Panentheism: Nexus of One-World (Pagan) Religion

Social Gospel 101 - Panentheism

Panentheism is not new, stemming as it does from Neoplatonism; and not rare, being widespread, in various forms and to various extents amongst the intelligentsia; yet is an unfamiliar term, even to most people who have encountered it in some form.  It is a man-made, philosophical religion which denies the authority of Scripture and brings together many threads of philosophy and speculation, including Neoplatonic Mysticism, speculative philosophy and theology, select elements of Christianity and other religions, speculative science (purporting legitimacy), in particular Evolution, and Environmentalism, with special appeal to Liberal Christians, New Age believers, semi-atheistic intellectuals, Social Gospel practitioners, Social Justice agitators, self-opinionated armchair theologians, “tree-huggers,” narcissistic “do-gooders,” and political Progressives of various other types.

In reality, Panentheism is Humanism in theistic garb, patently not Christianity, appealing to the selfish desire for apotheosis or self-deification, i.e., not to God but to self.  Observing the worldwide apostasy of this Age, and the “signs of the times,” there is good reason to associate Panentheism with the One-World Religion, the Religion of Man, which Bible-believers  anticipate will evolve into the religion of the Beast of John’s Revelation, otherwise known as the Antichrist.

Whether one believes this assertion or not, I encourage the reader to “save” the  basic description, in either text or the graphic form above, and from this time forward examine the theological claims and content of religionists, even one’s own church pastor, in its light, to see how he or she stacks up.


A Linchpin of Liberal One-World Religion

  • Increasingly a favored interpretation of Christianity amongst intellectuals.
  • Not to be confused with Pantheism (“all is God”).
  • Means “all is in God,” which includes evil.  Incorporates evil and redefines Redemption through its principle of Dialectic.
  • Influenced by Neoplatonist Metaphysics and Hegelian philosophy.
  • Related to the Process Theology of Whitehead and the New Theology of Karl Rahner.
  • Emphasizes unity of the Trinity (Perichoresis) in love and relationship.  Sees love, unity, Pacifism, science, and Environmentalism as the evolutionary path to unity with the Trinity and the universe by reflecting attributes of the Trinity (suggesting apotheosis).
  • Portrays God as continuously created and creating, not complete, evolving along with the universe, and influenced by Man.
  • Presumes truth about God discoverable in (theoretical) Quantum Physics.
  • Bypasses the Biblical Gospel and salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, who becomes at best ancillary.  Does not require Bible-based Christianity.
  • Influences Liberation Theology such as that of Jurgen Moltmann and Gustavo Gutiérrez.
  • Expressed by John A. T. Robinson in his concept of the Body of Christ and the Kingdom of God evolving through love and unity, but foresees no literal Second Coming (Parousia) of Christ.

Copyright © 2015 Paul A. Hughes

See also:

Dr. Scott on the Development of Sacramentalism and Monasticism

Monashic Groups

Dr. Hugh M. Scott (1848-1909), Professor of Church History at Chicago Theological Seminary, writes in Origin and Development of the Nicene Theology: with Some Reference to the Ritschlian View of Theology and History of Doctrine, Lectures Delivered on the L. P. Stone Foundation at Princeton Theological Seminary, January 1896 (Chicago Theological Seminary Press, 1896), note, pp.248-251.

Within this form of mystery, the conception of the Lord’s Supper changed in the following direction:  The New Testament Church spoke of all worship as sacrifice; the post-Apostolic Fathers applied the term sacrifice especially to the prayer and gifts offered at the Lord’s Supper; next, the idea of sacrifice was transferred to the Supper itself; the bread and wine were given the virtue of Christ’s atonement and finally they were identified with the Lord’s body and blood; so that in the third century the Supper was regarded as a sacrifice offered by Christ for the Church, instead of an offering presented by the Church to Christ.  It was Athanasius who went beyond the realistic view of the Apostolic Fathers and Apologists, and beyond the symbolical, mystical view of Clement and Origen, to the metabolic theory that the bread and wine became “entirely transformed,” as was done at Cana in Galilee (cf. Thomasius, I. 434).  The chief factors in this change of view were the prominence given in the Supper to the death of Christ, the assumption of priestly functions by the clergy, some influence from the pagan mysteries, but especially a failure to grasp the finished redemption of Christ as ever present to the believer.  The real presence was limited to bread and wine, instead of being found in every Christian; it was put in the hands of the clergy and not in the hearts of all believers. The result was that the merits of the one sacrifice for sin were overlooked, and man regarded it as a merit on his part to cause the sacrifice of Christ to be repeated.

This Moralism, which captured the sacraments, took most striking form in Monasticism.  The monk followed a leading idea of Greek theology, which regarded salvation as separation from the world.  He interpreted this to mean, first, imitation of Jesus and then imitation of Christ.  Asceticism, a life of poverty, chastity, obedience, meant following the lowly Jesus.  Contemplation, ending in the beatific vision of God, meant to ascend to heaven with Christ.  New Testament teachings, historic circumstances, the influence of heathenism all helped produce Monasticism; but none of these weighed so much as the false theory of man’s relation to Christ.  The pupils of Origen regarded the Gnostic and the ascetic as the true types of Christian living (cf. Harnack, II. 424); that is, knowledge and the life of superiority to the world made the ideal man.  But it is plain such a theory lands us in the place of learners, with Christ as nothing but a great teacher. The monk needs no Saviour; he is a self-redeemer like the Stoic or any other moralist.   In the fourth century, when worldliness was pressing hard into the Church, every form of piety was combined against it; hence asceticism, which was fully developed among the heathen, with no Christ in it, when adopted by Christians did not find a place for Him as Redeemer.  The Neo-Platonist thought that through the contemplation of nature he became partaker of God; so the monk in rapt devotion might reach God without the saving help of Christ.  The Church fell again into two classes; ordinary Christians who were saved by the potent mysteries of the sacraments, and ideal Christians—the monks—who saved themselves by good works and ecstasy; but both had lost sight of Christ as perfect Redeemer of men.

[Footnote] The loss of the gospel conception of personal, living union throughout life of the believer with the exalted Christ was followed inevitably by the wrong soteriology of the early Church:  (1) Because He was not felt to be the head of every Christian man and every congregation, bishops and other heads arose.  (2) Because direct personal communion with Him was obscured, the Church and the Sacraments came in between the soul and the Saviour, thus not only bringing in a hierarchy but perverting the whole conception of man’s relation to Christ.  (3) Because constant, direct approach to Christ was lost, a thousand indirect approaches by washings, fastings, visions, ascetic practices, confessions, came into use.  (4) Because the witness of Christ by His Spirit in the heart was largely overlooked, too much stress was laid upon intellectual forms of faith, philosophical proofs of Christianity, and theological creeds.  (5) This loss of the present Christ in the midst of the worshiping congregation was followed by a more formal worship, in which liturgies, elaborate ceremonies, and theological statements, too much took the place of the free charismatic prayers and teachings of the primitive Church.  (6) In life also, as the thought was obscured that Christ dwells in each believer, a loss of holiness followed.  To have the rules of the Church, to follow her discipline, was a lower standard than to “have the mind of Christ.”  From the individual this view spread to the Church.  For the New Testament, believers were a temple of God; for Callixtus, the Church was the ark of Noah, full of both clean and unclean creatures. (7) Finally, this loss of Christ as King in each Christian changed the whole missionary character of the Church.  Instead of all preaching—let him that heareth say, come”—the clergy preached and the laity listened; or monks went out, spreading their defective views of Christianity.

Charles Hodge on Mysticism vs. Orthodox Spirituality

Charles Hodge by Rembrandt Peale, date unknown

Charles Hodge by Rembrandt Peale, date unknown

The following are excerpts from Hodge’s Systematic Theology, vol. I (NY: Scribner, Armstrong, and Co., 1877), pages 63-86, in which he defines Mysticism and differentiates it from Evangelical spirituality.  His one glaring shortcoming, being a Cessationist, is his blindness toward the continuation of New Testament Pentecostal charisms, which he circumscribes (typical in the 19th Century) to the First Century and largely to the Twelve Apostles, for the formation of Scripture and the Church.  Apart from this blind spot, his observations provide a supportive parallel account to the recent published works on Sacramental Realism and Neoplatonism, and differentiation of Pentecostal spirituality from Contemplative Prayer/Mysticism, found in the following published works by Paul A. Hughes:

According to Hodge:

The Sense in which Evangelical Christians are called Mystics

As all Evangelical Christians admit a supernatural influence of the Spirit of God upon the soul, and recognize a higher form of knowledge, holiness, and fellowship with God, as the effects of that influence, they are stigmatized as Mystics, by those who discard everything supernatural from Christianity.  The definitions of Mysticism given by Rationalists are designedly so framed as to include what all evangelical Christians hold to be true concerning the illumination, teaching, and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  ….  And Bretschneider defines Mysticism as a “Belief in a continuous operation of God on the soul, secured by special religious exercise, producing illumination, holiness, and beatitude.”  Evangelical theologians so far acquiesce in this view, that they say, as Lange, and Nitsch,” that every true believer is a Mystic.”  The latter writer adds, “That the Christian ideas of illumination, revelation, incarnation, regeneration, the sacraments and the resurrection, are essentially Mystical elements.  As often as the religious and church-life recovers itself from formalism and scholastic barrenness, and is truly revived, it always appears as Mystical, and gives rise to the outcry that Mysticism is gaining the ascendency.”  ….  There has been a religious theory, which has more or less extensively prevailed in the Church, which is distinguished from the Scriptural doctrine by unmistakable characteristics, and which is known in church history as Mysticism, and the word should be restricted to that theory.  It is the theory, variously modified, that the knowledge, purity, and blessedness to be derived from communion with God, are not to be attained from the Scriptures and the use of the ordinary means of grace, but by a supernatural and immediate divine influence, which influence (or communication of God to the soul) is to be secured by passivity, a simple yielding the soul without thought or effort to the divine influx.

The System which makes the Feelings the Source of Knowledge

A still wider use of the word Mysticism has to some extent been adopted.  Any system, whether in philosophy or religion, which assigns more importance to the feelings than to the intellect, is called Mystical.  ….

