Terminology Tuesday: Christian Platonism

Christian Platonism is that complex strand of theology which is influenced by the philosophy of Plato (427–347 BC) and Plato’s successors. Hellenistic influence over later Jewish thought, particularly Philo, ensured that Christianity was directly or indirectly affected by Platonic philosophy from its inception. This clear influence of Plato and Platonism can be traced at least as far back as Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Alongside the Cappadocian Fathers of the East, Augustine of Hippo is often identified as the most prominent Christian Platonist of the patristic period. His popularity amongst both Catholic and Protestant theologians during the Reformation ensured the lasting influence of Platonist thought within Christian theology. Platonism was particularly influential in the work of Christian mystics of the East (Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopogite, John Climacus, c. 570–c. 649) and West (John Scotus Eriugena, Bernard of Clairvaux). Christian theology’s encounter with pagan Neoplatonism, particularly the work of Plotinus (c. 205–270) and Proclus (410/412–85), also ensured that Plato’s influence would remain strong.

Despite the introduction of the works of Aristotle in the twelfth century, the theology of the high Middle Ages is deeply influenced by various forms of Platonism. This can be seen clearly in the work of Thomas Aquinas. Marcilio Ficino (1433–99) did much to transmit Platonic texts and ideas in the Renaissance, while the Cambridge Platonists of the seventeenth century called for a return to what they regarded as the Platonic roots of Christian thought. Today, Christian Platonism remains highly influential, particularly amongst those who espouse an apophatic doctrine of God which resists the influence of nominalism in late medieval and modern philosophy and theology. Of particular note is the theological sensibility known as Radical orthodoxy and the work of more recent Christian mystics such as Simone Weil (1909–43).

Christian Platonism is impossible to characterize in any straightforward fashion. It is often assumed to be dualistic in character, yet this is mistaken. It is precisely in Augustine’s rejection of Manichean dualism and his view that only the good is primordial and real, with evil being the absence or privation of the good, that we see his Platonism most clearly. It is also sometimes thought that Christian Platonism regards material nature as corrupt or corrupting. Once again, this would be too crude a reading of the Platonist tradition. Christian Platonism is perhaps most clearly characterized by the development of Plato’s doctrine of the Forms. Rather than existing in an independent realm in which the visible world participates, in Christian thought the Forms are understood as ideas in the mind of God (see Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a.15). It is by participating in the divine ideas that creatures receive being and intelligibility. The importance of the soul as the hinge between the material and the immaterial, sharing characteristics of both, is also emphasized.

J. Cleary (ed.), Traditions of Platonism: Essays in Honour of John Dillon (Aldershot, 1999); J. Dillon, The Middle Platonists: A Study of Platonism 80 BC to AD 200 (rev. edn, Ithaca, 1996); idem, The Great Tradition: Further Studies in the Development of Platonism and Early Christianity (Aldershot, 1997); E. J. Doering and E. O. Springted (eds.), The Christian Platonism of Simone Weil (Notre Dame, 2004); G. O’Daly, Platonism Pagan and Christian: Studies in Plotinus and Augustine (Aldershot, 2001); J. Rist, Platonism and Its Christian Heritage (London, 1985); A. E. Taylor, Platonism and Its Influence (London, 1925).

Oliver, S. A. (2016). Platonism, Christian. In M. Davie, T. Grass, S. R. Holmes, J. McDowell, & T. A. Noble (Eds.), New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic (Second Edition, pp. 681–682). London; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press; InterVarsity Press.

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