How did Neoplatonism affect Christianity

Neoplatonism and Christianity

An overview of the encounters between Greek philosophy and Christianity

Term paper (advanced seminar), 2012

27 pages, grade: 1.3

Reading sample

Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Faith and Reason - an overview of the encounters between Christianity and Greek philosophy

III. Neoplatonism in Christianity
i. Trinity
ii. Negative theology
iii. The evil

IV. Conclusion - similarities and differences

V. Bibliography


In the resumption of Platonic philosophy in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD by the various schools of Middle and Neo-Platonism, the basic idea of ​​Greek philosophy is once again given expression: the idea of ​​the cosmos as an organic body with a world soul. At a time when Christianity was gaining strength and developing into a decided competition with the late antiquity schools of philosophy, there were always points of contact between Greek philosophy and the still young Christianity, which became early Christian mainly through the adoption of Greek conceptions - distinguished theoretical systems. In particular, it was Christian neo-Platonists who dealt with the Platonic doctrine in late antiquity, carried it on the Christian triumphal march through the Middle Ages and helped it literally "rebirth" through the renaissance of antiquity in Italy in the 15th century.

Eduard Zeller, who has dealt intensively with the history of Greek philosophy, saw in Neoplatonism "the historical end point of Greek philosophy" (Horn 2010, p. 139). It has "summarized the entire Hellenic science [...]" (Horn 2010, p. 139). Eduard Zeller took an objectively oriented middle position between the dissolving extremes of uncompromising devaluation and emphatic overvaluation of Neoplatonism within the history of philosophy (Horn 2010, p. 138). Zeller ultimately relativizes the "final point of Greek philosophy" by saying that Neoplatonism "used the earlier philosophical systems" in the sense of its time and did not necessarily abolish them "in a higher principle" (Horn 2010, p. 139). The anti-metaphysical age of the Enlightenment, on the other hand, saw Neoplatonism as a "corrupter of the understanding of Plato" (Halfwassen 2005, p. 15); this is particularly evident in Johann Jakob Brucker's Historia critica philosophiae from 1742. The 19th century also viewed Neoplatonism as an eclectic Greek-Oriental pantheism, speculative mysticism, and fundamentally “black-out” philosophy (Tennemann 1809, p. 57). Despite a temporary enthusiasm for Neoplatonism in Romanticism, it was above all the idealist Hegel, who revalued late antiquity Neoplatonism in the 19th century. Hegel saw in him the "completion of ancient Greek philosophy" (Halfwassen 2005, p. 110). For him, Neoplatonism was at the same time “the form of philosophy that is closely related to Christianity.” (Halfwassen 2005, p. 126). With all the contradictions between Hellenistic and Christian thought - the idea a cyclical, eternal world on the one hand and the idea of ​​a finite world on the other - there were also common foundations which led to the fact that it was precisely Christian recipients who contributed to the spread of late antiquity Neoplatonic thought. Michael Lauble writes that Albert Camus saw in Plotinus and Augustine the "last thoughtful upswing of Hellenism". (Camus 1978, p. 7). According to Lauble, Neoplatonism according to the Gospel and Gnosis took a decisive position for Hegel in the four stages of a common Greco-Christian development, with whose reconciliation of rationalism and mysticism he provided Christian thought with a method after the break with Judaism, the Christian faith as reasonable and thus made Augustine's metaphysics of incarnation possible in the first place. (Camus 1978, p. 30).

This work neither attempts to clarify the question of whether or to what extent Neoplatonism can still be considered a purely Pagan-Greek philosophy without oriental influences, nor does it attempt to search for reasons for the connections between Christian and Neoplatonic thought. Rather, it tries to trace the main points of contact between Greek philosophy (more precisely: Neoplatonism) and Christianity in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages and to examine them more closely. This work will focus on the three themes of the Trinity, negative theology and evil. The starting point is the metaphysical questions that arose in antiquity, for which Christian and neo-Platonic thought each provided similar but also different solutions. The late antiquity is seen as an epoch that tried to overcome the gap that had arisen between God and man in a philosophical and religious way; a chasm that arose from the replacement of mythical thought by the Logos on the one hand and the allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament (by the Hellenistic-Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria) on the other. In the mysticistic endeavors of Neo-Platonism and Christianity to find differences, but above all similarities, which have led to innumerable Christian thinkers over the centuries between late antiquity and renaissance time and again fighting against what was actually hostile and resolutely because pagan philosophy of Greece should be the subject of this work. A clear focus is on Plotin's Neo-Platonism and Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita as representatives of Christian theology.

