Apparent Dionysian Themes in Luther’s Theology

Scholars such as Bernard McGinn and Paul Rorem have highlighted Martin Luther’s explicit criticisms of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite in gauging the relationship of the Wittenberg Reformer to his Medieval and mystical theological predecessors. As Rorem points out, Luther’scriticisms of Dionysius are continuous throughout his early and mature theologies. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, one of Luther’s more mature writings, he states:

[I]t greatly displeases me to assign such importance to this Dionysius, whoever he may have been, for he shows hardly any signs of solid learning. I would ask, by what authority and with what arguments does he prove his hodge-podge about the angels in his Celestial Hierarchy—a book over which many curious and superstitious spirits have cudgeled their brains? If one were to read and judge without prejudice, is not everything in it his own fancy and very much like a dream? But in his Theology, which is rightly called Mystical, of which certain very ignorant theologians make so much, he is downright dangerous, for he is more of a Platonist than a Christian. So if I had my way, no believing soul would give the least attention to these books. So far, indeed, from learning Christ in them, you will lose even what you already know of him. I speak from experience. Let us rather hear Paul, that we may learn Jesus Christ and him crucified. He is the way, the life, and the truth; he is the ladder by which we come to the Father (LW 36:109).

Erich Vogelsang distinguished between (1) Dionysian mysticism, (2) Latin mysticism, and (3) German mysticism. Since Luther emphasized Christ’s humanity and the mystic’s self-despair, Vogelsang argues, he represents German mysticism to the exclusion of all other types. In his chapter in the recently published, Re-Thinking Dionysius the Areopagite, Piotr Malysz challenges this neat categorization of Luther, specifically with regard to Dionysian mysticism. Though Luther is critical of Dionysius, perhaps, Malysz asks, these criticisms should be openly weighed against Luther’s use of similar themes in his theology.

Malysz claims that Luther’s theology of the cross, his reference to God as Deus absconditus, and the doctrine of justification by faith alone bear similarities to the Dionysian concepts of Deus incognitosand the Neoplatonic theme of divine procession and return. Malysz, depending upon Rorem’s earlier work (“Martin Luther’s Christocentric Critique of Pseudo-Dionysian Spirituality”), notes that much of the history of the Corpus Dionysiacum revolved around the interpretive task of situating Dionysius’s Christology. According to Rorem, theologians from Maximus the Confessor to Bonaventure sought to make the Areopagite’s theology more Christ centered. Malysz argues that Luther continues the line of thinkers who contribute a Christocentric interpretation of Dionysius, adding his own particular solution to the problem of where Christ fits in Dionysian negative theology.

Dionysius, Malysz argues, distinguishes God from creation as theos agnostos. “Because ‘he is not some kind of being’, God enables the distinct identity of the world and is the framework for the unfolding of the world’s astounding multiplicity” (Malysz, 681). For Dionysius, man cannot know God in his nature but can know him in some way from the projection of things from him. But, God is not known through any particular thing. What is known is God’s simultaneous presence in all things while remaining unapparent and transcendently other to all. For Malysz, Luther’s The Bondage of the Will is an elaboration of divine hiddeness. Deus praesens appears in this work, he argues, as God at work in creation – all things transpire through the will of God which is his essence. Luther notes, “everything we do, everything that happens, even if it seems to us to happen mutably and contingently, happens in fact … necessarily and immutably, if you have regard to the will of God” (ibid). The unfolding of God’s omnipotence, Malysz clarifies, does not violate the human will, in Luther’s view, but animates it. Doing the good out of free choice cannot occur apart from the Holy Spirit. Creation cannot yield knowledge apart from God. Malysz argues:

Luther does not reject divine unknowability but locates it, as does Dionysius, on the level of divine operation ad extra. Luther departs from Dionysius in questioning whether God’s unknowability can be conceptualized at all apart from God’s being God in relation to creation. It is fundamentally as praesens that God, for Luther, is unknown and unknowable (ibid., 684).

Malysz argues that Luther turns from the argument over divine presence with Erasmus to engage in similar debate with Zwingli. He argues with Zwingli that the presence of Christ’s humanity along with his divinity does not destroy Christ’s humanity. Luther correlates the presence of the humanity of Christ with God’s presence noting, “all created things are … much more permeable and present to him than they are in the second mode,” Malysz clarifies, “that is, when the risen Christ passed through closed doors, for example” (idib., 684).  For Luther, God’s presence is not a filling of space but space is present to him. For Luther:

God is no such extended, long, broad, thick, high, deep being. He is a supernatural, inscrutable being who exists at the same time in every little seed, whole and entire, and yet also in all and above all and outside all created things. . . . Nothing is so small but God is still smaller, nothing so large but God is still larger . . . He is an inexpressible being, above and beyond all that can be described or imagined (Luther quoted in ibid., 684).

