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

February 14, 2015
Johann_Heinrich_Alstedt

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.”

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