When to Stop Interpreting the Lord’s Supper

A number of years ago the Lutheran historian, Paul Rorem caused a stir among certain Eastern Orthodox theologians over his interpretation of the Pseudo-Dionysius. Rorem was accused, by Fr. Andrew Golitzin and others, of reading Dionysius like a Protestant, chiefly with regard to Holy Synaxis (a.k.a., the Eucharist). The crux of the debate had to do with Rorem’s emphasis on “interpretation,” which he said is of primary concern for Dionysius. To truly participate in synaxis one must rightly interpret the sacred symbols and “get behind the material show,” as Rorem via Dionysius says. Rorem referred to this act of peering beyond the veil as an “interpretation,” which implies that a right reading of the rite is all that is required of those who wish to commune with Christ. Of course, the problem with calling this a “Protestant” reading of Dionysius is that not all Protestants think interpretation is necessary for rightly communing with Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

Sure, some interpretation, some ability to distinguish between the sign and the thing behind the sign is necessary. Yet, interpretation is not the goal of the Lord’s Supper, nor should it be what one does while communing. If you know how to distinguish the sign from the thing, then you already have the power of “discerning the body” that should naturally direct you to the thing itself. An interpreter of Spanish, for example, has a habit of hearing Spanish, and so, his mind hears Spanish accurately without the use of a dictionary or mental deliberation. So, Christ calls us to participate in the whole event of his Supper with mind and body, not with the mind alone. The majority of Reformed theologians (at least of the first few centuries after the Reformation) believe that sanctifying grace is a quality (or qualities) that is infused (literally “poured in”) into the soul (mind and heart) by the Holy Spirit. By consequence, the activity of belief in the Supper itself (or in Christ within the Supper) is the mechanism of Christ-likeness (Christiformia) in the soul. The activity of faith in the Supper brings about a greater qualitative similarity to Jesus in the believer’s soul.  If there is any sacrifice involved, it is the sacrifice of ourselves, the sacrifice of our trust in ourselves and our ability to figure things out for ourselves (including the Supper!) as we surrender to the mind of Christ.

How does an increase in Christ-likeness (via infused qualities) happen in the event of Holy Communion? Most Reformed theologians agree that faith is not only an infused quality, but also a virtue. So, it will help to look at another virtue and ask, how does virtue itself increase? Let’s look at courage, for example. The courageous man becomes more courageous the more he takes on the likeness of perfect Courage, that is, the likeness of God’s own Courage (archetypal Courage). The courageous man takes on this likeness by performing courageously in battle or by choosing what is right in a moment of temptation rather than what is more immediately beneficial to him. How, then, should he interpret or develop an understanding of his courage? How will he know if he truly modeled archetypal Courage in his action? Should he stop to meditate on it while he is acting? Of course not. How could he be courageous if he’s distracted by his own act of self-reflection? Imagine a soldier fighting the enemy in close combat. If he pauses to reflect on the nature of his own courage he will most likely lose concentration on the enemy and lose the fight.

The same is true of our participation in the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. We shouldn’t attempt to rationally distinguish between sign and thing signified while we eat the bread. We shouldn’t look at our own heart or introspectively examine ourselves as to whether we truly believe or not. How could you have faith in Christ’s promise at that moment if all you can think about is yourself? What should we do then? Don’t neglect self-examination. The unexamined life is not worth living after all. Just don’t examine yourself when you’re supposed to be doing something. When the consecrated bread is in your hands stop thinking about faith and just be faithful. Just believe that “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” Eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ is a faithful action. So, stop thinking about what you think about it and just eat. The King is here. It’s time for celebration. It’s time to be caught up in the beauty of holiness. It’s not time for deliberation. It’s not time for talking. There is a time for that. But, around the Lord’s table we are in God’s holy temple. Let all the Earth be silent.

When we do that our faith increases and we become more like Christ. We have performed faithfully and the faith that conquers the world has conquered us and given us new life. God has extended his Son to us as our greatest gift, and we have taken hold of him in an act of self-sacrificial dependance on all that he is and all that he promises to do within us. In that moment it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me. However, doesn’t this emphasis on the faithful act take away from the “means of grace”? Faith is not about acting courageously, right? That would imply that the sacraments are not gifts but activities that we must perform. The answer is in faith itself. Faith is an activity of remaining passive, but this does not meant that it is an act of indifference. It’s a passive act, if that makes sense. It is an act of taking hold of the gift that is given and holding it deep within ourselves. This takes some courage, the courage to leave yourself behind, as Martin Luther says. Yet, this is holy courage, because it sets us apart from the world. In fact, it takes us out of the world altogether and places us within Christ. As we repeatedly participate in his table we increasingly take on his Courage (exemplar Courage) to leave everything behind and cling to the Father.

