Greek Philosophy and the Apostasy

Greek philosophy was not the cause of the apostasy, but its influence played a role in the corruption of original Christian teachings. Without the “rock” of revelation in the Church after prophets and apostles had been rejected and killed, some men in the Church felt great pressure to make Christianity seem more logical and acceptable to the intellectuals of the day, who were steeped in Greek philosophy, and specifically in the system known as Neoplatonism. It is a matter of record that Neoplatonism strongly influenced the development of “mainstream” Christian doctrine, beginning at least with the fourth century. Consider the following excerpts from the article “Neoplatonism” by P. Hadot in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (McGraw-Hill, NY, 1967), Vol. X, pp. 334-336 (excerpts from page 335):

From Plotinus to Damascius [leading figures in Neoplatonic thought], Neoplatonism was always anti-Christian. Attacking the Christian Gnostics, Plotinus simultaneously combatted specifically Christian notions, as for example, that of creation….

From the middle of the 4th century onward, however, Christian thought was strongly influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy and mysticism. In the East, Basil of Cesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Synesius of Cyrene, and Nemesius of Emesa, and, in the West, Marius Victorinus, Ambrose, and Augustine, made abundant use of Plotinus or Porphyry, frequently without citing them. In the 5th century, Pseudo-Dionysius borrowed his hierarchical universe from Proclus. In the East, this direct influence of Neoplatonism continued throughout the Byzantine period, notably up to Psellus (11th century), Michael Italicos (12th century), Nicephoros Gregoras (14th century), and Gemistos Plethon (15th century). Plethon played a role in restoring Neoplatonism to the West in the course of the Italian Renaissance, at the court of the Medici. In the West, from the high period of the Middle Ages onward, Neoplatonism was accepted through the works of Ambrose, Augustine, Boethius, Calcidius, and Macrobius. In the 9th century, John Scotus Erigena translated the writings of pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus the Confessor, and, in his De divisione naturae, combined the Proclean Neoplatonism of pseudo-Dionysius with the Porphyrian Neoplatonism of Augustine.

P. Hadot then notes that Neoplatonism further entered the West via Arabic literature. Arabic philosophy had become “a Neoplatonic interpretation of the works of Aristotle. . . .” He continues:

Once it came into Spain during the 12th century, this Arabian philosophy placed Christian thought into renewed contact with Neoplatonism.

From the 12th century onward, Latin translations from Arabic or Greek gave Christian theologians a direct knowledge of Neoplatonic works. . . . Having received a strongly Platonized thought from the Christian tradition [i.e., the post-apostolic tradition – Platonized thought is not found in the Bible!], certain theologians of this era, reading these Neoplatonic texts, regarded Platonism as naturally Christian. (emphasis mine)

Note that a dominant pagan philosophy that strongly influenced Christianity would, centuries later, seem “naturally Christian” to those steeped in Hellenized thought.

Neoplatonism was closely related to Platonism – a philosophical system based on the teachings of Plato. Regarding Platonism, J.O. Riedl in the article “Platonism” in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (McGraw-Hill, NY, 1967), Vol. XI, pp. 433-438, writes:

[Platonism] is also used by some for Neoplatonism, although this is more commonly considered a separate philosophical movement closely related to Platonism. Among patristic, medieval, and modern scholars, the term is generally used to designate currents of thought of Platonic origin that flourished among the Greek and Latin Fathers, among medieval schoolmen, . . . [etc.]. Not infrequently, Platonism has also influenced the elaboration of religious doctrines, and on this account is variously called Jewish, Islamic, or Christian. . . .(p. 434, emphasis mine)


Neoplatonism, in the view of one historian, “was the last breath, the last flower, of ancient pagan philosophy; but in the thought of Augustine it became the first page of Christian philosophy” (Copleston 1:506). Apart from influences that are now recognized as Neoplatonist, however, Christian writers found much in the older Platonism that helped them in their understanding of Christian theology and much that helped them answer philosophical questions without compromising their theology [Riedl is overly optimistic here!]. They found evidence for the unity of God, preexistence of the forms of things in the mind of God, creation of the world, . . . [etc.].

The Greek apologists during the reign of Antonines were educated in the pagan schools of philosophy. They used their knowledge to point out to the emperors, themselves philosophers, that Christian doctrine was reconcilable with philosophy, and therefore not to be condemned. . . .

At Alexandria Christian scholars adapted Platonic thought to religious instruction and scriptural exegesis. (emphasis mine)

The story of the influence of pagan philosophy on “mainstream” Christian doctrine after the loss of prophets and apostles is long and complex, but the effort to make Christianity seem compatible with pagan philosophy – perhaps viewed as essential for the survival of the Church – rapidly accelerated the process of apostasy. The Church – or its remnants – thrived and became the political tool of emperors and conquerors, with many doctrines that truly were adapted to be compatible with pagan intellectual thought. Thus, an immaterial God without body, parts, or passions was defined, which now appeared to be more “the God of the philosophers,” as Origen put it, than the God in whose physical image we were created, as early Christians and Jews believed. Creation became the philosophically appealing creation ex nihilo, which was not known among Christians in New Testament times. The perfect unity of the three distinct Beings of the Godhead became a unity of substance in the philosophical sense. Many plain and pure teachings were corrupted, though much that is good and wholesome remained. Nevertheless, there was loss of priesthood authority, of revelation, of sacred ordinances and basic teachings, and there was great need for the miracle of the Restoration that began with the Prophet Joseph Smith.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

4 thoughts on “Greek Philosophy and the Apostasy

  1. I just started reading Restoring the Ancient Church at FAIR last night, and I’m reading about the apostacy (I’ll begin again at “Floundering in the Dark” today). It’s interesting that you should write about the exact same subject! Cool.

  2. It’s important to simultaneously realize that there are huge differences between neoPlatonism and the Platonized Christianity that quite upset the philosophers. Most of these come about because of the treating of the One (highest being) as a person and creation ex nihilo.

    As I’ve argued in my responses to McMurrin’s book on my blog, the big issue is the move towards absolutism as well as creation ex nihilo. The first can be laid at the doors of philosophy but the second more important issue can’t.

    Further one must also note that before Jesus had already died this Platonizing of Judaism had been underway in an extreme form. Further many texts in the NT seem to partake of the language of the philosophers thereby suggesting to people that this was what they meant. (Especially the gospel of John) So if there was confusion, it was a confusion from very early on and perhaps partially a problem with how the gospel was presented.

  3. As always, Clark makes an excellent point. The influence of Greek philosophy was seen very early in the Church – just as the dominant worldview in North America is readily interwoven into LDS life, resulting in some cultural things in the Church that really aren’t part of the Gospel. Greek philosophy per se was not the cause of the Apostasy. Rather, I believe it was rejection of Church leaders that left parts and eventually all of the Church to become branches severed from the vine, operating according to their own judgment in the absence of revelation through authorized leadership.

  4. With all due respect, has anyone in the LDS Church ever read the Greek O.T. and/or Greek N.T.? The Orthodox Church believes that we are all icons of God (Gen. 1:26) and of course we are physical icons as well. This is as non-Platonic as one can get. It turns out that currently it's the Protestant world and the LDS Church that is neo-platonic.

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