The High Point and the Decline of Western Theology

Louis Bouyer
(Chapter 16 of The Invisible Father.)

Undoubtedly, Western theological thought reached a peak in its development during the thirteenth century, a peak it has never surpassed since. Eastern Christians who know it well, concede that it has not been equaled by them. This is admitted even by those who reject out of court the general development of Western Christianity such as George Scholarios, alias the Patriarch Gennadius of Constantinople, who made the decision that the Greek East should reject the Union of Florence. The twelfth century had witnessed a recovery of the Greek patristic tradition, and the fruit of this was now combined with the still more recent rediscovery of Aristotelian philosophy. At the same time, no small part of medieval Jewish thought, centered around Maimonides, became part of the Christian inheritance, as did still more perhaps of Arab thought, represented by Averroes and even more by Avicenna.

Yet it has to be noticed that the mystical aspects, both platonic and neo-platonic as channeled by medieval Augustinianism, underwent a marked regression. Similarly, everything or practically everything, in Jewish or Islamic mysticism remained unknown. The prodigious summae of the thirteenth century abound as the undoubted fruit of a victorious breakthrough on the part of a deep desire to give a wholly rational account of the Christian faith: a desire which, in St. Anselm's case, intended and indeed believed itself to be wholly interior to the one desire not of "sounding the depths" of God but of "understanding some small part of that truth" of God "believed and loved by the heart." This was desire at its most intrepid. But in the young Abelard, on the other hand, it was completely unbridled, until trials broke his intellectual pride.

Why was it these syntheses proved so fragile, despite being the most imposing of Latin and of all Christian theology? How explain the remarkable fact that none of them could impose themselves for more than a generation, and, even then, on very few? The answer perhaps lies in the unresolved hesitation between the two desires we have mentioned. Certainly, the evanescence cannot be explained sufficiently by the natural instability of the fallen human mind. Such an explanation simply does not meet the case of such thought as original Thomism which, at its most mature, in the Summa Theologica and the great Quaestiones (De Ente et Essentia, De Veritate, De Malo), seemed to have attained an equilibrium that would guarantee its perdurance. Nor, even more conspicuously, can such an explanation make sense of the way in which what can be called the classical revivals of this theology, in the sixteenth century and in our own day, have proved themselves so unsatisfying so fast and have never been able to retain the allegiance for any length of time of more than a handful of docile spirits, despite all intimidating and coercive measures.

Neo-Thomist Equivocations on Thomism

Let us take as an example one of the most venerable productions of the last Thomist or, rather, Neo-Thomist renaissance: the long and great book of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP's Dieu, son existence et sa nature.1 In it, the theological teaching of St. Thomas is analyzed, carefully taken to pieces and put together again, with a clarity and a fidelity most deserving of praise. Yet few readers, putting down the book, will have escaped the impression that in it the God of the Bible and the Gospel has been reduced to a caput mortuum of frozen abstractions. And yet its author undoubtedly exemplified in his time that rare combination of theologian and eminent man of the spirit, and it was his constant concern to develop spirituality and theology in tandem. How then, we must ask, could such a theologian have produced a summa about God frankly so overwhelmingly boring and, more especially, the speculative ramifications of which (practically) never contribute to a genuine enrichment of thought?

E. Gilson, with such Thomists in mind, was perfectly right in saying that one can't see the wood for the trees,2 and that this is an inevitable result of their systematic effort to separate what is philosophical from their master's theology, so as to reorganize and rebuild it, purportedly, according to its own innate exigencies. It is at the very least surprising that disciples, beyond the Angelic Doctor, of Aristotle himself should have forgotten that order is of being. Instead, they imposed an order on Thomas' thought which was not his own, and thereby turned it into something quite different from his, even if (which is supposing a good deal, given such manipulating) the individual pieces were fully respected.

It was not in fact by chance that St. Thomas never separately systematized his philosophy, that he never detached it from Christian theology but always developed it within the latter. However purely rational philosophical developments should be and remain, for St. Thomas it was quite certain that they did not thereby become independent of the situation of the thinker producing them. If the one philosophizing is a Christian, this will have an effect on his thought, even if, while philosophizing, he uses nothing but rational concepts and procedures accessible, at least in principle, to any and every man even unenlightened by revelation.

The result is that when John of St. Thomas, the first to do this, transformed Thomism by developing philosophy independently of and prior to the theology dealing with the Christian revelation, he inevitably created a different philosophy and a different theology, however careful he was to use nothing but elements taken straight from his master. Even when he is scrupulously precise in repeating St. Thomas' words and key-phrases, they no longer say the same thing.

That this is true of "John of St. Thomist" theology, right from its very beginning, is revealed by that theologian's understanding of what, following St. Thomas, he calls a "theological conclusion." According to him it is possible, even while adhering to a strict application of syllogistic reasoning, to have two kinds of theological conclusion, one flowing from two revealed premises, the other from one revealed and one philosophical premise. And this latter kind by its very nature will widen the field, if not precisely of revelation as such, at least of the knowledge we can draw from it. This may appear at first sight to be a quite innocuous and legitimate development of St. Thomas' idea of a theological conclusion. In fact, it transforms it to the point of being unrecognizable. The whole meaning of theological endeavor is at a stroke radically altered, and at the same time even our very conception of revelation.

For St. Thomas there are not and cannot be theological conclusions which are not already comprised within revelation. A theological conclusion is and can only be a revealed doctrinal affirmation of which one has established the logical relationship it has with other doctrinal affirmations of the same species. The whole of theology moves within faith and so within revelation. To suppose that it can evade it in order to increase its scope (!) is no longer to understand anything about revelation itself, as if theology could ever flatter itself of having gone so far beyond revelation as to be able to complete it.

This in fact supposes that, according to John of St. Thomas and those who have followed him,3 revelation is nothing but an accumulation of externally juxtaposed propositions, to which one can further add philosophical propositions, thus aspiring to enrich revelation by philosophico-theological hybrids. It is of course this which purportedly justifies the separation of philosophy and of the theology concerned with the revealed datum, and the reconstruction of the first prior to the second, with, consequently, the naive expectation of "developing" the objects of revelation by artificially inseminating them with external philosophical propositions. But at this point one is miles away from genuinely Thomist views of theology as the science of God, having its whole basis on his Word. One has in the first place lost sight of St. Thomas' strong sense of revelation as the communication of a single mystery, that of God himself, an organically coherent mystery, which speculation can attempt to inven-tory, to analyze and synthesize but never exhaust, and even less indulge in the grotesque pretension of adding something to it to complete and develop it.

Traveling on such a road – and this has been the mentality, more or less of Baroque Thomism, not to mention modern Neo-Thomism – one inevitably comes to prolong this now bloodless religious philosophy into a correspondingly depreciative theology of revelation. Such a theology ceases to be able to vivify by the vision of faith, and at the same time refine and reform our merely human concepts, and it increasingly tends to yield to the disastrous policy of clearing out the Word of God of everything that cannot be circumscribed by or reduced to pre-formed concepts constructed without reference to the Word.

It is therefore not surprising if such so-called Thomism gives the impression that the philosophico-theological thought of St. Thomas is nothing but a gigantic and futile exercise in tautology which, while claiming to explain and develop the statements of the faith, in fact eviscerates and disjoints them. And it is worth emphasizing that if this can happen in the case of so distinguished a mind and so worthy a man of the spirit as Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, then how much worse it will be when this kind of philosophy and theology is taken up by some college rector whose chief concern is to bring out the "errors" of his colleagues, and either has no interior life or never dreams – quite rightly! – of nourishing it on his theology!