Remember, sanctifying grace is an act of cooperation between you and God within you. The courageous activity of faith is never merely ours. It is ours because it is Christ within us. Yet, Christ is within us according to his likeness, not substantially (i.e., union with Christ is not spiritual transubstantiation). He is within us according to our God-given ability to reflect him, which is primarily displayed in faith, though faith is only an effect of his union with us (it doesn’t exhaust the meaning of union with Christ). The Giver is giving himself to us and acting within us. We are called to receive him but our reception does not make the gift. Our reception does, however, facilitate the gift giving by preparing our soul for it. It’s like hospitality. The more that we receive him, the more we prepare a place for him, and the better we become at welcoming him the way that a King should be welcomed. The King comes into our home the more we extend the invitation and open the door for him, though it is really his house to begin with. In so doing we become more and more like the King himself, who invites all of us to his wedding banquet. This doesn’t happen through mere interpretation. We already know how to interpret. We know what is behind the veil. The Supper is not for interpretation but for interpreters who can habitually receive the language of the body and blood of Christ by hearing with the ears of faith. Our souls do not develop Christ-likeness by actively interpreting the Supper as we participate in the event. Rather, we become more like Christ within the event (through Christ acting within us), and the event, the wedding banquet, is the thing itself, slightly veiled, yet beaming as brightly as the sun behind a cloud to those who have been given eyes to see.

The Scribe is a ‘gatherer of old things’

According to Francis Rous, Westminster Divine, the learned scribe must, as Jesus says, bring both old and new things out of his storehouse. Since the question of renaissance is one of my favorite themes, I couldn’t pass up another blog post on Rous. Of course, the perennial question for theologians is, what old things are there to gather, and from whose storehouse do we draw our influence? Rous answers that the learned Scribe must constantly be searching nature for old things like an archeologist or a treasure hunter searching, digging, and hoping to uncover something old. The old becomes new in the moment of recovery and restoration. If he happens upon other diggers who have worked to uncover the artifacts of the past, he should use their knowledge and even use their instruments of recovery. Let the Gibeonites draw water into the Temple.

Having then so absolute, both a Patterne and a Teacher, let us boldly frame the character of our heavenly Scribe, to the shape both of this chiefe Doctor, and of his Doctrine. Accordingly wee will commend to our Scribe things both new and old (but the old first, because they are first) and after him who is Truth, will lay downe this true position; That toward the making of a learned Scribe, there is a great advantage to be gained by the gathering of old things into his treasurie. The Scribe that wil be learned, may be a gatherer of old things; and so let him be. Let him gather into his treasurie the things of Nature, yea gather a stock of them, and lay them up for his use, when he comes to the new. Let him know in a competent measure what is to be found abroad in the old Creation; yea, let him learne what is copied out of it by art and industrie, to serve him in the things of Regeneration: and if in this search he meet with the learning of the Aegyptians, he may carrie their jewels into his treasurie. Let an Heathen Logician or Philosopher, be his Gibeonite to cleave wood, and to draw water for his service in the Sanctuarie. Let the one divide, define, and order; and the other draw secrets from the depths of Nature, to serve the Lords servants in the Tabernacle. Let the precept and patternes of vertues, gathered from their doctrines and stories, serve for spurs and incentives to grace, to goe beyond the effects of Nature; and for exprobrations when shee doth it not. And let the languages both of the Unbeleever, and Mis-beleever, serve for keyes to open to new men, those mysteries which the old men see not, neither doe open to themselves, though the keies be in their hands (The Heavenly Academie, 4-6).

The true scribe is spurred on in search of Truth in every possible vessel because every vessel contains some of it. In this way he imitates the heavenly Scribe, who is his exemplar, and is able to become “all things to all men” as was St. Paul’s custom. So, let the scribe constantly confront what is new with the fresh eyes of ancient wisdom.

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

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.

Research Projects

I’ve added a few new projects to my “Research Projects” page. The members of these projects are investigating topics that are pertinent to the issues normally featured on this blog and will prove interesting to anyone currently researching Early Modern history/theology/philosophy, virtue ethics, and/or virtue epistemology.

  • Saint Louis University: John Greco and Eleanore Stump are the directors for the project The Philosophy and Theology of Intellectual Humility. Those familiar with their work will not be surprised by this multi-million dollar project devoted to research on virtue and epistemology:
    • Intellectual humility is an intellectual virtue, a character trait that allows the intellectually humble person to think and reason well.  It is plausibly related to open-mindedness, a sense of one’s own fallibility, and a healthy recognition of one’s intellectual debts to others. If intellectual humility marks a mean between extremes, then related vices would be (on the one side) intellectual arrogance, closed-mindedness, and overconfidence in one’s own opinions and intellectual powers, and (on the other side) undue timidity in one’s intellectual life, or even intellectual cowardice. The Philosophy and Theology of Intellectual Humility project will focus on a variety of philosophical and theological issues relevant to the topic of intellectual humility. This project aims to:  (1) Gain a better understanding of the nature and value of intellectual humility. (2) Employ and develop recent empirical research on intellectual humility and related subjects, especially the empirical investigation being conducted under the aegis of Fuller Theological Seminary’s “Science of Intellectual Humility” project.  (3) Investigate issues related to intellectual humility, such as its relation to other virtues and/or vices, its place in the broader context of virtue epistemology, the role of humility in disagreement, its connection to problems of religious pluralism, and its implications for issues of divine hiddenness.  (4) Lay the groundwork for further research on how to foster greater intellectual humility in individuals and civil society.

