Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Wedding Cake Cosmos: Augustine & NeoPlatonism

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. The Apostle Paul (Col 2:8)

The Christian doctrine of God is a "hybrid of two organisms": Greek philosophy and biblical thought. Colin Gunton (2003:2)

In many respects, the Christian doctrine of God is secular, constructed out of philosophy, not out of the self-revelation of God in Christ. Catherine Mowry LaCugna (1991:3).

The Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner (1970:10, 11), rightly lamented nearly forty years ago that most Christians are "mere monotheists," not in the sense of believing in one God, but in the sense of believing in a unipersonal cosmic "monad." He argued that the doctrine of the Trinity was practically irrelevant in the lives of most Christians. He went so far to say, I believe correctly, that "should if the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged." That is a strong indictment of the relative unimportance of the doctrine of the Triune God in Western theology and piety. With today's post I want to begin a series of articles that trace the eclipse of the doctrine of the Trinity in the Western Church.

For sixteen hundred years, from the time of Augustine until the early 20th century, the doctrine of the Trinity has been little more than a relatively minor appendix to an already developed doctrine of the "One God." The relegation of the doctrine of the Trinity to minority status in the Western doctrine of God is directly related the influence of pagan metaphysics on Christian thought. As my friend, theologian Robert Lucas puts it: the Western doctrine of God is a confluence of two very different streams of thought: Greek philosophy and Holy Scripture, with the result that the "Christian" doctrine of God has been thoroughly polluted by an alien stream.

As Bloesch (1995:205) notes, "the history of Christian thought shows the unmistakable imprint of a biblical-classical synthesis in which the ontological categories of Greco-Roman philosophy have been united with the personal-dramatic categories of biblical faith." This synthesis of Greek and biblical thought was conspicuous in Augustine and Aquinas (Bloesch, 1995:206). The God of the classical-biblical synthesis is described negatively as infinite, immutable, impassible, incomprehensible and eminently as omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. This is the distant, aloof, inscrutable deity that Baxter Kruger succinctly describes as the "omniGod," or simply G-O-D. 

Many Christians may be surprised to know that the omniGod developed, not from the scriptural attestation of God as Father, incarnate Son and Holy Spirit, but from Greek metaphysics. To be sure, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and others have been given equal place alongside Holy Scripture in formulating the Latin-Western doctrine of God.

As we shall see, Augustine, the Father of Western Christianity, was enamored with NeoPlatonism. Thomas Aquinas, another of the great "Doctors" of the Western Latin Church, developed his doctrine of God within the framework of the metaphysics of Aristotle. No malevolent intent is attributed to either of these Christian saints. They were simply swimming in the philosophical waters that surrounded them. Yet in developing a doctrine of God that is rooted in Greek metaphysics, they turned away from God's threefold self-revelation in redemptive history. In short, as Robert Lucas often says, they have failed to allow Jesus to reveal the Father. In so doing, they have left the Western Church with an uninvolved God who watches us from a distance―aloof, alone, and unmoved by our plight. The inscrutable omniGod of the Western-Latin tradition is very different from the self-abnegating, stooping (cf. Hosea 11:4), compassionate God revealed in Holy Scripture, particularly in its attestation to Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God and loving Savior of the world (see Pinnock, et al, 1994; Pinnock, 2001; Sanders, 2007).

So let's lighten up the tone a bit and travel back in time to the late 4th century to see how the Good News of God's adoption of humanity into the joyful circle of Triune life, so passionately proclaimed by Irenaeus, Athanasius and the Cappadocians, was distorted into the awful proclamation of the omniGod. To do that, we must start with Augustine.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is known as the Father of Western Christianity. Like it or not, if you grew up in the Western Church, he's yo daddy! (You knew I couldn't stay serious forever!) Auggie is probably the major player in the development of the Western doctrine of God. His great work, De Trinitate (On the Trinity), written over a twenty year period (399-419), is not only a classic in Western trinitarian thought but also determined the course that Western trinitarian theology would follow, so that later differences between Western and Eastern trinitarian theology can be traced to this work (Gonzales, 1987:328).