It is thus possible at least to understand, even if we cannot altogether excuse the unjustified reproaches and inappropriate denunciations hurled at St. Thomas by someone like Laberthonnière,4 particularly the accusation that the living God of the divine Word has been replaced by an intellectual idol, more precisely the God of love by the Moloch of a self-sufficient deity. It is quite true that Laberthonnière's debunking of Thomism was, in fact, aimed at a caricature. Unfortunately however it was not he who had produced the caricature. It had been provided for him by the contemporary disciples of the greatest Scholastic, and by no means by the least among them.

It is highly revealing that the answer to such an attack was all kinds of "theses of Thomist philosophy," meant to lay the necessary foundations for purportedly orthodox theology. The most surprising of this kind of document ever produced by an intending autocratic authority which is nonetheless made a fool of by its would-be servants went so far as to find room for the Leibnizian principle of "sufficient reason." One could imagine nothing further from St. Thomas, nothing more destructive of his idea of God as the pure existent, and of God's work as something wholly gratuitous.

Fr. Sertillanges is another of these undoubtedly estimable modern Thomists and one whose thought is full of instruction (though it would be best not to have too much recourse to him if one wants really to understand St. Thomas or even simply to know about him). He in his turn, wrote an elegant little book on Les grandes thèses de la philosophie thomiste, and this was certainly more faithful both to the letter and to the spirit of St. Thomas than the productions mentioned above. But how significant it is that neither he nor any other member of this school for the whole of theology and for the whole of philosophy – a school aiming at the resurrection of the "School" tout court – apparently never dreamed of first listing "the major theses of Thomist theology" – perhaps because they would only have been simple logical appendices to the theses of pure philosophy. Yet it is quite clear from any unblinkered reading simply of St. Thomas' commentaries on Aristotle's Metaphysics that he does not even reduce the philosophical propositions that he finds to simple deductions from the principles received from revelation but undoubtedly consciously reinterprets, even refashions them in its light.

The Existential Character of Authentic Thomism

Once we have become aware of all this, and drawn the moral, we are in a position to rediscover St. Thomas' God. He is not simply that first unmoved mover of the universe, blithely indifferent to it, even disdainfully ignorant of its existence, and who in any case is only capable of referring everything outside and within himself to a hideous egoism or egotism expanded to infinite dimensions. Such was Laberthonnière's accusation. The first thing we must realize is what E. Gilson exposed in a history of the Neo-Thomists,5 far more devastating than anything Laberthonnière ever wrote, and without making the latter's mistake of believing the Neo-Thomists when they claimed to be unfolding their master. This is the fundamental misunderstanding which travesties the whole of Thomism from top to bottom and in particular St. Thomas' theology: that of transposing his thought from the most radical existentialism there has ever been to a deadly essentialism. How could the God whose essence it is to be precisely "Pure Act," the very act of existing without any limitation, possibly be summed up by concepts?

But to realize, in the deepest sense, the significance of this starting-point, one must see St. Thomas' Metaphysics, not as a simple, superficially modified Aristotelianism but as what E. Gilson, fifty years ago, was so bold as to call "the metaphysics of Exodus," without himself immediately grasping every consequence of that insight.6

In other words, the point of anchorage and the spring-board for this whole metaphysic is the mysterious saying of the burning bush: "I am who am." This must not be hastily translated in the way that St. Augustine did in his Soliloquies, still wrapped up as he was in the cocoon of his Neo-platonism: "I am the being who is always and forever." This is to stay with a platonising essentialism, even though its contours have been practically pushed out of sight. The phrase must be taken as St. Thomas took it with a rigor no previous Christian thinker had approached: "I am what I am; I am the only one who can define the infinite, ever actual fullness of his existence." This is what St. Thomas meant practically every time he spoke of Ipsum Esse.

Yet at the same time one must emphasize the point so few recognize, namely, how laughably illusory are all those well-intentioned attempts to introduce more logic into St. Thomas. We see Sertillanges, for instance, disarmingly doing his open best to expunge from St. Thomas' system any platonic left-overs, especially the theory of ideas, which had now been transported into God and identified with his eternal thought. In such a case, one can see how two things go together: on the one hand, the impossibility some have in accepting the biblical God in his full transcendence, the God who laughs at the concepts in which we try to swaddle him, and on the other hand the inability of the same people to conceive how God can be interested in the world and his creatures for their own sakes, without the fear of him becoming passible like us and in relation to us and so collapsing down to our level and becoming confused with us.

Theology and Grace in Authentic Thomism

But there is worse still than the simple tailoring of Thomist theology to the measurements of an isolated philosophy, such as we find even in a Garrigou-Lagrange. The full consequences of that misleading twist in the whole interpretation of St. Thomas are revealed in those spiritual theologies which combine a masked Nestorianism as regards the Incarnation with a scarcely camouflaged modalism for what remains of the Trinity. Given such foundations, our association with the divine life naturally resolves itself into a simple, special "presence" (but if we ask: special in what way? we are told this question is unanswerable), a presence of the three persons or rather of the single essence which they have in common, and which no more makes us know or love any one of them, properly speaking, than any one of them knows or loves us. In fact, we are told, the one and only uncreated substance must be in the last resort recognized as capable of entering into contact with us, just as only it loves and, of course, strictly speaking only loves itself both within God and ad extra.

At this point, of course, one has arrived at something which, though using indisputably Thomist elements, has in fact rebuilt and then attributed to St. Thomas a system justifying all poor Laberthonnière's invectives and which would have made our saint, more than anyone, recoil in horror.

But St. Thomas' work does not have to be treated as a quarry, from which various random elements can be hacked out and then put back together again according to some supposed inner logic of which St. Thomas was manifestly ignorant. If one approaches his doctrine of God, in se et in nobis, in function of its historical development, it then takes on a quite different meaning.

First of all, St. Thomas' theology never sought, in an a priori way deliberately ignoring Christian revelation, to provide us with a certain number of supposedly purely philosophical rational concepts which could then be imposed like a grid on the theology of the revealed datum, enabling us to file away, even dissolve everything that did not contribute to an essentially abstract idea of God. St. Thomas, rather, as early as the most philosophical parts of De Ente et Essentia and even more so in the great synthesis of his maturity, De Veritate, established as perlucidly as possible why such a way of proceeding is quite impossible.

Any application whatever of our concepts to God so far as he is known by simple reason applying itself to his creative work can only avoid getting into an impasse, according to St. Thomas, by even at this stage recognizing in him the fundamental mystery of ipsum esse. This means that we can only speak of him with an especially cautious and discreet kind of analogy. A fortiori is this the case when he reveals the inexhaustible mystery of his own interior life and of the share in it offered us. We must speak because we must confess our faith, and what we say of the mystery is effectively directed at the presence and communication of he who is par excellence because guided by him and his inspiration. But the mystery always obliges us to recognize that whatever we say about it can never purport to contain this presence and communication, nor coincide even imperfectly with what they are in themselves.

The True Meaning of Thomist Theology

Once one has taken one's bearings from these fixed points, the constants and orientation of genuinely Thomist thought become clear, and one can make the transition from the Commentary on the Sentences to the two Summae without risking losing sight in the latter of the precise and explicit themes of the former. In fact, it cannot be doubted that these dominants persist through all further developments, while not always being reaffirmed in a formal way, sometimes being corrected, sometimes meeting a difficulty not admitting of easy solution and so at least apparently being obscured. But, in any case, the key principle always remains inviolate, thus preventing us from giving undue importance to those occasional non-sequiturs which no great mind, especially one as prolific as St. Thomas, can ever avoid. And the key principle is that no Christian theology worthy of the name can emancipate itself from revelation, from its primary expression in Scripture as understood by the whole of tradition. And this holds no less for conclusions than for the first beginnings.

