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).

Robert Abbot on the Sign of the Cross

Robert Abbot (1560–1617) was Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, bishop of Salisbury, proponent of Reformed theology, and opponent of Laudianism and Arminianism during the reign of James I. In a rather amusing incident, Abbot once preached a sermon in defense of the Puritans. Laud himself was in attendance, and as John Rushworth later recalled Abbot, seeing Laud in the audience, determined to aim his polemical canons directly at him. Laud, according to Rushworth, “was fain to sit patiently at the rehearsal of this sermon, though abused almost an hour together, being pointed at as he sat.”

One of Abbot’s most interesting works is his two volume defense of William Perkins’ A Reformed Catholike. In this work Abbot defends the great Puritan theologian against the polemical attacks of certain Roman Catholic theologians, particularly William Bishop. Though he attacks the “popery” of Bishop, Abbot only does so insofar as he believes that Bishop does not himself maintain the principles of a true Reformed Catholic, that is, the recognition and defense of what is necessary for salvation and the distinction of what is necessary from what is indifferent (adiaphoron). One example of an indifferent practice that Bishop (according to Abbot)elevates to a necessary practice is the ancient rite of the sign of the cross, which the faithful often made upon themselves and priests often performed over the holy instruments of worship.

Abbot argues that the practice is not strictly commanded by scripture, and although it is a longstanding tradition in both Eastern and Western Christianity, the abuses that have been added to the practice render it dangerous, and therefore it should be strongly curtailed for the sake of saving the church from superstition. Since it is an indifferent matter, however, making the sign of the cross should be left up to the churches to determine for themselves, he argues, a determination that he implies should be based on surveying the extent of the error and abuse surrounding the practice among the churches.

Of the signe of the Crosse … we condemne it not being taken as an arbitrarie and indifferent ceremonie, voluntarily vpon occasion accepted by the discretion of the Church, and left free to the like discretion as occasion requireth, either to be wholly relinquished, or the vse thereof to be moderated and abridged without opinion of anie violation or breach of religion towards God. So long as it was kept within compasse of being onely a matter of admonition, a token of profession, and occasion of remembrance of the name of Christ, so long there was no reason for any man to contend concerning the vsing of it. But since it hath growne from being a meere ceremonie, to be accounted as a Sacrament of grace and saluation, an instrument of sanctification and holinesse, containing a spirituall vertue and power of blessing, and ministring inward strength against our spirituall enemies, it hath concerned the godly discretion and wisedome of the Church, to vse due care to redresse those erroneous and superstitious conceipts thereof, which tend to the detriment and wrong of the faith and name of Iesus Christ. We haue receiued no commandement thereof from God, no institution of Iesus Christ, no word or warrant of the Apostles, and therefore being brought in by men, it ought to be subiect to the iudgement of the Church, and not the Church tyed to any bondage of the vse of it. Our Church therefore hath vsed her libertie in this behalfe, and though we denie not but that the signe of the Crosse were in most frequent vse, as M. Bishop saith, in the primitiue Church, yet considering it to be a thing iniurious to the faith and crosse of Christ where it is made a matter of mysticall consecration and blessing, hath discharged vs of it where it was taken in that sence; and yet that we seeme not wholly to explode that which antiquitie hath approoued, hath there retained it where it may carrie no shew of being subiect to that construction. We vse it not to our selues, to our meates and drinkes, to the water of baptisme, to the bread and wine of the Lordes Supper, or any otherwhere where it was vsed with that meaning as in Poperie it was vsed in all these: we vse it in baptisme with the application first intended, and to them which yet know not the vse of it, that that which is done to them may be a remembrance to vs, & to them also when they shall hereafter know and see the same in others, not to be ashamed of Christ crucified, and of the bearing of his crosse, but with courage and constancie to follow him whose in baptisme we haue vowed our selues to be. As touching the testimonies of antiquitie which M. Bishop alledgeth for the approuing thereof, first Tertullian and Ambrose and Cyril do simply note the vulgar vse of it, which in them and in those times we condemne not; they had their reason for the vsing, and so haue we for the leauing of it, (Abbot, The second part of the Defence of the Reformed Catholicke, London: George Bishop, 1607, pp. 1118-1119).

