Neoplatonism and Christian Sacramental Theology

Whittaker Chambers.jpg
Whittaker Chambers (1901–1961)

During the interwar years, Whittaker Chambers (1901–1961) might have seemed like a normal American communist. Yet he was doing more than merely writing for America’s communist magazines: he was actually a Soviet spy. His duties involved working as a courier in a network of spies striving to get stolen documents into the hands of Stalin.

In 1938 Chambers defected, shocking the nation with what he revealed about widespread Soviet espionage in the United States. Chambers became a Christian and started working as a conservative journalist, eventually writing for Time and National Review.

In Chambers’ 1952 bestseller Witness, he recounted his journey from Communism to Christ. Curiously, it all started one morning as he meditated on the beauty of his daughter’s exquisite ears.

“I date my break [with communism] from a very casual happening. I was sitting in our apartment on St. Paul Street in Baltimore…. My daughter was in her high chair. I was watching her eat. She was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life. I liked to watch her even when she smeared porridge on her face or dropped it meditatively on the floor. My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear—those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: ‘No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature (the Communist view). They could have been created only by immense design.’ The thought was involuntary and unwanted. I crowded it out of my mind. But I never wholly forgot it or the occasion. I had to crowd it out of my mind. If I had completed it, I should have had to say: Design presupposes God. I did not then know that, at that moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead.”[i]

Chambers’ ascent from earthly beauty to heavenly realities is a progression that fascinated the Greek philosopher Plato, who we explored in the previous post. Plato bequeathed a metaphysical framework for understanding what Chambers grasped intuitively that morning. When he beheld his daughter’s ears, Chambers’ mind began, however briefly at first, to connect the beauty of the human body with the transcendent beauty and intelligence of God.

Chambers’ came to understand that the transcendent beauty and intelligence behind the things of this world is the Logos of Christian Scripture. For Plato, however, the realm of perfect forms remained impersonal. Not in his wildest dreams did the Athenian philosopher conceive Divine Beauty and Love coming to this world as a person to free those within the cave of shadows and lead them into the light. But within Christian Neoplatonism, the transcendent realm of perfect forms is personalized, finding its expression in the tri-personal God of Scripture. The Trinitarian God is the perfect embodiment of the essences of peace, beauty, goodness, wisdom, etc. Accordingly, when Christians allow the Holy Spirit to work these qualities into their lives, they are participating in realities that are both transcendent and personal, and which have their fullest expression in the Blessed Trinity, which is at once absolute perfection and absolute personality.

Questions remain about the relationship between the attributes of the Blessed Trinity and those qualities as they are reflected in creation. One question that has occupied Christian philosophers in both the West and East, is how the being of things on earth is related to the being of God. For example, how does earthly goodness, beauty, truth, love, justice, and so forth, relate to God’s goodness, beauty, truth, love, and justice? To answer such questions, Christian philosophers developed and expanded on Plato’s doctrine of participation.

Participation and Christian Metaphysics

The doctrine of participation helped Christian philosophers with what we may call the problem of univocity. Is human goodness, truth, and beauty, the same as God’s goodness, truth, and beauty, but just lesser in degree? In other words, is the being of God on the same qualitative plane as the things of earth, but simply infinitely more, like a hundred-watt light bulb compared to an infinitely bright bulb? Until the thirteenth century, Christian philosophers generally answered these questions in the negative, lest God’s being be rendered “univocal” with (the same as) the being of this world. After all, they pointed out, God is not simply more of what we find in creation, for He transcends all descriptions. God “is” not in the same sense creation is, for the things of creation receive their being, while God is self-existent. Thus, while we can talk about God’s actions in relation to creation, His nature—what He is in Himself—cannot be grasped by human descriptions, concept, or predicates.

Yet piety also constrained Christian thinkers to deny that all predicates for God are “equivocal” (uncertain and ambiguous) and without definite content, lest God’s self-revelation of Himself Scripture and Jesus Christ be reduced to meaninglessness, collapsing in an abyss of epistemological nihilism (which is indeed the route John Calvin took in some of his less sanguine writings, such as his Commentary on Job and the third book of the Institutes).

