Christian Metaphysics: Trinity, Incarnation and Creation

Timothy A Mahoney

"Trinity higher than being"
Dionysius the Areopagite
Mystical Theology

"The distinction between natures was never abolished in their union"
Council of Chalcedon

"Be transformed by the renewal of your nous
St Paul Romans 12:2

At the heart of Christianity stand two mysteries: the Trinity and the Incarnation. The question for the metaphysician is this: do these two mysteries manifest some deeper reality or do they themselves comprise the ne plus ultra of metaphysics?1. Since the Incarnation arises (in a sense to be explained) out of the mystery of the Trinity, my focus will be on the Trinity2. I will discuss its metaphysical status first, and then situate the Incarnation and creation within a Trinitarian framework. Finally, I will briefly describe genuine metaphysics as transformative gnosis.

Christian Metaphysics: Trinity, Incarnation and Creation

Let us start with a puzzle. "Trinity higher than any being" writes Dionysius in the Mystical Theology3. This strikes a discordant note because Being is a realm of multiplicity and Beyond-Being is the realm of utter simplicity/unity according to the Platonic tradition in which Dionysius seems to have been schooled. How then can the apparent multiplicity of the Trinity be included in a realm of Beyond-Being? Furthermore, Beyond-Being is the realm of the Absolute; does the Trinity as conceived by Dionysius (and other Christians) actually purport to be the Absolute? What is perhaps surprising is that the paradoxical description of God as one utterly simple ousia (being or substance) of three hypostases (Persons) strengthens rather than weakens the Christian God's claim to be the Absolute, the apex of metaphysics. Obviously this requires an explanation. Let me start with the conceptions of Being and Beyond-Being as these are articulated by Plotinus who is widely acknowledged as bringing the Platonic tradition to fruition.

According to Plotinus one must distinguish the realm of becoming from the realm of true being, the realm of "eternally unchanging being, neither generated nor destroyed" (VI.5.2.6-22)4. The realm of being is the realm of Intellect, not subject to the fractured existence in time or space to which the realm of becoming is subject. Intellect is the entire realm of Forms, i.e., Intelligibles, all co-present to each other in thought, constituting a unified multiplicity of luminous self-knowledge5. But Being-Intellect is still a multiplicity6, and thus cannot be the Absolute:

For there must be something prior to all things which is simple, and this must be different from all that comes after it, being by itself, not mixed with those that come from it, and yet able to be present in the others in a different way, being truly one, and not something else which is then one. For what is not first is in need of what is prior to it, and what is not simple is in need of those which are simple in it so that it may be from them.
(Ennead V.4.1.5-15)7

Thus Beyond-Beyond is perfect unity without multiplicity; all else, including the perfectly unified multiplicity of Being-Intellect, is logically posterior to Beyond-Being. One should note that this description implies both that Beyond-Being transcends and is prior to all things, and yet is also immanent in all things. Beyond-Being, which Plotinus also calls the One, is "present in others in a different way" because without its presence these others would lack unity and hence lapse into unreality because unity of some sort is a sine quâ non of any reality whatsoever.

Since the One is perfect simplicity, it has no determinate, finite character; it cannot be known. Only the Intelligibles, the self-thinking thoughts of the Intellect, and those things lower on the scale of reality can be objects of thought and speech. Hence the One is both unthinkable and ineffable. Our speech about it uses concepts rooted in things below the One. These concepts are predicated of the One only insofar as the One is the cause of all those things (VI.9.3.49-55). As Plotinus puts it: "But we have it in such a way to speak about it, but not to say it in itself. And we say what it is not; what it is we do not say. So that it is from what is posterior [to it] that we speak about it" (V.3.14)8.

What is remarkable is that this description (insofar as it can be described at all) of Beyond-Being, i.e., the One, applies equally well to the Triune God of Christianity9. Dionysius emphasizes the simplicity of the Triune God. For example, in the Mystical Theology, which I quoted above, Dionysius refers to the Triune God as "the One who is beyond all things" and the "Transcendent One" (I.3. 1000C, 1001A). At the beginning of his Divine Names the Christian God is described as the "inscrutable One," the "principle of unity" described as "a monad or henad, because of its supernatural unity and indivisible unity" (I.1.588B, 589C, 589D). Indeed, in a phrase that echoes late Neoplatonists such as Proclus, Dionysius describes God as a "henad unifying every henad" (I.1.588B). And this God is also the Trinity, "the One, the Superunknowable, the Transcendent, Goodness itself, the Triadic Unity" (I.1.593B). Like Plotinus, Dionysius emphasizes that God is "mind beyond mind, word beyond speech . . . gathered up by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name" (Divine Names, I.1.588B). Indeed, the burden of the Divine Names is to grapple with the same problem that Plotinus tackles in such sections of the Enneads as V.3.14 and VI.9-6: how can we speak about the ineffable, since speak about it we must? "And so it is as the Cause of all and as transcending all, he is rightly nameless and yet has the names of everything that is" in so far as all things proceed from the Cause (Divine Names I.6.596C). We can purify the names of God in so far as we systematically eliminate from them any content that implies a lower level of reality. Thus one can begin by eliminating any content that implies inanimate matter and one can continue the process up to what merely implies the higher domain of concepts and ideas. Nevertheless, the endpoint of this process stills falls short of fully capturing the transcendent divine.

