The year was 2001. It was the first semester of my sophomore year of college. I sat in a room with about 15-20 other students waiting for our Foundations of Philosophy class to begin. Dr. Cunningham, unassuming and self-deprecating, immediately began the process of altering the way I thought. To be sure, I didn’t know it immediately. In fact, cramming the Apology, Crito, Meno, Euthyphro, Phaedo, and Republic into about seven weeks of lectures meant I was doing everything I could just to keep up with the reading!
While the basic outline of each of these dialogues remains with me, what I will always remember is that this was my first introduction to the Platonic Theory of Forms. In short, Plato postulated a realm where Universal Ideas like Beauty and Justice existed. Each thing we deem beautiful or just is a participation in the Universal. It may be helpful to think of a rose and a sunset. Both are beautiful but distinct from each other. Plato would have argued that we call both beautiful because each reflects the Form of Beauty and participates in it.
This was eye-opening for me. Not because it had changed my mind about anything-I’d never thought about it prior to the course. But there was a broadening of my understanding. At the age of eighteen, I was perfectly happy as a Platonist; so much so, I decided to make philosophy my minor.
Just prior to college, however, I had begun to own the faith in which I was raised-a moderately Reformed Anglicanism. But because I liked a good fight as much as anyone, and because my best friend was a Baptist, I decided to accentuate that “moderately Reformed” title and turned myself into a full-blown Calvinist. Many under-informed discussions and arguments ensued. Bible verses were unceremoniously ripped from their context to suit our needs. This part of the story could go on for quite some time, but suffice it to say, I found myself within a few years holding to both Plato and Calvin, scarcely aware that any contradiction existed.
Then one night in 2005, a good friend of mine, in response to some theological point I was making but have long since forgotten, threw up his hands and exclaimed “you are a Protestant Nominalist through and through.” He startled me-likely the reason I remember it so vividly. The first part of the accusation I owned with some degree of pride (Anglicans aren’t generally fond of the label “Protestant” even though by definition that’s what we are.) But this second item, “Nominalist”-that was new. I swear in three years of philosophy classes I don’t remember directly discussing this school of philosophy, though I know we must have. Through various research and reading I was made familiar not only with Nominalism, but also with Realism. While there are various forms of both schools of thought, Nominalism basically states that there are no universals, only particulars. The only thing that links a racquet ball and the sky is that we call them “blue”, not that they participate in “blueness”. Plato admittedly represents an extreme form of the school of Realism. Nevertheless, what’s been said of the “Beautiful” indicates that the Universal exists first and then the particular beautiful things share in the essence or being of Beauty. I was philosophically a Realist but religiously I was apparently a Nominalist.
Now the question is, how does Nominalism affect Christian Theology? It removes the universal we’ll dub “humanity”. Instead of all men participating in the same essence, the Nominalist would argue that there is nothing uniting humanity other than the “name” of “human” which we apply to creatures who meet established criteria. If this is true, the vast majority of Christians are wrong in regards to a central doctrine of Christianity, particularly in the West, which is Original Sin. However, the vast majority of Christians hold to the Augustinian Tradition that man is born in sin and alienated from God. Therefore, he needs prevenient grace to prepare his heart for conversion. So if we ignore Nominalist tendencies when discussing Original Sin where do we run into a problem?
Enter: the doctrine of Limited Atonement. Without using the language of Realism or Nominalism, St. Paul drives a stake through this principle. “Since by man came death, by man came also the Resurrection of the Dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” ( I Cor. 15:?) There was never a time that I did not believe in the doctrine of Original Sin, but there was most definitely a time when I would have argued for limits to Christ’s Atonement. But if all men fell in Adam, all men are raised by the Incarnation of Christ. The realism of Plato helps illuminate what Paul meant when he wrote this. Just as mankind can’t help but be infected with the Adamic Sin, so too humanity is necessarily elevated by the condescension of the Word.
Last year, Pope Francis ignited a firestorm among non-Catholic admirers of the Roman Church. He stated “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”. It smacked of Universalism on first blush, but an honest interpretation of his words is the simple affirmation that Christ redeemed all even though not everyone appropriates this procured redemption.
There can be no exceptions, no limits on the Atonement, because Christ penetrates our humanity by assuming it. The realism of Plato helped me understand the inconsistencies in my own theological thinking. This and so many other reasons are why I will continue to urge Christians to read the Pagan classics.