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.

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Praise for Knowledge

In his The Heavenly Academie (1638), the Westminster Divine, Francis Rous urges his readers to acknowledge their knowledge of God to be a gift of grace, and thereby to give God praise for his gift. This act of praise is a participation in the motion of God’s own gift giving, that is, the heavenly motion of procession and return.

IT is the just saying of an Ancient, Prodere grata commemoratione decet scientiae patrem; It is comely to acknowledge with thankfulnesse, the Father of our knowledge. If this be justly due from man unto man, how much more due is it from man unto God? For though man be called the father of those that are taught by him, yet God is the Father of those fathers; even a Teacher of those teachers: and therefore by our Saviours judgement deserves only the name of Father, in perfection and eminence. Those then that have God to be a Father of knowledge to them, should returne to this Father the praise and glorie of this knowledge. The heavenly gifts of God, when they move kindly and naturally, doe move like the Heavens, in a circular motion; returning to that place and point from which they began first to move; from God unto God. They come from him as graces, and returne to him in the shape of glorie.

“God is an Infinite Sphere”: A (Very) Brief History

I saw a tweet a few days back that was a quotation from the English Puritan, George Swinnock’s The Blessed and Boundless God, in which Swinnock notes, “God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” This quotation, Swinnock admits, comes from an unknown “heathen” author. Though Swinnock does not name the source or the book, he is most likely quotting from the Liber XXIV Philosophorum, that is, The Book of the Twenty-Four Philosophers. The second principle head of this work states: DEVS EST SPHAERA INFINITA CVIVS CENTRVM EST VBIQUE, CIRCVMFERENTIA NVSQVAM, which translates, “God is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.”

The metaphor of God as a sphere was bequeathed to English theologians of the 17th century both by the Liber XXIV Philosophorum itself and by Medieval authors who quoted from it. Nicholas of Cusa was one Late Medieval author who made use of this phrase. In his De Docta Ignorantia I.23, Cusa argues that the metaphor of an infinite sphere is appropriate to describe the existence of God (Sicut sphaera infinita est penitus in actu et simplicissima, ita maximum est penitus in actu simplicissime).  English theologians, like Cusa, found this metaphor to be quite useful. Joseph Hall, for example, states in a sermon, “O God, thou art an intelligible sphere, whose centre is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere but in thyself.” Another Puritan, Peter Sterry, states, “God is that Sacred Circle of All-Being, of Infinitness, of Eternity, whose Center is everywhere, in the smallest Point of Things; whose Circumference is no where bounded” (The Appearance of God to man… London, 1710, p. 300).

There is no record or evidence of the Liber XXIV Philosophorum before the Medieval period. Swinnock, like his European predecessors would have thought that the book was composed by the famed Hermes Tristmegistus. Modern historians reject that claim, yet they are divided over the exact lineage of the book. Some argue that it was composed in Antiquity from various quotations taken from Aristotle, Plotinus, Proclus and others. Kurt Flasch, however, argues that there is little evidence for this composition in the text itself. No matter the date of composition, the author of the book was clearly influenced by Aristotle and later Neoplatonic authors. From the Liber XXIV Philosophorum, then, comes the idea of God as an infinite sphere, an idea that would fascinate Late Medieval authors as well as Puritans and also those early modern authors who would seek to wed theology to mathematics.

A Puritan Phaedrus

Peter_Sterry

There is no doubt that Peter Sterry (†1672) was both a Puritan and a Platonist. He was a devotee of Jesus and Plato, but only insofar as the latter agreed with and prepared one for the teachings of (and union with) the former. In a letter that he wrote to his son Peter (junior), Sterry combines the myth of the soul’s journey to absolute Beauty in the Phaedrus with the Christian doctrine of faith as a quasi-intellectual vision of Jesus within the soul in order to encourage his son to turn from his devotion to earthly passions and turn to Jesus. In this regard, Sterry appears as Socrates guiding his son to Beauty in Jesus by means of his influence and letters.

Your letters have both pleased mee well. I waite with hope to see with Joy that Eternall spirit, which is the seede of the Divine nature in you to carry on its owne Buds, and Blossomes to ripe Fruite. With all your Might thorrow the power of the glory of Christ in you, Follow after integrity, spirituality, constancy. Can hee that sees the Beauty of Christ’s face unveiled in him, and feeles Divine Love springign up imediately from its own Fountayne in his Soule, think, speake, or act from any other Principle, than the Light of this beauty, the Life of this Love, or to any end, besides the enlargement, and Propogation of the power, purity, Joyes, of this heavenly Light, and Life? O my Son, what sweeteness, Lovelynes, Strenth is there in being established in this grace, as a Tree in its Roote, in moving directly, continually towards this glory, without Gaps, or interruptions, as rivers to the Sea […] Hath the Life of Christ all things of heaven, and Earth in itself, as so many lives of Immortall Beauty, as so many Fountaynes of purest pleasures; have you by the good will of the everlasting Father thorrow that Essentiall Word his Son, this Life begottne in you, and can you doe any thing but abide in the actings of this Life, feede it, forme it in the Soules of others? So live in Christ, and Christ in you… (Peter Sterry, Selected Writings, ed. N.I. Matar. Peter Lang: 1994. pp. 133, 134)