Notes on Plotinus

In light of the recent discussions on analogia entis and such, I decided to post these notes.  I am neither agreeing nor disagreeing with Plotinus. This is just what I jotted down when I read through the Enneads last summer.

First Ennead


“The power of pronouncing upon things how they are and differ with others” (I.III.4).  It is combining and Dividing until one reaches perfect Intellection.

Happiness and the Soul

All living things proceed from one principle but possess life in different degrees. The Intellect contains the soul (soul is a lower part; I.IV.10).  The soul reflects and refracts–as a mirror of sorts–the higher images from the Intellect.  

Eternity is Timeless Being (I.V. 7).  

Our knowing the Transcendental allows us a standpoint for the wider survey.

Beauty isn’t symmetry but symmetry participates in Beauty.  

The Soul exists within a Hierarchy of Being

Second Ennead

By matter I don’t think Plotinus means simple corporeality.  It seems to be the chaotic substratum of flux and difference.  It is the manifestation of flux and disorder.  What accounts for unity within the flux of the cosmos?  How can matter serve the immortality of the cosmos (II.1.3)  Answer: the flux is not outgoing.  Does Plotinus mean that the flux doesn’t emanate like the higher orders of being do?

“The ground of all change must itself be changeless”

A soul, then, of the minor degree, reproduces that Divine sphere, although lacking in power. The coherence of extremes is produced by virtue of each possessing all the intermediates (II.1.6).

E1 ——-I₁——–I₂—————E2

The lower soul is moved by the higher (II.II.3)

On Necessity

Necessity is the mother of the fates. There is an agon in the soul as it relates to matter.  

Structure of the Cosmology


Intellectual Principle (but even here there are gradations of being, as Plotinus allows for an image of idefiniteness

World Soul


Each causes the lesser, which in turn is inferior.  The cosmos is an image continuously being imaged.  


Definition and description:  it is undetermined, void of shape (II.IV.2).  Matter suggests movement and differentiation.  By motion, it is a cleavage.  Matter only has real being in the intelligible realm.  Yet, how can the realm of form have matter?  Plotinus suggests that the matter there is a type of complete unity.

Epistemology problem

Likeness knows by likeness.  The indeterminate knows the indeterminate.  How can soul know matter?  The indeterminate must have some footing in the realm of form.  “In knowing matter it must have an experience, the impact of the shapeless” (II.IV.10).  

Matter = Indeterminacy = The Void = Nonbeing (?).

To clarify, matter isn’t corporeality, but the base of the identity to all that is composite. An absence is neither a quality nor a qualified entity, but the negation of a quality (II.IV.13)

Fifth Tractate: Potentiality

All potentiality has a telos.  It is a “substratum” to states.  It requires an intervention from outside itself to bring itself to actuality.  Therefore, anything that has potentiality is actually something else!

Ennead 3


  • A cause penetrates all things
  • This cause cannot be material in origin, since matter = disorder
  • All things are brought to eventuation through causes. There are two kinds:
    • Originating from the soul
    • Originating from the environment

Matter and Evil

  • Conflict and destruction are inevitable (III.II.4).
  • Evil is a falling short in the good (III.II.5).

Structure of the Cosmos (B)



Human beings

Man has come into existence because he occupies an intermediate state. The reason-principles are acts of the Universal Soul. The reason-principle has two phases: one that creates and the other that links the creations.

Ennead 4

The soul is not a quantitative object.  It is a manifestation of Logos (III.5). Much of this Ennead is a long defense of reincarnation, which I won’t cover here. The soul is the medium between Logos and creation (III.11).  

Ennead 5

Problems that are raised for Plotinus.  (Here I am following Rowan Williams’ Arius: Heresy and Tradition).  

  • Can the One have self-understanding, since he would be both subject and object–an active mind working on a passive object (Williams 199ff).  The problem here is that the Form of the one is not simply a structure, but a structuring principle.
  • Thinking and understanding involve distance and duplication.  Understanding is complex because it seeks itself in Otherness (201).
  • Therefore, apparently, when the nous knows itself, it produces multiplicity of the world of ideas, which separates itself from the one.  

