Platonic thought and the Christian Theology

At times I embark on an anti-platonic rant.  It is clearly one of the issues that I come back to time and again.  In short, much of Christian theology, especially concerning the body/soul dichotomy is related to neo-platonic dualism.  The reach of this invasive through is far, and devastating in its effect.  I realize that many at this point will find this rant nothing more than just the words of someone who thinks to much about something that doesn’t seem to matter much.

Yet, it has a profound effect on Christian thought and understanding, as well as on the spiritual lives of many modern Christians.  While Plato himself was a radical monist, for him the physical word didn’t exist, or if it did it was essentially irrelevant because the physical world wasn’t real.

The insidious nature of this dualism is to make a radical split between the physical and the spiritual.  Unless I miss the point, Jesus was the word made flesh, the spiritual becoming flesh. Jesus was not ethereal, but tangible, tactile, and real.  The theological term for this is incarnation. However, much of contemporary theological though in the pews of North America embraces a radical split between the spiritual and the physical.  This can be seen in a variety of ways, creation care is see as not being a spiritual endeavor, nor is caring for the poor.  It is interesting to note that Jesus did not commend the people in judgment for praying, but for doing.  From Matthew 25:34-40  34Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’  37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’  40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’  The issues here seems to be doing, caring for peoples physical needs, not praying for them.  The spiritual reward is not for presently perceived physical actions not spiritual ones.

Clearly the spiritual/physical divide is not as present to the extent that contemporary North American Christians make this division.  Faith is not a non-corporeal event that is centered in a ethereal soul.  So many of the biblical references to the soul are personal references, such as “Oh my soul…” is not an example of the psalmist speaking to his soul, like one speaking to his kidney.  It is a self reference, and even our expression, “that pour soul” is not speaking about an impoverished ethereal organ, but rather about the whole person.  The radical soul/body split is clearly part of the platonic system of thought, and points where this system of thought is imported into the church is in my mind one of the darkest days of the churches life.  It opens juvenile believers to entrapments of eastern religions and philosophies, such as reincarnation.

Consistently the New Testament talks not about disembodied spirits, but about the resurrection of the dead.  At Jesus death, the tombs opened and the Holy people of old walked about, and at Jesus resurrection, we find not a disembodied spirit hovering about, but a bodily resurrection.  It is this example that New Testament authors point to again and again, not the soul being resurrected, but rather the body.  This confusion between the soul and the body comes not from biblical sources but from Greek Philosophy, specifically that of Plato.  The end result is that rarely does one hear preaching and teaching about bodily resurrection for the followers of Jesus, but about a disembodied soul migrating to heaven at the death of the body.  And, with this radical split between soul and body we find concern for saving souls and not people.


4 responses to “Platonic thought and the Christian Theology

  1. I love the fact that the Hebrew word for “breath” is the same word for “soul.”
    “I breathe, therefore I am” makes more sense to me than Descartes, especially when you consider the applications of “soul” in the Psalms.
    Or, to put this another way, we are in-spired, not just with air but also with the Holy Spirit. It’s an encounter throughout daily activity, if we’re mindful.

    • In Greek, we find breath, wind and spirit all being translated from pnuma, it makes breathing a spirit-filled bodily act, a constant reminder of the presence of the the Holy Spirit. It also reminds us that while creation is fallen, it was created good, and so is the whole experience of life, fallen but still reflecting God’s intent.

  2. We are told in Revelation 21 that God will “pass away” the former heaven and earth, and He will make all things new. A new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem, adorned as a bride. Right? And His dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be His people and God Himself will always be with them as their God. Yes? The old order has passed away – behold, I make all things new. Alleluia!

    So I don’t believe we’ll be ghostly angelic beings, floating on the cotton candy clouds that line the grounds of our mansions. I believe we’ll have new, resurrection bodies – ones that do not hurt or decay – no more mourning, no more darkness – just perfect fulfillment in an Eden sense. Oneness with God, with each other, with creation. We’ll work and be satisfied, play and be satisfied, rest and be satisfied, worshiping all the way. At least that’s my vision. I long for it!

    (Hi, Kevin – had lunch with your mom yesterday and she sent me your link. -Abby Shaffer)

    • Abby, I agree. Bodily resurrection is a much better option than the idea of being disembodied spirit. Revelation provides a nice image of what that will be like, it is a future I look forward to as well. Though, I think this runs counter to much of popular Christian culture, so many of our afterlife ideas appeal to a platonic world view rather than a biblical world view. Thanks for sharing the Revelation imagery for us.

      I hope you had a good lunch with my mom, and thanks for visiting my blog, and especially for taking time to comment.


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