Here's the deal about Auggie. For whatever reasons, he initiated a new approach to the doctrine of the Trinity. While there's nothing wrong with originality, when it comes to the doctrine of God, we do well to pay attention to what all our predecessors had to say. Auggie, however, didn't do that. Rather, he failed to appropriate many of the developments in trinitarian thought that had preceded him as far back as Origen in the early third century (Gunton, 1997:39). In fact, Auggie was largely blind to the achievements of Athanasius and the Cappadocians (Jenson, 1997:111). I think Auggie rejected Athanasius and the Cappies because he didn't understand what they were saying. Part of the problem may be that Auggie spoke and wrote Latin and was not well-versed in Greek. You think!
Anyway, grab hold and follow this: Augustine did not fully comprehend the Cappadocian formulation, mia ousia, tres hypostaseis (one substance, three persons) never quite understanding what the Cappadocians meant by hypostasis (Jenson, 1997:111). Instead of translating the term as "person," Augustine translated it as substantia (substance) (Gonzales, 1987:330). In De Trinitate (Gonzales, 1987:330 n11; cf. Augustine, 1991:196), Augustine writes of the Cappadocians:

They indeed use also the word hypostasis; but they intend to put a difference, I know not what, between ousia and hypostasis: so that most of ourselves who treat these things in the Greek language, are accustomed to say, mian ousian, tres hypostases, or, in Latin, one essence, three substances [unam essentiam, tres substantias].

The essential point to note is that Auggie failed to fully comprehend the Cappadocian distinction between ousia (substance) and hypostasis (person). Look again at what he said: they (the Cappies) intend to "put a difference, I know not what, between ousia and hypostasis." So Brother Auggie wrongly translates hypostases as "substances" (substantias) and gets the notion that the Cappies must have been a bunch of wild-eyed polytheists who believed in three gods (three "substances"). I'm not putting Brother Auggie down here; there was a lot of confusion in those days in translating technical terms back and forth between Latin and Greek. Nevertheless, Auggie fails to fully appreciate the Cappadocian distinction of personhood within the deity itself, for in his translation (wherein hypostasis is equivalent to substantia), to do so would amount to tritheism (Gonzales, 1987:330). In short, Auggie seems at a loss to how to articulate the distinctions in the Godhead. In fact, as he himself said, he merely uses the word "person" in order not to remain silent (Augustine, 1991:196).

Auggie seems stuck on the idea of the indivisible unity of God, and as a NeoPlatonist, he would have to be (see below). So whereas our boys the Cappies tend to take as their point of departure the diversity of the persons or hypostases, and from there move to the unity of essence or ousia, Augustine begins from the essential unity of God and moves to the distinction of persons (Gonzalez, 1987:330). Some, perhaps many, would argue that Auggie never quite gets there and leaves the Western Church with an essentially modalistic view of God (God as one person, not three). Let me say all that more simply: the Cappies start with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Auggie starts with the unitary substance of God and, arguably, never really makes it to the Triune Persons.

But what really separates Auggie from his predecessors is that he refuses to grant the importance that the diversity of persons had for the Cappies. Auggie's manner of understanding divine unity and simplicity leads him to reject every attempt to speak of God in terms of what he must have regarded as a triple being (Gonzales, 1987:330). Thus, unlike his trinitarian predecessors, Augustine insists on starting with the unity of the divine substance rather than the diversity of persons as revealed in the economy of salvation as Father, incarnate Son, and Spirit. Augustine's failure to appreciate the Cappadocian distinction within unity is the result of his unfailing commitment to the Greek philosophical presupposition that the Deity is metaphysically simple; that is, no sort of self-differentiation can be posited in the Godhead (cf. Jenson, 1997:111). Read all that again, my homeys, this is BIG! Auggie's method of starting with the unitary substance (essence, nature) rather than the Triune Persons would become standard practice in the Western doctrine of God.

So what is going on with Brother Auggie. Why is he so committed to emphasizing the unity of God while only secondarily considering the diversity of personhood within the Triune Godhead that was so clearly appreciated by Big Basil and the two Gregs, not to mention the gunslinging Athanasius? To answer that question, we gotta' light our pipes (cigars if you are female), pour a brandy, kick back and do a little philosophizin'. And that brings us to none other than NeoPlatonism (finally!), the revival of Platonic philosophy represented especially by Plotinus (ca. 205–270), the last of the great Platonic philosophers.

Plotinus is big-time important to a discussion of Augustine's doctrine of God, for although Auggie was committed to the Lord Jesus Christ, he was deeply influenced by Neoplatonism, which, even in his mature years, he used to interpret the Bible (Pinnock, et al, 1994:80; Pinnock, 2001:69). As the Roman Catholic philosopher √Čtienne Gilson (2002:47) notes, Augustine boldly undertook to solve the problem of how to express the God of Christianity in terms borrowed from Plotinus. Look at that again. Already in the late 4th century, the "Christian" doctrine of God is being packaged in a pagan wrapping, and that unseemly gift has been slipped under all our Christmas trees.

