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On Seeing a Large Library: A Meditation by Joseph Hall

February 21, 2015
Bibliotheca Publica Universitatis Altdorfinae

In his Table Talk, the renowned English Bishop, Joseph Hall (†1656) meditates on objects from every day experience. From a fly accidentally burning itself in a candle to a crow pulling the wool out of a sheep’s back Hall, like Solomon, sees every moment as an opportunity sent by a divine hand for the sake of returning one’s attention to the pursuit of wisdom. In one of his meditations Hall explains how he marveled at a large library, an experience to which most of us book worms can relate.

What a world of thought is here packed up together! I know not whether this sight doth more dismay, or comfort me. It dismays me to think that here is so much that I cannot know; it comforts me to think that this variety affords so much assistance to know what I should. There is no truer word than that of Solomon: ‘There is no end of making many books.’ This sight verifies it. There is no end: indeed it were a pity there should. God hath given to man a busy soul; the agitation whereof cannot but, through time and experience, work out many hidden truths. To suppress these would be injurious to mankind, whose minds, like so many candles, should be kindled by each other. Our deliberate thoughts are more accurate; these we commit to paper. What a happiness is it, that without the aid of necromancy, I can here call up any of the ancient worthies of learning, whether human or divine, and confer with them upon all my doubts; that I can at pleasure summon whole synods of reverend fathers and acute doctors from all the coasts of the earth, to give their well-studied judgments in all doubtful points which I propose. Nor can I cast my eye casually upon any of these silent masters, but I must learn somewhat. It is a wantonness to complain of choice. No law binds us to read all; but the more we can take in and digest, the greater will be our improvement.

Blessed be God, who hath set up so many clear lamps in his church; none but the willfully blind can plead darkness. And blessed be the memory of those his faithful servants, who have left their blood, their spirits, their lives in these precious papers; and have willingly wasted themselves into these enduring monuments, to give light to others!

‘Theology is Queen! and everything else a shadow!': J.H. Alsted on the Contemplative/Active Life

February 14, 2015

In his Praecognitorum theologicorum… , J.H. Alsted admits that he lacks the words to adequately describe Theology. Not because Theology is less than the other sciences, arts, or activities of life. On the contrary, Alsted asserts that Theology contains all of these things and, because of this, it can only be described by one word: Wisdom. Yet, even wisdom does not fully express the inexpressible nature of Theology. The highest thoughts of contemplation, even when accompanied by faith, cannot attain the summit of this wisdom. Alsted, therefore, is forced to conclude, “We are left destitute, therefore, of the appropriate vocabulary.” He knows that Theology is revealed by nature and Scripture. He knows that Theology is unified by its object, i.e., God. It is not less than scientia, therefore.

Alsted is not worried that he has failed to prove that Theology is something more than a science, art, or a practice. On the contrary, he believes that when one traces the boundaries of ectypal theology – what we humans do – one begins to see its connection with archetypal theology, which is God’s very own knowledge of Himself. Mere humans, however, cannot see archetypal theology because of the blinding rays of God’s infinity. Alsted says, “We do not posit a definition of archetypal Theology but a quasi-definition, by analogy, according to our mode of understanding.” In fact one should use caution, even when talking about archetypal theology. “We ought not investigate archetypal Theology, but worship it.” When the faithful see the boundary of ectypal Theology, therefore, they lose the appropriate vocabulary by which they may describe it. Faith is through a glass darkly after all.

Alsted concludes that Theology is not a mere activity, but it so far transcends our powers of contemplation that it comes full circle, so to speak, and manifests itself in action. Theology is hyper-contemplative [hyper-theoreticam] and hyper-speculative [superspeculativam]. “For,” Alsted says, “the highest and final thought by which I know that I see God, that I am conformed to Him, that I will always rejoice [in Him], this is not mere [nuda] contemplation but active contemplation [contemplatio actuosa]. When you have weighed this matter carefully in this way, join with me in exclaiming, ‘Theology is Queen! and everything else is like a shadow!'” (Praecog…, 63). Thus, for Alsted the height of contemplation is not an absence of thought or action but a coincidence of thought-action which stems from the experience of seeing God and rejoicing in Him as he is manifest within one’s own soul. This, he says, is “active contemplation.”

