Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism, Part 6

Pagan Influence in Church History Chart

Pagan Influence in Church History Chart

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Pagan Influence in Church History

What, then, is the source of this sacramental analogy of faith, and Christian Mysticism in general?  Certainly, the respective influences of the Mystery Religions and Gnosticism were part of the mix—that could not be otherwise.  As Samuel Angus wrote of the Mystery Cults, for instance, “By mortifications, by fasting, by exhilarating music, by self-mutilation, by drugs and stimulants they endeavoured to rise into another state in which they were united with the Deity.  To surmount the ills of dualism in union with the Deity or apotheosis was their aspiration” (The Environment of Early Christianity [London: Duckworth, 1914; rpt. ed. 1931], p. 93).  “Wherever we find religion, we find mysticism as one of the channels connecting with the Invisible” (Ibid., 119).

However, as shall now be demonstrated, an examination of church history, and the connections involved, reveals that the main stream of sacramental Mysticism, albeit through many twists and turns, flows from Greek (i.e., Pagan) philosophy, principally that of Plato and his followers.

Due to the wealth of information on the personages involved and their complex systems of thought, in order to keep this overview brief (that is, under book length), it will be necessary to forgo detailed descriptions of belief systems and avoid side issues, limiting our focus narrowly to the most pertinent information and connections.  The reader is directed to the accompanying chart for a grasp of interrelationships.  Extraneous background information is readily available to the interested reader from the sources cited and others.

Plato, with a Side of Aristotle

It is commonplace in philosophical circles to this day that nearly everyone’s worldview falls into either the Platonic or the Aristotelian camp.  Generally speaking, Aristotle is accounted to have been a Rationalist, while Plato taught subjectivity and spirituality.  In The Republic, Plato described a man bound, from birth, in a cave, able to see only the shadows of objects cast on the wall before him, not the objects themselves.  Thus Plato imagined the world that men see to be only the shadow of a spiritual or heavenly reality, the world of forms:  everything in this world is a mere “shadow” of the idea behind it.  The real world is the world of thought.  It follows from the Platonic worldview that humans are the shadow, that is, image of God; and further, that material objects such as, say, bread and wine, can also be represented by a greater spiritual reality in heaven (hence Sacramental Realism).

To the Platonist, man’s soul, created by God and preexistent with him, comes from the world of the forms, and longs to return there.  Man’s salvation (“homecoming”) is in “realizing his true nature” and “ascending” back to God, and knowledge is “remembering what the soul once knew.”  Mysticism is “a search for and experience of immediacy with God.  The mystic is not content to know about God, he longs for union with God” (Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys, online ed. [Oxford University Press, 2007], pp. xiii-xiv, 1, 2; see also Angus, Environ., p. 119).

In spite of obvious conflicts with the Christian revelation, almost from the beginning Plato was accounted by Church Fathers to be “almost” or practically a Christian.  Plato’s “other-worldliness” commends and is compatible with the ascetic life (Angus, Environ., p. 184).  Bertrand Russell went so far as to suggest, citing Dean William Inge, that Platonism has been “vital” to the evolution of Christian theology; Christianity is obligated to it, and might well have imploded without it (A History of Western Philosophy: And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1945), p. 284: see also Louth, pp. xi-xii).  The “common ground” shared by Platonists and Christians, posits another commentator, is (Sacramental) Realism and asceticism.  “If scholastic in our tendencies, Aristotle may be oftener on our lips; if mystical, Plato; but we overlook their differences” (Robert A. Vaughan, Hours with the Mystics: A Contribution to the History of Religious Opinion, 6th ed., vol. 1 [NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1893], p. 130).  “Aristotle is in the forecourt, and through study of him we pass into that inner shrine where the rapt Plato (all but a monk in our eyes) is supposed to exemplify the contemplative life” (Ibid.).

Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.–A.D. 50)

Philo, classed a Middle Platonist (being situated between original Platonists and Neoplatonists), was a devotee of Plato and secondarily the Stoics and Pythagoras.  Middle Platonism was mystical in nature, perhaps more so than original Platonism (Louth, p. xii).  The Stoics were materialistic and pantheistic, with high regard for reason, virtue, and duty.  Stoicism shared with Platonism the denial of worldly passions.  Neo-Pythagoreanism placed particular emphasis on mystical revelation and unity with the divine, and couched the supernatural as science.  See Angus, Environ., pp. 119-121; Russell, p. 322; Charles Bigg, Neoplatonism [London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1895], p. 305.  Middle Platonism was also influenced by Aristotle (Louth, p. 51).

As a devout Jew, Philo believed that he could resolve Greek philosophy with Jewish revelation.  Most famous is his description of the Logos figure, the ideal man—a Platonic invention—the form in heaven after which mortal man is patterned, but imperfectly.  The Logos idea, as such, apparently influenced the first chapter of John’s Gospel.  However, John pointedly asserts that the Logos he describes, while indeed preexistent, was no mere prototype but participated in the Godhead and in Creation, then “became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14) as the incarnate Christ.  The concept might also have influenced Paul’s “First/Last Adam” concept, though he frames it in reverse (1 Cor. 15:45 ff.).  The Logos concept, derived from Plato or Philo (or even John’s Gospel), went on to influence Neoplatonist doctrines, as well as the Church Fathers.  See Russell, p. 289; William Ralph Inge, The Philosophy of Plotinus, vol. 2 [London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1918], p. 83; Hans von Campenhausen, The Fathers of the Greek Church, trans. Stanley Godman (NY: Pantheon, 1959), p. 31; Louth, p. 68, 74 f., 135.  The Fathers took Philo as an example of how “to reconcile Greek philosophy with acceptance of the Hebrew Scriptures” (Russell, p. 322), though his interpretations are often allegorical and even fanciful.

Philo taught mysticism based on contemplation of Scripture (“feeding” upon it as “the soul’s food”); through which it is possible, though not guaranteed, to communicate directly with God (Louth, pp. 27 f.).  Bear in mind that Philo was known for his allegorization of Scripture.  Citing the example of Moses’ yearning to see God and being allowed to glimpse the “backside” of God’s departing “glory” (Exodus 33), God may be approached in “thick darkness,” yet is ultimately “unknowable” (Louth, p. 30).  God is largely known through his displays of power, but the effort to approach him, however far one goes, is joyful and contains its own rewards; Philo describes the approach to God in terms akin to the Mystery Cults (Ibid.).  He proposes four types of “ecstasy” which can be achieved through meditation, one of which can be taken literally:  the mind temporarily supplanted by the Spirit of God, in which the mind is entirely displaced, since human and divine cannot cohabit (Ibid., p. 31).  This form of ecstasy, in Philo’s view, describes the spirit in which prophets prophesy, and in no way describes Mystical Union (Ibid., p. 32).  Such displacement more likely concurs with instances of “divine possession” found in Pagan religions.

Ignatius of Antioch (c. A.D. 35 or 50–98 to 117)

Ignatius was a bishop, best know for his letters written to various churches while on his way to martyrdom.  Sacramentalists cite Ignatius, among others, as early witnesses to Sacramental Realism, by which proponents claim that Real Presence was believed and practiced from the beginning of the Church.  Ignatius wrote to the Roman church, “I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life.  I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible” (Romans 7:3); and to Smyrna,

Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . .  They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” (Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1, in “The Fathers of the Church, according to Topic,” from “Fathers Know Best” at [ed. Br. Sean, a choir monk, 2008], p. 75).

On the surface, Ignatius seems to imply realism; but the most natural interpretation of his use of “bread” and “flesh” in the first passage is as a metaphor for receiving spiritual life, in contrast to “this life.”  To say that actual bread and flesh brings spiritual life would be presuming on the text; it is rather identification with spiritual sustenance from Christ, metaphorically compared to bread and meat.  (This passage has more affinity with the latter part of John 6 than with the Last Supper.)  His reference to blood as love is generalized and therefore vague, disconnected from any sacramental reference to propitiation for sin.  In the second passage, the issue is heterodoxy in regard to grace, related somehow to a denial of and abstention from the Eucharistic ceremony.  The point of dispute is unclear except for connecting the Eucharistic bread to Christ’s flesh (note:  not also the wine as Christ’s blood, not mentioned).  Is it clear, then, that the abstainers are disputing the realism of the elements?

The best answer seems to be the following:  the dispute centers on “the grace of Jesus Christ” in dying on the cross and being “raised up again.”  The combination of these acts constitutes “the gift of God” which the disputants deny, so that they are “perishing” in unbelief.  By virtue of denying the Gospel, they “do not confess” Christ giving his flesh, and consequently “abstain” from both “prayer” and the Eucharist, considering both ineffectual.

Moreover, during this period Christians were dealing with various Docetists, including Gnostics, who denied that Christ had “come in the flesh” (see 1 Jn 4:2 f., 2 Jn 1:7).  “The greatest heresy that faced Ignatius was Docetism” (Thomas G.  Weinandy, “Ignatius of Antioch (d. circa 107/110)” at  Many of the Fathers thus deemed it necessary to emphasize references to Christ’s flesh as being effectual toward salvation, as opposed to the docetic view.