Both Luther and Dionysius maintain that one does not come into God’s presence since God has the world present to himself: “he is the time and space of the world” (ibid., 685).  God remains in himself while giving himself to the created order. One difference between the two, notes Malysz, is that for Dionysius, God’s creating activity is for the sake of returning all things to him. For Luther, on the other hand, God’s majesty only evokes terror. However, Luther’s soteriology has a procession and return structure, Malysz argues. For Luther, the terror of God’s majesty is not meant to lead to absolute despair but to salutary despair. The God who is revealed as wrathful is also the God who reveals himself in the weakness of the cross. “Rather,” Malysz notes, “the purpose of his all-working hiddenness is to bring proud humans down to nothing, at which point they are not longer able to trust in themselves” (ibid., 686).

Despair over God’s majestic hiddenness gives way to faithful appreciation of his salvific hiddenness. For Luther, sin in its essence is a turning of the mind toward its self, principally in seeking to gratify ones desires by one’s own perceived righteousness. The sinner whose will is turned inward upon itself, who seeks self-justification, must come to nothing. In losing one’s relatedness to self, the relationship with God can be re-established. Malysz argues that, for Luther, one receives the joy of salvation through faith by fleeing from the majestic hiddeness of God to the hiddeness of the cross.

Rather than being instruments, the locales of God’s favour are Christ’s testament, which establishes the believer’s identity by imparting to her Christ’s life, righteousness and salvation. More importantly, they convey God’s relationship to humanity by defining this relationship as unquestionably favourable, rooted in God’s merciful identity (ibid., 687).

Freed to live in an “identity-bestowing relationship” with God, the believer is freed from self-justification and thus made open to relational living (ibid., 687).  By being properly placed in an orderly relationship the believer is freed from the self and enabled to seek to justify others. Malysz affirms that this other-seeking motive brought about by justification has important socio-political implications:

Luther’s dramatic plea that public offices be filled by Christians must be seen in this context. The transactional nature of civil law, despite its capacity for social order, cannot by itself assure justice, for the law objectifies those under it. It is therefore imperative that public officers not lose sight of those under their authority as persons and apply the law with equity” (ibid., 687).

Believers exhibit in their lives Christ’s “other-justifying descent” (ibid., 688).  In seeking to share the divine light through justifying others, believers are simultaneously returning to their source. Luther acknowledges that God is the source of every good – faith “consummates the Deity … it is the creator of the Deity, not in the substance of God but in us” (Luther quoted in ibid., 688).  In performing just acts the believer participates in the return of God’s own divinity to himself. Luther’s point of departure, Malysz argues, is the necessity of salvation seen in primarily psychological terms (bondage of the will, etc.). For Dionysius it is the attribution of harmony to a multiplicity of created goods.

For Dionysius the creature has an anological identity – participating in the harmonious gathering and return of all things to the One. The creature’s identity is encompassed by the desire to participate in God’s own desire to create. Malysz affirms that, in Dionysius’s view, creatures are able by free will to act against the divine harmony and cause chaos and disorder, yet all of creation yearns for and is called to oneness with God. With both Luther’s and Dionysius’s affirmations of the sinful predicament of the human will and the created order in mind, Malysz asks, “How can such sinners come to know God?” Both Dionysius and Luther agree that to think that one sees and understands God is to mistake the creation for the Creator. For Luther, God has veiled himself in creation and in the humanity of Christ to preserve man’s analogous nature. In accepting the hidden God believers must halt the activities of the mind and receive him who is “hidden even amid the revelation” (Luther quoted in ibid., 689).  Malysz summarizes what he sees as the quintessential similarities between the Areopagite and the Wittenberger. Both: (1) see creation’s harmony as a structure of divine impartation (2) this impartation can be phrased in terms of procession and return (3) emphasize the analogical relationality of the human person and the divine.

Though Malysz’s comparison and contrast of Luther and Dionysius performs a much needed second look at Luther’s relationship to his Medieval theological predecessors, he leaves the reader with some unanswered questions. What is Luther’s exact relationship to the Corpus Dionysiacum? How do we balance an apparent influence of Dionysian Neoplatonism on Luther’s theology with his own words in opposition to the Areopagite? Malysz does not offer a solution to this overarching problem, other than pointing to some intriguing similarities. On this note, Malysz’s analysis could stand to be more empirical. It could stand to focus more on Luther’s explicit positive use of Dionysian terminology. Also, his analysis might be more thorough if it focused on the importance of faith and the relationship between the law and gospel, two very prominent themes in Luther’s theology where, I believe, he uses Dionysian terms and reasons most explicitly. For a more text-based analysis of the similarities between Luther and Dionysius, I point the reader to Knut Alfsvåg’s article which I may get around to reviewing later, “Luther as a Reader of Dionysius the Areopagite” (Studia Theologica 65 [2011], pp. 101- 114). Also, a mention of the difficult tension between justification and deification in Luther’s theology would have been apropos. A needed clarification on this point comes by way of Bruce Marshall’s “Justification as Declaration and Deification” (International Journal of Systematic Theology, 4:1 [2002], pp. 3-28).