Dionysius' claims concerning the divine simplicity and ineffability are by no means unique to him; they simply represent sound Christian doctrine. For example, Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae devotes eight articles to the simplicity of God and he concludes, following Augustine in De Trinitae (IV.6.7), that "God is truly and absolutely simple" (I.3.7.). The same conclusion is presented in the four articles devoted to the unity of God, where Aquinas affirms that God is supremely one; indeed, he cites with approval Bernard's claim from De Consider. V, "Among all things called one, the unity of the Divine Trinity holds first place" (I.11.4). In Summa Contra Gentiles Book I, Chapter 14 Aquinas begins with the claim "The divine substance surpasses every form that our intellect reaches. Thus we are unable to apprehend it by knowing what it is."10 This position is repeated in the Summa Theologiae in the introduction to Question 3, immediately following the Question on the existence of God: "Now because we cannot know what God is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how he is not" (I.3). How then does Aquinas explain how we talk about God? Basically he concurs with the Plotinus and Dionysius: terms that apply to the attributes of creatures also apply to God in so far as God is the cause of the attributes in creatures. But Aquinas refines the approach by introducing his famous doctrine of analogy: the names applied to God are neither purely univocal (because of the transcendence of God), nor are they purely equivocal (because in this case all of our talk of God would be simply nonsense). Rather, we must understand terms applied to "God and creatures in an analogous sense, that is according to proportion" (I.13.5). The pivot on which Aquinas' position turns is his recognition that God can cause these attributes in things only if God in some sense has the attributes Himself. Aquinas has already shown that "God prepossesses in Himself all the perfections of creatures in so far as God is simply11 and universally perfect (I.4.2, cited in I.13.2). In other words, all the perfections of creatures are possessed by God in a more excellent and higher way (I.13.2). Thus Aquinas wants to understand both the via positiva, the way of affirmation or cataphatic way, and the via negativa, the way of negation or apophatic way, within the context of a via eminentia which does justice to both the cataphatic and apophatic. Even with the recognition of the via eminentia the divine transcendence12 is maintained: in the words of the Fourth Lateran Council: "between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude."13

We may conclude that Dionysius felt justified in speaking of Trinity as Beyond Being precisely because the God who is Trinity fits the Platonic description of Beyond-Being as utterly simple, perfect unity which is the primal source of the unity and being of all else. Some confusion on this point may arise because Christians often refer to God as the Supreme Being or as Ipse Esse Subsistens (see, for example, Summa Theologiae I.3.4). This title is above all rooted in the Septuagint rendering of Exodus 3:14 in which God describes Himself to Moses as "I am who am." How can God be both Beyond-Being as well as Supreme Being, Ipse Esse Subsistens? I believe that this is a mere verbal conflict based on two distinct uses of the term "being." As we have seen, the realm of being for Plotinus and the Platonic tradition is the realm of multiplicity. But there is no such implication of multiplicity in the use of the term "being "or "esse" in the description of God as "Supreme Being" or as "Ipse Esse Subsistens." As long as one keeps the various usages straight, one should not be confused.

The reader no doubt has noted that in both of the quotations provided above in which Aquinas argued for the simplicity of God the Trinity was mentioned either implicitly — in his quote from Augustine's De Trinitate — or explicitly — in the quotation from Bernard: "Among all things called one, the unity of the Divine Trinity holds first place." Now it is time to deal with the obvious objection that God as Trinity compromises the divine simplicity. Two questions should be considered. First, is the Trinity on the same level of reality as that which has been described as perfectly simple? If the Trinity were an emanation from some perfectly simple reality, then the simplicity of that reality would not be compromised by the Trinity. In this case, the identification of Trinity and Absolute that seems to be made by Christians could simply be regarded as "loose" theological talk that does not adequately account for all the distinctions required by rigorous metaphysics. In this respect, Plotinus appears to be a good example of a rigorous metaphysician when he distinguishes between the realm of the One and the realm of Intellect. Intellect emanates from the One and so is located at a lower level of reality than the One, thus the multiplicity of Intellect does not impugn the simplicity of the One. However, we shall see that Christians insist that the Trinity is at the same level of reality as, and in fact is identical to, that which is perfectly simple14. Thus we must raise the second question: how is it that the Trinity, located at the very highest level of reality, does not compromise the divine simplicity? Let me turn first to the question of whether there is a higher level of reality than the Trinity.

John Zizioulas, Orthodox Metropolitan of Pergamon, in a recent book, Being as Communion, describes a certain position in Christian theology that might support the claim that the Trinity is not strictly speaking the highest level of reality. Metropolitan Zizioulas says the position "would bring us back to the ancient Greek ontology: God first is God (His substance or nature, His being), and then exists as Trinity, that is, as persons" (40)15. He writes: "the significance of this interpretation lies in the assumption that the ontological 'principle' of God is not found in the person but in the substance, that is, in the 'being' itself of God" (40)16.