To navigate between the Scylla of univocity and the Charybdis of equivocity, some Christian philosophers found a solution in the Platonic notion of participation or imitation, and the related concept of analogy. Here’s how it works.

To preserve the Biblical gap between creation and creator (a gap which is both epistemological and metaphysical) we may say that God’s being is related to the being of this world analogously. That is, the created world is a sign or analogy of the more substantial being of God, who exists as True Actuality. Thus, God’s love, beauty, justice, truth, goodness, etc., are not univocally related to these same qualities within the world, as if God and creation are on the same plane of existence. That is, God is not another instance of being, but the very ground of being itself. However, precisely because true being can only be predicated to God, created things must participate in God in order to be. Accordingly, we can say that human goodness, virtue, wisdom, beauty, justice, and so forth, are like, or reflective of, or analogous to, the nature of God in which these qualities participate.[ii] This can be compared to the way a sword that the smith puts in the fire takes on the property of fire, namely heat. The sword becomes “like” the fire—or, we might say, the sword participates in the fire’s energies—while still retaining its distinct particularity (i.e., the sword remains a sword and does not become fire). The doctrine of analogy and the doctrine of participation are thus closely bound together within Christian metaphysics.[iii]

It took hundreds of years for some of these metaphysical distinctions to be realized, often in response to particular problems of the day. But this should not obscure the point that the earliest Christians to grapple with Neoplatonism—both East and West—understood the basic point that qualities in the created world (i.e., goodness, truth, beauty, wisdom, justice, love, etc.) participate in the being of the Triune God. Various thinkers have nuanced these truths differently. For example, there has been debate on how to reconcile the many-ness of the divine attributes with the unity of the divine nature. Moreover, some of my Eastern Orthodox dialogue partners are uncomfortable talking about created things participating in God’s “nature,” out of concern that this presumes to know something of the divine essence (what God is in Himself) which, unlike God’s uncreated energies, must always remain the object of a purely apophatic approach. These are all legitimate areas of inquiry, although the details need not concern us here. What all Christians—Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant—are committed to believing is that goodness, truth, beauty, are somehow rooted in the being of God. How we parse this out—for example, whether we say that goodness, truth, beauty, etc. are Platonic forms pre-existing in the Divine Mind, or that these qualities are grounded in God’s “nature,” or that these are among God’s eternal uncreated energies, or that these are divine names pre-existing in the divine essence in an incomprehensible way, or all or some of the above—need not concern us here. The important point is that piety demands we affirm that qualities such as goodness, truth, and beauty are neither prior nor subsequent to God, but somehow rooted in Him.

Why is it a matter of piety to affirm that goodness, truth, beauty, etc. are somehow rooted in the being of God? Here again, we must return to Plato. In Plato’s dialogue the Euthyphro, Socrates asked the character Euthyphro whether an action is pious because it is willed of the gods, or whether the gods will an action because it is pious. This basic problem has come to be known as “the Euthyphro Dilemma.” In Christian theology, the Euthyphro Dilemma refers to the question of whether an action is good because God wills it, or whether God wills an action because it is good? Both ways of answering the question are problematic. If we say that an action is good because God wills it, then that would seem to make the goodness of an action purely arbitrary, leading to an extreme voluntarism and philosophical Nominalism. I knew a Protestant pastor who took this route and concluded that God could have created a planet where it was beautiful to hate Him, and where the continuum of vices and virtues could have been completely reversed. On this nominalist scheme, what we call “good” is simply what God happened to will, but there is no necessary relation between God’s will and His being. Accordingly, to say “God is good,” is simply to say, “God wills what God wills,” which is the height of impiety since this is equally true of the devil. But it seems just as impious to assert that God wills an action because it is good, as if goodness is a standard external to God to which He chooses to submit.

