No Plato, No Scripture image

No Plato, No Scripture

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"Without a good dose of Plato, it becomes difficult to retain the teaching of Scripture," declares Hans Boersma in his deeply thought-provoking new book, Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew. "The Bible cannot be interpreted without prior metaphysical commitments, and we need Christian Platonism as an interpretive lens in order to uphold Scripture's teaching." It's a bold claim.

What is Christian Platonism? Boersma follows Lloyd Gerson in summarising it with five ideas, which tend to stand or fall together:

1. Anti-materialism: bodies and their properties are not the only things that exist.
2. Anti-mechanism: the natural order cannot be fully explained by physical or mechanical causes.
3. Anti-nominalism: reality is made up not just of individuals, each uniquely situated in time and space, but two individual objects can be the same in essence (e.g. both canines) while still being unique individuals (distinct dogs).
4. Anti-relativism: human beings are not the measure of all things; goodness is rather a property of being.
5. Anti-scepticism: the real can in some manner become present to us, so that knowledge is within reach.

Most of us probably have no problem with #1, #2, #4 and #5, and wouldn’t see anything particularly Platonic about them (though Boersma would say we are probably wrong about that). The one we find unfamiliar, even incomprehensible, is #3. Modern people (including modern Christians) are generally nominalists, who deny the existence of universals, as opposed to realists, who affirm them.

Boersma insists that we need anti-nominalism as much as the others, and that this is true for our doctrine of salvation as well as our doctrine of God. In theology proper, it is easier to see that the existence of universals matter, and Boersma quotes Gregory of Nyssa to explain why: the distinction between one ousia and three hypostases depends on it, and without it we would be dangerously close to having three gods.

But it matters for our understanding of the gospel as well. Without universals, it would be very difficult to make sense of our participation in Christ, or of Christ’s recapitulation of Israel’s story:

A nominalist metaphysic, which continues to be the (often unacknowledged) go-to approach of much biblical scholarship, cannot account for Saint Paul’s participatory soteriology. The apostle’s theology operates with a metaphysic in which we are ontologically linked together and in which we genuinely become one new humanity, and it is only a realist metaphysic that is able to do justice to this ... What could it possibly mean to be “in Christ” on the assumption that the human Jesus is his own person and that we are persons ontologically separate from him? Only a realist metaphysic can robustly claim that human beings are saved through a participatory or real sharing in Christ.

This is bound to bother people. The idea that we require any categories from Greek philosophy to make sense of the Scriptures always sparks allegations of Hellenism drowning out Hebraism, pagan philosophy trumping biblical writings, and so forth. So it was delightful to read Joseph Ratzinger’s remarkable insight in the conclusion:

The encounter between the biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!”—this vision can be interpreted as a ‘distillation’ of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between biblical faith and Greek inquiry.

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