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.


“Facientibus quod in se est” as Political Virtue

“Allegory of Good Government” (1338-1339) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Jordan Ballor, in a post at TCI, notes that Luther used the Medieval formula facientibus quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam in his mature theology, but in a manner different from the theology of the via moderna. There is a passage in Luther’s Lectures on Galatians which corroborates Ballor’s point:

“God does not require of any man That he do more than he really can.” This is actually a good statement, but in its proper place, that is, in political, domestic, and natural affairs. For example, if I, who exist in the realm of reason, rule a family, build a house, or carry on a governmental office, and I do as much as I can or what lies within me (quantum possum vel quod in me est), I am excused. For this realm has boundaries, and to this realm these statements like “to do what lies within one” (Facere quod in se est) or “to do as much as I can” (facere, quantum possum) properly apply. But the sophists drag these statements into the spiritual realm, where a man cannot do anything but sin, because he is “sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14). But in external matters, that is, in political and domestic affairs, man is not a slave but a lord of these physical matters (corporalium rerum). Therefore it was wicked of the sophists to drag these political and domestic statements into the church. For the realm of human reason (Regnum … rationis humanae) must be separated as far as possible from the spiritual realm (spirituali Regno). (WA, 40. I. Band, 2. Galatervorlesung [cap. 1 –4] 1531, p. 292-293; LW, 26:173-174).

This corresponds with Luther’s rejection of Aristotelian virtue as the paradigm for spiritual virtue or righteousness. An interesting thing to note here is Luther’s division between the two Regna or Kingdoms permits him to use a principle that he often appears to reject outrightly. Thus, the principle of facientibus quod in se est is only sinful if one attempts to use it in spiritual affairs or consider it a theological principle rather than one that solely denotes political action.

Martin Luther: Various uses of ‘Ratio’

Although the Gospel is a higher gift and wisdom than human reason, it does not alter or tear up man’s understanding: for it was God Himself who implanted reason in man (Martin Luther, WA 11, 105 ff).

Brian Gerrish’s Grace and Reason, published back in 1964, adequately and persuasively demonstrated that the predominant interpretation of Martin Luther’s thought as a fideistic theology which utterly rejects reason as “Frau Hulda” for all spheres of human life is not accurate. Karl Barth is perhaps the most famous proponent of the irrational Luther. Despite the work of Gerrish, Cranz, and others, this interpretations still persists, albeit in various forms. I was reminded of Gerrish’s work in particular after reading a recent piece that portrays Luther in this light, a piece that I may review some time in the future. For now, here are a few concluding remarks on Luther’s use of “ratio” from Gerrish:

It is not sufficient to say, ‘Luther was an irrationalist: he attacked reason,’ and leave it at that. One must stop to inquire why he attacked reason, in what respects he attacked reason, and what he meant by ‘reason.’ […] If … we are to do justice to the complexity of Luther’s thought, we must carefully distinguish: (1) natural reason, ruling within its proper domain (the Earthly Kingdom); (2) arrogant reason, trespassing upon the domain of faith (the Heavenly Kingdom); (3) regenerate reason, serving humbly in the household of faith, but always subject to the Word of God. Within the first context, reason is an excellent gift of God; within the second, it is Frau Hulda, the Devil’s Whore; within the third, it is the handmaiden of faith. And if ‘we find no more precise discussion of the activity thus attributed to reason in the lives of the regenerate (reason in the third sense), this is not, as Köstlin seems to suppose [The Theology of Luther, II. 266.], merely because its function has become purely formal, that is, to deal in thought and speech with the material presented to it by faith and the Word; it is also because reason, when regenerate, is virtually absorbed into faith, becoming faith’s cognitive and intellective aspects. Because reason belongs to the natural sphere, Luther will not allow that it is competent to judge in matters of faith; and yet, because faith comes through the hearing and understanding of the Word, Luther found himself bound to concede that reason – man’s rationality in the broadest sense – was, when regenerate, faith’s indispensable tool (Grace and Reason, 25-27).