[…]

Ambrose maketh this the vse of the signe of the crosse, that thereby a Christian man euery while writeth vpon his owne forehead the contempt of death, as who knoweth that without the crosse of Christ he cannot be saued. When Iulian obiected to Christians the vse of the Crosse, Cyril maketh no more thereof but this, that they made it in remembrance of all goodnes and all vertue. Whatsoeuer they say of the crosse or of the signe of the crosse, they referre it to the faith of Christ crucified, not to the crosse it selfe, but to the inward cogitation of the benefite of his crosse. The mind marked with the crosse, saith Cyril, is plentifully fed with heauenly food, and grace of the holy Ghost: whosoeuer turneth the eyes of his mind to Christ nailed to the crosse, he shall be forthwith cured from all wound of sinne. They vsed the outward signe onely to turne the minde to the beholding of the crosse of Christ, thereby hoping to receiue comfort and defence. But Poperie hath taught men so to conceiue, as if God had giuen to the signe of the crosse some formal power to do great wonders for vs, & in this sence haue witches & charmers borowed it from them, (ibid., p. 1122).

William Ames: Reverence for the Instruments of Worship

William Ames argues that there is an individual and uncommon reverence due to religious objects such as the Bible and the elements of the Eucharist. These are the instruments of God’s holy action and should be treated as such, he says.

From his Cases of Conscience:

Chap. XXXI. Of reverence, of Worship.

Quest. I. Whether and how farre is religious reverence to be given to these things which belong to Worship, as to the words of the Scripture, the holy Bible, the Water of Baptisme, the Bread and Wine in the Lords Supper?

I. A. 1. Reverence or honor is in a three fold sense called Religious; either, First, because it flowes from Religion, as the proper act of it, containing in it that vertue and direct relation which is in religious Worhip: or, Secondly, only because it is commanded by Religion, as something agreeable with the nature of it: or, Thirdly, because it is both commanded by Religion, and hath a foundation in the relation of something, or person, to Religion or holy Worship. In the first sense, Religious worship is due to God alone. In the second way, that civill honour which is commanded in the fifth Precept, and is especially due to Superiours, is rightly called religious. In the third sense, it is due to all those things Which properly belong to worship.

2. 2. In holy use, although divine honour is not to be given to holy things; nor are those things to bee accounted as the next objects of that Worship, by which the honour is carryed to God; Nor lastly, is there any worship of an inferiour degree to be given to them: all which are the errours of Popish Doctors, while they worship the Eucharist as God, Images as the next termes [terminos proximos], though not the last of religious worship; and the holy Utensels with a religious observance: yet that honour which is due to God, cannot in a due manner be given to him, unlesse those instruments of his worship bee used with singular reverence, because of that neere connection and relation,that is between an action, and the instrument of the action.

3.3. Out of holy use, because wee have no externall thing consecrated by Divine Institution, and placed in a religious state, in that manner, that the Arke, Altar, Temple, and such like were under the Old Testament, therefore no positive honour that is religious, is due to any externall thing. Yet there is a privative kind of reverence, which necessarily followeth of the religious honour of God: whereby heed is to be taken, that nothing be done to such things as belong to Worship out of holy use,by meanes whereof that reverence which ought to be observed in holy use, or worship, may be diminished. Such is the care whereby heed is taken, that the words or phrases of Scripture be not mingled with jests: that the Bible be not trampled upon, or applied to any use which hath a shew of basenesse, or unseemlinesse, that the Bread or Wine left after the Communion, bee not exposed to any contumelious use, &c.

