Many Christians believe that their view of God is derived solely from the Bible. We would never suspect that the roots of our belief in a triune God comes, not from Scripture, but from Greek philosophy. Nor could we imagine that the respected early Church Fathers were to blame for synthesizing pagan philosophy, such as Plato’s, with the sacred texts. While most Christians are unaware of such matters Biblical scholars have known about this for a long time.
James Strong, Biblical scholar and author of the famous Strong’s Concordance, also took note of Plato’s influence on Christianity:
Towards the end of the 1st century, and during the 2nd, many learned men came over both from Judaism and paganism to Christianity. These brought with them into the Christian schools of theology their Platonic ideas and phraseology.
Plato is often counted among the most influential philosophers to have impacted Western thought. Who was Plato, and what did he believe? How did his views influence the early Church Fathers and subsequently how we view God today? How do his beliefs differ from Scripture, and does it even matter? Thankfully, both history and the Bible answer these questions.
Who was Plato?
Plato (c.428-347 B.C.), whose real names was Aristocles, was born into an influential aristocratic family in Classical Greece. The belief in pagan gods permeated his world. His own father was said to be a descendant of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. Plato’s pagan views were influenced by philosophers such as Heraclitus (c. 600 BC) and the Pythagoreans (c. 500 BC). But it is Socrates who is credited with having the greatest influence on him.
Sometime after Socrates’ death, Plato founded a society in Athens known as the Academy. It consisted of intellectuals who pursued scholarly subjects such as philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. His most famous pupil was Aristotle who became a philosopher of lasting influence in his own right.
Plato is best known for his dualistic worldview in which the higher world consisted of ideas or forms while the lower world consisted of matter. Known as the Theory of Forms, Plato reasoned that in the higher world everything, whether an object or an idea, existed in an ideal state while the lower world consisted of imperfect copies of the ideas or forms. For Plato, the ultimate form was an impersonal force called the Good.
Heraclitus was thought to be the first to apply the word logos to divine reason or wisdom which he believed to be a kind of power or influence that coordinated the universe. Plato expounded on the idea by teaching that the logos was a part of a divine triad consisting of the Good, Ideas (Logos), and the World-Spirit. He did not think that Logos (wisdom, reason, etc.) was a literal person, but rather a governing principle or force. Aristotle, while he did not fully subscribe to Plato’s Theory of Forms, also believed in a triad. He wrote:
For, as the Pythagoreans say, the world and all that is in it is determined by the number three, since beginning and middle and end give the number of an “all,” and the number they give is the triad. And so, having taken these three from nature as (so to speak) laws of it, we make further use of the number three in the worship of the Gods.
Over time, this divine triad would give rise to the idea of a triune God. The Church Fathers, many of whom were trained in Greek philosophy, interpreted Scripture through their Greek worldview instead of the Jewish perspective in which it was written. They identified Plato’s Good with God, the Ideas with the Logos of John 1:1, and the World-Spirit with the Holy Spirit, thus forming a Christian version of philosophy’s divine triad. Historians and theologians alike testify of the impact Plato’s triad had on Christianity. For example, historian Edward Gibbon, in his History of Christianity, sums up the Greek influence on the adoption of the Trinity doctrine by stating:
If Paganism was conquered by Christianity, it is equally true that Christianity was corrupted by Paganism. The pure Deism [basic religion, in this context] of the first Christians … was changed, by the Church of Rome, into the incomprehensible dogma of the trinity. Many of the pagan tenets, invented by the Egyptians and idealized by Plato, were retained as being worthy of belief.
Scripture never teaches that God is a Trinity.
The Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4
The Bible does not teach that God is three persons in one essence. But what it does teach, repeatedly and without ambiguity, is that God is One.
Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! (emphasis added)
Mark 12:32 So the scribe said to Him, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He.
Plato and the Church Fathers
That Plato influenced the Church Fathers cannot be overstated. Church historian Philip Schaff offers a good synopsis of Plato’s influence on the Church Fathers:
And many of the early Christians, in turn, found peculiar attractions in the doctrines of Plato, and employed them as weapons for the defence and extension of Christianity, or cast the truths of Christianity in a Platonic mould. The doctrines of the Logos 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. That errors and corruptions crept into the Church from this source cannot be denied… Among the most illustrious of the Fathers who were more or less Platonic, may be named Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Ireneus, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Minutius Felix, Eusebius, Methodius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Augustine.”
Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD), perhaps the most influential of the Church Fathers, expressed his esteem for Plato when he said, “The utterance of Plato, the most pure and bright in all philosophy, scattering the clouds of error ….”
Why it matters that Plato influenced the Church Fathers
Some may ask why it matters that Plato influenced the Church Fathers and our understanding of God. Is the synthesis of Greek thought with the Jewish Scriptures really so adverse? The answer is a resounding, Yes! Exchanging the cultural framework of the Scriptures in favour of a Greek, post-Biblical worldview, skews and obfuscates the original intent and meaning of the sacred texts.
Moreover, many influential Church Fathers believed man could grow in his knowledge of God through Greek philosophy (philo + sophia = love of wisdom), but Paul said that man did not come to know God through the wisdom of the world.
1 Corinthians 1:20-21 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
In fact, Paul specifically warned the Church not to be taken captive by philosophy:
Colossians 2:8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.
Tragically, the Hellenized Church Fathers patently ignored this command. The consequence of which is a belief in a God that is foreign to the true monotheism of the Bible.
We must remember that Plato was an unbeliever, a pagan, lost and without the one true God of the Bible.
Scripture is sufficient as God’s revelation to mankind [2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21]. It provides us with all we need to know about who He is and His great plan regarding salvation through Jesus and the coming kingdom. Jude, the Lord’s brother, wrote that we are to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” [Jude 1:3] Notice that the handing down of the Christian faith wasn’t partial or incomplete. The New Testament writers didn’t urge Christians to wait three hundred years until the Church Fathers could provide the language or insight to help us understand what God had failed to explain to us in His word. Rather, the faith was most decidedly handed down complete.
In addition, Paul said that when he taught believers about God and the Lord Jesus Christ, that he had withheld nothing from them that was profitable. [Acts 20:20] However, Paul never taught that God is three persons in one essence. Conversely, he taught that there is one God, the Father and that Jesus is not the one God, but the Christ (Messiah) the only begotten Son.
1 Corinthians 8:6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.
We must decide whether we are going to rely on Scripture and the testimony of Jesus who prayed “Father…You [are] the only true God,”[ John 17:1 and 3] to tell us who God is, or if we are going to ignore them and the historical record and accept a Trinitarian God that has its roots in Plato.