Johann Jungnitz (†1588) on the Necessity of Logic for Theology

*The following is my translation of pages 8-11 of Luca Baschera’s Tugend und Rechtfertigung: Peter Martyr Vermiglis Kommentar zur Nikomachischen Ethik im Spannungsfeld von Philosophie und Theologie, (Theologischer Verlag Zurich: 2007). Here Baschera summarizes and offers commentary on Johann Jungnitz’s preface to Ursinus’s version of Aristotle’s Organon:


In 1586 there appeared in Heidelberg an incomplete compendium of Aristotle’s Organon over which the erstwhile theology professor and co-author of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharius Ursinus had labored. This work was published posthumously by Johann Jungnitz, a Professor of logic in the University of Heidelberg, who in his preface reflected on the value and necessity of Aristotelian logic as well as philosophy in general.[1] In this text Jungnitz, who was not a theologian, addresses the ever delicate question of the relationship between profane knowledge and theology, in which he explains the traditional defense, namely, that philosophy is not necessary for theologians yet neither does it stand in opposition to the biblical message.[2] Contrary to those who treat philosophy as superfluous, Jungnitz holds that, for theologians, philosophy is indispensible. The task of every good theologian stands on the one hand in the “erudite, methodical, and accurate” treatment of the res sacrae and on the other hand in the defense of orthodox teachings against heretics.[3] However, a theologian who has no philosophical knowledge at his disposal – Jungnitz also numbers mathematics and geography as “philosophy” – will not be able to do justice to his didactic or polemical tasks. According to Jungnitz, proper knowledge of astronomy, physics as well as botany or geography form the conditions for the effective exegesis of holy scripture,[4] while the governance of logic is necessary not only for the conservation of the internal coherence of theological discourse but also to be able to know and refute the faultiness of heretical arguments.[5] Jungnitz admits that heretics often argue “philosophically” in order to reinforce their heretical opinions; however, this should not mislead one into thinking that philosophy is to be blamed for the origin of heresy. Furthermore, one should distinguish thoroughly between the sophistry of the heretic and vera philosophia, which arises from the wisdom of God so that the truth can never oppose it.[6] The constitutive duty of vera philosophia with reference to Truth becomes especially clear by the example of Logic, the goal of which according to Jungnitz lies completely in distinguishing true from false.[7] Philosophical Logic is an art (artificialis), but it conforms to natural logic (naturalis),[8] which constitutes the rules of every rational discourse. This means, among other things, that even if Logic is taught as an art in the writing of philosophy one finds it used as the natural form of thought in the Bible.[9] If, however, the art of Logic arises from a natural, universally valid Logic, which was also used in the Bible then philosophical Logic, insofar as it does not degrade into mere sophistry, is not able to stand in contradiction to Christian Truth. Here, Logic, that commune organum shapes all of the sciences for the recognition of Truth.[10] Furthermore, according to Jungnitz, theology, regina scientiorum cannot abandon [Logic], the very means by which it functions (grundlegende Arbeitsmittel).  In order to be conclusive, a theological argument must be structured according to the same rules which lie at the base of every scientific discourse and are preserved in an especially lucid way in Aristotle’s logical writings.[11] Although from some sides this may be decried as a blasphemous mixture of philosophy and theology, Jungnitz stresses that the mere use of a philosophical paradigm of argumentation (Argumentationsmuster) by the theologian does not place the “otherness” (die Andersheit) of theology as such in question because the “otherness” of each Science depends upon the specificity of their respective objects.[12] So, theology will retain its “otherness” insofar as its theological content remains, even though it shares its modus et methodus demonstrandi with philosophy as well as with the other Sciences.[13]

Within his apology for the artes Jungnitz stresses the necessity of Logic with reference to the scientific structure of theological discourse as well as for the battle against heresy.  On the other hand the remaining philosophical and naturo-philosophical disciplines contribute primarily to the understanding of holy scripture and aid the theologian in the treatment of difficult theological questions. When Jungnitz wrote his preface, however, such arguments did not portray a novelty (novum) in the history of the Protestant understanding of philosophy. [Rather] all the more should his be treated as a representative example of a general consensus, which crystalized in the course of ten years and to its first formulation Philip Melanchthon had substantially contributed.