For St. Thomas, in the first place, wrote a certain number of scriptural commentaries, too often and wrongly considered as secondary not to say negligible by the moderns. But more than that, as we could gather by caring to re-read and take seriously the opening pages of the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas conceived his whole theology as an elaborated commentary on Scripture. This commentary never claimed any dispensation from the duty of coming back, again and again to the text being commented. It was not a commentary that had its starting-point elsewhere. St. Thomas would never have held himself authorized to do that, and this holds, and we say this deliberately for the whole of his thought, for the philosophical part, in one sense, no less than for that directly concerned with revealed truths.

To put this better: according to St. Thomas, theology should not for a moment be considered as a study of God at a second stage, coming in the wake of a "purely" philosophical study involving simply the application of the latter to the revealed datum. Theology, as St. Thomas quite expressly understood it, is an organic whole, not artificially and as it were externally unified by an independent philosophy, but proceeding from the inner unity of God's revelation and his whole saving design, a unity which is in any case essentially mysterious. And it has the (unending) task of incorporating, correcting, developing and finally surpassing any worthy philosophy through the contemplation of the mystery of God as it lays hold not just of the whole of man's intelligence but of his whole being.

Approached in this way, the real meaning of the words "Thomist" and "theology" become clear. St. Thomas' theology elucidates our vision of man's destiny within the mystery of our adoption. It does so in a way as critically rational as possible, while not afraid to criticize reason as handled by fallen man by reason salvaged by man saved and enlightened by revelation. It shows us the photographic negative, so to speak, of the life interior to God, the presupposition of our adoption and some-thing revealed only by being opened to us.

At the same time Thomist theology, like any theology, but with a special blend of reverence and boldness, of humility and intellectual courage, does its best to connect the mystery of our destiny with the essential, all-embracing mystery of God, understanding the latter so far as it can in the chiaroscuro of faith.

This kind of retroverting mutual interaction is what makes the plan of the Summa Theologica comprehensible. Above all, it explains the dynamics behind its unfolding. Approached and interpreted in the way we have sketched, Thomist theology emerges as one of the noblest and most successful efforts at making us understand how God in creating and saving us has revealed himself as the Living One who gives life – so far as we can understand in this life and without any claim to dissolve a mystery which will remain for all eternity. That is, he is the living God in a sense far exceeding anything we can conceive, with a fecundity which is that of the infinite itself. But he has only revealed himself by as it were flowing out from himself – and how supremely incomprehensible this is – and becoming the finite being we are, uniting it, associating, identifying it with his infinity yet without absorbing it.

Any and every interpretation or re-exposition of St. Thomas' theology which begins by strangling this inner movement will inevitably be a falsification.

The Historical Weaknesses of the Thomist Synthesis

But if all this is true, it only enhances the difficulty we mentioned at the beginning: why did the theology of St. Thomas initially rally so few to its standard and for so short a time, and why, whenever it has been resurrected as in the sixteenth century or more recently, has it fallen victim to distortion and misunderstanding?

There is, in our opinion, a twofold answer to this question. We have spoken of humility and boldness as the joint characteristics of authentic Thomism. But humility can always degenerate into mere modesty and, curiously enough, when it does, boldness always becomes temerity.

It is, certainly, all the more remarkable that St. Thomas should have developed his philosophy within theology at a time when the practice of teaching philosophy before theology, and without connection to it, was acknowledged and in force in all the universities.7 But Thomas' temperament was emphatically not that of a revolutionary and despite his vigorous independence of mind, he does not seem ever to have thought himself called to be a reformer and do away with either the strictly syllogistic method of exposition or the typically medieval literary form of the Quaestio: statement of the thesis-objections-argument from authority (sed contra) – rational justification in the body of the article and reply point by point to the objections. His modesty, therefore, made him accept two or even three aberrant factors from the whole theological development consequent upon Abelard and his Sic et Non, despite their being opposed to the spirit and even the explicit principles of his theological thought. In the first place, there is the development of thought by a single-track cascade of syllogisms. Pace Spinoza, even though this method has considerable pedagogical advantages when used in the abstract sciences, such as the mathematical, it misleads even there. It conceals the true paths of discovery and merely justifies what has been discovered a posteriori. But the moment one is involved with living realities, especially personal realities, and a fortiori with the things of God, to be so mesmerized by the power of simple deduction is to condemn oneself to working on terms borrowed from our sense-experience as if they could be univocally applied to God. The result will be a perpetual flirting with non-comprehension, if not surrender to non-sense. One will no longer know how to seize the truth. One will pursue it like a man half-blind. St. Thomas, if anyone, should have been conscious of this. It was he who began by establishing so well the wholly analogical character (and analogical at a second level) of the formulas we apply to God. He, further, who showed so clearly that faith enables us to seize divine truth not in the formula itself, as if it could label it, but beyond it: in that inaccessible light where God dwells and which for us, in this life, remains enshrouded by darkness, the best of formulas doing no more than orientating us towards a truth which they themselves can neither embrace nor even touch.

The facile acceptance, then, of the commonly-used method of exposition introduced a discordance into Thomist theology. To this we must add the congenital weakness of any theology which allows itself to turn, at least apparently, into a collection of questions, however ingeniously arranged. It will inevitably come to treat the Word of God or revelation, as it will be called, as a stack of juxtaposed propositions which it will be the whole task of theology to put in logical order. Experience has shown ad nauseam the effect of such an arrangement on pupils, if not on the master himself. Docility to it has the disastrous result of dissipating the mystery of God and our freely-given association with his life, or at least of concealing it under a spider's web of abstractions. First, these last are superimposed upon the harmonious play of imaged expressions found in the Word of God. Then, and soon, they replace them in fact, if not in principle.

It is easy to see that it is only when St. Thomas comes to treat separately a "question" of wide import, as in De Ente et Essentia or De Veritate, that his thought unfolds with ease, following its own organic demands, and that he gives us a sense of the unity and all-embracing totality of the revealed mystery, the necessary environment of all theological thought whether it makes use of simple philosophical reasoning or fastens itself directly on the revealed datum in its pure supernaturality.

But it is at this point that humility turned modesty turns boldness into temerity. This passive acceptance of questions so alien to the spirit and direction of the Word of God – a fatal legacy of Abelard and his heirs – runs the risk of putting the entire system out of orbit. Not that the theologian ever should or could refuse to answer questions put to him or that put themselves to him. But he must keep in mind the principle, found loud and clear in St. Thomas himself, that revelation has not been made to satisfy our idle curiosity but to lead us to salvation. Thus the answer to be made to many of the questions taken neat by St. Thomas should have been that they were badly put, and that revelation obliges us to modify them before we can think of answering them.

It is astonishing, in fact, that we have had to wait for Karl Barth before arriving at a frank recognition that the Word of God does not restrict itself to answering our questions, whatever they may be, in the way we put them prior to hearing God's Word. Rather, the Word begins by putting them in quite a different way, and by putting different ones, questions we had scarcely or never thought of. It begins by putting us, first of all, in question, especially us who claim to speak of God authoritatively.

Truth to tell, it is hard to imagine an idea more consonant with authentic Thomism. And in fact, one notices that many of the questions St. Thomas takes up he finally quietly modifies in their structure and import. It is all the more surprising and regrettable that he was never so audacious or so simple as to say it out loud and to draw all the consequences of his timidity or his temerity (in fact, simply his fearfulness in face of the absurd pretensions of a quarrelsome theology like Abelard's) that his heirs have developed so disastrously, even while proclaiming themselves his exclusive and integral disciples.

St. Bonaventure's Venture

Given this, a certain nostalgia for an alternative philosophy and theology contemporary with St. Thomas, i.e., that of St. Bonaventure, is only natural. Gilson seems to have felt this at the very start of his career.8 At first sight, Bonaventure's thought seems, not perhaps more strongly orientated than Thomas', but at least better equipped to withstand the external pressures, the constraints and ultimately the distortions which, once the master had accepted them so easily, the disciples could hardly be expected to avoid.