If such an interpretation were true, then the Trinity would be posterior to the principle that generates it. But, as Zizioulas points out, such an interpretation is inaccurate. Indeed, if the interpretation were true, then we should see statements to the effect that the Godhead generates the Trinity. By contrast, what we see are statements such as this one by Dionysius: "the Father is the originating source of the Godhead [pêgaia theotês; Divine Names II.7.645B]. The twentieth-century Orthodox scholar John Meyendorff makes the same point: "the Father is the cause (aitia) and the 'principle' (archê) of the divine nature."17 Indeed, another Orthodox theologian, Vladimir Lossky, summarizes the tradition in this way: the divinity "is the Trinity and this fact can be deduced from no principle nor explained by any sufficient reason for there are neither principles nor causes anterior to the Trinity."18 Even though Orthodox writers sometimes suggest that the Western Church believes differently19, the Roman Catholic Church does in fact agree with the claims articulated here. In the recently-issued Catechism of the Catholic Church it is reaffirmed that the Father is "the source and origin of the whole divinity" (CCC, 245),20 and that the Father is "the principle without principle" (CCC, 247).21

In sum, Christians explicitly claim that there is no principle higher than the Trinity from which the Trinity is derived. Thus we must turn to the second question: how is it that the Trinity, located at the very highest level of reality, does not compromise the divine simplicity?

Simply put, the Trinity does not compromise the divine simplicity because it does not introduce any composition into the divine. The persons of the Trinity are not parts of the divine; rather each person is the entirety of God. In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215: "Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence, or nature."22 At the same Council, the principle of the distinction of the persons is clearly enunciated: "It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds;" the distinction in the relations of origin implies the distinction in persons23. Catholic and Orthodox agree on both these issues: 1) each person is the entirety of the ousia and 2) the persons are distinguished by their relations. Vladimir Lossky approvingly quotes the great teacher of the Eastern Church, John Damascene (On the Orthodox Faith) "The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost are one in all respects save those of being unbegotten, of filiation and of procession;" Lossky himself adds "The only characteristics of the hypostases which we can state to be exclusively proper to each, and which is never found in the others, by reason of their consubstantiality, is thus the relation of origin" (Lossky, 54).24

Here is one point on which Christian revelation utterly surpasses Platonism and other views that exclude multiplicity from the Absolute. Plotinus' discussion of emanation suggests that the reason that there are any levels of reality besides the One is that, as the scholastic maxim indicates, "bonum diffusivum sui," "the good diffuses itself."25 Plotinus assumes, perhaps based on his conception of simplicity, that any diffusion of goodness by the ultimate reality, the One, must produce something at a lower level of reality than the One itself so there is a kind of "subordinationist" trinity — One, Nous, Soul — in which each item exists at a lower level of reality than the previous item. Plotinus' assumption is perfectly natural. But it is on this absolutely fundamental point that the Christian understanding diverges sharply from Neoplatonism. The acts of love, the begetting of the Son and the Procession of the Holy Spirit, from the anarchos ("without principle") Father are perfect in a way that Plotinian emanation is not. The Father bestows the utter fullness of the divinity on the Son and the Holy Spirit. As Bonaventure explains:

Unless there were in the highest good from all eternity an active and consubstantial production, and a hypostasis of equal nobility, as is the case with one who produces by way of generation and spiration26 . . . so that there is the loved and the beloved, the generated and the spirated, that is, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that is to say, unless these were present, there would not be found the highest good here, because it would not be supremely self-diffusive.27

Indeed, the "supremely self-diffusive" is identical to a "diffusing good [which] communicates to another His whole substance and nature. Nor would He be the highest good were He able to be wanting in this, whether in reality or in thought."28 This is why simplicity and multiplicity are necessary for the Absolute. Clearly the Absolute must have the character of simplicity; otherwise it would be a composite the unity of which would be explained by some higher principle. But the Absolute must have multiplicity as well; otherwise it would lack the perfect self-diffusive goodness of which Bonaventure speaks. Indeed, this is why one must say that the whole Trinity is the Absolute rather than just the Father who is the initiating principle of the Trinitarian relations. It is precisely because the Father accomplishes the perfect self-diffusion of goodness by communicating to others "His whole substance and nature" that we cannot accord the status of the Absolute to the Father alone. In so far as the same divine substance and nature is communicated without diminution to the Son and the Holy Spirit, they must be included in the Absolute. Thus simplicity and multiplicity are the mark of the Absolute. In sum, the Christian finds (or should find) other metaphysical views deficient if they identify the "Absolute" as something that in fact falls short of being the highest good precisely in so far as the purported "Absolute" lacks supreme self-diffusive goodness because it cannot communicate its "whole substance and nature." If something alleged to be the Absolute falls short of supreme goodness, then it cannot be the Absolute.

It is a shattering revelation — "revelation" here used in its most robust sense — that Plotinus' assumption, seemingly the most secure of all human beliefs and one hallowed not only by profound thought but also by age-old religious devotion and practice, is false. In this respect,29 the Trinity confounds humanity's natural quest for pure unity so that it is natural that thoughtful people of great faith reject this revelation, and, clinging to the old assumption, wish to relegate the Trinity to some level of reality beneath the ultimate.30 Since the Trinity utterly surpasses the most deep-seated human presupposition, it is clear that there are no arguments that compel a person to affirm it, even the argument based on perfect self-diffusive goodness just provided. From this it follows that one can, quite "reasonably," opt to reject the Trinity. Thus from an epistemological standpoint the affirmation of the Trinity functions as a first principle, not deducible from any other principles. But unlike some other first principles — the principle of non-contradiction, for example — the Trinity cannot be affirmed without the direct assistance of the Divine, that is, without the assistance of supernatural grace.31 Yet, others claim that some competing notion of the Absolute is delivered to humans by the divine.32 We thus arrive at an epistemological impasse that seems irresolvable except by the direct action of the divine to whom each of the competing sides in the dispute looks for the validation of its claim. A Christian can but sketch the beauty of the vision of the whole that is only visible in the light of the Trinity and hope and pray that this might be the occasion of illuminating grace in the heart.