[1] Zu Jungnitz und seiner Vorrede zum Kompendium des Ursinus siehe Sinnema, Johann Jungnitz on the Use of Aristotelian Logic in Theology.

[2] Jungnitz, Praefatio, †2r: “Alii fortassis etiam reprehendent vitioque vertent, quod ita magnum studium multamque operam in res obscuras atque difficiles contulerit, easque non modo non necessarias, sed principiis et dogmatibus theologicis etiam adversas eoque a theologorum scholis procul procul repellandas.”

[3] Jungnitz, Praefatio, †2r: “Nam qui unquam inter theologos eminuerunt methodica, erudita atque accurata rerum sacrarum tractatione et pro iis contra haereses propugnatione, operam ecclesiae navantes egregiam, etiam philosophica eruditione praeclare ornati fuerunt.”

[4] Jungnitz, Praefatio, †2v: “De eclipsibus, de motis syderum, qui nobis annos et temporum discrimina conficiunt et quorum frequens in scripturis est mentio, praecipit mathematica. De aquis super coelos, de iride, de fluminum generatione et aliis naturae operibus, ad quae scriptura nos saepe remittit, disputat physicus. […] Locum illum Geneseos capite 2, de fluvio paradisum irrigante et in quatuor deinde se dividente capita, quis absque geographiae cognitione recte intelligat et dextre interpretur?”

[5] Jungnitz, Praefatio, †3r: “Certum est et ipsa experientia docet eos, qui in philosophiae studiis multum exerecerunt, paulatim assuefieri ad acuratam, perspicuam et expeditam res etiam obscurissimas investigandi aliisque tradendi methodum, quam quia deinceps theologicis quoque disputationibus adhibent, hoc consequuntur, ut qui in controversiis quamlibet intricatis rerum fontes sunt et firmamenta praecipua facile videant et iudicent aliisque ordine, dextre, dilucide et utiliter explicare norint.”

[6] Jungnitz, Praefatio, †2v: “Omnibus temporibus fuerunt et nunc sunt, qui ecclesiae doctrinam […] labefactare et convellere conantur rationibus e natura petitis. Quas eo nomine reiicere, quod philosophicae seu physicae sint, fatuitas est, quasi philosophicum quod est, idem continuo sit mendacium. Vera enim philosophia ex principiis natura notis extructa Dei sapientia est et veritas cum veritate theologica minime pugnans, quod verum vero nunquam adversatur.”

[7] Jungnitz, Praefatio, †4r: “Finem illum [logices] certum est esse hunc, ut subsidio logices verum a falso discernamus.”

[8] Jungnitz, Praefatio, †3v: “Logicam artificialem habere ortum suum ex naturali illa logica seu rationis luce ac methodo cognoscendi et iudicandi res.”

[9] Jungnitz, Praefatio, †3v: “Cum […] hanc [lucem rationis] vero nec aliam, nec illustriorem, ne accuratiorem in ethnicorum philosophorum scriptis elucere, quam sit ipsius Spiritus sancti in scripturis quamque animadvertatur in ecclesiae doctorum minus statuamus in sacris quoque scriptis quamque animadvertatur in ecclesiae doctorum divinis disputationibus, non minus certum sit, necessario efficitur nihil obstare, quo minus statuamus in sacris quoque scriptis ab ecclesia sapientibus potuisse ac posse bonae et necessariae consequentiae normas ac methodum notari artemque logicam constitui ac perfici.”

[10] Jungnitz, Praefatio, †4r: “Artem logicam ex natura sua necesse est esse commune organum quibusvis disciplinnis cognoscendis aeque inserviens.”

