Which Plato? Whose Platonism? Summarizing the Christian Platonism Symposium

Editor’s Note: This is our final summary of our Lyceum Disputation series considering the nature and potential necessity of contemporary “Christian Platonism.” As with all our work, the London Lyceum publishes a range of viewpoints to encourage thinking.

It is not breaking news that Christian Platonism has—somewhat unexpectedly—become a hot topic in the world of conservative evangelical theology. Christian Platonism’s popular level resurgence has been ongoing for several years, and it has seen many formidable defenses including a new exposition in academic monograph form of impressive rigor. Yet, despite its strength in both academic work and popular level publications, the contemporary terminology of Christian Platonism has been met with some levels of resistance by various thinkers. For example, only three months ago, I attended a keynote lecture at the Davenant Institute by David Haines that sought to critique the contemporary nomenclature of “Christian Platonism.”

Therefore, we at the London Lyceum thought it prudent to commission a series of essays on the nature and potential necessity of contemporary Christian Platonism for the church catholic. As with all our disputation symposiums we seek to include a variety of viewpoints from thinkers of various disciplines and dispositions to encourage better thinking on the topic. We intentionally seek out diverging opinions since multiple vantage points aid one in determining the validity of various truth claims. Thus, there is no expectation that we will agree in whole or in part with any of the essays that are part of each disputation symposium.

But it is no easy task to provide such conceptual space for disagreement on contested topics without the appearance of endorsing views that are contrary to our confessional beliefs. Therefore, given the potential for essays that conflict with our own classical Protestant heritage to be published, especially as formulated in the Second London Confession of Faith, we’ve also sought to include a final summative essay from someone affiliated with the London Lyceum that is committed to defending classical Reformed Protestantism. We want to aid others in thinking well by introducing alternative viewpoints but also by observing critical interaction in a spirit of charity. We are continuing to find our way on this path of encouraging thinking that is full of charity, curiosity, critical thinking, and cheerful confessionalism. So, our methodology isn’t perfected yet, but we are working toward our goal.

As far as my contribution to this symposium, I plan to do two things. First, I want to critically interact with some aspects of each of the essays published in the series. I argue that by and large, the essays commissioned in this symposium are on the right track, but there are some faults. Second, I want to offer my own thoughts on contemporary Christian Platonism. I argue that the terminology of Christian Platonism as used in the contemporary context is largely unhelpful. While I love Plato (he’s a delight to read–especially compared to my preferred ancient companion in Aristotle!), I’m by no means a Platonist about metaphysics (though, I’ll confess, I’m more Platonic and Augustinian when it comes to epistemology than I am Aristotelian and Thomistic and I’m Platonic in the sense of the world being sacramental–though not exactly in a purist Platonic sense). Nor do I think the Second London Confession of Faith, which our editors and board confess, is beholden to a true Platonist metaphysic. But to be clear, by no means do I represent everyone at the London Lyceum with my own arguments here (just look at the fact that one of our editors wrote in this series and I disagree with him!).

1. Defining Christian Platonism

To set the proper context for the essays in this series I need to define Christian Platonism up front. I begin with Craig Carter’s account since his has been of the greatest polemical value in the contemporary period (as evidenced by how many in our symposium chose to consider his work). Carter defines Christian Platonism as the theological metaphysics of the Great Tradition.[1] In a more definite fashion, he calls Christian Platonism “Augustinianism.” Therefore, to reject Christian Platonism is to reject Augustine and the Great Tradition.[2] This is because “creedal orthodoxy is bound up with Christian Platonist metaphysics in ways that make disentangling them nearly impossible.”[3] Clearly then, Christian Platonism is not merely a fad on this account. It’s essential for those seeking to retrieve the classical Christian tradition. Without it, the project will ultimately fail.

