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.  Read more…