Plato's Forms or Christian Eschatology?

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RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
What does a Christian make of Plato's forms (or the Platonic tradition in general)? To some degree, it must be admitted that the the early Christians adopted Platonic language. No doubt they had little choice. And when one gets past the stereotypes, the Platonic tradition is very beautiful and explains a lot. Yet...Michael Horton has made a strong case that instead of Plato's two worlds, Paul posits the "two ages." I suppose we all have our different "challenges;" this is mine. I really appreciate the beauty and power of the Platonic tradition in the best sense of the term (as much as Origen is heretical on a few key points, I am simply in awe of his project in the face of Neo Platonism), yet Horton has apparently made an indisputable case to the contrary.
 

CharlieJ

Puritan Board Junior
Are they necessarily contradictory? Certainly they did not appear so to the church fathers or the medieval scholastics. St. Augustine would be one person who combined a roughly neoplatonic metaphysic with a considerable interest in God's actions through history. Today, would not David Bentley Hart and those associated with Radical Orthodoxy be up to something of this sort?
 

TylerRay

Puritan Board Graduate
What does a Christian make of Plato's forms (or the Platonic tradition in general)?

Though I only have a rudimentary knowledge of Platonic philosophy and the history of its use in the church, I will venture a partial answer.

When using any philosophy (particularly one not rooted in Scripture, but in natural revelation interpreted apart from the Scriptures), we have to be cautious. Natural revelation is revelation indeed, and it is understood rightly (or mixedly) at times by unbelievers (see Rom. 1). Use with caution, and test it by scripture, is my advice with such things.

Sometimes Dutch-type Reformed theologians seem to lean on Platonic formulations when explaining prophesy; at least that was the impression I got from The Eschatology of the Old Testament by Vos, in which he states that prophesy, in the course of the history of revelation, describes events in the material world less and less, and spiritual realities (of which the material events were types) more and more. Though this need not imply a Platonic metaphysic, it does seem to be formulated in terms of Platonic thought.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
Are they necessarily contradictory? Certainly they did not appear so to the church fathers or the medieval scholastics. St. Augustine would be one person who combined a roughly neoplatonic metaphysic with a considerable interest in God's actions through history. Today, would not David Bentley Hart and those associated with Radical Orthodoxy be up to something of this sort?

I don't know if they are necessarily contradictory. I really don't. I used to be big on the Radical orthodoxy guys (I"ve read through Hart's Beauty of the Infinite several times). What worries me is that Milbank and Pickstock openly say we will overcome "embodiment" in the eschaton (it's somewhere in Truth in Aquinas). Further, a lot of these Christian "Platonist" projects employ some sort of Dionysian ascent of the mind. I simply find Colin Gunton's critique of Pseudo-Dionysius too powerful on this point.

Sometimes Dutch-type Reformed theologians seem to lean on Platonic formulations when explaining prophesy; at least that was the impression I got from The Eschatology of the Old Testament by Vos, in which he states that prophesy, in the course of the history of revelation, describes events in the material world less and less, and spiritual realities (of which the material events were types) more and more. Though this need not imply a Platonic metaphysic, it does seem to be formulated in terms of Platonic thought.

Vos is openly Platonic in Pauline Eschatology. Ridderbos is better on this point.
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
Owen wrote, "we ... think that it was well said of Bernard, "That many labouring to make Plato a Christian, do prove themselves to be heathens."

Paul's two ages is not properly Paul's. It is divine revelation, and a part of the unfolding purpose of God in history. It should not be put in the same class with Plato's philosophical speculation.

There is no genuine parallel which permits a contrast to be made. A cyclical view of time can have no teleology in the proper sense. The eschatology of the Scriptures is distinctly lineal. There is no basis for calling Vos' eschatology Platonic.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
Owen wrote, "we ... think that it was well said of Bernard, "That many labouring to make Plato a Christian, do prove themselves to be heathens."

Paul's two ages is not properly Paul's. It is divine revelation, and a part of the unfolding purpose of God in history. It should not be put in the same class with Plato's philosophical speculation.

There is no genuine parallel which permits a contrast to be made. A cyclical view of time can have no teleology in the proper sense. The eschatology of the Scriptures is distinctly lineal. There is no basis for calling Vos' eschatology Platonic.

I think by saying the Two Ages was Pauline I was necessarily saying it was Scriptural (since Paul falls under the category of "Scripture"). I was contrasting Paul and Plato, not comparing them (that is the whole point of Horton's four volume series: contrast and dissimilarity).
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
I think by saying the Two Ages was Pauline I was necessarily saying it was Scriptural (since Paul falls under the category of "Scripture"). I was contrasting Paul and Plato, not comparing them (that is the whole point of Horton's four volume series: contrast and dissimilarity).

In order for there to be a genuine contrast there must be a point at which the two differ while speaking about the same thing. They are in fact speaking about two different things. The "two ages" is eschatological, not metaphysical. It describes the expectation of the kingdom of God in terms of inauguration and consummation. Plato's speculations are metaphysical.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
I think by saying the Two Ages was Pauline I was necessarily saying it was Scriptural (since Paul falls under the category of "Scripture"). I was contrasting Paul and Plato, not comparing them (that is the whole point of Horton's four volume series: contrast and dissimilarity).