Early on, classical Christian philosophy left behind the Euthyphro Dilemma by asserting that neither God’s will nor the goodness of an action are related to each other as cause and effect; rather, both follow from God’s perfectly good nature. (And again, for those who are uncomfortable talking about God’s nature, we can say the same thing regarding His eternal uncreated energies.) The point is that goodness, truth, beauty, wisdom, justice, love, along with all God’s attributes, are neither prior nor subsequent to God. Just as three-sidedness is intrinsic to what a triangle is (for a triangle could not be a triangle without having three sides), so infinite goodness, truth, and beauty are intrinsic to God Himself (or, if you prefer, His energies). But if this is true, then it means that when we experience goodness, love, truth, wisdom, and beauty in creation, we are experiencing qualities that somehow imitate, or participate in, the Divine. As a consequence, the human mind can genuinely yet imperfectly grasp goodness, truth, and beauty via the things of this world. As James Matthew Wilson summarized this philosophical tradition,

“The human intellect can imperfectly but really grasp the True, the Good, and the Beautiful—some of the Divine Names Dionysius the Aeropagite enumerated in his Christian Platonist theology. Thus, our reasonings and our aesthetic judgments are based on a certain foundation even if we do not possess with certain knowledge the full vision of that foundation.”[iv]

In next week’s post we will look at one influential Christian philosopher who used Neoplatonism to flesh out this doctrine of participation. However, it will be useful to spend the remainder of this article exploring the sacramental background to the doctrine of participation, in both its Hebrew and Roman contexts, in addition to exploring how the Platonic understanding of participation found a rich recapitulation in Christian liturgical theology.

Liturgical Participation from Passover to Christ

We have seen that the being of God is related to the being of the world analogously, and that the integrity of all that is good, true, and beautiful achieves its being via participation in God. Before moving further, we must take a step back to note that prior to Christian philosophers reflecting on the metaphysics of participation, the doctrine of participation already had a rich expression within Christian Eucharistic theology, which was itself an outgrowth of Hebrew liturgical thought.

To understand how participation works within Hebrew and Christian liturgical thought, we must recall that God’s call of Abraham was a recapitulation of the original vocation given to Adam and Eve. (See my earlier discussion in my article “From Eden to New Creation: Rediscovering God’s Purpose for Planet Earth.”) After sin had defaced God’s images, God called Abraham’s descendants apart from the rest of humanity to show them how to fulfil their primordial vocation of imaging Him, which is to say, how to become fully human. As part of God’s covenant with Abraham, He gave him the land of Canaan. Abraham and his descendants were tasked with living faithfully in this land, which would become a type of Eden. Abraham’s great grandchild was a man named Joseph.

For reasons that you can read about in Genesis 37, Joseph’s brothers were jealous and sold him into slavery. Even while languishing as a slave in Egypt, God’s blessing rested on Joseph, leading to his rise in power and influence within the Egyptian government. Later when there was a famine in the land of Canaan and Joseph’s brothers travelled there in search of food, Joseph revealed himself to his family and invited their households to join him. Even in Egypt, however, the Patriarchs never forgot about the promised land, and Joseph instructed his children to take his bones with them when they eventually returned to the land given to Abraham.

For many generations Abraham’s descendants remained in Egypt, yet they never forgot their homeland. As their population swelled, the Egyptians felt threatened and decided to enslave the Hebrews. After generations in bondage, the hope of returning to the promised land seemed to recede further from sight. God’s people languished in slavery for two hundred and fifty years until God raised up a man named Moses to deliver them from captivity. Since Pharaoh refused to let the people go, the Lord used Moses to bring a series of judgments against Egypt and her gods. These judgements culminated in a plague of death on the first-born son of every family. As the angel of death passed through Egypt bringing death on every household, the Lord provided instructions to Moses for how the Israelites could be protected. They were to take blood from a lamb, known thereafter as the Passover lamb, and mark it above their doors as a sign for God’s judgment to pass over that house. During this night of Passover, the children of Israel ate in haste, knowing that they were about to depart for the land God had given to their forefather Abraham. They even cooked bread without any yeast, knowing it would not have time to rise.