Unfortunately, many Christians do not appreciate the gift of the revelation of the Trinity. Christian laymen often seem to engage in the many ritual gestures devoted to the Trinity with little understanding of the centrality of the Trinity to the faith. Clergy in the West are famous for being befuddled when it comes to preaching the sermon on Trinity Sunday. Indeed, the prominent twentieth-century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner could lament the absence of the Trinity in the intellectual and devotional life of the modern Church.33 Although recent history demonstrates a new found interest in the Trinity, it still seem that most Christians do not recognize or have somehow forgotten that the doctrine of the Trinity contains34 the "pearl of great price" the ne plus ultra of metaphysical wisdom.

There have been and continue to be grave misunderstandings that arise because of the language in which Trinitarian belief is formulated. For example, in the ancient world the term "prosopon" which means "person" and is thus applied to the Persons of the Trinity, also means "mask" or "appearance."35 These latter meanings tend to suggest "modalism," i.e., the notion that the persons of the Trinity are merely different manifestations of some deeper underlying reality. Modalism is incompatible with the view of the Trinity sketched above. In addition, the formulation of the Creed in the original Greek contrasts the one ousia with the three hypostases. Unfortunately, since the terms "ousia" and "hypostasis" were in most contexts virtual synonyms, this formulation sounded like an outright contradiction. It is only with refined explanations of the terms, particularly by the Cappadocian Fathers, that the proper contrast becomes clear.36 Finally, in the contemporary post-Cartesian/Lockean world, the term "person" tends to suggest a unique center of self-consciousness inaccessible to others. Such a use of "person" is quite opposed to the meaning of the term "Person "as applied to the Trinity.37

These problems in finding the proper language with which to express the Christian understanding of the Trinity should not at all be surprising. Indeed, new language, new "terms of art," had to be forged because they are to be used to describe that which is literally and quite strictly incomprehensible. As the Orthodox thinker Lossky writes: "Greek patristic thought, and particularly that of the Cappadocians, presupposed . . . that God's being and, consequently, the ultimate meaning of hypostatic relations were understood to be totally above comprehension, definition, or argument."38 On the Catholic side, the First Vatican Council (1869-70) calls the Trinity one of the mysteria stricte dicta, "mysteries in the strict sense," that is, realities the content of which is not graspable even after they have been revealed.39 In other words, Christians maintain a strict apophaticism when it comes to the Trinity. It is not that the understanding of the Trinity cannot be formulated without falling into contradiction. In fact, the traditional expression "one God, three persons" does avoid formal contradiction since the expression does not affirm that the very same thing bears contradictory predicates in the very same respect. That is, Christians do not claim "One God is Three Gods," or "One Person is Three Persons." Rather Christians claim God is one in one respect and three in a different respect. Nonetheless, although formal contradiction is avoided, we cannot understand how what is expressed can be true. In other words, the Trinity does not so much violate logic as it transcends logic. In both our experience and natural conceptual schemes if there are three persons, then there are three beings, three instances of the same nature. Likewise, if there is one being, then there cannot be more than one person. The Trinity fractures these categories of thought in irremediable ways. Indeed, Trinitarian apophaticism goes beyond the point at which the trajectory of the human ascent toward the Absolute ends. This natural trajectory incorporates two strategies of apophaticism: 1) deny that any predicates apply to the Absolute at all; 2) affirm that every and all predicates apply to the Absolute so that in the Absolute there is the "coincidence of opposites" to use the phrase favored by the late medieval Cardinal, Nicholas de Cusa, one of the most prominent Western practitioners of this approach.40 Both have the same effect of undoing and undermining the application of language to God in any normal sense. I by no means wish to dismiss these ways of apophaticism. I merely wish to point out that the Trinity does not simply obliterate either implicitly or explicitly all distinctions as these two modes do; rather the doctrine of the Trinity locates with surgical precision the central metaphysical antinomy of the Absolute: the Absolute is "both monad and triad."41 The affirmation that the Absolute is a monad affirms the standard apophaticism; the affirmation that the Absolute is Triad outstrips the standard apophaticism. It is this very specificity that distinguishes the Christian claim. One might urge that such specificity is the mark of metaphysical relativity42 because one cannot accept any apophaticism that does not reduce to one of the two modes mentioned above. One who makes such a claim ignores that fact that Trinitarian apophaticism includes these two modes (Dionysius and Cusa have demonstrated this) insofar as Trinitarian doctrine includes the notion that the ousia of the divine is indivisibly one, a monad, so that the divine ousia transcends all predicates that might be applied to it, and also, as the source of all created things, the divine ousia contains the coincidence of the opposites that exclude one another in creatures.43 But Trinitarian apophaticism includes a further, deeper dimension: this self-same ousia is also Three. As Meyendorff writes in connection with Greek Patristic thought:

The very notion of God's being both Unity and Trinity was a revelation illustrating this incomprehensibility; for no reality, accessible to the mind, could be both 'one' and 'three.' As Vladimir Lossky puts it: 'the Incomprehensible reveals Himself in the very fact of His being incomprehensible, for His Incomprehensibility is rooted in the fact that God is not only Nature but also Three Persons.'44

This further dimension implies that love, otherness, receptivity, communion and consummation are within the highest level of reality, the Absolute itself. Perfect love explains why the Monad is also a Triad, for it is the perfect self-diffusing goodness of the love of the Father that explains the generation and procession of the Son and the Spirit. The three Persons — each distinct in His personhood and thus other than the two remaining Persons — are the Absolute. Two of the Persons receive the fullness of divine ousia from the other, and the Three Persons interpenetrate one another in perfect communion (circumincessio or perichoresis)45 in the divine substance and thus consummate their mutual love. In so far as these are the characteristics of the Absolute, the source of all being, they will also be inscribed in some manner on all being.

Christ, the Incarnate God, is the point of creation. I hope to show that this is a metaphysical claim rather than merely a statement of simple piety46. First, I address the question of whether the doctrine of the Incarnation is coherent. If it entails outright contradiction, it can be set aside as pious, but muddled, thinking.

As noted above, the doctrine of the Trinity claims that there are three divine Persons or hypostases, and one undivided divine nature through which each of the hypostases is God. There is only one God because the divine nature is utterly simple, unlike the two numerically distinct instances of human nature associated with any two human persons. If each divine hypostasis were simply identical to the divine nature, there would not be three hypostases, but only one; thus, a hypostasis is not simply identical to the divine nature47. This is key because it entails that the Son is not simply identical to the divine nature, so that it is logically possible for the Son to assume a human nature as well. If the Son were simply identical to the divine nature, then it would be impossible for the Son to assume a human nature because the attributes of the Son would in fact be incompatible with the attributes of human nature, e.g., omniscience versus limited knowing. That is, the attributes of the Son would simply be the attributes of the divine nature and such attributes are incompatible with the attributes of human nature.

The Son receives the divine nature from the Father and assumes human nature, but the Son is not simply identical with either of these natures. What is incoherent is that the two natures become one nature: this is why monophysitism is incoherent and why the Chalcedonian language that says the natures are "without confusion" is necessary. We can attribute omniscience, absolute power, etc. to the Son in virtue of the Son's divine nature; we can attribute limited knowing, limited power, etc. to the Son in virtue of His human nature. Because we do not attribute incompatible attributes to the Son in the very same respect, there is no contradiction.

Although there is no contradiction, this does not mean that we can comprehend the truth articulated in the doctrine. The Incarnation is similar to the Trinity in so far as neither one entails a contradiction, but neither one is entirely comprehensible either. The Incarnation demands that a divine Person be not simply identical to a specific instance of a nature, and it also demands attributing two natures to the very same divine Person. By contrast, in the case of creatures each person is a numerically distinct instance of a nature, and no person has more than one nature48. As in the case of the Trinity, the Incarnation does not imply an outright contradiction, but it does fracture the human conceptual scheme. Thus the Incarnation cannot be set aside simply as muddled thought.

Let me turn now to creation. Once again, I shall employ Plotinus' Neoplatonic system to provide a contrast with the Christian view. There are three particular contrasts I wish to draw.

Plotinus explains the existence of all below the One as the result of the self-diffusiveness goodness of the One, which we discussed above. Is this production necessary? Scholars sometimes contrast the necessary production of the One with the free creation of the Christian God. Certainly, the creation of the Christian God is free, indeed gratuitous. The problem is that the contrast does not adequately reflect Plotinus' own analysis. First, the One does not in any sense need anything else for its own fulfillment49. Second, Plotinus argues that that both necessity and freedom are really only applicable to lower level of realities, so that the production of the One is beyond freedom and necessity50. Nonetheless, there is at least one important difference. If the Plotinian One is to engage in an act of self-diffusive goodness, it must "create," i.e., produce something at a lower level of reality than itself. By contrast, the self-diffusive goodness stemming from the Father results in two Persons with at the same level of reality as the Father. The perfect self-diffusive goodness of the Father renders other less perfect acts of diffusing goodness superfluous. In this respect, creation is necessary for the One, but unnecessary for the Christian God. It is fitting that the God of love creates, but it is utterly unnecessary since love is already perfected in the Trinity.

A second contrast is primarily eschatological, but bears on the purpose of creation as well. According to Plotinus a human being can rise through the various levels of being to attain union with the One51. What seems clear is that the lowest level of the hierarchy of being, the material world, is eternally distanced from its source, the One. Of course, the One must be present in some sense for the material world to exist at all. But the material world forever remains the outpost of reality, merely one step away from utter non-being, and a kind of locale of evil52. Christian eschatology presents a strikingly dissimilar picture. The entire material world is to be transformed and taken into the life of the Triune God53. The distance between God and His most remote creation is bridged. This brings us back to the very purpose of creation. Christianity claims that the creation is for the sake of intimate union with the Creator; the world is not simply the product of self-diffusive goodness. This difference reflects the fact that genuine otherness, which implies multiplicity, is seen as inimical to the Absolute by Plotinus, whereas Christians recognize that otherness is woven into the very fabric of the Absolute. The perfect self-diffusive goodness of the Father implies both otherness and intimate union within the Absolute. Indeed, the intra-Trinitarian processions reflect the basic pattern of "generation for the sake of union," and creation repeats this same pattern in an analogous way.