Justin Martyr (c. 105–c. 165)

Justin was neither raised a Christian nor did he serve any ecclesiastical office (except perhaps deacon in the local assembly, I Apol. 65), yet tends to be credited with mainstream Early Church status because of his early date and compelling, principled martyrdom.  In his youth, he made the rounds of several philosophical schools, including Stoic, Pythagorean, and Platonist.  One by one, he found deficiencies in them and abandoned them, finally hearing the Gospel and converting to Christianity; yet never entirely left Platonism behind, and continued to syncretize select ideas and methodologies of Pagan origin into his own belief system.  For instance, he adopted the Stoic principle of the seminal word, “the claim that ‘all writers, through the engrafted (emphyton) seed of the Word which was planted in them were able to see the truth darkly’ (II Apol. xiii.5, cf. viii.1)” (John P. Keenan, The Wisdom of James: Parallels with Mahāyāna Buddhism (Mahwah, NJ: The Newman Press, 2005), p. 198, n. 79).

Justin considered that certain Pagan philosophers, Plato in particular, were “schoolmasters to bring us to Christ” (, and that both Pagans and Christians can “have a part in the Logos, partially disseminated among men and wholly manifest in Jesus Christ (I, v, 4; I, xlvi; II, viii; II, xiii, 5, 6).  The idea developed in all these passages is given in the Stoic form ….  For the Stoics the seminal Word (logos spermatikos) is the form of every being …” (citation “St. Justin Martyr” in Catholic Encyclopedia at  To Justin, “those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them” (I Apol. 26).  Justin considered himself a Platonist as well as a Christian (von Camp., p. 14), and set himself up to teach as a Christian philosopher, first at Ephesus, then at Rome, where Tatian was one of his students.

Justin’s First Apology, chapter 66, is cited by Sacramentalists as proof that the Early Church practiced Sacramental Realism.  In the Eucharist ceremony Justin describes in I Apology 65, the bread and wine are blessed by the “president” of the ceremony, and then distributed to members—which amounts to that “table blessing” and “table fellowship,” likewise Thanksgiving in The Didache, earlier discussed in Parts 1 and 3 of this series.  So in the sense of fellowship and individual identification with the formal act of Thanksgiving, the participants are “nourished” by the elements, as well as physically nourished by partaking bread and wine.  In chapter 66, Justin wrote,

For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.  For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone (Philip Schaff, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, vol. 1 [Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1885], p. 495).

The statement, then, begins with blessing and Thanksgiving, and ends with Christ’s enjoinder of future remembrance, leaving only questions raised by the middle part.  “Transmutation” (metabalh;n) sounds technical but simply means “change,” usually “changing one’s mind,” as in Acts 28:6.  The translation “by transmutation” is misleading, there being no instrumental sense present, either in the preceding preposition κατὰ or the compounded meta-; rather, the suggestion of  “change” which accompanies or is an after-effect—not necessarily of the “flesh [not ‘bread’] and blood” immediately preceding as well as following—but with reference to the Thanksgiving just made for the gift of Christ’s own flesh and blood (that is, on the cross).  The nature of the change, which is applied not to the elements but to our own flesh and blood, is most naturally explained with reference to believers having been translated into the Kingdom through faith in the Christ whose sacrifice the Lord’s Supper commemorates.  (Believers now await the literal change of the fulness of the eschatological Kingdom yet to come, when we will be “changed into his likeness,” Rom 6:5, 1 Cor 15:51 f., 1 Jn 3:2).

If Justin envisions any realism here, presumably a product of his Platonism, it is not explicit; it is more clear that he sees an immediate parallel relationship, which he and some later Fathers appear to conflate, between the act of being physically nourished by the literal bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, and being spiritually “fed” Eternal Life through faith in the sacrifice which those elements symbolize.

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215)

Titus Flavius Clemens was a convert to Christianity, trained in Greek philosophy, Plato and the Stoics in particular, who became a teacher in Alexandria.  As we saw earlier in Part 5 of this series, Clement was an active opponent of the Gnostics but, like Origen after him, was known for allegorizing Scripture.  Like Justin, he considered select philosophers to be “pioneers of the truth which was revealed in Christ.”

No people was ever utterly forsaken by Providence, and ultimately “the one true God is the sole author of all beauty, whether it is Hellenic or whether it is ours” (Strom. I, 28).  The fact that many “weeds” are to be found in the philosophers, as distinct from the Bible, and that “not all nuts are edible” (Strom. I, 7, 3) does not affect this fundamental insight (von Camp., p. 33).

In John von Mosheim’s estimation,

Clement had vast learning, a lively imagination, great fluency, considerable discrimination, and was a bold and independent speculator.  That he had true piety, and held the essential truths of the Gospel, is admitted by all; but no one of the fathers, except Origen, has been more censured in modern times, for an excessive attachment to philosophy or metaphysical theology.  He was a true Eclectic, which he also professed to be; that is, he followed no master implicitly, but examined and judged for himself.  Yet his education and the atmosphere in which he lived, led him to lean towards Platonism and Stoicism.  His great error was, that he overrated the value of philosophy or human reason, as a guide in matters of religion.  He also indulged his imagination, as all the learned of his age did, to excess; and construed the Bible allegorically, and fancifully (John Lawrence von Mosheim, Institutes of Ecclesiastical History,
Ancient and Modern, trans. James Murdock, vol 1 (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1839), pp. 121 f., note).

To Clement, the ideal Christian was the Perfect Gnostic, not in the same sense as the Gnostics the Church opposed, but as the perfect blend of love and knowledge.  The Perfect Gnostic is “in the world but not of it,” without hindrance or foible, neither frightened nor allured by the world, needing no human teacher, his life an unending prayer, his relationship with God a “constant feast” (von Camp., pp. 34 f., 37).  Such a person wishes to be “free of all limitations” (Louth, p. 44) which, as we shall see, is a primary motivation for the Mystic.

By loving God, the love of God lives in him; he becomes the living, active image of Christ and descends with joy to his fellow men who are all like him called to the Highest and are to enter the kingdom of divine knowledge through him (von Camp., p. 37).

At the same time, Vaughan notes, Clement spoke out against “the Montanist type of mysticism,” which anticipated “fresh outpourings of the Spirit” to “inspire fresh companies of prophets to ordain ritual, to confute heresy, to organize and modify the Church according to the changing necessities of each period.”  We have sufficient information in Scripture, in Clement’s view, which men of reason can interpret—allegorically—supplying insight to apply to every need.  “The presence of the Spirit with us is a part of the ordinary law of the economy under which we live,” Vaughan summarizes.  “It is designed, that the supernatural shall gradually vindicate itself as the natural, in proportion as our nature is restored to its allegiance to God,” which sounds like John A. T. Robinson’s version of the Parousia, and Gutiérrez’ version of the Church (see Part 2).  “It is not necessary that we should be inspired in the same way as the sacred writers were, before their writings can be adequately serviceable to us” (Vaughan, vol. 1, p. 286).  Thus the interpretive authority of the Church supplanted living revelation by the Spirit.

Sacramentalists eagerly quote Clement Paedagogus 1.6, “‘Eat ye my flesh,’ He says, ‘and drink my blood.’  Such is the suitable food which the Lord ministers, and He offers His flesh and pours forth His blood, and nothing is wanting for the children’s growth,” in support of Sacramental Realism, but they neglect to include, nearby, “Elsewhere the Lord, in the Gospel according to John, brought this out by symbols, when He said:  ‘Eat ye my flesh, and drink my blood;’ describing distinctly by metaphor the drinkable properties of faith and the promise, by means of which the Church, like a human being consisting of many members, is refreshed and grows, is welded together and compacted of both,—of faith, which is the body, and of hope, which is the soul; as also the Lord of flesh and blood” (italics mine).

Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 220)

The influences on Tertullian, other than Montanus (a heretic) and Irenaeus (a “rule of faith” traditionalist), are largely a mystery.  He was a maverick.  Yet he must be included in this discussion because of his pivotal position as “the father of Roman Catholic sacramental theology” (Darius Jankiewicz, “Sacramental Theology and Ecclesiastical Authority,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 42, No. 2 [2004], p. 363).  Scholarship in general agrees that he established the term “sacrament” to describe water baptism and the Communion elements, and was the first to apply the word “mystery” to the sacraments (Ibid., p. 362 f.).  His student, Cyprian of Carthage, went on to advance the concepts of Sacerdotalism and Sacramental Realism (Ibid., pp. 363, 372).