Gilson reversed the assessment of Bonaventure's modern Franciscan commentators and established beyond cavil that he was not an embryonic St. Thomas, with his development arrested in mid-course, but that he intended to do something quite different from St. Thomas and was fully aware of what he was doing and why.

To begin with, St. Bonaventure was not content to follow St. Thomas in developing a philosophy that would be autonomous in its principles and method of development within a theological, that is, Christian vision of the whole. Rather, he worked for the conjunction and harmonious synthesis of philosophy and theology by conceiving philosophy as the path of human understanding, taking it to a knowledge of God inseparable from adoration.

From this issued an interpretation of the whole of cosmic reality as a simple language by which God makes himself known to us and which prepares us for his direct Word in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. Similarly, the natural enlightening of the human understanding, as Bonaventure conceived it, takes place under an influx of the divine intelligence and directs us immediately towards accepting the grace of a higher illumination, lifting our intellect to contemplate God even as he is himself.

All this is certainly very beautiful, and very Franciscan in the best sense. It was Alexander of Hales who said that, in Bonaventure, Adam seems never to have sinned. He meant this as praise, but it can easily be taken in an opposite sense. Such a philosophy may be fine for contemplatives at leisure to contemplate undisturbed, though even there it might merely encourage perpetual day-dreaming. But it does not meet the need behind speculative theology, the need driving it, willy-nilly, to make use not of some seraphic philosophy but of one capable of being that of every man: of helping the encounter between the Word of God and fallen man's reflection on his experience to produce a real assimilation to revelation of everything we think. A paradisiac philosophy and theology suffer from a double handicap. They have an air of unreality for those still on earth, and in heaven they will not be needed. In other words, they run the danger of shutting us up in what the English delightfully call a fool's paradise. Later developments of Franciscan thought, from Duns Scotus to William of Occam seem to verify this.

The mystical idealism of St. Bonaventure is, after all, only acceptable for those who attribute, both in us and in God, a primacy to the will over the understanding, doing this so that love can have the last word not only within contemplation but over and above it. The conflict with the Thomist thesis, holding beatitude as the business, in the first instance, of the intellect, whereas the Bonaventuran made it primarily a matter of the will, was the sign of a disastrous cleavage. In fact, here we touch the basic flaw in all these theologies: it is not that they are too sublime (what true theology could not but be?), but that they want to be sublime too cheaply. Given the aberrations we see at work in a theology such as Abelard's, with the intellect applying itself to theology while sundered from living faith, the tendency to fall back on a theology that turns everything to loving, as Bossuet would say, was perfectly understandable. But the mistake was to think that this could be achieved by giving the will primacy over the intellect . What this does is oppose the good to the real, of which the intellect is the meaning, in other words, turn reality into a dream while reducing all theological speculation to a wishful thinking which takes the dream for reality.

On this point, the Thomist analysis of truth remains indefeasible. If the Christian God is not primarily truth itself, he will never, whatever we do, be anything more than an idol, and the idol of our capricious fantasies. To oppose "God is love" to the God of truth is to open the way to the inevitable reversal of taking for God any kind of "love" whatever on the grounds that love cannot be submitted to any criterion.

Duns Scotus

In fact, with Duns Scotus,9 we see the will, in God, becoming perilously autonomous vis-ý-vis the intellect. It is true that his undoubtedly winsome philosophy and theology of freedom are held in check by the instinctive prudence of a deeply Christian outlook, and that he does not concede that God's will could ever be anything but in harmony with truth. But he is far too sure about the possibility of such a disjunction in us, while at the same time no longer seeing any meaning in St. Thomas' necessary distinction between essence and existence in everything other than God. And while he admits God's infinity in principle and even underscores it as a result of his voluntarism, the thrust of his thought inevitably makes this infinity nothing but an infinite magnification of what we are.

It would then be all too easy for William of Occam to reproach him for being illogical and to turn the Thomist view on its head. Thomas saw God's act of understanding as the conscious coinciding of the Ipsum Esse with himself, the divine will being unable not to delight in this. Occam, for his part, made the divine will, conceived as potentia absoluta, the one rule of a being now nothing but total indeterminateness.

William of Occam

By identifying the freedom of God's will with such a total power of doing and deciding, Occam seems at first sight to have exalted God into the most absolute sovereignty conceivable. In fact, he did nothing of the sort. Rather , he reduced God's omnipotence to absurdity and substituted a monstrous tyrant, in whom no one could possibly believe, for the Father from whom proceeds all fatherhood in heaven and on earth.

It must be stressed that we have here an about-turn of the greatest significance. It is hard to believe that someone so clear-headed as William of Occam10 did not know exactly what he was doing. At first sight, we seem to have reached the ultimate in intrepid logical deduction from the biblical premise of a sovereign and infinite God. In fact, we have come to an explicit break with the tradition of the living biblical God whose holiness, as in Isaiah's vision, is identical with a completely indefeasible moral exigency. Far from contradicting this, Hosea's vision of the God of mercy which, by reason of its very infinity, accomplishes justice in a way beyond our wildest thoughts and dreams. Occam's God, the God of potentia absoluta, on the other hand, could quite easily declare the good evil and the evil good. He could, if the fancy took him, do anything whatever, such as incarnating himself in a stone, an ass, even in one of the damned.

At this stage, it is all too clear that the biblical and Christian concept of God has entirely evaporated. Or, to be perhaps more precise, and more discouraging, this concept seems to have been absorbed and then completely emptied of its content by Occam's intemperate dialectic. At the root of everything, this dialectic has set a radical indetermination and perversely confused it with the regal freedom of the God of Jesus and the prophets. Indeed, Occam's work continually conveys an impression of diabolical perversity. There is something monstrous about it. It is the product of a sarcastic, even cynical mind. It is rather like a wonderfully supple, unstoppable, elastic watch-spring which has slipped its escapement and run wild.

How revealing it is that Occam should have defended the tendencies of Franciscan evangelism at their most radical, even anarchic, while at the same time exploiting them for the benefit of imperial absolutism. As such he is the first to spawn one of those modern theologies, where evangelism does away with rationality, does away with the historical inheritance of the society concerned, and all so as to dignify and favor "the poor." But since these "poor" are simply regarded as a mass of unorganized individuals, what happens next is a brazen, theoretical justification of absolute authority. Only this authority is now reckoned capable of representing the oppressed. It abolishes all hierarchy. It levels everything under the crushing weight of its utter irresponsibility, maxi-malized on behalf of some abstract freedom and an equality which can only annihilate. Such negative eschatologism claims initiation of a "king-dom of this world" freed from any and every restraint and acknowl-edging nothing beyond itself. And all this can be legitimately traced back to the collapse of spirituality climaxing in Occam's conclusion to the theology of the Latin Middle Ages.

The Legacy of Nominalism

So it was that those who continued Occam's work11 reduced theology, thanks to their theory of a double truth, to logical organizing of an unreal system of revealed truths, truths which their philosophy compelled them to regard as meaningless. As a result of this, Christian spirituality was faced with a disastrous dilemma. It had either to acknowledge itself un-real and merely verbal or to give itself up to moralizing affectivity. And any attempt to make sense of the latter was formally adjudged hopeless.

In Gerson12 (at the turn of the fourteenth century) and especially Gabriel Biel13 (in its latter half), we find a definite effort towards exorcising and ultimately reversing this dialectic. The idea was to restore a higher quality evangelism. But Gerson could only achieve his purpose by striving to justify and by encouraging a wholly affective piety, mar-ginal to and compensation for a theology which was now irredeemably surrendered to gladiatorial combats about self-multiplying abstractions which had less and less to do with the life of the soul – and a soul, inci-dentally, further and further removed from its own body and a fortiori from the physical universe as a whole. Biel, on his part, tried in vain to do a tight-rope walk holding together, all too artificially, a dialectic which reduced mystery to incomprehensibility and a legalistic and affec-tive Augustinianism. And as the last word in paradox, this latter sat un-decided between a Pelagian moralism and faith in a grace which was merely divine favor, God's view of us changing but we ourselves remain-ing untouched in our concrete reality.

