It is sometimes said, in radical anti-Catholic Protestant circles, especially the neo-Monothelitist movements, that Trinitarian dogma is Plotinian (or Neoplatonist). However, Arius’ Christology and Triadology is more truly Neoplatonic. Those who assert that Christian orthodoxy is Neoplatonic and, therefore, favor a return to old heresies like semi-Arianism or neo-Monothelitism are those who are holding to Plotinian presuppositions.
Monothelitism is the belief that Jesus Christ had two natures but only one will (a divine will in the seventh century doctrine but now, among new monothelitists, a human will). Arianism was the Christological and Trinitarian doctrine that Christ was a created entity of the Father who wasn’t of the same substance of the Father. Christ, then, is created, a lesser (or inferior god), and distinct from the Father. Semi-Arianism is an augmented form which holds that the Son is similar in substance, but not of the same substance, of God the Father.
There is confusion in popular understandings of Arian dogma. Arianism does not hold to a purely human Jesus. On the contrary, Arianism affirms a divine Christ but that divine Christ is an inferior deity to God the Father (i.e. Yahweh). The same is true of the Holy Spirit, which is the lowest of the three gods. In fact, the problem with Arianism is that it is truly polytheistic since it affirms three distinct god persons in a subordinated hierarchy: God the Father (The One/Monad), God the Son (Nous/the demiurge Dyad), and God the Holy Spirit (Psuche).
Neoplatonist theology holds to a radically simple, monistic, form of divine simplicity known as absolute divine simplicity (ADS). We do not have time to get into the distinction between divine simplicity and absolute divine simplicity here, but it suffices to say that in the ADS model any separation or generation from the One constitutes a depreciation of the One. Neoplatonism is dialectical. Arius was a strict Neoplatonist. (As were most of the early heretics.) As such, Arius presupposes the metaphysical givens of Neoplatonism and imposes that metaphysical schema onto Scripture and the Triune Godhead. This differs from the Christian utilization of Plotinianism as a useful philosophical method to explain certain elements of Christianity but, as the likes of St. Augustine, St. Athanasius, and Pseudo-Dionysius show, the merits of Platonism (and Neoplatonism) must remain subordinated to revelation and never exceed revelation in the way Arianism does.
Because Neoplatonism holds to the dialectic of separation from the One as a depreciation of the One, Arius was forced to conclude the generation of the Son entails that the Son is the not of the same substance of the Father. In fact semi-Arianism, similar but distinct substance, is even more Neoplatonic than Arianism because it recognizes an inheritance from the One through generation but in being separated from the One there must be distinction. Arianism’s Neoplatonic presupposition forces it to conclude that Christ is the demiurge from which creation came since the Dyad, or demiurge, is that which embodied the divine mind (Logos). The strictly hierarchal and subordinated metaphysic of Neoplatonism is why Arianism ultimately ends in a subordinationist model of the Trinity.
The subordinationism of Arianism is distinct from the semi-subordinationism of orthodox Church Fathers like St. Justin Martyr, or from the statements of Jesus when he declared the Father being greater than him (Jn. 14:28) or St. Paul’s statement that Jesus did not regard equality with God (Ph. 2:6). The human nature, and human will, of Jesus is beneath the divine nature and divine will of God. This is orthodox Christology. Because, the Word was with God and the Word was God also entails coeternal equality with God; so, Christ’s divine nature and divine will is equal to the Father. When other Church Fathers, or even the Apostle Paul, say things that sound like subordinationism, they are referring to Jesus’ human side as being beneath the Father and not equal to the Father. Arians deliberately misappropriate these passages then claim, as all historical critics who deny the truthfulness of revelation, that the Trinitarian egalitarian passages of Scripture (cf. Jn. 1:1; Jn. 6:62; Jn. 10:30; Jn. 12:45; Co. 2:9; Ti. 2:13) are late edits into the Biblical text post-Nicaea (right around when the New Testament was being codified).
Semi-Arian Neoplatonists charge that because the Trinitarian formula was expounded before the New Testament was codified, the now Trinitarian Church went into the Scripture and added passages that would show the Triune Godhead and Christ’s equality with God the Father. Rather than accept the Bible as the unbroken and inerrant revelation of God, they adopt an augmented form of historical criticism by saying all the passages that contradict their position were edits. It is impossible to debate such people because they will only debate “the Trinity” on the acceptance that all the Trinitarian passages are edits so the burden of proof shifts from them to proponents of the Trinity.
Returning to the reality of Arianism being Neoplatonic, it is clear that Neoplatonism is the presupposed metaphysical reality for Arius. This is why, as stated, Arius cannot conceive of Christ being eternally begotten by the Father as being equal to the Father. That Christ is begotten, in the Neoplatonic model, demands that Christ be created and distinct from the Father, and lesser than the Father, as Arius’ theology affirms. From Arianism to Docetism to Apollinarianism, to Nestorianism, all the early heresies that cannot accept the orthodox Christology of one person in two natures, or the coeternal and coequality of the Trinity, suffer from Neoplatonic metaphysical presuppositions. The Neoplatonic dialectic of absolute divine simplicity cannot hold to a Triune Godhead of coeternity and coequality.
Far from the Trinity being the Neoplatonic model, it is Arianism that is Neoplatonic. We can even go a step further and say the Semi-Arian model is the most authentically Neoplatonic. ADS is so radically simple, to be monistic, that any differentiation from the One means that which is generated away from the One is also less than the One. Hence, Arius’ Christ is created, lesser, and distinct (not of the same substance) as the Father because he takes Neoplatonic metaphysics as his starting point, and then eisegetically imposes back onto the text his model—those that follow him are forced to conclude, as many now assert, that all the passages that cannot harmonize with their fixed model are nefarious scribal edits promulgated into Scripture by the post-Nicaea Christian Church to rid the Christian world of Arianism.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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