Tertullian was materialistic and realistic to an extreme, considering even God and the soul to be material (Inge, TPOP, vol. 2, p. vii; and citation “Tertullian” in CE at  Therefore, it is no surprise when he writes, “The flesh, indeed, is washed, in order that the soul may be cleansed; the flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated; the flesh is signed (with the cross), that the soul too may be fortified; the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands, that the soul also maybe illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may fatten on its God” (citation “On the Resurrection of the Flesh,” CE at, equating physical acts directly with their spiritual counterparts.  So one observes that Tertullian was impressed by the visible nature of sacramental representations, as he describes.  Furthermore, much of his “realistic” expression may be attributed, as in the case of Ignatius, Irenaeus, and others, to the Gnostic and docetic controversies in which heretical forces denied the physical Christ whom the physical emblems, bread and wine, represent.

Plotinus (c. 204–270)

Plotinus was a student of Alexandrian Pagan philosopher Ammonius Saccas, regarded by many to be the founder of Neoplatonism (Russell, p. 287), and whose other notable students included Cassius Longinus, Heracles the Christian, and another Christian named Origen (of which, more to follow).  Plotinus considered himself a teacher and interpreter of Platonism (citation “Plotinus” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, online at  Plato was Scripture to Plotinus (Louth, p. 36).  Augustine posited that “Plato lived again” in Plotinus; had he “changed a few words and phrases,” he might have been Christian (Russell, p. 285).  It was through Plotinus that the medieval world knew Plato, that his teachings have been interpreted and “clarified,” and that Judaism and Islam as well as Christianity (esp. Catholic) have been influenced and defined (Ibid. in SEP; Russell, pp. 285 f.).

Plotinus’ works were compiled and arranged by his protégé and executor, Porphyry, who arranged them in six groups of roughly nine treatises each.  Hence, they are referred to as Enneads (Ibid. in SEP; Louth, p. 35).  It is supposed by some that Porphyry’s Pythagorean affinities might have thereafter influenced his school in a “more supernaturalist” direction (Russell, p. 287).

Plotinus postulated a divine trinity of “The One,” “Spirit” (nous, “mind”), and “Soul.”  (Following Plato, Neoplatonists had an affinity for triads, which they increasingly tended to multiply).  These entities, or one might better say, “attributes” (principles or hypostases, Louth, p. 36), range from higher to lower in the order listed.  “The One” is variously called God or “the Good” yet transcends “the Good” and “the Beautiful,” permeates all things but is not properly “the All”—transcends “the All,” is everywhere and nowhere, cannot be defined, is unknowable and not immanent  (Ibid.; Russell, p. 288; Bigg, pp. 209, 220).  “The One” takes no thought of our existence (Russell, p. 288; Louth, p. 46; Angus, Environ., p. 192).  “The external world is none other than the thought of God transmuted into vital law,” writes Bigg.  “What we cognize or recognize therein are the traces, imitations, shadows of intelligence” (p. 206):  “… existence, according to Plotinus, is thought…” (p. 209).

On the other hand,

The God whom Plotinus mainly worships—the Spirit—is transcendent as well as immanent in the world of Soul, but purely immanent in his own world, Yonder.  In that world He is no longer an object but an atmosphere.  The ineffable Godhead above God is of course supra-personal.  There is therefore, in the Plotinian mysticism, none of that deep personal loyalty, none of that intimate dialogue between soul and soul, none of that passion of love resembling often too closely in its expression the earthly love of the sexes which are so prominent in later mystical literature (Inge, TPOP, vol. 2, pp. 160 f.).

The Great Spirit, as the manifestation of the ineffable Godhead in all its attributes, is the God of Neoplatonism.  This fact is obscured both by the completeness with which it is divested of all anthropomorphic attributes, and by the mystical craving for union with the Godhead itself, which has been commonly supposed to be the starting-point and the goal of this philosophy.  But it is only as Spirit that the Godhead is known to us as a factor in our lives (Ibid., p. 82).

In order for the Soul to commune with the Spirit, according to Dean William Inge, it must make itself passive toward the Spirit, losing individuality and self-consciousness, learning to transcend itself (Ibid., pp. 89 f.).

To Platonists, all humans were thought to possess a “divine spark” (Lazar Puhalo, “The ‘External Philosophy’: The Fathers and Platonism,” in Clarion Journal, p. 6, downloaded from  As Plotinus elaborates, the preexistent Soul has fallen from his previous status with the divine, and forgotten whence it originated.  Within it finds a natural yearning to return to heaven, “the Fatherland,” from which it fell (Louth, pp. 35, 40).  The Soul requires self-realization and a methodology by which to “progressively raise” itself back “to full awareness of his own divinity” (Puhalo, p. 6).  That method involves contemplation, self-abnegation, and extreme introspection (Louth, pp. 36, 39).  The ascent towards “the One” actually involves not moving upward but progressively inward (Louth, p. 39).  The path of rediscovery necessitates self-purification.  This purification (katharsis) requires “cutting away” every attachment to the material realm that has “sullied” the soul and caused its fall (Russell, p. 290; Louth, pp. 41 ff.).  This process includes pursuing “purificatory virtues,” writes Louth, but not necessarily “civic virtues” which would continue the Soul’s attachment to material values (Louth, pp. 42 f.).  This purification procedure is echoed today in much modern psychotherapy and “self-help” teaching, and bears a strong resemblance to the Scientology concept of “getting clear,” and tenets of other religions which entail “laying down” one’s “burden.”  “In ascending to Spirit, the Soul loses itself in order to find itself again” (Inge, TPOP, vol. 2, p. 83).

Plotinus describes this “cutting away” in terms of self-grooming:

But what must we do?  How lies the path?  How come to vision of the inaccessible Beauty, dwelling as if in consecrated precincts, apart from the common ways where all may see, even the profane? ….

“Let us flee then to the beloved Fatherland”:  this is the soundest counsel. But what is this flight?  How are we to gain the open sea? …

The Fatherland to us is There whence we have come, and There is The Father.

What then is our course, what the manner of our flight? …

And this inner vision, what is its operation?  ….

Withdraw into yourself and look.  And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful:…  So do you also:  cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked,…  never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.

When you know that you have become this perfect work, when you are self-gathered in the purity of your being, nothing now remaining that can shatter that inner unity, nothing from without clinging to the authentic man, when you find yourself wholly true to your essential nature,… you are now become very vision:  now call up all your confidence, strike forward yet a step—you need a guide no longer—strain, and see. ….

Therefore, first let each become godlike and each beautiful who cares to see God and Beauty. …. (Enneads I.6.8-9, in Stephen MacKenna, Plotinus: The Ethical Treatises [London: Philip Lee Warner, 1917], p. 87 f., also quoted in part in Louth, p. 39 f.).

If the foregoing passage projects a tinge of “guided imagery,” as we would call it today, consider as well the following exercise:

Let us, then, make a mental picture of our universe:  each member shall remain what it is, distinctly apart; yet all is to form, as far as possible, a complete unity so that whatever comes into view shall show as if it were the surface of the orb over all, bringing immediately with it the vision….

Bring this vision actually before your sight, so that there shall be in your mind the gleaming representation of a sphere, a picture holding all the things of the universe moving or in repose or (as in reality) some at rest, some in motion.  Keep this sphere before you, and from it imagine another, a sphere stripped of magnitude and of spatial differences; cast out your inborn sense of Matter, taking care not merely to attenuate it:  call on God, maker of the sphere whose image you now hold, and pray Him to enter.  And may He come bringing His own Universe with all the Gods that dwell in it—He who is the one God and all the gods, where each is all, blending into a unity, distinct in powers but all one god in virtue of that one divine power of many facets (Enneads V.8.9, in Stephen MacKenna, Plotinus: The Divine Mind [London: The Medici Society, 1926], p. 83, also quoted in Louth, pp. 43 f.).

Plotinus goes on to describe his personal ecstatic, transcendental experiences:

Many times it has happened:  Lifted out of the body into myself; becoming external to all other things and self-encentered; beholding a marvellous beauty; then, more than ever, assured of community with the loftiest order; enacting the noblest life, acquiring identity with the divine; stationing within It by having attained that activity; poised above whatsoever within the Intellectual is less than the Supreme:  yet, there comes the moment of descent from intellection to reasoning, and after that sojourn in the divine, I ask myself how it happens that I can now be descending, and how did the soul ever enter into my body, the soul which, even within the body, is the high thing it has shown itself to be (Enneads IV.8.1, Stephen MacKenna, Plotinus: On the Nature of the Soul [London: The Medici Society, 1924], p. 143; also quoted in part in Louth, p. 47),

to which Porphyry attests (Louth, p. 47).  Plotinus adds, in Ennead VI.9.11, a description of “The man formed by this mingling with the Supreme” (Louth, p. 49), suggesting “spiritual formation.”

Modern-day proponents minimize the ecstatic and mystical aspects of Plotinus’s praxis, denying any occult practice or hypnotism (Inge, TPOP, vol. 2, pp. 148, 150, 153, 158).  They prefer to describe transcendent episodes in terms of mental discipline, as does Louth, e.g., “an exercise in intellectual dialectic” (Louth, p. 43),  “an exercise in abstraction and concentration” (Ibid., p. 44), or “an exercise in introspective understanding of the self” (Ibid., p. 36); see also Inge’s descriptions in TPOP, vol. 2, pp. 149-154, 161.

