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March 18, 2016


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Brad Jersak

Great thoughts, Dick.

Early church Platonism / Neo-Platonism is very complex because various authors appropriated Platonic thought (of various eras) according to their own interpretations and misinterpretations ... and then integrated them in all manner of ways (helpful and not). I'm thinking here of some of St Augustine's unhelpful neo-platonism blended with leftovers of his previous Manichaeism. Anyway ...

So I begin with Plato himself and those Christian Platonists (past and present) who saw past the essential dualism (universals / particulars) that Plato actually bridged (by mediation / participation), while knowing where to uphold the dualism. For example, there is an essential Creator-created dualism that is nevertheless bridged by the Incarnation and integrated by the Spirit's presence "in all places and in all things" (Orthodox panentheism).

And then there is the body-soul dualism that you are noting. Important! There is a dialectic in the Christian doctrinal development of the soul and the body. So, for example, I think you are right to point to a certain body-soul dualism in Origen derived from Plato that the church came to see as partly right and partly wrong ... and Gregory, the greatest of all Christian Platonists, both clarifies and corrects. In "On the Soul and the Resurrection" and elsewhere, he corrects Origen's idea that we simply return to some original state (whether that was literally bodiless or a pre-fall Adamic innocence) ... Origen or at least Origenism sometimes seems to describe the bodily state itself as a fall and foresees us returning to an earlier state. Maybe he only meant returning to God in the sense of unbroken relationship. But Gregory wants there to be no doubt: union with God is not about 'going back' nor is it about abandoning the body for a bodiless existence (as some parts of Plato might suggest). Rather, union is about moving forward into the telos of a glorified resurrection existence.

And yet ... while he sees the glorification of the body in resurrection as an integrated state, he does not overplay this in the way that some modern supposedly "Hebrew thinking" people do. There is enough of a body-soul dualism in Scripture such that we cannot say the Hebrews believed that the soul does not exist without a body. One that this is not the preferred or complete human experience. Hebrews 12 speaks of the cloud of witnesses and the spirits of righteous men now made perfect worshiping at Mount Zion after death and prior to the general resurrection. (Of course, the author is a blatant Hebrew Platonist after the pattern of Philo). Even in the OT, there are sufficient scriptures on the nature of Sheol that seem to describe a dreary bodiless existence ... some sound like annihilationist texts but others are not.

Today, NT Wright leads the charge to remember (rightly) that a spiritual existence apart from the body in some heavenly realm is not our telos ... resurrection in a renewed world is our hope. But an extreme now arises -- i.e. the current fad that virtually eradicates the NT witness of an intermediate state where "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord" and the "souls of the martyrs under the altar cry 'how long?'" No, a bodiless state is not the end game, but the NT is consistent in identifying a sort of conscious existence with Christ, awaiting resurrection, as on the way there. So yes, according to Christ and the apostles, the souls of our departed loved ones ARE in heaven with the Lord, awaiting the resurrection of the body and the renewal of the cosmos.

But all of this Gregory already made crystal clear ... and the contribution of Plato was necessary to do so. How so?

To conclude, prior to Socrates, the problem (including among the Jews) was how a transcendent God crosses the divide to an obviously broken world. So the dualism problem is a theodicy problem. The whole Greek quest (in art, in geometry, in architecture, in philosophy) was the quest for mediation.

What Socrates brought to the table was mediation through participation, which becomes foundational for Christian theology. And Socrates even imagined the universal good manifesting as a particular righteous man ... and foresaw (in the Republic) that such a man would be crucified. But what Socrates did not foresee was that this manifestation would be an Incarnation, where one man would unite in himself the fully divine and the fully human (unlike the homeric half-human, half-gods). And what he did not anticipate was the resurrection of the crucified one. So Christ fulfills the dimly seen prophecies of both Isaiah and Socrates through the hypostatic union, where heaven and earth become one through the mediation of a God who participates in fallen human nature, not defiled by contact, but rather, healing and restoring all things.

Dick Whittington

Really interesting article Brad 

‘’Quite simply, no good Platonist is a dualist because the forms ALWAYS form and the particulars always participate in the ideas.’’

I’m not disagreeing here – because I have great sympathy with this article. And yes I think this is the correct way to understand Plato (from the little I know). However, I do wonder if the Christian Platonists – certainly the early ones like Origen of Alexandria – understood Platonism in this non-dualistic way (in the terms of the Middle Platonism that they were acquainted with). I’m not knocking Origen because I very much admire him. However, from what I know of Origen – who had a big influence on the ascetic movement in the Greek Church – there is much in his writing to suggest that he was a body/soul dualist to some extent. For example his ascetical writings seem to stress that the Christian needs to completely transcend their body with its passions through discipline and to arrive at a sort of passionless and asexual state that he described as ‘angelic’.

