• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Neoplatonic Christianity: An Alternative Theological Model or Dead-End?


“Only a few things in the Platonic books need to be altered to make their authors Christian.”[1]

St Augustine


“Oneself is not the subject isolating itself from the world, but a place of communication, of fusion of the subject and object.”[2]

Georges Bataille


Where Ps.-Dionysius “the Areopagite,” author of the corpus dionysiacum (composed between the Zeno’s Henotikon in AD 482 and the Second Council of Constantinople in 553), fits within the framework of philosophy in late antiquity is moot. Some position him as a crypto-pagan chopping Christianity’s hand to fit a Neoplatonic glove,[3] others as a Christian who doctored a Neoplatonic ideology in bad faith. Moreover, many Christians believed the thinker harboured Monophysite tendencies.[4] My concern is to show that Ps.-D walked a tightrope between these two positions, fusing the formal trappings of Neoplatonism (thereby retaining continuity) to a Christian paradigm (causing a break).[5]


One of the first ways in which Ps.-D subverted traditional Neoplatonic theory was by forcing divine freedom into the emanation model (outwards-downwards) in the form of a two-way transmission, namely, immediate and mediated. Not only was grace/illumination accorded directly by God (as well as being transmitted by hierarchical intermediaries) from above, Ps.-D also conceived of prayer as the faculty that allowed people to move directly towards God (sans middlemen) from below.


This would have been alien to Neoplatonists who viewed the One as a source of sequenced natural laws (Neoplatonic sacramentalism – theurgy included[6] – depended on god-given laws, no form of supernatural intervention was required)[7] and emanatist i.e. refusing to be implicated in any form of immediacy; to whom the material world was a distant relation.


To Ps.-D, God was the sole cause. The hierarchy possessed no inferior causes, only an entirely derivative order in which God chose to operate. Ps-D’s concept of synergy, too, worked against the idea of an emanatistic universe. To Ps.-D, God’s energies worked their way through the hierarchical ranks with the latter achieving no sense of independence/autonomy. Ecclesiastical functions for instance were “icons of divine operations.” Indeed,


“Since the differences of clerical function represent symbolically the divine activities (τῶν θείων

ἐνεργειῶν) and since they bestow enlightenment corresponding to the unconfused and pure

order of these activities, their sacred activities and holy orders have been arranged hierarchically

in the threefold division of first, middle, and last so as to present, as I have said already, an

image of the order and harmonious nature of the divine activities. The divinity first purifies

those minds which it reaches and illuminates them. Following on their illumination it perfects

them in a perfect conformity to God. This being so, it is clear that the hierarchy, as an image of

the divine, is divided into distinctive orders and powers in order to reveal that the activities of

the divinity (ἐναργῶς ὑποδεικνῦσα τὰς θεαρχικὰς ἐνεργείας) are preeminent for the utter holiness and purity, permanence and distinctiveness of their orders.”[8]



In other words, they were synergical to the divine energy: there were no forms of subordination, no inferior causes – each was upturned by a grand theory of thearchy, a rule of love/eros by God.


The Dionysian hierarchy bears little resemblance to its Neoplatonic predecessor in which the intellectual demands of Platonic “salvation” were such that few were able to meet them. Instead of adherents who Origen parodied as “like doctors who only bothered with the cultural few and had no care for the majority of mankind,” (C. Cels. 5.43) the divine energy propelling the former’s system was a personal love, an intimate reunion rather than some sort of abstract gravity-like pull or initiation into “so great a secret” (Symmachus, Rel. 3.10) that required the ascendant folk to be intellectual and/or cultural heavyweights.[9] Furthermore, Christian Neoplatonism looked to the salvation of the entire self, not simply the mind (though this was not without its own complications) or the “divine” parts of a person.