….  The Mystic assumes that the senses and reason are alike untrustworthy and inadequate, as sources of knowledge; that nothing can be received with confidence as truth, at least in the higher departments of knowledge, in all that relates to our own nature, to God, and our relation to Him, except what is revealed either naturally or supernaturally in the feelings.  There are two forms of Mysticism, therefore:  the one which assumes the feelings themselves to be the sources of this knowledge; the other that it is through the feelings that God makes the truth known to the soul.  “Reason is no longer viewed as the great organ of truth; its decisions are enstamped as uncertain, faulty, and well-nigh valueless, while the inward impulses of our sensibility, developing themselves in the form of faith or of inspiration, are held up as the true and infallible source of human knowledge.  The fundamental process, therefore, of all Mysticism, is to reverse the true order of nature, and give the precedence to the emotional instead of the intellectual element of the human mind.”  This is declared to be “the common ground of all Mysticism.”

….  The illumination claimed by the Mystic communicates truth independently of its objective revelation.  ….

The doctrines of spiritual illumination and of Mysticism differ not only in the object, but secondly, in the manner in which that object is to be attained.  The inward teaching of the Spirit is to be sought by prayer, and the diligent use of the appointed means; the intuitions of the Mystic are sought in the neglect of all means, in the suppression of all activity inward and outward, and in a passive waiting for the influx of God into the soul.  They differ, thirdly, in their effects.  The effect of spiritual illumination is, that the Word dwells in us “in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (Col. i. 9).  What dwells in the mind of the Mystic are his own imaginings, the character of which depends on his own subjective state; and whatever they are, they are of man and not of God.

The so-called Dionysius the Areopagite

Mysticism, in the common acceptation of the term, is antagonistic to speculation.  And yet they are often united.  There have been speculative or philosophical Mystics.  The father indeed of Mysticism in the Christian Church, was a philosopher.  About the year A. D. 523, during the Monothelite controversy certain writings were quoted as of authority as being the productions of Dionysius the Areopagite.  ….  Though their authorship is unknown, their influence has been confessedly great.  The works which bear the pseudonym of Dionysius are, “The Celestial Hierarchy,” “The Terrestrial Hierarchy,” “Mystical Theology,” and “Twelve Epistles.” Their contents show that their author belonged to the school of the New Platonists, and that his object was to propagate the peculiar views of that school in the Christian Church.  The writer attempts to show that the real, esoteric doctrines of Christianity are identical with those of his own school of philosophy.  In other words, he taught New Platonism, in the terminology of the Church.  Christian ideas were entirely excluded, While the language of the Bible was retained.  Thus in our day we have had the philosophy of Schelling and Hegel set forth in the formulas of Christian theology.

New Platonism

The New Platonists taught that the original ground and source of all things was simple being, without life or consciousness; of which absolutely nothing could be known, beyond that it is.  They assumed an unknown quantity, of which nothing can be predicated.  The pseudo-Dionysius called this original ground of all things God, and taught that God was mere being without attributes of any kind, not only unknowable by man, but of whom there was nothing to be known, as absolute being is in the language of the modern philosophy, — Nothing; nothing in itself, yet nevertheless the DUNAMIS TWN PANTWN [“power of all things”].

The universe proceeds from primal being, not by any exercise of conscious power or will but by a process or emanation.  ….


The end [i.e., “goal”] of philosophy is the immediate vision of God, which gives the soul supreme blessedness and rest.  This union with God is attained by sinking into ourselves; by passivity.  As we are a form, or mode of God’s existence, we find God in ourselves, and are consciously one with him, when this is really apprehended; or, when we suffer God, as it were, to absorb our individuality.


The terms God, sin, redemption, are retained in this system, but the meaning attached to them was entirely inconsistent with the sense they bear in the Bible and in the Christian Church.  The pseudo-Dionysius was a heathen philosopher in the vestments of a Christian minister. The philosophy which he taught he claimed to be the true sense of the doctrines of the Church, as that sense had been handed down by a secret tradition.  Notwithstanding its heathen origin and character, its influence in the Church was great and long continued.  The writings of its author were translated, annotated and paraphrased, centuries after his death.  As there is no effect without an adequate cause, there must have been power in this system and an adaptation to the cravings of a large class of minds.

Causes of the Influence of the Writings of the pseudo-Dionysius

To account for its extensive influence it may be remarked: (1.) That it did not openly shock the faith or prejudices of the Church.  It did not denounce any received doctrine or repudiate any established institution or ordinance.  It pretended to be Christian, It undertook to give a deeper and more correct insight into the mysteries of religion.  (2.) It subordinated the outward to the inward.  Some men are satisfied with rites, ceremonies, symbols, which may mean anything or nothing; others, with knowledge or clear views of truth. To others, the inner life of the soul, intercourse with God, is the great thing.  To these this system addressed itself.  It proposed to satisfy this craving after God, not indeed in a legitimate way, or by means of God’s appointment.  Nevertheless it was the high end of union with him that it proposed, and which it professed to secure.  (3.) This system was only one form of the doctrine which has such a fascination for the human mind, and which underlies so many forms of religion in every age of the world; the doctrine, namely, that the universe is an efflux of the life of God, — all things flowing from him, and back again to him from everlasting to everlasting.  This doctrine quiets the conscience, as it precludes the idea of sin; it gives the peace which flows from fatalism; and it promises the absolute rest of unconsciousness when the individual is absorbed in the bosom of the Infinite.

Mysticism during the Middle Ages:  General Characteristics of this Period

The Middle Ages embrace the period from the close of the sixth century to the Reformation. This period is distinguished by three marked characteristics.  First, the great development of the Latin Church in its hierarchy, its worship, and its formulated doctrines, as well as in its superstitions, corruptions, and power.  Secondly, the extraordinary intellectual activity awakened in the region of speculation, as manifested in the multiplication of seats of learning, in the number and celebrity of their teachers, and in the great multitude of students by which they were attended, and in the interest taken by all classes in the subjects of learned discussion.  Thirdly, by a widespread and variously manifested movement of, so to speak, the inner life of the Church, protesting against the formalism, the corruption, and the tyranny of the external Church.  This protest was made partly openly by those whom Protestants are wont to call “Witnesses for the Truth;” and partly within the Church itself.  The opposition within the Church manifested itself partly among the people, in the formation of fellowships or societies for benevolent effort and spiritual culture, such as the Beguines, the Beghards, the Lollards, and afterwards, “The Brethren of the Common Lot;” and partly in the schools, or by the teachings of theologians.


The First Class of Medieval Theologians

Of these theologians, however, there were three classes.  First, those who avowedly exalted reason above authority, and refused to receive anything on authority which they could not for themselves, on rational grounds, prove to be true.  John Scotus Erigena (Eringehorne, Irish-born) may be taken as a representative of this class.  He not only held, that reason and revelation, philosophy and religion, are perfectly consistent, but that religion and philosophy are identical.  ….

….  His philosophy as developed in his work, “De Divisione Naturae,” is purely pantheistic.  There is with him but one being, and everything real is thought.  His system, therefore, is nearly identical with the idealistic pantheism of Hegel; yet he had his trinitarianism, his soteriology, and his eschatology, as a theologian.


The characteristic common to these classes, which differed so much from each other, was not that in all there was a protest of the heart against the head, of the feelings against the intellect, a reaction against the subtleties of the scholastic theologians, for some of the leading Mystics were among the most subtle dialecticians.  Nor was it a common adherence to the Platonic as opposed to the Aristotelian philosophy, or to realism as opposed to nominalism.  But it was the belief, that oneness with God was the great end to be desired and pursued, and that that union was to be sought, not so much through the truth, or the Church, or ordinances, or Christian fellowship; but by introspection, meditation, intuition.  As very different views were entertained of the nature of the “oneness with God,” which was to be sought, so the Mystics differed greatly from each other.  Some were extreme pantheists; others were devout theists and Christians.  From its essential nature, however, the tendency of Mysticism was to pantheism.  And accordingly undisguised pantheism Was not only taught by some of the most prominent Mystics, but prevailed extensively among the people.

Pantheistic tendency of Mysticism

It has already been remarked, that the system of the pseudo-Dionysius, as presented in his “Mystical Theology” and other writings, was essentially pantheistic.  Those writings were translated by Scotus Erigena, himself the most pronounced pantheist of the Middle Ages.  Through the joint influence of these two men, a strong tendency to pantheism was developed to a greater or less degree among the mediaeval Mystics.  Even the associations among the people, such as the Beghards and Lollards, although at first exemplary and useful, by adopting a system of mystic pantheism became entirely corrupt.  Believing themselves to be modes of the divine existence, all they did God did, and all they felt inclined to do was an impulse from God, and therefore nothing could be wrong.  In our own day the same principles have led to the same consequences in one wing of the German school of philosophy.

It was not only among the people and in these secret fellowships that this system was adopted.  Men of the highest rank in the schools, and personally exemplary in their deportment, became the advocates of the theory which lay at the foundation of these practical evils.  Of these scholastic pantheistical Mystics, the most distinguished and influential was Henry [Meister] Eckart, whom some modern writers regard “as the deepest thinker of his age, if not of any age.” ….  His doctrines were condemned as heretical, although he denied that he had in any respect departed from the doctrines of the Church. ….  It is not necessary here to give the details of his system.  Suffice it to say, that he held that God is the only being; that the universe is the self-manifestation of God; that the highest destiny of man is to come to the consciousness of his identity with God; that that end is to be accomplished partly by philosophical abstraction and partly by ascetic self renunciation.


It is true that no one can intelligently affirm the transcendence of God, and still hold the extreme form of pantheism which makes the world the existence-form of God, his whole intelligence, power, and life. But he may be a Monist.  He may believe that there is but one Being in the universe, that everything is a form of God, and all life the life of God.  Pantheism is Protean.  Some moderns speak of a Christian Pantheism.  But any system which hinders our saying “Thou,” to God, is fatal to religion.