To ensure that faithful Jews and Israelites did not forget that momentous night when the angel of death passed over their houses and judged their Egyptian oppressors, God commanded the descendants of Abraham to celebrate the Passover every year (Ex. 12:14). This annual celebration included special rituals that reenacted the original Passover meal, such as unleavened bread to recall their haste, bitter herbs to recall their enslavement, and a Passover lamb to recall their redemption from the angel of death.

As redemption history progressed and God’s people experienced additional exiles, the Passover celebration took on special significance as a hope and promise of future deliverance. Moreover, the prophetic corpus gave reason for looking at the Passover as a down-payment of the time when the God of Israel would finally rescue His people from their ultimate enemy, sin and death. Jews in the first century generally believed that they were still in a state of exile. They were awaiting a second Exodus when God would forgive them of their sins, deliver them from their foreign overlords, return to dwell among them, and institute the New Covenant that the prophet Jeremiah had foretold. It was during this period of painful expectation that the story of the Exodus, and its yearly liturgical reenactment, took on special potency.

Significantly, the annual Passover celebration was more than simply a reminder of those portentous events so long ago. The faithful believed that through the Passover liturgy, they were mystically participating in those original events. Through the ritualistic reenactment of the Passover night, the ancient past was brought forward into the present.

Jesus celebrated the Passover in the event we call the Last Supper, as faithful Jews and Israelites had been doing for hundreds of years. Significantly, this occurred on the night before Jesus, the new Passover lamb, rescued Abraham’s descendants from their final bondage. By mysteriously participating in the original Passover, Christ was able to transform the celebration in light of His own dawning victory over slavery and exile.[v] Taking the Passover bread and wine, Christ declared that it was His body and blood shed for the remission of sins and the introduction of a new covenant (Mt. 26:26-29). When Christians thereafter celebrate the Last Supper, or the Eucharist as it later came to be called, they participate in Christ’s victorious death, the ultimate Exodus out of bondage. Just as the annual Passover liturgy was a participation in the original Passover meal, so the Christian Eucharist became a participation in the new Exodus made possible by Christ’s sacrificial death.

Many Christians have a hard time understanding this type of liturgical participation, and so they end up with weird theories, such as the theory held by many Protestants that communion is simply an illustration and nothing more, or the even stranger Protestant theory which says that Catholics and Orthodox believe that Christ is being re-sacrificed every time communion is served. Much of this confusion arises because we have a different understanding of time than the ancient Hebrews. When the Hebrews celebrated the Passover every year, the symbolism and typology enabled them to spiritually participate in those original events, even though in purely secular time the Passover was in the distant past. The ancient Hebrews did not believe that the Passover repeated itself hundreds of times throughout linear history, just as Catholics and Orthodox do not believe that Christ is re-sacrificed anew every time a priest says the Mass. Rather, the doctrine of liturgical participation is built on the notion that a specific punctiliar event in the distant past can come rushing forward into the present, and that through “reminiscence” (anamnesis in Greek), those events can be “made present.”

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor articulated the concept of making present by saying that “The original Passover in Egypt, and the last supper, are brought into close proximity by typology, although they are aeons apart in secular time.”[vi] If this is true, then it challenges how we think of time. Consider the following question: what is closer to the original Easter: January 3rd 1975, or Easter Sunday 2013? According to human reason, we would say that January 3rd 1975 is thirty-eight years closer to the original Easter than Easter Sunday (or Pascha, as I prefer to call it) in the year 2013. But that is a secular way of approaching time. When our thinking has been informed by a Judaeo-Christian worldview, we understand that Easter Sunday is actually “closer” to the events of Christ’s resurrection, though on a different axis from secular time.