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A Practical Impetus for the Aristotelian Renaissance in 17th Century England

During the days of Richard Hooker, England was experiencing a time of intellectual revival. For decades the various faculties of Oxford and Cambridge had experienced a decline, not only in matriculation of students, but in the intellectual creativity of their instructors. The time between Erasmus and Bacon is often seen as a veritable Dark Ages. This decline came in part from the rise and fall of the various Tudors, particularly Mary, and partly from the comprehensive reshaping of society that was the Reformation. Yet, under Queen Elizabeth, England once again experienced a Renaissance of learning. During this renewal, exemplified by men such as William Shakespeare and Edmund Spencer, there was also a revamped interest in the corpus of Aristotle; and this Renaissance of Aristotelianism may need some explanation.

In 1593 and Richard Hooker had just published his now famous Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity in which he explained to the more radical wing in the Anglican Church why it is not necessary for every nation to imitate Geneva’s ecclesiastical polity. In defending Anglican polity and the ability of human reason to guide the affairs of the civic realm, Hooker relied on Aristotle’s method. But, he did not really have much of a choice in the matter. Every man is a product of his time. All of Hooker’s theological predecessors were Aristotelian in some form, whether they be Medieval such as Thomas and Scotus, Reformed such as Vermigli and Jewel, or the divines who preceded him at Corpus Christi College such as William Cole and John Rainolds.

Hooker was also influenced by the writings of Plato (as Torrance Kirby has demonstrated) and one of his contemporaries, Everard Digby, was the first English Neo-Platonist of the Seventeenth century; Digby’s Theoria Analytica popularized the Neo-Platonic texts of Proclus and the Cabala and later inspired the Platonism of the Cambridge Platonists. Yet, even with the advent of Neo-Platonism and Renaissance Humanism, Aristotelianism remained the foundation of the liberal arts curriculum at Oxford and Cambridge. Charles Schmitt explains the very practical reason for this, a reason that still held sway in the mid-1630s:

If arts education was meant to be reasonably comprehensive and to embrace the range of reliable knowledge, were there alternatives to the Aristotelian synthesis? The writings of Bruno were certainly not systematic enough for teaching purposes. The new philosophies of Telesio or Patrizi were possibilities, but neither covered a significant portion of the range of subjects to be taught. The same could be said of ancient works such as those of Plato or Pliny. The approach to knowledge produced by the sixteenth-century humanistic movement was curiously one-sided, with whole areas of positive knowledge left unaccounted for. The new synthesis of Gassendi, of Descartes, of Newton, were all in the future, if by only a few years or decades. . . In short, Aristotelianism still was the best comprehensive philosophy available. When genuine and useful alternatives did emerge a few decades later, they were taken up rather quickly by the universities of England. (Schmitt, John Case and Aristotelianism in Renaissance England, p. 44)

John Case is another example of an English Aristotelian of this time period, one who has received little attention aside from Schmitt’s work. Case is one of the first in England to use the notion of the prisca theologia gleaned from the Corpus Hermeticum. According to Schmitt, he was the most widely read Aristotelian from the 1550s to the 1650s, thus setting the intellectual climate for Bacon and Herbert of Cherbury. Case, just as Hooker, used a variety of sources but was an Aristotelian at heart. As Schmitt notes, Case as well as other English educators at this time used the sources that were available (i.e., Aristotle) to build the curriculum by which they sought to perfect the next generation because those sources were available and all encompassing.

One lesson in historical interpretation to learn from this is that the primacy of a certain philosophical system for a certain body of people at a certain time does not always indicate a staunch loyalty for that particular system. (By “staunch loyalty,” I mean a loyalty for a particular way of systematizing truths vs. a loyalty toward the pursuit of the truth itself) Usually that system just happens to be the best option at the time. When new ideas correct or add greater clarity to the old ones, new curricula are formed out of necessity. The corpus of Aristotle continued to supply the basis of college curriculums even after the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century until more updated and modern systems arrived that were capable of replacing it.

Platonic Reasoning as Cure for Materialism: W.G.T. Shedd’s Ontological Argument

It is often quite difficult to trace the influences upon a particular author’s opinion. To use the labels ”Platonic” or “Aristotelian” as the means for discovering the school of thought to which the author belongs can be a dubious method. Many ideas seem Platonic when they are actually essential aspects of religions that would claim no relation to Platonism or Neo-Platonism. And, just because one accepts Platonic ideas does not mean he/she is not Aristotelian in other matters or that he/she belongs to a particular “school” of thought. The case is more clear in authors such as Augustine and Anselm who both tell us that they have read Plato (or Plotinus) and consider the Platonic philosophy to be the most accurate and beneficial philosophy for the explanation of Christian theology.

