Origen on What it Means to be ‘Spiritual’

For Origen, the spiritual life is life in the Holy Spirit. To be ‘spiritual’ then means nothing short of participation in the activity of the Holy Spirit. It means death and resurrection. And, this occurs primarily through prayer. As he says:

[David says] “to you, O God, have I lifted up my soul” (Ps. 25:1). For the eyes of the mind are lifted up from their preoccupation with earthly things and from their being filled with the impression of material things. And they are so exalted that they peer beyond the created order and arrive at the sheer contemplation of God and at conversing with Him reverently and suitably as He listens. How would things so great fail to profit those eyes that gaze at the glory of the Lord with unveiled face and that are being changed into His likeness from glory to glory (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18)? For then they partake of some divine and intelligible radiance. This is demonstrated by the verse “The light of your countenance, O Lord, has been signed upon us” (Ps. 4:6). And the soul is lifted up and following the Spirit is separated from the body. Not only does it follow the Spirit, it even comes to be in Him. This is demonstrated by the verse “To you have I lifted up my soul,” since it is by putting away its existence that the soul becomes spiritual, (Origen, “On Prayer,” in Origen, Classics of Western Spirituality, Rowan Greer, trans., NJ: Paulist Press, 1979, p. 99).


Martin Bucer on Dionysius as Church Father

Martin Bucer (1491-1551)
Martin Bucer (1491-1551)

Dionysius “Platonizes more than he Christianizes” is now a famous quote by Martin Luther. In fact, most scholars in the area of Dionysius studies take it for granted that this statement marks a total rejection of the Corpus Dionysiacum by not only Luther but all Protestants. Kalfried Froehlich argues otherwise in his short introductory essay “Pseudo-Dionysius and the Reformation of the 16th century,” in the Pseudo-Dionysius: the Complete Works. He points out that Luther only seems to reject the Mystical Theology in these statements. Furthermore, Froehlich notes that Calvin also harshly judged the so-called Areopagite for his vain curiositas but in the end he admits that his works “contain some things not to be totally despised” (Comm. on Acts 17:34). Some of the most significant Reformers continued to quote Dionysius as an authority even though they accepted Valla’s proof of forgery. Froehlich points out that Martin Bucer, though distancing himself in some regards, saw Dionysius in a more positive light than Luther and Calvin.

This distanced appreciation is visible, for example, in Martin Bucer of Strassburg and in the Lutheran polemicists of the later decades of the sixteenth century. We know that in his early years Bucer used Ficino’s edition and commentary of the Divine Names. Even later he appreciated the “sublime, almost inspired style characteristic of all his [i.e., Dionysius’s] writings.” The authorship question is not discussed in Bucer’s works but he freely quoted Dionysius among his patristic sources on a number of issues: the question of the prayer for the dead; the double character of the mass, heavenly and earthly; the instrumentality of the Ministry. For Bucer, Dionysius was not an apostolic writer but one of the “older” fathers; he is placed somewhere between Irenaeus and Augustine, being mentioned together with Cyprian, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Cyril (Pseudo-Dionysius, 45).

The works of Ficino and Pico were instrumental in bringing Dionysius into the Early Modern period, no longer as a proof text for scholastic arguments but for the humanistic pursuit of wisdom in the original sources of the faith. Bucer, following Ficino’s commentary, used Dionysius’s writings for the sake of the Reformation. The clearest example of this is in his Commentary on Romans where he discovers in Dionysius what he believes is corroboration for his Protestant concept of faith. Bucer writes:

However, since Dionysius expresses our point quite wonderfully in the sublime, almost inspired style characteristic of all his writings, we will quote what his work on The Divine Names (ex libro de Divin. nominibus cap. 7) has to say about faith. ‘Faith’, he writes, “relates to the divine Reason, which is the simple and truly existent truth, and so the solid foundation of believers, establishing both them in the truth and the truth in them with an unwavering permanence. For those who believe and are persuaded possess a simple knowledge of the truth, and this knowledge avails to unite the knower and the objects of knowledge, while ignorance is ever the cause of change and self-discrepancy in the ignorant. Consequently, the man who believes in the truth according to the sacred word will never be dislodged from the stable foundation furnished by faith, on which he will surely enjoy the security of immovable and immutable permanence (immutabilis identitatis). Indeed, he who is united with the truth knows perfectly that all is well with him, even though the multitude rebuke him for being out of his mind (raptum extra se); for it naturally escapes them that he has been rescued from error (ereptus est errori) by the truth through true faith. But he knows well enough for himself that instead of being, as they say, out of his senses, he has been delivered from the unstable and ever-varying twists and turns of protean error through the simple, self-consistent, unchanging truth. Hence it is that our chief preceptors in divine wisdom die daily for the truth, thereby bearing witness by both word and deed to that singular knowledge of the truth which Christians profess, testifying that it is more simple and divine than all other forms of knowledge, or rather that it is the only true, the only simple knowledge of God (sola simplex Dei cognitio).” It is handsomely evident from these words that this saint made the characteristic mark of faith just this, that it renders the believer certain of the divine promises and so united to God and zealous for his glory as to count it gain even do die for its sake. (Metaphrasis Et Enarratio In Epist. Ad Romanos [1562], 22).

Divine Names 7 was perhaps the most popular chapter of this book for Aquinas because it includes a very explicit reference to Dionysius’s “three ways” of knowing, that is, denial, transcendence, and causation. One interpretation of Dionysius’s argument in chapter 7 is that “faith” is the illumination of the mind that permits one to access the three ways of knowing. Bucer sees in this discussion a denial of the scholastic concept of faith “formed by love” or of cooperative justification. Perhaps Bucer would agree that justification sola fide could be stated in Dionysian terms as justification sola simplex Dei cognitio, and that this cognitio enables one to be raptus extra se, where one participates in, to use Luther’s language, iustitia extra nos.

Addendum: If you are wondering “why so much on Dionysius?”, the current posts are part of a presentation that I will deliver in Toronto this weekend at the AAR-EIR.

Girolamo Zanchi Uses Aquinas as Authority

In the following passage Jerome Zanchi, the Italian Reformer and friend of Peter Martyr and Zacharius Ursinus, appeals to the authority of Thomas Aquinas to demonstrate the orthodoxy of his own definition of original sin (something Peter Martyr also did). This definition assumes the correctness of the concept of original righteousness and the inherited guilt that accompanies the loss of that ontological status. Although Zanchi refers to Thomas as Scholasticus he places the current paragraph under the heading Confirmatio sententiae ex Patribus (confirmation from the opinions of the Fathers).

Thomas Aquinas eandem secutus est docrinam, & clarissime explicat, eum alibi tum in Quaestionibus disputatis, quaest. 4. de peccato originali, aritculo primo. Ubi concludit de actuali inobedientia Adae, eam convenire toti humano generi & singulis hominibus, quatenus omnes fuimus unum & sumus eum Adamo. Quod enim ille admisit, non illud eum admisisse ut privatum hominem, sed ut totius humani generis caput: quemadmodum etiam justitiam originalem non acceperat ut privatus homo, & sibi soli; sed ut pater omnium hominum, & nobis omnibus. Constat igitur nomine peccati originalis venire non solum justitiae originalis privationem naturaeque corruptionem, sed simul cum reatu & culpa inobedientiae Adami. Imo ideo cumprimis peccatum originale appelatur, quia omnes homines in Adamo tanquam in sua origine peccarunt. Sed interim non negatur altera ratio, nempe, quia quisque ex vitiosa origine peccatis concipitur nasciturque filius irae. Eadem doctrinam confirmant etiam alii seniores Shcolastici… (Zanchius, Commentarius in Apostolam Sancti Pauli Ad Ephesios, pp. 234, 235)