Also, when he writes of resurrection he seems to stress that we will be clothed in a sort of ethereal angelic body. Yes it will be a body (because only God is infinite and incorporeal); but its connection to the body we are in now is tenuous. I think of course this is different from pagan Platonism – which had no concept of resurrection – and different from the Gnostics who focused on and changed/perverted the idea mooted in Plato’s Timaeus about the demiurge creating the world from pre-existing materials. In Plato the demiurge is good but his materials are imperfect, with the Gnostics the demiurge and the materials were seen as evil; sop the Gnostics could only view the body as a prison.

From these tentative points I conclude (if I’m right in my understanding)

That certainly the original idea of Forms as found in the Republic is not dualistic and can be employed in a way that affirms the goodness of material creation (which is how we should employ it if we wish to use it).

I’m not sure that the early Christian Platonist saw things in this way. Middle Platonism seems to have concentrated on more dualistic Platonic dialogues I think – like the Phaedo – for its doctrines).

The early Christian Platonists were at least to smoke extent influenced by a dualistic emphasis in their Platonism; and this suggests that we need to go back to sources and rethink some aspects of Christian Platonism to make it alive today). However, their dualism was not as extreme as the Gnostics and they combated the Gnostics nib a number of ways – but one way was by countering them with a more holistic Middle Platonism

Erik Mast-Foss

This is a great and insightful article, thank you!
I was wondering, are there any other resources you could point me to that discuss the "Christian-platonic synthesis" to quote Hans Boersma.
I feel very drawn to that way of thinking and especially as it is demonstrated in the Greek Fathers, but I haven't found much material specifically defending that synthesis.
I also attend an Anabaptist seminary, where I love the Jesus-centered perspective, but I often encounter a very similar "anti-Greek" bias.

Bev Mitchell

What follows tries to examine the theme of this very helpful post from the perspective of what we know about the living world.

From a biological point of view, there is no problem with relationship which is so strongly supported in the non-dualist Platonic God you illustrate. Biology is all about relationship. But, biology, the study of natural life, is also all about recycling. The limited matter available is necessarily and constantly recycled so that life may be and become (a concept helpfully referenced by Simon Oliver in the video).

With this in mind, I'm set to wondering about the God of unfailing love toward creation, and the bald fact that limited matter resolves to death and new life. Does the non-dualistic, relational God of Plato fit comfortably with our rather extensive knowledge of recycling in nature? I'll take a stab at arguing that there is a fit. With limitation of matter, there is no way to get endless forms without the birth-life-death cycle (not to mention the whole information argument provided by genetics). Does this mean that, through natural processes, we are moving toward forms that are ever closer to ideal? This is not really supportable biologically or by experience. Why then this seemingly endless spinning, this endless recycling?

If the non-dualistic Platonic God is in any way reflective of the Christian God fully revealed in Jesus Christ, perhaps this God-supported being and becoming, this whole wonderful outpouring of life made possible and sustained by a loving God, exists so that we humans have opportunity piled upon opportunity to move closer to relationships with God and each other that can become closer in form to the kinds of relationships this always perfectly loving God has in mind. By supporting all of life for billions of years, this God is supporting a reality in which our spiritual development (toward Christ) is possible.

Like the history of biological life, the history of human beings in this journey of loving relationships does not play out in a straight line. But, with the sustaining love of a relational God, we are given a luxurious amount of time to work on it.

eric h janzen

Scripture tells us that Jesus came in the fullness of time. Father sent his Son when the time was just right for his redemptive mission. This is what came to my mind as I read your article. Perhaps all the 'thinking' work the Greeks had done provided the right language and nest of understanding for Jesus' message and revelation to be understood and contemplated. God looked at the intellectual climate, so to speak, and knew that it was the right time for the Son to go because the message and the revelation would have the right spiritual soil to grow in and continue to grow...indeed right up until this very day. Thank God for people who have the time to think. We owe them a lot.

eric h janzen

tim ellison

mmm. yes, and the Hellenism thesis has been debunked by many. Perhaps however, we are free to employ the thought forms of the day but we need to differentiate between those that are helpful and those that are not. Someone said that the Jews were interested in who God is and Greek fathers obsessed with what God is. To me, who God is trumps what. (oh yeah, deeds trump creeds)
just saying.

Florian Berndt

This was a great help, as I have been pondering some of thes ideas myself and discovered that some ideas proposed these days are sometimes overly simplistic. I am also wondering if some of Augustine's dualist ideas, which influenced so much of Western thought, was rather rooted in his former Manichäism rather than in platonic ideas - even though he seems to have incorperated more of the ideas of Plotinus, rather than Plato. And here as well, in some places Augustine doesn't sound dualistic at all, even though rhat's rare. Again, I think this article brings some needed balance to an area of oversimplification and extremes on borh sides of the spectrum - some of which I have been guilty of myself. Will look deeper into this...

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