Enter the Greeks
Plato’s unbiblical influence on Millennialism
On December 17, 2019, 16 leaders of The United Methodist Church signed the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation. The Protocol allows church traditionalists who oppose same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy to leave the denomination and start their own version of The United Methodist Church.
The Protocol is emblematic of a dilemma that followers of Jesus Christ have faced for centuries: How are we to be in the world and yet not be of the world? The temptation to syncretize our faith with the surrounding culture is nothing new (see Numbers 25:1–3). But when it happens, it alters conventional church doctrine. That is what happened to the doctrine of the Millennium.
Plato’s Theory of Forms
Plato (c. 427–347 BC), one of the greatest and most influential Greek philosophers of all time, is best known for his theory of forms. At the risk of oversimplifying, the theory can be distilled down to three basic concepts:
1. Everything we perceive around us with our five senses is not true reality.
2. True reality consists of immaterial, perfect, abstract entities called forms—such as justice, beauty, and goodness—that exist beyond our world. These forms cast their shadows or images on our world through the material, imperfect, concrete things of our universe.
3. True reality cannot be perceived by the senses, but only by the mind through acquiring knowledge and wisdom. Those who acquire this knowledge and wisdom escape the cave-like prison of a mere sense-oriented perception of reality and enter the light and realm of true reality.
Plato taught that souls have a preexistence. They enter physical bodies with prior knowledge about the forms, but that knowledge is hampered by the limitations and imperfections of the physical bodies. The goal, then, is to free the soul from the restrictions of the body through lifelong education concerning the forms. One day, at death, the soul again will be unencumbered to contemplate the forms, the true reality.
Plato’s dualistic philosophy (material/immaterial; body/soul) influenced Western culture for centuries and still does today. Variations developed, including Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, with their accompanying modifications, such as the belief the material world is inherently evil while the immaterial world is good. Plato’s dualism also spilled over into the area of hermeneutics (the science and art of textual interpretation). How was this done?
Plato and other Greek philosophers revered the writings of the Greek poets, like Homer; but they did not interpret the fanciful stories of the Greek gods literally. Instead, they interpreted them allegorically, which assumes the text contains a secret, figurative, or spiritual meaning that is not apparent on the surface. The deeper meaning of a text, then, is considered the real meaning.
Allegorical interpretation fit well with Plato’s dualistic theory of forms. Since, as Plato’s theory goes, the material world is not true reality, the literal meaning of a text is not true reality either. True reality, then, is reflected in the unseen allegorical meaning, as determined by the reader.
In effect, using allegorical interpretation is like using the modeling compound Play-Doh: You can shape a text into whatever you want.
The Jewish philosopher Philo (c. 15 BC–AD 50) of Alexandria, Egypt, adopted this genre of hermeneutics. Although Philo retained his Jewish identity and customs, he was enamored with Greek culture and Platonism—so much so that he believed by applying Greek allegorical hermeneutics to the Old Testament, he could find Greek philosophy hidden there.
Through Philo, Plato’s influence affected some of the early church fathers who also lived in Alexandria. One in particular was Origen (c. AD 185–254), who is considered one of the greatest Bible scholars of early Christianity.
Origen expanded Philo’s method of allegorizing Scripture. His allegorical hermeneutics led him to deny the doctrine of a literal, Millennial reign of Christ on Earth. In fact, he chided those who held that position, saying, “Certain persons, then, refusing the labour of thinking, and adopting a superficial view of the letter of the law, and yielding rather in some measure to the indulgence of their own desires and lusts, being disciples of the letter alone . . . and many other scriptural illustrations are adduced by them, the meaning of which they do not perceive is to be taken figuratively”1
The most influential church father on the doctrine of the Millennium was Augustine of Hippo (in Africa, AD 354–430). In his book The City of God, Augustine confessed he originally supported the doctrine of a literal Millennium but later changed his view. On what did he base his new position? Allegorical hermeneutics influenced by Platonic philosophy. In his work On Christian Doctrine, Augustine asserted, “Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.”2 Augustine thought it was perfectly proper to read many meanings into a passage of Scripture as long as Scripture affirmed those meanings elsewhere:
For what more liberal and more fruitful provision could God have made in regard to the Sacred Scriptures than that the same words might be understood in several senses, all of which are sanctioned by the concurring testimony of other passages equally divine?3
Augustine then interpreted allegorically the promise to Israel (Ezek. 36:24, 28) of a future Millennium:
And therefore we ought to take this saying . . . not literally, as if they referred to Israel after the flesh, but spiritually, as referring to the spiritual Israel. For the Church, without spot or wrinkle, gathered out of all nations, and destined to reign for ever with Christ, is itself the land of the blessed, the land of the living.4
Augustine also interpreted Revelation 20 allegorically, saying it refers to the entire Church Age—though it speaks clearly of the Millennium. He claimed “such assertions [of a future banquet during a literal reign of Christ on the earth] can be believed only by the carnal.”5
Augustine’s Neoplatonic, allegorical theology shaped the theology of others far into the future. Although there were occasional exceptions, Augustine’s amillennial view became the unquestioned position of the Western church for more than 1,400 years.
