The Role Of Philosophy In Theology: Ministerial Not Magisterial

Cards on the table: I am a little concerned by a trend that developing among evangelicals.There are folk who are emerging from biblicism and are realizing that there was a broad Christian tradition before eighteenth- and nineteenth-century evangelicalism. So far, so good but in their reaction to biblicism they seem to be neglecting a very important distinction that the Reformed have inherited from the Reformed orthodox: the distinction between the ministerial use of philosophy and the magisterial use of philosophy. Let us define some terms. Biblicism refers to the attempt to read Scripture in isolation, without consulting the history of the church, the history of exegesis, and without the influence of the ecumenical creeds and Protestant confessions. The adjective ministerial refers to the subordination of reason and philosophy to revelation. Magisterial describes the subordination of Scripture to reason and philosophy.

The question is who did what and how? Through the history of Christian theology, the church has always appropriated the vocabulary of the surrounding culture. This pattern is as old as Scripture itself. In Genesis 15 Abraham is instructed to cut animals in two and then the Lord puts him to sleep and walks between the pieces to make a covenant. Neither Abraham nor Moses, who recorded this episode under the inspiration of the Spirit, invented this form in the Ancient Near East. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle John invoked the category of the Logos (Λογος) in service of his doctrine of the incarnation. So did the writer to the Hebrews. Neither of them were Stoics or Platonists and yet this way of speaking was very familiar to them. Like Moses, John and the writer to the Hebrews (Apollos?) appropriated an important existing cultural form and radically re-defined it. They made ANE covenant or treat-making pattern or the Logos work for them. They were not subordinating Christian truth to the needs of philosophy. They used philosophy ministerially.

I learned this way of going at things from the Reformed orthodox, who have frequently been charged with having been taken hostage unawares by “Greek philosophy” (whenever someone says something like this, I suspect that person knows little about the particulars of the variety of movements that live in that house), particularly by “Aristotelianism.” The secondary literature is littered with such charges against Reformed orthodoxy (broadly) and Reformed scholasticism, i.e., the adaption of Reformed orthodoxy specifically for the academy. One of the first professional essays I wrote concerned this very thing. In it I explored the work of Caspar Olevianus, who has sometimes been used as a foil to scholasticism, relative to scholasticism and that of a little known colleague of Theodore Beza’s, Antoine de la Faye (d. c. 1616). I tried to show the ways that Olevianus did the some of the same things of which the scholastics were accused, i.e., invoked Aristotelian categories and forms of argument. I tried to point out the weakness of the argument that the Reformed were naively taken hostage by Aristotelianism (which earlier writers had more or less treated as a synonym for scholasticism) by noting that La Faye was already quite conscious of the complaint that scholasticism ruins theology and he responded to it. You can see the essay, “The Authority of Reason in the Later Reformation in Caspar Olevian and Antoine de La Faye,” in Trueman and Clark, eds. Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (Paternoster Press, 1999).

Richard Muller has written at length about the self-conscious, intentional use of Aristotelian categories by the Reformed orthodox. E.g., see his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 2nd ed. 1.398–404. This will get you started. Muller’s brief explanation will get us headed in the right direction: “Reason, therefore is understood as a critical instrument, limited in its use and always subordinate to the divinely given truths of Scripture—a tool that does assist in the drawing of conclusions and in the formulation and defense of Christian doctrine but that does not supply the ultimate content or the final criterion of truth in Christian doctrine” (PRRD, 2.398). Several of the first- and second-generation Reformers had been trained in the classics, educated as humanists. Their orthodox successors were also educated in the classics. They knew what we today call The Great Books. They read the books that every educated person was expected to know.

Whereas I very briefly sketched just two or three places in Scripture we can see clearly the biblical appropriation of surrounding (pagan) cultural forms in service of the faith, they argued this same case at length (PRRD, 2.399). They also, however, made quite clear that pagan philosophy, however useful, can never be the “beginning of knowing” (principium cognoscendi). We do not begin with reason or philosophy. We Christians begin with divine revelation. Our principal authority is not reason but God and his self-revelation in Holy Scripture. Following the Scripture principle of the Reformers (sola scriptura) they always subjected philosophy to scrutiny in light of Scripture and they sought to leave the final judgment regarding truth to Scripture.