Origen of Alexandria (c. 185–254)

Origen was also a student of the Pagan philosopher Ammonius Saccas.  In attending a Pagan school, he accounted himself to be “spoiling” the philosophers like the Hebrews did the Egyptians in the Exodus (Louth, pp. 53).  Later, Athanasius criticized Origen, as well as Arius, for their interest in Greek “external” philosophies which bred heresy and idolatry, and lacked power toward Christian transformation (Puhalo, p. 2).

Origen adopted much of his doctrine from Plato and Plotinus, and has historically been condemned for four main heresies:  the preexistence of souls, a non-corporeal final Resurrection, Universalism, and an insistence on Christ having a human nature before his Incarnation (Russell, p. 327)—all implied by Platonism.  Following Plotinus, the ascent to “the One” became seeking after knowledge and communion with God through the Soul’s union with Christ as Spirit (cf. Louth, p. 52).  The ascent involved three successive stages (note another triad):  seeking virtue (as in Plotinus’ “purificatory virtues”), eschewing material values (as in katharsis), and contemplating God (enoptike, “metaphysics”) (see above and Louth, p. 57).  Origen supported this procedure using the Exodus as an analogy of conversion, the Book of Proverbs to define virtues, and an allegorical interpretation of the Song of Solomon to represent the pursuit of mystical communion (Louth, pp. 53-57).  Further, Origen, like his countryman Philo before him, casts the episode of Moses glimpsing God from the cleft in the rock as an example of God revealing himself to the Mystic (Ibid., p. 61).

Origen’s goal is not only to know God but be known by him and receive thereby a share in his divine nature:  thus “divinization,” i.e., theopoiesis (lit. “god-making”) (Ibid., pp. 71 f.).

Origen’s doctrine, popular among the Eastern monks, later became widespread in the West due to their translation into Latin by Rufinus, though opposed by Epiphanius and Jerome (Mosheim, vol. 1, pp. 275 f., 349).

Porphyry of Tyre (c. 234–c. 305)

Porphyry, also called Malchus (“king”), was the protégé of Plotinus, who called him a “poet, philosopher, and priest” (Bigg, p. 188).  Described by Augustine as “the most learned of philosophers,” Porphyry wrote a highly regarded treatise on Aristotelian logic, among other works (Ibid., p. 295).  He also wrote a multi-volume work in opposition to Christianity, which is no longer extant (Ibid.).  He is rumored to have been a Christian at one time, and claimed to have once met Origen (Ibid., p. 296).  Marius Victorinus and Augustine are thought to have understood Plotinus via Porphyry (Louth, p. 146; Angus, p. 240).

As mentioned earlier, Porphyry compiled Plotinus’s Enneads, and Porphyry’s own Pythagorean bent might have nuanced those works more toward the supernatural (citation “Porphyry” in SEP at; Louth, p. 35; Russell, p. 287).  He also practiced Mithraism (Alexander Wilder, trans., Iamblichos Theurgia, or, the Egyptian Mysteries [NY: The Metaphysical Publishing Co., 1915], p. 9, note).

Porphyry was an extreme ascetic, superstitious and prone to demonic fears.  “He was a man of sombre, melancholy mood, and he was a fanatic.  The austerest puritan would stand aghast at the severity of Porphyry’s morality.  His treatise on Abstinence is directed not to men of the world they are past praying for but to philosophers. ….  All pleasure is abominable.  Horseracing, the theatre, dancing, marriage, and muttonchops are equally accursed.  Those who indulge in these things are the servants of devils, not of God” (Bigg, p. 296).  Porphyry “found the New Testament incredible, and took the Arabian Nights as gospel” (Ibid., p. 299).

In the process of time the philosophical principles on which the system of Plotinus rested are virtually surrendered, little by little, while divination and evocations are practised with increasing credulity, and made the foundation of the most arrogant pretensions.  Plotinus declared the possibility of an absolute identification of the divine with the human nature.  Here was the broadest basis for mysticism possible.  Porphyry retired from this position, took up narrower ground, and qualified the great mystical principle of his master.  He contended that in the union which takes place in ecstasy, we still retain the consciousness of personality.  Iamblichus, the most superstitious of all in practice, diminished the real principle of mysticism still farther in theory (Vaughan, vol. 1, pp. 103 f.).

Iamblichus of Chalcis (c. 245-c. 325)

“Why, O why,” said his disciples to him on one occasion, “dost thou grudge us the more perfect wisdom?”  They had been told that, when Iamblichus said his prayers, he was lifted to a height of ten cubits from the ground.  This “more perfect wisdom,” far more precious than dull mathematics or hazy Ideas, came from the Brahmins to Apollonius, from him to Iamblichus,—and from him to our modern mediums (Bigg, p. 303).

Iamblichus is known as the founder of the “Syrian school” of Neoplatonism (Bigg, p. 303).  He was a worshipper of the Egyptian state god Serapis (Wilder, p. 9, note), and his philosophy was more influenced by Pythagoras than Plato (Bigg, p. 305).  Under Iamblichus, Neoplatonism devolved into Theurgy:  literally, “work of God” (Andrew Itter, “Psuedo-Dionysian Soteriology and Its Transformation of Neoplatonism,” Colloquium 32/1 [2000], p. 75), but actually describing practices (“works”) in which a mystic practitioner engages, that are designed to “activate God’s grace” (citation “Mysticism” in SEP, at  The Theurgist used ritual to appeal to an “occult sympathy between the material elements used and the constitution of the divine” (Louth, p. 159).

The material elements become “vehicles of grace” due to their symbolic meaning (Ibid.).  One can readily understand how these ideas could be, and have been, applied to a “realistic” view of the sacraments, i.e., the elements of the Lord’s Supper.

Debate continues to rage over the praxis of Iamblichus and his successors Maximus of Ephesus and (via Syrianus), Proclus; to wit, whether they engaged in “mental exercises”; or, on the other hand, in magic tricks and manipulation of material objects to engage “sympathy” from the gods or—like Simon Magus (Acts 8:9 ff.)—to fool the public and thereby gain wealth and a following.  Iamblichus was reported to have at times levitated himself, called up spirits with incantations, and animated lifeless idol statues (Bigg, p. 303; citation “Proclus” in SEP, at

In his work, De Mysteriis, which Louth describes as “little else” but magic (Louth, p. 157), Iamblichus describes in detail by what appropriate symbols and incantations one may effectively appeal to the gods.  E. R. Dodds calls the work “a manifesto of irrationalism, an assertion that the road to salvation is found not in reason but in ritual” (The Greeks and the Irrational, p. 287, quoted by Itter, p. 76).  Scholars have quibbled over authorship of De Mysteriis, some supposing it to be a summary of the teachings of his school (Thomas Whittaker, The Neo-Platonists: A Study in the History of Hellenism, 2nd ed. [London: Cambridge University Press, 1918], p. 134).  Regardless, Bigg opined that “Neoplatonist prayers shed some light on what our Lord meant, when He warned His disciples against ‘vain repetitions'” (Bigg, p. 309).

Certain sorts of wood and metal were supposed peculiarly appropriate to certain deities.  The art of the theurgist consisted partly in ascertaining the virtues of such substances; and it was supposed that statues constructed of a particular combination of materials, correspondent with the tastes and attributes of the deity represented, possessed a mysterious influence attracting the Power in question, and inducing him to take up his residence within the image.  Iamblichus lays down this principle of sympathy in the treatise De Mysteriis, v. 23, p. 139 (ed. Gale, 1678).  Kircher furnishes a description of this statue of Serapis, Œdip. Ægypt. i. 139 (Vaughan, vol. 1, p. 73, note).

Even if “magic” appears to be too strong a word, and presuming the absence of occult supernaturalism, one suspects that Theurgy, and Mysticism in general, is likely born of a dissatisfaction with the mundane progress of living, an impatience with gradual personal development, a certain doubtful “pushiness” of attitude, and a narcissistic desire to delve into mysteries and gain power over the nature of one’s existence.

I would use the term theurgic to characterize the mysticism which claims supernatural powers generally,—works marvels, not like the black art, by help from beneath, but as white magic, by the virtue of talisman or cross, demi-god, angel, or saint.  Thus theurgic mysticism is not content, like the theopathetic, with either feeling or proselytising; nor, like the theosophic, with knowing; but it must open for itself a converse with the world of spirits, and win as its prerogative the power of miracle.  This broad use of the word makes prominent the fact that a common principle of devotional enchantment lies at the root of all the pretences, both of heathen and of Christian miracle-mongers (Vaughan, vol. 1, p. 46).