  • McGill University: A group of international scholars including Paul Yachnin, Torrance Kirby, Peter Marshal, and Mark Vessey are collaborating on the project entitled Early Modern Conversions: Religions, Cultures, Cognitive Ecologies.
    • Whether it is an awakening to a new faith, an induction into a religious cult or radical political movement, a sexual transformation, or the re-engineering of human beings as bio-mechanical “cyborgs,” conversion is a source of fascination and a focus of anxiety for people in the 21st century. We do not know if such conversions are inward turnings toward a better life or monstrous impositions upon unwitting victims. We cannot fathom how individuals or groups of people are able to convert to a new politics, religion, or way of life all at once and quite completely, as if they had never been other than what they have become. We would not want to part with the freedom of self-determination embodied in conversion, which seems to be its purest expression, even though we are troubled by what radical transformations tell us about the instability and changeability of human beings. The Conversions project will develop an historical understanding that will enlighten modern debates about corporeal, sexual, psychological, political and spiritual kinds of transformation. The project will study how early modern Europeans changed their confessional, social, political, and even sexual identities. These subjective changes were of a piece with transformations in their world—the geopolitical reorientation of Europe in light of emerging relations with Islam and the Americas; the rethinking and the translation of the knowledge of Greek and Latin Antiquity, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam; changes in and changing uses of the built environment; the reimagining of God. Indeed, early modern people changed the world and themselves in ways that have been lost to view on account of the discipline-boundedness of much recent study of the past. By examining forms of conversion across disciplinary boundaries as a network of movements and transformations, we will develop an understanding of religious, cultural, and cognitive change that will provide a new account of early modernity and a foundation for a renewed understanding of the present age. The project will make use of new ideas about extended mind and cognitive ecologies. Cognitive ecologies are, according to team members John Sutton and Evelyn Tribble, “the multidimensional contexts in which we remember, feel, think, sense, communicate, imagine, and act, often collaboratively, on the fly, and in rich ongoing interaction with our environments.”

  • Cambridge University: The Cambridge Platonist Research Group, directed by Douglas Headley, Sarah Hutton, and David Leech aims to revive the study of this intriguing group of 17th century English philosopher-theologians who include Peter Sterry, Benjamin Whichcote, John Smith, Ralph Cudworth, and Henry More.
    • Cambridge Platonism is the term that has come to be used to identify the thought of a group of seventeenth-century English thinkers who had a major influence on modern thought, at a pivotal period in its development (between 1650 and 1830). The name (coined in the nineteenth century) derives from the fact that they were largely associated with the University of Cambridge and that there is a distinctively Platonist strand in their intellectual formation. The Cambridge Platonist Research group was set up in 2012 with the aim of reviving interest in the Cambridge Platonists and to initiate research into their thought and legacy.  The initial step to furtherance of these aims was made possible thanks to generous funding of by the AHRC, which financed the project ‘Revisioning Cambridge Platonism’. This took the form of a series of workshops in 2013, which brought together scholars from across disciplines and across the world. The first outcome of these meetings was the establishment of an interdisciplinary network of scholars with research interests in the Cambridge Platonists.  AIMS OF THE RESEARCH GROUP: (1) To maintain the network of people with research interests in the Cambridge Platonists. (2) To provide a forum for discussion of and disseminating information about the Cambridge Platonists. (3) Promote further research on all aspects of the thought and legacy of the Cambridge Platonists through the organisation of colloquia and editions of texts.

The Plastic Faculty: Jacob Schegk on Nature’s Rational Principle

Schegk

Hiro Hirai argues that for Jacob Schegk (1511-1587), a friend of Philip Melanchthon and professor of philosophy and medicine at the University of Tübingen, the natural force of life or secondary causality present within created things is explicable in the Galenic terms of a “moulding” or “plastic faculty.” This power is controlled and determined by God but possesses its own energy. Where Medievals spoke of the vegetative power as a passive potency, Schegk combined the natural philosophy of Galen with the Neoplatonic principle of “spiritual vehicles” to argue that the plastic faculty is a quasi-intellectual energy (energeia) that denotes the principle of generation in natural beings. Hirai explains the difference between this faculty and the generative potency of the human soul:

Before closing his discussion, Schegk enumerates four possible opinions on the origin of human souls: 1) They are eternal and enter bodies at birth and leave them at death (according to Plato and Aristotle); 2) they are created all at once in the beginning of the world, but each of them enters its specific body at a precise moment; 3) they are drawn from the potentiality of matter by the plastic logos as the products of Nature; 4) each of them begins to exist by divine creation at the same moment when body is formed by the plastic logos. Schegk obviously chooses the last option, denying that the human soul is drawn from the potentiality of matter. Invoking the authority of the Bible, he concludes that God forms creatures by the plastic instrument of the seed’s nature, whereas only for man God simultaneously creates his soul by Himself and forms his organic body by means of this plastic nature. According to Schegk, God is the Creator of angels whereas the human soul, which shares the angelic essence, is created as the “breath” (spiraculum) of the Creator and is not “produced” by the plastic nature. The everyday creation of the human soul with the formation of its organic body, which is to be animated by this soul, is the ultimate action of the Creator. Although God attributed a primary generative task to the plastic nature, he does not cease to create human souls in order to show that man is not the “product” (plasma) of Nature but the son of God. Schegk concludes:

“I believe that, if the philosophers had known the Creator God, they would have agreed with us and would have said that the souls are not contained in the seed and in the seminal liquid of the male before they inform human bodies. In fact,denying the Creator God, or rather being ignorant of Him, they were forced to conclude that, by the spermatic logos , the human soul and its body are generated at the same time and that the human soul is not introduced from outside but is drawn from the potentiality of matter.”

For Schegk, the plastic nature produces all except the human soul, which, endowed with angelic essence, has only the Creator God as its maker. The human soul, or more precisely, the intellect cannot be generated through seminal propagation since it is something “born before” (progenes) Nature. It should be created by what precedes it. That is the Creator God.

