On the Authority of Councils

I’ve been reading through John Davenant’s PRÆLECTIONES DE DUOBUS IN THEOLOGIA CONTROVERSIS (1631) which he wrote against the Jesuits’ claim of infallibility for popes and councils. Given the recent debate over the Trinity and the question of the authority of the ecumenical councils raised by many of its participants, Davenant’s remarks may be helpful. I find what he says about the external authority of councils to be particularly illuminating. He argues, in true Protestant fashion, that only Protestants truly submit themselves to the judgments of the councils (a) because we retain the right of private judgment apart from which no one could truly submit themselves to any authority, and (b) because the Papists remove the authority of the councils by giving it to the Pope – hence, ‘No Pope, no council.’ Protestants, says Davenant, recognize that the ecumenical councils, in their decrees, have the highest authority, so long as what they define and conclude is not contradictory to Scripture. He says, “We consider a general council to be the highest tribunal on earth, even though it is not infallible.” He stresses that this authority is of an external nature, pertaining to good order and the discipline of heresy, not to what must be believed for salvation. Indeed, he argues that ecumenical councils are not necessary for salvation, otherwise we wouldn’t have waited until Constantine to have one(!). I’ve translated a bit here where Davenant juxtaposes the Protestant and Roman Catholic views of the authority of councils. Note the bracketed part is my summary of the contrasted Roman Catholic view from Davenant’s perspective.

1. We therefore recognize supreme judgment, public and external, concerning the doctrines of the faith in the church militant to belong to the ecumenical council. [They say the Pope can retract the judgment of an ecumenical council]
2. We recognize all persons in the church to be subject to the ecumenical council that represents the catholic church. [They say the Pope is not subject to the mother church or ecumenical councils]
3. We say that the bishops gathered in the councils have received the highest power of judgement and the power of imposing censure for the good of the church from Christ himself. [They say only the Pope can give them this right, ergo no Pope, no council.]
4. We say that general councils can err if the fathers, in their definitions, do not follow the instruction of Christ, our highest pontiff, declared in the Scriptures. [They say councils can err if they don’t follow the Pope]

So, for Davenant, we should all be subject to the definitions of the ecumenical councils because of the external authority of these councils. The councils have the authority to determine what is best [bene esse] for the universal church, that is for directing the universal church away from heresy and toward its good in accordance with the Scriptures. This only applies to the first four councils though, and especially not Nicaea II (Davenant says, “Let the Papists have that idolatrous conventicle!”). So, for the sake of the bene esse of the church, says Davenant, the definitions of the ecumenical councils demand the assent of the universal church.

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.

Marsilio Ficino on Divine Accommodation

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

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

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

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

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

~ Ficino, Opera II:1027-1028


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

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

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

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.

The Reformation of Religious Images: Lucas Cranach the Elder and Martin Luther

When Martin Luther began translating the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible into German in the 1520s his main intention was to create a text in a common dialect that would open up the word of God to the laity. Yet, something in Luther’s modus intelligendi prevented him from releasing the final copy devoid of any illuminating artwork. This will inevitably seem odd to the average Protestant of our day who (a) does not live in a culture that values illuminated manuscripts and (b) fears any sort of “superstition” that may accompany images placed so dangerously close to God’s inerrant word. Luther did not think that way, and neither did the other Reformers (as I have demonstrated concerning Zwingli).

In fact, Luther appears to have no reservations about the inclusion of images of God within his Bible, as the following images taken from his “Bibel … Schrifft Deutsch” show.

1. This image is similar to that in Zwingli’s “Zürcher Bibel” and depicts the “Son of Man” from John’s Apocalypse:

2. Here God is depicted in the text for Genesis 1, creating and upholding the earth.

3. Finally, this image is a depiction of Ezekiel’s vision of God on his throne from Ezekiel 1.

Of course Luther cannot be accused of limiting God’s nature to that of a man, rather he views the appearances of the “Glory of God” in the Old Testament as an appearance of God’s likeness or the pre-incarnate Christ himself. Luther was not afraid that those who see these images would come to think of God as a mere man. On the contrary, Luther considered these images to be detrimental to the goal of a biblically educated church. Ezekiel really saw the likeness of God. The people should be encouraged to believe that.

Luther was no artist in the professional sense. Therefore, he needed help in creating Reformed images for his new translation. The artist chosen to help would need to be Reformed and comfortable with Luther’s theology, such as the exclusion of halos around the heads of saints and the belief that the images may carry some sort of inherent blessing. He did not need to look far. There was already a local artist by the name of Lucas Cranach the Elder who was a court painter for the Electors of Saxony. Cranach met Luther sometime around 1520 and developed a strong bond with him that would last for the remainder of his life. The two even became godparents to each other’s children. Cranach and Luther worked closely together on numerous propaganda pieces against the extravagancies of the Papacy at that time. One of their first projects together was that of Luther’s Bible.

Some may find it difficult to think of Cranach’s religious depictions as genuinely “Reformed” because the interpretation of images is often somewhat subjective. However, this is not the case with Cranach, as Bonnie Noble points out:

From the very beginning of Luther reform, Cranach made pictures to promote religious change. A famous and early Cranach-Luther collaboration is the Passional Christi et Antichristi, an acerbic, propagandistic, illustrated book of 1521 that contrasts Christ with the pope in the role of the anti-Christ. According to a statement by an employee in the Wittneberg shop of Hans Lufft, who printed the book, Luther supplied the text for the project: ‘The honorable doctor recommended some of the figures himself, how one should sketch or paint them, how one was supposed to paint according to the text and did not want any extra, unnecessary things that did not serve the text. This quotation is intriguing for at least two reasons. First, it highlights the priority of aligning pictorial and textual meaning, of creating a limited, reciprocal relationship between word and image, to the exclusion of ‘unnecessary things that did not serve the text.’ Second, it indicates that Luther at least advised on the production of the image, exercising influence on its content. The contrast between Christ and the pope makes the Lutheran agenda unmistakable. (Lucas Cranach the Elder: Art and Devotion of the German Reformation, p. 34.)