And further, in the same vein:

It is not difficult to understand how, after a time, … the species of mysticism we have been discussing may pass over into this one.  It is the dream of the mystic that he can elaborate from the depth of his own nature the whole promised land of religious truth, and perceive (by special revelation) rising from within, all its green pastures and still waters ….  It must be accelerated—drawn up by some strong compelling charm.  The doctrine of passivity becomes impossible to some temperaments beyond a certain pass.  The enjoyments of the vision or the rapture are too few and far between—could they but be produced at will! Whether the mystic seeks the triumph of superhuman knowledge or that intoxication of the feeling which is to translate him to the upper world, after a while he craves a sign.  Theurgy is the art which brings it.  Its appearance is the symptom of failing faith, whether in philosophy or religion.  Its glory is the phosphorescence of decay (Ibid., pp. 46 f.).

Maximus of Ephesus, having already known some theurgic success, became a student of Aedesius, who had succeeded Iamblichus as the leader of his school.  His success in divination led Maximus to become an adviser to Emperor Julian the Apostate (Whittaker, p. 133; Bigg, p. 309).  Maximus is believed to have been executed by the Emperor Valens for having presumptuously and prematurely divined the identity of the emperor’s successor, the usurper Priscus Attalus (Whittaker, pp. 133 f.; Bigg, p. 312).

Of Proclus, more to follow.

The First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325)

The importance of the Council of Nicaea toward this discussion is the fact that while establishing the eternal nature of Christ (against Arianism), it also confirmed the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, “out of nothing.”  This position undermined Platonist views of the preexistence of souls, and the idea of returning to God through transcendental contemplation in order to restore a lost Unity with God (Louth, pp. 73 ff.).

In Louth’s view, this capitulation of a Platonist-Neoplatonist fundamental, though at first blush appearing to explode the basis for Mysticism and contemplative prayer, instead “freed” the church.  Abandoning the restrictiveness of the return to Unity via transcendence, the Church was now free to pursue the Nicene, post-Athanasian view of the helpless soul requiring grace through Christ’s Incarnation.  Theologians further developed the nuance that a soul may now be “divinized” (theopoiesis) through what today we would call “spiritual formation,” via the instrumentality of contemplative prayer.  (Compare, in  Pentecostal/Wesleyan Holiness terms, the concept of “praying through” to achieve Entire Sanctification.)  Consequently, factions within the Church came full circle, back to Neoplatism and Theurgy; for it transpired that in the Medieval Church, a

… Neo-Platonist element, which acted as a mortal opiate in the East, became a vivifying principle in the West.  There the Alexandrian doctrine of Emanation was abandoned, its pantheism nullified or rejected, but its allegorical interpretation, its exaltation, true or false, of the spirit above the letter,—all this was retained, and Platonism and mysticism together created a party in the Church the sworn foes of mere scholastic quibbling, of an arid and lifeless orthodoxy, and at last of the more glaring abuses which had grown up with ecclesiastical pretension (Vaughan, vol. 1, p. 132).

Moreover, within the Church there developed “a neo-Platonic cosmology,” which “mediaeval theologians highly nuanced” (“from the perspective of a theology of creation stressing the creatio ex nihilo“); which thereafter formed “the foundation of theological knowledge” and “remained the basic paradigm for understanding the relation between God and the world” (Lieven Boeve, “Thinking Sacramental Presence in a Postmodern Context: A Playground for Theological Renewal,” in L. Boeve and L. Leijssen, eds., Sacramental Presence in a Postmodern Context [Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2001]:6).

The Cappodocian Fathers (4th C.)

The three bishops who became known as the Cappodocian Fathers included Basil the Great (329 or 330–379), his friend Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389), and Basil’s younger brother Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–after 394).

Basil was the bishop of Cappodocian Caesarea.  He shared the ambivalent opinion of many of his contemporaries toward Greek philosophy, being an admirer of Greek culture and in particular the orator Libanius, whom he knew personally, while discouraging dependence on their literature (Puhalo, p. 3; von Camp., p. 82).  Early on, Basil was a devotee of Eustathius, a “pioneer of the monastic ideal,” from whom he learned that through self-denial came true liberation to approach God (von Camp., p. 83).  Along with these Neoplatonic metaphysical influences, Basil also harked back to Clement and Origen (Ibid.).  He declared himself agnostic (i.e., without knowledge) on many theological points he considered moot, wishing to ignore theology and draw the Church toward peace and adoring contemplation of Christ (Ibid., pp. 88 f.).  Yet contrary to his personal aims, Basil found himself continually impelled toward the exercise of church leadership, in times of emergency, a role for which he came to be most admired.

The two Gregories benefited from their association with Basil, and were credited with a measure of his credibility.  Gregory Nazianzus was neither a theologian nor an administrator; rather, a skilled and talented orator who was overly dependent on the approbation of a rapt audience, vain, needy, and embittered when rejected (Ibid., pp. 95 f.).  He benefited further from being of the Nicene party, as opposed to Arian, gaining the appointment of Emperor Theodosius to Bishop of Constantinople (Ibid., p. 103).  Gregory’s theology is built on Basil’s, but with more emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit (Origenic influence, Ibid., p. 98) as well as the humanity of Christ (against Apollinaris), ideas pointing toward human “divinization” through “association” with Christ (Ibid., p. 106).  For these efforts, Gregory acquired the appellation, “the theologian,” and for his oratory was later called the “Christian Demosthenes” (Ibid.).

Basil’s brother Gregory became Bishop of Nyssa and later presiding bishop over all of Pontus.  He was a strong advocate of the authority of the Church and the priesthood (though not vitally interested in seeking to establish that authority in Scripture), and the first to clearly define the priest’s sacerdotal function (Ibid., pp. 111 f.).  His friend Gregory of Nazianzus scolded him for marrying Theosebia, a woman of high social status (Ibid., p. 109).

Gregory is Nicene and Athanasian in the sense that he took to heart the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.  His theology otherwise looks back to Plato, Philo, Plotinus, and Origen (Louth, p. 78; von Camp., pp. 109, 112).  He disagrees with Plotinus that the soul was preexistent with God and may return to him; while agreeing with Philo that one may through contemplation approach God, but in impenetrable darkness, for God is unknowable (Louth., pp. 78, 81, 85).  Gregory follows Origen in his use of the Song of Solomon, Proverbs, Moses’ glimpse of God’s glory, and other Old Testament texts, allegorically, to describe the ascent towards God, as well as perceiving three ways or stages of ascent (a triad) (Ibid., pp. 79 ff., 83, 85 f., 87).  The second way of ascent contemplates the Platonic reality of forms (Ibid., p. 83).

Gregory’s mysticism is based on the Incarnation, by virtue of which Christ has reached toward man in love and enabled him by grace to ascend (Ibid., p. 79).  Following Plotinus, in the first stage of ascent, the soul begins to contemplate and seeks purification; then engages in deep contemplation; then in the third stage, the soul surpasses contemplation to relate directly to God in a union of love (Ibid., pp. 80 f., 85).  Contemplation is thus a step on the way to Mystical Union, not an end in itself (Ibid., p. 83).

Yet in Gregory’s view, the soul yearns for God, but is never satisfied.  The God who lives in impenetrable darkness, in his vastness, cannot truly be known, only approached.  The more the seeker knows, the more he wants to know, but the depth of God cannot be plumbed.  Thus the contemplative basks in awe of the infinite, in insatiable longing.  The soul “has been mortally wounded with the arrow of love” (see below).  One is reminded of the definition of “joy,” described by C. S. Lewis as a sense of unsatisfied longing.  Gregory himself wrote in his Commentary on the Song XII,

The soul, having gone out at the word of her Beloved, looks for Him but does not find Him …  In this way, she is in a sense, wounded and beaten because of the frustration of what she had been longing for, now that she thinks that her yearning for the Other cannot be fulfilled or satisfied.  But the veil of her grief is removed when she learns that the true satisfaction of her desire consists in continuing to go on with her quest and never ceasing in her ascent, seeing that every fulfilment of her desire continually generates a further desire for the Transcendent.  Thus the veil of her despair is torn away and the bride realizes that she will always discover more and more of the incomprehensible and unhoped for beauty of her Spouse throughout all eternity.  Thereupon she is torn by an even more urgent longing, and she … communicates to her Beloved the affections of her heart.  For she has received within her God’s special dart, she has been wounded to the heart by the barb of faith, she has been mortally wounded by the arrow of love.  And God is love (J. Daniélou and H. Musurillo, ed., From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1995, pp. 270 f.; also quoted in part in Louth, p. 87),

which apart from being poignant and romantic, lacks a New Testament theological basis:  for among other discrepancies, Paul tells us that “now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face:  now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12); and also John, “it doth not yet appear what we shall be:  but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2).  It is not given to the Christian, according to the Bible, to approach near to a holy God in our person, nor to be in union with him, until the End, at which time our mortal bodies, which yearn to be delivered from the flesh, will be made immortal, and Christ will reveal himself fully.