~ Hiro Hirai, “The Invisible Hand of God in Seeds: Jacob Schegk’s Theory of Plastic Faculty,” Early Science and Medicine 12 (2007), 401, 402.

According to Hirai, Schegk’s De plastica seminis facultate (Strasburg, 1580) was the first Renaissance work to use the phrase “plastic faculty.” The idea of the plastic power went on to become a staple in 17th century works of medicinal science and natural philosophy. Perhaps its most important exponent was Ralph Cudworth, who used the concept of the “plastic nature” as an integral part of this enterprise to wed Platonism and atomism and whose use of the phrase would be influential for G.W. Leibniz.

Marsilio Ficino on Divine Accommodation

Ficino Epitaph in Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy
Ficino Epitaph in Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy

Marsilio Ficino inherited many philosophical principles both from the Medievals and from the ancient Platonists that he wished to emulate. One of these principles is quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur, that is, “whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” In application to theology this means that divine knowledge is received by the angelic intellect in a specific angelic mode (i.e., by pure intellection) and by humans in a specifically human mode (i.e., through concepts abstracted from sensible qualities). In his commentary on Dionysius’s Divine Names, Ficino explains this principle as a necessary outcome of the human duality of body and soul. Because the intellect must first gain sensible images from the senses in order to know immaterial realities, so it was necessary for God to accommodate the heavenly light to the human sensation of vision in his revelation of himself to man. He did this, argues Ficino, in the Holy Scriptures.

Ficino comments on the first book of the Divine Names, where Dionysius explains divine illumination which reveals a hidden tradition “at one with scripture.” I offer his comment in Latin with an English translation below. This passage, to my knowledge, has never been translated into English:

Facilius tutiusque divina videmus si mentis aciem ad eloquia sacra convertimus, quam si in ipsum Deum audentius dirigamus:

Quod lucet in Deo tanquam Solis mundani Sole, super essentiae & intelligentiæ limites, non tam perscrutari quam venerari debemus. Mentisque oculos immensam hanc lucem minime sustinentes, hinc ad sacras literas tanquam ad cœlos flectere. In quibus nomina sunt cognomentaque divina tradita divinitus, velut stellæ oculis nostris accomodatæ, ex quibus sane stellis nobis emicant propriæ Dei vires & appellationes laudesque divinæ, tanquam Solis, virtutes in stellis. Ex hoc denique sedulo pioque studio duo quædam potissima reportamus. Primum quidem, quod divinos radios hinc haurimus nostro ingenio congruentes. Secundum, quod divinum Solem radiorum eiusmodi sacrum fontem, ut Deo placet, rite laudamus. In nominibus appellationibusque divinis divinitus videlicet traditis, mirabiles latere virtutes, tum ad divina mysteria declaranda, tum ad mirabilia perpetranda Hebræi omnes existimant, & Zoroaster Iamblichusque confirmant.

~ Ficino, Opera II:1027-1028

Translation:

We will more simply and safely view divine things if we turn the vision of the mind to the Holy Scriptures, than if we more presumptuously steer into God himself.

We ought not so much investigate as worship the light which shines in God, just as the light of the sun of this world, beyond the limits of essence and intelligence, and we ought to turn the eyes of the mind (by no means holding this immense light) to the Holy Scriptures as to the heavens. In [the Scriptures] are the divine names and characteristics handed down by divine influence like stars accommodated to our eyes, because of which the particular divine powers, titles, and merits of God truly shine forth to us just as the powers of the Sun [shine forth] in the stars. From this we relay, in short, two most powerful [principles] to the one diligent and pious in devotion. First, we take in the divine rays from here in a manner suitable to our nature. Secondly, that we solemnly praise the divine sunlight, the sacred font of these rays, that it might please God. All of the Jews believe, and Zoroaster and Iamblichus confirm that wonderful powers lie hidden in the divine names and titles which were clearly and divinely handed down, whether for the sake of declaring divine mysteries or for accomplishing wonderful things.

Many modern interpreters of Ficino have labeled him as a philosopher to the exclusion of his theological writings. Others have recognized his devotion to “religion” and argued that Ficino promoted a purely naturalistic religion while excluding from the discussion his explicitly Christian theology most clearly propounded in his lengthy confession De Religione Christiana, which Amos Edelheit refers to as the “manual” of humanist theology. In his commentary on the Divine Names, Ficino shows his orthodoxy, which is partly why his commentary on the Corpus Dionysiacum was included in manuals of piety alongside the comments of other authorities such as Maximus and Eck.