II. Faith and Reason - an overview of the encounters between Christianity and Greek philosophy

At a time when Greek, Roman and Oriental cultures were mixed, Neoplatonism was preceded by Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism and a revival of Pythagoreanism. Besides Plato, other Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras, Parmenides, Anaxagoras and Aristotle had an influence on the development of Neoplatonism. In the case of the Hellenistic schools, which had spread to Rome in late antiquity, the main aim was to reduce needs. Peace of mind was seen as a practical ideal. The Hellenistic schools, especially Stoicism, can be seen as a preparation for the development of Neoplatonism, as they shared the maxim of ascetic morality and the disdain for other good things - principles they shared with later Christianity. Cicero, one of the main exponents of Roman eclecticism, to which the translation of large parts of the Greek-philosophical vocabulary into Latin can also be ascribed, was himself a Stoic. Marcus Aurelius, who acted violently against the Christians, is considered to be one of the last representatives of stoicism. In his history of philosophy (2011, p. 225), Storig speaks of similar conditions for mutual cultural approaches in Alexandria, "the spiritual center of the eastern Mediterranean at that time." The most important role in this Alexandrian eclecticism comes from the Jewish theosophist Philon of Alexandria to, who first (before Paul) began to combine faith and reason. This synthesis of Greek philosophy (especially Platonic, Pythagorean and Stoic) and Jewish theology lies in Philon's philosophical (Stoic), allegorical interpretation of the Genesis is based[1]. Philon interprets Abraham's wandering from Chaldaa to Egypt as the path of man out of this worldly existence (Vogt 2003, p. 82). Philo wanted to prove that the Old Testament, since it reveals the truth, already contained the key points of Greek philosophy. Of course, this did not mean that the Old Testament had taken up philosophical thoughts, but rather that the Greek philosophers must have already known the Old Testament. This assumption ran through the whole of late antiquity and was expressed, among other things, in Eusebius von Caesareas Praeparatio Evangelica: "[T] hey [the Hebrews] had dealt with the like matters of philosophy before Plato was born." (2003, p. 252) Philo (like neoplatonicism) starts out from God as the otherworldly greatness, who can neither be named nor recognized.This is a God who created the world but does not intervene in it The Logos (as the image of God[2] ) in Philon the role of mediator between God and man, borrowed from the Stoa (Vogt 2003, p. 82). Philo already provided the preparations for the later Christian reception of Neoplatonism, as he influenced early Christian theologians such as Clement of Alexandria and Origines, who in turn influenced the development of Christian mysticism. In this respect, Philo, as a representative of Jewish Alexandrinism, played a decisive role in the development of later Christian Alexandrinism (Lohr 2010, p. 134). The idea of ​​mysticism can also be found in Philo, because he uses the concept of the world soul - even if only as a metaphor. The concept and conception of the cosmos as an ensouled whole go back to the natural philosopher Pythagoras, were adopted by both Plato and the Stoics and were basically alien to Jewish thought. The basic problem that arose from the premise of a god beyond for Philo and later for Plotinus culminated in the joint attempt to establish a connection between the distant god beyond and men on this world. In general, in Philo and Plotinus, although they were anything but contemporaries, the similar ideas for the same basic problem can already be established very clearly. Hilary Armstrong expressed this in 1940: “[I] t is impossible not to be struck by the resemblance to the Logos of Philo. The Philonian Logos, like that of Plotinus, is the principle of unity-indiversity, of the separation and uniting of contraries in the material world. "(1940, p. 107) Philosophy was repeated by Clement of Alexandria in the synthesis of Christian theology and Greek philosophy. The actual inclusion of Greek-Pagan philosophy in Christian doctrine began, however, with the philosopher and later apologist Justin, known as "the martyr" was executed under Marcus Aurelius in Rome. This shows that in addition to the eclectic developments and efforts to harmonize, there were resolute disputes and efforts to differentiate between Christian theology and Greek-Pagan philosophy (represented here by the Roman rulers). The provocative question: "What has Athens got to do with Jerusalem?" Comes from the church father Tertullian, who fundamentally refused to allow Greek philosophy to penetrate the realm of belief.[3] - with which he posited and propagated a categorical separation of Christian theology and Greek philosophy, which neither back then, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, could have been argued, nor was it due to the historical development of Christianity after him can be confirmed. The period between the 2nd and 7th centuries, the so-called patristic, was basically characterized by the attempt to adopt ancient philosophical systems of thought (or parts of them) in Christian doctrine. Christians, such as the Roman emperor Julian Apostata, became Neoplatonists, various Neoplatonists, such as Augustine, converted to Christianity. At the same time, Christianity fought not only against the pagans, but also against Gnosticism, whose resolute opponent was also Plotinus, until the Roman Church began to fight Gnosticism and destroy its writings in the 4th century. The 3rd century AD, in which Neoplatonism developed out of Middle Platonism (from Rome), was a time of crisis marked by the longing for order, hope and salvation. The Roman Empire had to struggle with unrest, wars and poverty. In much agreement with stoicism, a kind of dogmatic, speculative metaphysics began with Plotinus, a pupil of Ammonios Sakkas and founder of the Alexandrian-Roman school of Neoplatonism. Put simply, Plotinus attempted the divide, based not least on Plato's dualistic philosophy with the assumption of an ideal and a material world, which after the rejection of Homeric mythology between the god beyond and man in this world, by means of a mystical union with the one to close. Neoplatonism had this goal in common with Christianity, namely the participation of man in the divine, precisely because man is part of God. The connection between man and God, being and super-being, takes place in Plotinus through the logos (the word). Christianity has adopted this term (based on Philo) and applied it to Jesus Christ as mediator between God and the world (cf. Jn 1,1-1,14). Crucial