Evagrius of Pontus (345-399)

A rising star in the church, patronized by all three of the Cappodocian Fathers, Evagrius declined the bishopric of Alexandria and retreated to live as a monk, finally in Nitria, Egypt, for the last fourteen years of his life.  A “thoroughgoing” Origenist, Evagrius was also much under the influence of Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus, and owing to Clement (Louth, pp. 97, 106, 109).  Indeed, as Louth writes, Evagrius seems to have chosen the most questionable tenets of Origen’s philosophy to develop further for himself (Ibid., pp. 80, 97), for which both he and Origen were condemned as heretics in later councils (citation “Evagrius Ponticus” in CE at  Evagrius outlined three ways of the soul (a triad), patterned after Origen.  In contrast to Gregory of Nyssa, God is knowable and not shrouded in darkness (Louth., pp. 105 f.).  Only a soul that has transcended the body to achieve apathy can pray a transcendent prayer without great risk (Ibid., pp. 106, 108).  Monks and hermits are subject to demonic attack, and war through their devotions (Ibid., p. 101).  Evagrius compiled a list of eight evil thoughts, precursor to the traditional Seven Deadly Sins (Ibid., p. 102).

Evagrius is important for the influence his writings bore, first in the Greek East, later passed on by John Cassian to the Latin West (Ibid., pp. 72, 127).  A copy of a Latin translation by Evagrius of the Life of Anthony was owned by the Venerable Bede centuries later (Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969], p. xxvi).

Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

As a boy, Augustine was exposed to Christianity by his mother Monica, but later experimented with Manichaeism and Neoplatonism, as well as hedonism.  For thirteen years, he conducted an affair that produced a son.  Among his writings, The City of God demonstrates that he was familiar with the philosophers Apuleius, Cicero, Livy, Plato, Pliny, Plotinus, Porphyry, Seneca the Younger, and the Christian theologian Tertullian, among others; in another instance, he visits Virgil, as well (Samuel Angus, The Sources of the First Ten Books of Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of Princeton University for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy [Princeton, 1906], pp. 14, 59).  His heavy use of Latin sources and “knowledge of Plato [that] is more general than specific” (Ibid., p. 241) leads scholars to conclude that he read little Greek; rather, his knowledge of Plato was derived from quotations in Cicero and translations of Porphyry and Plotinus published by Marius Victorinus (Ibid., pp. 233, 240 ff.; Louth, p. 146; contra Mosheim, vol. 1, p. 321).  Victorinus, whom Augustine admired, had been a Pagan rhetorician until converting to Christianity at an advanced age (Louth, p. 146).

In his early writings, “Augustine is in agreement with Plato and Plotinus in his description of the precise relationship of the soul to the body.  The former is the source of life for the latter.  The soul occupies in Plato a middle position between the real world of ideas and the world of appearance to which the body belongs …” (Thomas Jones Parry, Augustine’s Psychology during his first period of literary Activity with special reference to his relation to Platonism [Borna-Leipzig: Buchdruckerei Robert Noske, 1913], p. 10).  Augustine’s thought on the divine nature never outgrew Neoplatonic influences, and his psychology never substantially changed (Ibid., pp. 5 f.).  His regio dissimilitudinis, “Place of Unlikeness,” passed on to later theologians, comes from Plato, while the process of purification, cutting away, and realizing kinship with the divine (Ibid., p. 41) is thoroughly Plotinian.  In The City of God X.14, in particular, Augustine is clearly influenced by Plotinus (Angus, Sources, p. 166; see also Louth, p. 134).  Confessions III.6.11, “thou wert more inward than the most inward place of my heart and loftier than the highest,” echoes the ascent inward to “the One” of Plotinus (Louth, p. 39).  Parry notes significant dependence on Plato and Plotinus in De Ordine, as well as some influence of Aristotle (Parry, p. 3).  Augustine appears to believe in Plato’s concept of a “world-soul” which corresponds to the physical world as the individual soul does to the body (Parry, p. 10).

Augustine circumvents ex nihilo, in principle, in his roundly Plotinian concept of man as the image of the Logos, longing to return to “the One” (Louth, pp. 129 f., 142 f.).  The first step of his ascent is, of course, introspection in order to know one’s true self; then the soul learns to love itself; followed by the pursuit of knowing Christ deeply in order to reflect his image, until achieving a spiritual trinity (Ibid., pp. 143, 146 f.), hence spiritual formation.  Entering oneself is entering the spiritual world, discovering oneself to be a transcendent spiritual being (Ibid., p. 138).  The depth of Augustine’s introspection is unprecedented; Louth estimates his longing for the Fatherland to be greater than that of Plotinus (Ibid., pp. 129 f.).  Beyond this spiritual formation is a higher path of returning to touch God in contemplation of God (Ibid., p. 148).

Augustine recounts, in Confessions IX.10.23–5, a very emotional, possibly ecstatic and transcendent experience shared with his mother Monica:  while musing on the glories of heaven, the two of them become swept up in feelings of love and desire for the divine, rising beyond their own souls to the heavens, just touching the divine momentarily then falling away, sighing with ineffable longing and a sense of realization.  Augustine described ecstasy as times when the mind is occupied and totally distracted from the bodily senses (De Genesi ad Litteram XII.12.25), and supposed such times to be a foretaste of heaven (Ibid., p. 133).

On occasion, Augustine does quibble with the philosophers.  He did not believe, with Origen and Pantheism, that all souls would in the end return to union with God; rather, he described an early form of Predestination (Steven Kreis, “The Church Fathers: St. Jerome and St. Augustine,” Lecture 16 in “Lectures on Ancient and Medieval European History,” in The History Guide at, 2001).  “Platonists are right about God, wrong about gods,” in his opinion, and also wrong to reject the Incarnation (Russell, p. 358; see also Louth, p. 140).  In spite of calling Porphyry “the most learned of philosophers,” he chides him in regard to Theurgy (to which he objected), saying, “Thou didst learn these things, not from Plato, but from thy Chaldaean masters” (Bigg, pp. 295, 299; see also Inge,  Christian Mysticism: Lectures before Oxford [NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899], p. 131 f.).  He is diametrically opposed to the Stoic disdain for human passion, which to Augustine depends on one’s motives (Russell, p. 358).

Augustine is often cited in support of Sacramentalism.  Ambrose (c. 339–397) had followed Tertullian and Cyprian in their assertions of Sacramental Realism (Jankiewicz, pp. 372 f.).  As quoted in an earlier installment of this series, Augustine had spoken in terms of Christ carrying his own body in his hands.  Elsewhere, he spoke in realistic terms, as well.  His doctrine was built on that of his forbears just mentioned (Gaylan R. Schmeling, The Lord’s Supper in Augustine and Chemnitz: A Comparison of Two Fathers of the Church, submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Nashotah House in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Sacred Theology, April 1993, p. 3).

While Augustine agreed with his precursors on the issue of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, he refused to affirm the real presence in favor of a more symbolical understanding of the sacrament.  The bread and wine, he asserted, were only “signs” or “symbols” of the body of Christ and whoever was part of the one, true church ate and drank this body spiritually (Jankiewicz, p. 373).

Augustine actually used the term “sacrament” broadly, considering it a “sacred sign” representing a greater or hidden reality, and applying the term not only to water baptism but to exorcism and other rites (Schmeling, p. 7).  He says in Sermon 272, “These things, my brothers, are called sacraments for the reason that in them one thing is seen but another is understood.  That which is seen has physical appearance, that which is understood has spiritual fruit” (quoted in Ibid.).

One suspects here an anti-materialistic reaction to the hyper-materialism of Theurgy.  Nevertheless, his view of sacraments was heavily influenced by Neoplatonism (Ibid.).  Following the Platonic premise of forms, objects in the material world can represent a higher reality in heaven.  Schmeling speculates that “Augustine makes a greater separation between the sign and the reality in the Eucharist than did most of the early fathers, possibly in opposition to the Manichaeans who held exaggerated physical concepts of the presence of Christ,” a circumstance that Schmeling, a Lutheran, considers a “danger” since it suggests a symbolic view (Ibid., p. 7 f.).  Yet a symbolic view can only be a danger to the (misguided) sacerdotal system, not at all a danger to faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ for which it stands.

Augustine makes much of the Melchizedek figure, or rather his offering of thanksgiving and fellowship with bread and wine (Gen 14:18), as a type of sacramental sacrifice (Schmeling, pp. 3 f.).  This obscure figure, who appears in a “cameo” then disappears into history, is ripe for allegory.  While Melchizedek was used appropriately as a type of Christ by the author of Hebrews, in that he was a priest in his own right, not by human qualifications, the usage which Augustine inherited and bequeathed is eisegetical, that is, read into the text.  The bread and wine which Melchizedek provided can hardly be connected with sacrifice, which was always by blood (as Abel, Noah, and Abraham had demonstrated); moreover, there is in the passage no act of sacrifice (as in slaying and burning), no “institution” of a ritual, no prophetic, eschatological, or symbolic identification of the “elements,” nor any memorial pronouncements, i.e., nothing to recommend the passage toward Sacramentalism—but the bare fact of bread and wine, staples of the Levantine diet and instruments of common hospitality.

