Apparent Dionysian Themes in Luther’s Theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nature as a Substratum of Grace: From the Miscellanies of Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards, in his Miscellanies, includes a section that focuses on what we moderns would call “semiotics.” (e.g., one book focuses on his “divine semiotics”) In this section Edwards seeks to explain the role of sense apprehension and the functions of human perception in relation to judgment and the inner workings of the Holy Spirit. His fundamental questions are: (a) How is the human acquisition of knowledge different from God’s understanding of things extra ipsum, and (b) how is the natural human understanding affected through the infusion of divine grace that comes through union with God? In answering both questions Edwards draws a distinction between natural sense knowledge and supernatural sense knowledge.

Firstly, Edwards notes that human knowledge differs from God’s because humans possess an intermediary sensitive part of the soul on which the speculative part, the part most like the divine, depends for transforming “signs” into “things” of the mind. In other words understanding comes only after apprehension and reflection on sense images in the mind. God’s knowledge, says Edwards has no intermediary:

He understands Himself and all other things by the actual and immediate presence of an idea of the things understood. All His understanding is not only by actual idas of things without ever being put to it to make use of signs instead of ideas (either through inabbiilty or difficulty of exciting those ideas or to avoid a slow progeress of thought that would arise by so manifold and exact an attention), but He has the actual ideas of things perfectly in His mind without the least defect of any part and with perfect clearness, and without the imperfection of that fleetingness or transitoriness that attends our ideas, and without any troublesome exertion of the mind to hold the idea there, and without the trouble we are at to have in view a number at once that we may see the relations. But He has the ideas of all things at once in His mind, and all in the highest possible perfection of clearness, and all permanently and invariably there without any transitoriness or fading in any part. (The Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards: From His Private Notebook, p. 118)

Another thing that distinguishes men from God is the motion of the human will in relation to speculative knowledge. Edwards emphasizes the interconnected nature of the intellect and the will, noting that the ideal apprehension of the notions of beauty, delight, or any bodily pleasure or pain concern both the speculative intellect and the will. He calls this sensible knowledge a kind of inward “feeling” based on the sign of a sensible thing that is truly understood. This sensible knowledge is also speculative. For example, when men have a sense of the misery of being punished by God there exists an implied speculative idea of the greatness of His power which, Edwards notes, is commonly called a “sense” of the thing.

For Edwards, the Holy Spirit works on the minds of regenerate and unregenerate humanity in order to give them a proper “sense” of the things of religion. With regard to the natural man the Holy Spirit works through his natural faculties – Edwards insists that this does not involve any supernatural infusion of grace – in order to give him a sense  of God’s greatness, wrath, mercy and so on. Apart from this influence by the Holy Spirit man is content with mere sense impressions, knowledge of the signs of things that are pleasing rather than an active understanding of sense impressions which, by their nature,  lead away from material things. Edwards notes that the natural man who has been “unawakened” by the Holy Spirit is in a worse condition than the natural man who has been awakened:

Natural men, while they are senseless and unawakened, have very little sensible knowledge of the things of religion, even with respect to the natural good and evil that is in them and attends them. And indeed, [they] have very little of any ideal apprehension of any sort of divine and eternal things, by reason of their being left to the supifying influence of sin and the objects of sense. But when they are awakened and convinced, the Spirit of God, by assisting their natural powers, gives them an ideal apprehension of the things of religion with respect to what is natural in them, i.e., of that which is speculative in them, and that which pertains to a sensibleness of their natural good and evil, or all but only that which involves a sense of their spiritual excellency. (ibid., p. 123)

Beyond this, God gives the unregenerate man a natural sense of God’s perfection and the wonderful nature of His works and words, and the natural man is given a sense of religion in general. This concept of religion in general includes knowledge of God’s favor and mercy “as it relates to our natural good or deliverance from natural evil, the glory of Heaven with respect to the natural good that is to be enjoyed there, and likewise those affecting, joyful common illuminations that natural men sometimes have.” (ibid., p. 124)

Next Edwards mentions the regenerate man who is given all of these helps of the natural faculties plus the infusion of “something supernatural.” What this supernatural something actually is Edwards does not thoroughly explain. What he does explain is that there are three types of men. First is the unregenerate man who has no sense of the divine or immaterial principles. Secondly, there is the unregenerate man who has a sense of the divine naturally through the influence of the Holy Spirit. Thirdly, there is the regenerate man who has a sense of the divine given naturally and through supernaturally infused principles.