While there is some truth to the idea that whatever Augustine is, that’s Christian Platonism, since you do see him gushing about the Platonists throughout his writings as the pinnacle of thought. Even so, there are reasons to find this sort of definition deeply unsatisfying as a shared starting point. First, while Augustine does appear to categorize Aristotle with Plato and thus does not separate the Aristotelian from the Platonic tradition, he didn’t have access to the full breadth of Aristotle’s works to make a fully informed decision. Knowing Aristotle’s Categories and On Interpretation alone would not provide sufficient evidence for their serious disagreements.[4] Therefore, I think it’s a fair deduction that had he been able to read Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, and De Anima, he likely wouldn’t have connected the two so closely. Second, Augustine was heavily influenced not by the Platonic tradition simpliciter but by the Neo-Platonic tradition, which is distinct and should be understood and categorized as such. Third, Christian Platonism isn’t identical to everything Augustine held. Augustine held a lot of doctrines that go well-beyond Platonism and are even contradictory. These reasons to not categorize Christian Platonism as merely identical to Augustinianism or the Great Tradition aren’t meant to suggest that those like Carter are unaware of these points but to show that the simple categorization is problematic.

However, Carter is not the only one seeking to retrieve Christian Platonism. There are other definitions on offer. The massive academic monograph on Christian Platonism from Cambridge is a prime example. It’s chock-full of some of the brightest minds today. But there are numerous definitions. Consider the following six examples:

  1. The editors argue that the term “Christian Platonism” is elastic given the complex relationship between Christianity and Platonism and the significant variances across history.[5] However, they do suggest that there is one constant thread throughout history: transcendence, or a commitment to a higher level of reality beyond the material world.[6]
  2. Lloyd Gerson argues that Platonism, at its most basic, means “there is a distinct, hierarchically arrayed subject matter irreducible to the material or physical world.”[7]
  3. Kevin Corrigan defines Christian Platonism as “a sophisticated, critical, but sympathetic dialogue, that thinks through the logic of language in relation to God, while freely acknowledging our inability to know anything about God’s nature.”[8]
  4. John Peter Kenney suggests that the unifying principles of Platonism are not its actual doctrines but its “shared intellectual style, textual canon, forms of discourse, and modes of personal formation.”[9]
  5. Joshua Levi Ian Gentske defines it as follows: “I treat Platonism as a historically and culturally contingent mesh of dynamic and diverse ideas, practices, and images, which can nevertheless be heuristically envisioned as a recognizable discourse.”[10]
  6. Lydia Schumacher defines it as: “there are as many kinds of Platonism as there are Platonists” and “the meaning of the term ultimately breaks down.”[11]

Given these various definitions, some of which explicitly contradict any semblance of a unified definition, Christian Platonism is nearly impossible to define since its commitments have shifted over time. Yet there appears to be a core conceptual agreement of transcendence. All Christian Platonists can be said to affirm a higher level of reality.[12] But such a definition is quite thin—far thinner than being able to equate it with either Augustine or the entire Pro-Nicene Patristic era. To find a thicker definition I’ll turn to the first essay in our symposium from Paul Goud who offers a definition that I find both compelling and thick enough to lift the conceptual weights we need for such a term to have any value.

2. Paul Gould: Christian Philosopher and Christian Platonist

Paul Gould opens his essay with the confession that he is a Christian that is also a Platonist. He worries that what is being called Christian Platonism in the contemporary evangelical literature is using the term without proper nuance or care. It’s becoming a wax nose with little definable content. Therefore, he offers a corrective by way of providing a detailed taxonomy of potential definitions for Christian Platonism.

Gould suggests there are generally two ways to define Christian Platonism: Wide and Narrow. On the wide definition, Christian Platonism is extremely broad, encompassing most Christians from the first to at least the nineteenth century. It’s well represented by Lloyd Gerson’s thesis that Platonism (or, for him, “Ur-Platonism”) is captured as an apophatic sort of doctrine. Platonism is whatever is consistent with anti-naturalism, anti-skepticism, anti-relativism, anti-nominalism, and anti-mechanism. But on the narrower definition, Christian Platonism is defined by what Gould calls the “Platonic core” which is (1) a mood of intellectual inquiry, (2) method of intellectual inquiry, and (3) a sacramental ontology. The sacramental ontology is highlighted by four further doctrines: a participatory ontology, divine exemplarism, a hierarchy of beings, and the principle of plenitude. And things get even messier since in the contemporary period Platonism primarily refers to a view about abstract objects. We begin to ask which Plato? Whose Platonism?

