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HISTORY of Christian Theology

After Socrates’ death, twenty-eight year-old Plato realized that Athens was no longer safe, so he left and traveled the world, continuing Socrates quest for truth. He visited Italy, Egypt, Judea, and India. He returned to Greece as a well traveled 40 year-old man. The first Christian philosopher, Justin Martyr (110–155 A.D.), insisted that Plato adopted many concepts from Judaism while developing his philosophy. Plato believed in one God, that humans come down to earth from a pre-mortal existence with God and will either go back up to heaven or down to hell when we die. The Christian concept of a person’s ultimate end being either in heaven above the earth or in hell below comes from Plato, which binary concept replaced Paul’s teachings of three heavens or degrees of glory.

Plato ascribes many of his teachings to Socrates, but eloquently elaborates on them. Plato believed in a duelist view of existence, a temporal world and a non-material world. This physical world was created by a transcendent eternal being, a master craftsman, who initiated time and fashioned this material universe in replica of a pre-existing eternal model. This eternal model is the essence of and more real than the physical substance we touch with our hands and see with our eyes. This eternal essence is the intellectual ideal of the material replica. The circle or triangle we see in our mind’s eye is more real than the one we draw on the chalkboard because the image we hold in our mind is flawless, not subject to distortion, and eternal while the image on the board is imperfect and will soon be erased. Plato called these eternal unvarying ideals forms. Think of forms as the intellectual property of a patented invention that is worth much more than the first physical prototype.

These non-material intelligible forms always existed in the mind of the eternal craftsman, and he used them to impose mathematical order on chaos to organize an orderly universe. The pre-cosmic universe consisted of eternal pre-existing substrata substance that moved in an erratic disorganized manner and produced only traces of the four fundamental elements, earth, air, water and fire that these substrata particles would eventually become. These quasi-particles acted as receptacles that the divine craftsman filled with these intelligible forms to create matter, and through a process, brought order to the universe. Plato refers to the universe as a living organism that possesses intelligence associated with these forms which he views as a sort of soul. Souls of individual humans consist of this same class of intelligence or soul as the universe, but at a lower level. Early Christians liked this concept and adapted it to a belief that God imbued matter with a portion of his grace and thereby was intimately involved in the affairs of this mortal world. This concept was referred to as realism due to the idea that these “spiritual” forms were more real than the physical realm, and this formed the basis for a strong belief in God’s providence that permeated Christendom throughout the Middle Ages, echoing even to this day.

Human intellect always existed and is the essence of being human.

Plato believed that intelligence is not a form or substance but a class of eternal essence all its own. Human intellect always existed and is the essence of being human. Plato endeavored to prove human pre-existence by pointing out that we all know things which we did not learn during this life, so we must be remembering things that we previously knew. He subscribed to Socrates’ description of himself as a midwife, helping others to give birth to ideas that were already inside them. Humans fall from heaven when they become imprisoned in their physical bodies and desire to return back where they belong. In this mortal state we are influenced by three primal forces: our intellect centered in our head, our emotions centered in our chest, and our appetites found in our gut and loins. These two mortal forces, appetites and passions, interfere with our intellect and throw our eternal essence out of balance, so it is imperative for man to learn how to use his intellect to control his appetites and passions.

Everything was created for a purpose, and fulfillment comes from realizing that objective. Happiness is the ultimate goal for humans. But this concept entails much more than what our modern conception of happiness implies. The Greeks did not believe it meant living a hedonistic lifestyle, but instead it meant true fulfillment, realizing our full potential, reaching our destiny. They used the term telos, from which the term theology is derived, to encapsulate this concept of the consummation of our ultimate purpose. Human happiness comes from realizing our divine destiny to return to our pre-mortal state of harmony and unity with intelligence. Evil is disharmony, so living an orderly life through reason is the goal for a truly successful life.

Plato introduced the idea of eternity–beyond time–to Greek philosophy.

Plato introduced the idea of eternity–beyond time–to Greek philosophy. This concept plays an important role in subsequent philosophy and Christian theology. Plato believed that various things are eternal while others are created. Created things change, deteriorate, and cease to exist. They are not eternal. However, God is eternal, and consequently is both perfect and unchangeable because one can’t change perfection. Plato held that this material world is good because it was created after a prefect model, but it has flaws that were created by other cooperating lesser gods in the creative process. Neo-Platonists took this concept even further to hold that this material world is not of divine origin but is evil. This concept greatly influenced early Christian Gnostics and even the Christian creeds. Renowned historian, Will Durant, wrote in his distinguished work, The Story of Philosophy: “Much of the politics of Catholicism was derived from Plato…the ideas of heaven, purgatory, and hell, in their medieval form, are traceable to the last book of the Republic; the cosmology of scholasticism comes largely from the Timaeus; the doctrine of realism (the objective reality of general ideas) was an interpretation of the doctrine of Ideas.” Plato’s influence on philosophy, Greco-Roman culture and Christian theology can hardly be overstated.

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