[11] Jungnitz, Praefatio, †4v: “Primum accipimus […] ratiocinandi methodum ac formam non aliam, sed prorsus eandem a theologis, iureconsultis, medicis et aliis artificibus in discendo et docendo observari […]. Deinde addimus formam, normas ac regulas necessariae consequentiae in demonstrationibus theologicis esse non alias, sed illas ipsas, quae ab Aristotele in omni demonstratione perfecta requiruntur.” An einer anderen Stelle betont Jungnitz explizit die Eminenz der aristotelischen Logik, vgl. Ebd., †3v: “Ex priscis sapientibus, sive ethnicis sive sacris, quorum quidem commentationes extant, neminem praeter Aristotelem in illo genere felicius ac eruditius laborasse.”

[12] Jungnitz, Praefatio, †4v: “Nam res demonstrandae et principia, per quae demonstrantur, sicuti et ipsae demonstrationes sunt diversissimae et quodammodo infinitae et cuiusque rei, quae demonstrari apta est, propriae. Modus autem et methodus demonstrandi seu forma, conditiones et normae demonstrationis perfectae semper eadem manent in omnibus scientiis. Res itaque non omnes eadem, sed aliae ex aliis disciplinis, philosophicae ex philsophia, theologicae ex theologia, depromuntur; ratio vero demonstrandi res quascunque ex una atque eadem logica cognoscitur.”

[13] Jungnitz, Praefatio, †4v: “Qui […] eadem ex theologicis, hoc est in scriptura traditis aut repetitis principiis deducentes et iudicantes, eandem in demonstrando methodum sequuntur, quam observant philosophi, […] illi non magis sacra prophanis miscent, quam cum theologus demonstrationem theologicam ad grammaticorum regulas et loquendi usum conformat, ut congrua sit et latina.”

Subjectivity in Aquinas


"The Triumph of Thomas Aquinas" by Andrea da Firenze 1365-c.1367
“The Triumph of Thomas Aquinas” by Andrea da Firenze 1365-c.1367

According to Anthony Flood in a recent article in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, the search for a concept of subjectivity or the “conscious awareness of oneself as a person” in Aquinas’ thought , aside from the risk of superimposing a modern problem over a medieval synthesis, is not a fruitless endeavor. Flood responds to yet is dependent upon John Crosby’s notion of subjectivity. Flood argues:

The “interiority” of one’s personal being is the totality of a person as subject, which is marked by one’s own unique lived experience of and interactions with the world. In more colloquial terms, interiority is the sum and source of one’s personality, though understood not as another person experiences me, for instance, but as I experience my own self. All ongoing personal experiences are “anchored”  or grounded in one’s own interiority, which constitutes the subjective term of  those experiences (Flood, “Aquinas on Subjectivity: a response to Crosby,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, 84:1 [2010], p. 71).

Flood differs from Crosby in his optimism regarding the presence of such a concept of subjectivity in Aquinas’ thought.

Modern scholars of Thomas Aquinas have recognized the importance that love plays in his motivational theory and in his soteriology. According to Flood, Aquinas’ philosophy of love is the window to his latent view of the self. Aquinas’ idea of self-consciousness is founded on dilectio. For Aquinas amor is a natural appetite that moves things toward particular objects.  However, argues Flood dilectio and the “dilectio-based relation” of the individual to his or herself differs from an “amor-based relation” in that the former includes a rational choice of the will.

Flood notes that, “As a person relates to himself through acts of dilectio, the self-relation becomes self-conscious and properly human” (p. 77).  Therefore, the dilectio-based relation is the source of self-consciousness. Self-friendship, which is the center of Aquinas’ subjectivity, is an activity of the dilectio-based relation. In other words, the conscious choice that an individual makes to love him or herself is self-friendship, which is the source of self-knowledge. Though Flood’s goal in this article is to map out a purely natural concept of subjectivity in Aquinas, it is worth noting that for Aquinas this self-friendship through dilectio is imperfect apart from divinely infused charity. Through charity the subject is brought into a supernatural friendship with God. In fact, by means of charity each person is enabled to truly love him or herself, because those without charity focus on exterior objects and are not able to truly reflect upon the “inward man” (ST II-II, Q. 25, a. 7.).