This brings me to the language some are using about the “necessity” of Platonism (and its corollary, Christian Platonism) for the development of early Christian theology and the doctrine of the Trinity. It is one thing to say that philosophy helps the church to draw out of the text of Scripture necessary implications of the text. It is quite another thing to say or imply that philosophy, e.g., Platonism supplies the substance of Christian doctrine. It is not clear to me (especially as I watch the discussion on social media) that enthusiastic evangelicals are minding this distinction.

Recently someone posted a provocative chapter title by Hans Boersma from a recent IVP volume, Five Things Theologians Wished Biblical Scholars Knew: “No Plato, No Scripture.”  Boersma is clearly trying to get the attention of the Biblical studies guild, which, in the modern period, particularly among evangelicals (but even N. T. Wright freely admits his ignorance of and disinterest in the history of exegesis—see “Olevianus and the Old Perspective on Paul: A Preliminary Report,” The Confessional Presbyterian 4 (2008): 15–26. What, however, does he really mean? What he actually means to say is this:

The result of this Christian modification of Platonism is that for the Great Tradition (unlike for Platonism) God is not answerable to higher-up forms. Nor is God simply one among many beings of the universe. Instead, according to patristic and medieval tradition, God is Being itself—the form of forms—which renders him transcendent to the cosmos in a way that the Platonic demiurge could never be.

His claim is that, just as the Muller school has argued that the Reformed appropriated Aristotelian categories (e.g., substance and accidents) without being taken hostage by the substance of Aristotelian ideas, so Boersma is arguing that “the Great Tradition” appropriated Platonic ways of speaking in service of Christian theology without being taken hostage to the substance of the Platonic doctrine.

Enthusiastic evangelicals, especially Christian laity, should be careful to observe the nuanced way in which Boersma is actually using the terms Platonism and Christian Platonism. Since social media encourages people to draw inferences from headlines (e.g., the inference that Doug Wilson no longer adheres to the Federal Vision theology because he used the words “Federal Vision No Mas” in a headline)

As early as the 9th century Radbertus and Ratramnus were arguing over the proper use of the Aristotelian distinction between substance and accidents. The Aristotle they received was the Aristotle of the Categories, which most educated persons knew until the 12th and 13th centuries, when Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics became available in the West again. The Aristotle received by the Reformed orthodox was, to put it plainly, essentially what would later come to be called a “Common Sense Realist.” Aristotle gave us categories by which to describe what all humans universally experience with our senses. One of the great sins of the Late Modern world is the evil suggestion that there is no such thing as universal sense perception. This denial is a deliberate attempt to isolate humans into billions of tiny little epistemological apartments where they can then be socially manipulated but I digress.

Was something like that done successfully with the various forms of Platonism, i.e., Plato, Plutarch, and Plotinus) in the formation and preservation of Trinitarian orthodoxy? The historical record is mixed. What I see, e.g., in Clement of Alexandria, in Orgien, and later in Erigena, is not promising. The Trinity cannot be correlated to, much less explained by, a Platonic theory of emanation. Origen’s attempt to that led him to heresy, which is fairly obvious even in the cleaned up version of On First Things mediated to us mostly in Latin. One thesis I have argued in class is that the influence of Pseudo-Dionysius on Thomas had a fundamental effect on his theology. In those cases (and in others) suggests that the use of the more substantially theological content of Platonism had a negative effect on major Christian teachers. To be sure, one sees Platonic rhetoric reverberating through the history of the Great Tradition but do we see the substance of Platonic (in whatever form) doctrines and especially in the ecumenical creeds? I doubt it.

Boersma articulates well the opposition between the substance of Platonism and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:

Finally, Christian theology is trinitarian. The Nicene (and biblical!) confession that God is Father, Son, and Spirit is unacceptable to the Platonic tradition—whether we have in mind Plato’s notion of a demiurge or Plotinus’s later idea of an eternal One (to hen). For the Platonic tradition, the Christian belief that God is both one and three is irrational and unacceptable. For the Christian tradition, by contrast, the mystery of the Trinity—God’s oneness of essence and threeness of persons—is something to be adored and praised.