A third point is closely related to the second. Plotinus famously speaks of the flight of the "Alone to the Alone" (VI.9.11). Does this imply that personal identity is lost upon entering union with the One? It is not entirely clear because Plotinus' description of union is so compact54. There is no such unclarity in the Christian description of union with God55: an individual's "participation in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4) implies that individual identity is retained. Indeed, when creatures enter into the life of the Trinity, they also enter into the life of all other creatures in union with the divine. The result is a sort of perichoresis of creature with creature as well as creature with Creator. There is no absorption, and hence dissolution of the integrity of the creature. The otherness of the Persons within the Trinitarian life guarantees the integrity of creatures within the same Trinitarian life56.

Each of these three points is reflected in, or perhaps better, flows from, an understanding of Christ, the Alpha and the Omega (Revelation 22:13). Of course, Christ as the eternal Logos is He through whom all things were made (John 1:1)57, but the very purpose of creation is Christ, the anointed one who is the Incarnate God. Again, the purpose of creation is not simply to diffuse goodness by generating things that are good; creatures receive existence so that they may later receive the divine life thereby consummating the relationship between Creator and creation by entering into the perichoretic life of Trinitarian love. Christ, the Incarnate God not only effects this goal, He is this goal in his dual nature. Thus Christ as eternal Logos with the rest of the Trinity generates creation for the sake of His own union with creation so that by this union He may bring all things into the very life of the divine Trinity that He already enjoys.

In the Catholic perspective of the filioque Christ is the uniquely suited member of the Trinity to become Incarnate and act as "the sole mediator between God and man" (1 Timothy 2:5). For the Logos, the eternal Son, receives the divine nature from the Father in a way that is analogous58 to the way in which a creature receives existence from God. Furthermore, as empowered by the Father, the Son with the Father spirates the Holy Spirit59 in a way that is analogous to the way in which it is through the action of the Incarnate Son that divinization is bestowed on creatures.

Let me now revisit the three points made above, but from an explicitly Christological perspective.

First, as we have seen there was no need to create by the Triune God. The perfect acts of self-diffusive goodness in the begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit make creation superfluous, an act of sheer beneficence. The process by which God chooses to effect the union of creator and creation is also sheer beneficence, but fitting. Presumably God could have effected union in innumerable ways, but to do so through the Incarnation and ensuing actions of the Son is peculiarly fitting.60 From a Trinitarian perspective, the Son is the Logos, the perfect self-expression of the Father61, so that it is fitting that the process by which creatures are divinized involves the most perfect possible self-expression of the Logos in time. From another perspective, one might say that since the good communicates itself, it is fitting that the highest good communicate itself within the bounds of space and time in the most perfect manner62. The Son, intimately united with the other Persons of the Trinity, has chosen to become human and thus unite Himself to creation in intimate union as the very means by which divinization, our intimate union with God, is effected63. Indeed, in his own life the God-Man recapitulates the entire history of the divine-human interaction especially as this is centered on the Chosen People64. Christ re-enacts and sets aright the missteps of Adam and his offspring, entering into the deepest consequences of human sin in a solidarity with sinners, thereby redeeming them and all creation. This intimate act of union effects the intimate union of God and creatures.

The second point was that the entire creation, including the material world, is intended to be taken into the life of God. This eschatology is foreshadowed by Christ's Resurrection and Ascension. Christ is not merely raised from the dead in some purely spiritual way; rather his material body arises as well, fulfilling its eschatological potentialities65. And it is of great importance that His resurrected Body is assumed into heaven, not left behind. The point is that the Resurrection is not simply a manifestation of God's power over the material world: the material world itself, as epitomized by the body of Christ, is itself to be taken into the intimacy of the divine life forever. And Christ's intimacy with the material world continues in the world in the Church, the Body of Christ, and its use of material object in its sacraments and sacramentals.

Finally the third point was that individual identity is retained in divine union, for divine union is a perichoresis of creatures with the divine Persons and other creature within the life of the Trinity. This perichoresis is prefigured in the dual nature of Christ66. Human nature has been assumed by the Second Person of the Trinity so that creation itself may be assumed into the life of the Triune God67. It is essential to Christian doctrine that in Christ "human nature was assumed, not absorbed."68 Or in the words of the Council of Chalcedon: "the distinction between the natures was never abolished in their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person and one hypostasis."69 So too the individual creature is neither absorbed nor annihilated, but rather assumed into the life of the Trinity.

All the above can be summed up this way. The Triune God, revealed only through the Incarnation, is the Truth of Absolute reality. The Incarnate God, who can be understood only within the Trinitarian ambit, is the Truth of created reality.