 

A New Year of Virtue

As the church celebrates the circumcision of our Lord and the giving of his holy name, we are reminded of the paradoxes of life amidst a dying world and our duty to renew our strength for the year to come. The men and women of the past believed as king David, that “our help cometh even from the Lord who hath made heaven and earth.” So, on this New Year’s Day, let us remember the life that we receive from the Lord, through prayer, and the virtues that we long to attain in the year to come, which our Lord deigns to give those who call upon his holy name. The following prayer is from an anonymous prayer book printed in London in 1693, to be prayed on New Year’s Day.

O blessed Lord, who, as upon this Day receivest the holy Name of Jesus, and undertookest for me the smart of Circumcision; grant unto me the true Circumcision of the Spirit, that my Heart and all my Members being mortified from all worldly and carnal Lusts, I may ever obey thy blessed Will in all things, to my Life’s end.

And because there is no other Name under Heaven, given unto Men, by which they may receive Health and Salvation, but thine only; dear Jesus, be thou henceforth unto me a Jesus, giving me always thankful Eyes, obedient Knees, and a reverential Heart unto thy sweet and saving Name, that now I may begin a new Year of Vertues, and cancel, by Repentance, all the failings of the old.

From: A New-Year’s Gift Complete In Six Parts Composed of Prayers and Meditations for every Day in the Week with Devotions for the Sacrament, Lent, and Other Occasions, (Printed for Henry Mortlock: London, 1693).

When to Stop Interpreting the Lord’s Supper

A number of years ago the Lutheran historian, Paul Rorem caused a stir among certain Eastern Orthodox theologians over his interpretation of the Pseudo-Dionysius. Rorem was accused, by Fr. Andrew Golitzin and others, of reading Dionysius like a Protestant, chiefly with regard to Holy Synaxis (a.k.a., the Eucharist). The crux of the debate had to do with Rorem’s emphasis on “interpretation,” which he said is of primary concern for Dionysius. To truly participate in synaxis one must rightly interpret the sacred symbols and “get behind the material show,” as Rorem via Dionysius says. Rorem referred to this act of peering beyond the veil as an “interpretation,” which implies that a right reading of the rite is all that is required of those who wish to commune with Christ. Of course, the problem with calling this a “Protestant” reading of Dionysius is that not all Protestants think interpretation is necessary for rightly communing with Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

Sure, some interpretation, some ability to distinguish between the sign and the thing behind the sign is necessary. Yet, interpretation is not the goal of the Lord’s Supper, nor should it be what one does while communing. If you know how to distinguish the sign from the thing, then you already have the power of “discerning the body” that should naturally direct you to the thing itself. An interpreter of Spanish, for example, has a habit of hearing Spanish, and so, his mind hears Spanish accurately without the use of a dictionary or mental deliberation. So, Christ calls us to participate in the whole event of his Supper with mind and body, not with the mind alone. The majority of Reformed theologians (at least of the first few centuries after the Reformation) believe that sanctifying grace is a quality (or qualities) that is infused (literally “poured in”) into the soul (mind and heart) by the Holy Spirit. By consequence, the activity of belief in the Supper itself (or in Christ within the Supper) is the mechanism of Christ-likeness (Christiformia) in the soul. The activity of faith in the Supper brings about a greater qualitative similarity to Jesus in the believer’s soul.  If there is any sacrifice involved, it is the sacrifice of ourselves, the sacrifice of our trust in ourselves and our ability to figure things out for ourselves (including the Supper!) as we surrender to the mind of Christ.

How does an increase in Christ-likeness (via infused qualities) happen in the event of Holy Communion? Most Reformed theologians agree that faith is not only an infused quality, but also a virtue. So, it will help to look at another virtue and ask, how does virtue itself increase? Let’s look at courage, for example. The courageous man becomes more courageous the more he takes on the likeness of perfect Courage, that is, the likeness of God’s own Courage (archetypal Courage). The courageous man takes on this likeness by performing courageously in battle or by choosing what is right in a moment of temptation rather than what is more immediately beneficial to him. How, then, should he interpret or develop an understanding of his courage? How will he know if he truly modeled archetypal Courage in his action? Should he stop to meditate on it while he is acting? Of course not. How could he be courageous if he’s distracted by his own act of self-reflection? Imagine a soldier fighting the enemy in close combat. If he pauses to reflect on the nature of his own courage he will most likely lose concentration on the enemy and lose the fight.

