Purified by a Principle? Augustine’s Conversion of Neo-Platonism

In City of God 10.24, as part of his analysis of and argument with Platonism and Neoplatonism, Augustine takes up the question of mediation–who mediates, and how–questions of some moment in previous and contemporary Platonist demonology, which made use of several levels of divine or semi-divine intermediaries in order to bridge the gap between the world of flesh and the world of spirit.

The Christians confess that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–so perhaps they too affirm a similar kind of mediation? Not so, says Augustine. “[W]hen we speak of God,” he writes, “we do not affirm two or three principles, nor more than we are at liberty to affirm two or three gods.” But how does this avoid a Sabellian collapse into modalism? Augustine claims, consistently with the later so-called “Athanasian Creed” (as C.S. Lewis puts it, it “is not exactly a creed and [is] not by St. Athanasius”), that “we do not say…that the Father is the same as the Son, and the Holy Spirit the same as the Father and the Son; but we say that the Father is the Father of the Son, and the Son the Son of the Father, and that the Holy Spirit of the Father and the Son is neither the Father nor the Son.” So, unity in the Godhead but also personal distinctions: this is what is called “classical theism”; Augustine gestures toward it here but does not defend it–for this, see his On the Trinity. Here, vis-a-vis Platonism, he simply assumes something like “one God in three Persons” as the necessary background for the position he is about to develop. 

That principle is this: “It was therefore truly said that man is cleansed by a Principle.” So much do the Christians have in common with the “Platonists,” even if they “erred in speaking in the plural of principles.” The modern Christian’s bells of alarm may be sounding now: “Purified by a Principle? That sounds vaguely…gnostic. Augustine, bro, do you even EMBODIMENT? Not very incarnational, dude.” If that is you, put away all fear–Augustine has beat you to it. The “Principle” he refers to is Christ. Indeed, the Neoplatonist Porphyry erred, Augustine says, by “refus[ing] to recognize that Christ is the Principle by whose incarnation we are purified.” 

This is an important point to make against his Platonist opponents. The problem of man’s condition is not a function of matter, as though the flesh were evil. It is at this point that the stark difference between Platonic and Christian mediation is clear. Augustine continues:

Indeed [Porphyry] despised [Christ], because of the flesh itself which He assumed, that  He might offer a sacrifice for our purification–a great mystery, unintelligible to Porphyry’s  pride,[1]which that true and benignant Redeemer brought low by His humility, manifesting Himself to mortals by the mortality which He assumed, and which the malignant and  deceitful mediators are proud of wanting,[2]promising, as the boon of immortals, a  deceptive assistance to wretched men.

The problem was not the flesh as such, but man’s fall into sin, which made him liable to death. In an echo of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation,Augustine argues that Christ’s assumption of a human nature heals the wound of nature and redeems that same flesh. As he says, “Thus the good and true Mediator showed that it is sin which is evil, and not the substance or nature of flesh; for this, together with the human soul, could without sin be both assumed and retained, and laid down in death, and changed to something better by resurrection….For he was able to expiate sins by dying, because he both died, and not for sin of His own.”

 It is only in this way that a “Principle” can “purify”–not by scrupulously avoiding the flesh, but by assuming it and restoring it to health. This connection between Principle and purification was, however, anathema to Porphyry.  

An important qualification needs to be made here, however. It was not the flesh as such that purified man, but that of which the flesh was an instrument, namely, the divine Word: “The Principle is neither the flesh nor the human soul in Christ but the Word by which all things were made. The flesh, therefore, does not by its own virtue purify, but by virtue of the Word by which it was assumed, when ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’”

Now we can better see what Augustine means by “Principle.” The Latin term is principium, “beginning,” used in John’s prologue: In principio erat Verbum, “In the beginning was the Word.” Not an abstraction, then; not a category; the Principle was always the very Logos or Word of God, who took on flesh “when the fullness of time had come.”

But the flesh itself, even if created good, could not have restored man apart from divine quickening. Thus does Augustine understand Christ’s teaching in John 6: when Christ spoke of “eating His flesh,” he intended the statement mystically or spiritually. He writes:

For speaking mystically of eating His flesh, when those who did not understand Him  were offended and went away, saying ‘This is an hard saying, who can hear it?’ He  answered to the rest who remained, ‘It is the Spirit that quickens; the flesh profits  nothing. The Principle, therefore, having assumed a human soul and flesh, cleanses the  soul and flesh of believers.’

Augustine concludes this section with a beautiful antithesis in which he claims that Christ restores us by what we are and by what we are not; his focus on Christian mediation performed by the Son together with the simultaneous belief in the oneness of God links the closing of the passage to its opening. I shall give Augustine the last word, because I can do no better:

And this [Principle] we carnal and feeble men, liable to sin, and involved in the darkness  of ignorance, could not possibly understand, unless we were cleansed and healed by  Him, both by means of what we were, and of what we were not. For we were men, but  we were not righteous; whereas in His incarnation there was a human nature, but it was  righteous, and not sinful. This is the mediation whereby a hand is stretched to the lapsed and fallen; this is the seed “ordained by angels,’ by whose ministry the law also was given enjoining the worship of one God, and promising that this Mediator should come.


Eric Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College, translator of the recent The Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method, by Niels Hemmingsen, and a regular contributor to The Calvinist International and the Davenant Institute.

[1]magnum…sacramentum ea superbia non intellegens: perhaps a learned joke about the Platonic distinction between “sensibles” and “intelligibles.”

[2]I.e., of not having.