I understand Platonism to be a field of study. Platonism studies metaphysical objects like causes, numbers, purpose, evenness, oddness, angels, mind, justice, love, and so on. Now, I recognize that I am being reductive here. Plato and platonists have spoken about a great deal many things. But I find this basic and simple definition helpful because it names what Platonism is in a way accessible to most today.
A brain surgeon studies the technique of brain surgery. A biologist studies biology. A platonist studies intellectual objects like love and numbers. It is easy to see why Christians might adopt platonic concepts. Theology—the study of the invisible, unseen God and his works—speaks about a divine Being whose existence lies outside of regular sense experience (sight, smell, etc.). An angel, heaven, a demon, a power, a throne, and more besides generally are understood to exist in a way that differs from a dog, person, or house.
Christian Platonism, in my view, uses appropriate language to talk about intellectual (i.e. non-material objects). Christianity adopted that language to organize their thinking around God and his works. Particularly, to conceive of one God who Paul calls “invisible” (1 Tim 1:17) or to conceive of how the invisible Logos becomes flesh (John 1:14) takes careful thinking. Platonism or philosophical language in general provides the tools for the job, just as physics can describe how the world works.
Alexander J. B. Hampton and John Peter Kenney appear to say something somewhat similar in their introduction to Christian Platonism: A History when they say, “At various times, Platonigms has constituted an essential philosophical and theological resource, furnishing Christianity with a fundamental intellectual framework that has played a key role in its early development, and in subsequent periods of renewal” (3).
As editors of Christian Platonism, Hampton and Kenney have gathered together key philosophers, historians, and thinkers to provide a good historical overview of platonism.
The subtitle of the book, A History, probably underdescribes the contents of the work, since later chapters discuss matters like Platonism and art or Platonism and nature. The three major divisions of the volume are Concepts, History, and Engagements. Even so, it is clear that an historical mode of writing constrains each chapter.
Each chapter is well-written, well-edited, and generally provides an informative introduction to its topic. Uniquely, the work discusses the influence not just of obvious Christian platonists (Augustine) but less obvious ones such as Gregory Palamas. The inclusion of an author like Lloyd P. Gerson, a professor of Philosophy, but not—as far as I am aware—a Christian platonist ensures the volume is gounded in historical expertise rather than ideological arguments for Christian platonism itself.
I have spent years studying the Christian platonists in Christian Platonism such as Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus, and Thomas Aquinas. And I can gladly say that I have grown in my understanding of Christian Platonism by reading this volume. I wonder, however, why someone like Heinrich Bullinger or other Reformed thinkers were not included? Even if the authors followed the unfounded trope that reformed thinkers rejected platonism, it still seems odd that such a discussion exists nowhere in this volume.
At one level, it does not matter too much. Christian Platonism remains a valuable work, which I will consult, recommend, and cite. Christian Platonism is readable, altough it will benefit most students of Christian history who want to understand one of its key intellectual contexts; professors who teach or write on the topic; and interested readers of Christianity’s relationship to Platonism.
The book is priced primarily for library use. So readers will want to ask their local library to purchase the book. Although I have made this argument before and I will make it again, do not buy three books for $30 which you will read and forget when you can buy one book for $100 that you can refer back to again and again. Expensive books may be worth purchasing. And this one might very will be worth it, depending on your particular goals.
The publisher provided me a review copy.
*The view of Platonism I assume here follows Lloyd Gerson’s arguments in “Platonism and Natualism” about the nature of Platonism, which I find persuasive.