|An ancient bust of Plato|
located in the Vatican
Very true, he said, but what are these forms of theology which you mean? Something of this kind, I replied: God is always to be represented as he truly is, whatever be the sort of poetry, epic, lyric, or tragic, in which the representation is given.I know this was a lengthy quote, but it is an interesting one to show how Socrates uses the questions and responses in order to build up to a conclusion. His conclusions about God are interesting here, especially when compared with Christian theology. Compare Socrates' last paragraph above with James 1:17 "Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow" (NASB), some striking similarities there. But wait there's more! A little further on in the Republic, Plato attributes to Socrates this conclusion about God, "Then it is impossible that God should ever be willing to change being, as is supposed, the fairest and best that is conceivable, every God remains absolutely and forever in his own form" (Book II). So here, in a roundabout way Plato (through the voice of Socrates) is saying that God is only good and that he doesn't change. Wow, definitely some common ground with Christian theology. But apparently I am not the only one to think so. The early second century Church apologist, Justin Martyr (died ca. 165 AD), thought the same thing. Before his conversion to Christianity, Justin was a wandering philosopher sage, until he met a Christian who witnessed to him and taught him the way of salvation. Justin, having extensive schooling in philosophy, understood and saw the many striking similarities between some of Plato and Socrates' understanding about God, and the immortality of the soul, (as well as other things) with Christian theology. It was with these similarities in mind that Justin responded to the Roman societies' dislike, and critic of Christianity. He argued in a round about way that Plato and Socrates had received this truth from Christ, the "logos," who is the giver of all truth, and thus in way, they were...Christians(!). A little strange for our 21st century ears, but it made sense to Justin, and it inevitably made sense to many of the ancient Church Fathers who were influenced heavily by various Platonist ideas....can someone say Origen!
And is he not truly good? and must he not be represented as such? [Socrates is referring to God here]
And no good thing is hurtful?
And that which is not hurtful hurts not?
And that which hurts not does no evil?
And can that which does no evil be a cause of evil?
And the good is advantageous?
And therefore the cause of well being?
It follows therefore that the good is not the cause of all things, but of the good only?
Then God, if he be good, is not the author of all things, as the many assert, but he is the cause of a few things only, and not of most things that occur to men. For few are the goods of human life, and many are the evils, and the good is to be attributed to God alone; of the evils the causes are to be sought elsewhere and not in him. (Plato, Republic, Book II)
But there were others in the ancient world who took a dislike to philosophy and Christianity touching shoulders so closely. It was just such a reaction that Tertullian (a Church figure from Carthage in north Africa, ca. 160-225 AD) expressed when he penned the now famous quote; "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? What does the Academy have to do with the Church?" (Prescriptions Against Heresies, 1.7). In this quote, Tertullian is showing how influential Plato really was in his day. Plato was from the Greek city of Athens, and the Academy was founded by Plato in Athens to teach his brand of philosophy.
|The Nag Hammadi Gnostic Writings|
What can we learn from this example of Plato? Whether we like it or not, we are deeply indebted to past thinkers, much of what we know is based on, or built on the discoveries and knowledge of the past. This can be a blessing, and a curse. It can be a blessing, because we only have a short time in this world, and we cannot know everything, we have to work together. It can be a curse because it can set a precedent of thinking, a cultural paradigm in which we find ourselves and do not even realize we are being influenced by the past. Tertullian saw this danger, and the wide range of Gnostic melding of philosophy and Christianity shows how far this can go.
I have this example of Plato in the back of my mind each time I sit down and read my Bible, "How much of what I think about God is influenced in a negative way by some outside source, mindset or paradigm?" I want to make sure that my theology is taken from the word of God, and thus accurate. Philosophy can be a tool to better understand God, but I should be very careful not to force the Bible into a philosophical system.
I meant to reference my sources, I will add that here;
Gonzales, Justo L.. The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day. 2 Vols. Peabody: Prince Press, 2006, 1:53-56.
Plato. The Apology and Crito. Edited by Isaac Flagg. American Book Company, 1907.
____. Plato, Six Great Dialogues: Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, and the Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2007.
Robinson, James M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Revised edition. New York: HarperCollins Paperback, 1990.