Therefore, Cranach and Luther worked together to produce pieces that would not only aid in the interpretation of the Bible but also in winning converts to the Reformation cause. Perhaps the most famous Luther-Cranach piece is Gesetz und Gnade (Law and Grace, a.k.a., Law and Gospel).

This image depicts one of the most pivotal elements of Luther’s theology. On the left is the Law and judgment symbolized by a man being forced into hell by Death and Satan, Moses delivering the Ten Commandments, Christ sitting in judgment, and Adam and Even partaking of the forbidden fruit. On the right is Grace and the Gospel with Christ’s cross crushing Death and Satan and the blood of Christ covering those near the cross. The tree that divides the painting is dead on the side of the Law but vibrant on the side of the Gospel. Luther and Cranach are not here depicting a radical break between Law and Gospel, the theologies of the Old Testament versus that of the New. Rather, as Noble demonstrates, “The painting draws a boundary between the dynamics of Law and Gospel (Lutheran theology) on the one hand, and law on its own (Catholicism or Judaism) on the other.” (ibid., p. 49.) Luther is not antithetical toward the Law as a guide in Sanctification, rather he castigates the Law seen as an agent of Justification.

This emphasis on theology has led many scholars to the notion that Luther and Cranach’s religious depictions are merely functional. The idea is that these images are only meant to convince the mind of a particular theological position or way of interpreting the Bible and nothing more. Yet, the detail in these works conveys a different message. Surely functionality is important. Luther considered the errors of the Roman church to be the works of Satan himself. In that light, these pictures were meant to guide the pious back toward God’s grace which is freely exhibited by the cross of Christ. However, one should not say that Cranach’s artistic hand was somehow limited by the particular medium with which he worked, or that artistic value was for him subordinate to his theological agenda. These works were meant to unveil the “veiled God” of whom Luther so often spoke. These images were designed to convey the truth, to shine light upon a dark world. And for that reason creativity cannot be a mere by-product of function.

We can catch a glimpse into the world of the 16th century Reformation through Luther’s relationship with an artist who used his medium to do spiritual battle against the dark forces within the church. It was not Luther’s intention to merely teach the less-educated by including awesome images within his Bible. He called on Lucas Cranach the Elder to use his God-given talents to open the word of God to the eyes and the imagination as Luther himself was opening the word of God for the first time (in such an accessible form) to the German people.

John Calvin’s Aristotelean Cosmology

Aristotelean CosmologyMany of John Calvin’s references to Aristotelean cosmology occur during his later years, representing his mature theology. Christopher Kaiser has shown that Calvin viewed the universe through the lens of Aristotelean natural philosophy. (Kaiser, “Calvin and Natural Philosophy,” in Calviniana, vol. X) He accepted such ideas as the concept of natural place (the earth is the center of the spheres due to its weight), the system of homocentric spheres (the ten spheres interconnected and moved by the primum mobile), and the subordination of terrestrial cycles to the revolutions of the heavenly spheres.

Kaiser notes that Calvin, as Aquinas and Bonaventure before him, sought to remedy the problem of the distant primum mobile with the providential guidance of the Christian God. Calvin did this by extending the sovereign guidance of the divine hand beyond the sphere of the Moon, where Aristotle placed a limit. Rather than solving the problem of how the earth remains stable while the enormous celestial spheres drag and press upon it by using a solution from Aristotle himself, Calvin substituted the providence of God who holds the earth upon the outer waters and keeps it stable as the celestial spheres move. According to Kaiser, “For Calvin, of course, there was a clear correlation between the concept of stability and order in the natural sphere and the sense of God’s protection in the personal and social spheres.” (ibid., p. 89) Therefore, the idea of God holding the earth in place brings much hope to believers that while the social sphere may be torn apart by tyrants God remains holding everything in place.

Kaiser asks where Calvin got his ideas and how he was influenced to read and write in such Aristotelean terms. The answer is that he was partly following the concepts of the times, since Aristotle’s cosmology had been accepted as an authentic representation of the universe for hundreds of years. However, Calvin was also influenced by those near him, sparking his interest in natural phenomena and causing him to delve more deeply into the texts of Aristotle. Kaiser lists all of Calvin’s influences in this matter. Particularly interesting is the fact that many of Calvin’s writings on Arisotelian natural philosophy came during and after the arrival of the Italians, Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi, both scholastically trained Aristoteleans. Kaiser’s list follows:

Based on the evidence cited here, a plausible account of the origins of Calvin’s understanding of Aristotelian natural philosophy would be as follows. Calvin probably became interested in and informed about the subject during his college days in Paris; his approach to Aristotle’s natural philosoph appears to be that of a humanist like Jacques Lefere d’Eteples or Francois Vatable, who may have been his Hebrew instructor at the College royal in 1531-32. Calvin’s interest and understanding were heightened by his study of Seneca (early 1530s), his reading of Basil’s Hexaemeron (early 1540s), and by the publication of Luther’s Lectures on Genesis (1544). This led to his first treatment of the distribution of the terrestrial elements and the mechanics of the celestial spheres … Finally, in the mid-1550s, Calvin thought more deeply about the problem of the stability of the earth in the midst of a whirling cosmos. This further development may reflect the influence of Vermigli and Zanchius. (ibid., pp. 91, 92)

It is interesting to think that Calvin’s theology may have become more Aristotelean during the final years of his life due to the influence of his Italian acquaintances, who were known both for their humanism and scholasticism.