The Apophatic God is not the God of Scriptures

Plotinus is called the first systematic theologian.  Considering himself Plato’s interpreter, he systematizes metaphysical theories about the One found in Plato’s Parmenides, The Republic, the Sophist, and the Second Platonic Epistle.  A typical systematic theologian will have explanations of the non-communicable attributes of God.  These attributes of God the Father—immutability, simplicity, aseity, ineffability, omnipresence, omnipotence and impassibility—are the attributes of the Plotinian god.  The early Church Fathers borrowed these attributes from Plato and later from Plotinus in the remaking of the God of Scriptures.

Plotinus is the extreme example of the apophatic method of theology.  All of the attributes of
god (the One) are developed from his negative language about god.  His apophatic method exceeds Aquinas’ four types. Not only is it impossible to speak about God without the use of negative language, but the very being of God is in question.

Aquinas assets even negative language can express intellectual and conceptual definitions about God.  Plotinus claims even negative definitions, including the name “one” is really not proper.  The One cannot not even be called a “being” it is “beyond being.”  [1]The concept of “beyond-being” was not an invention of Plotinus. Parmenides would identify being not as material substance but as the identification of thought with being.  The “to on”, the existing thing, of Parmenides was not the beings seem in the real world.  The real world beings were corruptible and passing away.  Real being “to on” did not pass away and was invisible.  Plato would write his treatise called “Parmenides” after the philosopher, and posit three forms of “the One.” Plotinus would build on his ideas to establish his own version of the One.

To say the One is “beyond-being” or as in other contexts the One is nothing, Plotinus believes the One is “not a thing.”  The One exists but the one is not any being.  It is not a being because the One created being and is before being existed.  Since “being” is always caused by something and it impossible to have an infinite chain of causes, there must be something that was not caused.  This is the One.

Plotinus describes the One with a series of negative assertions. In his treatise entitle “Physics” Aristotle would make observations on what could be said of something.  This is called Aristotle’s  ten categories of predication:

1)      substance (ousia) or

2)      quantity (ποσον) or

3)      qualification (ποiον) or a

4)      relative (προς τι) or

5)      where (που) or

6)      when (ποτε) or

7)      being-in-a-position (κεισθαι) or

8)      having or (εχειν)

9)      doing (ποιον)  or

10)  being-affected. (πασχειν)

As an example: man is a substance, six foot is a quantity of man, white is a qualification of a man, a man is larger than a ant is a relative attribute, where is man is at home, when man is here on Sunday, the man is sitting is a being-in-position, man is having if he has shoes on, a man who is cutting bread is doing, and man is being burned is being-affected.

The last nine categories are called accidents because they change and may or may not be in every substance.  Since god does not have any being, he cannot have any accidents.  This concept of having no accidents is fundamental to a lot of arguments in the defense of the Classical Western Christian attributes of God.  Since Thomas Aquinas perhaps best explains the significance of the argument:

This triple perfection belongs to no creature by its own essence; it belongs to God only,

in Whom alone essence is existence; in Whom there are no accidents; since whatever belongs to

others accidentally belongs to Him essentially[2]

God has no accidents.  He has no predicative attributes that may be lost.  He is not in one place at one time and in another place at another time.  If God has an attribute such as immutability, he possesses this attribute essentially.  This means God would not be God if he were not immutable.  A related concept is God’s essence is his existence.  In a cow, it’s existence, depends on it’s  breathing and eating.  When the cow dies, existence is lost.  The essence of a cow is what makes a cow a cow and not for example a dog.  A cow has an udder etc.

When Aquinas says God’s essence is His existence, he means God does not change.  He does not have any accidents or changeable parts.  What Aquinas will put together and what Plotinus puts together are two attributes of God.  God is eternal and because he is eternal He does not change.  What is clear to use any of these arguments:

1)      God’s essence is His existence

2)      God has no accidents

3)      God is ineffable

After using this dialectical reasoning about the attributes of the One.  Plotinus will explain the intent of this explanation.