In order for there to be a genuine contrast there must be a point at which the two differ while speaking about the same thing. They are in fact speaking about two different things. The "two ages" is eschatological, not metaphysical. It describes the expectation of the kingdom of God in terms of inauguration and consummation. Plato's speculations are metaphysical.

But Plato does posit--don't know if I would call it an "eschatology"--but an end game for the "subject" in question. At death one contemplates the Forms or gazes into the Empyrean, or various forms (Plato again, by accident that time!) of the Beatific Vision. I am using "eschatology" in the narrower sense of post-death. My other point was that one cannot deny the heavy Platonic element in early Christian thought (Hilary, Athanasius, Gregory Nyssa, Augustine). I had tried to see what they saw in it and when I realized all the thorny debates going on around Nicae, both sides revolving around a certain interpretation of Plato, I started to have a little respect for the system (all the while retaining the earthy, Hebrew element). At the end of the day, though, God promises that we will drink good wine on his mountain (Isaiah 24-25, 55; Mark 14:25). That is infinitely preferable to contemplating the Forms.
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
But Plato does posit--don't know if I would call it an "eschatology"--but an end game for the "subject" in question. At death one contemplates the Forms or gazes into the Empyrean, or various forms (Plato again, by accident that time!) of the Beatific Vision. I am using "eschatology" in the narrower sense of post-death. My other point was that one cannot deny the heavy Platonic element in early Christian thought (Hilary, Athanasius, Gregory Nyssa, Augustine). I had tried to see what they saw in it and when I realized all the thorny debates going on around Nicae, both sides revolving around a certain interpretation of Plato, I started to have a little respect for the system (all the while retaining the earthy, Hebrew element). At the end of the day, though, God promises that we will drink good wine on his mountain (Isaiah 24-25, 55; Mark 14:25). That is infinitely preferable to contemplating the Forms.

God has promised to give to the church the riches of the Gentiles. At the point they are brought into the church they cease to be what they were because they are made a part of the new creation. On this basis I would reject the idea that the thought of the fathers was "Platonic." It was distinctively Christian.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
But Plato does posit--don't know if I would call it an "eschatology"--but an end game for the "subject" in question. At death one contemplates the Forms or gazes into the Empyrean, or various forms (Plato again, by accident that time!) of the Beatific Vision. I am using "eschatology" in the narrower sense of post-death. My other point was that one cannot deny the heavy Platonic element in early Christian thought (Hilary, Athanasius, Gregory Nyssa, Augustine). I had tried to see what they saw in it and when I realized all the thorny debates going on around Nicae, both sides revolving around a certain interpretation of Plato, I started to have a little respect for the system (all the while retaining the earthy, Hebrew element). At the end of the day, though, God promises that we will drink good wine on his mountain (Isaiah 24-25, 55; Mark 14:25). That is infinitely preferable to contemplating the Forms.

God has promised to give to the church the riches of the Gentiles. At the point they are brought into the church they cease to be what they were because they are made a part of the new creation. On this basis I would reject the idea that the thought of the fathers was "Platonic." It was distinctively Christian.

Augustine openly admits to being Platonic. Gregory of Nyssa was most certainly a Platonist, as even his admirers today admit (David Bentley Hart). His "Soul and Resurrection" is more clear on this point than anything Plato ever wrote. And not to mention the chief mischief-maker of them all, Pseudo-Dionysius.
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
Augustine openly admits to being Platonic.

In what sense? Philosophy is the handmaid of theology. He believed God is a spirit because his Christian Bible taught him so. He might have utilised Plato to provide rational service to that confession, but he did not believe it because Plato taught it.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
Augustine openly admits to being Platonic.

In what sense? Philosophy is the handmaid of theology. He believed God is a spirit because his Christian Bible taught him so. He might have utilised Plato to provide rational service to that confession, but he did not believe it because Plato taught it.

It is either in book 8 or book 10 in the City of God. Of course by that I don't mean "full-orbed Platonist," as no such entity exists. But his take on simplicity is heavily Platonic, which is I think what he was admitting.

While he might not have "believed it because Plato taught it," he does credit Plato with helping him get past the Manichean view of God as a material entity. He already knew what the Bible taught on that point. It looks like Plato was the clincher (and I think the Bible and Plato are on the same page, mostly, on this point).
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
I found these passages that give a more nuanced discussion. In Confessions VII.9 Augustine mentions coming upon the writings of Platonists who helped bridge the Gospel of John (even if later admitting the Platonists were inadequate). Augustine writes,

In these same books I found it stated, not in the same words of course, but precisely to the same effect...

Augustine already knew of "The Bible." It appears that it was under the Platonizing influence of St Ambrose that he really grasped it. In Book VIII.2 of key importance was his meeting the hyper-Platonist Victorinus.

To say Augustine was a Platonist, as I previously did, might be a bit misleading. Better to say that Platonism provided him with the key philosophical framework for understanding the Scriptures. Augustine admits he had initial distaste for the Scriptures (an interesting paper would be to explore Augustine's receiving of Platonic hermeneutics with his later rejection of Premillennialism). And then there are the largely neo-Platonic "ascents of the mind" in Books VII and IX. At this point, he is on the same page with the neo-Platonists Origen and Clement (Origen had studied with Porphyry).
 
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