In my last post, I directed our attention to Book VIII of City of God. It was there that Augustine took up a discussion regarding the Platonic philosophers. After his overview of this philosophical lineage, Augustine continued his discussion of the philosophers of the Ionic school.
In this post, I would like to first direct you to a few generalities that Augustine wrote about the Platonists and then look at a specific claim regarding Plato. Augustine believed that there was a good reason the Ionic philosophers were known as Platonists – even after Aristotle’s succession of Plato. One of his reasons had to do with the fact that Plato did arrive at certain thoughts concerning God which were closest to the Christian beliefs. He stated the following:
For those who are praised as having most closely followed Plato, who is justly preferred to all the other philosophers of the Gentiles, and who are said to have manifested the greatest acuteness in understanding him, do perhaps entertain such an idea of God as to admit that in Him are to be found the cause of existence, the ultimate reason for the understanding, and the end in reference to which the whole life is to be regulated. Of which three things, the first is understood to pertain to the natural, the second to the rational, and the third to the moral part of philosophy.Augustine, City of God, Book VIII, Chapter 4
Whatever philosophers, therefore, thought concerning the supreme God, that He is both the maker of all created things, the light by which things are known, and the good in reference to which things are to be done; that we have in Him the first principle of nature, the truth of doctrine, and the happiness of life…we prefer these [Platonists] to all other philosophers, and confess that they approach nearest to us.Augustine, City of God, Book VIII, Chapter 9
This, therefore, is the cause why we prefer these to all the others, because, while other philosophers have worn out their minds and powers in seeking the causes of things, and endeavoring to discover the right mode of learning and of living, these, by knowing God, have found where resides the cause by which the universe has been constituted, and the light by which truth is to be discovered, and the fountain at which felicity is to be drunk. All philosophers, then, who have had these thoughts concerning God, whether Platonists or others, agree with us.Augustine, City of God, Book VIII, Chapter 10
Certainly they did “approach nearest” to Christians. But, let’s be honest here – up until Socrates’ thinking there was a single divine will behind everything, their Natural Theology was groping in the dark. The teacher of Socrates, still alive when Plato was working, thought there was a divine mind who energized homogeneous particles. We are fooling ourselves if we give Archelaus praise for his Natural Theology. Perhaps I shouldn’t even refer to this Philosophy as Natural “Theology”, but this is exactly what Augustine called it.
And though the Christian man, being ignorant of their writings, does not use in disputation words which he has not learned — not calling that part of philosophy natural (which is the Latin term), or physical (which is the Greek one), which treats of the investigation of nature; or that part rational, or logical, which deals with the question how truth may be discovered; or that part moral, or ethical, which concerns morals, and shows how good is to be sought, and evil to be shunned — he is not, therefore, ignorant that it is from the one true and supremely good God that we have that nature in which we are made in the image of God, and that doctrine by which we know Him and ourselves, and that grace through which, by cleaving to Him, we are blessed.Augustine, City of God, Book VIII, Chapter 10
Prior to the above statements in Chapter 10, Augustine did discuss at some length about the believers’ relationship to philosophers. The Christian understands some Biblical safeguards and warnings about philosophy. Don’t be deceived by it, but also God has made some things known to mankind (not just philosophers, but everyone – John Owen makes this same point when he said regarding Romans 1:19 “That which may be known of God is manifest in them, that is within each and every one fo them by an inborn awareness of God, not among them, or to some few of them only, as perhaps to the learned or the philosophers.”). But even with Romans 1, Augustine points out that the Apostle Paul says they did not rightly worship God. He would say that “the apostle would have us understand him as meaning the Romans, and Greeks, and Egyptians, who gloried in the name of wisdom”.
I would also like to direct our focus to something vital that Augustine stated in Chapter 11. Augustine brings up those who thought that Plato had actually heard the prophet Jeremiah. Augustine dispels this notion due to the timing of events. However, Augustine firmly believed that in his work Timaeus we find that Plato was likely aware of the Genesis account of creation because Plato stated that God united earth and fire (fire being located in heaven) and this relates to God “making heaven and earth”. Further, “Plato next speaks of those two intermediary elements, water and air, by which the other two extremes, namely, earth and fire, were mutually united; from which circumstance he is thought to have so understood the words, ‘The Spirit of God moved over the waters.’ For, not paying sufficient attention to the designations given by those scriptures to the Spirit of God, he may have thought that the four elements are spoken of in that place, because the air also is called spirit.” In other words, Augustine saw that Plato may have been reading the four elements into a creation account of which he may have been aware.
Before getting back to Augustine’s discussion, let us look at a couple of other statements from Plato in Timaeus. Some may be related to what we find in Genesis, but his philosophy which led to his Natural Theology of who the Creator was and what He created was far from our one true God! Plato’s statements are the main bullet points and my comments are in parentheses.
- This is in the truest sense the origin of creation and of the world, as we shall do well in believing on the testimony of wise men: God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad (Which “wise men” have a testimony of creation that God created things that were good – perhaps Moses and those teaching the Hebrew Scriptures?)
