Plotinus Among the Gnostics: The Neoplatonic Trinity in the Late Third Century

NeoplatonismMost Christians today seem woefully unaware of the important religious interchange which gave rise to their most beloved church doctrines.  Hardly noticed are the historians who have challenged the common, whitewashed Church history perpetuated by mainstream evangelicalism, which has ever sought to paint such ecclesiastical standards at the doctrine of the Trinity (or at least the fourth-and-fifth-century creeds which are said to describe it) as not only fundamental to the Christian faith, but arrived at via the Scriptures alone (in other words, apart from pagan philosophy).  Unbeknownst to many, however, without the necessary backdrop of Platonic, Stoic, and Christian Gnostic thought, the Trinitarian theology now so widely viewed as the “Christian distinctive” would be impossible.

But just how did the “orthodox” Christians ever come to view the biblical God as “three hypostases and one ousia,” and as a scheme which featured the mysterious procession (emanation) of one hypostases from another, outside of time?  Understanding the complex relationship between the competing academic groups in the latter half of the third century will prove increasingly helpful in understanding how these radical Christian developments were possible by the fourth century.  In this post we will be focusing specifically on the triadic concepts found in early Neoplatonism.  Because of Neoplatonism’s inarguable significance for the Church Fathers who eventually laid down orthodox theology, we must consider that philosophical movement’s own divine triad, how it developed, and whether or not there are substantial enough affinities with later Christianity to suspect any influence.


Plotinus (d. 270 CE), the so-called founder of Neoplatonism, had not only envisioned a triad of the One, the Intellect (Nous), and the Soul, but even posited that “the latter two mysteriously emanate from the One.”[1]  Plotinus described this triad as three “hypostases” (to him, the underlying substances of existence).  One of Plotinus’ most pertinent ideas was the concept of “emanation” as an explanation of the relationship between the principles of the triad.  He utilized the analogy of the sun which emanates light without diminishing itself; in this way God expressed the logos, whom Plotinus identified with the Demiurge, and from that logos “proceeded” the World-Soul.[2]  Here, surprisingly, the exact phraseology of the pagans is readily located in the Catholic creeds, as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 CE states that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father [and the Son].”[3]  But how was this thinking first taken up in Neoplatonism before it was transmitted into Christian orthodoxy?


Earlier forerunners of Neoplatonism like Numenius (2nd century) had offered an account of “three Gods,” but they had been static principles.  However, as John D. Turner reveals: “a number of Gnostic thinkers were developing schemes by which a hierarchy of transcendental beings emanated from a single source by a process of dynamic emanation.”[4]  Turner continues: “Although Plotinus has often been credited with being the first major philosopher to elaborate such a scheme, it is clear that similar models of dynamic emanation are beginning to develop in Gnostic thought, some of which chronologically precedes Plotinus.[5]

Because of Plotinus’ pointed and voluminous writings against the Gnostics (he wrote an entire book against them), scholars have long considered Plotinian and Gnostic thought to be diametrically opposed.  But today scholars are beginning to emphasize the “fundamental similarities” between them.[6]

Plotinus taught in Rome from 244-269 CE, and upon arriving in that city he had immediately found himself surrounded, not by traditional Platonists, but by “Platonizing Gnostics,” whom he held to be corrupters of Plato’s original doctrines.[7]  Around 265, Plotinus was loudly condemning teachers who were misleading his own students, and by the time of his school’s closing, dear friends of Plotinus had “fallen under the spell of the rival doctrine.”[8]  Indeed, many Gnostic texts are said to have circulated in Plotinus’ school, including the Sethian treatises and the Nag Hammadi texts Zostrianos (favored by the orthodox Christian Marius Victorinus) and the Allogenes.

Apocryphon of John (NHC)

Despite his great contest with the Gnostics, Plotinus appears to have followed in the pattern of Gnosticizing Christians like Clement of Alexandria; he publicly denounced the Gnostics while simultaneously borrowing from them.  The most important texts that Plotinus drew from were the Valentinian Tripartite Tractate and the Sethian Apocryphon of John (both found among the Nag Hammadi texts).  In the Tripartite Tractate, the supreme principle, the Father, generates the Son when the Father first thinks of himself.[9]  The Father and Son are viewed as one and the same, and their existence is described as a “self-generation.”[10]  Likewise in the Sethian texts, when the “Invisible Spirit” thinks of himself, he emanates the second intellectual principle, the “Barbelo” or the “First Thought.”  As scholars confirm, the Sethian Barbelo “corresponds to Numenius’ Second Mind.”[11]  In the same way, the later Plotinus says that “Mind” is generated by the self-contemplation of the “One.”[12]  Regarding the retention of properties, in the Tripartite Tractate we find that the Father is in no way diminished by his generation of the Son.[13]  Likewise in Plotinus the One is not diminished by the production of the Mind.[14]  As Turner concludes:

