Let’s Shed Some Platonism!

Plato_Silanion_Musei_Capitolini_MC1377So, let’s have a quick lesson on the teachings of Plato. In Platonic thought there are two categories. In the first category there is the true essence; the wonderful perfect form of something; the ideal. Then in the other category there is the visible copy of the ideal in the here and now. Confused? Yes, I get confused in thinking about this stuff too. Let me see if I can boil it down a little more simply.

Take a baseball bat for example. In Platonic thought/philosophy there is a perfect bat that exists ‘out there’ (i.e., the good form) and all the bats that we have in our possession, that we can see and feel, are mere imperfect copies of the perfect bat. In fact our idea and our construction of a baseball bat is supposedly sourced in the true and good bat.

This all may seem somewhat ridiculous, but we seriously are impacted by this Platonic thought. For example, one of the main ways that our western thought is impacted by Platonism is that we see the true and good form as wonderful and everything else in the here and now as imperfect copies. Thus, we can fall into the wrong thinking that spiritual things are good whereas things that are material are bad. In fact, Plato taught that it was the goal of us as humans to escape our evil material bodies. Material is bad for it is only an imperfect copy, right? Therefore, we not only regard material as bad and spiritual as good, we end up categorizing things according to these two categories.

Today in my Confessions class the professor gave us some words and asked us to organize them. Why don’t you take a chance to arrange them into two categories too.

Soul – Body – God – Earth – Frog – Heaven – Rock

So, how would you arrange them? Chances are you did something like this!

Group #1

Group #2

If you organized the words into the groups above, BINGO, you just organized them according to Platonic thought. Notice that you put spiritual things in group #1 and material things in group #2? This is most certainly a result of being influenced by Platonism and not the Bible.

Rather, when we look at these same words above and arrange them according to the Bible we see something drastically different.

Group #1

Group #2

Notice the Bible and our Historic Confessions give us different categories? Group #1 is the creator. Group #2 is the created. This is important because material things matter to God. He created the heavens and the earth and declared all things ‘Very Good!’ Yes, the fall of Genesis 3 happened, but that was not due to God, lest we blaspheme creation. Rather, we believe, teach, and confess that all of God’s creation has been created good, we marred it by our sin, and God is the one putting everything back together again through the atonement of Christ and at the long awaited second coming.

So what other areas have you been influenced by Platonic thought?


About Pastor Matt Richard

Rev. Dr. Matthew Richard is the pastor at Zion Lutheran Church of Gwinner, ND. He was previously a Senior Pastor in Sidney, Montana, an Associate Pastor of Spiritual Care and Youth Ministries in Williston, North Dakota, and an Associate Pastor of Children and Youth in Rancho Cucamonga, California. He received his undergraduate degree from Minot State University, ND and his M.Div. from Lutheran Brethren Seminary, MN. His doctor of ministry thesis, from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, was on exploring the journey of American Evangelicals into Confessional Lutheran thought. Pastor Richard is married to Serenity and they have two children. He enjoys fishing, pheasant hunting, watching movies, blogging, golfing, spending time with his family and a good book with a warm latte! To check out more articles by Pastor Matt you can visit his personal blog at: www.pastormattrichard.com.


Let’s Shed Some Platonism! — 16 Comments

  1. Hey Matt,

    Ask your prof for me if Plato may have been Mormon. 🙂

    That first list reminds me if their pre-existing souls doctrine (heresy).

  2. What is the name of similar philosopher that has influenced the thinking of the Eastern Orthodox church? Little Plato?

  3. I don’t fault anyone suffering from Platonic influence. For indeed, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” and “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”

  4. Dear Pastor,
    Thanks for the interesting topic. I can definitely see the connection between Platonism and a not un-Gnostic dualism that needs to be opposed. At the same time though there are some places where I believe that Nominalism, and not Realism has led Western Civilization down the bunny trail. By rejecting the existence of ideals, Nominalism has led the West into relativism. If there are no ideals of conduct or morality, then conduct and morality become just human constructs reflecting the prevailing public opinion. I think we can “thank” Occam, Abelard et al. for a lot of the “your truth” garbage that our society is spewing out today.

    Slap a salutary warning label on Platonism by all means, but I think the real threat to our society today is an ultra-empiricist Nominalism.
    Pax Christi+,
    -Matt Mills

  5. Also, category 1 might be God, soul, body. Because the human is the image of God and exists as a union of soul and body.