Here we have Nominalist theology turned pious at its height (and how costly that piety proved!). On the one hand, reaction was inevitable. On the other, the system bore the seeds of a dialectic which laid itself open to the most unpredictable of about-turns. On both counts, it was a simple step to the paradoxes of Lutheranism and Calvinism: a justification justifying us without any need to sanctify us, and a sanctification showing men that we are the predestined just (a privilege of which we are quite certain!) while leaving us sinners in the eyes of God.

It goes without saying that in the midst of all these late developments of medieval theology, the Trinity was now no more than an object for dialectical exercises. And the concepts involved were now not even given as much as Duns Scotus' fundamentum in re. A fortiori, of course, they lost all bearing on the life of grace within us. One might even wonder whether anyone was still capable of recognizing the reality of grace, such was the atmosphere of the time. On the one hand, monasticism continued but was increasingly Pelagian in spirit. On the other hand, there was an aggressively independent humanism, not yet quite sure of how to justify itself but palpably present in the whole view of man's individual and collective life as found in the work of Occam.

Augustinianism and Neo-Dionysianism

Thomism, then, practically disappeared overnight. The structures it failed to reject gave far more encouragement to the viruses inherited from the university system of philosophy and theology than support, or victory, to the anti-bodies introduced so valiantly by St. Thomas. The Franciscan school, for its part, seemed to uphold the traditional faith against Thomism's apparent secularizing. But given the fallacious character of its dream-theology, no amount of unanswerable logic could do away with the fact that the victory was a purely Pyrrhic one. But it would be unfair to equate the whole history of medieval theology with this. Other currents were present. Augustinianism was an ambiguous factor, and so Platonising was its Christianity that its piety was inevitably misleading, but it did persist. Then again, despite their apparent eventual failure, there were the repeated inroads of another theology, probably best called Dionysian or Neo-Dionysian or even possibly Gregorian. It takes its origin from Gregory of Nyssa and Denys. It was revised by Maximus the Confessor. And in the course of the Middle Ages, it underwent a series of successive revisions at the hands of Scotus Erigena in the ninth century, William of St. Thierry in the twelfth, Master Eckhart in the fourteenth and Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth.

The textbooks, however, over-simplify matters by reducing the survival of Augustinianism merely to those theologians who would have nothing to do with post-Abelardian Scholasticism, such as, with their differing emphases, St. Bernard and the great Victorines.

In these two cases Augustinianism did not merely survive, it was renewed. But it is essential to add that it was thanks to the great Scholastic Summae of Saints Thomas and Bonaventure that the best of the Augustinian legacy was kept alive throughout the Middle Ages, and that it was in them that that legacy was put to the best use.

Yet St. Bernard on his part showed himself capable of writing De Gratia et libero arbitrio, a book in which Augustine's principles are deepened by being developed and even corrected with unusual felicity. St. Bernard showed how Augustine's concept of the Creator God desirous of having his creatures share his own life did not require, as its necessary complement, any suppression of created freedom. Rather it enhanced the vision of that freedom, and showed divine grace simply as the force bringing it to full flower.

St. Bernard, apparently unconsciously, was exceedingly close to Maximus the Confessor at this point. He was also, presumably, the most immediate source of the best of the Franciscan outlook: that awareness of uncreated Love summoning created love, and doing so, not to satisfy some subtle transcendent egoism, but for the latter's own good.

Nonetheless, the most outstanding and potentially most promising development of Augustinian theology (in the strict sense) must definitely be attributed to the Victorines. This is not found so much in their liking for exemplarism (a second source of the Franciscan tradition, but lacking the purity and vigor of the other), which was too much out to edify not to let facile sentimentality impair its vigor. It lies rather in the Trinitarian doctrine still attributed to Richard. Richard, certainly, illustrated it with success, but, as we know now, merely popularized ideas received from his master, Achard, eventually bishop of Avvanches.14 By a stroke of genius, this theology retained the primitive elements in Augustine's psychological analogy – mens, notitia, amor – but avoided the high price that had to be paid in insoluble problems. It described the Father as the original Lover, the Son as the Beloved who answers perfectly to his love, and the Holy Spirit as their common Love projected in a person who proceeds from one and rests in the other.15

Yet we have to admit that none of the Victorines, not even Richard himself, proved capable of fleshing out this intuition with a total, systematic theology of the divine life in itself and in us. Nor did they ever set out clearly the meaning of that personal love into which their pneumatology flowered. In other words, off the strictly Scholastic axis, the medieval Latin theology's most useful contributions to the doctrine on God owed more to the rediscoveries of the Greek Fathers, however partial they may have been, than to the exploitation of St. Augustine.

Dom Déchanet demonstrated this most impressively as regards William of St. Thierry.16 But it is already markedly true of Scotus Erigena, three centuries earlier.

Yet there is something that applies to Scotus Erigena, as well as to Master Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa, namely that the first and most weighty Greek patristic influence on these Latins was Ps-Denys, as translated and popularized by Erigena himself. One should add, too, that the influence of Denys on St. Thomas was hardly less than on the theologians we are about to speak of. This holds particularly for his doctrine on God and on our participation in his life. Many modern Thomists, predictably, find this rather embarrassing.

There is of course a reason for this embarrassment and for the usually marginal place allotted to the authors we are at present concerned with, namely what could be called the discomfiture about Dionysianism in the modern era. After all, the person once enthusiastically regarded as an immediate disciple of the apostles has been revealed by modern criticism to be not merely pseudonymous but an expert forger. Then, worse still, he has become suspect of Monophysitism and generally been categorized as a Neo-platonist in Christian disguise or at least as a Christian soaked in Neo-platonism.

Vladimir Lossky, however, was perspicacious enough to suspect otherwise and some very fine recent works, such as those of Walther Völker17 (as yet unechoed in France), have given substance to another view. For one, Denys' Christianity is essentially orthodox, and the Monophysitism of certain occasional expressions, such as "theandric activities," is purely verbal, as it was with so many others. But the more important point to acknowledge is that Denys certainly did not passively surrender to Plotinus' or even Proclus' prestigious cosmology and theology. Rather, he recast them and arguably did so with more skill and effectiveness than St. Augustine.

In fact, what applies to Gregory of Nyssa, one of his principal sources, applies also to Denys. Both were in perfect possession of Greek religious philosophy and, more especially, of their contemporary Neo-platonism, and as such, far from being its slaves, were able to use it for their own purposes and do so remarkably freely. As Vladimir Lossky showed, the proof of this lies in Denys' use of Plotinian dialectic. He applied it at the very point where it had run into the ground: the One. According to Denys, if God is above every concept, he must be no less above the One than above the Good and Being.

This was a very Plotinian way of correcting Plotinus. But it is essential to assess its significance properly. It did more than more or less adapt the Plotinian Triad to the Christian Trinity, more than lift the latter into a rigorous transcendence which would have left even Plotinus gasping. It took away everything that smacked of degrading divinity to the level of cosmic reality and any possibility of identifying the cosmos with a God who could be immanentized into multiplicity.

But this does not mean that Denys had any intention of severing the creature's participation in the divine life. Rather, his conception of the "heavenly" and "ecclesiastical" "hierarchy" gave the created a hope of entrance into the life of God even in its super-transcendence, and at the same time did not compel creation to cancel out its own specific existence. To regard the Dionysian hierarchy as merely transposing neo-platonic taxis to the cosmos and the Church is an incredible misunder-standing. The neo-platonic scheme confused the existence specific to every kind of being with their rigorous confinement to the sphere al-lotted them in a wholly graded universe. Denys' view of the hierarchy, however, was quite different and he could hardly have explained it more clearly or at greater length. According to him, hierarchy means that every gift God gives us, everything which establishes us in being and in the being specific to ourselves, can only be kept, possessed, and exercised by sharing itself with those not as yet raised so high.