The early Christians grasped something of this mystery in their understanding of Real Presence: the teaching that the communion elements mysteriously participate in Christ’s body and His original sacrifice. Although Real Presence became controversial after the sixteenth century, the principle behind it pervades Christian liturgy, as Jesus’ followers are caught up to participate in the key events of salvation history. For example, Christ’s temptation in the wilderness is re-enacted during Lent when Christians fast and give particular attention to the struggle against temptation. During Advent, Christians re-enact the period of painful waiting for the Messiah by singing songs such as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” All the events of Christ’s final week are re-enacted during Holy Week. And of course, Christ’s death and resurrection are re-enacted through the Eucharistic and Paschal mysteries. The ancient prayers and hymns that accompany these fasts and feasts build on the same reality that the Hebrews understood in their Passover celebrations: under the right conditions, great events from the past are brought into conjunction with the present, enabling worshipers to participate in spiritual realities that transcend their immediate location in time and space.[vii]

Sacramental Participation from Rome to Eucharist

In addition to drawing on the Hebrew liturgical theology that developed around the Passover, early Christian ideas of participation were also formed by their immediate Roman context.

In the Roman empire, soldiers routinely took oaths of allegiance to the Republic. Later, after the Republic gave way to a dictatorship, the loyalty oaths were directed to the emperor. These oaths, known as sacramentum militare, involved a ceremony in which the would-be soldier pledged his life to the service of Rome. Within the Greco-Roman world, this oath had specifically religious overtones, since men and women also used sacramentum when they wanted to underscore a promise with a vow to the gods. In the military context, this sacrament inducted the soldier into something much larger than himself, bringing him into a reality that spanned heaven and earth.[viii] This enabled the soldier to participate in the vast reality of the Pax Romana with its obligations, privileges, and benefits.

When Roman soldiers took their oaths (sacramentum militare), they did not imagine that this ritual was an empty symbol, or a purely functional promise. Rather, this military sacrament enabled the soldier to actually participate in a spiritual reality. The sacrament was a sign of, and a participation in, something much larger than the ritual itself, connecting the soldier to the spiritual and political infrastructure of the empire.

When Christians later sought to discuss the Christian rites of baptism and the Eucharist, they borrowed the Latin concept of sacrament. Christians understood that through baptism they were participating in, and being inducted into, a much larger spiritual reality that intersected heaven and earth. The Christians did not make up their sacramental theology based on Roman practices, but simply used prevailing language and categories to explain what they already knew through revelation. What the Latin concept of sacramentum helped to clarify is that through the Christian mysteries, initiates participate in a vast reality spanning heaven and earth. By participating in these mysteries, believers were inducted into a network of obligations, privileges, and benefits that rivalled the priorities of Rome. These sacred mysteries proclaimed that the Church, not the Roman state, is the true eschatological reality breaking into this world to set men and women free.

The Roman background to Christian liturgical thinking can be useful in highlighting how Christians saw the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist as “signs” or “symbols” of a spiritual reality. In the modern world we often think that signs simply “represent” the things they signify, rather than actually participating in the reality towards which they point. But that is not how the ancient Hebrews, Romans, or Christians thought about signs. In his book Heavenly Participation, Hans Boersma has a helpful illustration to explain the participatory role of signs in early Christian thinking.

“A road sign with the silhouette of a deer symbolizes the presence of deer in the area, and its purpose is to induce drivers to slow down. Drivers will not be so foolish as to veer away from the road sign for fear of hitting the deer that is symbolized on the road sign. The reason is obvious: the symbol of the deer and the deer in the woods are two completely separate realities. The former is a sign referring to the latter, but in no way do the two co-inhere. It is not as though the road sign carries a mysterious quality, participating somehow in the stags that roam the forests.”[ix]

By contrast, Boersma explains, the early Christians understood that their signs actually participated in the quality they signify:

“According to the sacramental ontology of much of the Christian tradition, the created order was more than an external or nominal symbol. Instead, it was a sign (signum) that pointed to and participated in a greater reality (res).”[x]

Sacramental Theology Meets Platonic Metaphysics

It will be helpful to review some of the key points covered in this article so far, as preparation for exploring the role of Plato in Christian philosophy.

