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The Letter to the Hebrews and Platonic Idealism: Syncretism or Appropriation?

At points it seems that the letter to the Hebrews reveals Platonic or Middle-Platonic influence or overtones. This is especially the case with regard to what the author distinguishes as impermanent (the priestly order of Aaron; the earthly tabernacle) and permanent (the priestly order of Melchizedek; the heavenly tabernacle) as well as invisible (the heavenly world) and visible (the earthly world), which were common to Greek thought. That which is heavenly is original or substantival, while the earthly is a copy or shadow. The copy is lesser in quality and importance to the original since it only partially resembles it and is temporary.

Platonism similarly divided reality into two worlds: the world of forms/ideas—which was invisible, eternal, static and higher—and the world of matter—which was visible, finite, changing, and lower. The world of matter consisted of impermanent and incomplete instantiations of the world of forms.

There is, therefore, a philosophical similarity, at least materially, between the letter to the Hebrews and Platonism. Nevertheless, these two systems of thought are not to be identified for there are at least two fundamental differences between them.[1]

Hebrews’ View of History

The first difference is Hebrews’ view of history. Hebrews 1:3-4 asserts the superiority of Christ over all creation as divine and the exact imprint of God’s nature. It could be said, using Platonic categories, that Christ belongs to the world of forms.

However, Christ’s involvement with the creation (the so-called world of matter) as the letter goes on to explain clearly does not agree with Platonism. The heavenly Christ was made like us in every way so that he might be tempted and perfected through suffering (Heb. 2:9-10). After his work on earth was finished he went into heaven in order to purify it, that is, to change it (Heb. 9:11ff.). While Platonism’s world of forms is static and unchanging, the invisible heavenly reality in Hebrews is changed as a result of an earthly person and his earthly work. This stands in stark contrast to Platonic idealism. By virtue of his experience on earth and his going up to change heaven, this interaction between the visible and invisible, from heaven to earth and back, moves clearly outside the bounds of Platonism.

Hebrew’s View of Materiality

The second difference is Hebrews’ view of materiality. The eschatological scenario posited throughout the letter is unmistakably Jewish-Christian. Some of these elements include: a final judgment, resurrection of the body, and a future age that is coming with a new inhabited world (Heb. 2:5; 6:1-5). This concrete and historical eschatology is incompatible with Platonic thinking, which demonizes the material.

Even when the author affirms that the heavenly is superior to the earthly, that superiority is temporally qualified and not static or unchanging—it is no world of forms. Heaven is better at present because the present order of things on earth is temporary, but there is a concrete, future, earthly world that is impending. The contrast then is not between what is good and evil, but between what is good and what is better. Materiality, according to Hebrews, is not in and of itself evil.

Appropriating Platonic Categories

While the author employs categories that are associated with Platonism, these categories are subsumed and appropriated under a distinctly Christian worldview. The commandeering of categories from other systems of philosophical thought is not foreign to Scripture (e.g., the wisdom Christology of Colossians 1; the use of Stoic philosophy in Philippians 1 and Acts 17). Nor is it detrimental to Scripture’s validity or infallibility, but highlights its organic inspiration. In conveying their message, the authors of Scripture, guided by the Holy Spirit, utilized the terms, categories, philosophies, metaphors, vocabularies, styles, grammar, events, experiences, etc., that they themselves and their readers were familiar with.

Nevertheless, they do not blindly or credulously adopt these categories from the surrounding world, so that there is some type of syncretism; instead, they expropriate them to bring them under a Christian worldview.[2] Truth about the person and work of Jesus Christ is exposited through these categories at times, but in ways that change them from the way they would otherwise be used in a non-Christian worldview.

In the end, we can say that the letter to the Hebrews appropriates Platonic categories in order to explain the work of Christ, especially his high priestly work of inaugurating the heavenly tabernacle for service with his blood shed on earth. “Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb. 9:24).

[1] See Karen Jobes, Letters to the Church, 40, 46-48.

[2] Herman Bavinck provides a general comment that helps to inform our discussion: “While the New Testament may have some words in common with Philo (et al.) and speak also of Christ as word (λόγος), image (εἰκών), effulgence (ἀπαύγασμα), son (υἱός), and God (θεός), this is as far as the agreement goes. The New Testament was written in the people’s vernacular Greek, the language which existed at the time and was spoken everywhere. It created no new language. The ideas of God assumed the “flesh” (σάρξ) of ordinary human language. But God invested those words with new meaning. There is agreement in form but the content differs” (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:268).


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