How Christendom Borrows from Plato
“GO THEREFORE and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19, 20, Common Bible*) Christians desire to understand that commission of Jesus Christ and want to fulfill it.
To do so one must know the relationship of God the Father to his Son, Jesus Christ. But in the minds of some this has proved to be puzzling. How so?
When persons read the Christian Greek Scriptures they encounter texts that present Jesus in a very exalted role. The apostle John, for example, referring to Jesus as “the Word,” or spokesman for God, wrote: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:1-3) Jesus himself said: “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30) The apostle Paul wrote concerning Jesus: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”—Col. 2:9.
On the other hand, there are places where the Bible presents Jesus as subject to God the Father. We read, for example: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.” (John 5:19) “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” (Luke 22:42) “The Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28) “And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’”—Mark 10:18.
Declaring Jesus “Eternal,” “Almighty”
Not long after the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ died, heated debates began to center around the nature and relationship of the Father, Son and holy spirit. Efforts to settle such questions led to a series of “creeds,” or statements of belief, that eventually resulted in Christendom’s doctrine of the Trinity. Do you believe in the Trinity? Perhaps you have always thought of it as based upon the Bible. But do you know exactly what that doctrine teaches? The “Athanasian Creed” puts it this way:
“We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. . . . The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal. . . . So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Ghost almighty. And yet there are not three almightys, but one almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet there are not three Gods, but one God. . . . And in this Trinity none is afore or after other; none is greater or less than another. But the whole three persons are coeternal together, and coequal.”
But what about the scriptures that portray Jesus as subordinate to God? The above-quoted “creed” took care of those by declaring Jesus to be both “perfect God” and “perfect man” at the same time. We read: “For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man. . . . Perfect God and perfect man . . . Equal to the Father as touching his Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching his manhood. Who, although he be God and man, yet he is not two, but one Christ.”
Is that what you believe about God and Jesus Christ? Perhaps you ask: How could Jesus Christ be the “Son” of God if he had existed as long as his Father? How could Jesus be both human and divine, both “coequal” with and “inferior” to God at the same time? If “the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Ghost almighty,” can there truly be only “one almighty”?
Did you know that the inspired Scriptures never mention the word “trinity”? Nor do they state anywhere that Jesus is coequal and coeternal with God. Where, then, did such an idea originate?
The Role of Greek Philosophy
The Encyclopædia Britannica (1976 edition) states: “From the middle of the 2nd century [that is, the 100’s] AD, Christians who had some training in Greek philosophy began to feel the need to express their faith in its terms, both for their own intellectual satisfaction and in order to convert educated pagans. The philosophy that suited them best was Platonism.”
“Platonism” refers to the teachings of Greek philosopher Plato who was born about 428 B.C.E. Indicating a direct connection between the Trinity doctrine and Plato’s philosophy, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge points out:
“Many of the early Christians, in turn, found peculiar attractions in the doctrines of Plato, and employed them as weapons for the defense and extension of Christianity, or cast the truths of Christianity in a Platonic mold. The doctrines of the Logos [Greek for “the Word”] and the Trinity received their shape from Greek Fathers, who, if not trained in the schools, were much influenced, directly or indirectly, by the Platonic philosophy, particularly in its Jewish-Alexandrian form.”
In what way did such “early Christians” employ Plato’s philosophy when molding the Trinity doctrine? Let us consider briefly what this Greek philosopher taught.
From “Demiurge” to Pagan “Logos”
According to Plato, all the things that people can see and feel are the result of eternal “ideas” or “forms” impressed upon matter. As a beautiful sculpture represents the idea of the sculptor impressed upon stone, so Plato believed that the entire physical universe owes its existence to the influence upon matter of a “world of ideas.” The supreme “idea” was said to be “the Good,” which Plato sometimes identified with God.
Of special interest is Plato’s belief concerning creation of the world. S. E. Frost, Jr., Ph.D, writes in The Basic Teachings of the Great Philosophers:
“In one of Plato’s famous Dialogues, the Timaeus, he tells us how the world of our senses was created. There was an ‘architect,’ the ‘Demiurge,’ who brought the ideal world and matter together just as a sculptor might bring his idea and marble together to produce a statue. This ‘Demiurge’ had perfect ideas of everything, and he had a great mass of matter. Plato never tells us where either the ‘Demiurge,’ ideas, or matter came from originally. They were just there when things began. As the ‘Demiurge’ brought an idea in touch with some matter, a thing was created.”
This theory was brought into contact with the Bible by a Jewish philosopher known as Philo, who was born between 15 and 10 B.C.E. But what Plato called the “Demiurge” Philo referred to as “the Logos.” Dr. Frost explains:
“Philo taught that there were many powers, or spirits, which radiated from God as light might radiate from a lamp. One of these powers, which he called the ‘Logos,’ was the creator of the world. This Logos, he taught, worked with matter and out of it created everything in the universe. In this way, God, through the Logos, created the universe. Further, everything in the universe is a copy of an idea in the mind of God. This reminds us of Plato’s belief that the world which we experience through our senses is a copy of ideas in the ideal world. And, indeed, Philo was attempting here to reconcile Plato’s philosophy with the Jewish religion.”