Quietism:  Its general character

Tholuck says “There is a law of seasons in the spiritual, as well as in the physical world, in virtue of which when the time has come, without apparent connection, similar phenomena reveal themselves in different places.  As towards the end of the fifteenth century an ecclesiastical-doctrinal reformatory movement passed over the greater part of Europe, in part without apparent connection; so at the end of the seventeenth a mystical and spiritual tendency was almost as extensively manifested.  In Germany, it took the form of Mysticism and Pietism; in England, of Quakerism; in France, of Jansenism and Mysticism; and in Spain and Italy, of Quietism.”  This movement was in fact what in our day would be called a revival of religion.  Not indeed in a form free from grievous errors, but nevertheless it was a return to the religion of the heart, as opposed to the religion of forms.  The Mystics of this period, although they constantly appealed to the mediaeval Mystics, even to the Areopagite, and although they often used the same forms of expression, yet they adhered much more faithfully to Scriptural doctrines and to the faith of the Church.  They did not fall into Pantheism, or believe in the absorption of the soul into the substance of God.  They held, however, that the end to be attained was union with God.  By this was not meant what Christians generally understand by that term; congeniality with God, delight in his perfections, assurance of his love, submission to his will, perfect satisfaction in the enjoyment of his favour.  It was something more than all this, something mystical and therefore inexplicable; a matter of feeling, not something to be under, stood or explained; a state in which all thought, all activity was suspended; a state of perfect quietude in which the soul is lost in God ….  This state is reached by few.  It is to be attained not by the use of the means of grace or ordinances of the Church.  The soul should be raised above the need of all such aids.  It rises even above Christ, insomuch that it is not He whom the soul seeks, nor God in him; but God as God; the absolute, infinite God.  The importance of the Scriptures, of prayer, of the sacraments, and of the truth concerning Christ, was not denied; but all these were regarded as belonging to the lower stages of tlie divine life.  Nor was this rest and union with God to be attained by meditation; for meditation is discursive.  It implies an effort to bring truth before the mind, and fixing the attention upon it.  All conscious self-activity must be suspended in order to this perfect rest in God.  It is a state in which the soul is out of itself; a state of ecstasy, according to the etymological meaning of the word.

This state is to be reached in the way prescribed by the older Mystics; first, by negation or abstraction; that is, the abstraction of the soul from everything out of God, from the creature, from all interest, concern, or impression from sensible objects.  Hence the connection between Mysticism, in this form, and asceticism.  Not only must the soul become thus abstracted from the creature, but it must be dead to self.  All regard to self must be lost.  There can be no prayer, for prayer is asking something for self; no thanksgiving, for thanksgiving implies gratitude for good done to self.  Self must be lost.  There must be no preference for heaven over hell.  One of the points most strenuously insisted upon was a willingness to be damned, if such were the will of God.  In the controversy between Fenelon and Bossuet, the main question concerned disinterested love, whether in loving God the soul must be raised above all regard to its own holiness and happiness.  This pure or disinterested love justifies, or renders righteous in the sight of God.  Although the Mystics of this period were eminently pure as well as devout, they nevertheless sometimes laid down principles, or at least used expressions, which gave their enemies a pretext for charging them with Antinomianism.  It was said, that a soul filled with this love, or reduced to this entire negation of self, cannot sin; “sin is not in, but outside of him;” which was made to mean, that nothing was sin to the perfect.  It is an instructive psychological fact that when men attempt or pretend to rise above the law of God, they sink below it; that Perfectionism has so generally led to Antinomianism.

John Wesley, Reluctant Mystic

John Wesley Preaching in Ireland, 1789, attributed to Maria Spilsbury

John Wesley Preaching in Ireland, 1789, attributed to Maria Spilsbury

The following is to be added to the original Part 7—Epilogue of my blog series, “Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism,” hence included in Chapter 7 of the resulting print version, Neoplatonist Stew: Or, How  Sacramentalism, Mysticism, and Theurgy Corrupted Christian Theology. The paperback print version, with other additions, is now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online booksellers.

Advocates and defenders of John Wesley (1703–1791) are quick to assert that any elements of Neoplatonism and Mysticism within the order of the An­glican Church were well-known and acknowledged, suitably dealt-with, and adequately mitigated.  It is moreover suggested that Wesley, if accused of harboring any such influences, hardly introduced them himself.  John Cassian, as mentioned in Chapter 6 of Neoplatonist Stew, had introduced Evagrius to the Western Church, and “had physically brought back with him Basil’s Institutes, a work which would serve as a model for western monastic rules, including Benedict’s.”  These ideas signifi­cantly influenced Thomas á Kempis and later mystics, including the Jansenists and Port-Royalists, “their Augustinian orientation notwith­standing.”1

By the Seventeenth Century, English intellectuals and divines had rediscovered many works of the Eastern Mystics, and began to publish new editions.  The “Cambridge Platonists,” in particular, turned away from Aristotle and Scholasticism and renewed interest in Plato.2  An­glicanism, seeking a “middle way” (via media) of compromise be­tween salvation by faith alone and salvation by works, found especially in the works of John Chrysostom a “forgotten strand of theosis,” as Steve McCormick describes it, in the guise of “divine-human participation.”3  But then, Thomas Cranmer, in the time of Henry VIII, had already incorporated Neoplatonic “participation” into the Book of Common Prayer, namely, his homilies “Of Salvation,” “Of the True, Lively and Christian Faith,” and “Of Good Works Annexed Unto Faith.”  Together, these comprise the formal expression of Angli­can soteriology.4  In 1738, John Wesley abridged Cranmer’s three homilies into “his first doctrinal manifesto.”5

The son of an Anglican rector (local priest), Wesley was steeped in Anglicanism, which he never abandoned.  His father, Samuel, parti­cularly enamored of Chrysostom, urged his son to obtain a copy of Chrysostom’s work, On the Priesthood (De sacerdotia), with the words, “Master it: digest it”; and later, “Master St. Chrysostom, our Articles and the form of Ordination.”  “If I were to preach in Greek,” Samuel wrote, “St. Chrysostom should be my master.”6 John was fur­ther encouraged to study the Church Fathers, especially those of the first three centuries of the Christian era, by John Clayton, an accom­plished Patristics scholar.7

Wesley learned from his father to appreciate the ancient pastoral theologians:  Chrysostom, Basil, Athanasius and Cyprian (Advice to a Young Clergyman).8

Wesley later recommended the Eastern Fathers, and borrowed heavily from Chrysostom in his own Address to Clergy (1756).9 He wrote, for instance,

Can any who spend several years in those seats of learning, be excused, if they do not add to that of the languages and sciences, the knowledge of the Fathers?  The most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, and eminently endued with that Spirit by whom “all Scripture was given?”  It will be easily perceived, I speak chiefly of those who wrote before the Council of Nice[a].  But who would not likewise desire to have some acquaintance with those that followed them?  With St. Chry­sostom, Basil, Jerome, [Augustine]; and above all, that man of a broken heart, Ephraim Syrus?10

In his writings and preaching, Wesley “Frequently cited … Basil, Chrysostom, Clement of Alexandria, Clement of Rome, Ephraem Syrus, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Origen, Polycarp and (Pseudo-)Macarius.”  The latter, Pseudo-Macarius, was to become a significant influence on Wesley’s doctrines:  in particular, those of “Prevenient Grace” and “Christian Perfection.”  While Wesley at times differs with Macarius in details, clearly “the similarities are much stronger than the differences ….”11

Wesley himself described several of the other early influences on his devotional life as well as his theology:

In the year 1725, being in the twenty-third year of my age, I met with Bishop Taylor’s Rules and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying.  In reading several parts of this book, I was exceedingly affected with that part in particular which relates to purity of intention….

In the year 1726, I met with Kempis’s ‘Christian Pattern.’  The nature and extent of inward religion, the religion of the heart, now appeared to me in a stronger light than ever it had done before.  I saw, that giving even all my life to God, (supposing it possible to do this and go no farther,) would profit me nothing, unless I gave my heart, yea, all my heart, to him.  I saw that ‘simplicity of in­tention and purity of affection,’ one design in all we speak or do, and one desire, ruling all our tempers, are indeed ‘the wings of the soul,’ without which she can never ascend to the mount of God.

A year or two after, Mr. Law’s ‘Christian Perfection,’ and ‘Serious Call,’ were put into my hands.  These convinced me, more than ever, of the absolute impossibility of being half a Christian.12

Over the course of his life, Wesley utilized a great many recent secondary works that applied Eastern principles, and (as we shall see) created others of his own.  Kempis he found too pessimistic:  “I cannot think, that when God sent us into the world, he had irreversibly de­creed, that we should be perpetually miserable in it,”13 yet Wesley largely embraced his concepts of self-abnegation and ascent.  William Law had been a mentor to John and his brother Charles.14  Law and Jeremy Taylor were both attempting to construct “patristic primitivist syntheses of the virtuous Christian life, viewing it developmentally.”15  Law had visited the Wesley home on many occasions and had a profound effect on the siblings, such that Charles Wesley suggested much later, “Mr. Law was our John the Baptist.”16  Law was one of the select individuals that John Wesley consulted before committing to his Georgia mission.17

Wesley’s enthusiasm for William Beveridge further exposed him to Chrysostom, the two combining to serve as the apparent origin of his conception of restoring the image of God (ultimately Platonic) by virtue of the “energy of love.”

Wesley found this notion, which is, again, the eastern idea of theosis, of divine-human participation, a characteristic note in the homilies of Chrysostom, and in the liturgy, the homilies, and the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England.  Wesley was to take that motif of divine-human participation in the via salutis and weave it throughout his ordo salutis [i.e., integrate a Neoplatonic “way of salvation” into his conception of the “order of salvation”].18

Sailing for Georgia aboard the Simmonds, 1735, Wesley busied him­self studying the German language, along with devotional reading and his accustomed Christian disciplines.  He had managed to procure a library of over sixty volumes, many of them of recent Anglican authorship, but also including Beveridge’s Pandectae, William Cave’s Primitive Christianity, and a large assortment of Eastern liturgical works.19  It was probably Cave’s book that introduced him to Pseudo-Macarius and Ephraim of Syria. Thus Wesley absorbed Neoplatonic ideas “about the stages of divine ascent, holiness of heart, progressive perfection, and the affective manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.”20

During a particularly severe storm at sea, he was highly impressed by the calmness displayed by the Moravians on board.  He had already studied the mystic work, Theologica Germanica.21  Arriving in Geor­gia, he was similarly impressed by Rev. Spangenberg, of Savannah, but hedged when the Moravian asked him, “Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” to which Wesley weakly replied, “I know He is the Saviour of the world,” and “I hope He has died to save me.”22  In spite of his Christian disciplines, Wesley had been all full of doubts all through the voyage.  Later still, he wrote in his journal,

It is now two years and almost four months since I left my native country in order to teach the Georgian Indians the nature of Chris­tianity.  But what have I learned myself in the meantime?  Why (what I the least of all suspected), that I, who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God.23

During the subsequent debacle in Georgia, Wesley obtained a Mora­vian hymnal, and spent three to five hours a day translating and adapt­ing, in all, thirty-three German hymns, according to his own purposes and inclinations.  Among these was the Gerhard Tersteegen hymn, ren­dered in English, “Thou Hidden Love of God, Whose Height,” one of four by Tersteegen that he translated, and the one most often published thereafter in English hymnals.24  One commentator suggests that “this hymn might be seen as one of the clearest reflections of Wesley’s own spiritual yearning….”25  (Yearning appears to be a common indicator of mystic propensities and appeal.)  Meanwhile, Wesley also took the opportunity to experiment with new forms of liturgy, which confused and offended his congregation.  A local magistrate scolded, “The peo­ple … say they are Protestants.  But as for you, they cannot tell what religion you are of.”26

The Methodist mission to Georgia was a fiasco.  Charles proved a maladroit secretary to General Oglethorpe; John, a tactless pastor, Ingham and Delamotte, ineffectual assistants.27

In 1738, abandoning Georgia under a cloud, Wesley returned to England, where he and Charles almost immediately became involved with the Fetter Lane Moravian group.  That May, he had an emotional experience that he counted as his belated conversion, and by Septem­ber, he was off to visit the German Pietists at Herrnhut.

