Lesson 12: Platonism and the Christian Idea of God

 

KEY FIGURES AND TERMS
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES
THE LESSON
LESSON 12 HANDOUT (PDF)

 

KEY FIGURES & TERMS
Epicurus, Lucretius, materialist, hedonist, Stoicism, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, eudaimonia, Socrates, Plato, The Republic

 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Stanford Encyclopedia: Plato

Christianity and Platonism

 

THE LESSON

The Importance of Apologetics

As we can see, the apologists were dealing with a variety of issues ranging from persecution to inter-faith and intra-faith criticism. The old debates were still going on: Jews conversed with Christians over the relevance of Christ and the validity of Gentile Christianity. Persecution was still at the forefront of Christian concern. Even as Christians were being martyred, the apologists were writing philosophical defenses of the religion, hoping that this approach would convince Roman authorities to cease the persecution. But there were also new debates about the origin of the world, the existence of evil, the nature of Christ – deep and looming issues within Christianity. It is these concerns which would lead to the next major controversy in Christianity: the Gnostic Challenge.

Section 2

The Problem of Suffering
Imagine the ancient world in the eyes of ancient Jews and Christians. They believe in one God who helps them, and yet the world is full of evil and suffering. The ancient world is difficult, laborious, painful, and uncertain.
If you are a Christian in this world, life is worse. You worship this God who loves you, but you live under the rule of the Romans – who might come at any moment to torture you or force you to sacrifice to pagan gods. What happens if you refuse? You will be put to death in the most spectacular way possible. The experience of martyrdom is not an experience of a just world. The problem of pain and suffering, the problem of martyrdom, is a theological problem. Why does God let this happen? Why is there suffering? Where is the justice?
The orthodox answer to this question is Original Sin. Adam and Eve sinned and brought sin into the world. Paul responds to Genesis in Romans chapter 5. He writes, “For sin entered into the world through one man, Adam.” He says that Jesus has been sent to suffer to atone for the sins of mankind. “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:15)
The explanation of suffering with the Fall of Man goes directly back to Genesis. Recall the basic story of Genesis: God creates the world, and the world is good. He creates man, and man is good. All that he creates is good. Yet a serpent in the garden leads Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In return, God curses the serpent, Eve, and Adam, leading to the suffering and pain that exist in the world.
Genesis is packed with theology, but it is not a theological tract. Genesis can be understood as an aetiological myth, an explanation for why things are as they are. Genesis answers questions such as: Where do humans come from? Why is there suffering in the world? Was it always this way? Was a Golden Age at some point in this history?
In this way, Genesis explains why humans suffer. God creates the world, the world is good, humans disobey God because of a snake, and humans are cast out of the garden. They are cursed; they have to labor and work, and henceforth there is suffering and pain.
Genesis answers many questions, but it leaves some unanswered. How is Eve tempted? A serpent. Why is there a serpent? Why does the serpent represent, and why is it there in the garden? For that matter, why is there a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden? Why is it there if humans are not meant to eat from it?
These are some of the questions that bothered Christians – but above all, Christians were concerned with the question of suffering. Why does a just God allow suffering? It is a profound and perennial question.
To think about this problem, it is helpful to examine an alternative to the orthodox idea of Original Sin – to look at one of the other ways some early Christians tried to explain the problem of suffering. We need to look at Gnosticism.
Gnosticism
The Gnostics were Christians in the early Christian period who believed that Jesus Christ was their savior. However, they rejected the Genesis mythology and created new ones in its place; they did so in the language of Plato’s philosophy.
Gnostic comes from the Greek word “gnosis,” which means knowledge. Gnosis is not simply knowledge obtained through learning. Gnosis is a deep mystical religious knowledge, a knowledge and understanding of the true, sacred nature of things. Gnostics believed that there was a mystical religious knowledge, and such knowledge led to salvation. Combined with the rejection of Genesis, these beliefs led to the labeling of the movement as heretical.
To some extent, referring to the Gnosticism movement as heretical is a modern creation.
Gnosis was a widely used word in the second century. Orthodox Christians used the word gnosis.
Gnostic Christians did not think of themselves as a broad movement within Christianity. There were groups within Christianity, such as the Valentinians or Carpocratians, that held gnostic beliefs. However, these groups did not necessarily share the same beliefs or recognize similarities in belief between each other. Christian critics of Gnosticism, such as Tertullian and Irenaeus, wrote tracts criticizing certain schools (or sects) of Gnostic Christianity, rather than attacking the movement as a whole.
Gnostics did not think of themselves as heretics. In the second century, the authority on theological matters was unsettled. Therefore, Gnostics had every right to think of themselves as perfectly orthodox.
This last point is crucial. It is through theological controversies that Christian orthodoxy was developed. Gnosticism was the second great controversy in Christianity.

