In the previous post of this final part of the series that looks at the arguments put forward by the unnamed author (UA) of the series at the blog One God Worship that is looking to refute the arguments used by Trinitarians to interpret John 1:1, we looked at the circular reasoning that is used to make the arguments and how the proof-texts offered are argued incorrectly.
Moreover, it was noted that the direction of travel was false: the early apologists interpreted their philosophy in light of what they believed rather than interpreting what they believed in light of their philosophy.
In this post, we will look at the arguments directly related to the alleged philosophical influence placed in the early apologists (Justin Martyr, Origen, Tertullian, etc) as they articulated what they believed about the deity of Christ in the last half of UA’s post titled, “John 1:1 The Jewish Mind vs Greek Philosophy”.
There is no doubt that, in the broad context of the ancient world that the philosopher Plato had an outsized influence, possibly due to the fact that the philosopher used his teacher as the means by which to express his ideas and explore his thoughts. By not injecting himself into the story, Plato was allowed to explore various concepts in a more neutral and natural fashion, often more in theoretical terms rather than directly applicable ones, as such it might be argued that Plato’s influence would be more subtle than his predecessors, who often met unfortunate ends at the hands of the state. His long life and more theoretical approach to subjects led to his works being broadly accepted in the Hellenistic culture, due to his establishment of his own school in Athens.
Perhaps this is why, when it comes to Trinitarian thought in the ante-Nicene period, that it is easy to attribute such influence on the Apostolic fathers and the apologists.
On the matter of Plato, UA contends that Plato had a concept of a “divine triad” composed of “The Good, Ideas (Logos), and the World-Spirit.” UA bases this claim on a reading of Charles Bigg’s Christian Platonists of Alexandria.
This work is a collection of lectures delivered by Bigg in 1886 on the thoughts and concepts of the Alexandrian fathers prior to Niceae. And while it’s true that Bigg notes that Plato drew on a triple conception composed of “God, the Ideas, and the World-Spirit”, he also notes that Plato doesn’t put them into any harmonization. The question that UA wants to answer is, how might these concepts have influenced Christian though and thereby given rise to the concept of the Trinity?
Which brings us to the first century Jewish philosopher Philo.
Under Philonic Influence
UA writes of Philo,
“…[He] was a first century philosopher who was said to be Jewish by birth but Greek in thought. Instead of reading Scripture at face value, Philo used philosophical allegory in an attempt to harmonize the Torah with Greek philosophy…
There is no debate that Philo easily takes Platonic concepts and fills them with Jewish meaning because he was under the impression that Greek philosophy saw truths that were confirmed in the Jewish Scriptures. However, what needs to be noted is that Philo substitutes a Stoic term (logos) in place of the Platonic term (nous) thereby indicating that God’s thoughts are both intelligible and communicable whereas in the Platonic scheme God’s thought are seen as inscrutable.
However, UA wants to characterize Philo’s views as “nontraditional”, but this is only in respect to “contemporary” Judaism. It should be noted that Philo’s arguments run parallel to similar Jewish arguments from the time and that indicates a measure of contemporaneousness that should not be ignored. This means that any attempt to call Philo’s views “out-of-step” is based on anachronistically casting what appears to be later Jewish positions backward in time. This is especially relevant to the argument due to the fact that there is evidence of an established Logos doctrine within certain sects of Judaism prior to Philo.
This is important to recognize because, if Philo was the recipient of a tradition that had already accommodated the idea of a Logos theology and such a view was widespread enough to affect the theology of Palestinian Judaism prior to Christianity that would both explain and allow for such beliefs to exist. This is especially relevant to Jewish polemics against the Hellenistic tendency to syncretize or absorb deities, thereby preserving Jewish theological uniqueness. Which brings us to the early Christian apologists, namely Justin Martyr.
Can I Get a Witness
There is no doubt that Justin Martyr is an influential and foundational figure in both philosophic and Christian history. However, much of what is actually known about Justin comes from his own writings. It must also be recognized that when Justin lived and wrote as a Christian that there was no fixed, universal theological terminology meaning that he often borrowed Greek philosophical categories and so much of his discussion is more philosophical than theological in nature. And while this helps to contextualize Justin in history, and give us grounds to understand the nature of what he’s arguing for or against when reading him, UA doesn’t see it this way, instead appealing to unitarian Keegan Chandler’s book The God of Jesus in Light of Christian Dogma, and reproducing the majority of a quote contained therein from the controversial book The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman that asserts that Justin, “was among the first to argue that Christianity could draw on both the scriptures and Greek philosophy and could even appropriate philosophy for its own ends.”
Indeed, reading Justin, one will find appeals to philosophical texts with which the pagan audience is bound to be familiar,
“Plato likewise borrowed from Moses when, while inquiring into the nature of the Son of God in his Timaeus, he states, ‘He placed him in the universe in the manner of the letter X.’ 