The representatives of this tradition who influenced Wesley began with the Dominican mysticism of Johann Tauler (1300-1361), and proceeded to the distinctive Reformed spirituality of Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769).”28

Always seeking his own “assurance of faith,” Wesley asked one Arvid Gradin to provide, in writing, his definition of the concept.  Gra­din’s reply concluded with, “a deliverance from every fleshly desire, and a cessation of all, even inward sins”—it would seem, as it did to Wesley, a confirmation of his own developing view of Perfection.29  “Spiritually bankrupt, without peace and joy or the assurance of salva­tion, he embraced the Moravian approach to ‘faith alone’ and ‘full salvation.'”30  On the negative side, Wesley found Herrnhut to be in the midst of controversy with the brethren at Halle.  The Hallensians re­garded the necessity of an extended “penitential struggle” (Bußkampf) leading eventually to a “breakthrough” (Durchbruch) to gain assurance of saving faith, whereas the Herrnhuters had gravitated toward a quick and easy, “affective” acceptance.31  Wesley soon became disenchanted with their polemics and with Count von Zinzendorf, thereafter dis­tancing himself from the Moravians.32  “The English writers,” he wrote, “such as Bishop Beveridge, Bishop Taylor, and Mr. Nelson, a little relieved me from these well-meaning, wrong-headed Germans.”33  Yet he continued to value many of the German Pietist hymns, especially those of Tersteegen.34

Through Wesley, it has been said, Tersteegen’s spirituality has reached millions of English-speaking people.  John Nuelson, a German Methodist, granted that Wesley’s dissemination of German hymns had strongly influenced the Methodists’ doctrine of Perfection.  With Ter­steegen’s ideas came the influence of French Quietists, English Phila­delphians, and Berleburg Bible Pietists, along with all the Patristic, mystical, and ascetic works that Tersteegen had translated and edited.  He spoke in terms of a Seelengrund (a term garnered from Eckhart and Tauler), an “inward soul” capable of longing for God.  This inward soul may possess an “inward inclination” (Grundneigung) able to respond to the “wooing” of Christ’s Prevenient Grace (as Wesley would perceive it), such that it “makes room” (Raum gebe) for God’s pres­ence.  From that Seelengrund, Christ purposes “to expand His gracious influence to encompass the cognitive, volitional, affective, and rela­tional aspects of one’s existence,”35 in other words, spiritual formation.  Yet Tersteegen, in spite of other Plotinian affinities, discouraged seekers from introspection, that being idolatry; rather to “turn your inward eye from yourself,” fixing one’s gaze on Christ.36  He con­sidered the imputation of righteousness to be instantaneous, but the transformation to Christ-likeness to be progressive (contra Wesley), the goal being to renew in believers the image of Christ (so also Wesley).37

Besides Tersteegen, Pseudo-Macarius and Ephraim of Syria were particular favorites of Wesley, from whom he sought devotional mate­rial and theological fodder, mining for ideas and modes of expression.  Besides his aforementioned contribution to Prevenient Grace, Macar­ius further contributed to Wesley’s soteriology (as had Tersteegen)—one point of difference being “that Wesley understood perfection primarily as an identifiable, instantaneously-achieved state, while Ma­carius emphasized the tenacious entrenchment of sin in even the most mature Christian and the constant need to seek God through prayer.”38  “This great gift of God,” Wesley wrote, “the salvation of our souls, is no other than the image of God fresh stamped on our hearts.  It is a ‘renewal of believers in the spirit of their minds, after the likeness of Him that created them.'”39  Certainly Wesley’s views on grace appear to be more closely derived from Macarius and Eastern theology in gen­eral than from, as one might expect, Arminius.40  Wesley, one will note, believed that the Fifty Spiritual Homilies were the work of “Macarius of Egypt,” a fourth-century Desert Father, rather than a pseudonymous writer now widely purported to have been a fifth-century Syrian monk, strongly influenced by Gregory of Nyssa.41

Wesley’s exposure to Ephraim of Syria, whom he called “the man of the broken heart,” goes back to his Holy Club days at Oxford.  Ephra­im taught self-abnegation, contemplation, theosis, and an ante-Nicene view of man yearning to return to an “angelic” original state.  Michael Christensen and Randy Maddox suggest that Ephraim’s “luminous eye” figure “is similar to if not the source of Wesley’s doctrine of ‘spir­itual senses'” (a concept to which Tersteegen probably also contri­buted, see above).  “Spiritual senses,” to Wesley, include the faculty of perceiving assurance, both of salvation and Perfection.42

Wesley, it is noted, mitigated the theosis of Macarius and Ephraim, emphasizing a divine work of grace through love that he posited in the negation of the power of sin and perfection of human intent.  When Wesley edited the Homilies of Macarius for his Christian Library se­ries, he excised references to theosis as well as asceticism.43

In regard to Perfection, Wesley expressed concern to his brother Charles that the latter, by aiming at theosis, was setting the bar of holi­ness too high to be realistically attainable.44  Wesley, says McCormick, had gradually come to understand soteriology in the anthropological terms of a “Biblical eudaemonism,” by which man seeks holiness because in holiness man is most happy.45  Albert Outler suggests that Wesley repositioned the “ladder” of Perfection, after his own scheme, toward becoming “like” God, but short of becoming a god.46  This ef­fectively “domesticated” or even “democratized” the (Plotinian) ascent that Eastern Mystics had taught, making “perfection” an “attainable goal.”47  In Wesley’s defense, David Bundy insists that he “took much of the [Anglican] synthesis [of Eastern theology] out of the academy, church and cloister and brought it to the people” and “adapted that synthesis in structures of discipline and accountability for laity; and who modeled what he preached.”48  It was “Methodists in America,” Outler asserts, who “contributed to a very considerable confusion by interpreting ‘perfection’ in terms of ‘the second blessing’ or ‘entire sanctification as a state of grace distinct from justification, attainable instantaneously by faith.'”49

Wesley’s writings reflect many more Eastern Mystic influences be­sides these three.  It is widely recognized (not without considerable dispute, in regard to extent as well as provenance), that Wesley based his tract, The Character of a Methodist, and also a published poem, “On Clemens Alexandrinus’s Description of a Perfect Christian” on Clement’s picture of the “Perfect Gnostic” (from Stromateis, Book 7, see also Chapter 6 of Neoplatonist Stew).  Bundy suggests that Wesley might have been exposed to Clement’s ideas secondarily through publishing a certain book by Anthony Horneck, and that the poem might rather be attributable to John Gambold.50  But in a letter to Lloyd’s Evening Post, Wesley himself stated, “Five or six and thirty years ago, I much admired the character of a perfect Christian drawn up by Clemens Alexandrinus.  Five or six and twenty years ago, a thought came to my mind, of drawing such a character myself, only in a more scriptural manner, and mostly in the very words of Scripture ….”51  Similarly, Wesley “plagiarized” (Bundy’s word) John Williams’ book, A Cate­chism Truly Representing the Doctrines and Practices of the Church of Rome, with an Answer Thereto, in his work of similar title; and Bever­idge’s Sunodikon, sive Pandectae Canonum 55.  Apostolorum et Con­ciliorum Ecclesia Graeca Receptorum “provided grist” for Wesley’s “mill.”52  In fact, the extent of Wesley’s interest in affective Eastern spirituality is demonstrable from many of the books he chose to “ex­tract and abridge” in his fifty-volume A Christian Library collection, first published in 1750.53

Disenchanted with the German Mystics, wary of asceticism and apa­thy, doubtful of the possibility of theosis, he nevertheless mined them for useful ideas yet shied away from unqualified endorsement.  In time, Wesley even broke with his past mentor William Law.54  Around 1734, Law had become an admirer of self-taught Theosophist and Mystic Jakob Böhme, who laid claim to a series of visions.  In his evolving circumspection, Wesley seems to follow once again the example of Tersteegen, who turned away, even within his own circles, from potential antinomianism and the “excessive ecstasy that he per­ceived could degenerate into idolatrous self-edification or even demonic torment.”55  Wesley, however, “nonetheless remained in dia­logue with these early mentors, edited and ‘corrected’ them, and recommended them throughout his life.”56

The results of this “programmatic”57 selectivity appears to reveal a considered determination not to publish, for the most part, primary works by Eastern Mystics.  Primary works are largely absent within the corpus, for which were substituted secondary works of modern provenance.  “Wesley preferred to edit and present the works of the [Anglican] and continental interpreters of the ancient texts rather than to edit and present the ancient texts themselves!” admits Bundy.58  Further, Wesley “reconstructed” mystical works, says Christensen, by replacing implications of theosis in Eastern theology with his own formulation and conception of Perfection, or effectively hiding it.59  For example, when he published twenty-two of Macarius’ Spiritual Homi­lies in A Christian Library, “Wesley consistently omitted references to ascetic life and to the notion of theosis….”60  As Frank Baker describes his modus operandi, Wesley’s editing “mainly involved choice, strik­ing his pen through passages in printed works, changing the words and phrases, and supplying written links from time to time.”

