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Is Orthodoxy Neo-Platonic?

A Response to the Credenda Agenda

by Dr. Thomas Mether

The following is part of an extensive joint response to the Protestant Reformed journal Credenda Agenda. An entire issue of this journal was devoted to a critique of Orthodox Christianity. The author is addressing the article entitled "Salvation by Plotinus"

When Eastern Orthodoxy speaks of salvation, it speaks of deification, a notion drawn from a long development of Eastern/Hellenistic theological reflection.

This is a main and lead assertion. Notice it is not backed up by any support. It does not acknowledge the plurality of Hellenistic trends in religious thought nor identify specifically which alleged pagan trends spoke of deification: Middle Platonism?, Hellenistic Mystery Religions?, Stoicism?, Pyrrhic Skepticism?, Cynics?, Hermeticism?, or Neo-Platonism?. Plotinus is the one they identify, but the ones that had any influence were the Syriac school of Imblichus, the Pergamen school of Julian the Apostate and Sallustius who the Cappadocians criticized and which was itself a Christian influenced school despite it being anti-Christian, the Athenian school of Proclus, and then the only Neoplatonic school that there is any record of Christian and Neo-platonic interaction was the Alexandrian one and from it and Philo comes the raw material for the Christological and Trinitarian formulations I would assume is common ground to Orthodox and Calvinists. This main claim is also historically false in light of any pagan tradition. At most, you were already divine and just forgot you were because of falling into this body coming out of the Orphic tradition, gnostic tradition, or Platonic strains.

In Eastern understanding, deification is the process in which humans gradually become metaphysically (i.e., in their being) united, intermingled, permeated with the attributes, the non-essential being, the energies, of God.

Inaccurate misrepresentation and oversimplification. The only union between humans and God is that we are united as one flesh to the body (church) of Christ’s human nature and it is only indirectly through his hypostasis that divinizes his human nature are we deified. We are thereby enabled to move from the Image to the Likeness of the Trinitarian life as Church. As communion, the Church is really that which becomes the Likeness of God. Then

Perhaps because of the initial distastefulness of such claims, the Eastern Orthodox are quick to qualify them.

Loaded statement. Serves no function except to bias or further bias reader. To compensate, I suggest a corresponding sentence be put in the rebuttal article. In fact, to really give it an effective one-two and undercut punch, I would tie it to their later claim that deification omits the need for the cross in some type of sentence incorporating Calvinist predestination such as: "Perhaps because of the initial moral distastefulness of such Calvinist concepts as predestination, which effectively omits the decisiveness of the power of the Cross, the Calvinists.....(something)"

Then they state something that I may be showing my ignorance of Calvinists on.

To begin, we must become substantially, metaphysically united to Christ in His humanity through baptism.

Question: don’t Calvinists believe this too?

Self-Conscious Synthesis with Paganism: Eastern Orthodox historical discussions often praise the early church’s opposition to Platonism as found in thinkers like Origen. But, in discussing deification, they seem to have little difficulty in embracing the pagan philosophy of Plotinus (205-270 A.D.), the primary systematizer of Neo-Platonism.

There are so many factual things wrong with this claim, which by vague generalities gets to rely on ambiguity of what actual relations existed or did not exist. There is no motif of deification in Plotinus and notice they give no citation from the Enneads as standard academic practice would require. Vague of who, specifically, embraces Plotinian philosophy in their talk of deification. There is no naming names or giving of dates or sources. For example, did St. Maximos, father of Byzantine theology quote Plotinus? As it happens, he did twice. He refers to Ennead I.2, 1:118 and IV. 3, 1:134. Neither has anything to do with deification. So, who did? They state but without support. By the way, Calvin quotes atheists so I guess his theology is contaminated by them. Anyway, another academically questionable tactic for a claim that has no support.

Eastern Orthodox thinkers at times insist that they have purged neo-Platonism from their thinking by slight changes in Plotinus’s system.

This is an elaboration and variation on the original unsupported assertion with one difference. Which Eastern Orthodox thinkers when literally claim that "they have purged neo-Platonism from their thinking by slight changes in Plotinus’s system." No names named. And it ignores the very important distinction of ousia and hypostasis. If one looks at number of citations, the Fathers actually quote Aristotle more than Plotinus or the Platonists. Aristotle is a common conceptual framework to Orthodox and Calvinist theology. Much of the Fathers Platonist vocabulary comes from Origen’s attack on Celsus or from Pseudo-Denis whose neo-Platonism is Syriac, not Plotinean. Nicene vocabulary is a critical re-construction of Origen’s conceptual vocabulary. This is inherited by both Orthodox and Calvinists. And where Orthodox Trinitarian theology departs from the west, it is more Biblical than the west’s! Consider.

Towards late antiquity, two words were in philosophical use which meant substance or substantive being. s Aristotle put it, being can be said in many ways or there are many meanings of Being. He isolated and identified Being according to the different categories of which substance (ousia) was the most fundamental, Being as act and potency, Being as true, and Being as contingent as opposed to necessary/essential. There has been on and off again the debate over the question of whether this listing of the meanings of Being is complete. We will return to that in a bit. The Byzantine answer was it was incomplete.

As indicated, there were two words used for substantive being in late classical philosophy. The first was Aristotle’s ousia. The second was hypostasis from Stoic origins. But they each developed a meaning that made them not exactly synonymous. Ousia increasingly came to mean a substance/thing to the extent it was a kind of substance/thing or a thing of a typical nature or essence. Hypostasis increasingly came to mean a substantive mode of existence in its unique and distinctive particularity and individuality.

Into this context comes the tradition of Judaism. Philo uses these distinctions to suggest that the personal God of Israel is a uniquely distinctive and singular reality or hypostasis in contrast to the impersonal thought thinking itself thing (ousia) of Aristotle. One branch of Middle Platonism picks this up and God and souls become hypostases while impersonal things, including cups, chairs, etc., become ousias. The other branch of Middle Platonism represented by Numenius of Apamea pushes the God as impersonal monad and ousia interpretation which nevertheless reinforces the ousia = non-personal substance/thing of a typical kind and hypostasis = personal substance of a uniquely and distinctive individual (usually God as person).

We have here the elements of a conceptual revolution in ancient philosophy and religion. It was the characteristic trait of ancient philosophy, religion, and humanism that the individual was not valued in and of itself in its particularity but only as an paradigmatic instance of a universal ideal type. Person was just an epiphenomenal mask. By contrast, as Tillich brings out, even the post-Christian humanism of the modern world is Judeo-Christian to the extent the unrepeatable individual per se is valued in and of itself. The roots of this contrast is in the Trinitarian controversy and the debt the parties owed to Philo and Origen.

Consider, the Christological controversy was settled in terms of ousia (homoousia) as the substantive divinity of both the Father and Christ. They are of one essence. Now, in the Trinitarian controversy, given the pre-history of the words ousia and hypostasis and given that ousia was implied already in the omoousia solution to the christological issue and finally given that the conventional and more common word for person (prosopon) had no ontological weight given its epiphenomenal connotation, the Church Fathers chose hypostasis to designate God in his distinctive, unrepeatable, and individual personalities in all their distinctive particularity because it had ontological and substantive weight—personhood was ontologically ultimate. They feared that the use of prosopon would convey a modalist or Sabellian message which would be a subordination of persons to impersonal ousia. And this is what the Latin and Calvinist west, even as early as in Augustine’s time, did not understand and confessed it did not understand. As Fr. Theodore Regnon, S.J. put it, "Latin philosophy (Christian theology) considers the nature in itself first and proceeds to the agent; Greek philosophy (Christian theology) considers the agent first and passes through it to find the nature. The Latins think of personality as a mode of nature; the Greeks think of nature as the content of the person. The western lack of understanding of what the Greek Fathers had accomplished in the nature of the distinction and relations of priority within it between ousia and hypostases led to a certain re-paganization of Trinitarian thought in which the philosophical essentialism of an unreformed ousiological metaphysics engenders the accent to fall on the divine unity in the west."

Now the so-called "monarchia of the Father" in eastern Trinitarian theology means person trumps impersonal thing. Even the divine ousia exists because the Father is the PERSONAL source of the communion of divine hypostases that is the ousia. The west tends to take it the other way around, beginning with ousia, and thus, from an eastern perspective, betrays the very essence of the meaning of the Trinity as interpersonality as ultimate reality. With the influx of insufficiently re-constructed philosophical concepts in the west, you get the re-paganization of Christian theology in the west as instanced by debates over God’s foreknowledge of future contingents, whether it is matter or form of an ousia/substantial thing that individuates (and individuates both things and persons), and so on. The west was captured by an ousiological metaphysics. This metaphysics held western theology in captivity. It is in its nominalist form coming from William Occam that we find it still in captivity in the Calvinist’s even having the very question of whether God knows future contingents in light of predestination, and time. This was a metaphysics, St. Maximos the Confessor points out, that saw time as an enemy and thus sought that stable enduring thing through change that thereby is the most fundamental kind of being. Thus, that kind of perdurance was dubbed with the past participle he says. In essence, what is called by contemporary philosophers "the metaphysics of presence" according to Maximos is really the metaphysics of the past, as fully complete and determinate, used paradigmatically to colonize all the other temporal modes of present and future. The present is the predestined creature of the past both in Calvin and Newton. The essentialism downgrades accidental being or sumbebekos. Now sumbebekos as accidental being was also not well understood in the west. It is not being that exists in another like a form of being found within one of the predicate categories. It designates the happenstantial, the contingently situational so it is not precisely necessary-essential that my wife has auburn hair; that she has this hair color is accidental in the sense of sumbebekos, it is fortuitous in the sense that her hair could have indifferently been auburn or not auburn but it is necessary that it have some color. This kind of accidental being can be found in every category. Thus, in the pagan Greek view, that a human is this or that individual is accidental but it is necessary that a human be somebody. The distinction then between accidental being in the sense of sumbebekos from an accident-predicate is that the accidental being is the contingent or fortuitious actuality according to every necessary category. So, accidental being in this sense is the contingent affection or actual constellation or situation or event that takes place according to the necessity of different categories. On the Orthodox reading, this sumbebekos is really God’s governance or the concrete realization of God’s purpose in time. To downgrade it is a spiritually sick symptom of the religiosity of sarx that finds time to be a corrosive force that bears no faith or hope. Thus, accidental being just as the unique particularity of persons and the future, is downgraded in pagan metaphysics in favor of fully determinate being-essences (the dead, fully completed and determinate and deterministic past idealized as enduring presence) or ousiological being for the paradigmatic past participle. It was not till Scotus developed his concept of haecceity and the individual’s will did you find the beginning of the overturn of a ousiological metaphysics in western Christian theology. Maximos pointed out the original meaning of sumbebekos was not negative as it as in pagan philosophical theology but was positive. It meant the adventurous and creative way things are "brought together." So, in Orthodox theology coming from Maximos, the pagan agenda to make (persons and) reality in its concreteness, in all its contingency, fortuity, distinctiveness, and unique unrepeatibility unreal in favor of impersonal, universal, and necessary is set on its head. Thus, sumbebekos, as very purposeful counterpoint in Byzantine theology, is the creative way (Logos) that God brings all things together (sumbebekos) in the existential fullness of their realization (uparktikos) of his eikonomia. This lead Maximos to revolutionize Aristotle’s categorical analysis of Being in one of its meanings. But to back up a bit. Now, the Cappadocians start to make systematic use of these terms ousia and hypostasis to build the foundations of eastern theology. But it is St. Maximos the Confessor who really completes this task and thus is called the father of Byzantine theology. This takes us back to the question of whether the meanings of Being given by Aristotle are an exhaustive list. For Maximos states:

It is no accident, or rather, is foreordained blind inspiration that the Stagirite spoke both worse and better than he meant. For when he says that ‘indeed the inquiry or perplexity concerning what being (on) is, in early times and now and always, is just this: what is substance (ousia) (Meta Z 1.5, 1028b).’ he begs the question by his reduction of the problem of Being to that of one kind of substantial being. For the categorial determinations of the meanings of Being that have their focus or reference to a more fundamental kind of being are multiple. For as Tradition has taught us to see, there is another substantive mode of existing which is that of the personal mode of existence. The logos was in our tongue but we could not see. There are hypostases that are a personal mode of existence (tropos hyparxeos) that is the referent or fundamental kind of being that has characteristic manners or modes (tropoi) of being as modifications of the first-personal to be (eimi) that is the voluntary (thelesis) analogue to ousiological energeia and that can existentially realize (uparktikos) itself contranaturally, naturally, or supranaturally with their respective vices and virtues.

So, for example, (remember Byzantium did not go through a dark ages like the west did. It maintained high literacy, even in Latin {because of their fierce pride in being descendents of the Romans, even military communiquées to the Romanians, for example, were in Latin until 1081} classics were studied and known through the schools, and it had almost all the classical and patristic works of antiquity, in sharp contrast to the west, and thus, was the source, usually still unacknowledged in western secondary literature, of the Greek texts being translated by such as Moerbeke in the time of Aquinas down to the Renaissance when refugees from Byzantium brought texts, like the Dialogues of Plato, to Ficino), the question of individuation was never posed within the new metaphysical framework of Byzantine theology as a choice of the essence or matter of an ousia. Human existence is comprised of human nature (ousia), with its matter and form, as a species principle of nature (logos physeos) that is individuated by the personal mode of existence (tropos hyparxeos) of the hypostasis. But Orthodoxy has a developmental view. Even if there had been no fall, Adam would have still had to evolve from the Image into the Likeness through the Incarnation (anselmian theory is wrong on the eastern view if purpose of Incarnation was just to correct the fall because Church is the goal as the Body of Christ) in a process called theosis (deification) in synergy with the divine Energies. While in principle it is the hypostasis that individuates, instead of one of the metaphysical elements of the human ousia, it is the process of theosis that is the actual process of individuating the one becoming a person in the fulness of the Likeness of the interpersonality of the Trinitarian life. So, see, the east is in a very different conceptual universe, metaphysically, than the west and which the west has not appreciated as yet in its attempts to grasp eastern theology/metaphysics. So, Thomist and Calvinist discussions seem, from an Orthodox perspective to, too uncritically inherit a pagan concept without sufficient critical reflection on the legacy of its pre-Christian meaning and implications. The on-going issue of the relation of Greek philosophy and Orthodox theological expression is an issue for any properly responsible theology that has to be methodologically fastidious about the concepts it uses and/ or may read into Scripture. Proof of this, at least in the case of Thomas and Calvin, is the very need to be concerned about whether or not God knows individual souls, particulars, or future contingents. The Orthodox understanding is that the pagan concept of divine immutability was an allergic reaction to time and contingency that needed to find a time-proof foundation of necessity for religious reassurance. Time was the evil Kronos who ate its children. So, the concept is symptomatic of a spiritual sickness of the religiosity of sarx (which in Orthodoxy is not "flesh," but deathliness, related to sarcophagus, it is the opposite of spirit, it is de-spiritedness that emotionally believes in death more than God despite what the head believes). Pagan philosophical theology sought a predestinied necessity in a time-proof order or an anti-time God. Since everything human is temporal, one gets the unknown God because God is what anything temporal-mortal is not.

