At a theological conference I attended recently, one of the side conversations turned into a discussion of Augustine and neoplatonic philosophy, and then into a Josh soapbox moment regarding Nominalism and Christian Realism/Christian-Platonic synthesis/sacramental or participatory ontology (if you want to know what all that means, I recommend Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation). My friend’s critique was that Augustine had inserted the yeast of neoplatonic ideas into the good bread of Christian tradition. My response is that neoplatonism had been baked in, and you can even make a case (I think it’s a very strong case) that Hebrews, John, and other parts of the New Testament have a kind of platonism at their cores. But it’s a Christian platonism, not just an uncritical acceptance of Plato’s thought, which is false and an inappropriate foundation on which Christians might build a theology. While platonism and neoplatonism argued for the world’s emanation from God, the Christian version argued that God created the world and is separate from her. And from that point all kinds of other differences emerge, but that’s enough for this morning. God is distinct from the world that He created. In Nominalism, God is on the same level as the world, but distinct from it because everything is distinct from everything else; there is nothing that participates in anything or anyone else; God may be (and is, in Nominalist ontologies) very far away from the world, such that we end up with the distant, arbitrary God of the Deists and others. In Christian Realism, God is distinct from the world while also remaining its Creator – its beginning – and its telos, its end.
Chapters 7-8 look at the god Janus, whom the pagan authors associate with the world and with beginnings. Augustine spends these chapters mocking the set of beliefs surrounding Janus. Why two faces? Why sometimes four faces? What do faces have to do with the world? Why beginnings and not ends? Aren’t ends better than beginnings?
Chapter 6 connects with the discussion above, about Realism and Nominalism and all that. Augustine discusses Varro’s natural theology – God is the soul of the world; the rightness or goodness of the cosmos exists because God is its soul; the cosmos is made up of heaven and earth; heaven is made of aether and air, earth is made of water and earth; aether and air have immortal souls, water and earth have mortal souls; God or the gods make up the soul-ness of the cosmos. There is a kind of elegance to Varro’s position, in which God is one with His cosmos and therefore everything has purpose and potential goodness. Everything is infused with life and goodness and meaning. So different from this Nominalist world in which we live, where we can create meaning as we will. But Augustine rightly sees the problems with Varro: God is not one with the world but its sovereign Creator. God is not the world’s soul but its mysterious and glorious King. God is not the immortal bit of the cosmos – the soul to the world’s body – but above and over and set apart from the cosmos.
Augustine has not dealt with Varro’s theology yet – he has just been pointing it out – so I hope we get more of his renunciation of Varro as we go. But I think we can safely say that we won’t get an uncritically neoplatonic Augustine having a debate with a neoplatonic opponent. Augustine is part of the Christian tradition interacting with neoplatonic thinkers – which is to say that he rejects parts of the platonic tradition in a Christian way. God is not somehow the soul of the world.