In the case of W.G.T. Shedd, the conservative 19th century American Presbyterian theologian author of the famous three-volume Systematic Theology, his philosophical influences are quite clear. In the 1884 edition of the Presbyterian Review Shedd offers a defense of Anselm’s classic ontological argument for God’s existence. Not only is Anselm’s a priori method Platonic, depending upon the notion of God as Being which is knowable apart from the senses – not to mention the fact that Plato was the only philosopher available to thinkers in Anselm’s day –  but Shedd’s interpretation and defense of this argument is also Platonic, drawing upon the thoughts of Platonists who post-date Anselm.

Shedd begins his discussion noting that the Reformers and divines of the 16th and 17th centuries favored the ontological argument. Among these learned churchmen are the Cambridge Platonists – Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, and John Smith – who used Anselm’s argument in their battle against the materialism of Thomas Hobbes. Shedd defends the a priori method taking his queues from these men. He notes that the present judgment against this defense of God’s existence is erroneous:

May it not be that the present absorption in the study of visible and material objects has unfitted the mind for the study of ideas, by blunting the keenness of metaphysical conception, so that the needle’s point of the a priori argument is missed, and it is pronounced to be inconclusive? Be this as it may, it will certainly do no harm to the cause of truth, to consider the form and force of this old argument for the being of God. (p. 213)

One of Shedd’s major points in this article cuts against materialism and Kantian subjectivism, the point that if the subjective existence of God is more real than the objective existence – which Shedd notes is the current argument against Anselm’s reasoning – then the presupposed “matter” of materialism will itself be more real subjectively than objectively and thus “the certainty of the material world is gone.” (ibid.) In other words, if one’s idea of “matter” need not correspond to any matter in reality, then one’s knowledge of the material world will not be certain. The same is the case with the idea of God. This assumption rests on the saying of Augustine that, “God is more truly thought than he is described, and exists more truly than he is thought.” In fact, Shedd says of the material world that it is but a shadow when compared with the essence of God, an argument similar to that C.S. Lewis uses against the Pantheistic idea that “spirit” is less than “matter” in Miracles. One element of Anselm’s argument that Shedd praises is his realization that necessity of existence is an attribute of being. It can be affirmed of one being and denied of another. Necessity is a higher attribute of being than contingency, a distinction which differentiates creature from Creator and implies the dependency of the former upon the latter. Quoting the Puritan and Platonist John Howe, Shedd furthers his point that a priori reasoning leads to certain knowledge of God. “It is truly said,” remarks Howe,

of all created things, that their non esse is more than their esse; that is, they have more no-being than being. It is only some limited portion [degree] of being that they have; but there is an infinitude [infinite degree] of being which they have not. And so coming infinitely nearer to nothingness than to fulness of being, they may well enough wear the name of ‘nothing.’ ‘All nations before him are as nothing, and they are counted to him less than nothing’ (Isa. xl. 17). Wherefore the First and Fountain-Being justly appropriates to himself the name I Am, yea tells us, He is, and there is none besides Him; therebye leaving no other name than that of ‘nothing’ unto creatures. (ibid., 216, quoting Howe.)

For Shedd, not only has the materialistic philosophy of his age spoiled the collective Reason so that men look askance at a priori reasoning, but the rejection of this type of argument, Anselm’s specifically, hides a more fundamental rejection of the hyperousia characteristic of God’s nature. If God is hyper-real, if he is Being itself, then he is that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought and so existence is presupposed in the first premise. Shedd even finds evidence in the Scriptures to defend Anselm, reading Exodus 3:13 in a Platonic light:

The truth that absolutely perfect being is necessary being is taught in the revealed name of God. The ontological argument has the endorsement of inspiration. The Hebrew Jehova, in Ex. iii. 13, denotes necessity of existence . . . To give a name, in both Hebrew and the Greek intuition, is to describe the inmost and real nature of the thing. Plato, in the Cratylus (390), represents Socrates as saying that “the right imposition of names is no easy matter, and belongs not to any and everybody, but to him only who has an insight into the nature of things.” The nomenclature given by the unfallen man to the objects of nature (Gen. ii. 19, 20) implies a deep knowledge of nature. And when the deity chooses before all others the name I Am, or Jehovah, for himself, the reference is to his absoluteness and perfection of being. The ethnic names in distinction from the revealed name of the deity, imply attributes, not essence . . . [T]he Hebrew, divinely taught upon this point, chose a term which does not refer to a particular attribute, but to the very being and essence of God, and teaches that the deity must be, and cannot be conceived of as a nonentity. (ibid., 223)

Therefore, even the scriptures approve and require that the idea of God as Being implies a necessary being. In the Shleiermacherian manner, Shedd refers to this idea of God as man’s natural God-consciousness, which must have an objective referent; otherwise it would make as much sense as having the ability of smell with no existing object that can be perceived through the sense of smell. “The subjective requires the antithetic objective . . . in order to escape the absurd supposition that something comes from nothing, or that there is an effect in consciousness without any cause of it.” (ibid., 225)  Surely we may be able to imagine beings that do not exist. But, the absolutely perfect Being is not an object of the imagination but that of reason.