Wolfgang Musculus (1497-1563): The Eucharist, Anamnesis, & Sober Inebriation

This year marks the 45Oth anniversary of the death of Wolfgang Musculus, the famous 16th century theologian who was influential in the Reformation of the cities of Strasbourg, Augsburg, and Bern and whose Loci Communes (Common Places) was a very popular and influential theological work both on the continent and in England for hundreds of years after its first publication. I will be delivering a short address on Musculus this week in San Juan, Puerto Rico at the annual meeting of the Sixteenth Century Society Conference, thanks to the industriousness of Jordan Ballor who put all of the pieces together for a panel on Musculus at SCSC but due to unforeseeable circumstances did not come to fruition. Below is a brief excerpt of my presentation, “Cœna Mystica: Recollection and contemplation in the Eucharistic theology of Wolfgang Musculus”:

Musculus

As Gottfried Locher convincingly argues in Zwingli’s Thought: New Perspectives, Zwingli’s concept of “memory” that is crucial to his eucharistic theology, should not be thought of as univocal with natural memory or recollection. Rather, Locher argues, recollection for Zwingli is more akin to Plato’s concept of anamnesis, propounded from the mouth of Socrates in the dialogues of the Meno and Phaedro.  By means of these dialogues Plato affirms the famous theory that human souls existed in the World of Forms prior to their embodiment, that embodiment has clouded the mind of its previous knowledge, and that one must turn inward away from the senses by means of recollection in order to retrieve this knowledge. Thus, as Socrates explains, all learning is recollection. This concept was adopted by Augustine, who avoided the heretical notion of the preexistence of souls but maintained the concept of recollection as a turn inward to the Truth or Christ who dwells within the soul (cf. Augustine, De Magistro).

The first page of the first chapter of the English translation of Musculus's 'Common Places' of 1563
The first page of the first chapter of the English translation of Musculus’s ‘Common Places’ of 1563

In his commentary on Matthew (In Evangelistam Matthaeum Commentarii, 1562) Wolfgang Musculus seeks to clearly differentiate his own theology from any eucharistic theology that would hold the sacramental signs to be merely symbolic or figurative or those that consider the ceremony of the “mystical supper” (‘cœna mystica’, a phrase adopted from the 1st Helvetic Confession) to be a mere memorial. Rather, he argues, with much reference to the writings of Bernard of Clairveaux that spiritual “recollection” is analogous but not univocal to natural memory. He explains that natural memory is powerful in that the soul is ‘lifted up’ [rapitur] by memories and ‘absorbed’ [absorbetur] into them, as the memory of a lost friend moves one to sadness and longing. The recollection that occurs in the Eucharist is similar to natural recollection, yet it differs in that the memories recalled are not purely natural and the result of the recollection is not an emotional experience but one that transcends the body. He explains:

(English translation below)

Si igitur tantae virtutis in rebus mundi est memoria, qua ratione non idem posset in animis Christi fidelium, qui credunt se morte Domini redemptos? Quomodo hic non raperetur animus totus, imò totus simul homo in hanc Christi dilectionem expendendam, laudemque debitam reddendam, ut iam non in terris, sed revera extra se in Christum translatus, dicere possit: Vivo iam non ego, sed vivit in me Christus? Ex hac scilicet Dominicae mortis memoria convalescit fides, spes, charitas, patientia. Ex hac refocillatur totus internus homo. Hinc animus rapitur ad agendas redemptori gratias. Hinc gaudium est & pax pacatae iam conscientiae, & custodia simul vitae nostrae, qua cohibeamur, ne denuò peccemus. Quis ergo dicet rem nihili esse, quae tantarum est virium? … Exemplo sunto duo euntes in Emaus, quorum corda ardebant, ubi de Christo, per Christum quidem, sed incognitum, sacrae scripturae expositionem audiebant. Orandum ergo pro fide vera & integra Christi dilectione. Illae si fuerint, sentiemus istam Dominicae memoriae efficaciam, abibimus alacriores ad quaevis adversa fide firmiores, ad veram pietatem instructiores. Excidet animis nostris omnis mundi vanitas, obtinebit sola Christi dilectio. In illo iucundabimur & pascemur, in illo vivemus & moriemur.

In Evangelistam Matthaeum Commentarii, 616.

(Translation)

If, therefore, memory is of such great power with regard to the things of the world, for what reason would the same not be possible with the souls of the faithful in Christ, who believe themselves to have been redeemed in the death of the Lord? How does this not lift up [raperetur] the whole soul, or rather, seize the whole man at once in the love of Christ that he seeks and in the appropriate praise that he returns, with the result that, not being on the earth but actually having been taken outside of himself [extra se] and transferred into Christ, he can say: It is no longer I who live but Christ lives within me? Because of this, that is the memory of the death of the Lord, faith, hope, charity, and patience gain their power. Because of this the whole internal man is revived. Hence the soul is lifted up [rapitur] to give thanks to its redeemer. Hence joy is both the peace of the pacified conscience and the protection of our life, by which we are restrained that we may not sin again. Therefore, who will call this nothing which is one of the greatest powers? […] An example [of the power of memory] are the two [on the road] to Emmaus, whose hearts burned when they heard the exposition of the holy scriptures about Christ, indeed through the help of Christ though they did not know it. If these things come to pass, we will understand the efficacy of this memory of the Lord, we will go forth more courageous, more firm in faith against every enemy, more skilled in true piety. [This memory] will destroy the vanity of the whole world in our souls, it will prevail by the love of Christ alone [sola Christi dilectio]. In this [memory] we will be delighted and fed, in it we will live and die.

For Musculus  the recollection of Christ in the soul requires faith. Faith permits the believer to pierce beyond the veil of the sacramental signs, yet the desire of love (dilectio) is also a requisite element. In his locus on the supper in his Loci Communes Musculus notes that only those who partake with a “greedy desire of the grace of Christ and heavenly food” may eat of it. This desire, though already imparted through baptism, is rekindled in the Eucharistic ritual. Through the hearing of the words “sursum corda” the heart of the believer is made to ascend to heaven. The “uplifting” of the heart is triggered, for Musculus, by means of the act of remembrance or recollection. He argues that faith must be placed in the specific words “do this in remembrance of me.” By remembrance “the soul is called away from earth into heaven.”