After considerable hesitation he resolved to leave his human sources uncited, ‘that nothing might divert the mind of the reader’ from the brief notes themselves.  He omitted without comment statements with which he did not agree.  All his quotations and allusions, however, rephrased as they were in simpler language, honestly sought to represent the essence of his sources.61

The extent of Wesley’s editing and revisionism of such works (for less it cannot justly be called) is clearly demonstrated in the following passage from Macarius that diametrically contradicts Wesley’s doc­trine of attainable Perfection:

So this man confesses that he is not perfect or altogether free from sin.  He says that the middle wall of partition has been broken through and shattered, and yet, at some point not wholly broken, nor at all times.  There are moments when grace kindles up and comforts and refreshes more fully; there are moments when it retreats and clouds over, according as grace itself manages for the man’s advantage.  But who is there that has come to the perfect measure at particular seasons, and has tasted and had direct ex­perience of that world?  A perfect Christian man, one completely free, I have not yet seen.  Although one and another is at rest in grace, and enters into mysteries and revelations and into much sweetness of grace, still sin is yet present within.  By reason of the exceeding grace and of the light that is in them, men consider themselves free and perfect; but inexperience deceives them.  They are under the influence of grace, but I have never yet seen a man that is free.  I myself at times have in part come to that measure, and I have learned to know that it does not constitute a perfect man.62

The “extracted” version of this homily, published by Wesley in A Christian Library, bears little resemblance to the independent trans­lation above, and does not contain this particular passage at all, as such.63  “Wesley, in appropriating the idea of theosis and constructing his doctrine of Christian perfection, found that the Church Fathers required editing.”64

The logical conclusion of these factors is that Wesley effectively obscured, perhaps to himself as well, elements of Neoplatonic Mys­ticism that contributed to his doctrines of Prevenient Grace and Per­fection, in some cases by failing to recognize them for what they were, and in other cases by carefully editing out overt references to the most objectionable concepts.  This consequence has unfortunately served, due to Wesley’s abiding popularity and influence, to introduce and establish erroneous views of Sanctification and related issues within a large segment of Christianity, including, via the Holiness Movement, some Perfectionist and Legalistic strains of Pentecostalism.

Even beyond this conclusion, problems associated with Wesley’s exegesis must still be addressed, for which purpose three brief exam­ples will suffice.  Wesley uses the term, “the energy of love,” to des­cribe the “divine initiative” of God’s Prevenient Grace, the “divine-human participation” by which man may attain Perfection.65  Wesley engages Galatians 5:6, in particular, as a prooftext for this “energy” terminology.  However, any first-year Greek student knows that while energein is indeed the etymological source for the English word, “energy,” the Greek word literally means “work.”  Therefore, Theo­dore Runyon is mistaken in supposing Wesley’s rendition to be “a literal translation” of the text,66 which actually reads, “faith working through love.”  Contextually, righteousness rather comes by the instru­mentality of faith (Gal 2:16, 3:6, 5:5, et al.), because of love; hence it is faith, not love, that does the work (and arguably faith is cognitive and volitional; not affective, as in the case of many definitions of love).  Wesley’s appropriation of the phrase, “energy of love,” as well as the concept, can be traced back, again, to Chrysostom.67

Second, being challenged regarding the statement by James (3:2) that “we all stumble in many things,” Wesley claims that “we” is just a “figure of speech,” that James “could not possibly include himself,” but rather refers “Not [to] apostles, nor true believers,” but to others who will “receive the greater condemnation.”68  These claims are de­void of textual justification; rather, are obvious rationalizations and impositions on the text due to preconceptions (“analogy of faith,” doctrinal construct) that are clearly contradicted by the passage.

Third, in prooftexting from John’s first epistle, by which he argues that a person who has achieved Perfection cannot sin (or does not sin),69 Wesley falls prey to errors common to “armchair” interpreters of that book, in particular:  failing to account for the idiosyncrasies and alleged Hebraisms (too complex to detail here) inherent to it, but certainly including John’s propensity for black-and-white dualisms and pointed use of the perfect participle.  Most interpreters agree that John is des­cribing those who make a regular practice of sin, or whose activities are by virtue of their unregenerated nature always characterized by sin, in contrast to the Regenerated.  Worse, Wesley makes in this same context a claim upon Kingdom promises (Zech 12:8), saying, “The kingdom of heaven is now set up on earth.”  Thus he reveals a fun­damental lack of understanding of eschatology, since the “fullness of the Kingdom” (including not only future glory but Perfection) will not come about till the Eschaton, the End.  Elsewhere, among other exam­ples, Wesley likewise fails to interpret Psalm 103:8, on the ultimate redemption of Israel, and 1 John 3:8, regarding Christ’s complete work in overcoming sin and death, eschatologically.70

In fact, a studied perusal of Wesley’s signature work, A Plain Ac­count on Christian Perfection, on the whole reveals its proofs to amount to an exercise in unenlightened prooftexting—all done, one hopes, in ingenuous simplicity, by reason of the inadequate herme­neutical theory and tools of the day.  Nevertheless, one cannot escape the inevitable conclusion that as a result of his long-term quest for personal, affective assurance, Wesley produced a compromise, “de­signer” religion that, however it might have shaded his exegesis, served his purposes more than it offended his strict British sensibil­ities.


1 David Bundy, “Christian Virtue: John Wesley and the Alexandrian Tradition,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 26 (1991):142.

2 Mark Goldie, ‘Cambridge Platonists (act. 1630s–1680s),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2013 (http://www.oxforddnb.­com/view/­theme/94274, accessed March 27, 2014).  The Cambridge Platonists might have had fairly direct influence on John Wesley through his father, whose friend was John Norris, see Bundy, p. 142.

3 K. Steve McCormick, “Theosis in Chrysostom and Wesley: An Eastern Paradigm on Faith and Love,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 26 (1991):49-50.

4 Ibid., p. 66, see also 67.

5 Ibid., p. 67.

6 Ibid., p. 50.

7 Albert C. Outler, ed., John Wesley (NY: Oxford University Press, 1964; paperback, 1980), p. 9, and Michael J. Christensen, “Theosis and Sanctification: John Wesley’s Reformulation of a Patristic Doctrine,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 31/2 (Fall 1996):75.

8 Christensen, p. 75.

9 McCormick, p. 50, Christensen, p. 74.

10 John Wesley, The Miscellaneous Works of the Rev. John Wesley (NY: J. & J. Harper, 1828), p. 70, also quoted from another source in McCormick, pp. 50-51.

11 Randy L. Maddox, “John Wesley and Eastern Orthodoxy: Influences, Convergen­ces, and Differences,” Asbury Theological Journal 45/2 (1990):30, 31, 35; see also Outler, pp. 9-10, and Christensen, p. 74.

12 Henry Moore, The Life of the Rev. John Wesley, A. M., vol. I (London: Printed for John Kershaw, 1824), p. 161.  Regarding “purity of intention,” Runyon writes, “If the intention is right, this is what really counts [to Wesley].  ‘Intention’ was a theme important to him from his 1725 self-dedication onward,” Theodore Runyon, “The New Creation: A Wesleyan Distinctive,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 31/2 (Fall 1996):12.

13 Moore., p. 124.

14 Christensen, p. 75.

15 Bundy, p. 141.

16 Moore, p. 107.

17 Ibid., p. 234, see also 190.

18 Ibid., p. 54.

19 Outler, p. 12, Christensen, p. 75.

20 Christensen, pp. 76, 85.

21 Moore, p. 190, Bundy, p. 142.

22 From Chapter 6 of John Telford, The Life of John Wesley (http://Wesley.nnu-edu/?id=88, accessed April 2, 2014).  This passage is apparently taken from a printing other than that of 1900, in which this and some other passages do not appear.

23 Ibid., see also McCormick, p. 48.

24 J. Steven O’Malley, “Pietistic Influence on John Wesley: Wesley and Gerhard Tersteegen” Wesleyan Theological Journal 31/2 (Fall 1996):49, 65, 66.

25 O’Malley, p. 57 f.

26 Outler, pp. 12-13, see also Bundy, p. 141.

27 Ibid., p. 11.

28 O’Malley, p. 49.

29 John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, in Wesley and Fletcher, Entire Sanctification Attainable in This Life (London: Charles H. Kelly, 1898), p. 11.

30 Christensen, p. 76.

31 O’Malley, p. 51.

32 Tersteegen had previously questioned von Zinzendorf’s self-interest and possible antinomianism, O’Malley, p. 57.

33 Moore, p. 343.

34 O’Malley, p. 53, see also 57.

35 Ibid., pp. 49, 57-61.

36 Ibid., p. 69, incl. note 77, referring to L. G. Harvey, ed., Tersteegen, Recluse in Demand: Life and Letters, vol. I (Hampton, TN: Harvey & Tait, n.d.), pp. 125, 129.

37 Ibid., p. 65; see also Bundy, p. 153, and Christensen, p. 71, note 1.

38 Maddox, p. 31; on Tersteegen, see also O’Malley, p. 65.

39 Wesley, A Plain Account, p. 25.

40 So Maddox, pp. 31, 35.

41 See Christensen, p. 85; Outler, p. 9, note 26; and a somewhat contrary view in Bundy, p. 139.

42 Christensen, pp. 81, 85, incl. note 19.

43 See Christensen, pp. 76; 85, note 22; and p. 87.  For more on the awakening of spiritual senses, in the views of both Macarius and Wesley, see Runyon, p. 14.

44 Letter from John to Charles Wesley, June 27, 1766, cited in Christensen, p. 90.

45 McCormick, p. 53. “God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul, which is continually crying, ‘Whom have I in heaven but Thee’?  He is therefore happy in God; yea, always happy…,” Wesley, A Plain Account, p. 13, see also p. 8.

46 Outler, p. 31.

47 Christensen, p. 88, see also p. 80.

48 Bundy, p. 155.

49 Outler, p. 30.

50 Maddox, p. 30; Christensen, pp. 76, 78; Bundy, pp. 139 ff., 149.

51 Bundy, pp.139, 143, 151.

52 Bundy, p. 141.

53 “A Christian Library by John Wesley,” Wesley Center Online (http://wesley.nnu.­edu/john-wesley/a-christian-library/, accessed April 3, 2014).

54 Christensen, p. 75, Runyon, p. 13, Moore, p. 518.

55 O’Malley, p. 56 f.

56 Christensen, p. 76.

57 Christensen’s term, pp. 74, 80.

58 Bundy, p. 143, see also 142.

59 Christensen, p. 80.

60 Ted Campbell in Christensen, p. 81, note 22.

61 Frank Baker, “John Wesley, Biblical Commentator,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 71 (1989):111 f.