Grace and charity are crucial to self-knowledge and self-love for Aquinas. He explains, with reference to Romans 7:5-6, that the perfection of one’s natural self-love in acquired or political virtues (such as prudence and temperance) does not suffice for human perfection without the infusion of grace and charity. Accordingly, human nature requires the infusion of grace and charity because without these perfections political virtue does not attain to God as its ultimate end. For, Aquinas notes, “infused virtue means that we refrain totally from obeying sinful desires” (On the Virtues, Cambridge: 2005, p. 70).   These desires turn the self toward mutable good and set up an obstacle to perfect subjectivity. Though the political virtues seek the mean between vices in the precepts of reason, the infused political virtues lead to complete interiority because they seek the mean outside and above reason, that is, the mean provided in Holy Scripture (Ibid., p. 68). If one agrees with the plausibility of Flood’s discovery of subjectivity in Aquinas’ thought, then the question of the transition of subjectivity through the infusion of grace, charity, and the infused political virtues, I would argue, is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Why Law Presupposes Nature According to Ralph Cudworth (†1688)

In his A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (new version edited by Sarah Hutton, Cambridge: 1996), Ralph Cudworth defends, in a thoroughly Modern way, what one may rightly deem a classical ontology. I will offer here a review of the first two chapters of book one and will devote future posts to the remainder of the treatise. Cudworth begins Ralph Cudworthby noting that a common view throughout the ages has held that there is no natural law but only positive law, no natural difference between good and evil but only mandates established by the authority of a sovereign. Aristotle affirms that politically “honest” and “just” things seem to vary so greatly that they cannot possess any common nature. Hence, by way of clarification, Aristotle divided:

  • Politically Just things (to dikaion politikon) between
    1. Natural (physikon) – things that are the same everywhere, and
    2. Legal (nomikon) “which before there be a law made, is indifferent, but when once the law is made, is determined to be just or unjust” (Cudworth’s trans. of Ethics 1134b18-21).

Among those who deny the first among this division are Democritus, Epicurus, and more contemporaneous, Thomas Hobbes. Cudworth quotes the latter as saying, “In the state of nature nothing can be unjust; the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have no place; where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no transgression … No law can be unjust” (Elementorum philosophiae… vol. II, p. 145).

In connection with this denial of #1 are those who claim that only by the command of God in his absolute power do things become good. Cudworth singles out Ockham as one who held to this view of “an omnipotent Being devoid of all essential and natural justice” (p. 14). Some, such as Joannes Szydlovius (early 17th cent.) claim that “to love God is by nature an indifferent thing, and is morally good only, because it is commanded by God…” (Vindiciae questionum...).

Cudworth sets out in chapter 2 to prove by logical argument that commands depend upon and presuppose natures. No omnipotence, he argues,  is able to make a thing white or black without there being whiteness or blackness, and this is true whether one thinks of these as qualities (Aristotle) or dispositions of parts that beget the sensations of white or black within us (Descartes). Also, omnipotence cannot make things like or equal to one another without the nature of likeness and equality.

The reason thereof is plain, because all these things imply a manifest contradiction: that things should be what they are not. And this is a truth fundamentally necessary to all knowledge, that contradictories cannot be true; for otherwise nothing would be certainly true or false (p. 16).

By way of the Scholastics, Cudworth affirms the principle “that God himself cannot supply the place of a formal cause (Deum ipsum non posse supplere locum causae formalis).” In other words, “God” is not the nature of “justice” or “honesty” which is what would be the case if those terms were not self-referential but refer only to God’s will. Perhaps Cudworth’s clearest working principle, which one must affirm in order to avoid both logical contradiction and uphold natural rights, is that, “There is no such thing as an arbitrarious essence, mode, or relation, that may be made indifferently any thing at pleasure” (p. 17). In other words, things have their own existence and because of this they are not indifferent and thus cannot be changed at will. “For an arbitrarious essence is a being without a nature, a contradiction, and therefore a nonentity” (ibid.).