Thomas Aquinas followed the same doctrine, and explains it most clearly in other places and in the Disputed Questions, quest. 4 concerning original sin, article one. Where he concludes concerning the actual disobedience of Adam that it unites the whole human race and every human being,  insofar as everyone was and is one with Adam. For although he committed this crime, he did not do it as a private individual but as the head of the whole human race: just as he did not receive original justice as a private individual or by himself; but as the father of all human beings, and for us all. It is agreed therefore that by the name “original sin” comes not only a privation of original justice and corruption of nature, but also the accusation and guilt of Adam’s disobedience. By all means therefore the first sin is called “original”, because all men sin in Adam as it were in their “origin.” But in the meantime another reason is not denied, namely, that whoever is conceived in sin from vicious origin is also born a son of wrath. Other older Scholastics confirm the same doctrine…

Many of those who consider themselves theologians in the Reformed tradition believe the Reformed position on Adam’s original state is antithetical to that of the Scholastics, positing a legal/ontological dichotomy between the language of “guilt” and that of “nature.” Here Zanchi shows no such dichotomy.

Zanchius on the Authority of the Church Fathers

NicaeaWhen I write this Confession of faith, I write everie thing uppon a good conscience, and as I beleeved, so I spake freelie, as the holie scriptures doe teach that wee ought to doe. My faith is grounded simplie and principallie on the word of God and next, somewhat upon the common consent of the whole auncient catholicke church, if it doe not gainsaye the holie scriptures. For I beleeve that the thinges which were decreed and received of the fathers, by common consent of them all gathered together in the name of the Lord, without anie contradiction of holie scriptures, that they also (though they bee not of equall authoritie with the scriptures) come from the Holie ghost. Hereupon it is that the thinges which are of this sorte, I neither will nore dare disproove with a good conscience. And what is more certaine out of the histories, the councells and writings of all the fathers, then that those orders of ministers [primarily bishops], of which wee spake, were ordained and received in the church by common consent of all the whole christian common wealth? And who am I that I should disproove that which the whole church hath approoved? Neither have all the learned men of this age dared to disproove the same, as knowing both that the church might lawfullie doe so [create new ecclesiastical offices] and that all those thinges were ordained and done uppon a godlie purpose and to excellent good endes, for edification of God’s children. (De religione christiana fides, Obs. In caput XXV, Aph. X, et XI.)

In the context of this aphorism Zanchius is defending his earlier statement that even though the office of bishop, as it was understood by the early and Medieval church, is not contained within the scriptures the church may use that office or create others in order to meet the needs of a particular area. Zanchius notes that the scriptural “three-office” view is preferable. The true worth of this quote, however, lies with his general rule of doctrine: the teachings of the fathers which were held unanimously and which do not contradict Holy Scripture come from the Holy Spirit and may not be contradicted with a good conscience.

The Platonism of the Early Church Fathers

I may add that from among the fathers of our religion who accepted the theory of Ideas, as did Augustine, none introduced them so that the craftsmen might turn to them and learn how to perform their tasks, but rather as the Ideas toward which God himself looked when he formed the natures of different things. (Peter Martyr, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p. 172)

Platonism as articulated by Aristotle was utterly impractical.  He demonstrates (in I.6) that if an artist or a craftsman must look to a univocal separate Form in order to know their craft rather than the concrete image that knowledge is useless. Aristotle asks: “How is a man a better doctor or a better soldier by studying the idea itself?”  He continues, “A doctor surely is not intent on health so understood but on the health of man in the concrete, or even better perhaps, on the health of this man.” (Ibid)

Vermigli notes that this does not mean that Aristotle deplored the a priori reasoning used by an artist to better know the principles of his/her craft.  Aristotle argued against the principle that a doctor should begin with an eternal separate Idea of Health without first investigating health as it comes through the experience of healthy things.  The Fathers must have also seen the impractical nature of Platonic philosophy when ministering in their local churches. Theology would have no use for ideas that have no heuristic applicability to Christian holiness. Neither would Aristotle have a use for such impractical ideas in divine science.