In a chapter on “Nicene metaphysics” in The Hidden and the Manifest, David Bentley Hart explains the radical differences between the Plotinian metaphysics and the metaphysics implicit in early Trinitarianism. The article turns on the dynamics of hiddenness and manifestation.
Plotinus’s ultimate principle, “the One,” cannot reveal itself. It can never be manifest. That’s the case because “the disproportion between the supreme principle of reality and this secondary principle of manifestation remained absolute. Hence all revelation, all disclosure of the divine, follows upon a more original veiling. The manifestation of that which is Most High – wrapped as it is in unapproachable darkness, up upon the summit of being – is only the paradoxical manifestation of a transcendence that can never become truly manifest; perhaps not even to itself, as it possesses no Logos immanent to itself” (144).
To fill the gap, Plotinus and others conceived “some sort of scale of successively accommodating hypostases or emanations or abstract causes” between the One and the finish world. By this “pleonastic fallacy,” there was an “economic limitation of its source, so reduced in nature as to be capable of entering into contact with the realm of discrete beings, of translating the power of the supreme principle in to various finite effects, and of uniting this world to the wellspring of all things” (143). This was the assumption behind Arianism, which taught that the Logos was “generated with respect to the created order, as its most exalted expression, certainly, but also somehow contingent upon it” (144).
To put it differently, the One has no “specular” other within itself, no reflection and knowledge; the first thought of the One depends on Nous, which converts the “simply light of the One into boundless multiplicity” (145).
In Nicene trinitarianism, by contrast, the Logos is not generated for the sake of creation, not a lesser manifestation of a God beyond manifestation. Rather: “it is in fact the eternal reality whereby God is the God he is. There is a perfectly proportionate convertibility of God with his own manifestation of himself to himself; and, in fact, this convertibility is nothing less than God’s own act of self-knowledge and self-love in the mystery of his transcendent life. His being, therefore, is an infinite intelligibility; his hiddenness – his transcendence – is always already manifestation; and it is this movement of infinite disclosure that is his ‘essence’ as God” (147).
This implies an entirely different conception of transcendence. For Plotinus, the transcendence of the One is its inaccessibility at the top of the pyramid of being. But the Triune God isn’t the highest being in a scale of being; He is the source of all other beings. Transcendence isn’t simply “dialectical supremacy, and not ontic absence” but rather “the truly transcendent and therefore utterly immediate act of God, in his own infinity, giving being to beings.” God makes creation exist not by a diminution of His own reality, or through a lesser intermediary, by as the infinite God. His transcendence isn’t at the expense of His presence; His transcendence is the condition of the possibility of His presence (148).But how can this One be anything at all: “in what way is that which absolutely transcends intuition, conceptualization, and knowledge, even within itself, anything at all. Being is manifestation, and to the degree that anything is wholly beyond thought . . . to that very degree it does not exist” (145). The One ends up being pure negation. And this negation negates everything: “the structure of reality . . . held together at its apex by a principle so exalted that it is also the negation of the whole, in all the latter’s finite particularities.” This resolves in “a dialectic of identity and negation” (146).
There is a pathos here, a sadness: “for if the truth of all things is a principle in which they are grounded and by which they are simultaneously negated, then one can draw near to the fullness of truth only through a certain annihilation of particularity, throughout a forgetfulness of the manifest, through a sort of benign desolation of the soul, progressively eliminating . . . all that lies between the One and the noetic self” (146).
Trinitarianism involves an affirmation of particularity. The particular thing isn’t a mode of tragic alienation from God; it’s not that we have to shed what we are to be united to the One. Rather “it is precisely through becoming what it is . . . that the creature truly reflects the goodness and transcendent power of God.” God is eternally and truly Logos; He and His manifestation are one God. And thus “creatures are insofar as they participate in the Logos’s power to manifest God.”
Creation isn’t a manifestation of the unmanifest God. Instead, “God in himself is an infinite movement of disclosure, and in creation – rather than departing from his inmost nature – he discloses himself again by disclosing what is contained in his Logos” (149). In short, “The image of God in creation – and in rational natures in particular – must be an actual communication of the light of God’s own inward life, his own eternal Image of himself within the Trinitarian mystery. It is, so to speak, a created reprise of the movement of God’s being as God, coming to pass within beings who have no existence apart from their capacity to reflect his presence” (161).