You better do more than just agree

I told some on Puritanboard that I was not necessarily committed to premillennialism and I was ready to deal with other systems.  In short, I was going to give amillennialism (nota bene: that may be the ugliest term in all of systematic theology) a chance.

So, if amillennialism were true, the following conditions had to obtain:

a) Revelation still had to be anchored in history.  A denial of history is gnosticism and must be violently hated and resisted by Christians at all times.

b) Antichrist is real.  Frankly, I don’t think this is up for debate.  In any case, it doesn’t make any sense to speak of a darkening of culture (which the NT does) without an antichrist figure.  Yes, I know it doesn’t actually say that, but you get the idea. Further, I am not committed to whether it is an individual or a system.

c) There must be a flooding of history and creation with God’s glory.  On earth.  Doesn’t have to be a millennial reign. But it must happen on earth.  If you disagree, you are closer to Valentinius.

And I was told I was closer to Left Behind.  I said “No, the church fathers.”  You see, for the past seven years I have been steeped in the church fathers. Particularly the Eastern ones.  Mainly Irenaeus (yeah, he ministered in France but he was still Eastern).  TRs just don’t know anything about the church fathers beyond a few snippets from Augustine, so they really can’t contribute to this discussion (which is probably a summary of TRs in general).

And then to top it off, a magus then told me that “carnal views of the millennium” are not acceptable.  Whenever this guy comments the discussion always reaches Monte Python levels.

So what did we learn on the internet today? You can’t just agree in general with TRs. You need to line up on the specifics.  It’s a hyper-overreaction to Roman Catholicism.  Medieval Catholicism said you had to have an “implicit faith” to be saved.  That was because Rome had a million small doctrines that no one could keep count of, so they covered it by saying “just implicitly believe that.”  I’m not attacking Rome at the moment, but hyper-Reformed have a microscopic doctrines that you better line up on.

Analogia Entis

As Hans Boersma notes, the analogia entis is first and foremost a “sacramental link” between God and creation (Boersma 71).  It is “hinged” or “suspended” by God.  Yet, and here is where an analogia entis cannot be equated with chain of being, it “also insists on the infinite difference between Creator and creature.  In fact, dissimilarity is the main point of the doctrine of analogy.”
last judgment

The following is from David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite.  “The analogy of being does not analogize God and creatures under the more general category of being, but is the analogizing of being in the difference between God and creatures” (241-242).  It rejects both the univocity of Apollos and the equivocity of Dionysius, “neither of which provide a vantage point on transcendence.”

Further safeguarding the Creator/creature distinction, Hart notes, “if the primary analogy is one of being, then an infinite analogical interval has been introduced between God and creatures.”

Hart suggests that without the analogia entis, revelation is impossible.  If there is no analogy or connection between God and man, then either man cannot understand God’s words (equivocity; difference) or man is God’s words (univocity; identity; the problem of Cratylus).


  1. If analogia entis implies a sacramental link between God and creation, and if Barth rejected this as the invention of Antichrist, is it no surprise that Barth (and his followers) have such an anemic view of the sacraments?
  2. There is a connection between God and the world. It is a sacramental one.  The “sign” is filled with deep meaning.  It is “thick.”
  3. Yet, the connection is not an essentialist one, which is the case with chain of being.
  4. This means human “faith,” human “reason,” and human “discourse,” all participate in God
  5. Contrary to chain of being, creation isn’t a diminution; rather, the “most high principle…is present in the very act of each moment of the particular” (247).  In other words, the “lowest” particular reflects the highest transcendence


Boersma, Hans. Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. Baker Academic.

Hart, David Bentley.

Notes on Phaedrus

Initial Problem: Can a lover be a stable friend?

P1: The Lover is more dis-ordered than the non-lover.

P2: Love is a desire [Plato 237]

P2a: Erromenos Eros is the Supreme Desire.

P3: (Socrates speaking): The non-lover has all the advantages in which the lover is deficient.

