In my previous post, I began a four part series addressing the book Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis, by Craig A. Carter. As we saw in that post, Carter could speak of “the Great Tradition” as though it were synonymous with his understanding of the Nicene doctrine of God. But he also described it as a “three-legged stool,” when he wrote that “The Great Tradition was a three-legged stool made up of spiritual exegesis, Nicene dogma, and Christian Platonist metaphysics.” (p. 111). In this statement, Carter sees the Nicene doctrine of God (which he refers to simply as “Nicene dogma”) as only one part of “the Great Tradition.” This focus on the Nicene doctrine of God, encapsulated in the Nicene Creed, was essentially addressed in may last post. In this post, I will focus my attention on another leg of the three-legged stool, namely the concept of Christian Platonism, a concept so crucial to Carter’s view of “the Great Tradition” that it seems that the two terms could almost be used interchangeably.
I must admit from the start that, when I first heard the term Christian Platonism being bandied about, especially by some men who claim to be Reformed Baptists, I was a bit stunned. In fact, to my ears, it sounded no different from saying Christian Paganism, and the term would no doubt carry such connotations for many others, if not most others, who hear it. After all, Platonism is paganism. It is a pagan philosophy. But Carter is, of course, aware of this problem, as we will see.
Beyond the negative connotations of the word Platonism itself, however, is the emphasis put on the word in the phrase Christian Platonism. The situation would have been bad enough had Carter chosen to use the phrase Platonic Christianity, in which the term Platonic is the adjective and the term Christianity is the noun. In such a case, the phrase would be emphasizing that the position is foremost Christian, even if it is informed by Platonism. However, Carter has chosen to use a phrase in which Christian is the adjective and Platonism is the noun, which identifies his position as foremost Platonic, albeit informed by Christianity. Perhaps that was not his intent, but it sure looks like he is saying, “I’m a Platonist, but I’m a Christian sort of Platonist.” I admit I find it very difficult to imagine how anyone who claims to hold to the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 (as Carter says he does, p. 52) could ever think that such a term as Christian Platonism could in any way be a helpful one.
Even worse than Carter’s choice of the term, however, is the fact that he seems to understand its negative connotations and embraces the term in spite of those connotations. In fact, as I see it, chapter 3 of the book, entitled “The Theological Metaphysics of the Great Tradition,” is essentially a defense of the term which argues that the reader should overlook these negative connotations because we simply need certain aspects of Platonism too much to let the term go. It is actually an argument for syncretism, at least as I see it, although Carter prefers the term synthesis. He states quite forthrightly, for example, that “Christian Platonism is a synthesis of the best of rational Greek philosophy and biblical revelation and is responsible for the flowering of Western Christendom” (p. 84). And later, when discussing Michael Allen Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity, he argues that “Gillespie rightly points to the origins of the medieval world (and thus of Western culture) in the synthesis of Christianity and pagan philosophy in late antiquity. This is the formation of Christian Platonism that I have been describing” (p. 86).
Carter also sees this “synthesis” as a result of God’s providential working in history for the good of the Church. Early in the third chapter, in a section entitled “How Platonism Helped Augustine Become a Christian,” he refers to Augustine’s overall view of Platonism thusly:
He never sees Platonism as sufficient in itself, nor does he view it as right about everything. At best it is incomplete and at worst it is idolatrous, as we shall see. Nevertheless, it provided Augustine with the intellectual tools that enabled him to reject the Manichaean doctrine of God and accept the Christian doctrine of God. And that, surely, is no small thing. In his own personal quest, Augustine sees it as providential that God brought the books of the Platonists to his attention at a crucial moment. In terms of the history of Christian theology, as a whole, the role Platonism played in the formation of the creedal orthodoxy of the first five centuries can also be seen as providential. The incarnation and birth of the church took place at just the right time in history for the truth to be unfolded in the way it needed to be. (p. 72).
So, just as Platonism helped Augustine to become a Christian, even so Platonism has helped us to be wiser Christians, even aiding us in our doctrinal formulations. To be sure, Carter would reject much that Platonism has to offer, apparently clinging only to what he sees as congruent with Scripture. But, if that is the case, then why do we need Platonism at all? If all that is being taken from Platonism could be found in Scripture anyway, then why the insistence on the need for “Christian Platonism” in the first place? Why not just refer instead to Christian metaphysics or, better yet, simply to Scriptural theology or Scriptural doctrine? Having sought to understand Carter’s book, I suspect that he might answer that we need the philosophical framework and terminology provided by Platonism (as in the case of Augustine) in order to properly understand and state the Christian doctrine of God. But then I immediately recall Paul’s crucial reminder to Timothy that:
… from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:15-17 NKJ)>
Should Paul have actually said that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and, together with His providential provision of Platonic philosophy, is profitable for doctrine”? Isn’t that what Carter’s position boils down to? And doesn’t it place Platonism—or at least the aspects of Platonism Carter thinks we need in order for it to be Christian in his estimation—on a virtual par with Scripture? I must admit that I find it hard to see the situation any other way. I’m certain, though, that I will be told that I am just too simple-minded, or that I really just don’t understand Platonism well enough to offer a proper critique. Well, I don’t doubt that I have an inferior understanding of Platonism to that of a scholar like Carter. But, then, so do most all the Christians I interact with as a pastor. Am I to believe that we all need the kind of understanding of Platonism Carter has in order to properly understand the Scriptural doctrinal of God? Or to interpret Scripture correctly? I say no. I say that we don’t need to understand Platonism at all in order to know that we need no pagan philosophy whatsoever in order to properly understand who God is as He has revealed Himself to us in Scripture.
I hope the reader can understand better why I cannot recommend Carter’s book. It is a book that, to my mind, undermines the authority of Scripture both in its emphasis on the so-called Great Tradition and in its emphasis on the need for so-called Christian Platonism. In the last post, I argued that we should never place any confession or tradition—not even those held dear by Reformed Baptists such as myself—in the place of honor due to Scripture alone. In this post, I am arguing that we should never give any pagan philosophy such a place either. As I see it, whether intentionally or not, Carter’s book does both. Frankly, though, I don’t think he really does intend to usurp the authority of Scripture in these ways. However, once one starts to elevate a certain tradition as he has done, or to elevate certain ostensibly benign aspects of pagan philosophy as he has done, to a place of essential belief, then there is an invariable tendency not only for them to usurp the authority of Scripture, but also for all the bad parts of those traditions and philosophies to creep into the Christian faith as well. Such is the danger to which Carter is exposing the Church, whether he realizes it or not.