Based on Edwards’ other sayings, one may properly conclude that the major difference between natural religious sense and supernatural religious sense is that the later recognizes the true source of its convictions.

An ideal or sensible apprehension of the spiritual conviction of the truth of divine things, or that belief of their truth that there is in saving faith. There can be no saving conviction without it, and it is the great thing that mainly distinguishes saving belief from all other. And the thing wherein its distinguishing essence does properly lie is that it has a sense of the divine or spiritual excellency of the the things of religion as that which it arises from. (ibid., p. 123)

Therefore, the regenerate man differs from the unregenerate in the fact that he recognizes the source of this sense of the divine that he has. Both the natural man and the regenerate are able to function in the same world, think the same thoughts, even read the Bible and go to church together; both men are able to have a sense of God’s mercy and greatness and even of his wrath towards sin and the reliability of His word. Yet, only the man who has been given a supernatural sense is able to give glory to God as the source of his knowledge and conviction.

Edwards, in much the same way as Richard Hooker, saw the necessity of nature for the function of grace, and he promoted this reality not in order to promote natural religion but to give people a sense of the mercy of God. In fact he refers to nature as a “substratum” of grace.

[T]his sense of the spiritual excellency is not the only kind of ideal apprehension or sense of divine things that is concerned in such a conviction; but it also partly depends on a sensible knowledge of what is natural in religion – as this may be needful to prepare the mind for a sense of if its spiritual excellency and, as such, a sense of its spiritual excellency may depend upon it. For as the spiritual excellency of the things of religion itself does depend and presuppose those things that are natural in religion, they being, as it were, the substratum of this spiritual excellency, so a sense or ideal apprehension of the one depends in some measure on the ideal apprehension of the other. Thus a sense of the excellency of God’s mercy in forgiving sin depends on a sense of the great guilt of sin, the great punishment it deserves; a sense of the beauty and wonderfulness of divine grace does in great measure depend on a sense of the greatness and majesty of that being whose grace it is, and so indeed a sense of the glory of God’s holiness ad all His moral perfections; a sense of the excellency of Christ’s salvation depends on a a sense of the misery and great guilt of those that are the subjects of this salvation. And so that saving conviction of the truths of things of religion does most directly and immediately depend on a sense of their spiritual excellency; yet it also, in some measure, more indirectly and remotely depends on an ideal apprehension of what is natural in religion, and is a common conviction. (ibid., p. 125)

Thus the “natural things” of religion provide the basis upon which God’s grace performs its healing work. Of course these “natural things” are not purely natural, since man is incapable of the speculative sense of the divine apart from the work of the Holy Spirit; whether this work is done through the natural faculties or by the infusion of supernatural grace. In both cases, man’s knowledge is transformed into a mirror of the divine. Just as God’s knowledge of things is direct and immediate, so man’s knowledge of God becomes in a sense direct and immediate through the work of the Holy Spirit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philosophy as Habitus

Sed videtur definienda, ut sit, Habitus mentibus humanis a Deo cocessus, industria et exercitio auctus, quo comprehenduntur omnia quae sunt, qua certo & firma ratione comprehendi possunt, ut ad felicitatem homo perveniat. (Commentaria D. Petri Martyris Vermilii … in Primum librum Ethicorum Nicomachiorum Aristotelis)

So it appears that it [Philosophy] must be defined as a Habit given by God to the minds of man, increased by diligence and performance, by which all things which exist are known, able to be understood by certain and firm reason, so that man may attain happiness.

Like Aristotle, Vermigli believed that philosophy was for the purpose of achieving happiness in this life, not purely for the inventions of the speculative intellect. Therefore, philosophy is inherently practical. That is one reason why Reformed Divines on the continent and beyond emphasized the teachings of Aristotle in their local Gymnasia.

Jupiter Is God: Calvin on Aratus’s Notitia Dei

In ipso enim vivimus, movemur, & sumus: sicut & quidam vestratum poetarum dixerunt, Nam huius progenies etiam sumus. (John Calvin’s translation of Acts 17:28)

For in him we live, move, and have our being; as certain of your poets have said, “For we also are his progeny.”

