Platonism and the Trinity: Apophaticism and Pure Relationality

by Alexander Earl


To recapitulate, in Plotinus there are several levels of reality: the Cosmos (from our discus­sion of beauty and bodies), Soul (especially discursive reasoning), Intellect (the all-at-once act of intellect intellecting the intelligibles), and then the One (the principle that is beyond all and yet is the cause and sustainer of all). Each level is an image of the level above it, ranging from the Cosmos, which admits of the most distinction possible, to the One, which possesses all things without distinction. Indeed, as I have noted, an image evinces both unique continuity and yet discontinuity. Each being “participates” in the Unity that they are able to receive from the One, which grants them any being (unity) at all. Yet each is distinct from the One regarding its differing type of presentation, possession, and apprehension of the same content at a different level, which is held indistinctly in the One.1

The relevant question is whether Christianity in general, and the doctrine of the Trinity in particular, is compatible with this schema at all. One simple option would be to identify the three persons of the Trinity with the three hypostases of the Plotinian system, an option that has not been without its historical proponents.2 Such an option may appear attractive, after all Jesus is described variously as the image of the Father (Col. 1:5; Heb. 1:3); intellect (Nous) could correspond with the Word (Logos) described in the Gospel of John, and intel­lect’s derivation from the One could be read as describing the Son’s eternal begotten­ness from the Father. However, the Plotinian system suggests that where there is derivation there is inferiority. Inasmuch as the Son needs to be fully God in order to bring about theo­sis, for only God (ho theos) can deify, this option is insufficient.3 The historical proponent of this view was Arius, and posited that the Son is subordinate to the Father; a position rejected by the Council of Nicaea, and further confirmed and crystalized at the Council of Constantin­ople.4 Other options likewise are unpromising. We could try and say Father, Son, and Spirit are just different modes, or even manifestations, of one and the same God, but that would put too much emphasis on (P1) of the Athanasian Creed to the negation of (P2), leading to what is called Sabellianism (or modalism), needing to perform fantastic allegorizing of key scriptural passages, such as Christ’s baptism and transfigura­tion, to remain coherent. On the other hand, we could try and affirm that the Father, Son, and Spirit are actually three differ­ent instantiations of a single divine nature, but that would put too much emphasis on (P2) to the negation of (P1), thereby lapsing into some­thing akin to tri-theism, with the unsatisfac­tory conclusion that the three persons are lower ontic-gods of a more prior and absolute divine nature. Such to say, the only option available to us—metaphysically, theologically, scripturally, and dogmatically—is to somehow identify the Trinity with the One in a way that satisfies (P7).

Now there is a remarkable tension in Plotinus’s thought. Plotinus’s first principle, the One, is the crux and climax of his system, yet despite its centrality, it is also the most elusive to philosophical reasoning. As that which grounds all being and intelligibility it is beyond being and intelligibility as transcendent to it, and it is precisely this transcendence that motivates the claim that the One is ineffable. Plotinus frequently prefaces any description of the One with the Greek word hoion (as if) noting the strained nature of his language. Understanding Plotinus’s linguistic orientation toward his first principle is crucial for making any headway on the Trinity, for not only is it indispensable to his own thought but, as Lewis Ayres has convincingly argued, it is indispensable to the entire Post-Nicene tradition.5 Given this apophaticism, we need not assume the idea of the One (or God in general) is a relatively clear one and that the Trinity is incomprehensible, or the more questionable assumption that the Trinity is clear and the One incomprehensible; both exceed intellect as such and any apprehension whatsoever.6 We can conclude, therefore, that no analogy is going to deliver knowledge or, in turn, even grasp why it fails in the first place. The best we can hope for is that our analogies give us “some sense” of what they point towards.7 Plotinus puts it best when he says, “for to say that it is the cause is not to predicate something incidental of it but of us,” (Enn. VI.9.3, 50) “so that we speak about it from what comes after it” (Enn. V.3.14, 9). “Some sense” here means two things. First, to discover the necessity of looking beyond being by examining being (as we did in section II), and, second, to understand that in our “point­ing beyond” we are making signs to ourselves “for the sake of persuasion” (Enn. VI.8.13, 5); the ultimate aim of this process is to be drawn into that incomprehensible life. In other words, we recognize the utter dependency of being, which requires us to point to a source beyond being, and yet, precisely as beyond being, we are limited in our language about that source, and so must draw from the plentitude of beings to aid ourselves in the quest for union, even though such language always flounders. In the words of Andrew Louth, “to be a Christian is not simply to believe something, to learn something, but to be something, to experience something.”8 The apophatic allows us to “discern the mystery,” to use Louth’s language. It is not a speculative act of questioning, but the terms of engagement, or, rather, the very condition for participation in God, which is particularly necessary in overcoming the misunderstandings that continually frustrate a life of prayer.9