  • In Christian metaphysics, the doctrine of participation has been used to preserve the gap between God and creation.
  • Qualities in the created realm such as goodness, truth, and beauty participate in God, but they are neither univocal with God (the same as Him) nor equivocal (without knowable meaning).
  •  The answer to the problem of univocity and equivocity is analogy. Because true being can only be predicated to God, it follows that human beauty, truth, goodness, etc. are only “like” or analogous to the God in in whom these qualities eternally exist, whether as divine ideas or in the divine essence.
  • Before the concept of participation became part of Christian metaphysics, it was a liturgical reality with both Hebrew and Roman pedigrees.
  • The Christian Eucharist draws on the Passover liturgy, in which events from the past come rushing forward into the present.
  • The Roman background to Christian sacramental language helps to clarify that certain signs participate in the realities they signify.

At this point we can consider where Plato fits into the picture. On first glance, it may seem as if participation in its sacramental and liturgical contexts is far removed from the doctrine of participation as it functioned in the context of the Platonic metaphysics discussed in the previous article. There is a sense in which this is true. However, in Plato’s later dialogues such as the Symposium, there is almost a “sacramental” quality in the way he spoke of earthly beauty and goodness as signs that participate in the things they signify. (See my earlier post “Plato and the Physical Body.”) This became even more pronounced in the work of Neoplatonists like Plotinus. For the early Christians who had inherited sacramental categories from the ancient Hebrews, it was a small step to begin using Neoplatonic categories to clarify aspects of Christian theology. In both its liturgical and metaphysical dimensions, the Platonic concept of participation pointed to a reality that Hans Boersma described as a “sacramental ontology.” Here is how Boersma describes the way sacramental ontology functioned within the “Great Tradition” (the “Great Tradition” being a short-hand way of referring to the worldview dominant during the first thousand years of Christian history):

“Throughout the Great Tradition, when people spoke of the mysterious quality of the created order, what they meant was that this created order—along with all other temporary and provisional gifts of God—was a sacrament. This sacrament was the sign of a mystery that, though present in the created order, nonetheless far transcended human comprehension. The sacramental character of reality was the reason it so often appeared mysterious and beyond human comprehension….

It seems to me that the shape of the cosmic tapestry is one in which earthly signs and heavenly realities are intimately woven together, so much so that we cannot have the former without the latter…. A sacramental ontology insists that not only does the created world point to God as its source and “point of reference,” but that it also subsists or participates in God. A participatory or sacramental ontology will look to passages such as Acts 17:28 (“For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’”), and will conclude that our being participates in the being of God. Such an outlook on reality will turn to Colossians 1:17 (“He [Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together”), and will argue that the truth, goodness, and beauty of all created things is grounded in Christ, the eternal Logos of God. In other words, because creation is a sharing in the being of God, our connection with God is a participatory, or real connection – not just an external, or nominal, connection.”[xi]

This sacramental reality that Boersma discusses formed the template for a Christianized reading of Plato’s metaphysics. Qualities in this world such as goodness, truth, and beauty do not merely represent or point towards God’s goodness, truth, and beauty like a road sign points to the concept of a dear; rather, these qualities bear an organic analogical relation to the primary analogue in which they participate.

The Neoplatonist theologian, Dionysius the Areopagite expressed a similar notion by talking about “eternal models of exemplars (paradeigmata) ‘preexisting’ in the unity of God as causes (aitas) or formative principles (logoi) in the one Logos.”[xii] For Dionysius, the entire universe is a magnificent dance that continually participates in the Beauty of God, the fulcrum of all desire.[xiii] Maximus the Confessor (c. 580 –662) would later echo Dionysius by describing eternal formative principles (logoi) within the divine Logos. The great Romanian theologian, Dumitru Stăniloae (1903–1993) expressed the same concept by explaining that “According to the fathers, all things have their inner principles/reasons in the Divine Logos or the supreme Reason.”[xiv] In their different ways, these thinkers all explore a sacramental ontology grounded on participation in God: what is good, true, and beautiful in creation achieves its coherence through participation in the Divine.

