The God of Plotinus is the God of Calvinism, who needs the Bible anyway? Part I

Introduction to the attributes

To render the world of Ideas more acceptable to Christians, the Patristic Platonists from Justin Martyr to St. Augustine maintained that the world exists in the mind of God[1]  The Catholic Encyclopedia

Most evangelical theologians work in the general Augustine tradition of Christian thought: the fourth- and fifth-century North African bishop and church father Augustine provides the general framework for their life and worldview insofar as that builds on and goes beyond what is explicitly state in Scripture.  Augustine was influenced by the Neoplatonic tradition of Greek philosophy…[2]  The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology

As seen above, Catholics and Protestants agree Augustine was a Platonist who had a major influence of the theological traditions of Western Christianity.  There are purists who insist Calvin, Luther and the Council of Trent did not believe everything Augustine taught.  When does one’s beliefs become “Platonist?”  Apparently, the Catholic Church believes Justin Martyr to St. Augustine crossed the threshold to deserve the “Platonist” label.  The Platonist label includes the works of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus.  Indeed it is impossible to read Augustine’s works (e.g. Confessions) and not observe the connections to Platonist philosophy.  If one reads Confessions and does not see many allusions and direct citations to Neoplatonism, then one does not understand Confessions.

What should be disturbing to Evangelical systematic theologians is the similarity between the god of Plotinus and the God of the Classical Western Christian tradition.  The god of Plotinus has the same attributes of simplicity, immutability, eternality, omnipresence, infinity and impassibility.  These attributes reified the Platonic god from dialectical reasoning.

As has been shown previously, divine revelation in the form of visions from the gods and written inspiration had been discredited by the Platonist who deprecated the writing of Homer and Hesiod.   In the same way modern theologians deprecate the writings of Scripture in favor of the god of the Platonists; a reification of a pagan god.  The closer one moves toward the god of the Platonists, the farther one moves from the God of the Bible.

Ineffable

Plotinus argues one can say nothing substantial about the One; it is ineffable.  Despite this claim, he writes 54 logical and dense tractates (similar to book chapters) about the One.  He attempts to use hyperbole to reach the limits of reasoning for finite minds.  Ultimately, he finds the One exists so far beyond finite human conception that it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine him.  In the ascent, a soul moves from irrational thought to discursive thought to noetic thought until beyond-reasoning thought is reached (contemplative thought).  Such a claim may seem far-fetched to some, because any thought beyond reasoning literally includes irrational thought.

Apophaticism of the God of Plotinus

 It is therefore truly ineffable: for whatever you say about it, you will always be speaking of a “something”…because we can say nothing of it: we can only try, as far as possible, to make signs to ourselves about it….Enneads (V,3,13: p. 117)

If you can’t say anything substantial about God, can you say anything at all?  According to Plotinus, you can.  Plotinus defines his god by what one cannot say about him.   What Plotinus is saying is there are no positive assertions one may make of God.  A positive assertion is “the car is running.”  Since there are a lot of cars that are not running, this statement would limit the car only to running cars.  This is called predication.

Instead, the One has no predicates.  There are no positive assertions to make about the One, only negative.  The negative attributes include the omni’s:  God is omnipresent means God is not in any place, God is omniscient means God’s knowledge is not limited, and God is omnipotent means God’s power is not limited.

Such an approach to God’s nature leads to the classical list of attributes modern theologians use today.  Some attributes, at first, might not obviously follow from this approach, such as divine simplicity.  However, as will be shown, each attribute not only depends on the use of the apophatic approach to theology, but also are intractably linked together.

Simplicity

Simplicity as inspired by Greek philosophy was incontestably decisive in the formation of the attributes of God in Latin and Byzantine theology.  Although some issues in simplicity are quite complex and at times incoherent, theologians have continued to use the concept in defense of their theology of the attributes of God.  Most incoherence results because systematic theologies written by Protestants attempt to effect a reconciliation between the Platonic model and the Scriptural evidence.  As a general observation, the more each model departs from the Platonic model the more incoherent the model becomes.  However the more the doctrine departs from the Platonic model the closer the model resembles the God of Scriptures.

Simplicity can be traced to the Pre-Socratic philosophical tradition (Pre-Socratic means prior to Socrates 469 – 399 BC). Plotinus believes Anaxagoras (500-428 BC) contributed to the idea of the simple “one” by positing a “pure and unmixed Intellect”.  (Enneads V.I.9) Although Anaxagoras does not use the word simple, his uses the definition of simplicity: without parts or unmixed.

These philosophers sought to understand a complex world by reducing the complexity to more simple and understandable forms.  The Presocratics investigated the ultimate basis and essential nature of the world.  Thales (624-546 BCE) declared water to be the basis of all things.  Anaximander (610-546 BCE) assumed as the first principle an undefined, unlimited substance without qualities.  Anaximenes (585-525 BCE), believed air was the first principle.

The Eleatic School, called after the town of Elea in southern Italy first developed the doctrine of the One (god).  Xenophanes of Colophon (570-470 BCE) declared God to be the eternal unity (one), and omnipresent.  Parmenides of Elea (510-440 BCE) affirmed the one as unchanging, alone and ineffable.  Empedocles of Agrigentum (490-430 BCE) proposed what became the four classical elements of antiquity; earth, water, air, and fire.

Plato says people call fire, air, water, and earth the stoicheia (Greek στοιχεῖαis and English principles) of everything.  Of course Plato criticized this because he believed the forms and formless matter to be the ultimate constituent of things.  Plato would say fire, air, water, and earth are constituents, but intermediary constituents and not the ultimate constituents (Tim. 49 b–c).

Aristotle who did not believe forms had separate existence (as in Plato) explained the stoicheia are the first things out of which composite items are made.  He relates simplicity to the ideas of non-composite and first cause.  In addition he will link the one (ἓν) in Plato’s Parmenides with the real being (ὂν) of Parmenides of Elea.  Plotinus will pick up on this definition.

The term “element” (στοιχεῖαis)  also applied metaphorically to any small unity (ἓν ὂν) which is useful for various purposes; and so that which is small or simple (ἁπλοῦν) or indivisible is called an “element.” (Aristot. Met. 5.1014b)

Paul refers to these many beliefs as the basic principles of the world (Col 2:8).  Does simplicity relate to the basic principles of the world which Paul warns against?

Col 2:8  Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles (στοιχεῖαis) of the world, and not according to Christ.

Plotinus would start with these ideas of simplicity and use innovation to refine the doctrine of simplicity in Neo-Platonic philosophy.

And we call it the First in the sense that it is the simplest (απλουν), and the Self-Sufficient (αυταρκες), because it is not composed of a number of parts; for if it were, it would be dependent upon the things of which it was composed; and we say that it is not in something else, because everything which is in something else comes from something else.  If,  then, it is not from something else or in something else or any kind of compound, it is necessary that there should nothing above it.[1]  Plotinus, Enneads

Plotinus defines simplicity as involving at least four elements [2]:

1)      Not composed of parts (outside all coincidence and composition)

2)      First Cause (it is the most self-sufficient because it is simple and the first of all)

3)      Self-Sufficient (αυταρκες)

4)      Without any predicates (μηδενος κατηγορεισθαι)

For there must be something simple before all things, and this must be other than all the things which come after it, existing by itself, not mixed with the other things which derive from it, and all the same able to be present in a different way to these other things, being really one, and not a different being and one; it is false even to say of it that it is one, and there is “no concept of knowledge” of it; it is indeed also said to be “beyond being”. For if it is not to be simple, outside all coincidence and composition, it could not be a first principle; and it is the most self-sufficient because it is simple and the first of all: for that which is not the first needs that which is before it, and what is not simple is in need of its simple components so that it can come into existence from them. A reality of this kind must be one alone: for if there was another of this kind, both would be one. For we are certainly not talking about two bodies, or meaning that the One is the first body. For nothing simple is a body, and body is what comes into being, but not the first principle; and “the first principle has not come into being”.

