Exploring the Twain 4 – Neo-Platonism and Eastern Orthodoxy

In my last post in this series, I promised to examine the neo-Platonist influences in Eastern Orthodoxy.  If I knew then what I knew now – or didn’t know then what I don’t know now, I wouldn’t have made such a promise.  As it turns out, trying to pin this issue down has a number of problems.  While there are a great many sources discussing Augustine’s neo-Platonist orientation, there are very few – that I have found – discussing in any specificity the neo-Platonist influence on the Eastern Church.  And, of the sources I did find, I found a great deal of disagreement.

What I will do in this post is lay out a sketch of the issue as I currently understand it, which if nothing else will show what I don’t know, hopefully inviting input from others.

First, neo-Platonism refers to the 3rd century revival of Platonism, mainly as taught by Plotinus, who apparently was trying to clarify some misunderstood elements of Plato’s writings.  Just as contemporary philosophy has impacted Western theology, neo-Platonism also had an influence on some of the Greek-speaking early theologians, as well as on such Western theologians as Augustine.

Many of the Church Fathers showed signs of neo-Platonist thinking, including Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Maximus the Confessor, and the most-often connected with neo-Platonism, the fellow known as Pseudo-Dionysius, also known for developing the Eastern Church’s Apophatic approach to theology.

The Orthodox, however, reject the notion that any Platonist or neo-Platonist philosophy made its way into their theology. Rather, they say that Gregory, et al., only used neo-Platonist terms to explain what the Church always believed. For example, Gregory of Nyssa used neo-Platonic language to argue for the infinity of God (contrary to the teaching of Origen, who held to the earlier Platonic concept that God was finite, as He could be known).  (The concept of the infinity of God is a key element in the later development of Apophaticism.)

While there are certainly neo-Platonic concepts used in the Eastern church, I can’t say at this time whether the church was influenced by the neo-Platonists, or whether they are correct in that they only used those concepts to convey a pre-existing theology.

This Eastern way of looking at the development of theology – that the formation of Orthodox theology and Tradition only clarified the Apostolic faith that the church always believed – is if nothing else, convenient.  It also appears somewhat circular, based on the belief that the Orthodox Church is the one and only true church and the belief that God is preserving in the church the Apostolic faith.  It seems to assume that anything the Orthodox Church believes is necessarily Apostolic and correct, even though there have been a number of disagreements over the years.

The belief that the Eastern Church is the one true church also appears somewhat circular; they have the Apostolic faith because they are the one true church, and they are the one true church because they have preserved the Apostolic faith.  Of course, if they are correct, they don’t need a better argument.

While I am obviously impressed by much in the Eastern traditions, there are elements of Orthodoxy that I have a hard time with, which I will try to outline in coming posts.

Exploring the Twain 3 – Hurdles to Studying Eastern Orthodoxy

My current series is Exploring the Twain, in which I offend (unintentionally) evangelicals, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox alike.  I am, at this point, an equal opportunity offender. The intent of the series is to examine the differences between Eastern and Western Christianity.  My hypothesis is this: Western Christianity has been so impacted by philosophical forces – including but not limited to Neo-Platonism and Modernism – that the only way to examine it is in light of the Eastern Church, which purports to have preserved the original Apostolic Christianity without change.

So far I have looked mainly at the early history of the Western Church, with an emphasis on the Neo-Platonism and Manichaean influences of Augustine, who is still technically revered by the Eastern Church but is occasionally called a heretic.  Augustine, in my opinion, did indeed have some wacko ideas which has skewed Western Christianity, such as the concept of “original sin” and our inheriting Adam’s guilt. Luther corrected much of Augustinian thinking (not all), but Calvin took the rest of the church (what is now evangelicalism, even if you don’t consider yourself Calvinist) further down Augustine’s path.  More on that at a later time.

While all this was going on, the Eastern Orthodox Church was basically ignored by the West, and vice versa.  Most Augustinian writing was not even translated into Greek (the adopted language of the Eastern Church) and again, vice versa.   In looking at the development of the Eastern Church, I have been reading numerous articles and books, such as Berkhof’s The History of Christian Doctrines, Three Views of Eastern Orthodox and Evangelicalism, and Encountering the Mystery by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the collected Orthodox churches.