It is not enough to speak or think these two Truths; they must be assimilated into the depths of one's being. Metaphysics is not primarily a set of propositions about ultimate reality. It is primarily transforming gnosis, the kind of knowledge that St. Peter says leads to partaking in the divine nature:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge (epignôseôs) of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption of the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. (2 Peter 1:3-4)70.

It is through this grace-induced gnosis that you are "transformed by the renewal of your mind (nous), that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2). This describes metaphysical gnosis penetrating "the eye of the heart" (the felicitous rendering of "nous" by the translators of the Philokalia71; "nous" is rendered in the quoted passage as "mind"), and this means having "the mind [nous] of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16). All aspects of one's being are transformed so that one can now wholeheartedly say with Christ "Fiat voluntas tua." Thus, genuine metaphysical knowledge implies that one has already begun to participate in the divine Triune life, the goal of creation72.



1 - Not infrequently, Christians have excluded truths of revelation such as the Trinity ("a mystery that is inaccessible to reason alone," Catechism of the Catholic Church [hereafter abbreviated "CCC"] 237; "237" refers to the section number) from metaphysics, which they restricted to include only those truths that can be know by unassisted natural reason. Two quite recent examples of this are Joseph Owens, An Elementary Christian Metaphysics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985) and W. Norris Clarke, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001). By contrast I make no such restriction on the content of metaphysics. Indeed, to exclude the Trinity from metaphysics is in some important sense to falsify reality from the beginning. back

2 - "The mystery of the Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life" (CCC,234). back

3 - Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem, trs. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1988). All quotations from Dionysius are from this work. back

4 - Plotinian references are to the Enneads. The translations I use are those of Dominic J. O'Meara, Plotinus: An Introduction to the Enneads (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993). One might also wish to consult A.H. Armstrong, Plotinus (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966-88). back

5 - VI.4-5. back

6 - See arguments in V.3.10, V.4, V.6, and VB.4.2; see also O'Meara, 49-53. back

7 - O'Meara, 45. back

8 - O'Meara, 57. back

9 - In fact, the same sorts of argument that Plotinus employs for the complete unity and simplicity of the primal reality are also employed by Christian writers, e.g., Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I.3.7 (Part One, Question 7, Article 7). I reference the translation by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1981. back

10 - Quoted in Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 40.back

11 - Aquinas refutes the argument that the attribution of various perfection to God compromises the divine simplicity by arguing that "things diverse and in themselves opposed to each other, pre-exist in God as one, without injury to His simplicity" (1.4.2.Reply 1). back

12 - God is "the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable" according to the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom; quoted in CCC, 42. back

13 - Quotation from CCC, 43. back

14 - This is not to say that there are no Christians who affirm that there is a level of reality deeper than the Trinity. For example, Meister Eckhart might have suggested that there is a Godhead beyond the Trinity. But the interpretation of Eckhart is very challenging. One might wish to consult the Introduction by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A and Bernard McGinn to Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1981). This text contains the Papal condemnation of some of Eckhart's writings. One should also consult Bernard McGinn, The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001). back

15 - John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1985). back

16 - Indeed, Zizioulas claims that such an interpretation prevailed in Western theology. Zizioulas sees this as manifested especially in Westerners dogmatic treatises that followed a pattern of first presenting a treatise "On the One God," which was followed by a treatise "On the Trinity" (40). Zizioulas exaggerates, but clearly makes an important point, as the Western theologian Karl Rahner concedes; see Rahner's The Trinity (London: Burns & Oates, 1969). back

17 - John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: historical trends & doctrinal themes (New York: Fordham University Press, rep. 1983), 183. back

18 - Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1976), 47. back

19 - See n.17 above. back

20 - The CCC here is quoting the Council of Toledo VI held in 638. back

21 - The CCC is quoting the Council of Florence held in 1442. back

22 - Quoted in the CCC, 253. Gregory Nazianzus in his Oratio 40, 41 writes: "Each person considered in himself is entirely God" (quoted in the CCC, 256). back

23 - Quoted in CCC 254. back

24 - Of course, the Latin Church and the Greek Church divide over the question of the filioque, the claim that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque in Latin). The filioque entails that the begetting of the Son (from the Father alone) cannot be the same relation as the procession of the Spirit (from the Father and the Son). Without the filioque, the Orthodox claim that the relation of begetting and procession are distinct, but unanalyzed, relations. back

25 - See R.T. Wallis, Neoplatonism (London: Duckworth, 1972), 63; also see O'Meara's discussion of V.4 and V.1, 60-65. For a general discussion of the notion see Norman Kretzmann, "A General Problem of Creation: Why Would God Create Anything at All?" in Scott MacDonald, ed., Being and Goodness: The Concept of the Good in Metaphysics and Philosophical Theology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 202-228. back

26 - "Generation" refers to the begetting of the Son, "spiration" to the procession of the Holy Spirit. back

27 - Chapter Six, "The Consideration of the Most Blessed Trinity in Its Name which is The Good," The Journey of the Mind to God, tr. by Philotheus Boehner, O.F.M., editor, with notes by Stephen F. Brown (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), 33. back

28 - Ibid., 33. back

29 - Though clearly not in all respects, since the Being of the Trinity remains utterly simple as we saw above. back

30 - For example, see Frithjof Schuon, Logic and Transcenedence (New York: Harper Row, 1975), 96-109. back