Such a conclusion reframes the program: we are not after comprehension, but union, or theosis; we are not after simple illustration, but rather progression and assimilation towards the infinite mystery we call God.10 As presented, this position is not anti-rational, but supra-rational. Therefore, a viable and defensible account of the Trinity will doubtless aim to show a certain rationality by means of careful analogy, but in so doing have the primary aim of drawing the heart and mind into the incomprehensible mystery of God.11 As we can see, this position is not unique to Christianity, it is precisely what Plotinus avers in his own discus­sions of the One, and it is for that reason that we begin in a more equita­ble position from which to discern how to reconcile the Trinity and the One. Therefore, let us first see if a trinitarian account can be provided that might harmonize with the Ploti­nian system as presented, and then turn to Plotinus himself to see what further resources he might offer on his own terms.


In his first monograph, Adrian Pabst provides a sustained argument that amounts to three claims. First, Plato’s metaphysics of relationality is superior to Aristotle’s metaphysics of substance. Second, this metaphysics of relationality should serve as a prolegomenon to Christian theology. Third, this metaphysics is integral to the project of Christian theolo­gy.12 What is important for our purposes is getting clear on what Pabst means by “relation­ality.” Relationality refers to the fact that all things are ordered by the Good and so “depend for their essence, their existence, and their continuous being on the Good.” This dependence necessitates that the Good be present in particulars such that those parti­cu­lars “participate” in the Good for their sustenation. But the Good does not merely hold things in being as isolated entities; rather, individuals are “actualized and individuated by relations with other individuals.” In other words, relationality occurs on each level of reality: ‘horizontally,’ that is, amongst themselves, and ‘vertically,’ that is, towards what is above them, their ultimate source, the Good.13 In contrast, Pabst argues Aristotle’s God is indifferent to the cosmos in that its existence and activity are relegated above the sublu­nary world and hence only act on the cosmos as their final cause (telos). Consequently, due to this secondary causal relation, Pabst claims that it is unable to account for either the individuation of composites or their existence and sustenation. For if no entity is an isolated substance, but is a substance precisely inasmuch as it is in relation, then each and every being qua dependent requires sustenation at every moment, a task requiring something more than Aristotle’s God at second hand.14 Thankfully Plato’s metaphysics of relationality by the Good is able to account for existence, sustenation, individuation, and orientation towards the Good, and so serves as a more plausible contender to ground the metaphysical order.15

The reason this distinction is relevant to our purposes is because, as Pabst argues, Christianity follows upon this insight and brings it to its fulfillment, for only a principle somehow both one and relational could account for the relational ordering of the world.16 The ingenuity rests in its solution to the perennial problem of the one and the many: in order to finally overcome the infinite qualitative gap between the transcendent and absolutely simple source of all, and the finite multiplicitous beings of its creative power, we somehow need a first principle that is simultaneously both: one and many, one and relational; absolutely simple, and yet a plurality.17

But how can the One be internally relational? Rowan Williams’s scholarship has often returned to reflection on the metaphysics of relationality and the apophatic, especially in reference to the Trinity.18 One example is in his engagement with St. John of the Cross, where he argues in a vein similar to Pabst, positing that an adequate apophaticism cannot merely be due to a descending scale of participation but must itself be rooted in divine relatedness.19 This divine relatedness is best described as what Williams calls the infinite deflection of desire. The Father and Son indwell one another (perichoresis) and the love uniting them (the Holy Spirit) is equal to them. The three are one lover; the three are one beloved. The essence of God in this scheme is the formal pattern of indwelling, and this essence is nothing but love in excess.20 It is a love irreducible to objects in relation, or objects that serve as inert mirrors of one another, but rather a love that goes beyond the other into ceaseless, circling deflection: endless love. As this excess, God creates, lifting others into this Divine life of excess.21