    As it is above (God apart from soul and body), what about Jesus? He is God. He is a human soul. He is a human body. Finitum capax est infinitum in persona Iesu.

  6. “This is most certainly a result of being influenced by Platonism and not the Bible.”

    Could it simply be a straightforward distinction between the visible and the invisible, quite independent of Plato?

  7. In our battle with both Modernism and post-modernism, Plato is our best friend. He helps us understand that an idea is something with more substance than a relationship between two pieces of matter.

  8. Matthew,

    Excellent question. I was speaking philosophically and you are asking a theological question.

    Hands down, Augustine over Aquinas but that is only because his doctine of justification is not quite as screwed up as Aquinas’.

    The erroneous parts of Augustine’s doctrine of justification are however, most likely caused by his Neo-platonism (i.e. the need to climb up out of the degraded physical world into the desirable spiritual world).

    The main factor that screws up Aquinas is the ethics and anthropology of Aristotle and not his metaphysics so much. The potentiality/act dynamic leads right into the gross progressive justification doctrine of Aquinas and much of the RC today. This is the same tendency in Augustine only for him it is done on a cosmic level (the entire phjysical realm is inherently lacking and in need of acheiving the ideal). This too leads to erroneous progressive justification. It is Augustine’s total depravity that makes his more tolerable.

    If you read Luther, it is the anthropology and ethics of Aristotle that he has a problem with. I am convinced that if he ever were asked if he preferred Platonic idealism or Aristotelian common sense empiricism, Luther would choose the latter. Aristotle’s empiricism is wonderful stuff for understanding the need for the incarnation and the basic notion of sacramental revelation (i.e. God’s Word revealed in flesh and blood and via empircal means).

  9. @Pastor Tim Rossow #12
    Looks like I’ve got some more reading to do Pastor. (Never a bad thing.)

    Historically I’ve always been taught that Luther started as an Occamist (Nominalist) but as he aged he basically rejected the entire scholastic system as being more barnacles than boat. There’s probably a lot of wisdom in that. Probably best to slap the appropriate warning labels on all of the pagan and neo-pagan “isms” and stick w/ the scriptures.

    Still, in our place and time, I think the cultural triumph of Enlightenment empiricism may have done more damage to the Church than neo-Platonic realism. With realism at least you have the assertion that there is a “right answer” somewhere. Our society seems to have lost that somewhere along the line.

    -Matt Mills

  10. Matthew,

    I really appreciate your posts and have been schooled by you a few times.

    Luther sometimes sounds like an Occamist and many of his biographers have certainly pegged him there but that is because they had their own anti-realist axes to grind, i.e. freedom, anti-authority, anti-truth, etc. Everybody loves Raymond and everybody loves making Luther their hero.

    There is no proof that the mature Luther was an Occamist so you are right, with Luther, that we simply stick to Scripture.

    We all know that Luther raked the scholastics over the coals, but, if you read Luther carefully you will see that his target is the anthropology and ethics of Aristotle because they so clearly lead to progressive justification and were used for that purpose by the Dumb Ox.

    I am convinced that if you spelled out for Luther the difference between Aristotle’s metaphysics and Plato’s in a non-theological discussion, that he would embrace the commonm sense realism of Aristotle. Any thinking person who is willing to curb the poet inside, agrees with and functions as a common sense realist. Don’t forget that Aristotle taught the reality of the “ideas.” Aristotle is a realist. He simply taught that the “ideas” (forms, substances, etc.) inhered in the thing.

    There must be substantial, enduring forms otherwise there is no true knowledge and we are all skeptics. But Plato’s idealism is just plain stupid and a huge deduction that is contrary to common sense. Aristotle saved the forms and saved truth but simply realized that the form/substance of the thing is “in” the thing.

    The bug bear is this. How can humans know these forms? The Gilsonian Thomists of the mid 20th century simply posited that the human mind is able to know them. It is that simple but it is a so-far unproved supposition. Without it, there is no knowing of substantial and enduring things and thus no real truth unless you are able to travel to Plato’s la-la land of spiritual forms.

    I have little time for the Finnish school of Luther thought but in that volume (CPH?) there is an article that holds that Luther functioned and thought like a common sense realist. I agree.

    Enough for now. Thanks for the discusson.

  11. Without it, there is no knowing of substantial and enduring things and thus no real truth unless you are able to travel to Plato’s la-la land of spiritual forms.

    But (spiritual not religious) people do travel to “Plato’s la-la land of spiritual forms.” Am I correct in saying that Plato+Religion=Gnosticism?

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