P(1-3) establish that the lover is always unstable.  He is concerned with pleasing the beloved.  It seems if he is controlled by desire (Eros), then he isn’t rational.  In fact, he is mad. But Socrates raises an interesting question: Do we not consider Eros divine (the ancient Greek would have said yes)?  If so, he can’t be evil.  If he isn’t evil, does that call into question P(1-3)?  Socrates renews his argument:

P4: What if madness weren’t necessarily an evil? [244]

Prophecy is a kind of madness, yet no one considers prophets evil (not usually).  Therefore, “love” might be a madness, but it isn’t automatically evil. Here Socrates breaks the narrative and talks about the nature of the soul. The soul is immortal, which means it is indestructible and self-moving.  Therefore, the soul can’t be evil.  Therefore, presumably, it’s desiring isn’t madness.  In fact, it has to be mad.

P4*: Souls long for that which is beyond themselves [248].

Plato introduces the famous metaphor that the soul is a charioteer.

Soul = Good Horse (forms) OR Bad Horse (defective)



Problem:  Truth is in the eternal realm, yet I am in this world of flux.  How can I know truth?  How can I know what I don’t yet know? Desire (Eros)  mediates between what is known and what is unknown. As Socrates says, “I love, but know not what” [255]. Thus, knowing is a form of loving.  As Catherine Pickstock says, “Eros is described as a liquid, pouring into the eyes and overflowing into others” (Pickstock 239).

Pickstock suggests that knowledge implies a pre-understanding “through a desire to know.”

On God and Man

Review of On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St Gregory of Nazianzus (SVS Press)

On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of Gregory of Nazianzen

{1} Some have compared this work to Augustine’s Confessions, but that’s misleading. True, Gregory does open his soul to outsiders, and the literary skill is magnificent, but it isn’t nearly as introspective as Augustine’s work. But echoes certainly remain. One theme in this book, similar to that of Ecclesiastes, is the evanescence of life. Gregory ties this with our materiality. Yes, matter is good and created good, but matter’s fallen mode is one of change and flux.

{2} Only eternal things remain.

{3} Of particular importance are Gregory’s stirring accounts of the human soul. The soul has mind and reason (Gregory 82). It is superior to flesh (96). Indeed, it is the very breath of God (lit. “the efflux of the divine Mind, 103 passim).

{4} As we would expect with St Gregory, he displays a high and holy view of God. The Father is “Mind” and the Son is the Father’s intellect (53, 38). The Son is the archetype’s image. Echoing some Neo-Platonic themes, man, indeed creation, proceeds from God and returns to God (157). While he rejects the eternality of creation, nonetheless creation was an idea in the mind of God–and God’s ideas are eternal per the doctrine of simplicity.

{5} Gregory combats pagan ontologies, Paganism is agonistic. If two forces struggle (light/dark; God/chaos), then who/what is the third term that brings harmony (49ff)?

{6} This work ends with one of Gregory’s most famous poems, including the prophetic dream he had of the Two Virgins. (Incidentally, if you are a cessationist then you will have problems with Gregory).


This work is magnificent. In many ways it is better than “On God and Christ.” Because it is poetry, it is more accessible (if occasionally incomplete in thought). Some lines, even in translation, are simply sublime.


Heavenly Participation (Boersma)

Thesis: Until the late middle ages people looked at the world as a mystery (Boersma 21). By mystery Boersma means a sacramental link between creation and God, that creation participates in God. In other words, the connection, though not identical, is real. Mystery, so Boersma reads the “Platonist-Christian synthesis” (hereafter PCs) refers to the “reality behind the appearances.”


Boersma structures his book around the (neo)Platonic movement of exitus and reditus (the departure from and return to), except exitus now refers to how the church lost the PCs and the reditus on possible steps for regaining it.

It is not Boersma’s goal to defend Platonism as such. Rather, he seeks to combat the “antiheaven rhetoric among Evangelicals” (187).

For Boersma–and for the earlier Tradition–Created realities point beyond themselves (carry extra dimension to them). A Sacramental world not only points to God but participates in him. The signum points to and participates in the res. The end of created being lies beyond itself (30).

