Is Your Church Teaching You to Follow Jesus Christ or Plato?

Eternal Subordination of the Son, Male Authority, Death of the Self, Predestination: Do these ideas have their origin in the Bible or in human philosophy?  To answer this question, I’d like to begin by looking at the work of a man named “Plato.”

Plato was a philosopher in ancient Greece who attempted to make sense of life, the universe and everything using human reason or logic as his starting point. The worldview that he developed is referred to as “Platonism.”

Platonism was based on the concept of “natural order.” Some things, according to Plato, were naturally superior to others. The spirit was superior to the body; reason was superior to emotion; men were superior to women; the best born and best educated men were superior to men who were slaves etc.

Platonism was hierarchical. In order for justice to prevail in society, according to Plato, the superior must rule over the inferior. The spirit must rule the body, reason must rule emotion, men must rule women, and the “best-born” men must rule over allegedly lesser-born slaves. These two concepts, natural order and hierarchy, formed the foundation of a rigidly class-based society. As long as everyone was in the proper class and fulfilling their proper function, all would be well with the State. If a person attempted to function outside of his or her class, this action was defined as “injustice.” Mingling of the classes was viewed as rebellion against the natural order of things. (Plato’s Republic)

How has Platonism influenced Christianity? One of the earliest Christian theologians studied Platonism in the 3rd century A.D.. His name was Origen. He studied under a man named Ammonius Saccas. When Origen read the Bible, he began to make sense of it through the lenses of Platonism. (Encyclopedia Brittanica)

When he considered the Trinity for example, he saw a hierarchy of classes:

”Origen begins his treatise On First Principles by establishing, in typical Platonic fashion, a divine hierarchical triad; but instead of calling these principles by typical Platonic terms like monad, dyad, and world-soul, he calls them “Father,” “Christ,” and “Holy Spirit,” though he does describe these principles using Platonic language.” (http://www.iep.utm.edu/origen-of-alexandria/#SH3a)

Today, Christian leaders who follow in the theological tradition established by Origen refer to this hierarchical view of the Trinity as “the Eternal Subordination of the Son.” Does the Bible teach that Jesus was and is eternally submissive to God the Father? Explicitly, no. This doctrine has been inferred by theologians following in the philosophical footsteps of Origen.

Studying Platonism alongside Origen was a non-Christian philosopher by the name of Plotinus. His views are still available in works referred to as “the Enneads.” In the Enneads, the universe is once again portrayed in terms of natural order and hierarchy. Plotinus also shares a view of God that is deterministic. The divine Source (or “All”) is responsible for everything that takes place in the universe, including evil.

How did Plotinus, a non-Christian, influence Christianity? St. Augustine, an influential theologian from the 4th century A.D. was introduced to the work of Plotinus by a mentor. In his Confessions, Augustine praises “the books of the Platonists,” and explains that they helped him to make sense of the Bible. Like Origen before him, Augustine began to read the Bible through the lenses of Platonism (specifically the neo-Platonic views of Plotinus). What were the results? As far as Augustine was concerned, God is responsible for everything that takes place on earth, including sin. Human choice is subject to God’s decree. The spirit must rule over the body, and men must rule over women:

Adam said, “This is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” And the apostle saith, “He that loveth his wife loveth himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh.” Flesh, then, is put for woman, in the same manner that spirit is sometimes put for husband. Wherefore? Because the one rules, the other is ruled; the one ought to command, the other to serve. For where the flesh commands and the spirit serves, the house is turned the wrong way. What can be worse than a house where the woman has the mastery over the man? But that house is rightly ordered where the man commands and the woman obeys. In like manner that man is rightly ordered where the spirit commands and the flesh serves. (On John, Tractate 2, § 14, womenpriests.org)

How are Plato, Origen, Plotinus and Augustine relevant to the church today? Influential Protestant Reformer John Calvin made sense of the Bible through the philosophical work of Plato (Commentary on Genesis) and the theological work of St. Augustine (Institutes of the Christian Religion). What did John Calvin conclude? God is in control of everything that takes place on earth, including sin. Human choice is subject to God’s decree. What human beings choose and the results of those choices are predetermined by God. It is not enough for human emotion to be made subject to the mind; it must in fact be annihilated. This is accomplished when believers share in the crucifixion of Christ. God is good; humanity is evil. God must exercise complete control over humanity. (Institutes)  Men must exercise authority over women to safeguard the church from error and destruction (Commentary on Ephesians).

Today many Christian leaders continue to read and teach the Bible through the lenses of a philosophy that has been handed down to them from Plato through to John Calvin.  Some refer to themselves as “the New Calvinists.”  Instead of teaching “the natural order,” they teach “God’s created order.” The language is slightly different, but the ideas and origin are the same. Some teach the “Eternal Subordination of the Son of God” to God the Father. In keeping with a hierarchical view of the universe, they maintain that men must also rule over women. Any attempt to challenge what is essentially a class-based social structure in the church, determined exclusively by a person’s sex at birth, is viewed as rebellion against God’s created order. It is seen as “injustice” or sin.  The “self” is depicted as evil, and must be put to death.  Human choice is ultimately an illusion.

Does your church teach that there is an eternal hierarchy in the Trinity? Does it teach a hierarchy of men over women? Does it teach a form of determinism that says human beings are not actually responsible for their actions? Does it teach that human emotion is somehow bad that that the “self” must be extinguished?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, your church may be teaching you to follow Plato rather than Jesus Christ–something to prayerfully consider.

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (the apostle Paul, Colossians 2:8, NIV)

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