Paul Tillich, A History Of Christian Thought


Neo-Platonism: Plotinus. Clement of Alexandria. Origen.

Neo-Platonism is not only important because it was the philosophy which deeply influenced the first great theological system, that of Origen, but it was also the philosophy which influenced (through Dionysius the Areopagite, of whom we shall hear more later) all forms of Christian mysticism and most forms of classical Christian theology, especially with respect to the doctrine of God, world, and soul.

Therefore it is impossible to understand the development of Christian theology without knowing something about this last great attempt of paganism to express itself in terms of a philosophical theology, or theological philosophy, which was both science and life for the ancient mind.

The man who is mostly responsible for the system of Neo-Platonism is Plotinus, who according to his dependence on Plato, is called “neo-Platonist”; but it is not he alone, it is a whole school of greatest influence. There is not only a scientific and religious side but also a political side to it: the emperor Julian the Apostate tried to introduce, against Christianity, the Neo- Platonic system, which shows that he considered it not only as a science but as the all-embracing system of religious elevation of the soul. All these things make it necessary to dwell on this system more than perhaps you think it necessary, for a philosophical non-Christian system.

God, for Plotinus, is the transcendent One, the One which transcends every number; also the number “one” insofar as it is a number which includes 2, 3, 4, 5, etc. It is that which is beyond number, and for this he uses the word “one.” So when you hear, in all mystical language through all the centuries, the word “one” in the mystical expressions, don’t take it as one beside others, but as that which transcends numbers.

It points especially to that which is beyond the basic cleavages of reality, which are the cleavages between subject and object, between self and world. The One is beyond that; there is neither subject nor object, neither self nor world. Therefore the Divine is the abyss of everything special, the abyss in which everything definite disappears. But this abyss is not simply something negative; it is the most positive of all because it contains everything that is. Therefore when you hear, in mystical literature, something about the transcendent nothingness, don’t take it as “nothing” but as “no-thing”, namely “no something”, nothing definite, nothing finite, the ground of everything finite but itself no-thing, nothing finite and definite. Since it is without differentiation within itself, it is immovable, unchangeable, eternal. But out of this eternal ground of everything, in which everything disappears, everything has its origin at the same time. The whole system is a description of the way in which the world and all its forms originate in the ultimate ground of being. The first, which radiates like the light out of the sun, is what in Greek is called the nous – which can be translated by “spirit” (small “s”) or “mind.” It is the second principle after the ultimate principle, after the ground of being out of which it has emanated. This second principle, that of the nous (or mind or spirit) is the principle in which the first, the eternal ground, looks at itself.

It is the principle of the self-intuition of the eternal; God being manifest to Himself, in the principle of nous. This self-intuition of the Divine, in the principle of nous, is the source of all forms and structures, of all possibilities, of all that which Plato called “ideas” and what, as I hope you have learned in the meantime, means essences of being, essential potentialities of being. Everything beautiful, everything true, is contained in the nous, in .the Divine mind and His eternal self-intuition.

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