Plotinus referred to the Divine (the ultimate transcendent principle) as the "One," an impersonal, simple, absolute unity without the shadow of plurality (Allen & Springsted, 2007:57) and to which no multiplicity or division can be ascribed (Copleston, 1962:465). (Wake up, Brothers and Sisters! The lights ought to be coming on already!) In order to maintain the Greek philosophical insistence on an ontological gap between the One and the created order, Plotinus posited a series of emanations, wherein each succeeding "level" of emanation possesses less ontological significance, that is, less "being," than the prior level (Allen & Springsted, 2007:50). The material world, existing in time and space at the "lower" end of the emanational chain of being, possesses the least degree of ontological significance and is regarded as evil (Tarnas, 1991:85). (Don't miss that last point: the world is evil, per Plotinus!). As part of the material world of multiplicity, human beings have less ontological significance (less "being" or "reality") than the One. The essential point is that in the Neoplatonic philosophy that underlies Augustine's thought, the greater the unity, the greater the "being" or "reality." Thus, as an indivisible unity, the One has greater being or reality than the distinctions (the many) that emanate from it.

Let's unpack all that high-browed talk for a moment. We've talked before about the ubiquitous ontological divide that characterizes Greek thought, the spiritual-material dualism of the ancient world. You remember: God is "way up there," aloof, alone, arelational and uninvolved; we're "way down here" and "never the twain shall meet" cause God don't dirty his hands with dirt; or so said the Greeks! So how do you get from God to the world? You posit a bunch of layers between the divine and dirt (the Gnostics did the same thing), "layers of being" that actually emanate from the One. You've seen the layers on a wedding cake. That's how Plotinus envisioned the cosmos. God is at the top layer and you "descend downward" through other layers, called "Nous" (mind) and World Soul, before you finally get to dirt where we are. Note that with each descending "layer" in our cosmic wedding cake, there is less "ontological significance." In other words, each succeeding lower level has less "reality" than the preceding level, so by the time you get to us all you have is a relatively unimportant world of impermanence, change and flux. With the cosmic wedding cake model, Plotinus keeps the unchangeable divine from being contaminated by our dirty world, insulated from us by the intervening levels of the wedding cake. So the "One" keeps its hands clean and remains unchanged (immutable) and unaffected (impassible) by what goes on down here.

Now let's catch a breath and recap: The One is simple, without the shadow of plurality. So what's the big deal? It means Plotinus and the other Greek philosophers have taken relationship right off the table in their concept of God. Do you get it? Divine simplicity d'q's (disqualifies) diversity of personhood from the git-go. In addition, this means not only is there no diversity (multiplicity) in the Godhead, the divine is also uninvolved with the world (impassible). The divine must remain aloof, alone, arelational and uninvolved, else it would somehow be conditioned by the cosmos and thus no longer immutable. In short, if the God of the philosophers were to engage creation, it would be changed and thus no longer perfect, for change in a perfect being can only be for the worse. You can see what's comin' can't you? How in the hell are you going to develop any decent doctrine of the Trinity with that kind of framework? Gimme a break!

Back to Auggie: In line with the Neoplatonic presupposition that divine unity is ontologically prior to all manifestations of multiplicity (whew!), Augustine begins his articulation of the doctrine of God with the unitary being of God, that is, the essence, or substance (ousia) of God, rather than the threefold manifestation of God as Father, incarnate Son, and Spirit revealed in Scripture (Pinnock, et al, 1994:83, 84; cf. Letham, 2004:3, 4). According to Sanders (Pinnock, et al, 1994:84), "Augustine makes divine substance [essence, nature] rather than the tripersonal God the highest ontological principle. The substance of God is what is ultimately real, not the relationships between the Father, Son and Spirit—let alone the relationships between the triune God and creatures." For Augustine, in strict accordance with Neoplatonism, God is understood as a simple, unitary substance. Again, this paragraph is very important. Do you begin to see how the Triune Persons―Father, Son and Spirit―are going to get lost in all this emphasis on the unitary being of God?