Any one who will examine it [the idea of the absolutely perfect Being], as he finds it in his consciousness, will immediately perceive that it is not a construction of his fancy, like the idea of a winged lion; or of his imagination, like the abstract conception of a house. These latter are attended with the conviction of their unreality, not of the reality. We know that there is nothing objectively correspondent to them. No man is influenced in the least by such ideas. A winged lion, like the heathen idol, “is nothing in the world.” Such purely subjective notions inspire no fear. But not so with the idea of God. “I thought of God, and was troubled,” is true of every man. There has never been a human being old enough to fear, but what has feared the Supreme Being in some way or other. The idea of the deity causes terror sometimes in the atheist himself. But if it were not the representation of a tremendous reality, it would produce no such effects the world over. (ibid., 225.)

Another proof that the idea of God must have an objective referent is the fact that the idea of “self” or “person” demands the existence of one’s own “self” or “person” in actu which in turn demand the existence of God’s “person.” “No man can believe that he is an ego, without believing that God is another ego – the I Am. The attributes of finite personality, namely, freedom and accountability, imply and necessitate the attributes of infinite personality, namely, sovereignty, justice, and omnipotence.” (ibid., p. 225)

Furthermore, Shedd replies to an objection that this idea of God which all men may know does not and should not take away from the mystery of God. If God is the really-Real Being that establishes the basis of all other being then his essence will inevitably be infinitely beyond man’s capacity to trace. This fact is proven with a quotation from the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, who says:

It is indeed true, that the deity is more incomprehensible to us than anything else whatever: which proceeds from the fulness of his being and perfection, and from the transcendency of his brightness. But for this very same reason may it be said also, in some sense, that he is more knowable and conceivable than anything else; as the sun, though by reason of its excessive splendor it dazzle our weak sight, yet is notwithstanding far more visible, also, than any of the nebulosae stellae, the small, misty stars. (ibid, p. 226., quotting Cudworth)

So, we must maintain the mysterious nature of God but because he is as knowable as the sun’s light is intense we cannot rule out philosophical proofs of his existence, like Anselm’s ontological argument. Yet, we must admit that our own finitude renders our intellects week when exposed to the brightness of the divine Intellect. Thus, Shedd concludes his discussion of a priori reasoning calling on his readership to think like Anselm.

The a priori argument is of uncommon importance in an age inclined to materialism. For it turns the human mind in upon itself and thereby contributes to convince it of the reality of mind, as a different substance from matter. The neglect of a priori methods, and overvaluation of a posteriori, is one of the reasons why matter has so much more reality for many men than mind has. If an object is not considered, it gradually ceases to be regarded as an object at all. When theorists cease to reflect upon purely mental and moral phenomena, they cease to believe that there are any. The gaze of the materialist is intent upon the physical solely . . . What is needed is, the cultivation of philosophy in connection with physics; of a priori methods along with the a posteriori . . . Those a priori methods, consequently, which dispense with physical sensation and outward sensuous observations, are best adapted to convince of the reality of an invisible and immaterial entity like the human spirit, and its infinite antithesis and corresponding object the Eternal Spirit. (ibid., 227)

Shedd’s defense of Anselm came in the era of August Comte and Charles Darwin, an era that saw an increased emphasis on matter in the light of new methods in natural science. His training under the Christian transcendentalist James Marsh, who was himself a disciple of Samuel Taylor Colleridge, most likely shaped his thought toward an a priori method. These presuppositions most likely facilitated his reading of Plato, Anselm, and the Cambridge Platonists.  The battle of the latter against Thomas Hobbes and the materialists of their day probably hit home with Shedd, who found himself doing theological and philosophical battle with materialists of a new and more radical breed.

In some camps rational arguments for God’s existence are seen in a negative light. Some think these arguments only function to lead unbelievers to a purely abstract idea of God, one that has no objective referent. Yet, as Shedd has demonstrated this disagreement assumes that the idea of “that-than-which-nothing-greater-exists” is not a necessary being, whereas Anselm and Augustine originally thought of God as the most Real and concrete Being. Poetry has never written a poem, only poets; but God created poets. Surely Shedd would agree with Lewis that God is trans-concrete and trans-corporeal because existence is his nature.

