A man named Origen attended a school in Alexandria, Egypt in the 3rd Century A.D.. What was he studying? Something called neo-Platonic philosophy. He was being taught by a man named Ammonius Saccas.
Believe it or not, this seemingly abstract bit of historical information is one of the main reasons so many theologians have believed and taught that women may not share authority with men in the church or in the home.
How is this possible? Alongside Origen was a classmate named Plotinus. The works of these two men were discovered and embraced by an influential church leader in the 4th Century A.D. named Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. He in turn passed this philosophy on to St. Augustine, the influential theologian and Bishop of Hippo. Hoping to provide a theological foundation for badly needed reform in the church, John Calvin encouraged the readers of his work entitled “the Institutes of the Christian Religion” to make sense of the Bible through the interpretive lenses of St. Augustine’s philosophy.
I wish the rest was “history,” as they say; but sadly, this philosophical framework–neo-Platonism–continues to dominate much of today’s preaching on what is wrongly called the “biblical” roles of men and women.
What did the neo-Platonists teach? They taught that the universe is best explained by a philosophy of dualism. In other words, they broke reality down into various sets of two opposing principles: spirit versus body, mind versus emotion, man versus woman. They also taught that the “natural order” of the universe was best understood in terms of hierarchy. In other words, they said that the universe is functioning as it should when spirit “rules” body, mind “rules” emotion, and men “rule” women. They also taught that the “best born” free men should rule over slaves.
How did neo-Platonists define evil? They said that evil exists where one principle usurps the authority of another. Sound familiar? Any “mingling of the classes” was described as “injustice.”
St. Augustine used this interpretive framework to make sense of the creation account found in the book of Genesis. For example, when he saw Adam refer to Eve as “flesh of my flesh,” he automatically assumed that Adam must represent the spirit. Just as spirit must rule over flesh, he concluded, so too must men rule over women. This passage of the Bible (Genesis 2:22-23), however, says nothing about a hierarchy of authority–unless you force it into a neo-Platonic context; and that is exactly what St. Augustine did.
When John Calvin wrote his commentary on Genesis, he came to the same conclusions as St. Augustine. That should come as no surprise, since in his commentary work, Calvin cites both St. Augustine and Plato as his influential sources.
Augustine and Calvin’s view of Genesis then impacted their understanding of all of the apostle Paul’s references to the creation account found throughout his epistles. Both theologians automatically assumed that Paul was reinforcing the dualistic hierarchy they wrongly perceived in Genesis.
To complicate matters further, two notable Bible translators were also strongly influenced by neo-Platonic philosophy: St. Jerome of the 4th century A.D. and Erasmus of the 16th century. Jerome’s Bible became the authorized Latin translation for the Roman Catholic Church. Erasmus’ Bible became the basis for our first English translations, which then went on to influence popular English versions from the King James to today’s English Standard Version.
In all of these Bibles, there is mounting evidence that texts have been modified to fit into a neo-Platonic framework. Commands are added regarding women that do not appear in the oldest Greek manuscripts (e.g. Wives submit to your husbands). The leadership of women is maligned as sinful (c.f. Isaiah 3:12 and 1 Timothy 2:12). Words translated as “leader” “ruler” “minister” for men are translated as “servant” or “helper” for women. Headings are added that do not appear in the manuscripts, and that change the meaning of various passages. Punctuation is added (or not added where it is probably necessary) to obscure or change the meaning of various texts. Neutral, or in some cases female, pronouns in the Greek manuscripts are all rendered as male.
Due to the overwhelming influence of neo-Platonic philosophy, the Christian faith has suffered immensely. In some instances, it no longer shares the message that was taught and lived by Jesus and the apostles. Perhaps most notably, the Bible teaches that sin (evil) is the opposite of love, not the inversion of a neo-Platonic hierarchy. Instead of following Jesus’ example of love, many churches now focus on the importance of power, control and exclusively male authority. This is a travesty.
When I attended Bible College, many years ago, I first became aware that my understanding of the Bible was not shared by scholars referred to as “egalitarians.” At the time, I wasn’t aware that my own theology had been influenced by a neo-Platonic framework. It was then that I embarked upon a journey of many decades to try to understand why some Christians did not understand the Bible as I did.
What I discovered shook me to the core. I’ve summarized it here today, honestly because I just felt I had to “get it out” so to speak. It’s painful for me to see the ongoing influence of this philosophy on the church, on the gospel message, on our understanding of God, and on women in particular.
Someone might say that I haven’t supported my conclusions with any references. Well, as far as this post goes, that’s correct. This is from the heart.
I do, however, detail all of the reference material from Plato’s original works, to those of Origen, Plotinus, Augustine, Jerome, Erasmus, Calvin and today’s neo-Calvinist leaders in my book entitled, “A God I’d Like to Meet: Separating the Love of God from Harmful Traditional Beliefs.”
As much as possible, I reference primary source material from all of these philosophers, theologians, commentators and translators. I investigate manuscript evidence found in the oldest available copies of the biblical text. I also draw from the work of historians dating back as far as the 2nd century B.C..
Anyone who wants to read more about this, or investigate the references, or learn what we can do now as a church to restore the message of Jesus and his earliest followers is welcome and encouraged to read it. I pray that it helps make a difference. We must remove the lenses of neo-Platonic philosophy from our understanding of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.