The same is true of our participation in the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. We shouldn’t attempt to rationally distinguish between sign and thing signified while we eat the bread. We shouldn’t look at our own heart or introspectively examine ourselves as to whether we truly believe or not. How could you have faith in Christ’s promise at that moment if all you can think about is yourself? What should we do then? Don’t neglect self-examination. The unexamined life is not worth living after all. Just don’t examine yourself when you’re supposed to be doing something. When the consecrated bread is in your hands stop thinking about faith and just be faithful. Just believe that “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” Eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ is a faithful action. So, stop thinking about what you think about it and just eat. The King is here. It’s time for celebration. It’s time to be caught up in the beauty of holiness. It’s not time for deliberation. It’s not time for talking. There is a time for that. But, around the Lord’s table we are in God’s holy temple. Let all the Earth be silent.

When we do that our faith increases and we become more like Christ. We have performed faithfully and the faith that conquers the world has conquered us and given us new life. God has extended his Son to us as our greatest gift, and we have taken hold of him in an act of self-sacrificial dependance on all that he is and all that he promises to do within us. In that moment it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me. However, doesn’t this emphasis on the faithful act take away from the “means of grace”? Faith is not about acting courageously, right? That would imply that the sacraments are not gifts but activities that we must perform. The answer is in faith itself. Faith is an activity of remaining passive, but this does not meant that it is an act of indifference. It’s a passive act, if that makes sense. It is an act of taking hold of the gift that is given and holding it deep within ourselves. This takes some courage, the courage to leave yourself behind, as Martin Luther says. Yet, this is holy courage, because it sets us apart from the world. In fact, it takes us out of the world altogether and places us within Christ. As we repeatedly participate in his table we increasingly take on his Courage (exemplar Courage) to leave everything behind and cling to the Father.

Remember, sanctifying grace is an act of cooperation between you and God within you. The courageous activity of faith is never merely ours. It is ours because it is Christ within us. Yet, Christ is within us according to his likeness, not substantially (i.e., union with Christ is not spiritual transubstantiation). He is within us according to our God-given ability to reflect him, which is primarily displayed in faith, though faith is only an effect of his union with us (it doesn’t exhaust the meaning of union with Christ). The Giver is giving himself to us and acting within us. We are called to receive him but our reception does not make the gift. Our reception does, however, facilitate the gift giving by preparing our soul for it. It’s like hospitality. The more that we receive him, the more we prepare a place for him, and the better we become at welcoming him the way that a King should be welcomed. The King comes into our home the more we extend the invitation and open the door for him, though it is really his house to begin with. In so doing we become more and more like the King himself, who invites all of us to his wedding banquet. This doesn’t happen through mere interpretation. We already know how to interpret. We know what is behind the veil. The Supper is not for interpretation but for interpreters who can habitually receive the language of the body and blood of Christ by hearing with the ears of faith. Our souls do not develop Christ-likeness by actively interpreting the Supper as we participate in the event. Rather, we become more like Christ within the event (through Christ acting within us), and the event, the wedding banquet, is the thing itself, slightly veiled, yet beaming as brightly as the sun behind a cloud to those who have been given eyes to see.

On Seeing a Large Library: A Meditation by Joseph Hall

In his Table Talk, the renowned English Bishop, Joseph Hall (†1656) meditates on objects from every day experience. From a fly accidentally burning itself in a candle to a crow pulling the wool out of a sheep’s back Hall, like Solomon, sees every moment as an opportunity sent by a divine hand for the sake of returning one’s attention to the pursuit of wisdom. In one of his meditations Hall explains how he marveled at a large library, an experience to which most of us book worms can relate.