Musculus uses the common language of the “husk” and “kernel” to describe the recollection of Christ in the supper. The faithful “chew the cud [ruminant] and renew in themselves Christ who dwells within them, and are fed and filled with his spirit.”  In Plato’s Phaedrus Socrates describes those who have been captured by love (eros) as being taken outside of themselves through the recollection of the god which they imitate. For Musculus the love of Christ is rekindled in the hearts of the faithful when they recall his loving death and promise of future blessings because, “He that loves is more perfectly where he loves.”

In describing the “mystical supper” Musculus uses a variety of terms that were widely used by Medieval mystics. His use of mystical language (rapitur, absorbetur, translatus extra se, etc.), however, should not lead one to conclude that he held the body and the material world in disdain. Rather, Musculus was an avid reader of the Greek fathers – e.g., he refers to the Eucharist as synaxis in several places. Gregory of Nyssa used the phrase “sober inebriation” to describe the sort of disembodied exstasis of Christian experience. Just as the disciples at Pentecost were accused of drunkenness because of their reaction to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit yet were fully conscious and sober, so those who are united to Christ are simultaneously in the body and transferred to heaven all while maintaining an awareness of both realities. Those who participate in the Eucharist, for Musculus, do not lose their senses but transcend them by a sober awareness of themselves and Christ who is recalled out of the soul by faith and love after the hearing of the words of divine institution, Sursum corda (Lift up your hearts)!

Simone Porzio (†1554): An Aristotelian between Nature and Grace

Paul Grendler reviews a recent monograph from a work by Eva del Soldato on Simone ImagePorzio (Simon Portius in Latin) that sheds a bit more light on this important Renaissance philosopher. Portius was infamous in the 16th century for denying, along with his teacher Pietro Pomponazzi, that one may prove the immortality of the soul by rational demonstration. Needless to say there was little tolerance for this view in the rest of Europe at that time where his conclusion that reason cannot prove the immortality of the soul was seen as the equivalent of denying the immortality of the soul outright. Soldato, Grendler tells us, explains that Porzio’s philosophy was a bit more complicated than that:

Born in Naples, Porzio studied with Agostino Nifo and obtained doctorates of arts and medicine in 1520 and theology in 1522 at the University of Pisa. He taught at the University of Pisa until 1525, then natural philosophy at the University of Naples from 1529 to 1545, natural philosophy at the University of Pisa from 1545 to 1553, after which returned to Naples and died in 1554. In his second Pisan period he enjoyed the favor of Duke Cosimo I and participated in the activities of the Accademia Fiorentina, where he associated with Giambattista Gelli, who translated some of his works into Italian.

It is true that Porzio was a strict Aristotelian who argued strongly that the soul was mortal. But in other works, including lectures available only in manuscript, he addressed different topics and offered a wider range of views. In treatises on love and Petrarch’s poetry Porzio saw love in Aristotelian terms as unrestrained passion and a form of living death in which man loses reason. He concluded that the solution was faith in Christ, and the gift of faith depends on grace. In several short works based on Aristotle’s zoological works Porzio demonstrated his philological skill and knowledge of the ancient Greek commentators on Aristotle. He argued that the pseudo-Aristotelian work De coloribus was written by the ancient Theophrastus. In a treatise on pain he argued that pain came from the dispositions of soul and body rather than sense experience.

Porzio exhibited a strong fideistic tendency in several short works that dealt with ethical-theological concerns. In a short treatise on celibacy, Porzio wrote that although marriage is the solution for concupiscence, it was different for a priest, who was higher than a common man. Porzio showed the influence of Desiderius Erasmus and, possibly, evangelical views coming from Juan de Valdés, in treatises on prayer and the Our Father. In his Pisan lectures on Aristotle’s De anima Porzio expressed doubt about purgatory, for which there was no scriptural support, and Lenten fasting.

~ Paul F. Grendler, “Un aristotelico tra natura e grazia (review),” The Catholic Historical Review 98:2 (April 2012).

Ficino vs. Vincenzo on Man’s Ultimate End: Intellect or Will?

Vincenzo Bandello's letter to Lorenzo de' Medici
Vincenzo Bandello’s treatise addressed to Lorenzo de’ Medici

In the mid-1960s the late Renaissance scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller uncovered a manuscript by the Dominican Vicar General Vincenzo Bandello (†1507) addressed to Lorenzo de’ Medici concerning the teaching of Lorenzo’s close confidant, the famous Renaissance Platonist Marsilio Ficino (†1499) on the subject of human beatitude – the full title of the text is, Opusculum fratris Vincentii de Castro Novo Ordinis Predicatorum ad magnificum ac generosum virum Laurentium Medicem quod beatitudo hominis in actu intellectus et non voluntatis essentialiter consistit. This text is interesting for various reasons but primarily that it provides an example of the contrast between Late Medieval and Renaissance philosophy, specifically with respect to the debate between Thomists and Scotists over whether man’s ultimate end consists in an act of the intellect or of the will and how the terms of this debate changed during the Renaissance.  The title betrays the fact that according to Fra Vincenzo, the ultimate end of man consist essentially in an act of the intellect and not an act of the will. Though Vincenzo and Ficino are indebted to Thomas Aquinas’s philosophical synthesis in crucial aspects, both however, sought to justify their positions with reference to the classical sources, Vincenzo to Aristotle, Ficino to Plato. Kristeller explains in more detail:

For both of them, the ultimate happiness of man consists in a conjunction of the soul with God that is permanently attained, on the part of the blessed, in the future life. Both of them also take it for granted that the intellect and will are involved in the attainment of this ultimate happiness which includes the vision and fruition of God on the part of the soul and presupposes the love and desire of the soul for its ultimate end […] [One] basic difference [between the two] concerns the theory of pleasure. Fra Vincenzo stands firm on the Aristotelian theory presented in the last book of the Nicomachean Ethics that pleasure is the accompanying perfection of an activity, and hence should not be coonsidered as a primary good or end of desire. Ficino, on the other hand, was at one time deeply influenced by the hedonism of Epicurus and Lucretius, and actually refers in his letter to his early treatise De voluptate, in which his views on this subject are developed. Moreover, he was influenced by the Neoplatonic view that the good, and the appetite directed towards it, have both a higher and broader metaphysical significance than the order of truth and intellect. [For Ficino] the intellect grasps its object through images or species … and when its object is God, the intellect lowers and narrows it to conform with its own capacity. Love, on the other hand, moves the soul towards its object as it is in itself, and when this object is God, love will lift and enlarge the soul to the infinity of God. Fra Vincenzo’s reply to this important argument is characteristic: the distinction between the acts of the will and of the intellect as given by Ficino is true for the present life. In the future life, the knowledge of God will be aided by the lumen gloriae, the soul will know God immediately in His essence, and thus be enlarged to His infinity through the vision of God, rather than through fruition.

(Kristeller, Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, vol. 3, 154-155)

Kristeller notes also that Ficino does not place such a radical division between the present and the future life as does Vincenzo. Rather, the present is a “genuine foretaste of the future life” and so the metaphysical pleasure or enjoyment of God that one enjoys in the present corresponds in a fundamental way to that of the future life. This would recall to any Presbyterian ears the words of the first question of the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession, that the “chief end” of man is to “glorify God, and enjoy him forever.” Vincenzo rejects dilectio and fruitio as forming an essential (essentialiter) part of human beatitude because, as Aristotle argues, this sort of desire aims at a particular good for the sake of pleasure and not for its own sake. According to Tamara Albertini this division between desire (or pleasure, enjoyment, or love – Vincenzo refutes all of them as essential to beatitude) and ultimate beatitude – and the way of dividing the intellect from the will so that one contributes more to beatitude than the other – was considered by Ficino, at least in his later years, to be a false dichotomy (see Albertini, “Intellect and Will in Marsilio Ficino: Two Correlatives of a Renaissance Concept of Mind” in Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy).

Though Kristeller published some of the Latin text of Vincenzo’s treatise, he was only able to transcribe about half of it. For those who may be interested, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana of Florence still has the original copy and has digitized it – click here to read it. The treatise is appended to Vincenzo’s interesting refutation of the doctrine of the “immaculate conception.” The Quod beatitudo… begins on Carta 157r.

Johannes Tauler (†1361), the Image of God, and the ‘Dominican’ Proclus

For those interested in the recovery of Neoplatonic texts in Late Medieval Europe and/or the Protestant Reformation, TaulerJohannes Tauler should be quite interesting. He was a Dominican student of Meister Eckhart and his works were quite influential for Martin Luther. Tauler’s concept of the imago Dei was one of the most unique of his time. In a sermon on John 3:11 Tauler explicitly distances himself from Thomas Aquinas’s concept of the imago. For Tauler the Seelengrund (ground of the soul) is the true image of the Trinity as opposed to the traditional Augustinian concept of the imago as reflected in memory, understanding, and will. One may only enter their Seelengrund, says Tauler, by shedding “all outward attachments” and “pious action” since, in one’s return to the hidden God “exterior precepts and techniques will be of no avail.” Tauler’s doctrine of the Seelengrund is unique because it is partly influenced by his readings of a quite recently translated passage from Proclus’s De Providentia. Tauler explains:

(English translation below)

Hievon sprach ein heidenscher meister Proculus: alle die wile und also lange da der mensche mit den bilden die under uns sint, umbget und mangeld do nút, so ist daz nut gelouplich daz der mensche in disen grunt iemer komen múge; das ist uns zümole ein ungloube daz das in uns si; wir múgent nút gelouben das es si und ouch in uns si, sunder – sprach er – wiltu daz bevinden das ez si, so la alle manigvaltekeit und sich dis an mit eime verstentlichen gesihte dis ein; wiltu nu noch hoher kummen, so la das vernúnftige gesihte und daz ansehen, wan die vernunft ist under dir unde wurt eins mit dem einen, und er nemmet dis eine alsus: eine stille swigende sloffende götteliche unsinnige dúnsternisse. Kinder, das ein heiden dis verstunt und darzü kam, das wir dem also verre und also ungelich sint, das ist uns laster und grosse schande. Dis bezúgete unser herre do er sprach: ‘das rich Gottes ist in úch’…

A pagan master, Proclus, has this to say on the subject [of the imago Dei]: “As long as man is occupied with images inferior to himself, and as long as he does not go beyond them, it is unlikely that he will ever reach this depth. It will appear an illusion to really believe that this groung exists within us; we doubt that it can actually exist in us. Therefore,” he continues, “if you wish to experience its existence, you must abandon all multiplicity and concentrate your attention on this one thing with the eyes of your intellect; and if you wish to rise higher, you must put aside all rational methods, for reason is now beneath you, and then you may become united with the One.” And he calls this state a divine darkness: still, silent, at rest , and above all sense perception. Beloved, it is a disgraceful thing that a pagan philosopher understood and attained this truth, while we are so far from both. Our Lord expressed the same truth when he said: “The kingdom of God is within us.” – Tauler, translated by Maria Shrady in Johannes Tauler: Sermons, The Classics of Western Spirituality, (Paulist Press, 1985), 105.