- Wherefore also finding the whole visible sphere not at rest, but moving in an irregular and disorderly fashion, out of disorder he brought order (This sounds like an earth that was without form and void.)
- When the father creator saw the creature which he had made (speaking here of the earth itself and not of man) moving and living, the created image of the eternal gods (Plato believed there was one “father creator” but also other “eternal gods”. Also, he asserts that man was not created imago dei but rather that earth was created imago deos. This differs significantly from God’s creation!)
- To know or tell the origin of the other divinities is beyond us, and we must accept the traditions of the men of old time who affirm themselves to be the offspring of the gods-that is what they say-and they must surely have known their own ancestors. How can we doubt the word of the children of the gods? (And to be certain that he was not referring to a nebulous concept of unknown divinities, he brings up Oceanus, Tethys, Zeus, Heres, etc…)
- Of the men who came into the world, those who were cowards or led unrighteous lives may with reason be supposed to have changed into the nature of women in the second generation. (That’s correct. Plato thought that cowardly men were turned into women in the next generation – would this be some type of reincarnation?)
- We may now say that our discourse about the nature of the universe has an end. The world has received animals, mortal and immortal, and is fulfilled with them, and has become a visible animal containing the visible, the sensible God who is the image of the intellectual, the greatest, best, fairest, most perfect, the one only begotten heaven. (This was the final summary sentence.)
I will return to Augustine’s belief now that Plato was familiar with the writings of Moses. Although he did think there was a familiarity with the writings of Moses from allusions in Timaeus, Augustine says that what follows is “the most striking thing in this connection”. When Moses asked God what his name was, God told him “I am who I am”. This is a great truth and shows that God is unchangeable – that “those things which have been created mutable are not”. The immutability of God was “a truth which Plato zealously held and most diligently commended.” Augustine is unaware that this truth was found anywhere else in the writings of those prior to Plato except in Exodus. Here is Augustine’s statement regarding this:
But the most striking thing in this connection, and that which most of all inclines me almost to assent to the opinion that Plato was not ignorant of those writings, is the answer which was given to the question elicited from the holy Moses when the words of God were conveyed to him by the angel; for, when he asked what was the name of that God who was commanding him to go and deliver the Hebrew people out of Egypt, this answer was given: “I am who am; and thou shalt say to the children of Israel, He who is sent me unto you;” as though compared with Him that truly is, because He is unchangeable, those things which have been created mutable are not,-a truth which Plato zealously held, and most diligently commended. And I know not whether this sentiment is anywhere to be found in the books of those who were before Plato, unless in that book where it is said, “I am who am; and thou shalt say to the children of Israel, who is sent me unto you.”Augustine, City of God, Book VIII, Chapter 11
Augustine, perhaps one of the most learned Christians in the works of the Philosophers, held late in his life in what may be considered his Magnum Opus, City of God, that Plato likely came to his understanding of immutability not primarily through natural human reasoning but from some familiarity with the written revelation from the Israelite religion.
Augustine would also make the following statement in the next chapter. This is why I have been discussing the Platonists’ belief in polytheism (some, such as Charles Hodge, assert it is a form of pantheism). It is key to a discussion of Natural Theology, and it is a core concern of what Natural Theology attempts to answer according to Augustine. Natural Theology seeks to answer whether worship should be given “to one God, or to many.” The evidence from Plato and Aristotle (see my previous post) is clear that they were not led to the belief that worship should be given to a single God.
Even knowing and reasoning themselves to an understanding that there was a single, ultimate Creator Father, they suppressed this truth about God and instead worshiped the other gods in whom they believed.
From whatever source he may have derived this knowledge, then, I think I have made it sufficiently plain that I have not chosen the Platonic philosophers undeservedly as the parties with whom to discuss; because the question we have just taken up concerns the natural theology; the question, namely, whether sacred rites are to be performed to one God, or to many, for the sake of the happiness which is to be after death…. All these, however, and the rest who were of the same school, and also Plato himself, thought that sacred rites ought to be performed in honor of many gods.Augustine, City of God, Book VIII, Chapter 12
According to Augustine (who knew more of the writings of the Philosophers than perhaps any other Christian), Plato most likely was familiar with the part of the Exodus account where God said “I am who I am”. Augustine believed that this is special revelation in which God Himself stated that He is immutable. And believers today can also understand immutability and many other attributes of God from this understanding of God’s revelation of his name to Moses and His People. Augustine knew of nobody prior to Plato who held to an immutable God who was the cause of all things. Does this have any bearing on whether immutability can be “only known through natural theology”? At least one group today believes that! If Plato arrived here, in part, due to familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures, the we must say that he was “[aided] by any divinely inspired written revelation from any religion” (a definition of Natural Theology by The Davenant Institute is that one is “unaided” by any written revelation), then is it fair to say that the great philosophers from the Ionic School (who engaged in thinking about who God was and after nearly 2 centuries arrived at a single God who was immutable and was perhaps a cause of the other gods they worshiped) came to such a conclusion “only through natural theology”?