Platonism’s Culture Creep
Generally speaking, during its first 200 years, the church believed in a premillennial return of Christ, followed by a literal, earthly reign of 1,000 years. What caused the defection? Two primary elements: (1) a reaction and (2) an attraction.
A Reaction: Anti-Jewish sentiment quickly and tragically found its way into the post-first-century church. It seems that anything that smacked of Jewishness was opposed—including, as it turned out, a literal hermeneutic.
For example, Origen criticized literal interpretations as being Jewish and fruitless: “Such are the views of those [literalists] who, while believing in Christ, understand the divine Scriptures in a sort of Jewish sense, drawing from them nothing worthy of the divine promises.”6
This negative association of a literal hermeneutic with the Jewish people continued even until the 19th century. Presbyterian church historian William G. T. Shedd (1820–1894) maintained,
One of the principal grounds of their [the Jewish people’s] rejection of Christ was the fact that he represented the Messiah’s rule as a spiritual one in the hearts of men, and gave no countenance to their literal and materializing interpretation of the Messianic prophecies. The disciples of Christ, being themselves Jews, were at first naturally infected with these views, and it was not until after . . . [Pentecost] that they rose above their early Jewish education.”7
A contemporary of Shedd, Philip Schaff (1819–1893), a German Reformed church historian, went so far as to place the literal millennial view among the heresies: “From the time of Constantine and Augustin[e] chiliasm [belief in a literal Millennium] took its place among the heresies, and was rejected subsequently even by the Protestant reformers as a Jewish dream.”8
An Attraction: There is no doubt that church leaders attracted to Platonic philosophy and its accompanying allegorical interpretation shaped early church doctrine concerning the Millennium. Why did they do it? Perhaps they thought Plato’s ideas could be harmonized with Scripture. Perhaps they did it to assuage Platonic critics who attacked the Bible. Perhaps they did it simply to be “culturally relevant.” Whatever the reason, the absorption of pagan philosophy and hermeneutics into the church has been calamitous.
The United Methodist Church isn’t the only American religious group fending off “culture creep” and syncretism today. According to a Pew Research Center 2019 poll, attitudes among Protestants and Catholics toward same-sex marriage is changing. In 2001, only 13 percent of white evangelical Protestants favored same-sex marriage. In 2019, that number climbed to 29 percent. Other religious groups (black Protestants, white mainline Protestants, Catholics, unaffiliated) polled even higher.9
History teaches us that when the church seeks to be culturally acceptable, it’s in danger of losing its flavor as the salt of the world. If that were to happen, Jesus said it would be “good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men” (Mt. 5:13).
- Origen On First Principles 2.11.2.
- Augustine On Christian Doctrine 2.40.60.
- Ibid., 3.27.38.
- Ibid., 3.34.49.
- Augustine City of God 20.7.1 (tinyurl.com/A20-7-1).
- Origen On First Principles 2.11.2.
- William G. T. Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine, vol. 2 (New York, NY: Charles Scribner, 1864), 389–390.
- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 2, Ante-Nicene Christianity (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910; reprint: Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 619.
- Pew Research Center, “Attitudes on Same-Sex Marriage,” May 14, 2019, pewforum.org (tinyurl.com/sssmarriage).