In the same way that Empire influences and underlies nearly every thing in the Bible – and yet many do not know about it – Aristotelian thought, Platonism, and neo-Platonism saturate early church history and thus the inherited tradition. I had also suggested (in Liberation & Logos) that all theology has philosophical underpinnings – whether it admits it or not. It is no surprise then that much of the what would become Christianity had integrated/appropriated the philosophy of the world that it emerged from.
Neo-Platonism: The last stage of Greek philosophy (identified with Plotinus), which greatly influenced certain early church thinkers, particularly *Origen and *Augustine. Neo-Platonists taught that everything emanates (flows) from the transcendent principle of the One and is destined to return to the One through a process of purification.
Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 921-922). Kindle Edition.
Justo L. González. has some helpful additions:
In these emanations, the One moves toward multiplicity. Evil as such does not exist, but is rather the deprivation of the good, so that something is said to be “bad” or “corrupted” as it moves toward multiplicity and away from the One. True knowledge is attained through the contemplation of higher realities, and specifically of the One, and its goal is to culminate in *ecstasy, where the soul contemplates the One directly and loses itself into the One.
It is interesting to think about how influential these philosophies have been and to discover when they have most popular. Neoplatonism was initially rejected by christians.
Augustine (354-430) found Neoplatonism helpful in dealing with some of the difficulties he had with Christian doctrines such as the incorporeity of God and the *soul, and in dealing with the problem of how evil can exist in a world created by a good God (sec *Theodicy). He thus became one of the main channels through which Neoplatonism impacted Western Christian theology.
Essential Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 2887-2896). Kindle Edition.
Neoplatonism was tweaked a bit (losing its objectionable elements) and was the dominant thought in Western Christianity until the 13th century when Aristotle was reintroduced – mainly through the work of Thomas Aquinas into what become known as Thomism.
I wanted to put this entry into the ABCs series because we live in a time when many are unaware of their religion’s philosophical past relationships. I will often hear concern from sincere and devout evangelical,charismatic or conservative believers who say “why do you mess around with all of that philosophical mumbo-jumbo? We already have the Bible and it should be enough. Just preach the Word.”
It isn’t that easy of course.
As I pointed about the Gospel of John with its use of the Logos, both scripture and church history draw deeply on philosophical underpinnings. I would actually argue that we owe it to out faith and to the contemporary culture to engage (not just combat) the contemporary philosophy of our day!
If you want to follow-up on this historic precedent and trajectory, I would recommend Philosophy and Theology by John D. Caputo. It is thin and written for a wide audience. His writing style is also wonderfully light-hearted.
Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri