Platonism and the Trinity

By Alexander Earl

That it is especially with the Platonists that we
must carry on our disputations on matters of theology,
their opinions being preferable to those of all other philosophers.

—Augustine of Hippo1

Whether in education or previous adherence, many of the early church fathers were admir­ers of Platonism. One may immediately think of Justin Martyr, Origen of Alexan­dria, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, and Pseudo-Dionysius, among others. Despite this connection, the question of the acceptable relationship between Christianity and Platonism remains a live one, both as a matter of history and of theology. After all, who could forget the oft quoted phrase of Tertullian, “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem,” or the reformation-era condemnation of Platonism championed by Luther, plus platoni­zans quam christiani­zans. In the present, the movement known as Radical Orthodoxy may easily be termed a soi-disant Platonist-Augustinian revival; they, in turn, follow on the footsteps of the nouvelle theologie from 20th century Roman Catholic circles; yet again, among some members of the anglophone philosophical tradition, Platonism is seen as outright dangerous, and even inconsistent with “Biblical” Christianity.2 As to the suspi­cious, the narrative runs something akin to the following: Christianity and Platonism are incompatible, the Fathers may have been enamored by Platonism for a time, or even formally trained in it, but eventually they abandon it for the Gospel, and their anti-Pla­tonic rhetoric is proof. The principles are insurmountable. Platonism offers us optimism about our rational and moral capacities to mystically ascend “alone to the alone,” that is, to the absolute simplicity of the One, of which we are all necessary emanations and to which we all must necessarily return. Christianity, on the other hand, offers us the grace of biblical revelation, which reveals God as a personal Tri-unity that creates ex nihilo in utter freedom and creativity, and even deigned to become incarnate in history, in flesh and blood, suffering death for our sakes. The two appear irreconcilable.

It would be a worthy endeavor to tackle each of these dichotomies, but one in particular is deserving of sustained attention, and that is the Trinity, for there is perhaps no better prima facie difficulty between the two than the confession that God is one ousia in three hyposta­ses as opposed to the Platonic doctrine of the absolute simplicity of the One articulated by someone like Plotinus. Any attempt to reconcile them would appear to run afoul of some undesirable consequences. Notably, historical attempts at placating the “all-devouring simplicity of the imperial One”3 have unavoidably lapsed into some manner of heresy—the two prominent extremes amounting to Sabellianism and Arianism; a point we will return to later—which may prompt the conclusion that to be a proper Nicene Christian one has to disregard the insights and tendencies of the Platonic grammar.

However, contrary to such anti-Platonic rhetoric, both historical and contemporary, I aver that Platonism is not only useful, but essential for making good sense of foundational Christian doctrines. This necessity is only exacerbated by our long fall away from the vision of reality that the early Christians could not help but embrace, a vision inaugurated by Plato, developed by his “disciples,” and, I boldly assert, inherited and radically transfig­ured by Christian reflections on the God revealed in Jesus Christ. This transfiguration has numerous facets, but, for our purposes, it is the philosophical ramifications deserving of attention. As will become clear shortly, the only way to resolve the perennial problem of the one and the many—such as to account for the simultaneous individuality and interde­pendence of Being grounded in the transcendence of God without reducing God to an ontic being within the created order, or the violent negation of creation in light of God’s infinite difference—is for the first principle of all to be perfectly one and relational. But since we have so ruinously strayed from that vision, if we are to have any hope of recovering a more metaphysically robust and coherent account of reality, it is imperative to return to the source, and derive those initial connections anew. Such a project does not reduce Chris­tian­ity to some anti or pre-Nicene status, as some have thought, but, on the contrary, provides an intellectual structure that is coherent, defensible, historically consonant, and attractive.4 In that regard, this essay argues with primary reference to the “father” of Neo-Platonism, Plotinus,5 and aims to show how the metaphysical contours of the Trinity can be intimated in his thought, as well as how Plotinus’s philosophy already provides much of the rich metaphysical principles necessary for a fruitful trinitarian metaphysic, thereby contributing to a robust conceptualization of a core tenet of the Christian faith, and an important step in the history of philosophy.6

Before proceeding any further, we should have clarity regarding the tension between the Christian Trinity and the Plotinian One. A helpful summary of the doctrine of the Trinity can be found in the Athanasian Creed:

The catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one […] So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they not three Gods, but one God. […] The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. […] And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped.7

In this definition we have 7 key points:

  1. The God we are speaking of is one.
  2. This one God must be spoken of as three.
  3. This threeness is due to the distinguishable ‘persons’ of Father, Son, and Spirit.
  4. This threeness does not threaten the oneness, nor does the oneness threaten the threeness; they must be affirmed simultaneously.
  5. Regarding oneness, all of the divine names apply to each person (uncreated, eternal, Lord, etc.) such that the persons are coequal in terms of Divinity.
  6. Regarding threeness, we distinguish the persons in terms of their relations: the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten, and the Spirit is proceeding.
  7. Per 1-6, what is spoken of is a triad: unity in trinity; trinity in unity.