But what readers and those bent toward anti-supernaturalism (like Freeman) will miss is that Justin doesn’t fit into neat categories or that Justin was comfortable doing what someone like the Apostle Paul had done in Acts 17 to make a theological point. However to try to argue against a figure’s philosophical leanings and their apparent comfort with engaging with their contemporaries on common ground often blinds one to the fact that those men, like Justin, was not about appealing to any legitimacy of one kind of philosophical system or another; rather it is about legitimizing the claims and person of Christ in their historical and cultural context.
This undue and deeply prejudicial thinking, spills over into a questionable citation by UA from an essay that claims, “Justin admitted that he could not prove Jesus pre-existed…” However, any honest reading of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho cannot miss that the apologist spends some 10 chapters of the text after which the a-contextual citation appears demonstrating his claim.
That being said, to attempt to subjugate Justin’s theology to his philosophy ignores the fact that the fact that he—and others like him—saw the truth of the Gospel as something that one should focus their mental energies on to and encourage others to do likewise.
This is important to recognize as UA claims, “…what is demonstrable is the role Greek philosophy played in the establishment of post-Biblical doctrines such as Jesus’ literal pre-existence and ultimately the Trinity.(link removed)” To the knowledgable reader, competent exegete, and anyone who can reason logically, this is simply an assertion that has no support due to the fact that the claims—as strongly as they are asserted—actually provide no evidence to support them. Not a single quote. Not a single source.
What sources are mustered just reiterate points from essentially the same sources that simply affirm that Justin, and—by association—the earlier Jewish philosopher Philo, were extremely comfortable and saw intellectual parallels between their faith and Platonic philosophy, which was simply part of the environment in which both lived and how their arguments functioned in that situation with their contemporaries.
With that being said, I’m going to put a pin in the discussion for now because in UA’s conclusion, which we will take up in the next post, there is a serious abuse of Scripture as well as a fundamental misunderstanding that needs to be addressed. But as I have demonstrated, much of the argument presented so far demonstrates serious errors in reasoning, from anachronism to misrepresentation, to the use of argument by assertion.
- Forrest E. Baird. Philosophical Classics, Volume 1: Ancient Philosophy. Prentice Hall Publishing. 2011. p.66-9
- Charles Bigg. The Christian Platonists of Alexandria. Oxford Press. 1913. p. 296
- Frederick Copleston. A History of Philosophy, Volume 1: Greece and Rome. Image Books. 1993. p.458
- Alan F. Segal. Two Powers in Heaven. Brill Publishing. 2002. p.165
- Here UA cites from Keegan Chandler’s book and The Jewish Encyclopedia. See original post for references.
- Segal, p.166
- Bigg, p.31
- James D.G. Dunn. The Partings of the Ways, Second Edition. SCM Press. 2006. p. 28
- Thomas B. Falls. The Father’s of the Church, Volume 6. Catholic University Press. 1948. p.9
- Ibid, p.17-8
- As quoted in Chandler’s The God of Jesus in Light of Christian Dogma (Kindle location 1727) from Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind (p.142-3)
- Justin Martyr. “First Apology (Chapter 60)”. The Father’s of the Church, Volume 6. Thomas B. Falls, trans. Catholic University Press. 1948. p. 97
- In the context of his address to the Athenians at the Areopagus, Paul appeals to two different pagan poets to justify his claims. Considering the fact that the apostle seem to have no problem appealing to pagan authorities, it is also reasonable to conclude that other Christians would see intersections of thought to which they could appeal.
- Stephen M. Hildebrand. “The Trinity in the Ante-Nicene Fathers”. The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity. Oxford University Press. 2011.
- In the Dialogue with Trypho, Justin begins his argument in chapter 48 intentionally downplaying the pre-existence of Christ as deity to make the argument that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, and the John the Baptist is the prophet like Elijah who comes to confirm the Messiah’s arrival. After getting Trypho to concede that such might be the case, beginning in Chapter 54, Justin begins his demonstration for the deity and pre-existence of Christ by arguing from Old Testament texts.
- Luke Timothy Johnson. Contested Issues in Christian Origins and the New Testament. Brill Publishing. 2013. p. 86
- Most of UA’s sources seem to be secondary: he seems to draw his quotations and conclusions from sources that are selectively quoting texts that are buried behind paywalls or are incredibly esoteric texts. Most of the sources that he quotes are found in their entirety in Keegan Chandler’s book. For example UA reproduces a quote from Charles Freeman’s book The Closing of the Western Mind, a book that is criticized in one review as being anti-supernaturalistic and “an illustration of unforgivable ignorance”. Another reviewer, while finding some redemption in Freeman’s illumination on a difficult period of history, nonetheless says it, “explains something that never happened and manages to get the explanation wrong.” Even a somewhat favorable review of the book notes that Freeman paints a picture that is “highly selective”. As such, it can be argued that one gets the facts right but the narrative wrong.
- Abraham J. Malherbe. “Towards Understanding the Apologists: Review Article”. Light from the Gentiles: Hellenistic Philosophy and Early Christianity, Collected Essays, Volume 1. Brill Publishing. 2014. p.797-805