Athanasius, Neoplatonism, & _Opera ad Extra Trinitatis_

I remember well at Westminster Theological Seminary in the late 1990’s Professor Sinclair Ferguson expounding the doctrine that the external works of the Trinity are undivided (in Latin, _Opera ad extra trinitatis indivisa sunt_) in our Doctrine of God class.

What I did not know then is that this doctrine, first articulated by Athanasius in his opposition to a party in Serapion’s diocese in Egypt which denied the deity of the Holy Spirit, forms part of a larger argument which relies on a philosophical presupposition of neoplatonism.

That philosophical idea is that energeia (in the latin phrase above this word is translated in the plural as opera) is revelatory of ousia or essence. This philosophical development was worked out (building on the work of Aristotle, who coined the term energeia) in the thought of such neoplatonists as Philo, Porphery, Galen, and Iamblichus. (David Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West, 155)

Athanasius’ argument is basically that since in Scripture God’s external acts are always accomplished by all three persons of the Trinity at the same time, and since we know that this kind of “external act” (i.e., within the tradition of neoplatonist Christianity, energeia) reveals an “inner” (“inner” here simply means non-revealed, or independent of revelation) essence, we see that, in his very essence, God (who is Trinity) is one. Thus, the Holy Spirit must be divine.

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