The Fathers were able to weave a sacramental tapestry around Christ: Christ contains the heavenly and creaturely universals in which we participate. Our particular humanity depends on the participation of humanity in Christ (51).

Sadly, this garment came unwound in the late middle ages with an increasing extrincisim of the Church. Scripture and Tradition, Eucharist res and Eucharistic signum, were now be defined in opposition to one another. With Occam and Scotus the unwinding became a cutting. No longer was there a higher realm of being in which created being participated. Rather, God and man were subsumed under the generic category of being.  In practical church life it would look like this:


  • Juridicizing the Church


    • Gregorian reform
      • For earlier fathers, sacred actions are performed in the church, but everyone is subject to God. God was directly working in the sacred actions.
    • earlier theology regarded sacramental power as within the life of the church.  Now it is causally top down.
  • Discovery of Nature
    • earlier sacramental thought held a link between heaven and earth. There was the unity of the church (res) and the sacrament to which it pointed.
    • The Berengar Dialectic
      • Berengar said we spiritually participate in the res.
      • His opponents said we physically participate in the sacramentum.
      • Both sides widened the gap between heaven and earth.
  • Scripture, Church, Tradition
    • The earlier fathers said church and Scripture coinhere. They are not two separate sources of authority.
    • Dialectic of Wyclif: Catholics responded to him by pitting Church against Scripture.
  • Nature and the Supernatural
    • The Counter-Reformation introduced the notion of “pure nature,” which meant human nature before any prior movement of grace.  Human nature is walled-off.

How do we return (reditus)? Boersma examines the implications of Henri de Lubac and the Nouvelle Theologie. In their works we see a real transubstantiation, but it is when the congregation is changed into the body of Christ. This leads de Lubac to posit a threefold body: the bread, the congregation, Christ. Further, we see that sacramental time is when past, present, and future coincide (124). Chronological time thus opens up to eschatological time. Thus, “eschatological realities are able to enter into time” (125). God inserts mystery into time. Earthly events become sacraments of eschatological mysteries. Time participates in God’s eternity.


The painting, or tapestry rather, was awe-inspiring. Boersma gives a convincing picture of how Platonism can be modified to serve Christianity. One can question, of course, the finer points of his readings on Scotist, but it seems more or less accurate.

Propaedeutic comments on Milbank and RO

Also titled: A Return to Radical Orthodoxy after 10+ Years of Criticism. I am going to reflect on some criticisms made of Milbank’s work (and note he has answered some of these in The Future of Love, even agreeing with a few).  There are some that are good, some that are interesting, and some that are stupid.

The Good

Michael Horton has advanced the most interesting critique of Milbank:  his metaphysics posits an “overcoming bodily estrangement” vs a “creational covenantal meeting.”  In other words, transcending finitude.

Decent criticisms

Others have pointed out (Herdt et al) that Milbank overplayed the medieval guild socialism of John Ruskin.  There’s probably something to that charge and Milbank conceded as much.  Others charge that Milbank misread NeoPlatonism.  I’m not so sure about that.  What I think the charge of Hankey and others is trying to get at is that Catherine Pickstock wasn’t warranted in connecting NeoPlatonism with modern anti-secular Liturgical arguments.  Maybe.  I’m not sure.

I spent last summer analyzing The Enneads.  I *think* I know what Plotinus means, but I could be wrong.  Plotinus is very easy on surface level but notoriously difficult once you start asking deeper questions.

As to their reading of Plato, I think they are fundamentally correct.  James KA Smith simply criticized their assertion that Phaedrus is secretly pro-embodiment.  I don’t think it is, either.  On the other hand, I do their their is something to the claim that if the finite is not upheld by the transcendent, we have nihilism.

Bad Criticisms

A lot of academia simply got angry that Milbank asserted that Christians didn’t have to ask secularists’ permission to engage in theology in the academy.

Concluding Anti-Criticisms

Milbank is engaging with men like Slavoj Zizek and the New Atheists.  Are his critics?