Gould’s essay is at its best here and it seems to me that the narrower versions end up being taxonomized as a more historical and the wider versions end up being more for contemporary appropriation. But Gould is not merely shadow boxing. He does go on to critique one of the chief contemporary proponents of Christian Platonism in Craig Carter since Gould thinks Carter conflates Christian Platonism with Classical Theism. Gould’s taxonomy usefully elucidates what is really at the heart of most contemporary defenses of Christian Platonism: not Platonism—not even Christianity per say—but Classical Theism. There has been a sleight of hand that has substituted one term for another. I think Gould is right to note this (just look at how Carter defines it as Augustinianism).

However, Gould goes on to show how one can maintain the Nicene Creed while denying divine simplicity. I think Gould is wrong to deny divine simplicity, but I do think his argument, though anachronistic, is persuasive. The reason is because the patristic authors did not intend for the creeds to function as robust metaphysical blueprints. For example, as patristic scholarship has shown, the purpose of creeds like Chalcedon was to resolve problems of interpretation for the Nicene faith. It was designed to exclude certain views.[13] It was not designed to give a robust positive account or theological model. It was a mediating document between schools of thought that sought to rule out unorthodox ways of speaking. Their goal was to provide a “regulatory grid” for interpretation.[14] Therefore, I think it’s consistent with the Pro-Nicene methodological approach to admit those that deny divine simplicity to the orthodox and creedal table. Certainly, a denial of divine simplicity is out of bounds for the confessionally Reformed! It’s explicitly laid out in the confessions (God has no parts), but not necessarily for the ecumenical Christian that is merely committed to the creedal formulas. Of course, we could have a discussion about what it means to be truly Pro-NiceneTM at this point and whether that includes all of the material approved by the councils or not, but that would call for an essay far different than the one I’m penning here. For now, I’ll assume a minimal creedalism of confessing the creedal statements (e.g., the formula of Chalcedon, etc.) as a basic starting point for all orthodox Christians and ignore the appended and approved materials like Leo’s Tome.

3. Willemien Otten: The Future of Platonism

Willemien Otten, Christian theologian and historian par excellence from the University of Chicago, provides an important essay regarding the contemporary attempts to revive a robust Christian Platonism. Otten, who is a Christian Platonist and medievalist to boot, worries that the contemporary usage of Christian Platonism flattens the diversity of the tradition and mischaracterizes certain key figures. She offers several examples that appear to be atypical Christian Platonists if defined as the contemporary retrieval effort seeks. For example, Origen of Alexandria was perhaps a more consequential Christian Platonist than Augustine. Augustine surely has a stronger influence on the Protestant and Reformed traditions but Origen, as a Platonist in the historical sense (e.g. affirming the Platonic core and not just a thin theory of transcendence), shaped the future of Western theology in profound ways (including being the first to speak of three hypostases in the Trinity and to use the term homoousios!). Yet Origenist metaphysics as a whole is quite at odds with the way Christian Platonism is described today. For example, his views without modification wouldn’t even square with Nicaea![15] While I’m sympathetic to Origen and like to imagine he would clarify and adjust his views had he lived later in Christian history, as a matter of historical fact I’m unconvinced his views are, on the whole, consistent with Nicaea. Therefore, if the contemporary movement is set on retrieval of the Great Tradition (which it ought to be!), it ought to come to terms with the fact that the tradition isn’t as monolithic as once thought.

Otten also seeks to situate those like Augustine as Christian thinkers in their own right. They are Christians first and should be understood as such, with a Platonic background. This is an important point we can forget when doing theological historiography, which is ironic given our presuppositions! Ultimately, her vision of theological retrieval is one of continued ressourcement and advancement. The great legacies of those like Plato and Aristotle are riches to be mined but are not the end destination to hide behind. In her characterization of the tradition’s relationship to Platonism and her theological vision I largely concur. Retrieval is not a repristination of the past but a going forward while being hoisted high on the shoulders of giants. Such a program of retrieval is in the spirit of Herman Bavinck who was clear about the method of “going forward”:

With Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli we differentiate that which is essential and truly reformed, from that of the spirit of the age. We do not return to them after the fact, to repristinate them and their work as much as to respect their value in general … but through their teaching, better than even they, to hold fast to and speak out a reformation principle … not to return to them but to go forward from them is our motto.[16]