In addition, there is a distinct anti-material bias in Augustine's thought. Augustine does not believe that the world is the kind of place where God's presence can be revealed, even in the humanity of Jesus (Gunton, 1997:33-38). Augustine's suspicion of the material world is reflected in his Christology, wherein he tends to emphasize the divinity of Jesus over his humanity (Gunton, 97:34). This suspicion of the material world is natural for one influenced by the Neoplatonic view of creation as the realm of evil. In his development of analogies of the Trinity (see below), Augustine finds the material world to be the least adequate source of assistance. Book XI of De Trinitate is an argument for the inferiority of the outer world as distinct from the inner rational world to serve as an analog of the Trinity (Gunton, 1997:37). Given the fundamental Greek dualism between the world of spirit and the world of matter, it would be difficult for Augustine, as a Neoplatonist, to imagine the material world as the bearer of the Divine. Hence, under the pressure of the anti-material bias of his philosophical presuppositions, Augustine would be more inclined to articulate his doctrine of God in terms of the metaphysics of substance rather than in terms of the concrete manifestation in space and time of the incarnate ("enfleshed") Son.

Because he achieves an essentially Neoplatonic understanding of God (cf. Bloesch, 1995:205), one may rightly expect a severe bifurcation of theologia (God in his eternal transcendent nature) and oikonomia (God threefold self-revelation in redemptive history) in Auggie's doctrine of God. In brief, Auggie develops his doctrine of the eternal God apart from God's self-revelation in the incarnate Son and Holy Spirit. To be sure, Auggie did not look to the material world to articulate his doctrine of the Trinity. Don't miss the point: Auggie turns away from God's historical self-revelation in time and space (the world of dirt) in order to develop his doctrine of God. Rather than inquiring into the nature of the transcendent God as revealed in Jesus Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit, Auggie turns away from God's threefold self-revelation in salvation history to look for analogs of the Trinity in the human mind or soul (LaCugna, 1991:10; cf. Grenz: 2004:9).

In De Trinitate, Augustine articulates a "psychological analogy" of the Trinity that pointed the way Western trinitarian thinking would follow (Gonzales, 1987:334; Grenz, 2004:9). Drawing upon the scriptural revelation of man as created in the image of God (Gen 1:26), Auggie looked for traces or "vestiges" of the Trinity (vestigia trinitatis) in the human mind or soul. In order to show how something can be both one and three, he sought to articulate a doctrine of the Trinity by arguing that the human mind, with its threefold structure of memory, understanding, and will in a unitary whole, mirrors the Trinity (Gonzales, 1987:333, 334). Augustine's predilection for looking to the inner relations of the mind or soul is natural for one influenced by Platonism, wherein the human mind is regarded as a limited reflection of the Divine mind (Allen & Springsted, 2007:74).

In De Trinitate, Augustine develops a method for the self-reflexive contemplation of the image of the Trinity in the human soul (LaCugna, 1991:83). That is, to know God, one turns inward to contemplate the Trinity within. The obvious result of this inward turn, however, is a turn away from God's self-revelation in the saving acts of Christ (Grenz, 2004:9). By positing analogs of the Trinity in the human mind, Augustine develops a conceptual structure of the Trinity that is independent of God's self-revelation in salvation history. This conceptual structure is then used to interpret the doctrine of God as revealed in Scripture (Torrance, 1980:148, 149).

Let's be sure and get that last paragraph: Drawing upon the presuppositions of NeoPlatonism, Auggie turns inward to the human mind or soul to develop analogies for the Trinity. Hence, his conceptual structure for his doctrine of God is developed independently of God's self-revelation in history. He then uses that independent structure to interpret God's self-revelation in history! And no doubt, he and a lot of others who followed in his wake could cherry-pick any number of scriptures to support a doctrine of God largely developed from pagan metaphysics. AAAAGGGHHHH!!! Why didn't somebody tell me this decades ago!

OK. Let's calm down and get back to Auggie. Here's the bottom line: Auggie makes a major epistemological and methodological blunder. Think about it. If I want to know about God, where do I start looking? Inside my own head? No! I look at Jesus! But if I am a NeoPlatonist with a grudge against the material world, I won't be inclined to look toward the flesh and blood Son. Ugh! Instead, I'm gonna develop my thinking about God by turning away from the world of dirt and guts and look inside my own head, where I may dispassionately contemplate the divine mystery. Not only that, as a NeoPlatonist, I am going to emphasize divine simplicity and unitary substance to the point that the Triune Persons get lost in the ontological soup, like three bits of potato sunk in the vichyssoise. Do you see how all this works?

Let's give Catherine Mowry LaCugna, a Roman Catholic scholar, the last word. Augustine's method of turning inward to contemplate the image of the Trinity completely alters the theoretical basis for the economy of salvation by relocating the economy within the human soul rather than in the threefold pattern of God's self-revelation in redemptive history (LaCugna, 1991:10). Even though Augustine may have never intended it, his legacy is an approach to the Trinity (theologia) that is largely divorced from God's self-revelation in salvation history (oikonomia) (LaCugna, 1991:102; cf. Grenz, 2004:9).