From the perspective of the spiritual life, this ascent into the Divine life can only be painful. The self, as we know it, is determined by its desires, which in turn limits the self, binding it to gratification in objects.22 Since God is beyond being, he is not an object of gratification, he is not even an object to himself; thus, being caught up in the Divine life is the privation of an object that can satisfy our desires. Eventually this gap between desire and gratification-via-possession must be overcome to the point where desire itself be­comes satisfying. Therefore, a longing that never finds satisfaction is coming to participate in God’s life as excessive love: to give freely because we have nothing to lose, a negation of the “I” that affirms itself as a terminal object of desire, love beyond gratification, a pure willing of the good of the other.23 This deflected desire is what it means to become love; to abandon the self as an isolated substance and to embrace the self as a pure gift to others; to be “defined” by self-emptying (kenosis) instead of self-gratifying.24

In my view, the thinking of Pabst and Williams is not the product of novel scholarship, but is rather an attempt to recover an entire tradition in light of an encroaching Aristotelean ten­dency to over-substantiate being. Unfortunately, such Aristotelean thinking tends to cloud how we read Plato and his inheritors, and inevitably distorts how we then conceive of the relationship between Platonism and Christianity.25 Scholars like Pabst and Williams point to an alternative: a recovery of Platonic metaphysics, specifically in conceiving of being as relational, and as the source of being as an ecstatic overflow of relationality, opens a fruitful relationship between Platonism and Christianity, marking a fascinating develop­ment in the history of philosophy, which should inevitably aid Christian theological (and I would even add pastoral) reflection. To use a rather apt summary present in one of the most influential Christians in the tradition, per Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite:

One might make bold to say even this, on behalf of truth, that the very cause of all things, by the beautiful and good love of everything, through an over­flow of His loving goodness, becomes out of Himself, by His providences for all existing things, and is, as it were, beguiled by goodness and affection and love, and is led down from above all, and transcending all, to being in all thing, as befits an ecstatic superessential power centered in himself.26



[1] Enn. V.1.11, 8-10: “Not being divided, he [the One] remains, and as he does not remain in place, he must, again, be contemplated in many things, in each of those that are able to receive him, as other.”

[2] For two examples, see Mary T. Clark “A Neoplatonic Commentary on the Trinity: Marius Victorinus” in Neoplatonism and Christian Thought, ed. O’Meara (1982), pp. 24-33; and John Dillon “Origen’s Doctrine of the Trinity and Some Later Neoplatonic Theories” in O’Meara (1982), pp. 19-23.

[3] For example, see Gregory of Nazianzus Oration 29.19; 31.4.

[4] The standard treatment of this subject is Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy & Tradition (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), which is especially relevant for our purposes since he treats the question of Arius and Neoplatonism in some detail. Especially see pp. 199-214 and 261-266. Of course, the summary presented here is all too brief and shallow, as Arius’ thought, and the debates of Nicaea, are far more robust and nuanced to be reduced to the simple stamp of ‘subordinationism.’

[5] Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford UK: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004), pp. 273-302.

[6] For a particularly apt rejection of this distinction, see Herbert McCabe, “Aquinas on the Trinity” in Silence and the Word: Negative Theology and Incarnation, ed. Oliver Davies and Denys Turner (Cambridge UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 76-93.

[7] Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, p. 284.

[8] Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery (Oxford UK: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983), p. 74.

[9] Ibid. pp. 68-70, 91-95.