62 Pseudo-Macarius Homily 8:5, in A. J. Mason, Fifty Spiritual Homilies of St. Macarius the Egyptian, Translations of Christian Literature, Series I, gen. ed. W. J. Sparrow-Simpson and W. K. Lowther Clarke (London: SPCK, 1921), pp. 67 f.

64 Christensen, p. 88.

65 McCormick, p. 54.

66 Runyon, p. 15.

67 McCormick, p. 102, note 153; McCormick, quoted in Troy W. Martin, “John Wesley’s Exegetical Orientation: East Or West?” Wesleyan Theological Journal 26 (1991):136, note 114; see also Runyon, p. 15, note 30.

68 Wesley, A Plain Account, p. 21.

69 See Ibid., p. 19 f.

70 Ibid., p. 41.

© 2014 Paul A. Hughes

Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism, Epilogue

Apotheosis of Thomas Aquinas by Francisco de Zurbaran 1631

Public Domain

Go to Part 1

Get a print version of the book, Neoplatonist Stew, in paperback

Download Neoplatonist Stew as an eBook


Pagan Infiltration of Christian Theology

In the future, the present writer might choose to trace the influences of Pagan theology more extensively, and in detail, down to the present day.  Additional avenues of pertinent study would be an examination of the psychology behind Mysticism (what inner needs and desires compel practitioners to crave and seek mystical experience, according to the testimony of expert sources, and why Mystics so intractably defend their practice in spite its contradictions of Scripture) as well as the politics behind the sacramental/sacerdotal system.

For now, it is appropriate to close the present study with a selection of examples of the later effects of the intrusion of Pagan philosophy into Christian theology.

John Scotus Eriugena (c. 810–c. 877)

As mentioned earlier, Eriugena (or Erigena) translated the works attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius, long popular in the East, into Latin, which made them available to the Western Church.  He likewise translated and propagated works by Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor (citation “John Scottus Eriugena” in SEP at  Eriugena “made it his aim to elucidate the vague theories of Dionysius, and to present them as a consistent philosophical system worked out by the help of Aristotle and perhaps Boethius.”  This fueled an exercise in speculation which Inge, himself a Neoplatonist, labels “audacious” (William Ralph Inge, Christian Mysticism [NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899], p. 133; see also Mosheim, vol. 2, p. 332).  Eriugena thereafter gives rein to the “most dangerous tendencies” of Dionysius as well as Origen and the Alexandrian Fathers (Inge, CM, p. 137).

In his time, Eriugena enjoyed the patronage and protection of Charles the Bald.  Over the ensuing centuries, many of his works were condemned by bishops’ councils, yet he maintained a strong following, including Hugh of St. Victor, Meister Eckhart, and Nicholas of Cusa; and in the 19th Century, Hegelians (“Eriugena” in SEP).

Bonaventure (1221-1274)

The Franciscans were founded by Francis of Assisi in 1209.  Their leader in the middle of the century was Bonaventure, a traditionalist who defended the theology of Augustine and the philosophy of Plato, incorporating only a little of Aristotle in with the more neoplatonist elements.  Following Anselm, Bonaventure supposed that reason can only discover truth when philosophy is illuminated by religious faith (citation “Scholasticism” at

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)

The textbooks credit Aquinas with being an Aristotelian, rationalist scholastic, yet Inge calls him “nearer to Plotinus than to the real Aristotle” (Russell, p. 284).  John F. Wippel (Metaphysical Themes in Thomas Aquinas II, in Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, vol. 47 [The Catholic University of America Press, 2007]) catalogs a number of instances in which Aquinas’s theology follows Plato (pp. 287, 288), Dionysius (pp. 9, 144, 159, 164, 287, 288), or some other Neoplatonist (pp. 10, 281), as well as Augustine’s Book of Eighty-Three Questions (pp. 287 f.), rather than Aristotle.  Dionysius’ book on divine names was one of Aquinas’s favorites, though in some ways misapprehended (Louth, p. 155).

Aquinas outlines three ways in which God can be known:  reason, revelation, and intuition (Russell, p. 460), the nature of which he does not fully explain, but is comparable to the three “stages” of Gregory of Nyssa, and bears every appearance of a neat Neoplatonic triad.

Following the teaching of Dionysius, “names of pure perfections do signify the divine substance albeit in deficient and imperfect fashion.  Since every agent [cause, form] acts insofar as it is in act (sic.), and therefore produces something like itself [i.e., effect, shadow], the form of any effect must be present in its efficient cause in some way” (Wippel, p. 159), which goes right back to the Proclian/Dionysian concept of names as symbols having sympathy toward their originating forms, i.e., effects that appeal to their receptive causes.

A divine idea, according to Aquinas, “exists in God”; moreover, following Aristotle, “like produces like” (Ibid., p. 164).  “The sacramental event”—now following Neoplatonism—has a “single hidden origin in the ‘being, living and thinking’ of contingent beings”; therefore “sacraments function as events which bring believers into harmony with this origin” (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], p. 7).  In this “context, sacramental grace is defined according to a causality-scheme” in such a way that it “causes/realises what it signifies,” which is grace “produced” by God (Ibid.).  Since “grace is nothing else than a certain shared similitude to the divine nature” (Aquinas), following the circular reasoning that sacraments are the means of grace that God has provided, then it is the sacraments by which “God produces grace” (Ibid., pp. 7-8).

Today, this Dionysian subtext, bequeathed through Aquinas, is reflected with remarkable exactitude in modern expressions of Catholic doctrine:

According to Catholic theology, a dynamic link exists between these sacramental signs and the realities they signify.  The outward sign is not just a symbol of divine grace, rather sacraments are efficacious signs:  they do not merely represent a sacred reality but themselves cause the reality they represent. …. Accordingly, the outward signs of the sacraments are dynamic signs and instruments of grace, visible and tangible realities dignified through their involvement in the sanctification of humanity (Helena M. Tomko, “Introduction: Sacramental Realism,” Sacramental Realism: Gertrud von le Fort and German Catholic Literature in the Weimar Republic and Third Reich (1924-46), MHRA Texts and Dissertations, vol. 68, Bithell Series of Dissertations, vol. 31 [Leeds, UK: Maney Publishing, 2007], p. 2).

Besides sacramental grace, Aquinas presents a mode, if not a methodology, by which a soul may transcend, albeit temporarily, to Mystical Union with God.  The only means he admits is “by grace,” through having been granted the lumen gloriae, the “light of glory.”  This “vision of God by the blessed in Heaven is not mere vision, but union,” writes A. B. Sharpe.  It does not come by a Plotinian “discursive intellectual process”; rather, “they see God as He is in Himself, not from a distance … but from within” (Alfred Bowyer Sharpe, Mysticism: Its True Nature and Value, 2nd ed. (London: Sands & Company, 1910), pp. 93, 95).  This degree of personal revelation of God, one notes, is certainly a bold claim, if not to say a presumption, one hardly made by the Prophets.  The picture of transcendence which Aquinas presents perhaps describes ecstasy, of the Augustinian type, but goes beyond ecstasy.  It does not seem to go quite so far as “displacement” or “possession” as Philo ascribed to the Prophets, since “self-consciousness” remains; but seems definitely to describe a superimposition of God’s mind on one’s own (see Ibid., pp. 93 f.), which one presumes automatically produces spiritual formationapotheosis, if not theopoiesis.

The experience of the lumen gloriae may presumably be equated with the “changeless light” of Augustine, and the illuminations described in the experiences of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila (Ibid., pp. 99 f.). John’s concept of “the dark night of the soul” was strongly influenced by Dionysius, whom he often quotes, as well as by Gregory of Nyssa (Louth, p. 176).

The celestial hierarchy of Dionysius and the benign daemons of Proclus, the powers invoked by Pagan or by Christian theurgy, by Platonist, by Cabbalist, or by saint, alike reward the successful aspirant with supernatural endowments; and so far Apollonius of Tyana and Peter of Alcantara, Asclepigenia and St. Theresa, must occupy as religious magicians the same province.  The error is in either case the same—a divine efficacy is attributed to rites and formulas, sprinklings or fumigations, relics or incantations, of mortal manufacture (Vaughan, p. 46).

Interestingly, John himself warns at some length of the risk of mistaking natural phenomena and experiences of specious origin for the revelation of God (Sharpe, p. 102).  Neither John nor Teresa “address themselves to any consideration of the mode, whether partially natural or wholly supernatural, in which the supernatural effects are produced” (Ibid., pp. 108 f.).

Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321)

Dante writes in Paradiso 28:127-135:

Those orders upwards all intensely gaze,
And prevail below, that towards God
All are attracted, whilst they all attract.
And with such mighty longings Denys [Dionysius] sought
To contemplate those Orders, that he names,
And, like myself, described them in detail.
But Gregory thought not afterwards as he;
Whence and so soon as in this heaven his eyes
Were opened, he at his own error smiled.
~David Johnston, trans.,
A Translation of Dante’s Paradiso [Bath, UK: Printed at the Chronicle Office, 1868], p. 171, also quoted in part by Louth, p. 155.

Dante’s divine hierarchy, then, was based on that of Pseudo-Dionysius, whom he seems to regard as a prophet. Pope Gregory the Great, who disagreed somewhat with Dionysius, and with whom Dante had some differences, is seen acknowledging his errors with a smile.

E. R. Dodds points back even further to Plotinus as the theological source and watershed in Christian thinking:  “In [The Enneads] converge almost all the main currents of thought that come down from eight hundred years of Greek speculation; out of it there issues a new current, destined to fertilize minds as different as those of Augustine and Boethius, Dante and Meister Eckhart, Coleridge, Bergson and Mr. T. S. Eliot” (“Tradition and Personal Achievement in the Philosophy of Plotinus,” The Journal of Roman Studies vol. 50/1-2 [1960], p. 1; also quoted in part from another source by Louth, p. 35).

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

Kant expressed Platonic ideas when he distinguished, in his Inaugural Dissertation, an intelligible, paradigmatic world from the sensible material world, a view he never relinquished in spite of later criticisms of Plato.  He also appeared to strike a Platonic note later when, inspired by the empirical scientific “revolution” of Copernicus, he suggested that one’s own metaphysical perception of reality might be judged as valid as that discovered by scientific observation (citation “Immanuel Kant” in SEP at

Karl Barth (1886–1968)

Early in his career, Barth was open in his admiration for certain historic figures, such as Mozart, Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and in particular Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky and the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Kant.  Dostoevsky was steeped in the beliefs and superstitions of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as widely read in philosophers such as Hegel and Kant.

