Plato Is Not The Point: A Critical Defense of Craig Carter’s Proposal

Editor’s Note: This is part 5 in our Lyceum Disputation series considering the nature and potential necessity of contemporary “Christian Platonism.” Stay tuned for further installments. As with all our work, the London Lyceum publishes a range of viewpoints to encourage thinking.

Craig Carter’s Christian Platonism project is worth defending. While I hope to offer some critiques about some aspects of the project, in this essay, I am going to defend the general nature of Craig Carter’s Christian Platonism. This is not to presume that he needs my defending; he doesn’t. He is a reputable scholar who has established himself as such, and, for better or for worse, he has made waves in Reformed Evangelicalism with his works Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition and Contemplating God with the Great Tradition. However, I am invested in the work of theological retrieval, so I would like to defend the nature of his project of ressourcement for the church, which he describes as a return to Christian Platonism.

Thus far in this pertinent disputation series, his thesis has been significantly critiqued by Paul Gould, Willemien Otten, and unfairly represented by RT Mullins. While some of the critiques Gould and Otten raise are good and fair, I believe they struggle to address the main thrust of his argument which is deeply historical. In what follows, I will discuss what Carter is not doing, what he is doing, where he could potentially do better, and ultimately why I think his project is important and necessary for the church today.

What Carter is not Doing

It is important to recognize that Carter is not doing analytic philosophy nor is he doing analytic theology. Analytic theology is a methodological approach (not a shared set of beliefs) that prioritizes the precise use of terms with clear definitions. This is simply not what Carter is doing. In a tongue and cheek manner, he contends that “Christian Platonism” covers “all your theological heroes prior to 1800.”[1] He is not concerned with the contemporary debates Gould brought up nor is his view narrow enough to constitute an opponent to Christian Aristotelianism as Otten highlights. Rather, he uses “Christian Platonism” intentionally as a stand-in for “Nicene Metaphysics” or more importantly, “the metaphysics that grew out of biblical revelation,” against which all other forms of Platonism stand as a rival system.[2] Although Gould notes Carter’s broad terminology, he continues on to critique him according to the standards of contemporary analytic Platonism. However, to critique Carter according to analytic rules of precision when he is merely putting forth a broad heuristic as a starting point is to call a pass interference on Carter while he is playing hockey—or whatever sport they are currently playing in Canada.

Second, Carter is not encouraging the use of Platonism as an extrabiblical framework that one ought to adopt as a rigid guide to biblical interpretation. In other words, Carter’s use of Christian Platonism does not mean he cannot differ with Plato on something like creation and side more with Aristotle contrary to Mullins’s incredulity at such a move. Carter’s entire project can be seen “as a response to the charge made by modernist biblical interpretation that the fathers read extrabiblical metaphysical assumptions derived from Greek philosophy into the text to the Bible and thus developed an erroneous doctrine of God as immutable, impassible, and so forth.”[3] Now, Otten brings up a fair critique in saying that Carter should have spent time examining Origen in addition to Augustine (or Justin or Athanasius)—especially in a project using the term Christian Platonism. She notes Augustine is more of a “Christian thinker” with a Platonic profile, whereas with Origen “the merger of Christianity and Platonism shaped his agenda” in ways that it did not for Augustine. Otten is absolutely correct in pushing back against any survey of Platonism in patristic thought—especially one focused on the doctrine of the Trinity—that does not at least mention Origen. However, that said, what Carter is advocating is not what Otten claims Origen did. Carter is not concerned with merging a Platonic metaphysic (or an Aristotelian or a Stoic or any modern metaphysic) with Christian thought; part of the reason he even chose the term, Platonism, was simply because he perceived it to be “reprehensible to the modern mind.”[4] Rather, Carter is interested in the critical appropriation and Christianization of true philosophical ideas into a Christian metaphysic.[5] For Carter, this approach—and this alone—preserves the proper start and end point of Christian theology. In fact, Otten’s charge that Christians today “should mobilize all their intellectual powers to develop vibrant new theologies for this and the coming eras, Platonic, Aristotelian or simply their own” is the exact thing Carter is arguing against by using the term “Christian Platonism.” Carter is not advocating for a new theology, but an old one.