Bavinck did not see Christian Platonism or even Christian Aristotelianism as some sort of calcified and unalterable body of dogma. In fact, the Reformed dogmatician that seeks retrieval is not shackled by any one single school of secular philosophy, whether Christianized Platonism or Christianized Aristotelianism:

Theology is not in need of a specific philosophy. It is not per se hostile to any philosophical system and does not, a priori and without criticism, give priority to the philosophy of Plato or of Kant, or vice versa. But it brings along its own criteria, tests all philosophy by them, and takes over what it deems true and useful. What it needs is philosophy in general.[17]

4. R.T. Mullins: What to Say?

R.T. Mullins is without a doubt the most controversial essay in our series. I’ll admit up front that I take issue with his essay more than the others [9/5/22 Note: I have added two post-publication clarifications within this section in brackets and italics], but not because he fails to hit on an important aspect regarding the continued attempt at resourcing Christian Platonism. Mullins is absolutely right to think there is conceptual slippage running amok in the Christian Platonism ressourcement. As others have shown, and as I will show, the movement’s greatest Achilles heel is a muddied definition. So, Mullins is right to question the wide array of Augustinian and Thomistic doctrines that wouldn’t square with Christian Platonism. Indeed, he’s keen to point out examples like the Cambridge Platonists, who are certainly Christian Platonists—maybe even the Platonic form of Christian Platonists!—because they are quite out of step with the way Christian Platonism is defined by some segments of evangelicalism today.

However, I think Mullins has three chief errors worthy of note. First, Mullins appears to sometimes forget that the topic is Christian Platonism and not Platonism simpliciter. Of course, Plato affirmed the world is fashioned out of pre-existing material by a demiurge! But Christian Platonism rejects that. This is why it’s Christian Platonism. This is something those like Carter explicitly state. [9/5/22 Note: However, upon further dialogue and discussion, I believe I misread Mullins’s own critique here! He did not intend to make these assumptions. I stand corrected.]

Second, Mullins’s methodology, at least in this essay, betrays his goal. I fear it lacks the proper respect that is necessary for truly charitable and curious inquiry. There are particular intellectual virtues like “sensitivity to detail; open-mindedness in collecting and appraising evidence; fairness in evaluating the arguments of others; intellectual humility; intellectual perseverance, diligence, care and thoroughness” that seem to be lacking.[18] Now, Mullins is traditionally cheeky. Oftentimes, I believe, to his own detriment. But those that know Mullins at least know his intent with such rhetoric is not primarily to disparage but to be humorous in attempting to elucidate an idea. He’s proven through a significant scholarly output and numerous live debates with opponents that he attempts to be open, fair, and willing to admit defeat while seeking to be entertaining. Therefore, I’ve wondered if there is ever a place for such rhetoric. I’ll admit, though, that I’m leery of this style given its penchant for being a substitute for a strong argument and for concealing a cruel motive. It is because of these sorts of issues that I’ve been critical of others’ usage of similarly polemical language. But as I’ve mulled on the style, I don’t know if it’s the style simpliciter that is always the problem.

I’m reminded of Brendan Case’s insightful essay on Pascalian mockery which insists that charity is not necessarily wounded by such humorous tactics. In fact, as Augustine(!) even argued, sometimes charity requires such mockery so that others might realize just how laughable their ideas are. As Case quotes from Augustine: “truth and falsehood will hardly meet on equal terms if falsehood is free to be fiery and funny, and truth can only write with a cold style, and put its readers to sleep (421a).” However, such rhetorical style requires (1) a resolute commitment to truth-telling, (2) mockery only of what is evil, and (3) a desire for the good of the mocked—in other words, a certain level of love and respect. As Case notes:

Mockery is to be used only in conditions of conflict with those who are both powerful and unreasonable. Pascalian mockery, that is, is never a form of bullying or “punching down,” but a means of making ridiculous those who are abusing their authority. And neither is Pascalian mockery a means of prematurely ending a good-faith conversation, but an attempt to confront a dangerous foe with his own irresponsible folly.[19]