Augustine should have realized that neither objects nor methodologies commend us to God.  Faulty interpretation of Scripture certainly does not.  None of these qualifies for the “Spirit and truth” worship Jesus foretold.  Unfortunately, Augustine’s influence became widespread in the Western Church, to this day, and served to encourage Monasticism and Mysticism, reintroduce Neoplatonic philosophy, and entrench Sacramentalism and Sacerdotal religion in the Catholic and Mainline Protestant churches.

Proclus (412–485)

Proclus Lycaeus “Diodochos” (“the Successor”) was a student of Syrianus, and succeeded him in directing the theurgic school of Neoplatonism which Iamblichus had founded, a post he held for fifty years.  Proclus believed that all gods should be worshipped, underwent initiatory rites into many of the mystery cults, and prayed to the sun at dawn, noon, and sunset every day.  He hoped to preserve the old Paganism against the tide of prevalent Christianity.  As an interpreter of Plato, Proclus always agreed with his master, Syrianus, often argued with Aristotle, and sometimes disagreed with his forbear, Plotinus.  He is regarded as the most important Greek philosopher of late Antiquity, and helped, inadvertently, to plant Neoplatonism squarely within the medieval Church (citation “Proclus” in SEP at

He is the last great name among the Neo-Platonists.  He was the most eclectic of them all, perhaps because the most learned and the most systematic.  He elaborated the trinity of Plotinus into a succession of impalpable Triads, and surpassed Iamblichus in his devotion to the practice of theurgy (Vaughan, vol. 1, p. 105).

Proclus was credited with many miracles over the course of his lifetime.  Among other manifestations, his loyal student and biographer, Marinus, records that a government official, Rufinus, had seen a halo around Proclus’ head (Bigg. p. 320; Dominic J. O’Meara, Platonopolis: Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003], p. 20).

In his religious practice and divination, Proclus would variously perform sacrifices, read animal entrails, evoke secret divine names, and use such instruments as the strophalos, teetotum (a sort of spinning top), the “wryneck” (Ιυνξ), and the tripod  (see Bigg, p. 321; Itter, p. 75; Louth, p. 157; “Proclus” in SEP; “IYNX” at  In his writings, three kinds of theurgical practice have been discerned:  (a) hieratic (priestly) arts, including using prayers and incantations to perform healings and nature miracles, and to animate statues and prompt oracles; (b) ascent to touch the divine via contemplative prayer and invocations; and (c) mystical union with “the One” using faith, mystical silence, and “negation” (apophasis) (“Proclus” in SEP).

To Proclus, touching the divine and unity with “the One,” in contradiction to Plotinus and the Gnostics, is no longer accomplished through a process of acquiring knowledge but quietness and “giving oneself up” to the divine.  Theurgic practice is “established by the gods themselves, to make it possible for the human soul to overcome the distance between the mortal and the divine, which cannot be done through increasing philosophical understanding” (Ibid.; see also Louth, p. 157).  To Proclus, God is “known only by ecstasy—a God who is the repose he gives— a God of whom the more you deny the more do you affirm” (Vaughan, vol. 1, p. 105).

After years of austerity and toil, Proclus—the scholar, stored with the opinions of the past, surrounded by the admiration of the present—the astronomer, the geometrician, the philosopher,—learned in the lore of symbols and of oracles, in the rapt utterances of Orpheus and of Zoroaster—an adept in the ritual of invocations among every people in the world—he, at the close, pronounces Quietism the consummation of the whole, and an unreasoning contemplation, an ecstasy which casts off as an incumbrance all the knowledge so painfully acquired, the bourne of all the journey (Ibid., pp. 105 f.).

Proclus accepts Plotinus’ original triad scheme but adds more triads:  there is the triad of “rest,” “emanation,” and “return.”  Then there is the triad of “the modes of existence,” which is “being,” “life,” and “intelligence” (Louth, p. 156; see also “Proclus” in SEP).  At the same time, Proclus’ list of causes (active entities within reality), of which are three:  “gods,” “intellects,” and “souls,” appears to be parallel to Plotinus’ original triad.  Moreover, “The intimate relation between Being, Life, and Intellect is the origin of the basic structure uniting all causes to their effects, namely the relation of immanence, procession and reversion ….  This triad has been called the ‘triad of triads,’ the underlying principle of all triadic structures” (“Proclus” in SEP).

Happiness for the Mystic is acquired through attaining to “theurgic virtues” by which humans may “act with the gods” (Ibid.)—which echoes the “purificatory virtues” taught by Plotinus as well as the concept of “spiritual formation.”

Proclus links Neoplatonist philosophy with theurgic practice using a system of cause and effect.  In this system, first, everything is understood to be related to everything else (“Proclus” in SEP).  As mentioned earlier, he sees three types of active causes within reality:  gods, intellects, and souls.  From such causes proceed properties or emanations in the form of effects, such that:

Every thing caused abides in, proceeds from, and returns to, its cause.

For if it alone abided, it would in no respect differ from its cause, since it would be without separation and distinction from it.  For progression is accompanied with separation.  But if it alone proceeded, it would be unconjoined and deprived of sympathy with its cause, having no communication with it whatever.  And if it were alone converted, how can that which has not its essence from the cause be essentially converted to that which is foreign to its nature?  But if it should abide and proceed, but should not return, how will there be a natural desire to everything of well-being and of good, and an excitation to its generating cause?  And if it should proceed and return, but should not abide, how, being separated from its cause, will it hasten to be conjoined with it?  ….  For every thing which is converted resembles that which is resolved into the nature from which it is essentially divided.  It is necessary, therefore, either that it should abide alone, or return alone, or alone proceed, or that the extremes should be bound to each other, or that the medium should be conjoined with each of the extremes, or that all should be conjoined… (Proclus Elemental Theology 35, in Thomas M. Johnson, trans., Proclus’ Metaphysical Elements [Osceola, MO, 1909], pp. 31 f., also quoted in part in “Proclus” in SEP).

In other words (if one may follow what appears to be circular reasoning), every effect must depart from its cause in order to change its properties, and only due to change does it have impetus to return to the particular cause which it resembles; moreover, each effect is attracted to that initial cause to which, due to change, it is now partially unlike.  At the same time, his “law of mean terms” in Elem. Theol. 28 states that effects which are somewhat unlike, i.e., mixed, are re-attracted to their initial cause prior to any effect which is entirely unlike it, with which the cause has no “sympathy.”  “Moreover, it is necessary that the thing caused should participate of its cause, as from thence deriving its essence” (Elem. Theol. 28 in Johnson, p. 27; see also “Proclus” in SEP).

To add to the complexity, everything has (a) an essence which expresses its character; (b) a relationship to its higher cause; and (c) possibly also its own subordinate effects—such that “the higher a cause, the more comprehensive it is, and the further its effects reach.”  Souls, which are “incorporeal, separable from bodies and indestructible/immortal,” represent “the lowest level of entities that are capable of reverting upon itself.”  Types of souls that participate in this causality loop include divine, demonic, human, and animal.  Proclus held, in contradiction to the astronomer Ptolemy, that even the planets possess intelligent souls by which they move (“Proclus” in SEP).

Theurgic Neoplatonists not only believed that everything is related to everything else, but that “all reality … is directed upwards towards the origin from which it proceeds,” thus forming a “chain.”  Therefore, “symbols [can] establish the secret correspondences between sensible things (stones, plants, and animals) and celestial and divine realities” (Ibid.)  Ritual acts and the use of hieratic objects “worked because of some occult sympathy between the material elements used and the constitution of the divine” (Louth, p. 159).  The Theurgists somehow rationalized, as well, that lower orders of beings actually appeal to higher orders of beings, with which they engage in a “sympathetic” relationship (Louth, pp. 77, 157), as portrayed in the graphic image below:

The One (Unity)   -------------------------
Being    -----------------------------     |
                                      |    |
Life     ------------------------     |    |
                                 |    |    |
Nous     ------------------      |    |    |
                           |     |    |    |
Soul (Reason)  ---------   |     |    |    |
                           |     |    |    |
Animals   <----------------      |    |    |
                                 |    |    |
Plants    <----------------------     |    |
                                      |    |
Inanimate bodies   <------------------     |
Hyle (Formless Matter)  <------------------

(Graphic text-based image of uncertain authorship but possibly attributable to Gary Zabel of UMass-Boston, found at 281b/Philosophy of Magic/Arcana/Neoplatonism/Proclus.htm, as well as

Thus Proclus held that a sympathetic bond could exist between an object in the material world and an entity in the higher reality of the forms (Itter, p. 76), and priestly acts using select sacramental elements could be used profitably to access and “massage” that relationship.

The theurgist’s aim was, through incantations and the mysterious properties of certain stones, herbs and other material substances, to set in motion a chain of sympathies running up through a whole ‘series’ to the god he was trying to evoke, and so to produce a divine apparition and attain a sort of magical and external communion with the divine being.  The practice of theurgy implied … that the effects of a higher principle reached further down the scale of being than the effects of a lower principle ….  Thus for Proclus matter (and consequently the material objects used by the theurgists) participated in the One through fewer intervening terms than the human soul or intellect; and the most direct way to the divine was consequently through theurgy and not through philosophical speculation.  (It would be an interesting and valuable exercise to work out the differences between this conception and Catholic sacramentalism.) (Arthur Hilary Armstrong, An Introduction to Ancient Philosophy [London: Methuen & Co., 1947], p. 202.).

