Friday, January 21, 2011

The Identity of God: Trinity

The Christian embrace of monotheism and creation ex nihilo was not an entirely straightforward development. While the overall direction was clear enough from the start, there were indications that the end was not a foregone conclusion. For example, Origen, whom Gilson credits in his monumental History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages with the clearest presentation of creation ex nihilo, in fact held that the cosmos is eternal. A god who creates an eternal world on a Neoplatonic model is problematic at best, from a Christian perspective, since the entire conception has its origin in the Greek view of the gods and man as parts of one organic whole. And Charles Norris Cochrane, in his classic study, Christianity and Classical Culture, notes that both Clement of Alexandria and Origen exhibit a fundamental Neoplatonic influence:

Clement puts forward a theory of Christian gnosis which is hardly to be distinguished from that professed by contemporary pagan mystics. ... he advocates a scheme of Christian propaedeutics which is obviously based on Neopythagorean-Platonic practice. With Origen the admission of pagan ideology is hardly less apparent. ... The starting point is the conventional opposition of the 'One' and the 'Many.' ... The cosmos is without beginning and without end, but an escape from the world of body is offered through belief in Christ as 'pure' spirit. So far was Origen from appreciating the significance of Christianity as an 'historical' religion based on the sense of an organic relation between soul and body and promising immortality through a regeneration of the flesh. (226-227)
This influx of Platonic and other Greek thought--best understood, as we have seen with Eliade, as a reformulation of archaic ontology through the medium of dialectic--put at risk the very nature of the Christian faith as expressed in the early Christian writings, including first and foremost those that were recognized as the New Testament. For, while Chesterton's characterization of Christian faith as a "true myth" (The Everlasting Man) is true, the truth of that characterization--as Chesterton was quick to point out--rests upon the historical reality of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Moreover, at the very heart of Christian faith is the identity of God as creator ex nihilo.

Part of the reason that some early Christians believed that these influences were compatible with the Christian belief in One Creator God lies in monotheism itself. As we saw when studying Mark Smith's The Memoirs of God, (summarized at The Identity of God: Creator), monotheism developed not so much from theoretical considerations as in the practical confrontations of nations in historical conflict. Israelite religious thought had originated in the polytheism characteristic of the archaic ontology of archetypes, later rationalized in Plato's myth of Ideas. This archaic ontology of archetypes, when reformulated through the medium of Greek dialectic, led to the classic "philosophical" problem of the One and the Many--how could many individuals share in the heavenly archetypes/exemplars, which are one--that is, pure exemplars?

Now, in a way that may seem paradoxical to monotheists of various stripes, the notion that there is one God is as anthropomorphic as were the archaic pantheons of gods, for the idea of "one" God leads naturally to the idea of a God who has a limited nature in the same way that every finite created being (which is thus "one") also has a limited nature. Such monotheisms, which we find in Judaism and Islam, have a tendency to move in one of two (or both) directions: either reverting toward the idea of one tutelary warrior god (Zionism, Jihadist Islam), which leads away from a universalist conception of human nature, or moving toward a Pythagorean-Neoplatonist influenced type of mysticism (Kabbalah, Sufism), which leads away from the idea of creation. Greek thought, too, had moved in the direction of a single (one) principle (Plato's Form of the Good, Aristotle's Unmoved Mover, etc.), a development which Jews such as Philo, as well as many early Christians who were familiar with Greek thought, believed was equivalent to a monotheism of one creator God. Thus, as Cochrane notes, in their theologies it seemed quite natural for Clement and Origen to start with "the conventional opposition of the 'One' and the 'Many,'" just as the Platonists (with their seemingly more developed "philosophical" form of thought) did. But while that opposition of the One and the Many may have been conventional for thought that derived from the archaic ontology of archetypes, its whole tendency was to collapse the Creator God back into a Neoplatonist system of "emanations," generating an eternal cycle of being and becoming that originated in a principle (the One, see below) that was devoid of the Love that characterized the Father of Jesus.

Naturally there was Christian opposition to the influence of Greek thought, and in particular to Platonic Idealism. The most forcefully expressed opposition was that of Tertullian. But Tertullian himself was influenced by aspects of Greek thought that Cochrane describes as "crass materialism" (Cochrane, 230, 246-247), which led him to his famous formulation:
Natus est Dei Filius, non pudet, quia pudendum est;
et mortuus est Dei Filius, prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est;
et sepultus resurrexit, certum est, quia impossibile.
— (De Carne Christi V, 4)
"The Son of God was born: there is no shame, because it is shameful.
And the Son of God died: it is wholly credible, because it is unsound.
And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible."
Unfortunately this view retains some traction, even among renowned modern theologians. Cochrane (362-363) takes John Henry Newman to task for remarks that Newman made regarding the Trinity (J. H. Newman, St. Athanasius, vol. ii, p. 317):
What Newman does is virtually to set up a cult of unintelligibility which, we may be sure, was alien to the mind and thought of Athanasius.
And so Cochrane summarizes the situation as of the third century:
It is none the less evident that the real problem of the Church was to work out the elements of a philosophy in keeping with its own distinctive first principles; that is, it was a problem of understanding and application. And, from this standpoint, the third century fathers deserve the consideration of pioneers who, by their very errors, made the discovery of new worlds possible. For the lack of just such a philosophy, that century marked a turning-point in the history of the Church. Morally bold and vigorous, it was still intellectually timid or weak; and, victorious as a way of life, it was still philosophically deficient. Accordingly, it suffered hardly more from the malice of its enemies than from the ineptitude of its friends and, impotent to overcome its own intellectual difficulties, it was obviously without the heavy artillery to beat down paganism. Hence paganism was to survive in the more exalted circles of imperial society, in order to make a final bid for ascendancy under Julian the Apostate. (232)
Thus, the great strength of the Christian faith, as Cochrane maintains by quoting the experience of Justin Martyr, was the tremendous sense of moral and intellectual emancipation that converts experienced--they had "entered into a world governed not by fear or distrust but by love" which bound together persons of disparate nationalities and cultures. (221-222) The turning point, theoretically and intellectually, for the Christian faith was the Trinitarian controversy. It was the doctrine of the Trinity that proved to be the ideal theoretical medium through which to explain the experience of the early Christians like Justin Martyr, and the development of this doctrine is best seen in light of the relation of the Arian heresy to Neoplatonic thought.

For our purposes, the important aspect of Neoplatonic thought is that which David Knowles describes in The Evolution of Medieval Thought (Chapter Two: "The Later Platonists and Plotinus"): the systematization of Platonic thought so that a "supreme principle (sometimes called 'god')" was established. (17)  Knowles states that this supreme principle, the One, is at "the head of the hierarchy of being," but this is somewhat misleading, since for Plotinus the One is precisely beyond being. In line with the entire tradition of Greek thought and of archaic ontology, we may express the fundamental problem of the One and the Many (the world of sensory experience) in the form of two alternatives which go all the way back to Parmenides. If true being is identified with the eternal and unchangeable archetypes or ideas, and the One is the ultimate source of such being, then being is defined as what is unchangeable, and nothing that undergoes change (the "world" of our universe) can be said to be.  As Parmenides insisted, our world is one of "non-being."  On the other hand, if we describe the world of our experience as "being," then it follows that the One cannot be "being" because the One is utterly above and beyond such "being."  The result in either case is a paradox that is insoluble by logical (conceptual) means, since it has missed the true point of "being," namely that existence is not a concept that is thought but an act.

Obviously, as Cochrane pointed out, in any Neoplatonic system the problem of the One and the Many is fundamental--it is THE problem. How can there be a connection between the One (of which it cannot even be said to be) and the Many?  Plotinus and other Neoplatonists bridged this gap by positing a series of intermediate "emanations" from the One:
The first emanation is Nous (Divine Mind, logos or order, Thought, Reason), identified metaphorically with the Demiurge in Plato's Timaeus. It is the first Will toward Good. From Nous proceeds the World Soul, which Plotinus subdivides into upper and lower, identifying the lower aspect of Soul with nature. From the world soul proceeds individual human souls, and finally, matter, at the lowest level of being and thus the least perfected level of the cosmos. Despite this relatively pedestrian assessment of the material world, Plotinus asserted the ultimately divine nature of material creation since it ultimately derives from the One, through the mediums of nous and the world-soul. It is by the Good or through beauty that we recognize the One, in material things and then in the Forms. (Wikipedia, Plotinus)
Note that, as the Wikipedia article puts it, these emanations are a "consequence" of the One, but in no sense can they be considered to be caused by the One--it is all part of an eternally unfolding process, not the result of a creative act. If all this sounds religious rather than philosophical, it's because Plotinus was essentially concerned with the freeing of the human soul from the material world--Neoplatonism is essentially religion--the religion of archaic archetypes, mediated through Greek dialectic. It is, in this very real sense, the ultimate flowering of the Greek philosophical genius, which was itself religious in its inspiration.