Ἄρατος ὁ Σολεύς
Ἄρατος ὁ Σολεύς

I have mentioned St. Paul’s Areopagus Address and Calvin’s commentary upon it before. In the previous post on this passage I noted Calvin’s opinion on Paul’s use of demonstration. In essence, he said that Paul did not seek to demonstrate God’s existence to the Athenians since all men, even pagans, already have a natural knowledge of God imprinted in their souls. Rather, Paul’s method was to show the Athenians (a) “what” God is (i.e., he is not physical) and (b) how God must be worshipped (i.e., not as if he requires anything from man). Later in his commentary Calvin reveals a bit more of his thoughts on natural theology. He comments on the passage quoted above in which Paul quotes from the pagan poet Aratus (from Phaenomena 1-5):

Now, that I may return unto this sentence which I have in hand, it is not to be doubted but that Aratus spake of Jupiter; neither doth Paul, in applying that unto the true God, which he [Aratus] spake unskilfully of his Jupiter, wrest it unto a contrary sense [in alium sensum detorquet – i.e., Paul does not “twist” the meaning of “Jupiter”]. For because men have naturally some perseverance [sense] of God [Aliquo Dei sensu imbuti sunt], they draw true principles from that fountain. And though so soon as they begin to think upon God, they vanish away in wicked inventions, and so the pure seed doth degenerate into corruptions; yet the first general knowledge of God [generalis Dei notitia] doth nevertheless remain still in them. After this sort, no man of a sound mind can doubt to apply that unto the true God which we read in Virgil touching the feigned and false joy, that “All things are full of joy.” Yea, when Virgil meant to express the power of God, through error he put in a wrong name. (Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, XVII.28.)

That last sentence is so butchered by the translator that I am obligated by prudence to quote it correctly. The Latin reads, In hunc modum quod de Iove fictitio habetur apud Virgilium, Iovis omnia plena, ad verum Deum transferre nemo sanae mentis dubitet. This sentence should read, “In this way that which is said of the fictitious Jupiter by Virgil, ‘All things are full of Jupiter,’ no one doubts to apply to the true God.”

Therefore, it is the name “Jupiter” which is fictitious and incorrect, but the substance of that knowledge is the true God. Many are amazed by these passages from Calvin, the rigid Reformer who saw men as “totally depraved” and natural knowledge as utterly worthless. True as those statements are in some sense – Calvin does say these types of things in certain passages – they prove inadequate when we “read the footnotes” – i.e., when they are viewed in the light of his whole corpus. This knowledge of God does render the unbeliever without excuse coram Deo but it is knowledge nonetheless.

A Reformed Education in Renaissance England

Oxford

The following letter is from a young Swiss student Conrad ab Ulmis, writing to one of his sponsors John Wolfius. At the time of this letter Martin Bucer had been dead one year, Bishop Cranmer was busy completing the first Prayer Book, and Peter Martyr was at Oxford lecturing on the Epistle to the Romans. Merely one year later King Edward dies and is promptly succeeded by  Mary Tudor and the Reformation in England seems all but lost. But, in the mean time there was a renaissance of classical education at Oxford, as exemplified by this letter.

Greeting. As I never entertained a doubt but that it was my duty to write to you, as my preceptor, some account of my studies; though I wrote last month at the house of Joshua Maler, my dear friend, and one too who has a great respect for you; yet as I have at this time changed my course of study, I have thought fit to write to you again. Receive therefore a brief account of my studies. I devote the hour from six to seven in the morning to Aristotle’s politics, from which I seem to derive a twofold advantage, both a knowledge of Greek and an acquaintance with moral philosophy. The seventh hour I employ upon the first book of the Digests or Pandects of the Roman law, and the eighth in the reconsideration of this lecture. At nine I attend the lecture of that most eminent and learned divine, master doctor Peter Martyr. The tenth hour I devote to the rules of Dialectics of Philip Melanchthon de locis argumentorum. Immediately after dinner I read Cicero’s Offices, a truly golden book, from which I derive no less than a twofold enjoyment, both from the purity of the language and the knowledge of philosophy. From one to three I exercise my pen, chiefly in writing letters, wherein, as far as possible, I imitate Cicero, who is considered to have abundantly supplied us with all instructions relating to purity of style. At three I lean the institutes of civil law, which I so read aloud as to commit them to memory. At four are read privately, in a certain hall in which we live, the rules of law, which I hear, and learn by rote as I do the institutes. After supper the time is spent in various discourse; for either sitting in our chamber, or walking up and down some part of the college, we exercise ourselves in dialectical questions. You have now a brief account of my studies, with which I think you will be pleased. Do you take care, in the first place, to preserve your health, and in the next place, to address me occasionally by your letters; for you can hardly conceive how much pleasure I shall derive both from their elegance and agreeableness. Solute for me those most honourable ladies, your wife and mother. Farewell. Oxford, March 1, 1552.

Your pupil,

John Conrad Ab Ulmis

Plato’s Theism and Martyr’s Humanism

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

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

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

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

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