The Influence of Plato
Gnosticism does two things: it rejects the Genesis mythology and creates a new one in the language of Plato. Both orthodox and Gnostic theology is deeply influenced by Plato. Platonism is perhaps the most popular philosophy of the ancient world. It is one of the philosophies that truly obtains popular status; it becomes something like a philosophical religion in the Roman empire.
Plato was a prolific writer. His philosophy can be described as idealism. Plato believed in an ideal world of forms beyond perception which could only be conceived in the mind. Plato doubted the reality sensory experience.
In one of his most famous passages in the Republic, Plato illustrates the problem of sensory experience with the Allegory of the Cave. Existence is like being chained to the bottom of a dark cave. Behind you is a fire. You cannot turn to see the fire; all you can see are the shadows cast by the fire on the wall of the cave. These shadows are merely illusions. But in the cave, they are all you know of reality. The philosopher, with the power of reason, releases himself from the chains of the cave. Only they can escape the cave into the true light of the sun. At first, the natural light burns the eyes, but soon the philosopher recognizes the world outside the cave as the true reality.
Sensual experiences are the shadows: the illusions of a false reality. Plato’s idealism doubts the reality of sensual experiences. It devalues the experience of pleasure. Pleasure pulls the mind down into the body and into the world of falsehood. The material world itself is a world of falsehood. Reason is the only thing capable of understanding the true world of ideas. The body is only capable of sensing the world of falsehood, but the soul, the psyche, is capable of reason.
Plato is familiar with Greek polytheism. Polytheism is not a revealed religion. It is a religion based on mythology and tradition. What are the gods like in Greek mythology? They are like humans. They are anthropomorphic immortal figures. Plato says the stories about these gods are false; the gods are not like that. Indeed, it is probable that his teacher Socrates was put to death for his own strange religious beliefs. Plato’s religious beliefs in his own day are radical. Everyone around him believes in the gods of Greek mythology, but he does not believe in those gods.
To Plato, God is immaterial and eternal. God is transcendent and perfect. He is the grounds of existence. How would Philo of Alexandria say that Plato learned this? Through the teachings of Moses. But Plato believes he learned this through reason alone.
But Plato’s philosophy has a problem. If the soul is the god-like spark of the mind, then what is it doing in a material body? Plato gives answers: he says it is not God’s fault. He thinks about these problems in a famous work called the Timaeus. He says the world was chaos at the beginning. The Greeks believed that there was no beginning of the universe; there was simply the ever-existing universe, but it was a chaotic universe. God did not create matter. God ordered matter as best as was possible. He implants a divine and immaterial soul in the matter of your body. It is the best possible solution to the problem of matter.
The nature of God and the problem of the creation of the earth and the universe will echo throughout the centuries, eventually spreading to the early Christians. The early Christian period is also known as Middle Platonism in philosophical thought. Through the mouth of Philo of Alexandria, Platonism even spread into Judaism. Philo is part of the world of Hellenistic Judaism. What is his theology other than a Platonic form of Judaism?
Platonism entered mainstream Christian theology in the second century. Orthodox Christians developed Christian theology in a way that reconciled Genesis with Paul and Plato. The apologists were vitally important for articulating Christian theology in the second century; they show how the Christians blend Genesis, Paul, and Plato. Justin Martyr says that God is immaterial and perfect. But unlike Plato, Justin writes that God is also the creator of the world. God created a perfect world, but he gave humans free will. Indeed, Justin Martyr is the first person in the history of philosophy to use the phrase “free will.” God gave humans free will, and they freely chose to sin.
Orthodox Christianity, as it develops in the middle of the second century, combined the Genesis story with free will to account for the problem of evil. It combined that answer with Platonism while insisting that God created the world.
In this same period, Gnosticism was a form of Christianity that used Platonism but rejected Genesis mythology to create its own mythologies and account for the problem of evil. Unlike the orthodox account of Genesis, Gnostic mythologies reject God as the creator.

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