What a world of thought is here packed up together! I know not whether this sight doth more dismay, or comfort me. It dismays me to think that here is so much that I cannot know; it comforts me to think that this variety affords so much assistance to know what I should. There is no truer word than that of Solomon: ‘There is no end of making many books.’ This sight verifies it. There is no end: indeed it were a pity there should. God hath given to man a busy soul; the agitation whereof cannot but, through time and experience, work out many hidden truths. To suppress these would be injurious to mankind, whose minds, like so many candles, should be kindled by each other. Our deliberate thoughts are more accurate; these we commit to paper. What a happiness is it, that without the aid of necromancy, I can here call up any of the ancient worthies of learning, whether human or divine, and confer with them upon all my doubts; that I can at pleasure summon whole synods of reverend fathers and acute doctors from all the coasts of the earth, to give their well-studied judgments in all doubtful points which I propose. Nor can I cast my eye casually upon any of these silent masters, but I must learn somewhat. It is a wantonness to complain of choice. No law binds us to read all; but the more we can take in and digest, the greater will be our improvement.

Blessed be God, who hath set up so many clear lamps in his church; none but the willfully blind can plead darkness. And blessed be the memory of those his faithful servants, who have left their blood, their spirits, their lives in these precious papers; and have willingly wasted themselves into these enduring monuments, to give light to others!

‘Theology is Queen! and everything else a shadow!’: J.H. Alsted on the Contemplative/Active Life

In his Praecognitorum theologicorum… , J.H. Alsted admits that he lacks the words to adequately describe Theology. Not because Theology is less than the other sciences, arts, or activities of life. On the contrary, Alsted asserts that Theology contains all of these things and, because of this, it can only be described by one word: Wisdom. Yet, even wisdom does not fully express the inexpressible nature of Theology. The highest thoughts of contemplation, even when accompanied by faith, cannot attain the summit of this wisdom. Alsted, therefore, is forced to conclude, “We are left destitute, therefore, of the appropriate vocabulary.” He knows that Theology is revealed by nature and Scripture. He knows that Theology is unified by its object, i.e., God. It is not less than scientia, therefore.

Alsted is not worried that he has failed to prove that Theology is something more than a science, art, or a practice. On the contrary, he believes that when one traces the boundaries of ectypal theology – what we humans do – one begins to see its connection with archetypal theology, which is God’s very own knowledge of Himself. Mere humans, however, cannot see archetypal theology because of the blinding rays of God’s infinity. Alsted says, “We do not posit a definition of archetypal Theology but a quasi-definition, by analogy, according to our mode of understanding.” In fact one should use caution, even when talking about archetypal theology. “We ought not investigate archetypal Theology, but worship it.” When the faithful see the boundary of ectypal Theology, therefore, they lose the appropriate vocabulary by which they may describe it. Faith is through a glass darkly after all.

Alsted concludes that Theology is not a mere activity, but it so far transcends our powers of contemplation that it comes full circle, so to speak, and manifests itself in action. Theology is hyper-contemplative [hyper-theoreticam] and hyper-speculative [superspeculativam]. “For,” Alsted says, “the highest and final thought by which I know that I see God, that I am conformed to Him, that I will always rejoice [in Him], this is not mere [nuda] contemplation but active contemplation [contemplatio actuosa]. When you have weighed this matter carefully in this way, join with me in exclaiming, ‘Theology is Queen! and everything else is like a shadow!'” (Praecog…, 63). Thus, for Alsted the height of contemplation is not an absence of thought or action but a coincidence of thought-action which stems from the experience of seeing God and rejoicing in Him as he is manifest within one’s own soul. This, he says, is “active contemplation.”

Research Projects

I’ve added a few new projects to my “Research Projects” page. The members of these projects are investigating topics that are pertinent to the issues normally featured on this blog and will prove interesting to anyone currently researching Early Modern history/theology/philosophy, virtue ethics, and/or virtue epistemology.

