God created the World and saw that it was good. He then created men and women and gathered together a special people, the Jews, to work with. It wasn’t plain sailing and for a few thousand years there was a love-hate contest unparalleled in history. He fed them, taught them, instructed them, blessed them and cursed them. In turn they listened, learned, worshipped, loved and rebelled. It was a stormy, fiery relationship that tried His patience exceedingly. Then, in 397BC, He felt He needed a rest, packed His bags and went off on holiday for around four hundred years.
Not quite, of course. God is indefatigable and has no need for such distractions. Yet something undeniably happened in 397BC, when the final words of the Old Testament were written, then the book closed, because what followed was a four hundred year silence from the heavens.
But what did happen in this four century gap was very significant. It was as if the devil had seized the moment to act, taking God’s apparent leave of absence as a license to cause mischief. And, boy, did he give it some! And this is where we go next because the spotlight in those “days of silence” switches from Israel to Greece, to the philosophers, particularly Plato.
Plato never realised it, but his ideas were to become almost as influential as Jesus in the development of Western Christianity. There, I’ve said it, perhaps the most controversial statement I would ever make. Now all I have to do is prove it! He said a lot of stuff, wrote an awful lot of stuff, but it’s his one big idea that we are going to focus on because this was to become a tiny seed that somehow got into the fertile soil of early Christianity and grew and grew until … you’ll have to wait and see!
His one big idea was the Theory of Forms. Here’s the story …
He believed that there were two worlds, the obvious one that we live in and a “perfect” one, somewhere else in the Universe. I suppose this would be his concept of heaven and in this heaven exists what Plato called Forms.
To understand what these are, we need to think about everything that we see around us in our world, from actual objects like chairs and diamonds, to geometric shapes like squares and triangles, to concepts like beauty and goodness. Now you must realise that, according to Plato, all of these things are just imperfect copies of perfect chairs, diamonds, squares, triangles, beauty and goodness, that exist in the other “perfect” world. These items of perfection are Plato’s Forms. Get your (imperfect) head around that, then!
Plato also believed that whereas most of us will never get to see these Forms, some of us would. These are the guardians, specially gifted and trained individuals, the philosophers of course, who are rewarded by viewing the “higher Good”, the source of all truth and reason. Here’s an idea that seems vaguely Christian, so perhaps here’s the first clue as to how on earth this idea managed to find a home in the early development of Christian thought.
This “higher Good” is the ultimate Form, Plato’s concept of God, though not the personal God as we know Him. So there is space for the concept of God, albeit an impersonal one, in Plato’s philosophy. Plato’s God does not answer prayers, or comfort those in distress, or teach his people or listen to the cries of the heart. Plato’s God is most assuredly not our Father in Heaven.
Plato believed that there are absolute standards for such things as goodness, morality and truth, each of these existing as a perfect Form in this “second” World. He also believed in the eternal soul. So what’s the problem with Plato? Well it all now starts to go downhill.
Plato believed that we are body and soul. He thought that these were totally separate entities, bound together temporarily during a person’s lifetime. This was the concept of the duality of man. But, to Plato, the soul was the dominant, superior entity and it is immortal, being reborn again and again in different bodies, gaining in knowledge as it does so, like the concept of re-incarnation in Eastern religions. The soul is our seat of thought and knowledge, associated with the “second” perfect World. The body interacts through the five senses with our imperfect World and, to Plato, restricts the soul from attaining its full potential. So, in his view, the soul is good and the body is bad. Everything associated with the soul is good, everything associated with the body is bad. Fix this in your brain, it’s the Big Consequence of Plato’s “Big Idea”.
What’s this got to do with the Church?
In the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican is a painting by Raphael. It is known as The School of Athens and features a whole gaggle of Greek philosophers. Clearly seen are Plato and Aristotle in conversation and the question we need to ask is why they should be commemorated in the capital of the Roman Catholic Church?
In fact the Church is going to be well and truly infiltrated by the teachings of Plato and other philosophers. We will find out more next week …
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book How the Church Lost the Way: And How it Can Find it Again )
What happened between the Old and New Testament?