for this were both Philo and the early Christian apologists. Plotinus was strongly influenced by the work of the Middle Platonist Numenios, even if he did not agree with it on all points. Numenios' triadic god model was extremely interesting for Christian thinkers because of its affinity for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The church father Eusebius of Caesarea, who compared the Neoplatonic, triadic system of the one, the nous and the world soul with the Christian trinity of father, son and holy spirit, contributed significantly to the tradition of Numenios' teaching. Important scholars of Plotinus were Amelios Gentilianos and Porphyrios, who was a decided opponent of Christians and expressed and justified this in his work Against the Christians. After Plotin's death, Porphyry succeeded him at the Academy in Athens. We owe the publication of Plotin's teaching (or his interpretation of Plato) to him. Porphyry tried to integrate the philosophical core ideas of Aristotle into Platonism, which gave his Neoplatonism a fundamentally different direction compared to Plotinus. As a critic of creation and the "godly" figure of Jesus Christ, Porphyrios had a great influence on Augustine and Boethius. In addition, Porphyrios had just as great influence in Eastern Greece and in the Arab world. His pupil lamblichos of Chalkis, founder, was in critical dispute with Porphyrios of the Syrian school of Neoplatonism and the most important Neoplatonist of the 4th century, who introduced theurgy into Neoplatonism. The term theurgy refers to ritual cult acts with the aim of establishing a connection between man and God Theurgy was adopted almost 300 years later by the Christian author Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita, and in the 4th century the Neoplatonist Marius Victorinus, who played an important role in the development of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and had a great influence on Augustine, converted to Christianity his preoccupation with the Johannesev angelium in this context. Overall, in the 4th century AD, a stronger development towards mysticism can be observed within Neo-Platonism, not least through lamblichos, who put the Logos in connection with the Asian god of the Savior, Mithras. In addition to the struggles of Christianity against pagans and Gnostics, there were also fundamentally different conceptions within Christianity itself, especially in the first centuries after Christianity late antiquity was reinterpreted in the Christian sense), can be emphasized as particularly important. Based on Origines' teaching, Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria, claimed that Jesus Christ (the Logos) merely represented the connection between God and man, but was not of the same essence as God. In the church father Athanasius, Arius had his most energetic opponent. Since the Council of Nicaa, convened by Emperor Constantine in 325, the essential equality of God and his son Jesus Christ has been established, which led to the Synod of Constantinople in 381 and ultimately to the 3rd Council of Toledo in 581, which made this church teaching binding confirmed. Athanasius' hagiographic writing Vita Antonii on Saint Anthony had a great influence on Augustine. With Gregory of Nyssa another decisive synthesis of Christian and philosophical (especially Platonic) doctrines took place. Like Plotinus, Gregory of Nyssa was a mystic and is commonly considered to be the father of Christian mysticism. He "understands the human being as a link between the sensual and the spiritual world." (Burkard and Kunzmann 2011, p. 67). Julian Apostata, Roman emperor from 360 to 363, tried to promote Christianity, which was protected by Constantine in 313 (" Constantine turning point ") in order to revive the pagan religions and the mystery cults. In 380, however, Christianity was declared the state religion of the Roman Empire by Theodosius I. In 395, after the death of Theodosius I, the empire was divided. With the church father Augustine of Hippo, another milestone was reached in the 4th and 5th centuries AD with regard to the merging of Greek-Pagan philosophy and Christian theology, of knowledge and belief. Augustine also saw Christian theology as part of Neoplatonism. His discussion of Neoplatonism had its origins in the Christian-Platonic sermons of the Church Father Ambrosius, which ultimately led to Augustine's conversion to Christianity.The Neoplatonist Proklos, famous representative of the Athenian Neoplatonism founded by Plutarch of Athens in the 5th century, was primarily concerned with the transmission and commentary on the Neoplatonic school. In addition to Plato's philosophy, the focus was now primarily on Aristotle's works - possibly to avoid controversies with the strengthened Christianity. Proclus had a great influence on the early ecclesiastical writer Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita, who was later incorrectly identified as the Bishop Dionysius of Paris (Blackburn 2008, p. 101). Ammonios Hermeion, a student of Proclus, later became a teacher of the Christian philosopher Johannes Philoponos, who in turn was a sharp opponent of Proclus. This already means the last phase of Neoplatonism in late antiquity. In 529, Emperor Justinian closed the Platonic Academy, which meant the final end to ancient pagan philosophy in the Eastern Empire. It was not until 1459 that the Neoplatonic Academy was founded under the direction of Marsilio Ficino in Florence. The late antique manuscript Corpus Hermeticum, which was brought to Italy by Greek scholars after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, played a decisive role in this. Its fictional author was an Egyptian priest god named Hermes Trismegistus. The collection contains Platonic, Stoic, Neoplatonic, astrological and alchemical ideas that also referred to Jewish thought. Here, too, appears (in the figure of Trismegistus) the common motive that repeatedly connects the Greek philosophy and Christian theology: the mediation between God and man. Hermetics, which dealt with meditation and divine vision, played a major role in the rediscovery of Greek (Platonic) philosophy in the Renaissance. The last, Western Roman representative of ancient philosophy is the Roman Christian scholar Boethius in the 6th century. With his main work Consolation of Philosophy, he created one of the most widely read philosophical writings well into the 17th century. In addition to Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita, Christian Neoplatonists such as Johannes Scotus Eriugena in the 9th century, Meister Eckhart in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the humanist Nikolaus von Kues in the 15th century played a major role in the maintenance and further development of Neoplatonic thought.

