©2019 by A J B Hampton

Christian Platonism:

A History


This project will produce a comprehensive overview of Christianity’s long engagement with the Platonic philosophical tradition. Its contents will offer an analytical consideration of the most fertile sources and concepts in Christian Platonism, a historical contextualization of its development, and a constructive engagement with contemporary questions. This volume will guide readers through each of these dimensions, uniquely investigating and explicating the historical, theological and philosophical significance of the Platonic Christian tradition. The outcome of this project will be the publication of Christian Platonism: A History, edited by Alexander J. B. Hampton and John Peter Kenney. The volume is under contract with Cambridge University Press, and will be published in early 2020. 


I. Central Concepts                                             

1.1      The Perennial Value of Platonism (Lloyd Gerson, University of Toronto)    

1.2      Ideas as Thoughts of God (John Dillon, Trinity College Dublin)

1.3      The One and the Trinity (Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, Notre Dame)     

1.4      Creation, Desire, and Return (Kevin Corrigan, Emory University)

1.5      Theologia (Olivier Boulnois, École pratique des hautes études)

1.6      Participation (Rudi te Velde, Tilburg University)

1.7      Knowledge (Charles Stang, Harvard University)


II. Historical                                 

2.1       Bible and Early Christian Platonism (Mark Edwards, University of Oxford)

2.2       Platonism and Christianity in Late Antiquity (John Peter Kenney, St Michael’s College)

2.3       Medieval West (Lydia Schumacher, King’s College (University of London)

2.4       Medieval East (Torstein Tollefsen, University of Oslo)

2.5       Renaissance Platonism: Italy (Stephen Gersh, Notre Dame)

2.6       Renaissance Platonism: Northern (Cecilia Muratori, University of Warwick, Mario Meliadò,                                            Universität Freiburg)    

2.7       Early Modern Platonism: 17th Century (Derek Michaud, University of Maine)

2.8       The Counter-Enlightenment and Romantic Platonism (Douglas Hedley, University of Cambridge)

2.9       Platonism in Modernity (Joshua Gentzke, Michigan State University)


III. Contemporary Questions                                        

3.1       Platonism and Christianity: Contested Tradition (Charles Taliaferro, St. Olaf College)

3.2       Poetics (Catherine Pickstock, University of Cambridge)

3.3       Science (Andrew Davison, University of Cambridge)

3.4       Pluralism (Stephen Clark, University of Liverpool)

3.5       Nature (Alexander J. B. Hampton, University of Toronto)

3.6       Politics and the State (Adrian Pabst, University of Kent)

3.7       Image (Richard Viladesau, Fordham University)


Detailed Description


The importance of Christian Platonism 

Anyone wishing to understand the Christian tradition deeply must consider the central, formative role of Platonism. At various times Platonism has constituted an essential philosophical and theological resource, furnishing Christianity with a fundamental intellectual framework that has played a key role in its early development, and in subsequent periods of renewal. Alternately, at other times, it has been considered a compromising influence, conflicting with the faith’s revelatory foundations and distorting its inherent message. In both the positive and negative cases, the central importance of Platonism, as a force which Christianity defined itself by and against, is clear. Equally, this process of influence is not unidirectional. Whereas Platonism played a key role in the development of Christianity, the further development of Platonism beyond antiquity was dependent to a large degree upon Christian thinkers. The importance of this dialogue provides an answer to Tertullian’s celebrated question: ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ The emphatic answer, detailed in the chapters of this volume, is everything. 


Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the single most influential voice in the Christian Platonist tradition, affirmed this view in crucially important teachings—often adumbrating many of the most ingenious ways in which Christian thinkers would discover not only the fulfilment but also the conversion of reason’s greatest aspirations in the mystery of the Word made flesh. In the Word, said Augustine (and countless other Christian Platonists in every period), dwell the real and imperishable archetypes of all that is. For the Christian Platonist tradition, this signal fulfilment and transformation of Plato’s ideas became the motive force behind a seemingly inexhaustible theological creativity across the ages: from rejoicing at the luminous goodness and compelling beauty of the creation, echoing with its eternal significance in God, to probing critiques of human injustice and local xenophobic evasions of true and more universal justice, to boundary-breaking assertions of the authentic role of desire and love in epistemic success. In many ways, we would argue, one can only fully perceive the inner conceptual beauty and meaning of Christianity’s most significant theological achievements by uncovering the Christian Platonist dimensions at their core. Whether this leads primarily to deeper understanding or also to critique and amendment, neither would be possible without a grasp of the Christian Platonist role in the history of Christian thought. 


The systematic consideration of Christian Platonism presented in this volume provides readers with crucial insights regarding a key dimension in Christianity’s long engagement with Western thought. We achieve this through an analytical consideration of the most fertile sources and concepts in Christian Platonism, the historical contextualization of its development, and a constructive engagement with contemporary questions.  Readers of the volume will benefit throughout from (a) an understanding of how Christianity has sought to conceptualise its encounter with the transcendent in philosophically robust modes, (b) a sophisticated and contextualized analysis of the productive tension between rational reflection and revelation, (c) and an overview of a body of theory and practice that seeks to relate sublunary existence to the transcendent presence of the good in creation.  This volume will guide readers through each of these dimensions, uniquely investigating and explicating the theological significance of the Platonic Christian tradition.  The introduction will set out these lines of inquiry, with the subsequent chapters attending to key terms, historical contexts, and questions of reception.

Need for the Volume 

At present no volume offers a systematic consideration of Christian Platonism. Perhaps owing to the breadth and complexity of Christian Platonism scholarly considerations are overwhelmingly limited in their scope, focused upon particular individual thinkers or limited historical periods. Such contributions often appear in specialised collected volumes.  The result leaves the reader who wishes to gain a systematic overview of Christian Platonism with a disparate variety of puzzle pieces to assemble, and gaps that remain to be filled. The comprehensive aim of this volume will address this scholarly need. In particular, the guide will require its contributors to consider the history of Christian Platonism from antiquity to the present day, overcoming the overwhelming focus on its early manifestations to the neglect of its later development. 


One can easily identify reasons for the hesitancy to recognize and engage constructively with the Platonic tradition within Christianity. From the time of the Reformation, Protestant scholarship had sought to disentangle what it conceived as authentic biblical Christianity from what it saw as the distortions of philosophical traditions (even if a number of Protestant thinkers continued to embrace and develop Christian Platonist perspectives; though these sometimes flourished most recognizably in more marginal, often esoteric, schools of thought, coming to be regarded uneasily in both academy and church). This tendency to devalue the significance of Platonist elements in Christianity gained a powerful new impetus with the scholarly influence of Adolf von Harnack and the quest for a putatively pure and simple essence of Christianity, free from Hellenistic influences. Moreover, more particularly philosophical reasons for the paucity of scholarship on Christian Platonism may be located in its twentieth century critique. In the nineteenth century, Kierkegaard attacked the highly Platonised German Romantics, whilst Nietzsche launched an attack on Platonic metaphysics. Under the influence of both, Heidegger developed his significant accusation of ontotheology against the metaphysical enterprise. The consequent postmodern attack on metaphysics, led by Derrida, took singular aim at Platonism. Equally, twentieth century positivism offered its own demolition of metaphysics and the possibility of transcendent knowledge.


In the present day, the influence of these powerful critiques may be in decline. The social, cultural and ecological crises toward the end of the last century, and in the initial decades of the current one, has led to the questioning of twentieth century assumptions, most powerfully in the case of secularisation. Concepts such as post-secularism and re-enchantment have opened possibilities for the renewal of metaphysics in general, and Platonism in particular, both within and without the Christian tradition. In Charles Taylor’s phrase, the ‘immanent frame’ of modern thought (obscuring any basis for reference to a transcendent reality) has now, itself, become an object of critical awareness and questioning. The present intellectual landscape suggests the very real timeliness of a comprehensive guide to one of the single most transcendent-oriented dimensions of religious thought.