In sum, Gnostic sources such as the Sethian Platonizing treatises and the Tripartite Tractate may have had a decisive influence on some of the most distinctive features and images of Plotinus’ thinking.  In fact, not only was Gnostic thought a genuine forerunner of, and “Platonic” competitor with, some of those features of Platonic interpretation habitually thought to be distinctively Neoplatonic, such as the Being-Life-Mind triad, but also major features of Plotinus’ thought, not only because these ideas were part of a shared milieu, but also because Plotinus was involved in a dialogue with them for virtually the whole of his writing career.[15]

This information confirms that the problem of Gnostic infiltration was not confined to Christianity.  Gnosticism proved a major theological force in the late Roman Empire for far longer and on a far broader scale than popular Christian histories have allowed.  The religion of Plato was as much a victim of this exploitation as the religion of Jesus: in either case we can hardly distinguish, in the later forms of those faiths, the practical differences between many of their principles and those of the dreaded mystics they condemned.

Ultimately, the subtle Gnosticizing of Neoplatonism bears repercussions for Christianity.  There is an easily discerned harmony between the Neoplatonic philosophy and the writings of important Christian (and former Manichaean Gnostic) Augustine, who happily “discovered” the Christian Trinity in Plotinus’ works.[16]  Likewise other post-Nicene theologians, like Cyril of Alexandria (376-444 CE), “tells us himself, for example, that he discerns a Christian view of God not only in some of Plato, but also in Plotinus.”[17]  For these Christian doctors, the preceding labors of the pagans continuously provided a fertile soil where Christians might sow the subjects of the New Testament and reap an innovative and exciting blend of Jewish faith and Greek intuition.  In truth, without the pagan, Gnostic world, their own biblical interpretations would never have been possible.



[1] Dale Tuggy, “Trinity,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2014. Web. 14 December 2014.

[2] James Wilberding, Plotinus‘ Cosmology: A Study of Ennead II.1 (40): Text, Translation, and Commentary (New York: OUP, 2006), p. 81.

[3] The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, 381 CE, emphasis added.  The controversial “Filioque” addition, championed by Augustine, is represented in brackets.

[4] John D. Turner, “Plotinus and the Gnostics: Opposed Heirs of Plato,” The Routledge Handbook of Neoplatonism (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 58, emphasis added.

[5] Ibid., p. 53, emphasis added.

[6] Ibid., p. 52.

[7] “The Platonizing Gnostics have turned out to be genuinely innovative interpreters of ancient philosophical traditions, and had a far greater degree of intellectual agency with respect to contemporaneous academic philosophy than is usually supposed.  Right alongside Plotinus, these Gnostic interpreters were reading and commenting upon the very same texts as he did.  They were activist contemplatives who were spreading a doctrine of salvation that competed with Plotinus’ own” (Ibid., p. 53).

[8] Ibid.  See also Plotinus, Enneads II, 9, 10:3-6.

[9] “In Valentinian thought, at the beginning of the Tripartite Tractate, the ineffable Father has a thought of himself, which is the Son (Tripartite Tractate 56:16-57:3), and in Clement of Alexandria’s account of the Valentinian system of Theodotus, the Unknown Father is said to emit the second principle, the Monogenes-Son, ‘as if knowing himself.’  Similarly, in both Eugnostos the Blessed and its nearly identical but Christianized version, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, the divine Forefather sees himself ‘within himself as in a mirror,’ and the resultant image is the second principle, the Self-Father.  In Hippolytus of Rome’s account of Simonian doctrine, the pre-existent first principle abides in absolute unity, but gives rise to an intellectual principle through self-manifestation: ‘manifesting himself to himself, the one who stood became the second’ ” (Turner, p. 54).

[10] Tripartite Tractate, 56, 1.

[11] Gerard Bechtle, “The Question of Being and the Dating of the Anonymous Parmenides Commentary,” Ancient Philosophy, Vol. 20, No. 2 (2000), n. 74.

[12] Plotinus, Enneads, 5, 1; 7, 1-6.

[13] “But he is [as] he is, [for he is] a spring that is not diminished by the water flowing from it” (Tripartite Tractate, 60, 1-15).

[14] “It itself flows forth, so to speak, as if from a spring.  Imagine a spring that has no other origin; it gives itself to all the rivers, yet is never used up by the rivers” (Plotinus, Enneads, 3, 8; 10, 3-14).

[15] Ibid., pp. 62-63.

[16] Augustine, City of God, Book 10, Ch. 23.

[17] Roy Kearsley, “The Impact of Greek Concepts of God on the Christology of Cyril of Alexandria,” Tyndale Bulletin, 43, 2 (Cambridge: Tyndale House, 1992), p. 309.


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