III. Neoplatonism in Christianity i. Trinity

"In the 4th century, the Christian reception of Neoplatonic thinking took place in connection with the dispute over the Trinity." (Halfwassen 2004b, p. 166). As already described under II., This internal Christian dispute concentrated on the assumption of the equality of essence between God the Father , God the Son and the Holy Spirit. Until the 4th century there was no unified, officially recognized Christian attitude to the doctrine of the Trinity. Even after the Council of Nicaa and the Nicano-Constantinopolitanum in the 4th century, the different views on the relationship between the three divine People are not added to each other[4]. In the Western Church the emphasis on the unity of the three divine persons developed, so that the assumption of only one God instead of three gods was maintained, while the Eastern Church continued to emphasize the three divine persons in detail. Regardless of these contradicting views within Christianity, Bertrand Russell brought the fundamental one in 1945.


[1] Basis for Philo: The Septuagint.

[2] Compare the Gospel of John.

[3] See Chapter 7 in Tertullian's De Praescriptione Haereticorum, translated by K. A. Heinrich Kellner. (April 28, 2012).

[4] See "Filoque-Streit" and "Morgenlandisches Schisma".

End of excerpt from 27 pages


Neoplatonism and Christianity
An overview of the encounters between Greek philosophy and Christianity
Christian Albrechts University Kiel (Philosophical Seminar)
Oberseminar: Neoplatonism between antiquity and the Middle Ages
Andrea Oberheiden (Author)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (book)
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764 KB
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£ 13,99
Price (eBook)
£ 10,99
Cite work
Andrea Oberheiden (author), 2012, Neo-Platonism and Christianity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,