He goes on to say that in doing this the created hierarchy imitates the uncreated "thearchy" of the life of the Trinity. And it does more still; it participates in the divine love characteristic of the Trinitarian life, love that does nothing but give, giving not just what one has but what one is. In other words, Denys did away with the compartmentalized, stratified universe of the Neo-platonists, a universe so partitioned that to leave one's proper level was to lose one's specific existence and be reintegrated with the One only at the price of a conversion which was equivalent to annihilation. What Denys set in place of this was an essentially dynamic universe, where life always lives only by generous communication, only as an image intimately associated with its model: the Trinity, that com-munion of transcendent life.

Finally, it must be stressed – and the very words thearchy and hierarchy do this – that Denys is not speaking of some kind of simple process of reciprocal interchange, like a series of mirrors reflecting one another into infinity. Rather, communication is what he has in mind, a communication of the greatest liberality springing from the primary source of the invisible Father and imitating and reproducing his generosity in a single movement which ultimately returns to him. It may be that every element in what Denys would have called this cosmic and supercosmic vision comes from Plotinus or Proclus. But every element, no less, has been decisively and Christianly corrected, and, for all its Greek clothing, his final picture of the universe, with its likeness to its divine source and its return to that source, is wholly biblical.

Scotus Erigena

Scotus Erigena was not the first Westerner to know of Denys – Gregory the Great, for instance, shows signs of having been influenced by him – but he was the first, after Hilduin's poor-quality translation, to acclimatize him. In this, he was assisted by the commentaries of Maximus the Confessor. These were not just strongly Christian in tone but markedly "Christic." They were a re-reading of Denys in which the key-note of Christ, the Logos made flesh for our salvation, passed from being the ubiquitous presupposition it must have been in Denys to being something continually formal and explicit. Erigena had a fascinating mind, and much could be said of his originality, not to say curiosity. But it is strange that, for once, Gilson lost his usual penetration and let himself be taken in by appearances. The point is that Erigena instinctively sensed the deficiencies in the West's over-narrow Augustinianism (his controversy with Gottschalk on predestination would have bought these home to him) and strove to exploit anything among the Greeks capable of overruling such constriction. This is why Gilson could say that he succeeded in collating and synthesizing every isolated formula of the most orthodox Greeks capable of being given a heretical twist. There is a truth in such a witty observation, certainly, but nothing like the deepest truth.18

Dom Maïeul Cappuyns' splendid work on Erigena19 proposed, to our view, a much better assessment. Scotus' manner of presentation is undoubtedly disconcerting, particularly, perhaps, his terminology, while the most deceptive feature of all is his own private way of using the traditional language. But the theology of God and the universe underlying his De Divisione Naturae is essentially orthodox. Its great merit lies in its being a first sketch, tributary to Denys, of an original yet synthetic vision of the divine life, both in the economic and the immanent Trinity. This is something that the Latin Middle Ages was to find extremely difficult.

As is known, De Divisione Naturae distinguishes within "nature" in general four "natures," i.e., four fundamental modes of existence within being, created and uncreated. The first is natura non creata et creans, i.e., the divine being, considered primarily in the Father, the creator par excellence, the initial "producer" of every other existent both within the Trinity and outside it. Then there comes natura creata et creans, the existence proper to the Son who is eternally produced by the Father and is predestined to be both the model of every creature and to be identified with them through the incarnation. Whence flows natura creata et non creans: the existence of the cosmos and especially of man, its summary. And finally everything is recapitulated in natura non creata et non creans, the divine being considered as the term of every kind of procession both ad extra and ad intra: a recapitulation brought about by the procession of the Spirit and the gathering of everything into him.

The all too noisome originality of such a statement can, of course, raise barriers and gives an incongruous sound to many of its expressions. But Erigena's theological vision can be accounted, not just orthodox, but one of the most harmonious produced by the medieval West.

Master Eckhart

At the other end of the Latin Middle Ages we find another, similar synthesis, one on the whole stronger and riper, though weaker on the point of lay-out. This was the work of Master Eckhart, a man gifted on the one hand with undoubtedly exceptional mystical experience and on the other with an astonishing capacity for expressing it in a popular way. He worked under influences analogous to those of Scotus Erigena, but enjoying the benefits of the Thomist synthesis – something he intended not to replace but to interpret thanks to a full-scale reactivation of the Dionysian inheritance.20

At first sight, Eckhart has every appearance of being more neo-platonic or, more specifically, Plotinian, than Denys. Unlike the latter, he seems not to want to go beyond the One in God, but to situate what is most divine in God in a deitas that transcends the persons. But, as a counter-weight to this, he does something extremely surprising: turning the Augustinian triad: esse, vivere, intelligere, on its head and putting intelligere at the source of everything in God.

This is the first paradox, the first apparent contradiction. A second one goes with it, namely the marked opposition between his earliest writings and those from the end of his life. In the former, such as the Questions on Being, he places God, precisely as intelligere, beyond or, rather, on the near side of being, even going so far as to say: Unde statim cum venimus ad esse venimus ad creaturam..., "the moment we come to be-ing, therefore, we come to the creature." In his later writings, on the other hand, he asserts that God is not just being but the only being, creatures in themselves being pure nothingness.

These oppositions look like contradictions. But they are easy enough to reconcile when attention is given to the starting-point and thrust of Eckhart's conception of God and existence in general. To begin with, he follows both St. Augustine and St. Thomas, though if anything with more vigor and depth, in equating being in the full sense with conscious, thinking being. But he goes further, taking his cue from the real meaning of St. Thomas' De Veritate while not balking at contradicting it verbally. He takes as far as it can go the thoroughly Thomist notion that thought in act, consciousness, in the fullness in which it is found in God alone, is the source of everything, both within the divinity and in every possible existent.

Hence the Father, for Eckhart, is defined by intelligere. The Son is the content or, better, the eternal product of this absolute knowledge which is simultaneously absolute self-consciousness, and so is vivere, as the principle of every distinct being. God is seen to be esse, though, only in the procession of the Spirit, the unity manifest at the very beginning of the processions now reappearing at their term. E. Gilson inclined to the view that Eckhart, in saying this, was doing little more than keeping himself on the right side of Christian tradition, while, on the one hand getting ready to say, in line with that tradition, that being is in God and God is being and, on the other, taking being back only to the term of the divine processions. But this interpretation does not seem to do justice to the coherence of Eckhart's thought.

It would only be valid, in fact, if Eckhart had not affirmed that esse purum et plenum is to be found only in God, after maintaining in the most extreme possible form the formula of the treatise De Causis: "being is the first of created things," thus taking the opposite line to St. Thomas' more emollient one and even going so far as to say, as quoted above: "the moment we come to being, therefore, we come to the creature." Gilson himself would surely not have admitted that Eckhart had made a radical about-turn in the meantime. No, rather, it seems that Eckhart is here con-necting up with the common Greek patristic idea that it is in the procession of the Spirit that the inner divine life achieves its unalterable, unsurpassable perfection, and that it is because this is so that God's life can in some sense burst out of itself and be imparted even to creatures which of and in themselves are nothing. But if they alone have mere being – i.e., neither intelligere nor even simply vivere – then being in its "purity," a word which for Eckhart suggests not just integrity but unlimited fullness, is only to be found in God. But then in God, too, con-trary to the development found in creatures, being comes at the term whereas with them it comes at the beginning. God, as it were, completes himself in being and then projects himself, so to speak, beyond himself into the being of creatures. The task of the latter is to ascend from the being simply gifted them by God to life and finally to intelligence or understanding.