What I have found in my reading so far is that this is not necessarily an easy task.

Hurdles to understanding

Eastern Orthodoxy is not easy for the Western mind to apprehend, because, well, it’s Eastern.  Way Eastern.  Their commitment to apophatic theology – defining God and other things by what they are not – make comparing theologies an apples – oranges kind of thing.  And, they define words differently. Justification is not seen in the Roman law court sense, and grace is not Augustinian (“unmerited favor”) but rather refers to God’s “energies.”  Even “theology” is not the same; in Orthodoxy, theology is not the study of God or what we know about God, it is a gift of revelation.  As Bartholomew puts it, “It is not taught; rather, it is caught.”

It’s almost like speaking 2 different languages.  Which, I should add, explains much of the misunderstanding by the West.

I found it interesting that nearly everything I read that was critical of the Eastern Church was written by a Calvinist.  And, like most such critiques by Calvinists, they mostly pointed out where the Orthodox were wrong for not being Calvinists.  This, by the way, isn’t helpful – and I find myself siding with whoever isn’t Calvinist, simply for that reason.

I also found it interesting that those who attempt to bridge the Twain, such as Bradley Nassif and Timothy Ware, are occasionally criticized by other Eastern Orthodox folks for being too Westernized.  Besides the Augustinian gap, there is also a pre- and post-Enlightenment gap that many of the Orthodox really don’t seem to like to cross.  Consequently, reading Bartholomew’s book was often a challenge, as my Western-category questions were not getting answered. Instead, I occasionally felt like I was reading some book on Zen; the Eastern thought process is often that different.

My hypothesis

My hypothesis, which I mentioned at the outset of this post, seems to have, in part, failed.  Based on my reading to date, it seems that while the Eastern Church lays claim to the unchanged Apostolic Faith, they too have been impacted by Neo-Platonism.  While this is a fairly common charge, and one which is typically denied by the Orthodox, it does seem quite obvious and even seems more pronounced (although taking a different turn than Augustine’s).

My next post will deal with the Neo-Platonist influences in the Eastern Church.

In the meantime, here are some questions to consider:

  1. If you are an evangelical, how do you – or would you try to –  understand Eastern Orthodoxy?
  2. If you are Orthodox or familiar with the Eastern Church, what do you see are the major issues between East and West?

Exploring the Twain 2

In the first post in this series, I introduced my thesis that Western theology is so tainted by a number of influences that did not affect the Eastern Church that the best way to evaluate Western theology is to start at the beginning, exploring where the West diverted from the East. I also proposed that the true “great schism” was a worldview split, and without understanding this aspect we can’t really appreciate the theological issues.

Father Michael Azkoul (an Orthodox Priest) appears to be a contemporary authority on this issue. He writes in a 1994 article:

Following the Holy Fathers, Orthodoxy uses science and philosophy to defend and explain her Faith. Unlike Roman Catholicism, she does not build on the results of philosophy and science. The Church does not seek to reconcile faith and reason. She makes no effort to prove by logic or science what Christ gave His followers to believe. If physics or biology or chemistry or philosophy lends support to the teachings of the Church, she does not refuse them. However, Orthodoxy is not intimidated by man’s intellectual accomplishments. She does not bow to them and change the Christian Faith to make it consistent with the results of human thought and science.

Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, places a high value on human reason. Its history shows the consequence of that trust. For example, in the Latin Middle Ages, the 13th century, the theologian-philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, joined “Christianity” with the philosophy of Aristotle. From that period til now, the Latins have never wavered in their respect for human wisdom; and it has radically altered the theology, mysteries and institutions of the Christian religion.

This difference of “philosophy of philosophy” explains much of the difference between East and West.  While Eastern scholars will make references to Plato, etc. (as does the Gospel of John with its discussion of the logos), it only borrows concepts as illustrations.  Augustine, who belonged to the Latin side, not the Greek, took a different approach.

