Christian Platonism

In my PhD project, which is (hopefully) coming to a close, I propose that liturgical theology, in order to provide a coherent account of liturgical participation (as well as Christian life and Christian practices in general), should embrace a theurgic approach, where human acts are consummated by the divine.[1] In this post, I want to explore some other aspects of a Christian Platonic outlook, engaging Paul Tyson’s book Returning to Reality.[2]

Tyson, pointing particularly to the work of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien,[3] makes the point that in Christian Platonism, we seek to focus on that which transcends our everyday experience and phenomena, leading to a life through Christ, in the Spirit (cf. Romans 8; Colossians 3:1-17). This, however, does not mean that we ignore the world. In Platonism, particularly theurgic Neoplatonism, we reach the transcendent realities through temporal things. For Iamblichus, the central actor in this tradition, this means that the world is ‘populated’ with symbols and tokens, which are used in theurgic rituals:

What ritual, after all, and what cult celebrated according to hieratic laws, is there which is accomplished by the utilisation of passion, or which produces some satisfaction of passions? Was not this cult established by law at the beginning intellectually, according to the ordinances of the gods? It imitates the order of the gods, both the intelligible and that in the heavens. It possesses eternal measures of what truly exists and wondrous tokens, such as have been sent down hither by the creator and father of all, by means of which unutterable truths are expressed through secret symbols, beings beyond form brought under the control of form, things superior to all image reproduced through images, and all things brought to completion through one single divine cause, which itself so far transcends passions that reason is not even capable of grasping it.[4]

The created world, then, has certain things in it that function as symbols through which we can contemplate the transcendent. Tyson notes that for Lewis, who in many ways was a Platonist, “the world of immediate experience is not “seen through” and then discarded, but rather that world as we experience it is the necessary medium through which we hear the music of heaven.”[5] Created reality is, in other words, in all its physicality, sacramental and mediatory. It does not point to itself but neither does it point away from itself. Rather, created, physical reality, the visible world, is that along or through which we can see transcendent realities.

The centre of a Platonist Christian attitude to the visible world, then, is not one of rejection. No, it embraces the visible world, as revelatory, but also understands that it is inferior to the invisible realities it points to. As I argue more in my PhD thesis, in the fifth chapter, we do not, and cannot, have a ‘direct’ contact with God, because He is no just one being amongst others but subsistent Being itself, which we cannot grasp directly.[6] Therefore, we can only relate to God in a mediated manner, through the world, which points us to its creator (Job 12:7-8; Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20), and most particularly through the means of grace given us through Christ, as we read in Confessio Augustana. The confession notes that the priestly ministry, centring on “teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments,” was founded so that we might receive the faith which justifies: “For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel.”[7] Through the word and the sacraments, through visible, sensible, things, we are granted salvation and union with the divine. This prioritises the invisible but not by rejecting the visible. Rather, the visible is that through which we reach that which is invisible and eternal. And that is the heart of a Christian Platonism.


[1] Besides my thesis, when that comes out, I recommend reading a few books and articles: Crystal Addey, Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism: Oracles of the Gods (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016); R. M. van den Berg, Proclus’ Hymns: Essays, Translations, Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2001); Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, 2nd ed. with foreword by John Milbank and Aaron Riches (Kettering: Angelico Press/Sophia Perennis, 2014); Charles M. Stang, Apophasis and Pseudonymity in Dionysius the Areopagite: “No Longer I” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Peter T. Struck, “Pagan and Christian Theurgies: Iamblichus, Pseudo-Dionysius, Religion and Magic in Late Antiquity” (Ancient World 32:2, 2001), 25-38; Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler, Theurgy in Late Antiquity: The Invention of a Ritual Tradition (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013); Algis Uždavinys, Philosophy and Theurgy in Late Antiquity, with foreword by John F. Finamore (Kettering: Angelico Press/Sophia Perennis, 2014); Sarah Klitenic Wear and John Dillon, Dionysius the Areopagite and the Neoplatonist Tradition: Despoiling the Hellenes (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007). The book by Charles Stang is an excellent account of Pseudo-Dionysius’s theology, and Neoplatonic philosophy, and it is open access!

[2] Paul Tyson, Returning to Reality: Christian Platonism for our Times (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2015). Also see Alexander J. B. Hampton and John Peter Kenney, eds., Christian Platonism: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

[3] Tyson, Returning to Reality, 23-40.

[4] Iamblichus, De mysteriis, Greek and English, intro. and trans. Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon, and Jackson P. Hershbell (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), I, 21, cf. I, 1-2; III, 31; VI, 7; IX, 4.

[5] Tyson, Returning to Reality, 25.

[6] See Simon Oliver, Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 43-53

[7] For English, see The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds., Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2000). For Latin and German, see Die Bekenntnisschriften der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche, vollständige neuedition, ed., Irene Dingel (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014). I use the English translation of the Latin, if not otherwise noted.

‘Platonism good, Aristotelianism bad’?

As a Lutheran, I often hear that Transubstantiation should be rejected because it’s ‘only philosophy’ and/or because it’s an ‘unbiblical term.’ The word ‘philosophising’ is also thrown around, together with claims that the categories of substance and accident aren’t helpful and that we should embrace ‘mystery.’ But the same arguments are completely forgotten the second they defend the Nicene Creed. Why are none of these people saying that the category of homousios is ‘unhelpful’? Why is it all of a sudden OK to use philosophy when a Nicean Father does it? And why is the category of substance all of a sudden ‘helpful’ (since they acknowledge that Christ is of ‘one substance with the Father’)?

Is it just a case of ‘Platonism good, Aristotelianism bad’? Why is it that using philosophy is wrong, in principle, when it comes to the Scholastics and the Eucharist, while it is of utmost importance when it comes to Church Fathers and Christology?