Zanchi on Union with God

February 12, 2015
Jerome Zanchi

What does Paul mean in Ephesians 3:19 when he says “that you may be filled with all the fullness of God?” Girolamo Zanchi, in his Commentary on Ephesians, interprets Paul to mean that believers are partakers of the divine nature, a participation which depends upon one understanding “the mysteries of piety and its causes, that is, by understanding the love of God in Christ toward us.” This is not a bare cognitive assent, however, but is combined with an experience [sentio] of the love of God within one’s “inner man” by means of grace. Zanchi, like Aquinas, considers union with God to occur primarily through a certain created likeness of God within the soul, or in other words, a renewal of the image of God in the soul by means of certain infused qualities (i.e., wisdom, righteousness, etc.). He explains what it means to be “filled with the fulness of God”:

Translation: Girolamo Zanchi on Ephesians 3:19

By what, then, do we become strong? By a power and virtue, not human, but divine. So, [Paul] says, “that you may be strengthened with power, that is, of God.” Therefore, all of the virtues are excited within us, they stand upright, and are nourished by the power [δυνάμει] and virtue of God, and these are really nothing other than a certain divine power created, excited, and inflamed through the Holy Spirit within us, by which [we are] good, strong, wise, righteous, and finally, we are such as God wants us to be, and by which we have the ability, whatever ability we have, [to be] good. This is the power [δυνάμιν] of God that Peter calls the divine nature: “That you may become (Peter says) partakers of the divine nature.” By the word “nature” here [Peter] means a created quality by which we become like God. Paul calls [it] grace: “By the grace of God I am what I am & his Grace in me was not vain” (1 Cor. 15).

Zanchi, In d. Pauli epistolam ad Ephesios Commentarius, 1594, p. 201.

J.H. Alsted: The Light of Reason and the Light of Faith

February 7, 2015

At the Calvinist International I’ve published another in my series of posts in which I translate portions from J.H. Alsted’s Theologia naturalis. Here’s an excerpt from Alsted on how the light of reason relates to the light of faith:

Pious men explain this by means of an apposite similitude: They say, just as the sunlight does not put out the [light] of the stars but makes their lesser light yield to a more abundant light, so the light of Grace does not put out the light of Nature but makes it yield. And again, just as the stars yield to the Sun so that they do not fall from the sky, so reason yields to faith so that it does not fall from the sky of the microcosm. Let [faith] cease, if you will, and [reason] falls. The little torch of reason acknowledges its inferiority to grace coming forth from the celestial chamber as to the Sun, the superior of the stars. But, [the soul] does not cast away a power innate to it with the arrival of [grace], any less than the stars do not cast away their own power of shinning with the arrival of noon.

Plato’s Two Cities

February 5, 2015

In his very informative book, Platonopolis: Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity, Dominic O’Meara argues that the Platonists of Late Antiquity did not think that Plato intended his strict utopian government reflected in the Republic to be applied to any physical city or polity in this life. Rather, the Republic reflects the principles of the Ideal city, not the city of this world of flux. The Platonists saw a division between two “cities” in Plato’s political writings, between the Ideal city of the Republic and the more realistic (in terms of material limitations) civic polity delineated in Laws. O’Meara explains:

The relation between the ideal city of the Republic and that proposed in the Laws was, for the Neoplatonist, far from what it is often supposed to be today, that is, that the ambitious political reformer of the Republic, disappointed by his experience in Sicily, produced in his old age a more modest project, that of the Laws. Rather, the later Neoplatonist read the relation between the two cities in the light of a passage in the Laws (739b-e), which distinguishes between the best constitution (where all is held in common); a second-best constitution which seeks to approach the best, but admits of private property and family units; and a yet lower, third-best city.  Thus, in the Laws, a political project is sketched which approximates to the ideal, while at the same time making concessions to human nature as regards the need for private property and family. The ideal, best constitution, on the other hand, makes no such concessions and seems indeed hardly possible for humans, since it is described as a `city of gods or of children of the gods’ (Laws 739d). The Neoplatonists understood this city of the gods mentioned in the Laws as corresponding to the project of an ideal city of the Republic (Kindle Locations 1024-1031).

For example:

Proclus sees the political projects of the Republic and the Laws as situated on different levels: the Republic takes individuals that are pure and educates them, whereas the Laws takes people who have already lived in other cities and are less perfect. Thus the city of the Laws is inferior in its political ambition to that of the Republic: not only does it not foresee the highest positions for women [as the Republic does], it also allows private property (banned from the life of the rulers in the Republic), which, given woman’s weaker nature (in Proclus’ view) and thus her presumed preference for the private to the public good, means that it is prudent to exclude her from the highest office at the level of the less perfect city of the Laws. (Kindle Locations 952-957).

What, then, is the relationship between the two cities? How are they connected? The Platonists answer, is the philosopher king or the political philosopher. O’Meara explains the role of the political philosopher in uniting the two cities:

The purpose of the political philosopher is to promote a political order which favours the development of the `political’ virtues among the citizens and thus the achievement of `political happiness’, as a first stage in the process of divinization. Political life, a life in which soul, as living in relation to the body, is confronted with problems of order both within itself and in relation to others, is thus a school of virtue, an extended version, so to speak, of the philosophical school, the ruler being consequently a kind of mentor or guide who brings order to political life, inspired by a privileged  access to the divine (Kindle Locations 1001-1005).

