Platonism vs. Evangelicalism?

Christianity is not compatible with Platonism (contra Radical Orthodoxy’s 12th thesis).  Nor, in fact, compatible with Aristotelianism or Stoicism, the other two of the ancient philosophies that sometimes try to overcome biblical Christianity.  There are elements of Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism, and Christianity should affirm these.

There are also truths in Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism.  Christianity is not compatible with these, either.  Nor is it, in fact, compatible with Enlightenment modernism.  Post-modernism is an amoebic entity which sometimes contains things compatible with Christianity, sometimes does not.

I think Radical Orthodoxy (as in the 24 Theses) is not something I can embrace, partly because the high concentration of philosophic and academic jargon renders many of the theses incomprehensible.  And I also don’t think evangelicalism is “creepy,” and find that High Anglicanism, especially in its Anglo-Catholic manifestation, to be something that is as creepy as evangelicalism, just in different ways, contrary to this:

14. Radical Orthodoxy is focused on the recovery and non-identical repetition of an authentic pre-Scotist Catholicism. It finds elements of an authentic continuation of the same in High Anglicanism, but also in many other places and countries as well. It detests evangelicalism, because it is creepy, voluntaristic and therefore nihilistic.

What on earth do you suppose they even mean by evangelicalism?  Evangelical is a good, solid Protestant word.  It’s the word Luther used to describe himself.  It means gospelly.  To be evangelical is to be committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it is presented to us in the Holy Bible.  This is not “creepy, voluntaristic and therefore nihilistic.”  This is what one would hope the Radical Orthodox wish to be.

I imagine, of course, that the composers of this manifesto have in mind certain manifestations of denominations called “evangelical” that originate largely in the United States and involve things that the British, due to a difference in culture, find inherently “creepy”, such as altar-calls and a strong emphasis on Public Displays of Religion.  And rock’n’roll worship.  And pastors who are treated like celebrities.

But those bits of the evangelical tradition that are potentially creepy and voluntaristic are not the sum total of evangelicalism.  Much is to be affirmed in evangelicals, regardless if you consider yourself one, such as the strong commitment to the Bible.  You may not agree with how a perceived “evangelical” reads the Bible — but s/he reads it.  A lot.  And seeks to understand in such pro-active living choices as weekly Bible studies and sermons rooted in Scripture.

This commitment to Scripture alone (rather than in any ancient pagan philosophical system) puts many evangelicals farther ahead than a lot of people in High Anglicanism.  God encounters us through the Scriptures, not just the sacrament.  To say evangelicals are creepy is almost a re-statement of the false dichotomy of Word vs. Sacrament.  We need both to nourish our spiritual lives; Christ feeds us through each (and herein, frequently, lies evangelicalism’s weakness).

Evangelicalism detested because it is creepy?  Pretty lame reason.


5 thoughts on “Platonism vs. Evangelicalism?

  1. Andrew passed along this link apropos of a recent conversation about Radical Orthodoxy, and so I thought I would offer the following:

    The Radical Orthodox objection to evangelicalism is not, inasmuch as I understand it, an objection to the activity of sharing the gospel (literally “bringing good news”). The work “evangelicalism” means something completely different – it’s an 18th-century neologism created to describe a specific Protestant movement, and one which is still used today to describe congregations in the English nonconformist tradition and in the American evangelical church. To reject “evangelicalism,” therefore, is not to reject evangelism, still less to reject Scripture, but to challenge a particular theological tradition.

    On what grounds? That evangelicalism is “creepy” is subjective (although I bet most of his readers knew exactly what he meant), but it’s unquestionable that it is voluntaristic – that is, that it places too much emphasis on the will and not enough on divine grace. The entire pattern of evangelical soteriology, with its altar calls, “personal salvation experience,” and so on, assumes that a person’s salvation stems from a single moment in time wherein they hear God’s word and make a decision for or against Christ – this against the orthodox understanding in which a person grows in grace and faith through their life in the Church. This emphasis on the human will, casting salvation as a decision rather than as a gift, is the legacy of Enlightenment humanism, and for all its surface opposition to modernity, evangelicalism is in fact parasitic upon the narratives of modern thought. (Another example of this would be Biblical literalism, which is simply a Christianized version of scientific positivism.) It is perhaps relevant here to mention that Charles Finney, the father of American evangelicalism, was an avowed Pelagian (denying original sin, insisting that we are saved by our own merits, and the whole package), and that it doesn’t take much of a stretch to characterize the entire enterprise of evangelicalism as semi-Pelagian.