“The Word,” or Logos, according to John, however, is different from that of Philo. John describes “the Word” as a person who “became flesh.” (John 1:14) This is not true of Plato’s “Demiurge” or Philo’s “Logos.”
Nevertheless, early in the Common Era certain individuals transferred to “the Word” of the Gospel of John characteristics of the “Demiurge” and “Logos” mentioned in the non-Biblical writings of Plato and Philo. Since that pagan “Demiurge” or “Logos” evidently had always existed alongside the supreme God, it became “orthodox” to teach that Jesus was coeternal with God. Does the Bible support that conclusion?
Jesus and God—“Coeternal”?
Clergymen of Christendom frequently cite Scripture texts to prove that Jesus had no beginning. An example is their treatment of John 8:57, 58, where we read: “The Jews then said to Him [Jesus], ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’”
That text in itself says nothing about how long Jesus existed before Abraham. But Trinitarians reason that it means that Jesus has existed eternally. Typical of this is what one commentator says: “It is important to observe the distinction between the two verbs. Abraham’s life was under the conditions of time, and therefore had a temporal beginning. Hence, Abraham came into being, or was born [genésthai, Greek]. Jesus’ life was from and to eternity. Hence the formula for absolute, timeless existence, I am [egò eimí, Greek].”
What is the real source of such reasoning? Hastings’ Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics explains: “Christianity took over from Greek philosophy, and to some extent developed independently, the profound and fruitful idea of the distinction between time and eternity, and between becoming and being. First clearly stated by Parmenides, c. 500 B.C. . . . , it is worked out in considerable detail by Plato, c. 390 B.C., especially in his Phædrus and Symposium.”
Not once, however, does the Bible state that Jesus is coeternal with God. Though Jesus enjoyed a prehuman existence of unspecified length in heaven, the Bible shows that he had a beginning of existence. He is called “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation” and “the beginning [Greek, arké] of God’s creation.”—Col. 1:15; Rev. 3:14.
The eighth chapter of Proverbs uses similar language concerning “wisdom” personified. There, according to the Greek Septuagint Version, wisdom speaks of itself as “the beginning [arké] of his [God’s] ways for his works” and claims to have existed “before time was in the beginning, before he made the earth.” (Prov. 8:22, 23, Bagster) Does this suggest that wisdom personified had eternal preexistence? No, for verse twenty-two begins with wisdom, saying: “The Lord made [Greek, éktise, “created”] me.”
“Coequal”—Another Loan from Plato
What about the teaching that Jesus is coequal with God? If you read the Scriptures alone, never will you get such a notion. While the Bible sometimes applies the term “god” to Jesus in his prehuman existence and after his resurrection, it uses the same terminology with regard to created angels. The psalmist, for example, declared that God made mankind “a little less than godlike ones.” (Hebrew, elohím, “gods”; Septuagint, “angels.”)—Ps. 8:5, NW.
However, many clergymen try to explain scriptures that apply the term “god” to Jesus as meaning that Jesus is fully equal to God. This is evident in many commentaries on Jesus’ statement, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30) For example, Bible scholar C. J. Ellicott claims: “These words assert the oneness in power and nature of the Father and the Son. . . . ‘The Son is of one substance with the Father.’”
A similar explanation is given to the apostle Paul’s statement that “the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily” in Jesus Christ. (Col. 2:9) The noted Bible commentator J. A. Bengel gives an example of Trinitarian reasoning on this verse: “The fullest Godhead, dwells in Christ: not merely the Divine attributes, but the Divine nature itself; . . . as it were the entire essence of the Godhead, dwells in Christ most immediately and really.”
This reminds one of the wording of the “Nicene Creed” (325 C.E.), which declares Jesus to be “true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.” According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967), by the expression “of one substance [Greek, homoousios] with the Father” the Council intended “to assert His full equality with the Father.”
However, to arrive at that doctrine, Christendom once again borrowed from Plato, this time from a form of philosophy known as “Neoplatonism,” or “New Platonism.” “Christian theology,” notes the Encyclopædia Britannica, “took the Neoplatonic metaphysics of substance as well as its doctrine of [essences, or natures] as the departure point for interpreting the relationship of the ‘Father’ to the ‘Son.’”
What, though, did Jesus mean when he said, “I and the Father are one”? J. H. Bernard, D.D., states in A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John:
“A unity of fellowship, of will, and of purpose between the Father and the Son is a frequent theme in the Fourth Gospel . . . , and it is tersely and powerfully expressed here; but to press the words so as to make them indicate identity of ousia [Greek for “substance,” “essence”], is to introduce thoughts which were not present to the theologians of the first century.”—Compare John 5:18, 19; 14:9, 23; 17:11, 22.
The teaching that Jesus is coequal and coeternal with God has no foundation in the inspired Scriptures. From start to finish it is evidence of Christendom’s borrowing from the Greek philosopher Plato.
Unless otherwise marked, all Scripture quotations in this article are taken from the Common Bible, approved by both Catholic and Protestant authorities.
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Desirous of converting “educated pagans,” Christendom shaped her Trinity doctrine according to the thinking of Plato