According to Loris Sturlese, Tauler does not merely quote Proclus as an authority but implies that he understands the context and some of the more intricate details of Proclus’s philosophy. Judging the content of Tauler’s few references to Proclus, Sturlese determines that he must have had full access to three whole chapters of Proclus’s De Providentia (from where the references originate) within the Tria Opuscula translated by William of Moerbeke ca. 1268. Sturlese explains the full extent of the influences on Tauler’s concept of the Seelengrund:

(English translation below)

Tauler lehnt die thomistische These ab, die Gottebenbildlichkeit der Seele bestehe in der aktuallen Entfaltung ihrer Seelenvermögen (Gedächtnis, Verstand und Wille), und betont, das Bild Gottes liege vielmehr »in dem allerverborgensten tieffesten grunde der selen«, wobei er sich ausdrücklich auf Proklos … und stillschweigend auf Dietrich und Berthold beruft […]. Die Lehre Dietrichs, die er für sich in Anspruch nimmt, ist seine bekannte Identifizierung des Bildes Gottes mit dem »abditus mentis« Augustins […]. Die Lehre des Proklos ist die des »unum animae«, in noch ausführlicherer Weise im Rahmen der Erklärung des Begriffes vom Gemüt … dargestellt wird […]. Tauler macht sich das Proklische »unum animae« zunutze, um der Interpretation des »abditum mentis« im Sinne des Intellekts, die Dietrich von Freiberg – einem Motiv Alberts des Großen folgend – vorgetragen hatte (Tauler kennt sie…), die Deutung des »abditum mentis« als transintellektuelles Prinzip gegenüberzustellen […]. Hierbei zeigt sich Tauler als vom philosophischen Denken Bertholds von Moosburg abhängig, denn er interpretiert die Proklischen Texte zum »unum« in einer Weise, die bei Berthold, und nur bei ihm, eine genaue Entsprechung findet… Unter dem Gesichtspunkt der damaligen deutschen philosophischen Debatte betrachtet, ist Taulers Übereinstimmung mit Berthold als eine Stellungnahme gegen den Thomismus anzusehen, welche die in der Dominikanerprovinz verbreitete Stimmung reflektierte, die ihre markanteste Erscheinung im Prokloskommentar des Moosburger Lektors fand… – Loris Sturlese, Homo Divinus: Philosophische Projekte in Deutschland zwischen Meister Eckhart und Heinrich Seuse, (Kohlhammer GmbH: Stuttgart, 2007), 194, 195).

Tauler rejected the thomistic position, that the image of God in the soul consists in the actual development of its faculties (memory, understanding, and will), and stresses , that the image of God lies, rather, “in the completely hidden, deepest ground of the soul,” whereby he makes explicit reference to Proclus … and by implication to Dietrich [von Freiberg] and Berthold [von Moosburg] […] Dietrich’s theory, which [Tauler] claimed for himself, is his well-known identification of the image of God with the “abditus mentis” [the hidden depth of the mind] of Augustine. Proclus’s theory is that of the “unum animae” [the one in the soul], depicted in a yet more detailed way in the context of the representation of ideas from the mind. Tauler made use of Proclus’s doctrine of the “unum animae” in order to counterpose the interpretation of the “abditum mentis” as properly intellectual – and Tauler knew that Dietrich von Freiberg followed the motive of Albert the Great in handing down this concept – with the reading of the “abditus mentis” as a trans-intellectual principle. By this Tauler shows that he is dependent upon the philosophical thought of Berthold von Moosburg, because he interpreted the text of Proclus regarding the “one” in such a way that one finds an exact equivalent [of it] in Berthold’s work and only in his work. When viewed from the perspective of the German philosophical debate of the time, Tauler’s agreement with Berthold is seen as a reaction against Thomism, which reflected a common attitude in the Dominican Order and which found its most marked appearance in the Proclus-commentary of the Moosburg lecturers.

Tauler was a fellow Dominican and resided in the same cloister as Berthold von Moosburg, the first in the European West to read and comment upon a major work of Proclus’s, i.e., the Elements of Theology – Aquinas commented on a portion of the Liber de Causis which contains selections from Proclus’s Elements translated from Arabic. So, Sturlese argues, it is most likely the case that Tauler received excerpts from Proclus’s De Providentia from his Dominican brother. Combining this new teaching of the “one in the soul” with the mysticism of Albertus Magnus mediated by Dietrich’s earlier teaching (which Eckhart also incorporated into his theology) on Augustine’s abditus mentis, Tauler was able to construct a theology of the imago Dei that challenged the hegemony of the Dominican magisterium. Tauler’s theology also functioned as an apologetic for what he saw as humanity’s absolute need of the divine mediation of Christ to enable one to lose oneself and return to the One within the Seelengrund, which, as he says, is the “Kingdom of God within us.”