However, Cudworth notes, it is true that when God or a civil authority issues a command, the thing commanded becomes good when before it was indifferent, thus appearing to support the voluntarist claim that good and evil are human constructs. Even if things are bound by their natures, some claim, morality is created by the command of an authority. Cudworth responds that commands are not obligatory accept insofar as they apply to specific natures. For example, no known ruler has ever founded his authority of making commandments and others’ duty to obey them in a law of his own making.  Thus the authority of the commander must arrive from natural justice and an antecedent obligation to obey within the subjects. “Which things are not made by laws, but presupposed before all laws to make them valid ” (p. 18). For Cudworth, if there were no antecedent obligation to obey within subjects not even God himself could place any obligation on them to obey his commands “because the natures of things do not depend upon will, being not things that are arbitrarily made (gignomena) but things that are (onta)” (p. 19).

Having explained the logic of the above division between natural and legal good/evil Cudworth procedes to clarify what is known as “the Euthyphro dilemma” from Plato’s Euthyphro – Are things good because they are commanded or commanded because they are good? The answer to this dilemma, for Cudworth, depends upon a right division between intellect and will. The nature of man that does not depend upon arbitrary will is an intellectual nature. Thus, good and evil for an intellectual nature are things to which the intellect is obliged to pursue per se and others that the intellect obliges itself to pursue per accidens. This break-down may be of some help here:

  • Intellect – pursues the good by nature
    • Natural good – such things as the intellectual nature obliges to immediately, absolutely, and perpetually, and upon no condition of any voluntary action that may be done or omitted intervening.
  • Will by means of Intellect- pursues accidental or “indifferent” good and evil by a voluntary action either
      • self imposed or
      • imposed by another person
    • Positively (accidentally) good – such things as the intellectual nature obliges to accidentally upon condition of some voluntary act of another person invested with lawful authority in commanding.

Through a command of the will indifferent things acquire a new relation to the intellectual nature by falling underneath something that is absolutely good or evil. In other words, though they are commanded by the will, these indifferent things depend upon the intellectual nature of the subject supplying the general categories of good and evil under which they fall. For example, to keep faith is an obligation of natural justice. To keep faith with a particular person/entity at a specific time is a thing indifferent. However, when one makes a promise by voluntary action, that particular thing falls under the absolute category of “keeping faith” thus forming a new relation to the rational nature. Thus, natural justice for man is the intellectual nature which obliges one to obey both God and civil authority.

Subjects are not required to obey a specific civil authority merely because of a “positive” law but because the intellect naturally pursues obedience to the general office of the civil authority. Yet, even the civil authority is bound by the intellect and loses the power to command if he or she exceeds these naturally imposed bounds.

Cudworth clarifies that commands do not change indifferent things into things good per se but the obedience to a particular positive law concerning an indifferent thing can be divided between form and matter. The act of obedience to the indifferent thing which has become obligatory is material obedience while  formal obedience corresponds to the universal of yielding obedience to lawful authority.

Wherefore in positive commands, the will of the commander doth not create any new moral entity, but only diversely modifies and determines that general duty or obligation of natural justice to obey lawful authority and keep oaths and covenants, as our own will in promising doth but produce several modifications of keeping faith. And therefore there are no new things just or due made by either of them, besides what was always by nature such, to keep our own promises, and obey the lawful commands of others (p. 21).

Cudworth concludes from the above premises that if there were no intellectual nature or natural justice then nothing would be obligatory, especially not that which is supposedly begotten by a mere command of the will. One can see in this the foundation for a Western theory of innate and inalienable rights as things founded upon certain and intellectual principles. It is no wonder that a man as influential as John Locke was first schooled in the philosophy of Ralph Cudworth and nurtured through close convivial acquaintance with the latter’s daughter Lady Masham.

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).