March 27, 2010

Problems with Christian Platonism I

Filed under: Christian Doctrine,Philosophical Theology,Philosophy of Religion — camcintosh @ 10:09 pm

According to orthodox Christian theology, there are two kinds of reality: God and not God. The former is necessary, the latter is not (at least not necessary in the same way God is). This distinction gives rise to a further distinction, that between Creator and creature. It is then said that all things that are not God, therefore, are part of creation.

The Nicene Creed confesses God to be “Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible” and the Father as “by whom all things were made.” Here, the phrase “heaven and earth” harkens back to the Hebrew expression ha·sha·ma·yim ve·’et ha·’a·retz (Gen 1:1; Ex 20:11; Jer 51:48 et al) which is recognized by scholars as a collective reference to “absolutely everything” apart from God, because God is not made. Moreover, the repeated phrase “all things,” (Rom 11:36; Col 1:16; 1 Cor 8:6 et al) also plausibly refers to all things apart from God, because God is not made.

Therefore, the traditional doctrine of creation affirms that whatever is not God is created. Moreover, they are not just created—they are created ex nihilo. This creates a problem (pun intended) for the Christian platonist who thinks there are an infinite number of uncreated abstract objects that exist independently of God. Not only is this inconsistent with creation ex nihilo, but also the attribute of aseity, which names God as the only necessarily existent, self-sufficient being.  The Christian platonist could try to avoid this by tweaking the doctrine of creation from “all things not God”  to “all creatable things not God.” Given that abstract objects are not creatable, one could say they do not properly fall under the scope of creation. It seems to me that this tweaked notion of creation does not avoid the problems. In fact, it makes matters worse.

The traditional view says that all possible creatable things are delimited by God’s nature, where abstracta are seen as somehow “part of” God’s nature (say, as God’s ideas or something like that). So abstraca are the way they are because they are part of God’s nature, and God’s nature, as the very essence of uncreatable reality, delimits possible creatable realities. In this sense, minimally, God’s nature is explanatorily (if not causally) prior to abstracta. But the Christian platonist must reverse this. He must insist that abstracta are they way they are because they, not God, are the very essence of uncreatable reality, and that they delimit all possible realities, even God’s nature. Here, abstracta are explanatorily (if not causally) prior to God’s nature. This attenuates God’s aseity even more than it first seems.

According to the traditional view, whatever God creates must be consistent with his own nature, and sans creation nothing exists apart from God. Hence, whatever is created is created ex nihilo. But this is not possible for Christian platonism, for it is not just false that nothing can exist apart from God, it is necessarily false. All things creatable by God are not delimited by God’s nature alone, as orthodoxy would have it, but also by abstracta. For example, God couldn’t create a world where 2+2=5 not because anything about God’s nature prevents such incoherence, but because it is a brute and inexplicable fact, even for God, that 2+2=4. Thus, God creates not strictly ex nihilo, but also according to abstracta. Thus, even the tweaked notion of creation gives us at best creation ex abstracta.

Therefore, it seems impossible to square either a robust conception of God’s aseity or the doctrine of creation ex nihilo with platonism. Furthermore, platonism may have further untoward consequences for the Christian philosopher. Such will be the subject of the next post.



  1. Hi Chad,

    It seems that a ‘Christian Platonist’ could argue that certain abstracta, such as ‘all-good’, exist as an attribute of God and therefore are eternal–at least in as much as they are an attribute of an eternal God. Additionally, any absolutes, e.g. an absolute circle, that are not an attribute of God were created by God. Of course, this is a modification of Platonism and, if I understand you correctly, what you were referring to when you said, “it seems impossible to square… God’s aseity… with platonism.”


    Comment by Lucas — March 29, 2010 @ 11:03 am | Reply

  2. Creatio ex nihilo as a doctrine emerged from Philosophy (Platonism) as a requirement of the cosmological argument, in Timaeus. Both Genesis and the Timaeus have God creating using pre-existent matter, this however is a mere illustration, the pre-existent matter is chaos, the void, nothing. You are therefore postulating a false dichotomy between Orthodoxy (Platonism) and Christian Platonism (False Platonism) to create a strawman argument.

    Comment by Mike Crahart — October 23, 2012 @ 4:58 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for the comment, Mike. I think you are mistaken about creatio ex nihilo emerging out of later Platonic thought. Interpreting Gen 1:1 as affirming or assuming some form of creatio ex materia requires treating it as a temporal clause, which is exegetically implausible. Other passages from the OT (e.g., Psalm 104 and Prov 8) and NT (e.g., John 1:3, Rom 4:17, Heb 11:3) support creatio ex nihilo, as well as Apocryphal Jewish and Patristic literature independent of the philosophical motivation (i.e., scriptural exegetes).

      Comment by camcintosh — October 23, 2012 @ 9:20 pm | Reply

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