One of the clearest statements on the metaphysics of participation comes from Gregory of Nyssa (335-394). In his Homilies on the Beatitudes, the Cappadocian Father came to discuss the man whose heart has been purified from disordered loves. In describing such a man, he does not simply say that his soul has achieved beauty, but that the beauty of such a soul is a participation in divine beauty. St. Gregory went even further, adding that a man who has been purified from unruly affections can be blessed by the contemplation of his soul’s beauty, because through it He glimpses the archetype for which his own beauty is but an image or copy.

…the person who has purged his own heart of every tendency to passion perceives in his own beauty the reflexion [sic] of the divine nature….What is like the good is surely good. Therefore the one who looks at himself sees in himself what he desires, and so the pure in heart becomes blessed, because by looking at his own purity he perceives the architype in the copy.[xv]

See Also

It is precisely because only God possesses true being, with all other things existing by analogy of His perfections (or, to use the more Eastern language of the Cappadocians, existing as images or icons of the archetype) that theologians warn us not to mistake the analogy for the prototype. Or, to express the same idea in terms of Plato’s Symposium, we are warned not to stay on the bottom rungs of the ladder, but to ascend from creation to God.

Participation and the Goodness of Creation

The understanding that good, true, and beautiful things in creation participate in God, and act as a ladder on the ascent towards Him, helped furnish Orthodox Christians with a powerful apologetic for asserting the goodness of the material world. Within the Greco-Roman world, Christian orthodoxy had to contend—as it still does today—with a radically immanent worldview that could not conceive any good beyond the life of the flesh and the comforts of this world. But Christian orthodoxy also had to contend with the opposite side of the same coin, namely the notion that nothing of value can pertain to the realm of space and time. Neoplatonism furnished Christian philosophers with the weapons for dismantling both of these heresies.

Christian Neoplatonism challenged the radically immanent perspective by building on Plato’s teaching that the good things of this world are at best stepping-stones by which the soul ascends to the ultimate reality in which they participate. To stop on the lower rungs of the ladder would be like the student who, after being exposed to beauty in elementary works like nursery rhymes or children’s pictures, never moves on to Shakespeare and Bach, or indeed one who stops at Shakespeare and Bach without moving onto the divine beauty in which all that is truly awe-inspiring ultimately participates and finds its natural end. Placing our earthly experience in the context of transcendent realities upgrades the significance of the former and reaffirms creation’s goodness.

Christian Neoplatonism also challenged those who despised the lower rungs of the ladder, refusing to use them as stepping-stones on the ascent to God. In interacting with such notions, particularly as they found expression in Gnostic and Manichean dualism, Christian philosophers affirmed that it is precisely because the good things of this earth participate in divine Goodness and Beauty that they should be revered and honored rather than defiled through sin. Similar arguments were made with respect to love: our desire for, and union with, Divine Love sanctifies earthly love, liberating it from the destructiveness that arises when love is made an end in itself, or when human love is scorned through an extreme spiritualism that despises the things of earth.

One of the most influential Christian philosophers to integrate Neoplatonism into theology was the church father St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430). St. Augustine developed a highly devotional form of Christian Neoplatonism to describe the soul’s journey from creation to God. In the next article, we will explore St. Augustine’s teaching, as well as other thinkers who clarify the nature of our ascent from creation to God.


[i] Whittaker Chambers, Witness (Regnery History, 2014), xiv.

