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Neoplatonism and eternal generation in the Ante-Nicene Fathers

"Nothing is more evident, than that to form a correct judgment of the language of the early fathers, we must have a good acquaintance with their modes of reasoning and philosophizing. Having most of them been educated with polytheistic notions, they did not take offence, as we now do, at many things, which evidently appear to us to detract from the spiritualit yand immutability of the divine nature. We should make these allowances when we read them; and making these, we shall be disposed to think more favourably of their real sentiments in respect to religion, than we otherwise could do. Of their sincere attachment to Christianity, the testimony is written in blood. That they worshipped the Saviour - that they paid him religious homage - that they, in general, regarded the Logos or divine nature in the Saviour, as having in some manner or other existed from all eternity - I cannot doubt. I say this, after repeated and somewhat extensive examination. But what they taught what agrees with the Scriptures, or with reason, respecting the generation of the Son of God, is what I do not believe; and cannot, until the whole ground of my present convictions is removed"(Stuart).

Thus writes Moses Stuart of his admiration of the sincerity exhibited by the early patristic writers with respect to their conviction of the truth of the Scriptures. Nonetheless, he remains critical of what he regards as their mistaken beliefs about the generation of the Son. As we saw in our last article, the vast majority, with only a couple possible exceptions, of the Ante-Nicene writers, believed that Christ, though eternally pre-existent in a sense, believed that the divine Logos was only pre-existent as immanent within the mind of God. Christ was viewed as having been spoken into existence as a distinct entity only when God had desired to create the universe, with Christ as the first of His creations, and that very created instrument by which He intended to create the universe.

Stuart attributes this error to the following historically and culturally contingent influences:

1) Being accustomed to pagan reasoning, because of which they would not have seen such a theology proper as vitiating the immutability of God:

"The great body of the Antenicene fathers were, in early life, educated as heathen. The genealogies of the gods had made a deep impression on their minds; and they were, before conversion to Christianity, at a great remove from the rational and spiritual ideas of the divine nature. After conversion, we cannot suppose that all the remains of their former notions and habits would at once be completely annihilated. Emanation or generation, applied to the divine nature, presented nothing revolting to them; as all their old habits of thinking had been in that way. Removing, then, from the generation of the Logos all that was carnal and corporeal and understanding it only in a spiritual, mental, or metaphysical sense, there was nothing repulsive to their minds in it; even after they were taught by Christianity better views than they had formerly entertained, respecting the natur eof the Divinity. Can we wonder at this, when we know how long the Apostles persisted in their Jewish notions about the temporal kingdom of the Messiah, and how far removed they were, for a long time, from admitting either the necessity or the possibility of his death?

Thus prepared by early education, by all the prejudices of youth, and by all the influence of philosophy to admit of derived Divinity, and to find it in the Logos, as the philosophers had done; it would have been truly wonderful, if they had not been tinctured with the views which they did entertain. They did indeed believe that God was a Spirit. But a Spirit, in the view of that age, was far less removed from a corporeal being, than we are accustomed to believe...The difference between spiritual and material beings, seems, in that age, to have been considered as rather modal than essential. Spirits were regarded as bodies impalpable to corporeal view, and made up of infinitely attenuated particles of matter, too subtile to be detected by the senses.

With such views of the nature of God and of spirits, is it strange that they admitted the notions respecting the Logos, of which an account has been given in the preceding letter?

We, who are taught from infancy to believe in the simplicity, spirituality, self-existence, independence, and immutability of the divine nature, can be brought only by violence to reason as the fathers did. Still this does not criminate them. With all our light and all our privileges, it si very doubtful whether we exhibit more fot he Christian temper, and more devotedness to the service of the Redeemer, than they did"(Stuart).

2) The influence of a Neoplatonist conception of the "Logos" on their interpretation of the Johannine Logos, and of the resemblance of the personified "Wisdom" to this Logos, and the consequent conflation of this Wisdom with the quasi-Platonist interpretation of the Johannine Logos, as well as the misinterpretation of the Wisdom of Proverbs 8 as a hypostasis rather than mere literary personification - So Stuart: "as the great body of the Antenicene fathers were attached to the Platonic philosophy, like all other men who reason on subjects where an appeal to philosophy is made, they were unquestionably influence in their modes of explanation, by the philosophy which they had cultivated"(Stuart).