Third—and very importantly given the polemical nature of his work—Carter is not labeling every brother or sister that disagrees with him as a heretic. Although this is admittedly not as clear in his Credo article, he is advocating for a return to the beliefs that underlie “the confessional stance of all branches of orthodox Christians, East and West, including both Roman Catholic and Protestant.”[6] Even with those evangelicals who hold to a “soft theistic mutualism” instead of his trinitarian classical theism, he does not place them outside the realm of orthodoxy.[7] He believes they are confused and their beliefs might lead to dangerous places over time, but he is not so uncharitable (I believe, at least) to condemn such brothers as heretics outright. Thus, while Gould’s third worry of this movement yielding rigid and overly-narrow view of orthodoxy is a legitimate concern that I agree with, I do not believe Carter, when understood, is the one to worry about for the above stated reasons. That said, those of us in this current ressourcement movement—including Carter—must learn from the failures of previous movements. Charity and humility is the way forward, not a decade of cage-stage posturing.

What Carter is Doing

Having walked through what I believe Carter is not doing, I must state more clearly what I believe he is doing.

First, for better or for worse, Carter’s enterprise models much of the polemical writings of the early church in which they wrote to correct false doctrines that they perceived to be creeping into the church. In this endeavor, Carter appears to have two broadly defined opponents in mind: (1) those whose commitment to the extrabiblical philosophies of the day have led them outside the realm of orthodoxy and (2) those whose partial commitment to the extrabiblical philosophies of the day have led them outside the tradition of the church yet not so far as to be outside the realm of orthodoxy. Although the two opponents are distinct, he sees both as contributing to the decline in the church and the culture he holds dear. Understanding the two opponents he has in mind is important for the reader to keep in mind when Carter’s polemic admittedly gets ahead of him.

Second, he is seeking to establish a broad sense of unity in the Christian tradition under the term Christian Platonism—which he admits could be replaced with a better term. As mentioned, Carter is not striving for precision in this pursuit, but simply desires to combine “general and special revelation into a synthesis of reason and faith so as to give the most comprehensive account of reality possible for human beings to give. This is what I mean by Christian Platonism.”[8] However, although Carter intends for Christian Platonism to function as an umbrella term that includes Aristotle—something Augustine himself did[9]—he follows Lloyd Gerson by providing five points of philosophical agreement necessary to be under this umbrella:

  1. Antimaterialism: the rejection of the view “that the only things that exist are bodies and their properties.”
  2. Antimechanism: the rejection of the view that there can only be mechanistic explanations for change.
  3. Antinominalism: the rejection of the view that “the only things that exist are individuals, each situated in space and time.” In other words, according to Carter, antinominalists contend that “two things can be unique individuals and still have the same nature.”
  4. Antiskepticism: the belief that “knowledge is possible.”
  5. Antirelativism: The rejection of ethical relativism (i.e. hedonism) and the rejection of epistemological relativism (i.e. “truth is what is true for me or my group”).[10]

These five convictions Carter contends are derived from the biblical data and form the metaphysical convictions that accompany his twenty-five theses of what he means by trinitarian classical theism—which he uses interchangeably with Christian Platonism.[11]

Third, Carter is making a historical argument. For him, “Christian Platonism is the label that can be applied to the theological metaphysics that grows out of the fourth-century pro-Nicene theology.”[12] Understanding the historical nature of Carter’s argument is crucial to understanding his case, for if you miss him on this point, you will miss him entirely. Carter is deeply influenced by the patristic historian, Lewis Ayres. Carter follows Ayres in his contention that understanding the historical context of the fourth-century debates about God with respect to both the hermeneutic and metaphysics of the fathers are crucial to pro-Nicene theology. Ayres wrote that “in many ways, [my argument] is not that modern Trinitarianism has engaged with pro-Nicene theology badly, but that it has barely engaged with it at all. As a result, the legacy of Nicaea remains paradoxically the unnoticed ghost at the modern Trinitarian feast.”[13] Taking Ayres argument to its logical conclusion, Carter makes clear that “knowing only the form of the words of the creed [has value], but is inadequate.”[14] In the end, one cannot deny metaphysical ideas such as divine simplicity or impassibility that were a part of the move toward Nicaea without compromising Nicaea in some manner. This argument is not uncommon and has been made by many in the debates surrounding the issue of the eternal relations of origin. However, it is this argument in particular that Gould takes issue with respect to divine simplicity. Gould writes:

Carter claims that those who reject Divine Simplicity “think that they can deny simplicity while remaining within Nicene orthodoxy, but they are unaware of the fact that this is not actually possible.” I’m not exactly sure what to say regarding this claim. Except that it is false. . . . As any contemporary metaphysician will know, it is possible to hold these two claims together without any appeal to divine simplicity:

1. The Father is divine.

2. The Son is divine.

The trick is to notice that the “is” here is the “is” of essential predication. Thus, claim (1) tells us that the Father is essentially divine, and claim (2) tells us that the Son is essentially divine. The Father has divinity and the Son has divinity. All is well and good: the Son is of the same essence as the Father! Nicene orthodoxy without any appeal to the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity.

In this argumentation, Gould fails to adequately answer Carter’s claim that Nicene metaphysics is essential to pro-Nicene theology by simply dismissing it as patently false. Then he engages what could be termed as ahistorical philosophizing—which honestly fails to put forth a better option than the one Carter has put forth. Gould’s model leaves room for some of the errors already addressed in the debates of fourth century by equivocating the statement “the Son is essentially divinity” to “the Son has divinity.” (To be clear, Gould does not make such errors himself and views his position as committed to the very same theological motivations as the fourth-century fathers). However, Carter is not concerned with what metaphysical flourishes one could make to fit the form of Nicaea; he is saying more is needed. The form, hermeneutic, and metaphysic that led Nicaea are important to maintaining pro-Nicene theology.

Finally, Carter is seeking to make a biblical argument. Deeply shaped by the Reformed Protestant tradition, Carter is convinced that doctrine develops through clarification, not through revision. For him, the church does not need anything new per se, for we have already been given the Scriptures. This is not to say that modern metaphysics has nothing to offer Christians today; they do. One such instance would be the recent emphasis on embodiment in Christian anthropology, which I do not believe is absent from the tradition, but is stated with more clarity today. However, this type of relationship can only be the case, if and only if, Christians approach the philosophies of the day as the early church approached the ideas of theirs: under the authority of the Scriptures. For it is the Scriptures—and the Scriptures alone—that provide the church with a metaphysic that, in turn, further guides her in the exegetical task, equipping her to address the questions of every generation with clarity, conviction, and love.  

Where Carter Could Improve

While I am clearly supportive of Carter and his project, I do not believe it to be free from error. Carter would be better served if he was less polemical in his approach. At times, his polemic leads him to make grandiose claims such as that “a great deal of contemporary evangelical theology seems to be merely a conservative wing of the liberal project . . . [seeking] to purchase a place in the secular academy.”[15] In making this claim, his polemic distracts the reader from the main argument by seemingly implicating men like D.A. Carson, J.I. Packer, and Wayne Grudem as doing such things.[16] It would serve his argument better if he had left things at his earlier and more toned down evaluation of them as being men who “are sincerely attempting to be biblically sound and historically orthodox,” but are simply off-base.[17] Thus, although we see glimpses of his charity toward others, if his work were less polemical, I believe we’d see even more without sacrificing the seriousness of the issues. Secondly, in light of the nature of his work, he would have been served well by choosing to go with Nicene Metaphysics rather than choosing “Christian Platonism” for shock-value.[18] Choosing terms because they jolt the system of moderns, I believe, will prove to be unhelpful in the long run. Already, many misperceptions of his work simply appear to be due to his terminology. Thus, I believe Gould’s critique on the lack of clear terminology is fair and needed. Lastly, I believe he ought to have focused less on Western culture. I am certain Carter would say he is more concerned with the state of the Western church than the Western culture, for one is eternal and the other temporary. However, although I agree with most of his cultural insights, I believe his emphasis on the decline of Western culture—while interconnected with the Western church—detracts from his main idea of preserving the orthodox faith in the Church for generations to come.