As I’ve reflected, while Mullins provides a positive contribution to the debate, I think he does not meet the necessary conditions to employ Pascalian mockery. It is not clear to me that Mullins desires the good of his chief target nor is it always clear that he is only mocking what is wrong. Nor is it clear that Carter is a dangerous foe! But more fundamentally, when Mullins moved from critiquing a metaphysical system of a pagan philosopher to handling the sublime mysteries of the Godhead, I do not think it is always appropriate to speak in such cavalier terms. The Creator and Ruler of the universe deserves a level of respectful speech and posture. Yes, Jesus is our friend and bears with our infirmities and even has the best sense of humor. And yes, there are times for humor. Yet, there is no doubt that there is a required disposition in theological inquiry for the Christian. As Paul commands Timothy: correct your opponents with gentleness. Gentleness does not mean soft. Nor does it necessarily rule out appropriate levels of candor and sarcasm, as shown by Pascal and Augustine. [9/5/22 Note: Again, after further dialogue and discussion, it appears I have misjudged the intent of Mullins’s argument here. While I argued that he fails to meet the necessary conditions like desiring the good of the mocked, based upon follow-up conversations, I’ve been informed that the intent was in good faith.]

However, I think there is a third, and deeper, problem with Mullins’s essay: his approach of biblicism. While Mullins says that being called an ahistorical biblicist is a highly inaccurate claim, I’m not so sure this is the case. I do think it’s fair to say the “ahistorical” descriptor is highly inaccurate. Mullins doesn’t parade around ignoring history altogether, but the terminology of biblicism is apt in my mind. Biblicism doesn’t mean naïve or irrational. As I’ve sought to define it elsewhere, biblicism is a sort of anxiety toward external sources to Scripture that could corrupt our theology if given too much priority or emphasis.[20] Suffice to say, it can appear rather ordinary and even pious, but it ends up removing the derivative authority of important theological aids like creed and confession. Mullins and I have debated about these very hermeneutical distinctions elsewhere in the past. I refer you to it for a further explanation of my issues with his methodological approach which I think ultimately leads him astray regarding other doctrines like divine simplicity.

5. Grant Sutherland: Christian Platonist Heretics

Grant Sutherland has provided a provocative historical analysis that summarizes the work of Hans Boersma and Lloyd Gerson and proves further the lack of a stable definition for Christian Platonism. If Christian Platonism is supposed to be identical to Nicene Orthodoxy, surely a heretic that was explicitly removed from orthodoxy by the Nicene Creed shouldn’t be counted as such! And yet Grant argues, quite persuasively, that Arius ought to be categorized as a Christian Platonist. Therefore, I concur with Grant that such terminology is unable to bear the conceptual weight placed upon it. As a historical designator it has value but as a contemporary normative tool it will fail. But on reflection, I wonder if someone could argue that while Arius is a Platonist, he is not a Christian. Therefore, he wouldn’t qualify as such.[21]

6. Hunter Hindsman: A Valiant Defender

Finally, I have several brief comments for Hunter’s defense of Christian Platonism, especially as advanced by Craig Carter. Hunter seeks to move the discussion away from Christian Platonism as a concept and to the ressourcement project of the church which Carter describes as a return to Christian Platonism. I admire Hunter’s approach. I also think Hunter is exactly right to locate the real importance in the project of retrieval rather than in the terminology of Christian Platonism. Christian Platonism, for many of these thinkers, is a stand in for what is now meant by a return to the Great Tradition. However, I think Hunter’s argument ultimately fails because no one is seeking to end the retrieval project as such. The reason the topic is a flashpoint is not because of retrieving the Great Tradition but because of retrieval turning into (1) repristinating the wrong aspects of the Great Tradition (e.g., Platonism) and (2) narrowing the Great Tradition in ways that are not representative (e.g., again, Platonism). If we are free to call the metaphysics of the Great Tradition by a different name, why not do so since Christian Platonism is false as a representative of the entire tradition?

Hunter agrees with my conclusion here regarding using different terminology. But I’m unsure that he understands the implications of allowing bad terminology to remain. He repeatedly claims that Christian Platonism in an “analytic” sense is not the point of Carter’s argument. I must disagree. By “analytic” Hunter means precise definitions and clarity. In this sense, such precision is absolutely crucial. The theologian is not called to speak in broad generalities that intentionally (or unintentionally) brush over nuances. In fact, such methodology is in many ways best embodied by the theologians that we are told represent the pinnacle of the Great Tradition—like Thomas Aquinas! It seems such an approach is deeply ironic. Does this mean the end of all broad terms like Reformed, Baptist, Pro-Nicene, Calvinism, etc.? No! Certainly not. But it does require those that use terms to be vigilant in explanation and resolute in refusing to fall prey to flattening out diversity.