Stuart writes of the Ante-Nicene fathers that they

"lived at a time, when the doctrines of the New Platonic School had an almost universal influence, in all the countries where they resided. If now this philosophy admitted and advocated a Logos, which emanated from God, was the creator of the world, and possessed divine attributes, nothing was more natural than to fall into the belief, that the same Logos was intended by John in his writings: although he was revealed by this apostle as they all believed, in a manner far more perfect than what was known to the philosophers; and as clothed with attributes far more noble and exalted, than they in general assigned to him.

Thus, their entirely intellectual environment was totally suffused with a distinctly Neoplatonic doctrine of the "Logos", as we will see. It ought to be kept in mind that the Neoplatonic understanding of the Logos, though in many ways similar to that of the Johannine Logos, is in many other important respects very different. Important monographs have recently been published, distinguishing sharply, for example, the "Memra" of the Aramaic Targumim, with which the Johannine doctrine of the Logos probably has a great deal more in common, than the Neoplatonic understanding of the Logos. In particular, The Jewish Targums and John's Logos Theology as well as The Word: John and the Targums ought to serve as helpful correctives to residual Neoplatonic influences upon the Church's exegesis and theology proper.

Plato himself often speaks of a Logos or Nous, to which he ascribes the creation of the world, and which he calls...the most divine of all things. His poetic personifications of this Logos have been understood by many of his interpreters, both in ancient and modern times, as representations of a real hypostasis. But though more recent investigators have shewn that this is not his real meaning, but that he merely designs to personify the attributes of Deity; still his language is such as might easily give rise to the belief, that he viewed the Logos as a real hypostasis. No wonder, then, that when the oriental emanation-philosophy came to be intermixed with his system (as it did after the conquests of Alexander, and in consequence of the frequent intercourse that followed of the Greeks with the East) that the New Platonics, or Eclectic philosophers should maintain the real personality of Plato's Logos. The Oriental philosophy inculcated, as a first principle, the doctrine of emanation from the Deity. God was represented as original light; and from him, as beams from the Sun, flowed subordinate divinities or Eons, who created and governed the world. The Platonic school of Alexandria amalgamted this principle, in part, with their own philosophy. It is found most fully developed in the works of Plotinus and Porphyry, New Platonjics of the third century. But Numenius of Apamea, a Syrian by birth, who lived in the time of the Antonines, was unboudtedly a disciple of this school; which showed that the sentiments are of much earlier date than the time fo Porphyry. Numenius speaks of a second God whom he calls [logos]...and whom he represents as an emanation from the supreme God. And to prove that the supreme God suffered no change by such an emanation, he employs the very same metaphors or comparisons, that were so commonly employed by the Antenicene fathers. "A torch," says he, "still remains the same, although it kindles another torch. Instruction can pass from a teacher to his pupils, and yet the teacher suffer no change. So [it] could emanate from the seupreme God, and yet the latter remain unchanged in his perfections.

There are abundant proofs, that this mode of representing the Logos as an emanation from God, was much older than Numenius; and that it was not by any means confined to heathen philosophers. The book of Wisdom, written before the Christian era (which most of the Antenicene fathers received as canonical) represents Wisdom or the Logos as the breath of the Almighty, an emanation of the Godhead, the pure radiance of the majesty of the Almighty, the irradiation of the eternal light, the spotless reflection of divine operating power, the image of the All-Good. By it is every thing created; it overlooks and penetrates through all things; it preserves and directs all things, in the best manner. It knows the secret thoughts of God, and is the leader in all his works.

If here be not an absolute hypostasis of wisdom or the Logos (as most of the learned have been inclined to believe) there is certainly so close an approximation to it, that the fathers might easily mistake it for one, and apply it (as they did) to the explanation of the Logos of John.