Partly due to the influence of his philosopher brother, Heinrich, Barth placed Socrates and Plato on a level with Abraham and the Prophets in terms of inspired moral insight.  He featured them alongside Biblical figures in his “Lebensbilder aus der Geshichte der christlichen Religion” lessons to the young girls of the congregation.  Plato and Socrates, according to Barth, shared the ideals of the Prophets.  Since “Jesus is, for us, not lesser but greater when we recognize him everywhere,” these great pre-Christians act as “lights” and “mirrors” to reflect Christ to us.  Kant further represented to Barth a “unique resurrection” of Platonic thinking, and therefore shares the limelight.  Barth maintained these views at least through the authorship of his two Romans commentaries and his First Corinthians 15 commentary, The Resurrection of the Dead.  He wrote, “It does not matter whether what they have and guard is Moses or John the Baptist, Plato or Socialism, or even the simple, daily activity of an inherent moral reason:  it is calling, promise, the potential for a parable in this having and guarding, the offer and the open door of the deepest knowledge” (Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy [Oxford University Press, 2012], pp. 32 f., 45, 64 f., 76, 97, 106, 239, 247; Gregg Strawbridge, “Karl Barth’s Rejection of Natural Theology: Or an Exegesis of Romans 1:19-20,” A Paper Presented to the Evangelical Theological Society, San Francisco, 1997], posted at

In later years, Barth became more reticent about his enthusiasm for Socrates and Plato, admitting that his earlier works had a “remarkable crust of Kantian and Platonic ideas.”  “But look,” he excused, “at that time I was strongly influenced—always influenced—by platonic philosophy.  And like in the Römerbrief so also in this book on resurrection there are traces of Plato.  And I stopped being a Platonist later on.”  So “then I was under the influence, well, from Plato, from Kant, from Dostojewski, from Kierkegaard and so on” (Oakes, pp. 76 note, 239).

Barth did not seem to be of a mystic bent, did not like using philosophical terms, and was critical of the intrusion of Metaphysics into theology in his day, yet does appear to have picked up a measure of Platonic, even Neoplatonic thinking.  He echoed Plato’s yearning for the Good and the Beautiful, fundamental motivations in Plato’s search for transcendence.  As in Plotinus’ quest for the Fatherland, the Creation has forgotten God and longs to return to the source.  As Kenneth Oakes summarizes, “Jesus Christ is the turning point of time and history, the Tatsache, the actuality, not as a philosopher or as a moral teacher, but because he is that which both Plato and the Old Testament prophets posited as the ideal: a man living in time and yet also living in eternity” (Oakes, pp. 33, 45, 76).  Judging as well from the way his contemporary, Ludwig Wittgenstein, used the term Tatsache, “fact,” in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), it appears that Barth is thinking in terms of Christ as Logos, philosophically speaking, and ultimately as Platonic form; while Wittgenstein in parallel thinks in terms of a world created of “facts” made up of “objects,” which in turn build “pictures” of thought.  “The picture,” says his Tractatus 2.12, “is a model of reality”—or as one could well surmise, a form (Luigi Perissinotto, “‘The Socratic Method!'”: Wittgenstein and Plato,” Wittgenstein and Plato: Connections, Comparisons and Contrasts, eds. Luigi Perissinotto and Begoña Ramón Cámara, [Houndmills, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013], sec. 3; Robert B. Pippin, “Negation and Not-Being in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and Plato’s Sophist,” Kant-Studien 70 [1-4] [1979], p. 180; citation “Ludwig Wittgenstein” in SEP at

Karl Rahner (1904–1984)

A Jesuit priest, Karl Rahner studied Kant and Joseph Maréchal, a transcendental Thomist, extensively, and during his doctoral studies became an especial devotee of existentialist Martin Heidegger, whose lectures he attended faithfully.  One of Heidegger’s peeves was Platonism in church tradition, in the sense of a transcedent spiritual world over the material.  Rahner adopted this bias, and included Heidegger’s as well as Maréchal’s views in his doctoral dissertation, which was subsequently rejected.  Nevertheless, he published the work in 1939 as Geist in Welt, a radical reinterpretation of Thomas Aquinas, which gained Rahner a popular following (Thomas Sheehan, “The Dream of Karl Rahner,” The New York Review of Books 29/1 [February 4, 1982] at; citation “Karl Rahner” in Wikipedia at

Rahner was labeled as heterodox, if not heretical, and was placed under publishing sanctions by Pope Pius XII; but was soon favored by “progressive” Pope John XXIII with an appointment as advisor to the pivotal Vatican II Councils, where he emerged as a popular “star.”  “Rahner’s influence was enormous,” writes a critic.  “He satisfied a modern world, and modern churchmen, whose ears were itching for doctrinal compromises under the pretext of ‘enlightenment.'”  During the Council, Rahner worked alongside another Progressive, Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.  It was revealed in 1994 that during the several years of Vatican II, Rahner wrote 758 letters to his longtime, ostensibly “Platonic” love interest, writer Luise Rinser.  A double divorcee with two sons, Rinser professed Catholicism while delving into Buddhism, was a pro-abortion and anti-celibacy activist, ran for German president with the Green Party, and lended her support to dictator Kim Il Sung of North Korea (John Vennari, “Karl Rahner’s Girlfriend,” Catholic Family News [May 2004], now reposted at

Espousing views called the New Theology, Rahner and other advocates pressed to reform or redefine many Catholic dogmas.  Earlier, Father David Greenstock had warned, “The main contention of the partisans of this new movement is that theology, to remain alive, must move with the times.  At the same time, they are very careful to repeat all the fundamental propositions of traditional theology, almost as if there was no intention of any attack against it.  This is very true of such writers as Fathers [Henri] de Lubac, [Jean] Daniélou, Rahner …. All of whom are undoubtedly at the very center of this movement” (“Thomism and the New Theology,” The Thomist 13 (1950), quoted in Ibid.). Rahner’s proposed doctrine of Transfinalization, intended to replace Transubstantiation, was condemned by Pope Paul VI in 1965 (“Karl Rahner” in Wikipedia; citation “Transfinalization” at

While outspoken against Platonic Dualism (Soul/Body), Rahner’s theology includes many Platonic as well as Neoplatonic and other Pagan elements.  He believed in a unity of the soul with the body (Aristotle), and no “afterlife,” as described in Christian revelation, but a “self-realization which embodies the result of what a man has made of himself during life” (Rahner, quoted in Sheehan), and only comes at death.  So “if one maintains that man is immortal as a whole and not just as a spirit, then it follows for Rahner that in death one does not leave the material world but enters more deeply into it and becomes what he calls ‘all-cosmic,’ somehow present to and in communication with all material reality” (Sheehan), i.e., a form of Pantheism.  To Rahner, God’s grace is built into nature, as is the soul itself, “Thus all persons are ‘Christian’—that is, caught up in God’s universal saving grace—by the very fact that they exist, regardless of whether they are baptized” (Sheehan), which of course is Inclusivism or Universalism.  God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved, and can apply his Atonement as he wishes, apart from belief in Jesus (“Religious Pluralism” in SEP at

A concept of such “anonymous Christianity” (Rahner’s term) “obviously changes the idea of missionary evangelization from ‘telling the natives what they don’t yet know’ to ‘showing them what they already are'” (Sheehan).  One recalls that “self-realization” was a necessary step in metaphysical ascent, going back at least as far as Plotinus; as to Plato the doctrine of the fallen entity drawn back to its source.  Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez also speaks in terms of “anonymous” Christians, in essence calling the masses of poor the Church, and therefore the temple of God and a “sacrament of universal salvation” (see Part 2 of this series).  “We and the world are sacraments of God,” writes Mark F. Fischer, and we “make the divine reality actual in our words and deeds” (“Karl Rahner and the Immortality of the Soul,” The Saint Anselm Journal 6.1 [Fall 2008], p. 1).  To Fischer and other Rahnerians, the “sacramental principle” is that the material world is the spiritual world, such that human expression is an expression of God (Ibid.).  In essence, humans are thus the effects of God’s cause in Christ, the shadows of his form, working in theurgic, Proclian, Dionysian sympathy toward the source, God.

“God established a world, not in a one-time act of creation, but in a constant process of divine causality [Proclian terminology], that is, in a relationship that is being ‘continuously constituted’ by God” (Fischer, p. 8).  Christ came “in the flesh” as Logos only insofar as one is referring to “soul”; which Incarnation constitutes in itself “an act of creation” (Ibid., pp. 10 ff.).  Likewise, the Resurrection was not an “historical event” but a divine expression or concretization of God’s identification with humanity (Sheehan).  Thus God “creates the human reality by the very fact that he assumes it as his own” (Rahner, italics his, quoted in Fischer, p. 10).  Rahner’s redefinition of the Trinity, in Sheehan’s opinion, “rehabilitates” it “by relating it to man’s self-transcendence.”  As Sheehan summarizes, “Man knows the Father when he knows God as infinitely distant, he knows the Son when he knows God as absolutely close, and he knows the Holy Spirit when he knows God as penetrating existence and history,” which statement is, by the way, a more or less exact reflection of the Platonic Trinity of “the One” (who lives in thick darkness), the Spirit, and the Soul (in that order).

Rahner’s version of transcendence presumes the preexistence of souls (a Platonic concept) by presupposing that all humans have a “latent experience of God” (“Karl Rahner” in Wikipedia; see also Fischer, p. 11).  Integral with Rahner’s theory of transcendence is the concept of “affective connaturality,” a concept which Aquinas rationalized from Dionysius and Aristotle (see Jacques Maritain, The Range of Reason, ch. 3, online at  The term describes “intellect” not based on reason, nor from feelings or emotion, but intuitive and affective, by volition.  Aquinas saw a “difference between the knowledge of divine reality acquired by theology and the knowledge of divine reality acquired by mystical experience” (Ibid.), the latter of which in fact implies the Plotinian model of acquisition of divine knowledge through contemplative prayer, as earlier discussed.