7. Which Plato? Whose Platonism?

Finally, I intend to offer two concluding thoughts on the nature and necessity of Christian Platonism. First, I’ll discuss the nature of Christian Platonism. As I’ve highlighted throughout, the core problem for contemporary Christian Platonism is conceptual clarity. The terminology is used in either (1) such an elastic sense by those that are promoting it that it lacks any real conceptual content or (2) a way that is unmoored from the breadth of the Christian Tradition and would fundamentally exclude important Christians. The historical record shows that what is called Christian Platonism often is contrary to the Great Tradition. Therefore, the proponent of Christian Platonism is on the horns of a dilemma. Either Christian Platonism as a term is so broad as to be near meaningless or it means something but that something excludes members of the Great Tradition (not to mention also being potentially toxic to some of the commitments of the Great Tradition). Second, I’ll discuss the necessity of Christian Platonism. Equating the terminology of Christian Platonism with both the Great Tradition and Nicaea ends up elevating Platonism to dogmatic status, which it has never received. Indeed, Christian Platonism, if defined beyond a thin commitment to transcendence, is actually at odds with much of the Great Tradition and even Classical Theism!

7.1 Too Broad or Too Narrow: The Nature of Christian Platonism

As I’ve shown throughout, it’s not clear what anyone means when they say Christian Platonism. That alone is sufficient evidence to drop the terminology in my book. But let’s go ahead and take the broad definition that is popular today of Ur-Platonism (ignoring for the sake of argument the various historical definitions that are clearly contrary to it). Christian Platonism would then mean Christianity in addition to anything that is anti-naturalism, anti-skepticism, anti-relativism, anti-nominalism, and anti-mechanism. Never mind that these aren’t all metaphysical doctrines. Here’s the rub: Such a definition is so broad that it carries little conceptual content beyond Christianity itself. This is deeply ironic since the conflict at Nicaea in large measure was a dual between Platonism and Anti-Platonism. Nicaea is the crisis of early Christian Platonism. It was there that the Platonism of Arius was deemed irreconcilable with Christianity.[22] Therefore, Christians are the philosophical opponents to the burgeoning Neoplatonist movement from Plotinus and Porphyry![23] There is a reason John Peter Kenney suggests that “Christians were never really Platonists in antiquity” though sometimes they were “fellow travelers.”[24]

Moreover, the only “anti” in this series that someone in the Christian Tradition is really in danger of rejecting is anti-nominalism—yet even that would require significant explanation and defense. In fact, as Steven Duby has argued, “Holy Scripture (materially and implicitly) compels us by the aseity of God and the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo to reject Platonic realism about separate universals.”[25] The rest of the “anti’s” are mostly baked into the package of Christianity regardless of Platonism. At this point, I’m not convinced you have anything left of Platonism once you’ve stripped it of its anti-Christian assumptions. In the end, you just have Christianity. Not Platonism.

What is also surprising is that those willing to read Lloyd Gerson carefully will realize that even Gerson admits to the significant controversy within even the self-described Platonists ranging from whether the Forms are within the divine mind or not; whether the universe was created in time or not; whether evil is to be identified with matter or privation or neither, etc.[26] Therefore, to use the term “Christian Platonism” as a stand-in for a metaphysically unified way of looking at the world cannot even stand the test of historical examination. Gerson is clear that despite consensus otherwise, “varieties of Platonism can actually contain contradictory positions on particular issues.”[27]

With all this in mind, also remember that for many who seek to retrieve Christian Platonism the term is intentionally used as a proxy 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.[28] It is, as Craig Carter has argued, “the label that can be applied to the theological metaphysics that grows out of the fourth-century pro-Nicene theology.”[29] Those that reject Christian Platonism “oppose philosophy itself and, in so doing, to set oneself in opposition to reason, the moral law, and natural science.”[30] However, nowhere do we see justification for using such terminology to mean this. Both the historical description and the contemporary Ur-Platonism definition fail, as I’ve shown here.