One familiar with sound interpretation of Scripture can see, clearly, how contrary to the New-Testament mode of worship is this concept of spirituality, and how dangerous to Biblical Christianity, especially when applied to mystical prayer and sacramental theology.  (For instance, from the concept of a sympathy held by higher entities for material objects one may infer Sacramental Realism in terms of a sacrifice or offering that moves the divine to act with spiritual efficacy—as it appears that some theologians have done—in a kind of quid pro quo).  The modern philosopher Hegel was to observe:

In Proclus we have the culminating point of the Neo-Platonic philosophy; this method in philosophy is carried into later times, continuing even through the whole of the Middle Ages.  ….  Although the Neo-Platonic school ceased to exist outwardly, ideas of the Neo-Platonists, and specially the philosophy of Proclus, were long maintained and preserved in the Church ….  In the earlier, purer, mystical scholastics we find the same ideas as are seen in Proclus, and until comparatively recent times, when in the Catholic Church God is spoken of in a profound and mystical way, the ideas expressed are Neo-Platonic (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 2, trans. E. S. Haldane and Frances H. Simson [London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1894], pp. 450 f., also quoted in part in “Proclus” in SEP).

Pseudo-Dionysius (Denys) “the Areopagite” (c. 500)

Dionysius, whose true identity is unknown but who wrote pseudonymously in the name of Paul’s convert mentioned in Acts 17:34, is “ball park” dated to about A.D. 500.  Scholars have compiled a list of proofs of these assertions, which include the lack of mention of his name or his writings by any of the Church Fathers; his familiarity with Neoplatonism, Theurgy, and the philosophy of Proclus; the influence of Gregory of Nissa; his mention of singing the creed (an unknown practice before the late Fifth Century); his familiarity with the liturgy and hierarchy of the Eastern Church of the period; a reference to his works by Severus of Antioch in the period A.D. 518 to 528; and a Monophysite embassy citing one of his works at a conference in A.D. 532 (Bigg, p. 340; Louth, pp. 155 f.; John F. Wippel, Metaphysical Themes in Thomas Aquinas, Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, vol. 10 [Wash., D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984], p. 221; citation “Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite” in SEP at

The anonymity and pseudonymity of Dionysius’ writings have caused him to be confused not only with the actual first-century convert by that name but with the martyred third-century Bishop of Paris, Denis, who became the patron saint of France.  Worse still, this confusion has served to grant him “almost apostolic” status and an audience beyond his expectations—a notoriety perpetuated by a document, the Areopagitica, written by Hilduin, Abbot of St. Denis, at the behest of Louis the Pious, and a translation of his works by John Scotus Eriugena (Bigg, p. 340; “Pseudo” in SEP; Mosheim, vol. 2, pp. 331 f.; citation “St. Denis” in Catholic Enclopedia at  Nevertheless, Dionysius’ apparent subterfuge is defended in some quarters as an example of declamatio, “a long established rhetorical device” (“Pseudo” in SEP).

Dionysius, whoever he was, made it his business to apply Neoplatonist and Theurgical principles and methodology to Christian worship, liturgy, and ecclesiology.  He is thought to have been a student of Proclus or of his school (Ibid.).  It has been suggested that his immediate teacher was the mentor he calls Hierotheus, probably also a pseudonym (Ibid.; Bigg. p. 341).  Since his name can be taken to mean, “priest of God,” he might simply serve as a metaphor and/or a fiction of convenience.  Perhaps Hierotheus or Dionysius, like Justin Martyr, saw himself as a Christian philosopher and established his own since-forgotten school.

(Dionysius may be compared to E. W. Kenyon, who attended Emerson College, known for its study of Metaphysics; who decided to resolve Metaphysics with Christianity, and was followed and even plagiarized by Kenneth Hagin, Sr., resulting in much of the “Word of Faith” doctrine—see D. R. McConnell, A Different Gospel [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988].)

Dionysius perpetuates the Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas that God resides in thick darkness, is unknowable, and cannot be adequately described with human words or categories.  He develops the theory that Biblical descriptions of God which appear out of character, such as a man awakened out of sleep or drunken in Psalm 78:65, alert the interpreter to “symbols” which can be “useful for theology” (“Pseudo” in SEP) but cannot be taken literally or merely figuratively.  Instead of simply feeling free to apply allegorical interpretation (like Origen) by this lack of understanding, these are to him “dissimilar similarities” that are unintelligible and therefore must be understood as hidden symbols or metaphors in order to become intelligible.  The metaphor of God as a drunken warrior becomes to him a picture of “the overloaded measurelessness of all goods in the one who is their cause.”  By this approach, the “name” or description of God becomes to the interpreter a new source of “intelligible truth.”  These understandings cannot be derived intellectually through study or thought but must be revealed as a spiritual gift.  While Dionysius gives “lip service” to revealed Scripture as the source of this truth, he demonstrates a reliance on “special revelation” as well as extrabiblical sources.

Like Philo, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius cites the example of Moses’ glimpse of God.  Moses undergoes an ascent toward God, for which he must first acquire purificatory virtues, for God is “manifested without veil and in truth” to those who pass through contemplation and theology and “alone who pass through both all things consecrated and pure, and ascend above every ascent of all holy summits, and leave behind all divine lights and sounds, and heavenly words, and enter into the gloom, where really is, as the Oracles say, He Who is beyond all” (Mystic Theology 1.3 in John Parker, The Works of Dionysius the Areopagite, vol. 1 [London: James Parker and Co., 1897], pp. 131 f.; also mentioned in “Pseudo” in SEP).  However, “even then he does not meet with Almighty God Himself, but views not Him (for He is viewless) but the place where He is,” for God is unknowable and in darkness.  Yet, approaching God, “he (Moses) is freed from them who are both seen and seeing, and enters into the gloom of the Agnosia [“Unknowing”]; a gloom veritably mystic, within which he closes all perceptions of knowledge and enters into the altogether impalpable and unseen, being wholly of Him Who is beyond all, and of none, neither himself nor other; and by inactivity of all knowledge, united in his better part to the altogether Unknown, and by knowing nothing, knowing above mind” (Parker, p. 132).  Thus Moses achieves Mystical Union (henosis) with God, where spiritual formation can occur—a theology by which Dionysius reveals his dependence on Plotinus as well as Philo.

Knowing a selection of “divine names” with which to approach God is vital to Dionysius.  It is only after thorough contemplation of divine names that one can advance to silence, darkness, “unknowing,” and can then experience Unity (“Pseudo” in SEP).  This ascent presumably takes place not in private devotions, for the most part, but in the worship of the church.  Dionysius describes nine types of angels, in groups of three (a “triad of triads”), and likewise a hierarchy of three threes in the church.  The highest triad in the ecclesiastical (church) hierarchy is made up of rites or sacraments:  the Oil of Anointing, the Eucharist, and Water Baptism; the second consists of bishops (hierarchs), priests (hiereis), and deacons (leitourgoi, “liturgists”); followed by monks, the baptized, and a mixed group of catechumens, penitents, and the demon-possessed (Louth, pp. 163 f.; contrast “Pseudo” in SEP).

Through the rites of the Church, only the hierarchs (or perhaps the entire rank of three constituted by ministers) may contemplate, directly, the intelligible realm (of forms, one presumes)—the realm visible and accessible to the angels.  The hierarchs perform their rites not for themselves but for the benefit of the lower ranks, who can only perceive the “visible realm,” thus requiring visible symbols to activate their contemplation.  These “symbols” are made up of both physical acts (rituals) and objects, including bread, wine, anointing oil, and (one may surmise) also holy water.  Within the context of the liturgical worship these sacramental objects acquire spiritual efficacy, and rites “clothe themselves in words” (“Pseudo” in SEP).  This construct provides philosophical support for Sacerdotalism and establishes a functional chain of “go-betweens” necessary for common people to reach God.

As in Proclus, everything is related to everything else.  Spiritually speaking, the hierarchies represent a chain of “vertical connectedness” (Ibid.), and the system of rites and incantations (liturgy) and use of symbols (objects, sacraments) reflects Proclus’ conception of cause and effect, such that each visible effect (as in the partaking of wine) relates to—has sympathy toward—its cause (as in Christ’s sacrifice).  In return, these objects attract a natural receptivity (epitedeiotes, Itter, p. 76) from their cause (source, form), resulting in spiritual efficacy.  Water Baptism, the Eucharist, and Anointing thus become, spiritually, “replications” of the works of God they symbolize (Ibid., p. 80), an idea which suggests the theological errors of Baptismal Regeneration, Sacramental Realism, and Apostolic Succession, respectively.

© 2013 Paul A. Hughes

Go to Epilogue, Part 7


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