Andrew Tallon defines that alternate kind of knowledge, or one might rather say innate formative virtue, as “the normal … way the good person, the saint (… in the ‘state of grace’), exists and acts as an embodied spirit, more highly actualized by virtues (some of them gifts of the Spirit), affectable and affected by God and then responding” (“The Heart in Rahner’s Philosophy of Mysticism,” Theological Studies 53 [1992], p. 711), which one presumes refers to the phenomenon of “spiritual formation.”  Tallon further defines “affective connaturality” as “the essential ‘mechanism’ of … intersubjectivity,” the latter term having to do with the interrelating of two minds (Ibid., p. 709), apparently expressing the theoretial superimposition of God’s mind upon the human mind taught by Aquinas.  Elsewhere, Tallon posits the instrumentality of “the life of the [small-‘s’] spirit” through “prayer and action in reciprocal causation” (Ibid., p. 708), which is perhaps comparable to a cause-and-effect theurgy of sympathy and receptivity.

There are two kinds of prayer, that which is direct and vocative (presumably rational and cognitive), and that imaginatively called “discernment of spirits … consciously and responsibly bringing the rest of life into free relation to the God addressed by prayer.  Love of God and love of neighbor are traditional ways of saying the same thing….  The most perfect ethical action comes from discernment based on mystical attunement.  The continuum of the ethical and mystical is again confirmed when the mystical as prayer becomes practical by flowing ‘backward’ as discernment” (Ibid., p. 708).  Further, “The human soul, when more perfectly actualized by good habits (and, we hope, graced by the virtues that are gifts of the Spirit), approximates asymptotically the intuitive knowing and spontaneous love of the angels” (Ibid., p. 714).

The word asymptotic is a geometry term Tallon chooses, one gathers, to express approximation in the sense of replication that is nearly but not exactly perfect—suggesting “image” or “shadow” as compared to reality or form; and the realm of the angels is, of course, the higher realm of the Platonic forms.  Moreover, Rahner (following Pierre Rousselot) “interprets Aquinas’s hierarchy of spirit as meaning that the more perfectly actualized human soul (lowest in the hierarchy of spirits that includes angels and God) … performs” on the highest level (Ibid., p. 713), a concept lifted directly out of Pseudo-Dionysius, being that of the hierarch, who alone may “contemplate, directly, the intelligible realm … the realm visible and accessible to the angels,” as described earlier.

So being Christian is reduced to arranging one’s mental and behavioral patterns in a kind of semi-cognitive Feng Shui, in order to be attuned to more effectively channel the thinking and activities of the Spirit of God which one cohabits.  The accomplished soul is then the one most imprinted with God’s mind and conformed, through self-realization combined with a spiritual osmosis, in a process of theopoiesis, till achieving apotheosis or demigod status. This is a theology and methodology devoid of particular content and profoundly opposed to the New Testament revelation, wherein virtue is inculcated as it is instituted, through cognitive assent to the propositional truth of the Gospel, by receiving grace through obedience to the Gospel and Christ’s commands, and trust in his provision, and by accepting the promised gift of the Holy Spirit:  by whose continuing grace, in terms of enlightenment, empowerment, and encouragement, the believer can “perform” above mere human levels in order to overcome sin and “bear” righteous “fruit of the Spirit.”

Pope Benedict XVI (b. 1927)

As mentioned earlier, Joseph Ratzinger worked with Karl Rahner at Vatican II.  While conservatively Catholic in many ways, Ratzinger shares many theological perspectives with Rahner, has worked alongside Hans Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx, as well, and follows Neoplatonists Jean Daniélou and Hans Urs von Balthazar, and Metaphysicist René Guénon.

“Ratzinger is convinced that the dialogue between Judeo-Christian biblical faith and Hellenistic (neo-Platonic) philosophy has been providential” (Boeve, p. 8).  The true God, as “the ground of all being,” is the same the philosophers sought (Nicholas J. Healy, “Natural Theology and the Christian Contibution to Metaphysics: On Thomas Joseph White’s Wisdom in the Face of Modernity,” Nova et Vetera 10, No. 2 [2012], p. 540).  Indeed, Ratzinger holds that the world emanates from a greater reality and seeks to return to the Source (Boeve, p. 8), a generally Platonic and specifically Proclian-Dionysian idea.  To him, being “called by and to God” culminates in incorporation into the “God-initiated” or “God-permeated” world continuum (“Einfügung in den durchgottete Kosmos“), a world that is “sacramentally structured” such that it directs the creature back to the Creator (Ibid.), again a Proclian/Dionysian concept.

In defending Sacramental Realism, Ratzinger deprecates the “idealist misjudgment of human nature” and the “naïve idea of man’s spiritual autonomy” for which Immanuel Fichte is known, and by which Rudolf Bultmann concluded “that spirit cannot be nourished by matter.”  This “Idealistic heresy,” according to Ratzinger, is relative to Marxist ideas and due to materialist thinking based on human effort―homo faber―”which thinks it knows again that man can only be spirit in the manner of bodilyness” and “want[s] to make man into a pure spirit before God.”  The sacraments, on the other hand, are vital as God’s way of meeting man on a human level, using material means which embody “incarnation,” “historicity,” and the presence of Christ (Joseph Ratzinger, Die sakramentale Begründung christlicher Existenz [Freiburg im Breisgau, DE: Herder Verlag Herder, 2008], translator unknown, excerpted at; see also Healy, pp. 559 f.).

Here Ratzinger falls back, unfortunately, upon a theurgic view of symbols and shadows which appeal to corresponding spiritual realities.  Moreover, Ratzinger’s dichotomy on human nature is a false one since, far from Ficte’s totally man-centered view, the Biblical view is that man is a rational being capable of making choices of what to believe, whether to obey, and whether to “walk in the Spirit” daily, as opposed to “by the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.”  True, man is helpless to save himself, apart from grace; but the activation of grace is by rational choice in response to propositional truth, not dependence upon material sacraments or sacerdotal auspices.  To Ratzinger, in contrast, the soul of man is not autonomous but part of a world-spirit destined to be restored as a body to God.  His view relies more on “natural theology” (see Healey) and historical Church theology than Scripture, which leads him to a view of Inclusiveness that has spawned suspicions of Universalism, as did Rahner’s.

The sacramental view, contends Ratzinger, is proven typologically, not rationally or empirically; by looking forward, not backward.  He who clings to exegesis and the historical study of Scripture is “elitist,” an “analyzer” who is “unspiritual” because he “imagines himself to be the initiate,” presuming to “always know better” and “to be wholly spiritual” (Ratzinger, “On the Meaning of the Sacrament,” trans. Kenneth Baker, in FCS Quarterly [Spring 2011], p. 30).  “Historical reconstruction” fails to see “the unity of typological history” (Ibid., p. 33).  This “narrowly conceived, purely salvation-historical view” fails to apprehend the “mystery.”  Yet the hidden wisdom is “simple,” revealed to “fools,” and “promises … entry into the innermost thinking of God.”  Mystery is effectual for “The one who lives and stays in the simple unity of the universal Church” (Ibid., p. 30).  Meaning “is no longer the meaning of a biblical text” but of an “event, which reaches down to the center of creation and reaches up to the innermost and definitive will of God” (Ibid., p. 31).  One is reminded of the suggestions earlier by Fathers Keefe and Keleher to quit worrying and learn to trust the Church.

Ratzinger does not initially ground his claim of mystery relative to sacrament in the New Testament, in which the connection is conspicuously absent.  He first consults the Old Testament wisdom books and Apocrypha, then late rabbinical commentaries, then sacramental views expressed by the Church Fathers (see Part 7 of this series), which he afterward applies by virtue of the Catholic analogy of faith and with reference to typology to reinterpret New Testament content by what he deems a typological and sacramental “hermeneutic” (Ibid., pp. 29 ff.).  In Ratzinger’s hermeneutic, parabolic speech in Scripture which is literally unintelligible nevertheless represents reality.  Thus to “Rabbi Paul,” the mysteries of the Old Testament and the parables of the New “become visible” in Christ, and “a word of creation” (Ibid., p. 30).  More than that, “Jesus is the meaning of all the words in the Scripture.”  Therefore, “not only the words, but also the realities described by them are mysteries, emblematic references to Christ” (Ibid., p. 31); to the Sacramentalist, Christianity is a mystery expressed in “symbols” which “reveal reality” and by which one may “gain access to reality” (Ibid., p. 28)—all of which suggest theurgy.

All of Scripture, concludes Ratzinger, is a sacrament, both literal words and “events” (Ibid., p. 31).  His typological “understanding of the sacraments,” as a creative hermeneutical gnosis, “presupposes the historical continuity of God’s activity and, as its concrete locus, the living community of the Church, which is the sacrament of sacraments” (Ibid., p. 34), a view of the church entirely amenable to the concerns of John A. T. Robinson and Gustavo Gutiérrez.  Further, “The meaning of creation, which appears in Jesus as the unveiling of the Scriptures, is unity in which the fullness of God shines forth and illumines” (Ibid., p. 31). The sacramental understanding “purifies” and “refashions” creation continually (Ibid., p. 32) until “the Church, in which no longer Israel alone, but all mankind is drawn into the unity of love that leads to an indissoluble merger into one single existence” (Ibid., p. 31).

This “indissoluble merger” (unlöslicher Verschmelzung, “unfathomable fusion,” Séan Corkery, Christological Hermeneutic: Sacrament and Scripture in the Work of Joseph Ratzinger, a paper presented to the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, Maynooth, Ireland, June 6, 2012, p. 4), describes incorporation of souls not into an eschatological “kingdom-come,” nor an exodus from darkness to light, from hell to heaven, as in the New Testament, but a continuum (“unity”) of God’s work upon the world, in all peoples, at all times and in both Testaments, amounting to a Plotinian ascent in knowledge of God—not however as individuals, but corporately as the Church.  From the Old Testament to the New, one ascends from “the oppressive multiplicity of what is not yet transparent, to the liberating simplicity of what is Christian,” then to rites which Ratzinger reckons to be open, transparent, and rational (Rat. OTM, p. 33)—yet “mysterious” and symbolic?—until the day when God brings all things and all peoples, Catholics, Jews, and others, into him in unity and love, which echoes Robinson’s conception of the Parousia.

Thus one observes Neoplatonism and Theurgy, along with the method called “analogy of faith,”employed at will, eclectically, when convenient to theology and argumentation, and arguably so interwoven into the fabric of sacramental and mystical theology that its use, as well as its origins, may be utterly unconscious on the part of the practitioner.

© 2013 Paul A. Hughes

Return to Part 1

Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism, Part 6

Pagan Influence in Church History Chart

Pagan Influence in Church History Chart

Click Chart for Larger Image

Go to Part 1

Get a print version of the book, Neoplatonist Stew, in paperback

Download Neoplatonist Stew as an eBook

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