The perplexity arises especially because our awareness of the One, is not by way of reasoned knowledge or of intellectual perception, as with other intelligible things, but by way of a presence superior to knowledge.,.. One must depart from knowledge and things known…Therefore Plato says “it cannot be spoken or written”, but we speak and write impelling towards it an wakening from reasonings to the vision of it, as if showing the way to someone who wants to have view of something.[3]

There seems to be a logical contradiction.  Plotinus says a lot about the One but Plato says “it cannot be spoken or written.”  The process of speaking and writing about the One moves a person into the preparation for the contemplative vision of the One.  The whole conversation about the One is based on the superiority of the mystic vision over the rational mind.

All of these arguments depend on the Plotinian concept of the Simplicity of God.  A concept Thomas Aquinas would adopt and through him the rest of Western Christianity.  If God is not simple in the Thomist or Plotinian sense, these arguments are not valid.

Plotinus will use the apophatic method or a related method, the negative way, to explain the other attributes of god.  In order to stress the apophatic nature of god Plotinus will string together a series of negative arguments.

For since the nature of the One is generative of all things it is not any one of them. It is not therefore something or qualified or quantitative or intellect or soul; it is not in movement or at rest, not in place, not in time, but “itself of single form, or rather formless, being before all form, before movement and before rest; for these pertain to being and are what make it many.[4]

Plotinus denies the Aristotelian categories for God. He says the one is:

Ουτε τι    not something – god does not have substance (1st Category of Aristotle)

  • Ουτε ποiον not qualified – god does not have accidental attributes (3rd Category of Aristotle)
  • Ουτε ποσον  not quantitative – god does not have any quantities (2nd Category of Aristotle)
  • Ουτε νουν  not intellect – god is not intellect. This is the second hypostasis of the Neo-Platonist trinity.
  • Ουτε φυχη not soul-This is the third hypostasis of the Neo-Platonist trinity.

Ουδε κινουμενον not moving-god does not move. (Aristotle’s unmoved mover)

  • Ουδε εστως – not being in a position-god is not in a position (7th Category of Aristotle)
  • Ουκ εν τοπω  not in place-god is not in a place. (5th Category of Aristotle)
  • Ουκ εν κρονω not in time-god is not in time. (6th Category of Aristotle)

In this list is already the Classical Christian attributes of eternality, omnipresence, and unity.  Of course the whole exercise in denying the Aristotelian accidents is to prove the attribute of immutability. The God of Scriptures is not out of time (eternality), He is not omnipresent and He is not immutable.

Acts 13:33

God has fulfilled this for us their children, in that He has raised up Jesus. As it is also written in the second Psalm: ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten

Ezekiel 10:18

Then the glory of the Lord departed from the threshold of the temple and stood over the cherubim.

Jonah 3:10

And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.

The Scripture is based on a rational discursive knowledge about God.  Even creation reveals a rational God who may understood through words.  The ascent or the finding of God in the mind of the seeker is not in the Scriptures.  The Apophatic method is a denial of the God of Scriptures.

Romans 1:19-22 because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Professing to be wise, they became fools,

[1] Since the substance (ousiaV)which is generated (from the One) is form (eidouV)…the One must be without form (aneideon).  But if it is without form it is not a substance; for a substance must be some one particular thing, something, that is, defined and limited; but it is impossible to apprehend the One as a particular thing; …  But if all things are in that which is generated (from the One), which of the things in it are you going to say that the One is? Since it is none of them, it can only be said to be beyond them.  But these things are beings, (ta onta)and being (to on): so it is ‘beyond being.’ (epekeina ara ontoV)

Plotinus: Enneads V. Translated by A. H. Armstrong et al. 7 vols. Loeb Classic Library. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984-2001. p 173. (V.5.6)

[2] Summa Theologica, edited by Anton C. Pegis, An Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Random House, 1945) p. 38 (Q6, A3)

[3] Plotinus: Enneads VII. Translated by A. H. Armstrong et al. 7 vols. Loeb Classic Library. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984-2001. p 315-317. (VI.9.3)

[4] Plotinus: Enneads VII. Translated by A. H. Armstrong et al. 7 vols. Loeb Classic Library. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984-2001. p 313-15. (VI.6.9)


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