Quite the complex definition. Now compare this definition with one of Plotinus’s descrip­tions of “the One”:

But perhaps this name ‘One’ expresses a denial of multiplicity. This is why the Pythagoreans symbolically indicated it to each other by the name of Apollo, in taking away the multiple.8 But if ‘the One’, the name and what is ex­pressed, were some affirmation, it would become less clear than not saying any name of it; for perhaps this was said so that he who speaks, beginning from this which is wholly indicative of simplicity, may finally take away even this, because, though it was given as well as possible by its giver, not even this is worthy to manifest that nature.9

Here Plotinus offers us something much simpler, to the letter: “the One” is without multipli­city, and so is absolutely simple. In fact, the name “one” itself must be negated, since any name implies “this” one or “that” one, and as the cause of all reality the One must be beyond being, beyond intelligibility, and so beyond all distinctions; in short, beyond reality. Thus, Plotinus may agree to the first point of trinitarian dogma, with some qualification, but hardly the other six.

In order to harmonize this seeming inconsistency, first, we must clear up some misconcep­tions about Plotinus’s system, which stem from overly Aristotelian readings of his “sub­stance” talk. To this end, I will sketch two central features of his metaphysics: hierarchy and participation. Understanding hierarchy and participation will in turn allow us to better understand the metaphysical underpinnings of Plotinus’s various hypostases, and the relationship between them [s. 2]. This clarity will resolve various puzzles that arise from attempting to fit the Trinity arithmetically into Plotinus’s schema. The key to all of this groundwork comes in reframing the project in terms of a shared commitment to divine simplicity and apophaticism, which provides an initial point of contact between Platonism and what Lewis Ayres terms Pro-Nicene theology [s. 3]. As we begin to think more assiduously about the Trinity, this continuity will begin to crystalize, especially when we approach the traditional ideas about the one ousia in three hypostases not as a kind of Aristotelian substance, or relation of substances, but as pure relationality in ecstatic overflow, or, more simply, as Love itself.10 To this end, the recent scholarship of Adrian Pabst and Rowan Williams prove indispensable for exploring this metaphysics of relationality [s. 4].11 Only once we have taken these necessary steps can we turn back to Plotinus and discern these trinitarian intimations. Therefore, with the proper ground cleared, and the requisite connections made, what we will find is a vision of the whole cosmos as theophany, or a manifestation of its transcendental source, which can only be described as Love: God just is self-manifestation and self-bestowal (kenosis) to all things (prohodos), and in God’s own self-expression God calls us into God’s own interior life (epistrophe) so that we too might become love (theosis) [s. 5].



[1] Augustine, City of God VIII.5 in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; translated by Marcus Dods (Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994 [1886–1889]).

[2] See Henri de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural (London UK: Geoffrey Chapman, 1962); John Milbank and Oliver Davies, The Radical Orthodoxy Reader (New York NY: Routledge, 2009); and William Lane Craig, God Over All: Divine Aseity and the Challenge of Platonism (Oxford UK: Oxford Univ. Press, 2016) for a general view of ressourcement, Radical Orthodoxy, and analytic philosophy, respectively, in engagement with Platonism. See also Benedict XVI on the dangers of dehellenization in his speech Faith, Reason, and the University: Memories and Reflections, given in 2006 at the University of Regensburg, Germany, found in Vital Speeches of the Day 72 (2006): 706–10.

[3] See William H. Marshner, “The Structure of Platonism and the Dogma of the Trinity: Some General Considerations,” Faith and Reason 11 (1985): 198-220.