Turning to Procline henology, Proclus rejected not only Plotinus’ hypostatic order (there were no hypostatical intermediaries between the One and Nous) but also the idea that the prototypes of the intelligible world had their origin in the One. This was because he was concerned by the idea that the One could be the direct productive principle of multiplicity (and therefore compromise its autonomy). Ps.-D in turn rejected all talk of multiplication as it provided a justification for polytheism (he was aware that Proclus accused Christians not of impiety or lack of faith but epistemological ignorance) and so he built upon the causal uniqueness of the One. Refusing to draw distinctions between the principle beyond the One and the One, Ps.-D asserted that “It is the cause and principle beyond every principle.”[10]


This had the effect of reminding philosophers that in the ultimate chicken and egg game God did not conform to intellectual rules, blueprints or principles; we were as cod burbling to fishermen, no language bridged the epistemic distance. A byproduct of this was a vast simplification of the supersensible world (which looked and smelled like the superstructures of Gnostics) in the process. Indeed, Ps.-D switched it: if principles were to have any valence in his schema, they were as names for God in a kataphatic tradition that would later flower into the Islamic “al-Asma Ul Husna” (Allah’s most beautiful [99] names).[11]


Another point Ps.-D addressed was Damascius’ triadology, which attacked the idea behind the Christian Trinity. In De primis principis, the last scholarch had argued:


“Are the three the same thing or are they different, and is the monad a triad? (καὶ τριὰς ἡ μονάς;) None of these things is true. There is none of this in that realm, not sameness, not otherness, not triad, not monad as distinct from triad (οὐ τριάς, οὐ μονὰς ἡ πρὸς τριάδα ντικειμένη). There is no antithesis in the intelligible (οὐδεμία γὰρ ντίθεσις ἐν τῷ νοητῷ).”[12]



This negative outcome, concluding that the divinity outlined was neither monadic nor triadic would have been a red flag to the bulls of Christian philosophy. Ps.-D responded


“There is the transcendent unity of God and the fruitfulness of God, and as we prepare to sing this

truth we use the names Trinity and Unity (τῇ τριαδικῇ καὶ ἑνιαίᾳ θεωνυμίᾳ τὴν ὑπερώνυμον ὀνο-μάζομεν) for that which is in fact beyond every name, calling it the transcendent being above

every being. But no unity or trinity (οὐδεμία δὲ μονὰς ἢ τριάς), no number or oneness, no fruitfulness, indeed, nothing that is or is known can proclaim that hiddenness beyond every mind

and reason of the transcendent Godhead which transcends every being. There is no name for it

or expression. We cannot follow it into its inaccessible dwelling place so far above us and we

cannot even call it by the name of goodness.”[13]


Damascius also reckoned generator and generated were interlinked and that some form of union within the triadology implied a certain element of interchangeability (thus undermining the idea that God, Son and Holy Spirit might have unique characters/roles). A charge that Ps.-D proved anxious to deny when he wrote that:


“Theology, in dealing with what is beyond being, resorts also to differentiation. I am not referring

solely to the fact that, within a unity, each of the indivisible persons is grounded in an unconfused

and unmixed way. I mean also that the attributes of the transcendentally divine generation are not interchangeable (τῆς ὑπερουσίου θεογονίας οὐκ ντιστρέφει πρὸς ἄλληλα). The Father is the only source of that Godhead which in fact is beyond being and the Father is not a Son nor is

the Son a Father. Each of the divine persons continues to possess his own praiseworthy characteristics, so that one has here examples of unions and of differentiations (ἑνώσεις τε καὶ διακρί-σεις) in the inexpressible unity and subsistence of God.”[14]


After the passage of time, much of this might seem fusty, pointillist and academic. Yet the atmosphere was heated. Anti-Christian polemics and their rebuttals shot back and forth as the faith struggled to attain hegemonic status among philosophers. Much of the heat clustered around whether the Christian utilisation of philosophy was an exercise in good or bad faith – a rather maddening exercise given such endeavours were sought via differing systems of justification. A letter Ps.-D wrote to a certain Bishop Polycarp, observes that


“You say that the sophist Apollophanes reviles me, that he is calling me parricide, that he

charges me with making unholy use of things Greek to attack the Greeks (ὡς τοῖς Ἑλλήνων

ἐπὶ τοὺς Ἕλληνας οὐχ ὁσίως χρωμένῳ). It would be more correct to say to him in reply that it

is the Greeks who make unholy use of godly things to attack God (ὡς Ἕλληνες τοῖς θείοις

οὐχ ὁσίως ἐπὶ τὰ θεῖα χρῶνται). They try to banish divine reverence by means of the very wisdom (τῆς σοφίας τοῦ θεοῦ) which God has given them.”[15]


In conclusion, Ps.-D employed Neoplatonic arguments in a vast philosophical codification of monotheism. This entailed substituting several speculative cogs of the corpus with either Scripture or notions borrowed from it (both being in their own ways, not reason as such but appeals to authority). This led to several simplifications and modifications as well as appeals to apophaticism.


His engagement with Neoplatonism was not cynical, however. He was not conscious of inserting “religion” for “philosophy” as one might pour Echo Falls into an empty bottle of Château Lagrange. Such notions belong to a bastardised Enlightenment discourse. Instead, Ps.-D sought to correct what he saw as prior ignorance about God/One by ensuring biblical revelation was heeded. This should have been no more or less controversial than the attempt to achieve Aristotelian convergence between the same disciplines (theology and philosophy). In a post-Aquinas age, it’s easy to forget that theology had its own issues being merged with Aristotelian thought; a movement that began with Boethius in the West and Philoponus in the East. Not least that the philosopher had taught that the soul could not exist without the body.[16]


Parts of Ps-D’s attempts to bring about a communion between the theoretical apparatus of Neoplatonism and the diktats of monotheism were undoubtedly gauche from a Christian standpoint, however. Indeed, the weakest part of the project was where it left Jesus. How essential was Christ in the new formula? Ps.-D had produced a theory of God on earth in which Christ led the way but was ultimately reduced to a cosmic signpost rather than the theandric masterpiece mainstream orthodoxy maintained. In a way, the theology he’d constructed was too successful: the system (Neoplatonism) had jettisoned the necessity of a miracle (Christ).


Furthermore, the model Ps.-D used involved the loss of individual personhood in salvation and the relegation of the material world to a gloomy sandpit at which angels might wince. These issues become painfully clear with Maximos the Confessor (d. 662), who tended to stately more plainly, first, that the spiritual cosmos was the antitype of a divided, imperfect and fallen material realm; second, that the redeemed soul was overwhelmed or stripped of its nature by its eventual participation in the Godhead.[17]


A younger contemporary of Maximos, Anastasios of Sinai (d. 701), recognized these implications as fatal to the Christian message. Creation was ultimately good (Gen 1:31) even if it had participated in the fall. More importantly, Anastasios argued that theosis shouldn’t cancel mankind in a theoretical perfection beyond manhood, but rather fulfil manhood and make the perfect man. There could be no diminution or alteration of nature, as it was a mechanism that God had installed, not some glitch mankind could blame on faulty software or some gnostic intermediary.


All this had the effect of making Neoplatonist Christianity appear suspect in the eyes of the orthodox consensus. Its theology not an explicitly bad inheritance, but not easily assimilable to the Christian mission either. Hence the condemnation of John Scotus Eriugena (the leading Latin continuator of Neoplatonic theology) at the Synod of Valence (855), Langres (859) and by Honorius III (1225), as well as the appearance of his name on the index of prohibited books (1685).[18]


For further reading: Proclus, The Elements of Theology, Ed. E. R. Dodds (1995) or From Athens to Chartres, Ed. H. Westra (1992).


[1] A paraphrase of Ep. 118.3.21, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 34, p.685, 4-5.

[2] G. Batailles, Inner Experience (1988) p.9.

[3] For an introduction to Neoplatonism see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/neoplatonism. The accusation in its modern formulations springs from Luther and appears in its sharpest form in Anders Nygren. The essence of Luther’s remarks about Dionysius suggest he was not just dependent on Neoplatonism, he was really a Platonist who gave his views a Christian patina, and that there was no place for the theologia crucis; no room for a proper account of grace within a Neoplatonic system that was saturated (in Luther’s imagination) with neo-pagans who sought to co-opt God into some form of communion by ascending the ascetic ladder. Adjacent positions include that taken by the Byzantine philologist Carlo Maria Mazzucchi (2006) who proposed the identification of the author of the Areopagitica with Damascius (the last Athenian diadoch) rendering Ps.-D a crypto-pagan, as well Tuomo Lankila’s thesis (2011) which frames Ps.-D as a philosopher who sought to ensure the survival of Neoplatonism by providing it with a Christian guise. A far more compelling candidate for such a role would be Stephanus of Alexandria (d. 622) who was invited to Constantinople c. 610 and appointed ecumenical teacher (“oikoumenikos didaskalos”) at the Pandidakterion. Although he professed the Christian faith, most of his views were identical to pagan Neoplatonism, not least doctrines that included the eternity of the world and the pre-existence of souls.

[4] Hypatius, bishop of Ephesus, accused Dionysius of being a fraudulent partisan of the condemned views of Apollinarius, who claimed that Christ either had no human soul at all, or at least only a “rational” one.

[5] An endeavour that showed he was “interestingly right about the plausibility of a synthesis” but “underestimated or ignored a large number of features of orthodox Christianity.” (J. M. Rist, From Athens to Chartres: Medieval Thought, Studies to Honour Edouard Jeauneau [1992] 139). For example, there was a clear conflict between Neoplatonic tenets such as the eternity of the world by the One vs. Christian notions of the creation event by a benevolent deity ex nihilo. Is creation a necessary of contingent act? It would seem that since God created the world that the world is not eternal. Yet, to Neoplatonic Christians, that which is created is only that which eternally subsists in God. This is an issue: in one sense, one may say that all things always were, because they are eternal in the word of God; and in another sense, they were always not, because they were not before they become existent in space and time. If creation is a contingent act, then God might or might not have created the world. That is to say, there was no necessity compelling the deity to bring forth creation. On the other hand, if creation is a necessary act, then God is compelled (ontologically) to create the world. Furthermore, the platonic distinction between being and becoming becomes clouded in Christianity and the following problem results. How can one refer to the deity as a being, and yet affirm being of the world here and now, and maintain a notion of the deity’s transcendence? If being when applied to any given object has exactly the same meaning when applied to any other object, then the deity is a non-being since He transcends (stands over against) the world (being). But at the same time since the deity is the source of all being, the deity is that which truly has being. Hence the deity both has and does not have being.

[6] The groundwork of convergence between Neoplatonism and “magic” was rooted in texts such as the Chaldaean Oracles. A set of hexameter verses probably composed in the second century AD, they purported to transmit a much older revelation about the universe and its hierarchies. At the top (1) supreme deity (2) demiurge intellect (3) the female divinity known as Hecate (4) the triad of powers: iynges, synocheis and teletarchs (5) angels and demons, and so on. Theurgy in this context meant achieving the purification and elevation of the soul towards the supreme deity through rituals that included stones, statues, wheels, herbs, animals and aromatic substances. Other texts that belonged to this genre were the Hermetica, Julius Africanus’ Kestoi and Proclus’ De arte hieratica.

[7] What Ps.-D utilised in Christianity was his belief that God had both told people how He can and will save us, as well as the liturgical mechanisms (Eucharist) and institutions (Church) that He had provided for the purpose. This was alien to a Neoplatonism that worked on the premise that becoming more intelligent made one closer to God but that neither the routes (other than a woolly notion that theurgical acts of philanthropia helped) nor the reasoning behind why the One might want a person near is left as guess-work – usually filled with the vague (originally Origenist notion cf. Song of Songs) notion that eros flowed downwards.

[8] Ecclesiastical Hierarchy V.7.508C-509 A, 109–110; Luibhéid/Rorem trans. (1987), 238–239.

[9] Influences could blow both ways, of course. Neoplatonic forms of Christianity, for instance, could maintain that the higher up the clerical hierarchy an agent rose, the higher the degree of initiation into the mysteries and the greater the probability of sharing true communion with God.

[10] Celestial Hierarchy VII.4.212C, 32; Luibhéid/Rorem trans. (1987), 166. This might look rather regressive to our eyes but many Neoplatonists found Iamblichus’ additions of further “ineffable” principles beyond the One beyond the pale. It was Damascius who was extreme in accepting these additions. Ps.-Dionysius’ conservative position harks back to Neoplatonic readings of Plato’s argument in the Parmenides (141E) where it is admitted that the “One” is an inadequate name.

[11] Image driven activities such as St Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises sit in the Christian kataphatic tradition but are balanced in the canon by figures such as Basil of Caesarea who insisted that though he “knew God exists I consider his essence to be beyond intelligence.”

[12] Damascius, De principiis XVII, q. 117, Ruelle ed. (1889), I.300; Ahbel-Rappe trans. (2010), 400.

[13] On Divine Names XIII.3.980D-981 A, 229; Luibhéid/Rorem trans. (1987), 129–130.

[14] On Divine Names II.5.641D, 128; Luibhéid/Rorem trans. (1987), 62.

[15] Ep. 7, 1080AB. He went on to explain that “They try to banish reverence by means of the very wisdom which God has given them. I am not talking here of the beliefs of the common people who in their materialistic and passion-bound way cling to the stories of the poets and who serve the creature rather than the creator (Rom 1.25). No, I am talking of Apollophanes himself who makes unholy use of godly things to attack God. This knowledge of being (ta onta), which he rightly calls philosophy, and which the divine Paul described as the ‘wisdom of God’ (1 Cor 1:21-24; 2:7), should have led true philosophers to be uplifted to him who is the cause of not only all beings but also of the very knowledge which one can have of these beings.”

[16] How could the soul of a man possibly survive after his death? What was the point of praying to the saints? These were just some of the questions the Church had to deal with.

[17] Maximos taught that humanity is superior to the cosmos in which it temporarily resides. Instead of being part of the created cosmos, humanity was eventually united in the Logos. This obliteration (replacing man qua man with a receptacle of divinity) is explicit in the fact Maximos considered Man to be ontologically equal to God thanks to the fact he drew his essence from Him.

[18] Commissioned by Charles the Bald to provide a more adequate translation of the Corpus Dionysium than that of his predecessor Hilduin (at the Palace School), Eriugena went further and discovered Maximos the Confessor’s Ambigua and Ad Thalassium, as well as Gregory Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa. Maximos provided the form for Eriugena’s system and Ps.-D the content. At the two synods most of his views were condemned as “diabolical inventions,” “old woman’s tales” and “scoturumque pultes” (Irish porridge)” (Ioannes Dominicus Mansi, ed., Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, vol. 15 [855-862], Graz, 1960, p.6) despite figures as lauded as Anastasius the papal librarian expressing amazement at such proficiency of Greek from a man hailing from the edge of the barbarian world (Kenney [1929] pp.581-582). Nothing was heard of him after Charles’ death. A silence that appears to have been abused by British authors William of Malmesbury and Roger of Wendover who subsequently invented a sojourn in England at Alfred’s request – an interval in which the scholar apparently proved so annoying that his students felt the need to stab him to death with their pens (William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of Kings, trans. J. A. Giles [1968], p.119; Roger of Wendover, Flowers of History [1968] pp.215-216).

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