It almost goes without saying that the Reformed world needs more scholars such as W.G.T. Shedd. We also need to remember men such as he and consider the sources that influenced them and cease to be afraid that “pagan” thinking will lead us astray. In my experience, it is the lack of such sound philosophy that has led theologians to erroneous conclusions. Perhaps a more “Platonic” education will help in the current battle against atheism in both the ecclesiastic and public spheres.

David Pareus de Creatione ex Nihilo

Pareus de creationeDavid Pareus, German theologian of the 17th century, defined creation as did the scholastics before him. He says:

Definitur autem Creatio a theologis scholasticis, quod sit productio seu emanatio totius Entis a causa universali, quae est Deus. (Pareus, Theses de creatione rerum, XVIII)

But creation is defined by the scholastic theologians as, that which is a product or emanation from the universal cause of all Being, which is God.

The scholastics inherited the concept of emanation from the Neo-Platonic commentators on Aristole and from Philo, the latter of whom Pareus does not follow. Yet, Pareus, either wittingly or unwittingly, follows the same interpretation, bringing a Christianized Platonic reading into Reformed doctrine. He continues, quoting Aquinas in refutation of the slogan “nothing is made from nothing”, a slogan used against the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

Illud igitur Physicorum principium: Ex nihilo nihil sit: creationem non evertit: quia, ut Thomas loquitur, tantum est verum de emanatione effectuum particularum a causis particularibus, quas necesse est praesupponere aliquid in sua actione: quia agunt per motum: hoc est, tantum verumest de effectis causarum secundarum, naturae vel artis, quae non possunt fieri absque materia praeeistente, propter causarum imbecillitatem. Non autem est verum de effectis causae primae immediatis aut etraordinariis, ut sunt prima ipsius naturae ex nihilo productio, aut iam productae miraculosa immutatio, virtute Dei facta. (Theses de creatione rerum, XXXV.)

Thus from the principle of the Physici: Nothing is made from nothing: creation is not abandoned: because, as Thomas says, it is only true concerning the emanation of particular effects from particular causes, which necessarily presuppose something in their own action: because they act by motion: that is, it is only true concerning the effects of secondary causes, of nature or art, which are not able to be made apart from preexistent matter, because of the weakness of causes. But it is not true concerning the effects of the First Cause, either immediate or extraordinary, so the first things of nature itself are produced from nothing, or produced by miraculous immutation, made by the power of God.

Here, Pareus follows a scholastic and thoroughly Aristotelean concept of exemplar causes. Augustine spoke of the Platonic ideas as exemplar causes, Vermigli followed him, and Pareus follows the scholastic interpretation of Aristotle with a certain tinge of Neo-Platonism.

Plato’s Theism and Martyr’s Humanism

BoethiusThe Medieval world knew Aristotle from the translations of Boethius and the Muslim commentators, all of which interpreted the Stagarite through the lens of his Neoplatonic commentators. Aquinas realized that the Liber de Causis was written by Proclus, not Aristotle as tradition claimed. Yet, he continued commenting on that book and was influenced by it, and he was influenced by the Neoplatonism of the Pseudo-Dionysius. As Kristeller notes, during the time of the Renaissance philosophers began to examine the context and grammar of Aristotle’s writings, seeking to study him on his own terms rather than secondarily through the interpretation of the Neoplatonists.

However, this “rebirth” of the tools of investigation, particularly with regard to Aristotelian philosophy, did not lead theologians to dispose of all things Platonic in the search of a “perennial” philosophy. There were humanists, Thomists, Scotists, Occamists, Augustinians and many others during this era, still endeavoring to find the Archimedean point between the Queen of the sciences and her handmaiden. But, all of these groups were fundamentally Augustinian, and thus could not forsake a certain Neoplatonism. Peter Martyr exemplifies this humanist renewal in Aristotelean studies coupled with a reiterated Platonism. I demonstrated this a while back in a post on the Divine Ideas. Martyr carried on this doctrine, saying that these ideas are God’s contemplation of himself as he may be expressed in infinite ways and are thus the exemplar causes of all things. He also was not afraid to affirm that Plato had an accurate conception of God:

Plato had a very clear notion of God. First, that God is one and is ineffable: he is one, so we do not have to go on to infinity [immensum] in search of causes, for it is true that he is the first cause; he is ineffable, since in human speech there are no words that can express the divine properties. If a man acquired equine nature, he would not be able to transmit to other horses what ha had devised in his human mind. Similarly, philosophers and great thinkers, even if they have a sublime knowledge of God, have no words to express it. Besides, Plato knew that God comprises everything and at the same time exceeds everything, so that there is no kind of miniscule good that God would not possess, nor is there such enormous good that he would not surpass and to which he would not be superior. God pervades all things and never goes outside himself. Even if he is infinite, wherever he is, he is in himself. He produces everything and is prompted by no other reason than his own goodness. For there can exist nothing superior to his goodness that god would seek in creation of the universe; Good is good and produced everything that he made out of his goodness. His goodness is not acquired through application or effort as in the case o human goodness, but is inherent to him and is naturally implanted in his mind. Therefore he did not acquire it by his will or choice. Similarly, the sun enlightens everything with its brightness that it di not acquire, but possesses as something inborn and innate. And all things not only owe their creation to God but also tend toward him as their ultimate goal. Therefore it is no wonder that everything is related to him, since the perfection of all things depends on him. Plato understood and explained in his writings very clearly those aspects of God’s nature that I have just reviewed as well as many other concepts. The same concepts are contained both in holy scripture and in ancient ecclesiastical writers. (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, pp. 136, 137.)

Plato and SocratesThis attribution of divine knowledge to the pagan philosopher may be shocking to some Christians but it was a common opinion. Luther and Calvin believed that the pagan had a natural knowledge of the first table of the Decalogue but lacked a knowledge of the second. As I noted here, Calvin believed that the unbeliever needs to know how to worship God rather than just gain an understanding of God, an understanding that Calvin says they already have.

Peter Martyr’s perspective on Plato and Aristotle is still very much Medieval. He quotes Boethius and Averroes (whom he calls “the greatest of the Peripatetics”) as well as Augustine as authorities on the doctrine of the Ideas. Yet, he also translates Aristotle from the Greek text and examines phrases and words, demonstrating the philological methods of a new day and time. Plato’s doctrines are useful inasmuch as they reflect the true foundation of all things in the divine mind. Yet, Martyr, once again demonstrating his humanist mentality, does not care for Plato’s ideas beyond the necessity of exemplar causes. He notes, “For even if such Ideas – of one kind or another – really existed, we would not find them useful in our actions.” (ibid., p. 170.) In other words, even if men could have some sort of participation in the divine ideas through contemplation, this sort of knowledge would leave us no closer to the good than the mentally ill. We may only approach the good through acts of virtue and wisdom, and we must abandon Plato for Aristotle when he directs us elsewhere. Thus, Plato’s philosophy is necessary for certain principles of our doctrine of God, but we must lean on Aristotle for our method and pursuit of the common good.

The Natural Desire for the Vision of God and the Convergence of the Sciences

Le PenseurAfter reading de Lubac and some of his critics I still think the best interpretation of Thomas’s “natural desire” for the beatific vision comes from Frederick Copleston.  The issue is a confusing one, primarily because we just don’t think in Aristotelian terms anymore.  “Nature” doesn’t mean the same thing for a modern scientist as it did for Thomas, and it doesn’t mean the same thing for a modern Christian as it did for a Medieval Doctor.  Copleston says that Thomas speaks as both a philosopher and a theologian.  De Lubac argued that modern Thomists only saw Thomas as a philosopher and not an Augustinian.  One reason why I respect Copleston so much is that he was a philosopher, yet he argued extensively for the Augustinian heritage of Thomas’s theology.  

Catholics have debated the issue of the “natural desire” for the vision of God, which Thomas says is innate in all men.  The problem with this is that the Aristotelian definition of nature does not allow a desire of anything that is not connatural.  In other words, if man had a natural desire for the supernatural, then either (a) man’s desire is greater than its cause, or (b) the supernatural is not above nature, or (c) both (a) and (b) are the case.  Therefore, as long as we are defining “nature” in Aristotelian terms – he gives four definitions for “nature” with the primary one being quod quid est or the “essence” of a thing – it will be contradictory to speak of a “natural desire” for anything above what is connatural with the thing’s essence.  

De Lubac points out that Christian philosophers have erred in trying to reconcile this apparent contradiction in Thomas.  We should not be surprised that Thomas does not confine himself to the philosophy of Aristotle.  Marie-Dominique Chenu has demonstrated that Thomas is not a strict Aristotelian, an almost obvious observation since Aristotle considered the cosmos to be eternal, he didn’t clarify the transcendence of the Prime Mover, he didn’t ground the forms of things in an eternal Mind, he didn’t speak of an “other worldly” happiness, he didn’t clarify the particularity of the agent intellect, and so on.  Thomas had to go beyond Aristotle in many ways.  Wayne Hankey, Rudi te Velde, and Fran O’Rourke (among others) have demonstrated that Thomas, per his Augustinianism, was heavily influenced by Neo-Platonic thinkers, particularly the Psuedo-Dionysius.  There’s even a book out called Aquinas the Augustinian by CUA press.

