Plato and Christianity
Published: 30 April 2016 (GMT+10)
Plato is often termed the father of Western philosophy. His ideas have had a massive impact on the West, including on Christian thinkers, and continue to do so even today. But how indebted is Christianity to Plato? Did Christianity come from Plato’s philosophy? T.S. from Spain writes:
I´m a student and I´m trying to do a research of philosophy vs Christianity to do a project for my philosophy teacher. He said that Christianity came from Plato’s philosophy (theory of forms). I´m really not agree with that. I would like to know how to refute that. And what articles would be better to share with him from your website. Thank you and God bless.
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
Plato’s philosophy was by no means the historical ground from which Christianity sprouted. Historically speaking, Christianity is a form of early Jewish messianism—it was birthed in a 1st century AD Palestinian Jewish milieu in which there was a lot of messianic speculation. Many Jews of the period hoped that the Messiah would come and overthrow the Romans, and establish universal Israelite rule. Jesus came into that context claiming to be the Jewish Messiah, though with a very different agenda than what many Jews were expecting. Of course, to understand any of this, one needs to be familiar with the Old Testament—the creative and sovereign supremacy of the God of Israel, His promise to Israel to make them a nation of priests and a light to the world, and the historical dealings God had with Adam, Noah, and Abraham before that, and David and his royal line after that. In other words, the foundational corpus for understanding the ideological origins of Christianity is not Plato’s dialogues, but the Old Testament. Christianity certainly didn’t start off as a Greek philosophical school of thought.
Nonetheless, in terms of philosophy, Christianity does share some important features with Plato. The New Testament writers believed that we remain conscious after physical death (e.g. Philippians 1:23), as Plato did. The Bible rejects atheism and materialism, as Plato did. Both believed in a supreme beneficent reality. Both believed that the physical universe was designed.
However, there are also important differences. For instance, Christianity is a form of monotheism—the belief that there is one supreme being who is the beneficent source and sovereign of all things. While Plato certainly believed in some sort of ultimate beneficent reality, so that many of his ideas are easily conformable to monotheism, he’s not really clear on the precise nature of that ultimate reality. He had two notions that he never really systematized into a single coherent worldview—his Form of the Good, and his Demiurge. The Form of the Good was the ultimate form for Plato, from which every other form derived its goodness, but it was impersonal. The Demiurge was the ‘craftsman’ who gave shape to the material universe by moulding the matter (which Plato believed to be eternal, which the Bible rejects) after the pattern of the forms. However, his Demiurge was in a real sense ‘subordinate’ to the realm of the forms. Later thinkers identified Plato’s form of the Good with God, and located the other forms in His mind as divine ideas (many early church fathers were champions of this modification of Plato), and others identified the Form of the Good with the ultimate good god, and the Demiurge with a bad, subordinate god who made the physical universe (as the ultimate good god wouldn’t sully himself by using or creating matter)—this was Gnosticism.
Moreover, Plato believed that souls are indestructible, which the New Testament rejects. We are God’s creatures, soul and body, and God has the power to annihilate our souls. We only remain conscious after death because God wills it so, not because He can’t destroy our souls.1 Moreover, Plato’s assessment of the disembodied state is very different from that found in the New Testament. For Plato, being disembodied was the desirable final destination. In the New Testament, being disembodied is a form of nakedness (and thus shame), so the dead await to be re-embodied at the final resurrection (2 Corinthians 5:4–10). This is why the disembodied state of a dead person is called the intermediate state. And since Plato thought disembodiment was the best, he certainly would not have liked the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body! For more on this, please see Soulless humans?
Nonetheless, early Christians certainly utilized some of Plato’s ideas, such as his theory of the forms, to construct defences of Christianity against competing philosophies. However, Platonism was one of those philosophies that competed with Christianity in the early centuries of the church. As such, the early church fathers almost always modified Platonic ideas in light of the data of Scripture.
For instance, Plato’s theory of the forms, and especially his notion of the Form of the Good, were ‘rolled together’ into the mind of the God of Scripture. This meant God himself played the role that Plato’s Form of the Good played in his philosophy. Moreover, Plato’s forms were reconceptualized by Christians as divine ideas, which internalized them into God, meaning that they didn’t have a separate and independent existence apart from God.
Now, the big difference between Christianity and Plato at this point was that Plato’s Form of the Good was an impersonal object, but God is personal. But this also provided Christianity with several advantages. For instance, Plato’s realm of distinct forms could all be internalized into God as His ideas, making ultimate reality much simpler. God’s personhood also means that God, unlike the Form of the Good, can act and create, and even create from nothing. This does away with the need for eternal matter, so that time, space, matter, and the forms are all ultimately dependent on God, whether as His thoughts (the forms) or His creations (space, time, and matter). It also means that Plato’s Demiurge is a superfluous concept; a poor substitute for the God who makes all things from nothing. As such, in many ways, Plato was on the right track, but the specifics of biblical theism he didn’t have access to better explain many of the things he ‘saw as through a glass darkly’.
Christianity has a long and interesting interaction with platonic ideas; sometimes fruitful, many times detrimental. But the true ideological grounds for Christianity are not to be found in Plato; they are found in the Old Testament.
We don’t have much in our resources that provide extensive discussion of the relation between Plato and Christianity, since it’s somewhat outside the regular purview of our ministry, though you may benefit from these articles: From Plato to pragmatism, Evolution: an ancient pagan idea, and What is ‘good’? (Answering the Euthyphro Dilemma).
T.S. responded to this:
Thank you so much for your great reply. I needed this information to discuss it with my philosophy teacher in Spain. Creation Ministries International for me is the best Christian website to refute evolution and with many other topics.
References and notes
- This does not mean, though, that God actually has annihilated or will annihilate any souls. Rather, God will subject the wicked to everlasting conscious punishment (Matthew 25:46). For more information, please see Why would a loving God send people to Hell? and Hell questions answered. Return to text.