Church Fathers and Essentialism


This is the 6th post in this series which began with: Essentialism or Evolution: Do Both or Either Have a Place in an Orthodox Understanding of What It Is To Be Human?  The previous post from last Friday is Essentialism vs Evolution.  While modern biological science has rejected the Platonic philosophy of essentialism, it was the reigning paradigm in the Patristic period.  It wasn’t derived from the Scriptures but was read into them by the Church Fathers as they accepted the assumption as all educated people did in their age because Neoplatonism predominated the thinking of the educated. 

The Church and the Church Fathers accepted Plato’s essentialism as would be expected within their cultures in the ancient world. For example, Robert Daly notes about the 3rd Century Christian scholar, Origen: “The mere fact that Origen’s thought can be described as ‘Platonizing’ is, in itself, only a sign that he was a Christian thinker in the third century.  There was at the time no thought system better suited to help Christianity in their theological reflection.  The real question is not whether Origen thinks like a Platonist, but whether in so doing he gives sufficient place to the incarnational aspects of Christianity” (SPIRIT AND FIRE: A THEMATIC ANTHOLOGY OF THE WRITINGS OF ORIGEN, note p xiv).  


Archbishop Alexander Golitzin says of the Patristic authors: “This is not to say that the Greek fathers were Platonists pure and simple. …  Suffice it is to say here that the fathers sought to express the revelation in Christ with the vocabulary and ways of thought most ready to hand and, by the third and fourth centuries A.D., that meant in turn Neoplatonic philosophy.  Their struggle over just how to do so without at the same time betraying the faith compromises the history of Greek patristic theology from its beginnings in St Justin Martyr to the consummation of Byzantine thought in St Gregory Palamas”  (ST SYMEON THE NEW THEOLOGIAN: ON THE MYSTICAL LIFE Vol 3, p 164).  This begs the question then about the modern age – we work in “the vocabulary and ways of thought” not of Platonism but of scientific naturalism or materialism.  Does not Orthodoxy today need to work out the revelation of Christ with the vocabulary and thought categories of scientific thought just as the Fathers did in their day?  This would be the true Traditionalism of doing what the Fathers did.  As Fr John Meyendorff writes: 

True tradition is always a living tradition.  It changes while always remaining the same.  It changes because it faces different situations, not because its essential content is modified.  This content is not an abstract proposition; it is the Living Christ Himself, who said, ‘I am the Truth.’  (LIVING TRADITION, pp 7-8) 

The Orthodox theologian . . . is under a strict obligation to distinguish carefully in this heritage between that which forms part of the Church’s Holy Tradition, unalterable and universally binding, received from the past, and that which is a mere relic of former times, venerable no doubt in many respects but sometimes also sadly out of date and even harmful to the mission of the Church.”  (NEW PERSPECTIVES ON HISTORICAL THEOLOGY, p 26) 


Rethinking the Patristic acceptance of Platonic categories will be a challenge for Orthodoxy, but a needed discussion if Orthodoxy is going to engage the modern scientific paradigm.  Of course, some Orthodox today think that those embracing modern scientific thinking are asking the wrong questions and so feel we need to stick to the questions that were asked and answered in the Patristic period centuries ago.  That is not what the Patristic writers themselves did and they managed to convert a whole culture to Christian thinking.  We will not be able to evangelize or even talk to non-believers if we dismiss their questions and the truths they have uncovered through science. 

8487727140_003c17208c_wPlato’s thinking totally dominates the assumptions of the intellectuals in the ancient world.   And this is something that keeps Orthodoxy locked into an idea that there is a normative/perfect human being.  This thinking manifests itself in many areas of church life.  Spiritually the male is considered to be the form closest to perfection (like the original Adam).  So, in Orthodox spirituality often the Church praises ‘masculine’ traits in both male and female monks and saints.  Feminine traits were also idealized even though the feminine could never be perfect like Adam.  The images of the  ‘perfect woman’ varied through history in different societies, yet one sees in Orthodoxy, the Virgin Mary being upheld as the perfect woman who best exemplifies what were conceived in that culture to be feminine traits – receptive, humble, pure, virginal, innocent, obedient.   [Many scientists today accept that gender roles are largely social constructs and not biological/natural ones.   In the animal world for example lemurs, bonobos (the animal genetically closest to humans), hyenas and lions all have female dominant societies. Zoologist Peter Kappeler says: “The fact that females are socially so powerful in [lemur] societies shows us that more traditional division of sex roles is not some inevitable destiny of mammalian biology.”   Studies show that in these species it is not that the females have “male-like traits” which give rise to female dominance.  There are other factors which give dominance to females in these animals (see “The Lemur and the Lioness” in DISCOVER magazine, March/April 2020, pp 44-51).] 


Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr claims all racism is based in Plato’s essentialism. Because all forms of racism accept that there is an ideal or perfect human or human form/essence; we look with a jaded eye upon any who don’t measure up – because of skin color, size, physiognomy, language, etc.    We see dwarfs, the transgendered, men with one testicle as abnormal – these conditions represent errors or imperfections. In American culture there have been tremendous efforts made to accept as fully human people with various syndromes or varying abilities – but it has been hard conscious work to overcome prejudices.  [And what about racial and gender or age bias!].   


Darwinism eventually realizes that individual variations naturally occur in the human population.  Variations are not failures of the essential form;  rather, they are part of the human population.  [Note, however, that Darwin himself believed in the superiority of European culture and thought that eventually the Europeans would civilize the barbarians in the rest of the world.  His writings are replete with his racist judgments against non-Europeans.  He did not rise above his Eurocentric prejudices.]   Biologically speaking there is no mean or average human in the sense of conforming to the Platonic essence/form.  Genetic studies of DNA have concluded there is no norm which all humans must conform to.  Any human that exists is within the norm of what is possible for humans.   


That being said, Orthodoxy still sees all humans as created in the image and likeness of God.  Christ is the divine image which represents the perfect human and we all aspire to be like Him.  Additionally, Orthodoxy does accept that there is a nature which all humans share and which makes us human.  These ideas may have allowed for Neoplatonist thinking to be accepted uncritically by the Fathers of the Church, but they don’t have to be interpreted within a Platonist framework, for it would be possible to accept these ideas in a different paradigm. 

Next:  Evolution Rather Than Essentialism? 

3 thoughts on “Church Fathers and Essentialism

  1. Pingback: Essentialism vs Evolution  – Fraternized

  2. Norman Hugh Redington

    By 19th Century standards (as opposed to current ones), Darwin himself was not especially racist or sexist, but his disciples became steadily more so, reflecting a broader social trend. In the 1930s and ’40s, this was increasingly problematic for biologists in democratic countries, a scientific version of the dilemma faced by all progressives in that era: how could one be anti-fascist and still practice the science that gave birth to fascism? One solution, advocated famously and successfully by Mayr, was to reject essentialism in its entirety. This was fundamentally a moral, philosophical, and political decision, not a scientific one; clever and committed essentialists might come up with explanations for ring species and the like, but the word ‘essentialist’ had acquired the negative connotation it still has. (Note that this negative connotation is not inherent: saying that A and B differ in essence does not necessarily mean that one is better than the other.) The times were right for anti-essentialism: thus the dominant postwar philosophy, quite unrelated to any scientific controversies, was existentialism. Also, rejecting essentialism went along with long trends in the history of biology: gradualism over catastrophism, contingency over teleology, and materialism over vitalism. Since then, there have been one or two new things under the biological sun, such as DNA and the digital computer. Teleology and vitalism remain minority views, but catastrophism has rallied. Science as such has only a little to do with the popularity of these various opinions at any given time. The main problem that Plato’s influence on science is likely to pose for religion in the 21st and 22nd centuries is not his essentialism but his belief in a demiurge. Many computer scientists, physicists, and astronomers believe that the apparent physical universe is a simulation running on a computer in the unobservable real world. This is not yet the dominant paradigm, but I am confident it will become so: it lines up perfectly with present-day concerns and experience, and it ‘explains’ certain problems in cosmology better than any competing non-theistic theory (except possibly the Everett many-worlds model, equally problematic for Christians). The demiurge returns to the cave!

  3. Pingback: Evolution Rather Than Essentialism?  – Fraternized

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