    As far as Platonism goes, I think it’s obvious that any non-Christian philosophy will need some modification before the Christian can accept it. I think here of Aristotle, who famously gave an account of friendship in which he insists that friendship with God was categorically impossible – God was simply too distant. Well, Christ obviously put the lie to that bit of logic. At the same time, however, Hellenistic philosophy is deeply embedded in Scripture – particularly in John’s gospel, which in the opening verse explicitly identifies Christ with the philosophical concept of “logos.” To de-Hellenize Christianity would mean tossing most of the New Testament, all of the Church Fathers, and the entire discipline of theology. It would also likely mean going back to Arianism – Christ was accepted as fully divine not because the scriptural case for this was absolutely overwhelming, but because to hold otherwise made the theological account of salvation philosophically incoherent. If we’re going to reject “the false dichotomy of Word vs. Sacrament”, how about the false dichotomy of Athens vs. Jerusalem?

    All of the above aside, by the way, I enjoy this blog very much – very clear, readable writing.

    • I think the trouble is that “evangelicalism” is still too big, too broad, too manifold a creature to reject entirely out of hand. Yes, that weird voluntaristic aspect whereby you must know the day and the hour that completely divorces salvation from any idea of the community and the sacraments and, at times, Grace itself, is to be rejected. Just as I cannot fully reject Radical Orthodoxy and Platonism, so I cannot fully reject the evangelical community, if only because there are people who believe fully in grace and in Christ’s redemptive action in our lives and in the Scriptures as authoritative for our beliefs and actions. Mind you, my experience of evangelicalism has been from the perspective of an Anglican with sacraments and liturgy, so I understand that “evangelicalism” as a movement in the nonconformist tradition is a different creature than the evangelicalism I grew up with.

      Yes, indeed, the false dichotomy of Athens vs. Jerusalem should be dispensed with. As a student of the ascetic movement, I know that Stoicism has furnished much that was of great use to many of the spiritual masters of antiquity. Aristotle and Plato (and esp. their followers) both helped Christianity produce theology that was both Scripturally sound and philosophically coherent. If we look at the world around us today, we can carefully use the tools of science and philosophy to help us shape our worldview and theology — but always with caution, as the Fathers did.

      • Well, sure. Part of the issue is linguistic: we already have a noun to describe the activity of one who evangelizes (“evangelism”) so what on earth is “evangelicalism”? This, I think, is the root of the problem. If we had one name for the Protestant movement started by Finney et al. and another for the activity of Christians who see evangelism as central to their mission, there would be no problem. But it’s too late; the dictionaries have been written, and we’re stuck with it.

        I don’t think we actually disagree on any substantive issue. The point I’m trying to make is simply that Radical Orthodoxy, even in the early, undeveloped and dogmatic form of the “24 Theses,” is not necessarily vulnerable to your criticism above. In particular, I’d suggest that the “special relationship” of Platonism to Christianity they affirm in #12 is not to be understood as a call to adopt Plato’s philosophy wholesale. (Given Radical Orthodoxy’s suspicion of all secular thought and their refusal to acknowledge the validity of a non-theological point of view, this would be very strange.) But to affirm the interrelationship of Platonic and early Christian thought should be uncontroversial (except, perhaps, to those creepy nihilistic evangelicals).

      • I concede the point re embracing commonalities between Platonism and Christianity. I guess I’m just wary of any group that decides that reconciling any form of paganism with Christianity, and especially wary when it sounds like they think everyone should be like them. I would be equally cautious of a group that said we should embrace the commonalities between Christianity and Stoicism or Aristotelianism or Sufism or Vendantic Hinduism and said it in a way that assumes all Christians should look at this specific philosophy.

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