Now, with this in mind, Cochrane (232-235) observes that "It is a commonplace that the intellectual affiliations of Arius were with Philo, Origen, and the Neoplatonists." Indeed, by edict of the Emperor Constantine, after the Council of Nicea, the Arians were officially designated "Porphyrians" (after the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry, 234–c. 305 AD). Thus, in the eyes of the Council fathers, the larger issue of Arianism was, quite naturally, "whether the substance of paganism [i.e., as expressed in Neoplatonic thought] was to survive under Christian forms (234)." The specific influence of Neoplatonism is most clearly seen precisely in the Arian treatment of the Trinity, for in Arianism the Son is a lesser being than the Father, "a derivative deity," which makes of the Son "the typical 'intermediate being' of Neoplatonic theology":
Arius invoked the notion of an ultimate principle, in itself simple but all-inclusive, the 'Monad' which, in the language of Neoplatonism, was 'beyond knowledge and beyond existence.' To this principle he ascribed the genesis of all creatures, including that of the logos, who was thus described as 'of another substance' from the Father and of whom it could be said that 'there was a time when he did not exist.' (Cochrane, 233)
The Church reacted vigorously, relying in its opposition to Arianism on those New Testament passages that we previously cited as evidence for early Christian belief in creation ex nihilo. Moreover, as Cochrane notes, the pro-Trinitarian arguments were advanced "not ... in the defiant spirit of Tertullian, as inconsistent with nature and reason. Rather, they were offered as the clue to an understanding of problems by which the natural reason had hitherto been baffled." (237) Their arguments were, in fact, a thoroughgoing rejection of the Platonic systematization of the archaic ontology, by which the cosmos had been viewed as a closed system of gods and nature. Rather, the Trinity was identified as the creator God:
to acknowledge the Father, the arxe anarxos, as the ultimate foundation and source of all being in the universe was to deny the reality of any opposing principle such as had been imagined by the Manichaeans; in other words, to bar the door to metaphysical dualism. Furthermore, the being thus ascribed to the Father was not the abstract being of philosophy ... On the contrary, it was held to contain the sum of all perfections, including those of order and motion [change] ... (236)
What Cochrane is saying here is that, whereas the One of Neoplatonism was the most remote, abstract and empty of principles, the Trinity, seen as the source of existence and order in the universe, was the fullest, most concrete and innermost of principles. Moreover, the Trinity became the perfect expression of the creator God, theoretically superior to the absolute unity of anthropomorphic monotheism, because the Trinitarian community, embodying the spirit of love, expresses the overflowing, superabundant energy of existing--thus shattering the anthropomorphic monotheism of One God while maintaining a dynamic unity. The Trinity was, as Henry Adams saw in Mont-St.-Michel and Chartres, a theological solution to a more fundamental philosophical question. Furthermore, the recognition that being is supreme act rather than abstract concept allows man to transcend the supposed problem of how Many came from One and frees man from the false necessity of viewing human knowledge as requiring an exact correspondence to archetypes or concepts, in the nature of a photographic image. Now, as Thomas Aquinas later made clear, it was sufficient for real knowledge that being should be in the knower according to the mode of the knower, not according to an abstract concept that took no account of the individual. At the same time that the metaphysical dualism of Manicheism was banished, the dualism of the human subject was banished in favor of the true substantial unity of the knowing subject.

Note: I'm indebted to a niece for pointing out the quite acute analysis of Henry Adams.  The phrase "a theological solution to a more fundamental philosophical question" is hers.


  1. Mark this is most helpful and instructive. Thank you.

  2. You're very welcome. Sorry I'm rather slow about moderating comments.