Using a Biblical base to modify Greek pagan concepts, divine immutability in Orthodoxy is God’s loyalty to his promise (his Word, his Church) to his (Church designed) creatures. It is the immutability of his commitment through and outside of time. It is the basis of the fact that economia was the telos, and thus, foundation of the creation. Church is the fulfillment of covenant. Covenant is the inner purpose for creation. Creation is the outer staging for the inner purpose. So, the Church, as Body of Christ, is the fruit from which the tree that bore it, the cosmos, was itself borne and born, as St. Diadochus of Gaza puts it. God’s immutability is that he is agape, essentially and contingently, immutably a sharer of Person with Persons, uncreate or create. Time has no nature apart from this agenda, and thus, is nothing in relation to it, and thus, is not an obstacle or issue for or about divine immutability unlike the unregenerate paganism of the insufficiently methologically critical Calvinism.

We derive our reconstructed metaphysics and cosmology from dogmatics. It was the Catholic and Protestant west that tried, especially after Aquinas, to mix and match. Only Luther showed some sophistication in these matters. But Calvin’s Institutes depends on un-re-examined concepts from the western philosophical-theological tradition. By the way, Barth’s discussion of Calvin is an effective deconstruction and expose of Calvin’s non-Christian philosophical legacies, including the neo-Platonic concepts in Calvinist theology. Anyway, I hope this shows just how minute the fine-tooth combing of Greek concepts in order to serve Christian theology was.

Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice, the hallmark of Christian faith, plays no central role. Though some Eastern Orthodox texts on salvation give lip-service to the atonement, one searches in vain for serious Eastern explanations of justification, atonement, propitiation, etc.

They seem to have no idea that this is Anselm’s idea in origin, that Calvinism inherits that notion from men, and that it was debated in the west from the middle ages down to the present. So, instead of presenting what the Orthodox view is and then criticizing it, which would be the intellectually honest thing to do, they confess they can’t find their own calvinism in Orthodoxy, and thus, Orthodoxy is flawed. This is question-begging strawman with a burden of proof twist. It is question-begging because, in effect, they ask "where is your Calvinism." Typically, strawman is the distorted representation of a position in order to make it weaker to attack it. Here they can’t find the Orthodox position because they were looking for Calvinism. Thus, this strawman tactic has a new twist in that it does not so much present an overly simplistic picture of their opponents view as not present it at all. It is burdern of proof of a strange sort because it is imputed to be our fault and a flaw with Orthodoxy that they did not find our position because they were looking for their own. Such overlapping fallacious thinking suggests this crowd is just plain confused.

+ + +

More thoughts. Another line to effectively counter both the imputation that we are closet Neo-Platonists is to point out the VERY PERSONAL nature of contemplative knowledge in Orthodoxy. The reason why gnosis replaces episteme as the highest value or kind of theoria ties is that it is a personal relationship. This would then tie into the hypostasis vs ousia theme. Then, it should be brought out in connection with the centrality of the Beatitudes and the dual structure of of them in light of the paradigmatic dual structure of "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us and the constant God and neighbor theme (so as you have down it to the least of these, Servant who was forgiven his debt he owed of 10,000 talents but would not forgive a much smaller debt) that the quality of one’s relation to God is intrinsically tied to the quality of one’s relation to neighbor. Then use these connections as a contrast of Orthodox spirituality to pagan Neo-Platonism’s impersonalism and ultimate aethicalism (if reality is supremely impersonal, ethics, personality, and interpersonal relationships are epiphenomena to be transcended in pagan view. By contrast, God is Trinity, Christianity is THE personal and interpersonal religion par excellance, or better, CHURCH) to refute their attempt to identify the two. In this, emphasize that Trinity and Scripture requires a strong ecclesiology—a weakness in post-Reformed Protestant thought which is docetic in its ecclesiology—because the primary framework of the agape relation to neighbor is Church-building either through missions to bring them in or edification to build them up within the Body of Christ. In the original sources, even Luther does not use the construction "the Christian religion" or "Christianity is a religion" even though you will find "the religion (synonymous with piety) of Christians" because even for him Christianity = Church. It is Calvin where this equation is loosened, and thus, ecclesiology becomes very weakened.