Conclusion: Why I think Carter’s Project is Important and Necessary

In conclusion, I find Carter’s project—and others similar to his—to be a much-needed development in contemporary evangelical thought. First and foremost, I believe Carter is generally correct in his contention regarding the message of the Scriptures and the historical consensus with respect to trinitarian classical theism. As the Second London Confession confesses:

The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of Himself, infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but Himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; who is immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, every way infinite, most holy, most wise, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him, and withal most just and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

As things become finer tuned in the discussions regarding each attribute, there’s room for disagreement, but I believe Carter’s course is the right one: “The best way to think of the classically orthodox definition of God is to see it as the union of classical theism and trinitarian theology.”[19]

Second—and this one is personal—Carter’s understanding of the fathers’ approach to patristic theological method is a breath of fresh air. As the works of the early church fathers become increasingly more popular, it will be crucial to view the fathers as doing thorough exegesis and good theology as they related it to the ideas of the world around them. As someone who is focused on Justin Martyr, I cannot express enough how refreshing it was to find someone who refused to follow Carl Andresen’s thesis that Justin reinterpreted the Scriptures according to the ideas of Middle Platonism. Like Carter, I am grateful for the decline of such claims of Hellenization. That said, much work still needs to be done by Reformed Protestants in patristic studies with the understanding for which Carter has contended. 

Third, I can’t help but agree with Carter on the state of the Western church. There is no denying that the last two hundred years has dealt significant blows to many key Christian doctrines—particularly due to erroneous views of the Scriptures. She has lost something that needs to be retrieved, and Carter is helping the church today walk the very paths trod by countless of saints who desired to contemplate God in those ancient words ever true. These old paths are the paths that will lead us home. The way back is indeed the way forward.

Lastly—and ironically—I believe Carter’s work provides the manner in which Christians can helpfully engage the modern philosophies of the day. Carter demonstrates both in the Ancient Near East and in the height of Hellenization, the Scriptures yielded a metaphysic that critiqued and corrected the ideas of the day, and thus made them suitable for Christian theology. For it’s not that Christianity has nothing to say about the concerns of the existentialists or the materialists or the critical theorists; we do. Like the Platonists of old, these groups have some glimpse of the truth, but we have the whole truth. The Scriptures provide a superior view of finitude, the body, and justice in society. Like the fathers, we ought to let the biblical text form our metaphysic that will continue to guide us as we seek to shine the light of the gospel into a world struggling to find its way.

So where does this leave us? I think the start of Gould’s essay is a good place to end. I, too, am grateful for Carter’s work encouraging theological retrieval. Christian Platonism in an analytic sense is not really the point. Call what Carter has put forth what you want, but Gould is right. As this torch gets carried forward by others, we will be best served if we are precise in our terminology, careful in our argumentation, and charitable in our spirit. May we reflect such intellectual virtues required by those who serve the Transcendent One from whom and through whom and in whom are all things.


[1] Craig Carter, “Why Should We Affirm Christian Platonism?,”

[2] Craig Carter, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), 127.

[3] Carter, Contemplating God, 6, 45.

[4] Carter, Contemplating God, 127.

[5] This approach can be seen throughout his book in which he highlights both the significant differences and the common ground Christians have with what he perceives to be the true metaphysical ideas in the philosophies of the Ancient Near East with the existence of demons (186-90), Aristotle with the First Cause (60), Stoicism with the Divine and Transcendent Logos (207-09), and Plato with the form of the Good (77). In theory, this could be applied to a wide array of ideas and is not unlike what John Piper has done with his “Christian Hedonism.”  

[6] Carter, Contemplating God, 44.

[7] Carter, Contemplating God, 298.

[8] Carter, Contemplating God, 266-67.

[9] Augustine, Against the Skeptics, 3.19.42, quoted in Augustine in his Own Words, edited by William Harmless, S.J. (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 52.“The truest philosophy, in my opinion — has crystallized over many centuries and after many disputes because there has been no lack of man with the greatest acuity of insight and quickness of mind who, in their disputations, continue to teach that Aristotle and Plato concur with one another even though to the inattentive in the unskilled the two seem to be out of harmony. Now this is not a this-worldly philosophy, a philosophy which our sacred mysteries would rightly detest. It is a philosophy of the other world, the intelligible world.”

[10] Carter, Contemplating God, 290.

[11] Carter, Contemplating God, 7-11, 47-83.

[12] Carter, Contemplating God, 7.

[13] Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, 7.

[14] Carter, Contemplating God, 10.

[15] Carter, Contemplating God, 302.

[16] Carter, Contemplating God, 298.

[17] Carter, Contemplating God, 298.

[18] Carter, Contemplating God, 127.

[19] Carter, Contemplating God, 22.


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