  • Saint Louis University: John Greco and Eleanore Stump are the directors for the project The Philosophy and Theology of Intellectual Humility. Those familiar with their work will not be surprised by this multi-million dollar project devoted to research on virtue and epistemology:
    • Intellectual humility is an intellectual virtue, a character trait that allows the intellectually humble person to think and reason well.  It is plausibly related to open-mindedness, a sense of one’s own fallibility, and a healthy recognition of one’s intellectual debts to others. If intellectual humility marks a mean between extremes, then related vices would be (on the one side) intellectual arrogance, closed-mindedness, and overconfidence in one’s own opinions and intellectual powers, and (on the other side) undue timidity in one’s intellectual life, or even intellectual cowardice. The Philosophy and Theology of Intellectual Humility project will focus on a variety of philosophical and theological issues relevant to the topic of intellectual humility. This project aims to:  (1) Gain a better understanding of the nature and value of intellectual humility. (2) Employ and develop recent empirical research on intellectual humility and related subjects, especially the empirical investigation being conducted under the aegis of Fuller Theological Seminary’s “Science of Intellectual Humility” project.  (3) Investigate issues related to intellectual humility, such as its relation to other virtues and/or vices, its place in the broader context of virtue epistemology, the role of humility in disagreement, its connection to problems of religious pluralism, and its implications for issues of divine hiddenness.  (4) Lay the groundwork for further research on how to foster greater intellectual humility in individuals and civil society.

  • McGill University: A group of international scholars including Paul Yachnin, Torrance Kirby, Peter Marshal, and Mark Vessey are collaborating on the project entitled Early Modern Conversions: Religions, Cultures, Cognitive Ecologies.
    • Whether it is an awakening to a new faith, an induction into a religious cult or radical political movement, a sexual transformation, or the re-engineering of human beings as bio-mechanical “cyborgs,” conversion is a source of fascination and a focus of anxiety for people in the 21st century. We do not know if such conversions are inward turnings toward a better life or monstrous impositions upon unwitting victims. We cannot fathom how individuals or groups of people are able to convert to a new politics, religion, or way of life all at once and quite completely, as if they had never been other than what they have become. We would not want to part with the freedom of self-determination embodied in conversion, which seems to be its purest expression, even though we are troubled by what radical transformations tell us about the instability and changeability of human beings. The Conversions project will develop an historical understanding that will enlighten modern debates about corporeal, sexual, psychological, political and spiritual kinds of transformation. The project will study how early modern Europeans changed their confessional, social, political, and even sexual identities. These subjective changes were of a piece with transformations in their world—the geopolitical reorientation of Europe in light of emerging relations with Islam and the Americas; the rethinking and the translation of the knowledge of Greek and Latin Antiquity, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam; changes in and changing uses of the built environment; the reimagining of God. Indeed, early modern people changed the world and themselves in ways that have been lost to view on account of the discipline-boundedness of much recent study of the past. By examining forms of conversion across disciplinary boundaries as a network of movements and transformations, we will develop an understanding of religious, cultural, and cognitive change that will provide a new account of early modernity and a foundation for a renewed understanding of the present age. The project will make use of new ideas about extended mind and cognitive ecologies. Cognitive ecologies are, according to team members John Sutton and Evelyn Tribble, “the multidimensional contexts in which we remember, feel, think, sense, communicate, imagine, and act, often collaboratively, on the fly, and in rich ongoing interaction with our environments.”