Plotinus. Ennead V. Trans. A. H. Armstrong. Loeb Classical Library 444. 1984. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001. P 141-3 (V,4,1)

For Plotinus, the First Cause must be the most simple because all compound beings come after the most simple.  There is no composition in the most simple because compound things come into existence from more simple beings.  The first cause by definition has not come into existence from other simple components therefore, the most simple must not have any components.  The most simple is self sufficient because there are no other things that caused its existence.

In Plotinus’ system, the One is the absolutely simple, first principle of all and the cause of all being in the universe.  How is it that simplicity and first principles are related?  Like modern thinkers today, the Hellenic tradition advocated building complexity from the simple.  Because everything visible appears to be complex, then there is something more basic underlying it all.  Naturally, to find the source of complex beings, look towards the even more simple.  Eventually you will find the source of everything will be the most simple, unique and absolutely without complexity.

We are very familiar with the notion of going from the simple to the more complex in our modern era.  Everything we see in nature is complexity.  However, we theorize that what is seen is composed of molecules, which is composed of simpler atoms, composed of simpler particles.  These particles themselves all eminate from the one considered the Big Bang, where there was no distinction between time, space, or fundamental units of matter.  In Plotinian metaphysics the complex is created from the One who has an emanation that determines the complexity.

To be this first cause, the One must be self-sufficient.  Anything made of components is dependent on those components for continued existence.  However, the self-sufficient One is without components by definition.

 ‘’until we come back to the simply one(απλους εν) It is certainly none of the things of which it is origin; it is of such a kind, though nothing can be predicated (μηδενος κατηγορεισθαι) of it, not being(μη οντος), not substance(μη ουσιας), not life (μη ζωης), as to be above all of these things.[3]

The whole doctrine seems foolish and misguided since it depends on a connection between the intellectual ability or character of God and the essence or make up of God.  If God’s essence is eternal, and this implies his essence is immutable, then is God’s knowledge also immutable?  Can God never learn new things?

If God is not simple but eternally complex then his creation would also be complex.  To create this complexity, God should be internally complex and the Trinity could be of the same internally complex essence.  From this complexity, complex thoughts could form and continue.  Rather than simplicity, one would expect the source all complexity should think and act in terms of complexity itself.


[1] Plotinus. Ennead II. Trans. A. H. Armstrong. Loeb Classical Library 441. 1966. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001.  P 225 (II,9,1)

[2] For there must be something simple (aploun) before all things, and this must be other than all the things which come after it, existing by itself, not mixed with the other things which derive from it, and all the same able to be present in a different way to these other things, being really one, and not a different being and  one; it is false even to say of it that it is one, and there is “no concept of knowledge” of it; it is indeed also said to be “beyond being”.  For if it is not to be simple, outside all coincidence and composition, it could not be a first principle; and it is the most self-sufficient (autarkeV), because it is simple and the first of all: for that which is not the first needs that which is before it, and what is not simple is in need of its simple components so that it can come into existence from them.  A reality of this kind must be one alone: for if there was another of this kind, both would be one.  For we are certainly not talking about two bodies, or meaning that the One is the first body.  For nothing simple is a body, and body is what comes into being, but not the  first principle; and “the first principle has not come into being”.

Plotinus. Ennead V. Trans. A. H. Armstrong. Loeb Classical Library 444. 1984. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001.  P 141-3 (V,4,1)

[3] Plotinus. Ennead III. Trans. A. H. Armstrong. Loeb Classical Library 442. 1967. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001.  P 397 (III,8,10)

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3 Responses to The God of Plotinus is the God of Calvinism, who needs the Bible anyway? Part I

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