And that, Brothers and Sisters, has been the problem ever since in the Western doctrine of God. By turning away from God's threefold self-revelation as Father, Son and Spirit, the Western Church, under the influence of pagan metaphysics, has developed a doctrine of the One God that is independent of, and completely overshadows, the Trinity, leaving God's Triune self-revelation as a mere appendix to the doctrine of the omniGod. Instead of allowing Jesus to reveal the Father, the Western-Latin tradition has left us with the inscrutable, immutable, impassible, omnipotent cosmic monster of absolute, unrelenting sovereignty that fills many Christians with dread and terror.

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Allen, D. & Springsted, E.O. 2007. Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox. 267pp.
Augustine. 1991. De Trinitate (edited by J.E. Rotelle; translated by E. Hill). New York, NY: New City Press. 472pp.
Bloesch, D.G. 1995. God the Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 329pp.
Copleston, F. A History of Philosophy (vol 1). New York, NY: Doubleday). 521pp.
Gilson, E. 2002. God and Philosophy. New Haven, CT: Yale Nota Bene. 147pp.
Gonzalez, J.L. 1987. A History of Christian Thought (vol 1). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 400pp.
Grenz, S.J. 2004. Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress. 289pp.
Gunton, C.E. 1997. The Promise of Trinitarian Theology. London: T & T Clark. 220pp.
Gunton, C. E. 2003. Act & Being. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Jenson, R.W. 1997. Systematic Theology (vol 1). Oxford: OUP. 244pp.
Letham, R. 2004. The Holy Trinity. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing. 551pp.
Pinnock, C.H. et al. 1994. The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 202pp.
Pinnock, C.H. 2001. Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God's Openness. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 204pp.
Rahner, K. 1970. The Trinity. New York, NY: Crossroads. 122pp.
Sanders, J. 2007. The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 384pp.
Tarnas, R. 1991. The Passion of the Western Mind. New York, NY: Ballantine. 544pp.
Torrance, T.F. 1980. The Ground and Grammar of Theology: Consonance Between Theology and Science. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 256pp.

That's a lot of references for a blog post! I need to get a life. I think I'll go possum huntin' tonight!


  1. WOW! Martin, this is incredibly helpful and well written. The thing I love about your blog is that even though you go a long time between posts, when they come out they are worth the wait. Can I print this out and share it with others? (I'll make sure it has your name on it and a link to your blog).
    I can remember a few years back, before I really began to understand the gospel, when I would preach about anything related to the Trinity I was always more afraid of leaving people with the impression that there are three gods than I was of leaving people with the impression that God is an undifferentiated monad. Now I know why, I was Augustinian and didn't even know it. It's the tyranny of the unity, we western Christians are - like Augustine - so afraid of "undoing" God's oneness in our teaching that we end up destroying our vision of the Triune relationship that is the very gospel itself.
    Thanks, Martin, keep up the good work!

  2. One of my seminary professors, who has a doctorate in philosophy, helped me understand some of the same issues you articulate here so clearly.

    It is another, powerful reminder to us that all doctrine flows from the foundation of our doctrine of God. And there is only one true (complete and unadulterated) doctrine of God - the one revealed by and in the person of Jesus, who reveals to us the Father and the Spirit. In Jesus and from Jesus we learn that God truly is one in three and three in one. There is no other God, other than the gods of our flawed imaginations.

    Martin, thanks for giving us such a clear recap of the history of the development of a widely held, yet flawed doctrine of God! We are indebted to you and to those teachers you reference who have been faithful to the revelation of God in the person of Jesus.

  3. Martin, this is great STUFF. What I see in this permeation of Augustinian Theology in the Westeren Church as compared to the truth of the 'Relational Trinity' is that Augustine's influence in the church has only created a God that is really Great, Holy, and Aloof, that NO ONE can know nor approach in "His Holiness". Kinda like a Giant POPE in the sky.

    With Triune God being revealed as a three in one relationship who yearns to be involved inside His cosmic creation and inside humanity
    we see Triune God's intimate and personal desire to be dad, friend, helper, comforter, and saviour of us all.

    The real Triune God seeks out the sins of humans to get into the dirt of humanity and take those sins upon Himself ( Jesus ) and become that sin for us all and to then take our death upon Himself and taste our death for us thus keeping us pure in His sight in order to maintain the eternal relationship with us perpetually.

    He is here. He is now. He is in us in all of our dirt, sins, suffering, and evil. That is what a saviour does.

    He delivers and Saves.

    Keep up the good work Martin. I love your blog.

    Paul Kurts


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