[ii] Historically, Western and Eastern Christianity both agree on the legitimacy of analogy. Significantly, Greek theologians, with their more apophatic emphasis, still saw no problem simultaneously affirming analogy. Denys the Areopagite, for example, could hold in tension the cataphatic theology of analogy with the higher apophatic theology of divine unknowability. God, he explained in The Divine Names, “is celebrated by all beings according to the analogy that all things bear to him as their Cause. But the most divine knowledge of God, that in which he is known through unknowing, according to the union that transcends the mind, happens when the mind, turning away from all things, including itself, is united with the dazzling rays, and there and then illuminated in the unsearchable depth of wisdom.” Divine Names 7.3 872A-B Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1987); Elsewhere St. Denys also had no difficulty affirming certain positive characteristics of the divine nature. Mystical Theology, III: 1032-1033 Pseudo-Dionysius.

[iii] Steven Long, Analogia Entis: On the Analogy of Being, Metaphysics, and the Act of Faith, 1st edition (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011).

[iv] James Matthew Wilson, The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (Washington, D.C: The Catholic University of America Press, 2017), 19.

[v]On the Passover symbolism behind Jesus’ Last Supper and its fulfillment in the Christian Eucharist, see Brant Pitre and Scott Hahn, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper, Reprint edition (New York: Image, 2016); Scott Hahn, The Fourth Cup: Unveiling the Mystery of the Last Supper and the Cross (New York: Image, 2018).

[vi] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 96.

[vii] This spiritual perspective on time not only challenges modern secular assumptions, but it also refutes oriental paganism with its cyclical conception of time, in addition to undermining the non-linear conceptions of earthly time that are becoming so trendy within contemporary American Orthodoxy. Within the Judaeo-Christian understanding, time proceeds in a linear fashion, marked by key epochs in the ongoing march towards the final eschatological climax. These epochs (creation, election, exodus, kingdom, exile, redemption, church, continuation, second coming, final judgment, new heavens and new earth) pull history along so that the linear flow of time becomes the stage on which the drama of redemption plays out. As these epochs in redemption’s drama become reenacted and made present sacramentally, the worshiping community is enabled to look back and look forward within the linear timeline of history. Passover looked backwards to remember creation but it also looked forward to anticipate the final Exodus when creation itself is rescued from slavery. Pascha looks back to Christ’s resurrection but it is also a foretaste of what awaits us in our future resurrection. What is going on here is more than simply looking forward and backward, as if the celebration of these events is simply a lesson in history and prophecy. Rather, worshipers sacramentally participate in the past and the future, both of which come rushing into the present. But past, present, and future assume a linear view of time. To be sure, this sacramental understanding of time is more than a pure linearity, but it is not less. This should not be hard to grasp living in a world where God has blessed us with the seasons. Within the drama of time’s linearity, the cycles of the moon and stars repeat themselves to mark recurring seasons, and they help us to organize ourselves according to repeating days, weeks, months, and seasons. But these cyclical rhythms are pulling history forward similar to how the hands of a clock rotate within the context of a larger rhythms of forward movement (hours, days, years). In much the same way, the repeating cycles of our liturgy—Nativity, Theophany, Lent, Pascha, etc.—pull history forward in the ongoing progress towards the final eschaton.

[viii] On the spiritual dimensions of Rome, and its role in linking heaven and earth, see Phillips, Saints and Scoundrels, 41–44.

[ix] Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation : The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2011), 22.

[x] Boersma, 23–24.

[xi] Boersma, 22–24.

[xii] Phillip Cary, Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self: The Legacy of a Christian Platonist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 165.

[xiii] “And so it is that all things must desire, must yearn for, must love, the Beautiful and the Good. Because of it and for its sake, subordinate is returned to superior, equal keeps company with equal, superior turns providentially to subordinate, each bestirs itself and all are stirred to do and to will whatever it is they do and will because of the yearning for the Beautiful and the Good. And we may be so bold as to claim also that the Cause of all things loves all things in the superabundance of his goodness, that because of this goodness he makes all things, brings all things to perfection, holds all things together, returns all things.” Pseudo-Dionysius

[xiv] Staniloae, The Experience of God, 27.

[xv] Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Beatitudes: An English Version with Commentary and Supporting Studies. Proceedings of the Eighth International …, ed. Hubertus Drobner and Albert Viciano, Multilingual Edition (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2000), 70.


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