But – and here we come to the very springs of Eckhart's mysticism – there is only one way for this last to flower into total, unified consciousness, i.e., one which identifies itself with the one divine consciousness of the Father, and that is by the passing-over of being and then of the living soul into that divine spark, the soul's quasi-entelechy and the force drawing it out of nothingness, in the wake of created being, only by drawing it to God and in God. Such a perspective enables Eckhart to say something incredibly bold: that the Spirit resting on us leads to such an identification of ourselves with the Son that the Father would cease to be Father if he not only ceased to beget the Son but even ceased to beget him in us.

But our vocation to involvement with the life of the Trinity reaches its climax in an absorption into the deitas, the divine unity which even transcends the distinction of persons. What does Eckhart mean by this? We might think that he has fallen, here, into the standing temptation of Latin Trinitarianism: putting prior to the persons, or over and above them, an essence from which they in turn proceed and which is the last resort, as is clear from Cajetan, is the equivalent of what we mean by person: a being subsisting in and by itself. But he did not do this. What he did do, in our view, is something quite different. His deity, with its sublime unity, consists in the dynamism, communication, communion which is simply identical with that "pure being," which is the one being of God. Indeed, following the formula which was perhaps Eckhart's greatest stroke of genius, God is being at its poorest, i.e., he who only possesses himself by giving himself. The Father is conscious only of the Son. The Son lives only ad Patrem in the procession of the Spirit. The Spirit rests on the Son and recapitulates in the Father the whole Trinity and, beyond that, everything real or conceivable outside the Trinity. And the Father, finally, is thought of as springing forth from or, rather, as the springing forth of the One Who lies beyond all multiplicity while at the same time enhancing it.

Such a view of Eckhart's thought is, in our opinion, the only one which shows its unity and shows that unity as a living and progressing one. It enables us to see how profoundly coherent his thought was: subtle, certainly, but with an integrity to its development and aimed at capturing an exceptional experience. If our assessment is right, Eckhart's thought was quite as orthodox as that of Scotus Erigena, though, if anything, even more unusual. But one can also see how, in a climate of Hegelian or post-Hegelian idealism, it could easily sponsor an irreversible debasement of the Christian God. A misunderstanding of the opposition between the unity of the deitas and the irreducible multiplicity of the Trinity could engender any of the modern species of unitarianism, with their claim of transcending traditional dogma by an ecumenism which is in fact nothing more than another version of syncretism. The primacy accorded thought and, specifically, consciousness, plus a parallel isolation of divine self-consciousness could quite as easily produce Fichte's idealism as Hegel's. Finally, there is Eckhart's affirmation of a participation in the generation proper to the Son on the part of the adopted creature, a participation so real that it becomes inseparable from that generation. In the eighteenth century, we have the poet and mystic Angelus Silesius taking up this affirmation and orchestrating it to effect. But when we come to Hegelian idealism, it degenerates into a full-scale immanentizing of the Trinity into the general process of the world's and more particularly human consciousness' unfolding.

It remains true, nonetheless, that these distortions of Eckhart's thought make nonsense of it. Certainly, it was essentially dialectic, but in a way much subtler than that espoused by modern idealists or materialists. Eckhart was at once one of perhaps the most paradoxical and the most coherent Christian theologians, and to quote him in isolation or to base one's interpretations on a few propositions abstracted from the full cycle of his thought is inevitably to travesty him. Indeed, it can be said more truly of him than of almost anyone else that any literal exegesis which refuses to go beyond the letter is bound to misunderstand.

William of St. Thierry

In Erigena and Eckhart, then, we have two disciples of Denys who, though following separate paths, were both outstanding in their originality. Between them, however, there falls another medieval theological opus different by reason of its discretion, a discretion, in fact, that has for long prevented it receiving the attention it deserves. Its importance nonetheless is unavoidable and it is high time it be acknowledged. Much of it was long taken to be the work of St. Bernard, but though its author was friend and admirer of the saint, neither his friendship nor his admiration ever prevented his taking different positions. We are referring to William of St. Thierry, a man whose place in the history of spirituality has been increasingly realized. What still needs to be appreciated is that he is hardly less important a figure in the field of theology properly so called.21

William had sat with Abelard at the feet of Anselm of Laon, and one cannot help but wonder whether Abelard conceived the idea of his famous Sic et Non after hearing the critical questions which were habitual with William from the very beginning. He read the Fathers extensively, and the Greeks no less than the Latins. This made it possible for him, later, to correct and complete his original Augustinianism through an in-depth knowledge of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and even Evagrius of Pontus, which was unequaled in the medieval West. One may wonder, too, whether perhaps his monastic conversion was an early reaction to the start of Abelard's clash with their common teacher, a clash that would lead Abelard to replace what was an essentially traditional and meditative theology with one essentially dialectic in character, demolishing the auctoritates by opposing them one to another and so leaving the ground free for the construction of a personal theological edifice.

In any case, there is no doubt that William was at one with the greatest Greek Fathers from Athanasius to Maximus in associating true theology with authentic monasticism. William always took scientia in the sense in which the Greek Fathers took gnosis, and knew full well that the dogmas of faith can only be "known" by being assimilated, that is by becoming the very stuff of a way of life which has been wholly handed over to the rule of a lived faith by way of Christian asceticism. We find this approach systematized in his Mirror of Faith. Theological knowledge can only be one thing: a journey towards contemplation of the objects of faith, or, better, the one object of faith; a journey accomplished in perfect "unity of Spirit" with the Spirit himself.

As Dom Déchanet rightly showed against E. Gilson, this is the meaning we should give William's favorite formulas: Amor ipse notitia est, amor ipse intellectus est: "It is love that is knowledge, love that is understanding." This has nothing to do with the familiar idea of the Franciscan tradition, namely that in this life, where we live by the obscurity of faith, love must replace understanding if we are to come to the knowledge of God, knowledge that will only satisfy our intellect in the future life. William of St. Thierry's view is the complete opposite. Only in eternity will love give a perfect consummation to our knowledge. But, in the present world, the necessary condition for an authentic and growing knowledge of God is the progress of our love.

Such is William's view of the relationship between theology and spirituality, the latter being simply the life of faith within us. And this opens our way into his theology of the Trinity, which he outlines modestly but firmly in his Enigma of Faith.

William was a spiritual writer whose formation had been thoroughly Augustinian and who had assimilated Augustinianism in depth. This makes it fascinating to meet in him the one Latin theology which completely abandoned Augustine's psychological explanation, while carefully retaining what was so wholly traditional in it and had been so vigorously renewed by it, namely the underlying recognition of the Son as the thought of the Father, and of the Spirit as the gift of love. What William, now mature in thought and experience, offers us is a synthesis but one which, for all his affection for the great Greek thinkers, does more than just reintroduce into the West what de Régnon called the Greek schema and which is only, as he himself recognized, the most ancient pattern of Trinitarian theology, both Latin and Greek. William transcends this opposition. He comes back to what we have described as the eucharistic vision of biblical and gospel revelation, that vision expressed so clearly in the ancient liturgies, beginning with the Roman liturgy.

William begins with the Father, the origin of the Godhead and therefore of every existent thing. But he shows us, too, how an eternal Son can be the thought (logos) by which the Father eternally expresses himself to himself while at the same time becoming an externalized word in the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, in whom the Father reveals his fatherhood to us by adopting us in this Son. The Spirit then, proceeding from the Father and resting on the Son, is revealed as substantial, personal love, a love in whom Father and Son, at the term of the processions, rediscover themselves, as it were, as one, just as they are one already by virtue of the eternal origin of the Son.

But we ourselves can only come to a real knowledge of that life which makes for the unity of the Trinity by being introduced into that love, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, assimilating us to the Son therefore and so leading us back with him to the Father in an eternal eucharist.

