinity” is a name we use to express that Reality in human language. The same holds for the Atonement, though in a slightly different way. The Atonement can, and has been, defined in a variety of ways, but our definitions are not the origin of the Reality. The Atonement exists apart from our language about it, not just as a historic/cosmic event in the salvation narrative but as an essential part of the eternal relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
A healthy, corrective dose of Plato can help us not only to preserve the purity of Christian doctrine but to think properly about that doctrine. And it can help us as well in two areas in which Protestantism in particular—at first, only within the mainline, but increasingly today in scattered pockets of evangelicalism—has become unglued from the Good, True, and Beautiful: morality and gender. The growing acceptance, and even normalizing, of sexual immorality within the church is not only a result of the sexual revolution. Once words like morality, family, and sexuality become untethered from Absolute Standards (become merely names), individual Christians become free to define them as they see fit—and then to demand that the churches and denominations they attend accept their personal definitions. This redefining has been pursued most aggressively in the area of gender. Genesis clearly teaches that God created us male and female. Until quite recently, it was universally understood within the Church—if not, indeed, within the world—that men and woman do not merely possess male and female genitalia, but that they are male and female. Feminists, whether they be secular or Christian, who claim that masculinity and femininity do not define real, essential differences but are simply social constructs are, at heart, nominalists. And, as nominalists, they must reject any Platonic notion that our essence as Masculine and Feminine precedes our physical existence as men and women.
3. I do not Mean to imply that Plato possessed a full Christian understanding of the essential complementarity of the sexes, but his theory of the Forms and his essentialist-realist worldview do provide a powerful bulwark against any type of radical egalitarianism that would break down all distinctions between the sexes in particular and people in general. Among the greatest dangers facing the Western church today (again, I speak with specific reference to Protestantism though the danger is there as well in Catholicism) is the notion that all of Jesus’ teachings and actions can be summed up in a single word: inclusivism.
Though it is quite true that Christ broke down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, and that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male no female (Galatians 3:28), that does not mean that Christ has abolished all distinctions. The Bible refers to a married couple as one flesh, but that does not mean that husband and wife lose their distinctiveness. A time will come when Christ and his Bride (the Church, or Body of Christ) will be joined in marriage, but that does not mean that our personalities will be emptied into an amorphous One Soul: in heaven we will continue to exist as separate, distinct beings clothed in Resurrection Bodies. The oneness that Paul celebrates in Galatians is a oneness of dignity, for in Christ, we all gain our full intrinsic value and worth. But equal dignity does not mean sameness, nor does equal value and worth imply the breaking down of all difference and distinction..
Plato did not create the Christian understanding of unity within diversity, of servanthood within hierarchy, or of humility within giftedness, but his teachings help to elucidate these vital truths that modern egalitarianism threatens to pervert or abolish. Our roles within the family, the state, and the church are not merely social constructs but rise up from our essential natures and giftedness. Justice in Plato’s Republic ultimately means each person fulfilling his proper role, just as true harmony within the church is found when each member of the Body of Christ serves—and is affirmed and celebrated for serving—its proper function. In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the philosopher who escapes from the Cave and gazes upon the truth, upon the Good, the True, and the Beautiful that lies outside, is duty bound to return to the Cave and teach others what he has seen. He does not return to the Cave so he can be taught that he is just the same as everyone else, but so that he can teach the Truth to others who have not yet perceived it. He will not hide the Truth he has seen for fear that he may harm the self-esteem of the lazy and the foolish or give offense to the more sensitive inhabitants of the Cave, but will proclaim boldly the Truth—and with that Truth, the Goodness and the Beauty that are inseparable from it.
In the final chapter of Mere Christianity, Lewis reminds us that salt and light are things that reveal, rather than conceal, the distinctions between things and people. The role of salt (as a flavoring, not as a preservative) is to bring out and enhance the natural flavor of a given food. But that analogy is not perfect, admits Lewis, since if too much salt is added to the food, it will obliterate its distinctive taste. That’s why Lewis, like the Bible and Plato before him, prefers the analogy of light. If a hundred people are huddled together in a pitch black room, and then a bright light is turned on in the room, the light will reveal that they are not all the same, as they appeared to be in the dark, but are each individually distinct. Dante’s Divine Comedy is essentially a journey into light, and as the light increases, Dante understands more and more clearly how each of us inhabits a unique position within the sublimely complex hierarchy of God’s universe. Our modern world, in its mania to deconstruct all clerical, political, and intellectual hierarchies and to level all distinctions of essence or merit has tried to eliminate these twin truths from Christianity and the Church. It has been most effective in eliminating the first by blaming it on Constantine’s decision to make Christianity the official religion of the Empire; it has done the same for the second by blaming it on Plato.
4. But what if Plato was right, or, to be more precise, what if the most central and most orthodox of the early and medieval Church Fathers were right in considering Plato to be right? If they were right, then all Christians are called, as the Platonic philosopher is called, to journey into the light. Yes, we are saved by the grace of Christ and not by our own merit, but the central doctrine of salvation by grace through faith must not be used as a cover to stifle the spiritual importance (though not the salvific necessity) of at least beginning that journey. The Platonic philosopher who knew only in part—who saw very dimly in a dirty mirror—strove to gain sight of eternal, but impersonal Forms; the Christian who knows considerably more because so much more has been revealed to him, seeks to commune with the Triune God—but both heed the call to seek after the Beatific (or blessed) Vision.
Our modern fixation on earthly things, our postmodern denial of absolute essences, and our “democratic” championing of egalitarianism as an absolute good has dissuaded generations of believers from even desiring to pursue the Beatific Vision. It has also deluded us into believing that no one is closer than we are to that Vision, and taught us to become irate, if not downright ugly, when such a suggestion is made.
As an Evangelical, I do not offer prayers to the saints; I have, however, been able (with a little help from Plato) to get myself past the inbred Protestant resistance to a belief that was held strongly by most of the early and medieval Church Fathers: namely, that some Christians, through grace as well as merit, draw closer to God and, by so doing, gain a deeper understanding of the Good, the True, and/or the Beautiful. Granted, the New Testament calls all believers saints, but that does not mean that all Christians stand at the same distance from Christ or that a hierarchy of holiness is ruled out by the Atonement. The fact that a large percentage of devout Evangelicals, myself included, look upon missionaries with a reverence similar to that accorded to the saints by devout Catholics offers powerful evidence that we as a species have been hardwired by our Creator with a natural, as opposed to sociological, regard for hierarchy.
According to Statius, a pagan poet converted to Christ whom Dante meets in purgatory, it was the pre/proto-Christian Virgil who, without knowing it, pointed him to the True Messiah. For a neo-pagan age that has lost its moorings in the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, Plato may just be the guide we need to revive in us a desire for the Beatific Vision.
This essay was originally published with the same title in the Spring 2010 issue of The City.