For centuries now, scholars have recognized Plato’s influence on early Christian theologians. From the Apostle Paul to Justin Martyr, to Augustine of Hippo, all seem to have been affected in one way or another by Plato and his teachings. Many scholars seem to believe that Plato’s view of objective truth and reality affected the Apostles perception of the very nature of God.
There are many topics in the New Testament that scholars attribute to Plato, including the dualistic distinction between body and soul, and his view of truth as eternal and unchanging. In Plato’s mind, objective truth could only be found in the reality of the Forms. He believed that the reality we perceive is only a shadow of the ideal form, and only the philosopher could perceive this reality. In book six of The Republic he claimed that, “philosophers alone are able to lay hold of the ever same and unchangeable . . .” Later he wrote, “they [philosophers] always are in love with learning, that is, whatever makes clear to them anything of that being which is eternal . . .” It is clear that from Plato’s perspective, the truth of the Forms was unchangeable, and eternal.
Plato believed that these Forms were also the absolute standards for goodness, justice, and even beauty. In book five of The Republic he claimed, if “he does not believe in the beautiful itself, he will have no model of perfect beauty always unchangeable . . .” Plato’s reality also seemed to hold the key to perfect and objective goodness. In book six, he used the sun as an analogy for goodness, whereas the sun was perfect goodness, and whatever the sun shined on, mirrored or reflected it’s light (goodness). But how could Plato’s thinking be logically extended to influence early Christianity?
It is often thought that the idea of God being objectively good, eternal, and unchanging, is borrowing from Plato. Many believe that Plato’s description of objective truth was appealing to early Christians, and was then applied to the character of God in the writings of the early church. In the New Testament, there are multiple occasions where Platonic philosophy seems to affect the theology within the scriptures. The eternality, goodness, and unchangeableness of God can all be found in the New Testament after the time of Plato. For example, the theology of God’s eternality can be seen in the writings of the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:20, when he wrote, “For his [God’s] invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world . . .” In Matthew 19:27, Jesus said, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only One who is good.” And finally, James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” It is interesting that even some of the phrases used, such as “shifting shadows” seem to have great ties to Plato’s writings. From just these few New Testament examples, it is easy to see a definite resemblance between Plato’s philosophy of truth and the Forms, and the theology of the writers of the New Testament. But did Plato really alter what the early church believed about God?
The early church fathers adopted Plato’s philosophies of objective truth, not because they simply liked the notion of objective truth, but rather because it coincided with what they had already believed about God’s nature. To top it off, the Jewish Apostles were not going to adopt random philosophies from someone they thought to be a pagan Gentile, unless those philosophies affirmed what they already knew. If the early church observed a similarity between Plato’s views and that of the Old Testament, then there would be no reason for the church to reject it. Saint Augustine made this point clear when he wrote, “If those who are called philosophers, particularly the Platonists, have said anything which is true and consistent with our faith, we must not reject it . . .”
It is worth the effort to delve into the Old Testament scriptures in order to find out whether or not the Judeo-Christian God was viewed as eternal, good, and unchanging prior to the time of Plato. More than five hundred years before Plato, King David wrote in Psalm 93:2, “Your throne was established long ago, You are from all eternity.” Concerning God’s goodness, David also wrote, “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good!” God is also viewed as perfect in the Old Testament. 2 Samuel 22:31 says, “As for God, his way is perfect: the Lord’s word is flawless . . .” And finally, God was viewed as unchanging, as Malachi 3:6 says, “For I the Lord do not change.”
Just by looking at a few Old Testament references, it is clear that the apostles did not steal their theology from Plato when it comes to the nature of God, rather they would have recognized that Plato’s ideas of truth sounded much like the God of the Old Testament. If Judaism came before Plato and especially the belief in an objectively good, eternal, and unchanging being, then who influenced whom? The early Christians were not adopting Platonic thought wholesale, but both seemed to be tapping into something legitimate. Plato’s definition of objective truth did come very close to describing the Hebrew God of the Bible, which was the very reason why early Christians were so accepting of many of Plato’s philosophies.
Plato’s philosophies did have an effect on early Christians, but there is clearly a misconception of the extent of his influence. Even though Plato did not alter the early Christian view of God, his writings may have helped legitimize Christianity to the Greeks after the time of Christ due to the similarities previously mentioned. It seems to have greatly contributed by paving the way for the Gospel of Christ to be brought to the Greeks. Clement of Alexandria clearly understood this when he wrote, “For philosophy acted as a ‘schoolmaster’ to bring Greeks to Christ . . . Thus philosophy was by way of a preparation, which prepared the way for its perfection in Christ.” Plato’s impact on early Christians would be nothing compared to Christianity’s impact on the Greeks, especially after Plato had philosophically paved the way for Christianity to be accepted.
Augustine. The Christian Theology Reader. Edited by Alister E. McGrath. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2011.
Clement. The Christian Theology Reader. Edited by Alister E. McGrath. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
Plato. The Republic. Translated by W.H.D. Rouse. New York: Mentor, 1984.
All scripture references from the NIV.
Reagan Elkins serves as Trinity’s music, youth, and multimedia minister. Reagan earned an A.A. degree in Film and Video Productions from OCCC, and a B.A. degree in History from USAO. In Spring of 2014 he directed a documentary entitled, “The Diminished Church,” which explains a few reasons why youth are leaving the church in America. Reagan desires to eventually continue his education in the fields of Christian apologetics and film directing.