[10] Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, p. 285; John Behr demonstrates the centrality of the soteriological doctrine of theosis to the entire orthodox dogmatic tradition in John Behr, The Way to Nicaea (New York NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001) and John Behr, The Nicene Faith, vol. 1-2, (New York NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004) It must likewise be said that theosis is always rooted in liturgy. See, for example, Louth, Discerning the Mystery, p. 91, and the now classic Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1998). Let us, however, not lose sight of the parallels in the Platonic tradition, beginning with Plato’s Theatetus (176a-c), “that is why a man should make all haste to escape from earth to heaven; and escape means becoming as like God as possible; and a man becomes like God when he becomes just and pure, with understanding.” Likewise, Platonic deification was grounded in the later theurgic practice of Neoplatonism, which has interesting connections with Christian incarnation and sacramentalism. See John Milbank and Aaron Riches “Forward: Neoplatonic Theurgy and Christian Incarnation” in Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, 2nd edition, Gregory Shaw (Kettering OH: Angelico Press, 2014).

[11] Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, pp. 292-3. For example, compare Gregory of Nazianzus’s apophaticism in Oration 28.9 with his evaluation of trinitarian illustrations in Oration 31.31-33.

[12] Pabst, Metaphysics, pp. 1-4.

[13] Ibid. pp. 3, 47, 67, 99; see Edward Feser, Five Proofs of the Existence of God (San Francisco CA: Ignatius Press, 2017) for an accessible discussion on the difference between linear and hierarchical causality, a helpful primer when considering the arguments for God.

[14] For further discussion of how Plotinus’s One is a critique of Aristotle’s God, see John Rist, “The One of Plotinus and the God of Aristotle,” The Review of Metaphysics 27 (1973): 75-87.

[15] Pabst, Metaphysics, pp. 21-24, 52-53, 80, 93.

[16] Ibid. p. 90.

[17] For one of the best accounts of this metaphysical revolution, see David Bentley Hart, “The Hidden and the Manifest: Metaphysics After Nicaea” in The Hidden and the Manifest (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), pp. 137-164.

[18] For two great collections of publications and lectures that demonstrate this point, see Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London UK: Bloomsbury, 2014), which focuses on the apophatic dimension, and Rowan Williams, On Augustine (London UK: Bloomsbury, 2016), especially chapters 7-11, for the metaphysics of relationality, particularly as it bears on Augustine’s trinitarian thought.

[19] Rowan Williams “The deflections of desire: negative theology in trinitarian disclosure” in Davies, p. 115.

[20] Ibid. pp. 117-8.

[21] Ibid. pp. 119-20.

[22] Ibid. pp. 120-21.

[23] Ibid. pp. 123-26. Cf. Jason Smith, “Must We Say Anything of an ‘Immanent’ Trinity?: Schleiermacher and Rowan Williams on an ‘Abstruse’ and ‘Fruitless’ Doctrine,” Anglican Theological Review 98 (2016): 495-512.

[24] This kenotic emphasis, and its connections to the spiritual life and selfhood, is particularly prominent in someone like Maximus the Confessor, see Letter 2 403D-404D.

[25] Such a view of Aristotle is but one reading among many. Lloyd Gerson is perhaps the most prominent scholar that argues for not only a unitive reading of Plato, but that Aristotle meets the criteria for a Platonist. See, for example, Lloyd P. Gerson, Aristotle and Other Platonists (Ithaca NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 2005).

[26] Divine Names IV.13, trans. Rev. John Parker, trans. amended; There has been some debate as to the extent of Dionysius’s trinitarian commitment. For two positive evaluations see Werner Beierwaltes and Douglas Hedley, “Unity and Trinity in Dionysius and Eriguena,” Hermathena 157 (1994): 1-20, as well as John T Jones, “The Status of the Trinity in Dionysian Thought,” The Journal of Religion 80 (2000): 645-657. For a negative evaluation see Michael Rhodes, “Pseudo-Dionysius’ Concept of God,” International Journal of Philosophy and Theology 75 (2014): 306-318.

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

(Go to “Plotinian Triad?”)

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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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1 Response to Platonism and the Trinity: Apophaticism and Pure Relationality

  1. Tom says:

    I’m trying to remember where I recently read that Plato’s metaphysics fails in one respect (for Christians) in the refusal of Plato to welcome and incorporate “desire” into his system.


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