This article is an excerpt from my final paper for the upper level religion course, Survey of Christian Thought, at Concordia University-Ann Arbor, and has been reformatted for the purpose of this blog.
The First Error
The first error of Platonism is its misunderstanding of Christ as λόγος (logos) and, ultimately, νοῦς (nous). Greek philosophy “restricts” the meaning of νοῦς and “comes to denote the organ of knowledge, and from the more general sense of ‘mind’ it becomes equivalent to ‘reason’ or ‘spirit'” (Kittle, 954). That is, νοῦς in Greek philosophy strictly means “mind, reason,” or “knowledge” and therefore likens νοῦς to man’s ability to reason alone. In the fifth century B.C., logos was understood as “man’s ratio, his ability to think” and was thus “synonymous with νοῦς, reason, the human mind or spirit, and thought” (Archiorgoussis, 81-82). In 1 Corinthians 2:16, the phrase is, “ἡμεῖς δὲ νοῦν Χριστοῦ ἒχομεν,” which translates to, “but we have the mind of Christ.” The Greek philosopher, then, would deduce reason can lead to the acknowledgement of Christ. However, reason alone cannot acknowledge Christ. In his sermon on the gospel of John, Martin Luther wrote about Christ as logos and how He was begotten of the Father, in which he says, “This must be accepted by faith. No matter how clever, acute, and keen reason may be, it will never grasp and comprehend it” (Pelikan, 6). In stark contrast to faith, “Plato with his threefold division of the soul of man gives to reason… the most excellent part… with his [man’s] insight, that consciousness of God rests in reason, the supreme function of man’s spiritual life” (Kittel, 954). However, Luther combated this by saying, “If it [the Word/Logos] were susceptible to our wisdom, then God would not need to reveal it from heaven or proclaim it through Holy Scripture” (Pelikan, 6). If man could believe in Christ through his own reason, then the sinful condition of humanity would not have necessitated God’s revelation of Christ in Scripture—indeed, in His incarnation, death on the cross, and resurrection.
Whereas Plato understands νοῦς to be human thought and λόγος synonymously as his ability to think, the New Testament understanding of νοῦς in the context of Christ is “resolve… In the quotation from [Isaiah]… in [Romans] 11:34… νοῦς is undoubtedly the saving purpose of God in which Paul finds the solution to the problem of R. 9-11. The same words are quoted from Is. 40:13 in 1 C. 2:16a, and here again the context (v. 7 ff.) points to the hidden plan of salvation which is now manifested” (Kittel, 959). The νοῦς (mind) of Christ, therefore, is not Christ’s ability to reason and ergo not something the human being can strive towards with reason alone. Instead, the νοῦς of Christ is the manifestation of God’s “hidden plan of salvation,” or the “saving purpose of God” (i.e. salvation), which was culminated in His person on the cross (λόγος). That is, upon receiving faith in logos (Christ; see John 1:1, 14), the Christian partakes in the mind of Christ (νοῦς), which is God’s plan of salvation.
The Second Error
The second error of Platonism is that it fails to acknowledge the unity of the material and the spiritual. Instead, Plato separates the two. As Christ is begotten of the Father and is one with the Father (John 10:30), so the νοῦς of Christ (salvation) is begotten of the λόγος (Christ on the cross). That is, just as the Father and the Son are not separate, neither are the resolve of Christ’s salvation (νοῦς) and the act of salvation itself on the cross (λόγος). Christ’s humanity is not inferior to His divinity; these two natures are in the same person. The Lutheran Confessions confess neither natures of Christ act “as a separate person, but… are so united that they constitute one single person, which at the same time consists of both natures and in which the divine nature and the assumed human nature are personally present” (FD SD, VIII, 11). Similarly, νοῦς and λόγος are not two separate concepts—that is, one being separate from the other—the νοῦς being separate from λόγος. Rather, they are both united, for it is Christ’s divinity that carried out the resolve of salvation (νοῦς) and the divinity of Christ that makes the act of salvation on the cross efficacious (λόγος), all the while His humanity playing a unified role in the act of salvation because of God’s plan (the νοῦς of Christ). We must not think of Christ’s divinity and humanity as two separate things, but rather as one in which they work together, and so it is the same with His nous and logos. Platonism does not allow this doctrine to be sound, for it separates the material (Christ’s humanity) from the spiritual (Christ’s divinity). Reed Lessing explains the failure this way:
Plato held that there are two worlds: the visible, material world and the invisible, spiritual world. Because it is imperfect and a source of evil, the material world is inferior to that of the spiritual. Related to this dualistic view of the cosmos, then, is a dualistic view of people. Plato likens the body to a prison for the soul. The immortal soul is incarcerated in a defective body of crumbling clay. Salvation comes at death, when the soul escapes the body and soars heavenward to the invisible realm of the pure and eternal spirit. The widespread influence of Plato upon Christian thought can hardly be overestimated. But the Old Testament does not teach cosmological dualism (the belief that the created world is evil) nor anthropological dualism (soul versus body). (qtd. Kolb, 34).
In this way, Platonism breaches on Gnosticism—that matter is separate from the spiritual and that matter is therefore evil. The New Testament does not speak this way either. Paul wrote, “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). Man’s material body matters to God, and His desire is that His Spirit may indwell Himself in the bodies of His people. If matter truly were evil, then the Holy Spirit would want nothing to do with making the bodies of men His temple (1 Corinthians 6:19). The Old Testament is not known for speaking about the material and spiritual as being separate either. Conversely, Lessing continues:
The נֶפשׁ [nephesh] is primarily a person’s vitality, their life; it never denotes a separate part of a person. This means that people are a body-soul. They are not a soul or spirit which now inhabits a body and will at death forever desert the body. None of the Hebrew terms translated “soul” (נֶפשׁ) or “spirit” (רוּחַ) [ruach] refers to the nonphysical part of the human being. In Hebraic thought, “soul” or “spirit” refers to the whole person of the individual as a living being. It stands for the person himself. Human beings live as souls; they do not “have” souls. (qtd. Kolb, 35.)
When the Old Testament speaks of the nephesh, the Hebraic understanding is that people live as souls, not merely as material things in which the soul inhabits, as is common thinking. Platonism is, therefore, inconsistent with Christian thought. Human beings are a “body-soul” and “live as souls.” If the material and spiritual were separate, then Christ would have been two separate people in His two natures—the material human and the spiritual divine. Either that or the very existence of Jesus is just metaphysically impossible. Human beings are spiritual beings, and they are meant to be spiritual. Lessing says a true spiritual person “is really consumed with one agenda: ‘to win souls for Jesus'” (Kolb, 39). Real spiritual people—real Christians—are concerned with bringing people into the Church so that the pastor may make them disciples, baptise them, and teach them the commands of Christ and therefore participate in the mind of Christ that has been culminated on the cross.
*Disclaimer: this article has been republished with the full permission of Sheep of Christ, which is owned by the author.*
Ewald Plass. What Luther Says. Vol. II. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House. 1959.
Gerhard Kittel. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. IV. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1967.
Jaroslav Pelikan. Luther’s Works: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John Chapters 1-4. Vol. 22. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House. 1957.
Maximos Achiorgoussis. “The Word of God in Orthodox Christianity.” Greek Orthodox Theological Review. Vol. 31. 1986.
Robert Kolb. The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ. St. Louis: Concordia Seminary. 2010.
Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress. 2000.