7.2 A Monolithic Tradition? The Supposed Necessity of Christian Platonism

Finally, equating the terminology of Christian Platonism with both the Great Tradition and Nicaea ends up elevating Platonism to dogmatic status—which it has never received—such that there are some that think Christian Platonism is necessary for Classical Theism, or at least a sort of “metaphysical garden” from which it flourishes.[31] I think this is wrong on both accounts but let me explain.

I think the argument that Christian Platonism is necessary goes something like this:

  1. Nicene Orthodoxy (or the Great Tradition) = Metaphysical Commitments X, Y, Z
  2. Christian Platonism = Metaphysical Commitments X, Y, Z
  3. Therefore, Christian Platonism is necessary for Nicene Orthodoxy (or the Great Tradition) since it is identical to Nicene Orthodoxy

As I’ve shown throughout, Christian Platonism on either the broad Ur-Platonist definition or some of the narrower historical definitions does not have identical metaphysical commitments to Nicaea. Therefore, #2 is false, and even #1 is often misrepresented. Nicaea isn’t nearly as metaphysically robust as many want it to be. It’s well known by patristic scholars that this is the case. As Mark Smith has argued, Nicaea is the “perfect fig leaf to shroud their contradictions and so to hide their blushes.”[32]

Even more, consider the Reformed Orthodox heroes of many that confess the Second London Confession of Faith. Richard Muller, through painstaking analysis, has shown that there is no exclusive allegiance to any particular thinker or system—Platonism or otherwise.[33] Here he is at length:

Reformed theology was not, after all, definitively attached to a particular version of the Aristotelian tradition, nor was it (as was much Roman Catholic theology) attached to the thought and the major teaching traditions of the monastic and mendicant orders. Citation of older theological and philosophical materials by the Reformed thinkers of the early orthodox era manifests both broad interest in such thinkers as Aquinas, Durandus, Scotus, Gregory of Rimini, Thomas of Strasbourg, and William of Ockham and highly eclectic appropriation of materials. The same can be said the use of contemporary Roman Catholic thinkers like Suarez or Banez.[34]

Therefore, Christian Platonism as a description of the Great Tradition is quite unhelpful. It’s either too narrow and excludes figures that shouldn’t be excluded or so broad that it no longer has anything distinguishably Platonist. While it’s good to have Plato as a dialogue partner and it’s good to utilize Platonic thought in the service of Christianity (I’m glad we have true Christian Platonists out there!), it’s not good to call Christian doctrine by names that suggest Plato is the metaphysician for faithful Christian doctrine. While Christian Platonism is a useful historical designation for some figures that are truly Christian Platonists in the robust sense that has been described by those like Paul Gould as the Platonic core, when used in the thin way that is common in contemporary evangelical parlance it is pregnant with meaning beyond Ur-Platonism that not only wrongly labels Nicene metaphysics but can lead to dangerous theological consequences. Christian Platonism is not a neutral phrase that can be used as identical to phrases that summarize the basic classical Christian commitments.

At last, we return once again to why the term is so important, as Hunter has asked in his own essay. First, as noted in agreement with Hunter, if the label isn’t what is important and the label is wrong, why continue to use it? This seems like a straightforward fix. Let Christian Platonism mean what it means: one important strand of the Christian Tradition and not a unifying necessary set of beliefs. Second, why assume labels don’t matter—or at least why this label doesn’t matter? While we may say “naming” doesn’t matter in this context and that it’s just the content that matters, this is empirically wrong and theologically disingenuous. Consider Adam’s first noble task of dominion. Naming. What is the first act when a newborn is brought into life? Naming. What does God do to change Abram? Naming. And if we merely label it as such because our opponents are averse to the terminology we risk losing the metaphysical commitments we are really seeking to protect. Therefore, I submit that we seek clarity and precision in our naming. It matters. This is why I argue that Christian Platonism as a name for the entire Great Tradition should be jettisoned. In its place, I don’t see why we can’t be satisfied with the terminology of the Great Tradition (or something else less nefarious). That communicates a common set of beliefs without unduly tying it to any particular tradition or thinker.

Jordan L. Steffaniak (ThM, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is President of the London Lyceum. He is a Research Fellow for the Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a tutor for BibleMesh, and a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham, UK, studying the intersection of Conciliar Christology and anthropology. He has a wonderful wife and two sons. He also works in the financial industry as a business intelligence manager.