By imitating the divine model of wisdom and providing an example of that wisdom in his person the political philosopher points the earthly city to the Good. This sort of education divinizes the earthly city. O’Meara notes:

At any rate, the goal of political science, the common good that includes the individual good on the political level, is `good’ to the degree that it relates to, or participates in, a transcendent Good. In short, the finality of politics is sharing in the divine, i.e. divinization, just as `political’ virtue represents a form and early stage of divinization. Thus the political good, or `political happiness’, is not an ultimate goal, but a stage giving access to the ultimate Good (Kindle Locations 998-1001).

For Platonists, the good of the earthly city is only good insofar as it participates in the Good of the heavenly “city of the gods” by means of public laws that bring order and structure to the souls of citizens; thereby divinizing the earthly city. This, of course, means that the Platonists were not merely political philosophers but political theologians.

“God is an Infinite Sphere”: A (Very) Brief History

February 3, 2015
Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 1.15.19 PM

I saw a tweet a few days back that was a quotation from the English Puritan, George Swinnock’s The Blessed and Boundless God, in which Swinnock notes, “God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” This quotation, Swinnock admits, comes from an unknown “heathen” author. Though Swinnock does not name the source or the book, he is most likely quotting from the Liber XXIV Philosophorum, that is, The Book of the Twenty-Four Philosophers. The second principle head of this work states: DEVS EST SPHAERA INFINITA CVIVS CENTRVM EST VBIQUE, CIRCVMFERENTIA NVSQVAM, which translates, “God is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.”

The metaphor of God as a sphere was bequeathed to English theologians of the 17th century both by the Liber XXIV Philosophorum itself and by Medieval authors who quoted from it. Nicholas of Cusa was one Late Medieval author who made use of this phrase. In his De Docta Ignorantia I.23, Cusa argues that the metaphor of an infinite sphere is appropriate to describe the existence of God (Sicut sphaera infinita est penitus in actu et simplicissima, ita maximum est penitus in actu simplicissime).  English theologians, like Cusa, found this metaphor to be quite useful. Joseph Hall, for example, states in a sermon, “O God, thou art an intelligible sphere, whose centre is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere but in thyself.” Another Puritan, Peter Sterry, states, “God is that Sacred Circle of All-Being, of Infinitness, of Eternity, whose Center is everywhere, in the smallest Point of Things; whose Circumference is no where bounded” (The Appearance of God to man… London, 1710, p. 300).

There is no record or evidence of the Liber XXIV Philosophorum before the Medieval period. Swinnock, like his European predecessors would have thought that the book was composed by the famed Hermes Tristmegistus. Modern historians reject that claim, yet they are divided over the exact lineage of the book. Some argue that it was composed in Antiquity from various quotations taken from Aristotle, Plotinus, Proclus and others. Kurt Flasch, however, argues that there is little evidence for this composition in the text itself. No matter the date of composition, the author of the book was clearly influenced by Aristotle and later Neoplatonic authors. From the Liber XXIV Philosophorum, then, comes the idea of God as an infinite sphere, an idea that would fascinate Late Medieval authors as well as Puritans and also those early modern authors who would seek to wed theology to mathematics.

A Puritan Phaedrus

February 2, 2015


There is no doubt that Peter Sterry (†1672) was both a Puritan and a Platonist. He was a devotee of Jesus and Plato, but only insofar as the latter agreed with and prepared one for the teachings of (and union with) the former. In a letter that he wrote to his son Peter (junior), Sterry combines the myth of the soul’s journey to absolute Beauty in the Phaedrus with the Christian doctrine of faith as a quasi-intellectual vision of Jesus within the soul in order to encourage his son to turn from his devotion to earthly passions and turn to Jesus. In this regard, Sterry appears as Socrates guiding his son to Beauty in Jesus by means of his influence and letters.

Your letters have both pleased mee well. I waite with hope to see with Joy that Eternall spirit, which is the seede of the Divine nature in you to carry on its owne Buds, and Blossomes to ripe Fruite. With all your Might thorrow the power of the glory of Christ in you, Follow after integrity, spirituality, constancy. Can hee that sees the Beauty of Christ’s face unveiled in him, and feeles Divine Love springign up imediately from its own Fountayne in his Soule, think, speake, or act from any other Principle, than the Light of this beauty, the Life of this Love, or to any end, besides the enlargement, and Propogation of the power, purity, Joyes, of this heavenly Light, and Life? O my Son, what sweeteness, Lovelynes, Strenth is there in being established in this grace, as a Tree in its Roote, in moving directly, continually towards this glory, without Gaps, or interruptions, as rivers to the Sea […] Hath the Life of Christ all things of heaven, and Earth in itself, as so many lives of Immortall Beauty, as so many Fountaynes of purest pleasures; have you by the good will of the everlasting Father thorrow that Essentiall Word his Son, this Life begottne in you, and can you doe any thing but abide in the actings of this Life, feede it, forme it in the Soules of others? So live in Christ, and Christ in you… (Peter Sterry, Selected Writings, ed. N.I. Matar. Peter Lang: 1994. pp. 133, 134)


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