  • Cambridge University: The Cambridge Platonist Research Group, directed by Douglas Headley, Sarah Hutton, and David Leech aims to revive the study of this intriguing group of 17th century English philosopher-theologians who include Peter Sterry, Benjamin Whichcote, John Smith, Ralph Cudworth, and Henry More.
    • Cambridge Platonism is the term that has come to be used to identify the thought of a group of seventeenth-century English thinkers who had a major influence on modern thought, at a pivotal period in its development (between 1650 and 1830). The name (coined in the nineteenth century) derives from the fact that they were largely associated with the University of Cambridge and that there is a distinctively Platonist strand in their intellectual formation. The Cambridge Platonist Research group was set up in 2012 with the aim of reviving interest in the Cambridge Platonists and to initiate research into their thought and legacy.  The initial step to furtherance of these aims was made possible thanks to generous funding of by the AHRC, which financed the project ‘Revisioning Cambridge Platonism’. This took the form of a series of workshops in 2013, which brought together scholars from across disciplines and across the world. The first outcome of these meetings was the establishment of an interdisciplinary network of scholars with research interests in the Cambridge Platonists.  AIMS OF THE RESEARCH GROUP: (1) To maintain the network of people with research interests in the Cambridge Platonists. (2) To provide a forum for discussion of and disseminating information about the Cambridge Platonists. (3) Promote further research on all aspects of the thought and legacy of the Cambridge Platonists through the organisation of colloquia and editions of texts.

The Plastic Faculty: Jacob Schegk on Nature’s Rational Principle

Schegk

Hiro Hirai argues that for Jacob Schegk (1511-1587), a friend of Philip Melanchthon and professor of philosophy and medicine at the University of Tübingen, the natural force of life or secondary causality present within created things is explicable in the Galenic terms of a “moulding” or “plastic faculty.” This power is controlled and determined by God but possesses its own energy. Where Medievals spoke of the vegetative power as a passive potency, Schegk combined the natural philosophy of Galen with the Neoplatonic principle of “spiritual vehicles” to argue that the plastic faculty is a quasi-intellectual energy (energeia) that denotes the principle of generation in natural beings. Hirai explains the difference between this faculty and the generative potency of the human soul:

Before closing his discussion, Schegk enumerates four possible opinions on the origin of human souls: 1) They are eternal and enter bodies at birth and leave them at death (according to Plato and Aristotle); 2) they are created all at once in the beginning of the world, but each of them enters its specific body at a precise moment; 3) they are drawn from the potentiality of matter by the plastic logos as the products of Nature; 4) each of them begins to exist by divine creation at the same moment when body is formed by the plastic logos. Schegk obviously chooses the last option, denying that the human soul is drawn from the potentiality of matter. Invoking the authority of the Bible, he concludes that God forms creatures by the plastic instrument of the seed’s nature, whereas only for man God simultaneously creates his soul by Himself and forms his organic body by means of this plastic nature. According to Schegk, God is the Creator of angels whereas the human soul, which shares the angelic essence, is created as the “breath” (spiraculum) of the Creator and is not “produced” by the plastic nature. The everyday creation of the human soul with the formation of its organic body, which is to be animated by this soul, is the ultimate action of the Creator. Although God attributed a primary generative task to the plastic nature, he does not cease to create human souls in order to show that man is not the “product” (plasma) of Nature but the son of God. Schegk concludes:

“I believe that, if the philosophers had known the Creator God, they would have agreed with us and would have said that the souls are not contained in the seed and in the seminal liquid of the male before they inform human bodies. In fact,denying the Creator God, or rather being ignorant of Him, they were forced to conclude that, by the spermatic logos , the human soul and its body are generated at the same time and that the human soul is not introduced from outside but is drawn from the potentiality of matter.”

For Schegk, the plastic nature produces all except the human soul, which, endowed with angelic essence, has only the Creator God as its maker. The human soul, or more precisely, the intellect cannot be generated through seminal propagation since it is something “born before” (progenes) Nature. It should be created by what precedes it. That is the Creator God.

~ Hiro Hirai, “The Invisible Hand of God in Seeds: Jacob Schegk’s Theory of Plastic Faculty,” Early Science and Medicine 12 (2007), 401, 402.

According to Hirai, Schegk’s De plastica seminis facultate (Strasburg, 1580) was the first Renaissance work to use the phrase “plastic faculty.” The idea of the plastic power went on to become a staple in 17th century works of medicinal science and natural philosophy. Perhaps its most important exponent was Ralph Cudworth, who used the concept of the “plastic nature” as an integral part of this enterprise to wed Platonism and atomism and whose use of the phrase would be influential for G.W. Leibniz.

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

Translation:

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.