One example of modern Philosophers assuming that Thomas’s thought must fit into a pristine Aristotelian mold is P.J. FitzPatrick’s argument that Thomas’s doctrine of transubstantiation commits the Aristotelian fallacy of reification.  How can accidents exist without a substance when the very definition of accident is that it inheres within a substance?  Aristotle must be rolling over in his grave to hear one of his most faithful students commit philosophical blasphemy with such a doctrine.  However, as David Power has demonstrated, Thomas interprets Aristotle through the lens of the Psuedo-Dionysius.  I would clarify this a bit more and say that his Eucharistic theology is more Augustinian than Aristotelian.  Thomas utilized the truth, whether it came from divine revelation or pagan philosophy.  He may have used Aristotelian terminology in his doctrine of the Eucharist but in the end he knew that theology proceeds from more sublime and more certain principles.  Philosophy must be silent in certain realms of theological speculation or, stated more precisely, true philosophy should not contradict divine revelation.

Frederick CoplestonSimilarly, Copleston affirms that Thomas speaks as a theologian when he says that every intellect has a natural desire for the vision of God.  Therefore, the word “nature” may look a bit different to the theologian than to the philosopher.  Thomas did not see himself as a philosopher, that was the term used to describe the pagans.  He was a theologian.  If Holy Scripture gives us a definition of nature that is based on the authority of God, and Aristotle gives us a definition of nature that is reasonable and does not contradict divine authority, then we may utilize the truth as it can be seen in both definitions.  “Nature” for the theologian is the creation of the Triune God, whereas for the philosopher it is the essence or principle of motion in things moved principally by the First Mover.  The former speaks to concrete reality whereas the latter, an abstract one.  These definitions do not contradict each other but demonstrate different perspectives of truth.

Similarly, Thomas says that Adam was created in a supernatural state, using that term in an Aristotelian sense of what is not produced by man’s nature.  But, he also speaks of Adam from the perspective of theology when he refers to man’s first estate as the state of “perfect nature.”  (ST I-II, Q. 109, a.2) He knew from divine revelation that man’s perfection lies in the performance of acts that must come from God.  But, because these divine gifts are given to a creature capable of receiving them we may speak of Adam’s original state as a state of nature. God gave man all of the gifts whereby he may perfect himself.  To speak of a natural perfection, in the Aristotelian sense, is to speak of an imperfect and incomplete perfection – a rather contradictory saying.    

Thomas speaks about nature in a theological sense in other places as well.  Copleston explains his interpretation of Thomas on man’s natural desire for a supernatural blessedness:

In the De Veritate St. Thomas says that man, according to his nature, has a natural appetite for aliqua contemplatio divinorum, such as it is possible for a man to obtain by the power of nature, and that the inclination of his desire towards the supernatural and gratuitous end (the vision of God) is the work of grace.  In this place, then, St. Thomas does not admit a ‘natural desire in the strict sense for the vision of God , and it seems only reasonable to suppose that when in the Summa Theologica and Summa contra Gentiles he speaks of a natural desire for the vision of God, he is not speaking strictly as a philosopher, but as a theologian and philosopher combined, that is , presupposing the supernatural order and interpreting the data of experience in the light of that presupposition. (History of Philosophy, Vol: II, p. 405.)

Copleston interprets Thomas on man’s natural desire for the vision of God as both a theologian and a philosopher.  De Lubac may be accused of only seeing Thomas merely as a theologian, and Cajetan may be critiqued for seeing Thomas primarily as a philosopher. However, Copleston gives a balanced interpretation of this very difficult subject, a subject that touches the very boundary between the queen of the sciences and her handmaiden.  Thomas uses Aristotle as far as he will go but completes the project with truths derived from sacred doctrine.  He speaks of nature as both a philosopher and theologian combined.  The intelligent beings that exist in the concrete world created by God have a natural desire for the Triune God, while those intelligent beings considered within the abstract Aristotelian world have a natural desire for the First Cause. These are not two separate desires, and man does not have two ends.  Rather, this is an example of theology completing and perfecting philosophy.

Gregory of Nyssa on Universals

According to F. Copleston the Greek Fathers were generally influenced by Platonism and neo-Platonic philosophy.  He says of St. Gregory:

St. Gregory’s “Platonism” in regard to universals comes out clearly in his De hominis opificio, where he distinguishes the heavenly man, the ideal man, the universal, from the earthly man, the object of experience. The former, the ideal man or rather ideal human being, exists only in the divine idea and is without sexual determination, being neither male nor female:  the latter, the human being of experience, is an expression of the ideal and is sexually determined, the ideal being, as it were, ‘splintered’ or partially expressed in many single individuals.  Thus, according to Gregory, individual creatures proceed by creation, not by emanation, from the ideal in the divine Logos.  This theory clearly goes back to neo-Platonism and to Philonism, and it was adopted by the first outstanding philosopher of the Middle Ages, John Scotus Eriugena, who was much influenced by the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa. (History of Philosophy, Vol. 2: Augustine to Scotus, p. 33)