31 - CCC, 153. back

32 - For example, see Frithjof Schuon, Survey of Metaphysics and Esoterism (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom Books, 1986), especially the first two chapters. back

33 - Karl Rahner, The Trinity (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970), 11. back

34 - I say "contains" rather than "is" because I wish to distinguish between mere notional knowledge and genuine sapiential knowledge of the Trinity. Sapiential comes from sapience, "taste" as in "Taste and see the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8). Sapiential knowledge is transformative, as I shall explain below. back

35 - Meyendorff, 182. back

36 - See Catherine La Cugna, God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1991), Chapter Two, "Cappadocian Theology," 53-80. back

37 - See Rahner "The Problem of the Concept of 'Person'" in Trinity, 103 ff. back

38 - Meyendorf, 184-5. back

39 - "Mystery of Faith," in Wolfgang Beinert and Francis Schüssler Firoenza, eds., Handbook of Catholic Theology (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1995), 495-6. back

40 - See the introduction by H. Lawrence Bond to Nicholas of Cusa: Selected Spiritual Writings (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997). back

41 - "God is identically monad and triad" according to Maximus the Confessor Capita theol. et oecon. II.1, quoted by Meyendorff, 184. back

42 - See for example, Frithjof Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of Religions (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 133. back

43 - See the Aquinas' quotation in note 12. back

44 - Meyendorff, 185; quoting Lossky, 64. back

45 - See LaCugna, 270-2. back

46 - The lack of space forces me to concentrate on what is most essential. Thus I will omit discussion of such important topics as sin and evil. Some creatures are endowed with a finite freedom that reflects the infinite freedom of the Creator. The abuse of finite freedom originates sin and evil. Christ redeems creation from sin and evil, but does more: through Christ creatures participates in the divine nature. back

47 - Since the Father is the very principle by whom the other hypostases receive the divine nature, the relation (for lack of a better term) between the Father and the divine nature is different in some way than the relation between the divine nature and the other two hypostases. back

48 - To be clear: although Christ has a human nature, his Person is not human, but divine, the Second Person of the Trinity. back

49 - See O'Meara, 57. back

50 - VI.8.8; see O'Meara, 55-6. back

51 - See "The Return of Soul: Philosophy and Mysticism" in O'Meara, 101-110, and "Levels of the Self" in Pierre Hadot, tr. Michael Chase, Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 23-34. Hadot, perhaps the greatest French Plotinian scholar of recent times, provides a very sensitive and sympathetic portrait of Plotinus' spirituality. back

52 - Plotinus describes matter as "evil itself" (I.8.8, I.8.13), but this clearly is not his final opinion on the status of matter since even matter is derived from the One. See Denis O'Brien, "Plotinus on matter and evil," in Lloyd P. Gerson, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 171-195. back

53 - See Ephesians 1:10,1 Corinthians 15:27-8, and John 17:21-23. "The ultimate end of the whole divine economy is the entry of God's creatures into the perfect unity of the Blessed Trinity" (CCC, 260). back

54 - See O'Meara, 105-6. back

55 - This is often referred to as theosis in the Orthodox tradition. back

56 - It should be clear that the Christian conception of the individual as intrinsically oriented toward receptivity to God and other creatures is antithetical to modern atomistic individualism. back

57 - Properly speaking creation and redemption are the work of the entire Trinity, but each Person performs the common work through a personal property (CCC, 257-8). back

58 - Very remotely in the sense that Lateran IV which was quoted above, states that there is always greater dissimilitude than similitude between Creator and creatures. back

59 - The Orthodox do not generally agree with the filioque. Some Orthodox may find the formulation of "by the Father through the Son" as a more palatable interpretation of the filioque. back

60 - See Aquinas' Summa Theologiae III.1.2. back

61 - "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John14: 8-9). back

62 - Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae III.1.1. back

63 - Furthermore, as an act of intimacy with his creation, the tools Christ uses in his salvific work are the created things themselves, things that are endowed by their very nature with symbolic value. Many of the symbols and rituals of Christianity are shared with other great religions because these symbols and rituals are particularly potent natural expressions of what transcends them. The sacramental use of material things is thus a sort of fulfillment of material nature's orientation toward and expression of its divine source. On this, see Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Crestwood, NY: St. Valdimir's Seminary Press, 1998). back

64 - See Irenaeus Adv. haeres., cited by the CCC, 518. Also see Paul M. Quay The Mystery Hidden for Ages in God (New York: Peter Lang, 1997). back

65 - The Transfiguration is itself an anticipation of the Resurrection and eschatological fulfillment of the material creation. back

66 - In fact, "the term perichoresis was first used in a Christological context, probably by Gregory Nazianzus [see Ep.101], to stress the mutual interdependence of the two natures of Christ" LaCugna, 272. back

67 - "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God" as Athanasius famously put it (De. Inc., 54, 3) quoted CCC, 460. back

68 - Gaudium et Spes22§2 (a document of Vatican II). back

69 - Council of Chalcedon: DS 302. Quoted in CCC, 467.

70 - Revised Standard Version. back

71 - Philokalia Volume I, trs. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), see the entry under "Intellect" in the Glossary, 362. The New Testament uses the form noos; I have used the more common form nous. back

72 - See CCC, 460. back