[4] One could provide examples ad nauseum on this subject. Take for example the question of Augustine’s Platonism. There are developmentalists who see Augustine disavowing his Platonism in favor of Christianity, of which Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London UK: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1967) is perhaps the most popular proponent, but you can find similar accounts of this divergence in Thomas A. Wassmer, “The Trinitarian Theology of Augustine and his debt to Plotinus,” Harvard Theological Review 53 (1960): 261-268. There are, of course, others who see Augustine as having a relatively positive and consistent relationship to Platonism, with some variation, such as Dominic J. O’Meara, “The Neoplatonism of Saint Augustine” in Neoplatonism and Christian Thought, ed. Dominic J. O’Meara (Albany NY: State Univ. of New York Press, 1982), pp. 34-44; John Rist, “Plotinus and Christian philosophy” in Cambridge Companion to Plotinus, ed. Lloyd P. Gerson (Cambridge UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996), pp. 386-414; Thomas Williams, “Augustine v. Plotinus: The Uniqueness of the Vision at Ostia,” Medieval Philosophy and the Classical Tradition in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, ed. John Inglis (London UK: Curzon Press, 2002), pp. 143-152; Peter King, “Augustine’s Encounter with Neoplatonism,” The Modern Schoolman 82 (2005): 213-226; Lewis Ayres, Augustine On the Trinity (Cambridge UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010); Adrian Pabst, Metaphysics: the creation of hierarchy (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012); Erik Kenyon, Augustine and the Dialogue (Cambridge UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2018). Outside Augustine in particular, you find scholars who recommend Neoplatonism but self-identify as heterodox, of which two helpful examples are A. Hilary Armstrong, “Negative Theology, Myth and Incarnation” in O’Meara, pp. 213-222 and John Findlay, “Why Christians should be Platonists” in O’Meara, pp. 223-232.

[5] More accurately, Plotinus would not have thought of himself as doing something new. From here on I will refer to the tradition begun by Plato as simply Platonism, without any particular distinction to what is commonly referred to as Middle or Neo Platonism. However, I see Neoplatonism as not only an authentic expression of the tradition, but the tradition at maturation. See, for example, Lloyd P. Gerson, From Plato to Platonism (Ithaca NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 2013), especially his articulation of “Ur Platonism.”

[6] I am not arguing that the full dogmatic details of the Trinity can be hashed out by “reason alone,” which is a view Thomas Aquinas explicitly rejects in Summa Theologiae Ia Q. 32, a. 1, and of which I am in agreement. However, one should notice that Thomas thinks the philosophers (a) had some working knowledge of the attributes of the persons and (b) had some notion of relations within the first principle. However, (c) they did not articulate the third person of the Trinity, and (d) they never came to hold that “three” was the precise generation within the monad. Relatedly, the interest in triads should not go unnoticed in late Hellenistic philosophy, and there are philosophers who have drawn such explicit connections, one brief example is Stephen R.L. Clark, God, Religion & Reality (UK: SPCK, 1998), pp. 78-79.

[7] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom: With a History and Critical Notes, vol. 2 (New York NY: Harper and Brothers, 1919), pp. 66-7. My purpose for using the Athanasian “creed” has little to do with its dogmatic importance, but rather its succinct account of the trinitarian grammar. Perhaps the most concise expression is found in the first canon of the Second Council of Constantinople.

[8] “Apollo” here is a play on the Greek word polla, meaning many, with an alpha-privative. In which case, Apollo symbolically indicates the not-many, a-polla, or the One.

[9] Plotinus, Ennead V.5.6, 26-34. All translations, unless otherwise noted, are from Plotinus, Enneads, ed. and trans. A.H. Armstrong (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1966), save treatise V.1 from Eric D. Perl, Ennead V.1: On the Three Primary Levels of Reality (Las Vegas NV: Parmenides Publishing, 2015). References to the Enneads will be given as treatise number, book number, chapter number, line(s) as per above (i.e. Enn., ln-ln).

[10] 1 John 4:8.

[11] It is Dionysius the Areopagite that introduces the idea of agape, or love, into the ecstatic and erotic language of Plotinus’s (and Proclus’s) One, see Divine Names IV.

Excerpted from the article: “Lovable and Love and Love of Himself: Intimations of Trinitarian Theology in the Metaphysics of Plotinus” in the International Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 60, No. 1 (March 2020). doi: 10.5840/ipq202013145

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Alexander Earl currently teaches Theology and Philosophy at a college-preparatory school in Santa Monica, California. He holds a Masters of Arts in Religion and Philosophical Theology from Yale Divinity School.

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5 Responses to Platonism and the Trinity

  1. Wayne Fair says:

    I cannot go into much detail here – but this post is so timely (even, dare I say, providential?) for me. I have been struggling to come to terms with the place of Neoplatonism in my own emerging theological perspective. I know this is probably somewhat off topic (or an enlargement thereof), but I was drawn to the writings of Eriugena > Maximus and (more a bedrock) [pseudo] Dionysius. Somewhere in the vortex, primordial chaos and confusion of trying to understand these mystical, apophatic ideas (a contradiction in terms?!) – the name of Jacob Boehme kept coming up – and, to my surprise, William Law as one who was, in latter years, profoundly influenced by Boehme.
    I am not sure if anyone can give me any help or advice here – but there it is…
    Apart form all of that – I, for one, greatly look forward to future posts on Neoplatonism!

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