But in a special manner, the writings of the celebrated Alexandrine philosopher, Philo Judaeaus, a contemporary during the latter part of his life with the apostles, contributed to spread wide the speculations of the New Platonics about the Logos. Philo amalgamated the Jewish with the Platonic philosophy; so that being a writer more rational, Scriptural, and elevated in his moral and religious maxims, than the heathen philosophers, his works would necessarily be read with more avidity, by that class of the new Platonists, who admitted the authority of the Jewish Scriptures. [Philo speaks of a logos] which he represents as a being emanated or begotten, not uncreated like the great Supreme, nor created like other beings, but a medium between the two. This Logos he calls first born Son and represents all things as created, preserved and governed by him. This is he, who appeared to the patriarchs of the Old Testament; for the Supreme God, who cannot be limited by any place, could not appear in visible form. From this time the Logos became the advocate of men with God. god sends him into virtuous souls, who are instructed by him. He is the secondary God, who is subordinate to the Supreme.

Here then, before the new Testament was written, we find nearly every speculation, which was adopted by the early fathers and applied to the Logos of the Evangelist John. The philosophy which presented these speculations had a predominant overwhelming influence, in their times. Most of them had not only been disciples, but teachers of it. And besides this, it was the universal belief among speculating Christians of that period, that the Logos of whom John speaks was the very same spirit of wisdom, which operated partially in all the better part of the heathen philosophers, and that these had borrowed all their most valuable truths from the sacred writings of the Jews.

What now could be more natural, than for these fathers to apply the attributes of their philosophical Logos to the Logos of John? And specially so, when one and all agreed, that Wisdom, as described in the eigth chapter of Proverbs, must be the same as the Logos mentioned by the Evangelist. The predicates of wisdom, mentioned in this chapter, certainly bear a very strong resemblance to those ascribed to the Logos, by the book of Wisdom, and by Philo Judaeus in his works.

Specially is the resemblance strong, when the Septuagint Version is regarded as the true text of the Scriptures; and it is almost superfluous to say that this was the Bible of the Antenicene fathers, for none of them could read the original text, if Origen be excepted. Even his personal knowledge of the Hebrew is very questionable.

One remarkable mistake either in the original Version itself of the Septuagint, or in those MSS. which the fathers used, contributed greatly to encourage the speculations of the Antenicene fatheres about the origin of the Logos...Instead of translating as the Hebrew runs, "The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way", they read in their copies "The LORD created me in the beginning of their ways."

Morever, it is afterwards said, in the same chapter, (v. 25) "Before the mountains were settled, before the hills, was I brought forth." The question does not seem even to have been debated, whether the Logos of John was actually the same as this Wisdom; or whether a mere poetic personification of Wisdom, and not a real hypostasis is meant; all taking it for granted, that the point admitted odf no debate. What then could be more natural than to apply the doctrines of the philosophy, which then prevailed so generally, to the explanation of the New Testament Logos; when they thought themselves fully authorized to do it, by the according voice of the Jewish Scriptures? It would have been next to miraculous, if they had not done so.

One other consideration should be stated. Most of the early fathers were employted, more or less, in defending Christianity against the attacks of heathen philosophers, or in recommending it to the consideration of the heathen. The polytheistic philosophers were continually reproaching Christians, with reverencing and adoring only a crucified malefactor. The reply to this was very natural. "We adore no mere mortal. The Logos incarnate, is what we adore. The existence of this very Logos, your best philosophers and you yourselves admit. You cannot, therefore, reproach us with forming an imaginary being, whom we hold to be the object of religious reverence. On your own principles, our religion contains nothing that is absurd."

How natural and acceptable such a reply was to the fathers, may be easily understood from the nature of the case, and specially from the frequency with which it was used. Almost every man in vindicating his side of a disputed question, is satisfied if he can find arguments pro re nata. If they are effectual to silence his opponent, they must needs to be a good kind of arguments. The fathers, in the full sincerity of their hearts, checked the contumelies of the heathen in such a way; and as they felt themselves to be building on the Jewish Scriptures, they hardly could have a suspicion, that there was any thing improper, in accepting with all the aid which Platonism offered. Thus they at once estopped the mouths of gainsayers, and commended the religion which they had embraced to thet heathen, who loved the study of philosophy(Stuart)

Stuart, Moses. "Letters on the Eternal Generation of the Son." Andover. 1822.