The Mysticism of Plotinus

from May 15, 2021 Category: Ligonier Resources

Mysticism has gained popularity in our day, but it’s far from a new idea. In this brief clip, R.C. Sproul contrasts the true communion shared between Christ and His people with the mystical teachings of the philosopher Plotinus. Watch the full message today.


But for Plotinus, the good life, the virtuous life, is the life of the mystic who makes a pilgrimage along life’s way from being preoccupied with the physical word, where most people spend their lives just as materialists. Their whole life is focused on things that you can handle, taste, touch, see, and hear, and that sort of thing. And, he said that the first step beyond that is to the contemplative life, whereby the mind rises above the shadowy cave of Plato, where people are locked into the world of material things, the world of the receptacle. Remember, Plato wanted us to get out of the cave of sense perception and into the realm of the mind, where contemplation is the highest source of truth. Well, Plotinus adds a new dimension to this. There is still another stage after that, and it is the stage of “mystical union.” Now, how does this fit with Christianity? You read the New Testament, and there are obviously elements of mysticism found within it. Paul is up in the third heaven, and Paul talks about our union with Christ, what we would call the “mystical union” of the believer with Christ, and so on. But there is different kind of thinking in historic Christian mysticism from what we find in these ancient philosophers. For the ancient mystic, this stage of progression, this movement, this pilgrimage that I have talked about begins with sense perception, or sensation, and then moves to contemplation, and then it moves to what the mystics call “communio,” which is a being “with” God, a communion with God. We talk in Christian theology about the “communion of the saints” and the sense in which we have fellowship with each other, not only with those who are alive, but also with those who were part of the church past, present, and future. But that’s more or less the end of the road for Christian mysticism: the highest form of mysticism is to have this mystical communion with God. But not so with Plotinus and other mystics. The next stage is “unio,” where you become “one with” God. Now, this is a common feature in Eastern religions, where the goal of your religious experience is to lose your personal identity, to become one with the “over-soul.” So often, you will hear the illustration of the drop of water that falls into the ocean and loses its identity as it becomes absorbed into the whole of things. Now, this is significant for Plotinus because of his concept of God. For Plotinus, God is called “the One.” He calls God “One” in such a way that would suggest a pure pantheism. But most experts who study Plotinus say that Plotinus was not really your garden-variety pantheist. In fact, he tried to avoid pantheism and at the same time avoid Christianity, but still the highest being is called “the One.”