A penultimate bye to Barth

I guess some TRs had gotten nervous because of my promoting McCormack’s understanding of the Trinity and Revelation.  And about every Advent season I find myself reading through Church Dogmatics.  Not intentionally, it just sort of worked out that way. Still, Barth isn’t the way forward in theology.  Mind you, the TR Reformed critiques of Barth are more or less worse than useless.  Mike Horton has a good critique.  Jim Cassidy’s is alright.  Aside from that don’t even bother.

And Barth did get a few things right.  We don’t have to accept his “neo-orthodox” (what does that word even mean?) reading of the Bible to realize that the Bible points to Jesus.  The Bible isn’t Jesus.  To make the Bible a predicate of God’s being is idolatry.

And contra to his critics, Barth didn’t deny simplicity.  He just pressed a few weak spots on the formulations and people got nervous.  And his doctrine of election forced us to realize we can’t first posit a fully-formed identity of God apart from God’s decision to redeem the world in Jesus (in fact, the doctrine of simplicity won’t even let you do that).


I didn’t like what I was seeing in the Barthian sphere.  Barth’s readers broke off into several groups.  Most of them were disciples of Thomas Torrance who didn’t tolerate any “different” reading of Barth.  And that’s fine.  We all want to be disciples of some great teacher.  But the rhetoric reminded one of the shrill hysteria of Puritanboard.

Ultimately, I am going to say that Bruce McCormack’s reading of Barth is problematic of Christian Orthodoxy.  But I am going to say something else: I think his reading of Barth is more or less accurate.

Here’s the problem.  McCormack said Barth’s theology necessarily posits that God’s identity is “constituted” by his decision to elect.  If true, this seems to mean:

  • God came into being via election.  Obviously, no one holds this but it is a problem.
  • Yet, the eternal generation of the Son is a necessary act yet no one holds that the Logos “came into being” at his generation.  So the initial criticism of McCormack simply doesn’t hold water.
  • Yet, it does seem to mean that creation is in some sense necessary for God.  I do think this criticism is valid.  I’ve long said Barth was an Origenist.

At this point the Torrancians are no doubt cheering me on.  But here is the problem:  Barth said all of this in Church Dogmatics II:1.  Specifically, he said Jesus of Nazareth is both Subject and Object of election.

McCormack never denied that Barth was probably contradicting himself.  That’s not the point.  The point is that Barth said things that the Torrancian/Molnarian school (to coin less than euphonic phrases) didn’t want him to say.

But enough of that.  I have more problems with Barth:

  • While I don’t think Barth held to the “gnostic view” of “Jesus faith history” vs. real history, he is nonetheless fuzzy on creation.
  • Which means, necessarily, he is fuzzy on eschatology.  I don’t mean the criticism that he held to universal salvation (I’m not convinced he did).  I am not sure he held to any concept of “heaven” at all!
  • Even though I am not excited about natural theology, I still agree that we can have cognitive access to God’s manifestation in nature.  I have Barth’s commentary on Romans in my car right now (that’s not too strange.  I have more books in my car than I do on my “to-read” shelf) and I am shaking my head at his chapter on Romans 1.
  • Barthianism seems to straddle an uneasy ground before a full-orbed biblical narrative ontology and a metaphysics.  Barth really doesn’t engage with the narrative flow of Scripture (except for parts in II/1).  On the other hand, while I understand Barth’s criticism of using metaphysics as a ladder to God apart from God-in-Christ, I am uneasy about ditching metaphysics altogether.  If we do that, are we not accidentally positing an entry-point to nihilism?  I fear we are.

I will still probably read Barth in the future.  But I think there are too many problems with Barth to go forward with him, not to mention the behavior of some of his disciples.

Nihilism as Onto-Agon

“For nihilism, the flux is a medium of perpetual conflict, a pagan agon where the most powerful rhetoric will temporarily triumph, only to succumb to an apparently or effectively more powerful discourse in the future”
~John Milbank, The Future of Love.

In other words, for pagan (and nihilist, which is essentially postmodern paganism) ontologies there is always a violent other over against the One/Being/Cosmos.  Christian Rhetoric, by contrast, is one of peace.  Violence and struggle is not necessary to the Christian view.