Here are some of the ways Boersma says that The Great Tradition borrowed from Platonism:

By contrast, Platonism was at points remarkably consonant with the Christian faith according to the church fathers’ reading of Scripture. We have (1) the conviction that sensible objects correspond to eternal forms, in which they participate; (2) the notion that the vision of eternal truth, goodness, and beauty is humanity’s ultimate aim; (3) the recognition that this-worldly objects are not ultimate but serve the pursuit of one’s return to God; and (4) the importance of a life of virtue as an initial participation in the goodness of God—each of these aspects of the Christian faith was echoed in the Platonic tradition.

I think this does describe important aspects of Thomas’ theology, where I think the influence of Ps-Dionysius influenced him deeply toward a sub-biblical notion of participation in the divine being (despite his strong analogical language in Summa, pars 1a). Does it describe well Athanasius’ theology? Anselm’s? Of this I am less sure. I think Boersma has hit on the issues, however: participation and correspondence between “sensible objects” and “eternal forms.” There is no doubt that Christians have long invoked Platonic-influenced language in this regard. As a teacher of the history of theology (Patristics, Medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation orthodoxy) and as orthodox Reformed guy, however, I doubt his claim, “…it is the Platonic notion of universal forms or ideas that lies behind the Christian understanding of salvation. For the Great Tradition, God became man so that man might become God.” Does this language represent some important theologians and traditions? Certainly. Does it represent “The Great Tradition” universally? I think not. Was Peter invoking a broadly Platonic idea of participation in 2 Peter 1:4, when he wrote, “that you may become partakers of the divine nature”? No. In context Peter was not making an ontological argument but a moral argument. My critics may reply that I am assuming what I must prove, that there is a distinction. I reply: tu quoque (right back at you). We may not assume a Platonic continuum of being and then read that into Peter’s language. There is plenty of evidence that he did not place creatures, whom he knew to have been created from dust, on a continuum, even in a state of grace, with God. It is one thing to be participate in holiness of God, which is what Peter had in mind. It is quite another to participate in his being.

Boersma notes rightly that the early Christians resolutely rejected Epicureanism, because it was sheer naturalism and more or less existentialism. Epicureans thought that we should eat, drink (judiciously), and be merry for tomorrow we die (and that is it). What Boersma does not note is that the early Christians also rejected Stoicism, which, though different from Platonism was not entirely foreign to it.

In Acts 17, when the Apostle Paul faced the Athenian Philosophical Society, in Athens, at the Areopagus, those were the two schools with which people were then concerned. Plato and Aristotle were in eclipse and would not return to dominate the philosophical discussion for some time. Luke says, “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17; ESV). The Stoics were looking for the universal rational principle (the Logos) and how to live in harmony with the nature of things. The Epicureans were seeking exquisite pleasure on the way to the grave. What did Paul argue to them? He started in Genesis 1, with the Creator/creature distinction. He made his way to the incarnation, death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus (Acts 17:18, 24). He concluded with a warning about the coming judgment (Acts 17:31).

In order for Paul to talk with the Epicureans and the Stoics he had to be intelligent about what both schools were saying. We have plenty of evidence that Paul was no biblicist. Neither, however, was he an Epicurean (obviously) nor a Stoic, yet he taught that there is a “nature” of things and presumably that Christ is the Logos.

Did we need the Platonists to teach us “otherworldliness,” as Boersma suggests? I think that the Hermetic monastic tradition was influenced by the same sorts of dualistic notions (whether Platonist or not) to which Boersma refers but is it inherent in the ecumenical faith? I am skeptical. At this point, it seems that Platonism is no longer merely providing Christianity with some vocabulary and categories but is now being said to provide it with an ethos and and eschatology which are of the essence of the Christian faith.

So, these are clearly difficult and complicated questions. In our enthusiasm to eschew biblicism let us not rush headlong into a reaction that we might all come to regret.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


One comment

  1. Thank you for this. I’ve been waiting for this kind of article for some time. I have similar concerns about the enthusiasm for Aquinas I see in certain reformed quarters. All this stuff seems to make the Reformation irrelevant and it is worrying.

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