As we said before, there could be nothing more restrained and yet nothing more deeply traditional than such a theological vision, with its situating of theology within spirituality and so as inseparable from it. But to have recovered such a vision with such integrity and to have conveyed it in such purity required much. It required sensitive perception of and a living sympathy with every current of tradition, as well as a singular capacity for intuitive synthesis. And it seems that the Latin Ages produced no one else with such a combination of qualities, either before William or after him.

Nicholas of Cusa

Turning to Nicholas of Cusa,22 the last representative of the successive medieval renaissances of Christian hellenism, we leave behind William's discretion (with all its underlying powers, nonetheless, of discernment and free choice). What is striking about Nicholas is his originality. It was such that arguably he even outdid Scotus Erigena in this respect; such, that he could, in every sense, run through the whole of tradition extracting fistfulls of material as he went and then giving what he laid hold of, be it ancient or modern, such a vigorous shine that he seemed to be inventing truths rather than discovering them.

There was, certainly, something very modern, in the sense of journalistic, about him. He flashes through everything, never stopping and never taking the time either to deepen anything or even to develop it. But his genius, albeit somewhat intermittent, was so outstanding that everything he touched he turned to gold, even when it was a matter simply of bringing out a gold already there. Despite his dilettante streak, then, Nicholas was a deep thinker and one possessed of great balance coupled with an extraordinary unconventionality. We can trace these qualities back, presumably, to the fact that he was, by nature, a man of action and, as a result of his first choice, a jurist, and yet at the same time driven by a desire for total truth and insight, a desire that could only be slaked by strictly mystical contemplation.

Hence this man of the Church who championed papal authority so stoutly could be passionately interested in the theology and mysticism of the suspect Eckhart, and, though an incorrigible gyrovague, could lavish nostalgia and friendship on his beloved Carthusians at Tegernsee.

He is remembered, in the first place, for his formula: coincidentia oppositorum, according to which everything mutually opposed, as contradictory, in the creature is reconciled, as complementary, in God. Were such a formula isolated from the deep experience of contrast that lay behind it or from Nicholas' over-ruling awareness of reality's oneness, an awareness he never lost and which sharpened with time, then, indeed, it could seem to voice the blandest and abruptest kind of pantheism, translatable into the farcical formula: "Everything is in everythingÖand conversely." But such an assessment would be grossly unjust – a total misunderstanding and a false reading of Nicholas' mind. As precursor of the integral calculus, he enjoyed developing mathematical images such as that of asymptotic curves tending to a straight line. This suffices to show that his meaning lay elsewhere.

What gives cohesion to the thought of this great realist, who was so in love with concrete reality, was, as Jacques Chevalier saw, a quasi-mystical intuition of how, within negative theology, there lies a hyper-positiveness but one which never can be contained by any of our formulations of reality since the reality these express is essentially limited.

Thus, for Nicholas, God is in no way confused with the world or with the human spirit. Rather, he is the "Absolute at its maximum," yet co-incident with "Contraction at its maximum," meaning that infinite being is at once so simple and so vast that it cannot be enclosed by the finite. On the human side, the soul is a true microcosm, containing in its original unity everything God contains but in a state of implicatio distinct from God's complicatio. Then human knowledge, which develops by entering the multiplicity of sense-perceptible reality, proceeds to "explicate" its own unity by way of the universe. But in man, the two activities of complicatio and explicatio alternate and oppose one another, whereas God, so far as complicatio, makes everything be in him by simply being himself and, at the same time, under the aspect of explicatio, is personally present in everything there is. Hence, whatever is exists in God's mind as a model, whereas it exists in us simply as an image.

Yet, in us, the world – provided we let ourselves be possessed by Christ who is the coincidence of God with ourselves – will in its turn coincide with God in the Spirit. This is the true docta ignorantia, and it opens the way to ultimate knowledge, the knowledge proper to the unitive intellectus which does not contradict discursive ratio but rather perfects it by going beyond it. Apparently irrational; in fact, supra-rational.

The timing of all this is extraordinary. It was on the very eve of the apparently irredeemable break-up of the Latin Middle Ages that there appeared, in Nicholas, the first and greatest ecumenist of all time, one who was able to foresee an ultimate reconciliation without mitigating in the least the unavoidable demands it would impose nor turning a blind eye to the insurmountable difficulties standing in its way. Yet the prophetic, if somewhat sibylline, expression he gave to his vision was too much at odds with the growing provincialism of his contemporaries for it even to hold their attention, while those who came after, and in turn were at variance with those who had gone before, only patronized it in support of their pseudo-universalism and therefore thoroughly misunderstood it.

Nicholas of Cusa had had hopes for a reconciliation of Eastern and Western Christendom, and even for a resolution of the conflict between Islam and Christianity, and he had progressively turned all his thinking and all his ecclesiastical activity in this direction. But the generations that followed him were to see the very opposite, the break-up of Western Christendom in the Protestant Reformation. And at the same time, there was to take place the so-called "retreat from Christianity," the ebbing of Christianity or rather the ebbing of humanity from it, with unity no longer conceivable except as a cosmopolitanism more and more drained of its spiritual substance.


Paris, 1925. back

Apart from the two books on realism cited earlier, cf. the beginning of his Thomisme and especially his history of Neo-Thomism in Recent Philosophy, Hegel to the Present, ed. E. Gilson, New York, 1966. back

The ultimate issue of this approach is found in the purely syllogistic view of doctrinal development proposed by F. Marin-Sola and criticized to effect by J.H. Walgrave in Unfolding Revelation, New York, 1972. back

On Laberthonnière, cf. Paul Beillevert's volume, Laberthonnière l'Homme et l'Oeuvre, Paris, 1973. back

Cf. his own contribution on this subject in Recent Philosophy. back

E. Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, vol. 1, London, 1950, p. 51. back

On this question of the cultural context to St. Thomas, cf. M.D. Chewu, Toward Understanding Saint Thomas, Chicago, 1964. back

E. Gilson, The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure, London, 1938. back

E. Gilson, Jean Duns Scot, Paris, 1952. back

E. Guelluy, Philosophie et Théologie chez Guillaume d'Ockham, Louvain-Paris, 1947, and L. Baudry, Guillaume d'Occam, Paris, 1950. back

Jacques Chevalier, Histoire de la Pensée, vol. 2: La Pensée Chrétienne, Paris, 1956, pp. 501ff. back

André Combes, Jean de Montreuil et le Chancelier Gerson, Paris, 1942. back

Heiko Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963. back

Cf. the op. cit. of Ribailler and Chatillon. back

Cf. above pp. 224ff. back

J.M. Déchanet, Aux Sources de la Spiritualité de Guillaume de Saint-Thierry, Bruges, 1940, and Guillaume de Saint-Thierry, l'Homme et son Oeuvre, Bruges-Paris, 1942. (Eng. trans. William of St. Thierry, the Man and his Work, Spencer, MA, 1972). back

Walther Völker, Kontemplation und Ekstase bei Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita, Wiesbaden, 1958. back

E. Gilson, La Philosophy, Paris, 1944, p. 222. (Eng. trans. History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, London, 1955). back

Dom Maïeul Cappuyns, Jean Scot Erigene, Louvain-Paris, 1933. back

The critical edition of Eckhart's German and Latin works stimulated some excellent reassessments of his mysticism. These have been summarized by L. Cognet, La Mystique rhénoflamande, Paris, 1960. But his theology has still hardly been studied. Cf. the chapter of E. Gilson in his Philosophie du Moyen-Age, and V.I. Lossky, Théologie négative et connaissance de Dieu chez Maître Eckhart, Paris, 1960. back

Cf. our Spiritualité de Citeaux, Paris, 1955, pp. 89ff. back

E. Vansteenberghe, Nicolas de Cues, Paris, 1920 and M. de Gandillac, La Philosophie de Nicolas de Cues, Paris, 1941. back