Augustine – Saint or Heretic?

Augustine was a Manichaean as well as a neo-Platonist before he was a Christian, and a major focus of his thinking was merging his philosophical ideas with Christianity – ideas which included a continued belief in the eternal forms of Plato as existing alongside God, dualism, and the fallen man.  Augustine, who was largely unknown in the Eastern Church until the 14th Century or so, is the major shaper of Western Christianity, introducing – I’ll even say inventing – concepts like the doctrine of original sin and the total depravity of man.  His views not only heavily influenced the Roman Catholic Church, but also is the foundation for Reformed theology (Calvinism).

While accepted as a saint by the Orthodox, his ideas are largely rejected by them, with some recent Orthodox scholars taking the position that he was a heretic, and see him (rightly, I believe) as a major cause of the East-West schism.  Of course, the Orthodox don’t consider the Church Fathers to be inerrant, and some are more inerrant than others.  Augustine is seen as being in the “more” category.

What this means is, of course, that many of the doctrines and concepts that we take for granted, such as original sin, inherited guilt, total depravity, penal atonement, dualism, a Roman judicial interpretation of justification, and the concept of the “angry God” do not exist in the early church or in the Eastern church.  Furthermore many of these concepts are not Biblical or derived from Apostolic tradition, but began as philosophical beliefs that Augustine felt needed to be reconciled with Christianity.

Aquinas to Ockham to Luther

Thus began a Western tradition of basing theology on philosophy.  Subsequent to Augustine was Thomas Aquinas, who followed Aristotle instead of Plato.  Aquinas’ shift away from Plato caused a bit of strife in the Roman church, but eventually the majority of the church adopted his rationalistic approach. While Thomas still believed in a God limited by the eternal forms, he further altered Christian thought by basing all revelation on our 5 senses.

It wasn’t until William of Ockham (or Occam) – one of my heroes – that we got rid of the eternal forms, and finally back to a Biblical concept of God who actually had free will, who was not limited by some external ideals of “good,” “just,” and so on.   This is what Occam’s Razer was all about, but that’s another topic.  It was this school of thought – away from the limitations of Plato and Aristotle, and Augustine – that provided the backdrop for Martin Luther’s theology.  As I stated in my prior post, Luther also saw the error of basing theology on reason.   Luther also saw the error of Augustine’s concept of the angry God, instead finding that the Bible taught a loving God.  While Luther inherited much from Augustine – as did everyone – his theology was a major correction in a number of areas, and is probably the closest to the Eastern church than any other major Western theologian, even teaching the concept of theosis.  Calvin, however, is another story, and I’ll get to him soon.


We now have a Western church tradition that has been tossed to and fro by every wind of philosophy.  Meanwhile, back East, nothing has changed.  They’ve had 7 major church councils to deal with some issues, but essentially nothing’s changed.  No new theories about the nature of God, no new theories about justification, and no need for a reformation.

My original question was, how can we find a pure expression of Christianity that is unaltered by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine or the Enlightenment?  Especially after Descartes, in the west, we’re pretty much toast.  Our worldview – our entire context for understanding the Bible and early church teaching – has been hijacked not once, but several times.  In this context, it seems that to even try to discuss evangelical theology is pretty much a bust.  Even if the church is semper reformanda (always reforming), it’s reforming into what? To the 1800’s?  The Reformation?  Augustine?  It seems to me that the only way to evaluate theology is to compare it to that of the Eastern Church; even if you don’t accept that as “true,” you have to admit it is the only theology free from all of the Western baggage.

Again, I’m still a rationalist.  But, God does call for us to think, just not to let our ability to understand control our belief.

NOTE:  A friend on Facebook questioned my comment, “I’m still a rationalist.”  It was a poor choice of words, or at least not adequately explained.  What I meant was that I’ve been steeped in Western rationalism, and still naturally think like a rationalist.  However, I am not a rationalist in the sense that I don’t limit my ability to believe on my – or someone else’s – ability to understand or explain something.