[1] Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 66.

[2] Craig A. Carter, “Why Should We Affirm Christian Platonism?,” Credo Magazine, March 25, 2021, https://credomag.com/2021/03/why-should-we-affirm-christian-platonism/.

[3] Carter.

[4] Diogenes Allen and Eric O. Springsted, Philosophy for Understanding Theology, 2nd ed (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 65.; T. Theo J. Pleizier and Maarten Wisse, “‘As the Philosopher Says’: Aristotle,” in Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism, ed. Willem J. van Asselt, trans. Albert Gootjes, Reformed Historical-Theological Studies (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 41.

[5] Alexander J. B. Hampton and John Peter Kenney, “Christianity and Platonism,” in Christian Platonism: A History, ed. Alexander J. B. Hampton and John Peter Kenney (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 3.

[6] Hampton and Kenney, 4.

[7] Lloyd P. Gerson, “The Perennial Value of Platonism,” in Christian Platonism: A History, ed. Alexander J. B. Hampton and John Peter Kenney (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 16.

[8] Kevin Corrigan, “Creation, Begetting, Desire, and Re-Creation,” in Christian Platonism: A History, ed. Alexander J. B. Hampton and John Peter Kenney (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 95.

[9] John Peter Kenney, “Platonism and Christianity in Late Antiquity,” in Christian Platonism: A History, ed. Alexander J. B. Hampton and John Peter Kenney (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 163.

[10] Joshua Levi Ian Gentzke, “Christian Platonism and Modernity,” in Christian Platonism: A History, ed. Alexander J. B. Hampton and John Peter Kenney (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 328.

[11] Lydia Schumacher, “Christian Platonism in the Medieval West,” in Christian Platonism: A History, ed. Alexander J. B. Hampton and John Peter Kenney (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 190.

[12] Hampton and Kenney, “Christianity and Platonism,” 3–4.

[13] Christopher A. Beeley, The Unity of Christ: Continuity and Conflict in Patristic Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 280.

[14] Sarah Coakley, “What Does Chalcedon Solve and What Does It Not? Some Reflections on the Status and Meaning of the Chalcedonian ‘Defintion,’” in The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God, ed. Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, and Gerald O’Collins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 145.

[15] Mark J. Edwards, “Origen,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford University, 2022), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2022/entries/origen/.

[16] Quoted in Cory C. Brock, Orthodox yet Modern: Herman Bavinck’s Use of Friedrich Schleiermacher (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 132.

[17] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 1:609.

[18] Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 114, https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139174763.

[19] Brendan Case, “Pascalian Mockery as Love of Enemy,” Church Life Journal, accessed August 15, 2022, https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/pascalian-mockery-as-love-of-enemy/.

[20] Jordan Steffaniak, “Everything in Nature Speaks of God: Understanding Sola Scriptura Aright,” Modern Reformation 31, no. 3 (June 2022).

[21] I must credit Hunter Hindsman for this insight.

[22] Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition from Plato to Denys (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), xiv, 76.

[23] Charles Brittain, “Plato and Platonism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Plato, ed. Gail Fine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 538–39, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195182903.003.0022.

[24] Kenney, “Platonism and Christianity in Late Antiquity,” 166.

[25] Steven J. Duby, Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account (London: T. & T. Clark, 2016), 79.

[26] Lloyd P. Gerson, “What Is Platonism?,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 43, no. 3 (July 2005): 255.

[27] Lloyd P. Gerson, From Plato to Platonism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017), 262.

[28] Craig A. Carter, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), 127.

[29] Carter, Contemplating God, 7.

[30] Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition, 82.

[31] I credit Samuel Parkison for the metaphysical garden illustration. Thanks, Twitter!

[32] Mark S. Smith, The Idea of Nicaea in the Early Church Councils, AD 431-451, The Oxford Early Christian Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 173; Beeley, The Unity of Christ, 284.

[33] Richard A. Muller, “Reformation, Orthodoxy, ‘Christian Aristotelianism,’ and the Eclecticism of Early Modern Philosophy,” Nederlands Archief Voor Kerkgeschiedenis 81, no. 3 (2001): 321.

[34] Muller, 319.

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