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Doctrines of Meister Eckhart

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Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-1327) Dominican friar and German mystic was a renowned theologian whose teachings, though popular among the monastic and lay populations that he preached to, deviated enough from the accepted language of the Catholic Church that he was tried as a heretic in 1327. At his trial, Eckhart explained all challenged doctrines, asserting that heresy required intentionality which he did not possess. Before the verdict was handed down Eckhart disappeared.


For centuries none of Eckhart's writings were known except a number of sermons, found in the old editions of Johann Tauler's sermons, published by Kachelouen (Leipzig, 1498) and by Adam Petri (Basel, 1521 and 1522). In 1857 Franz Pfeiffer in the second volume of his Deutsche Mystiker (Stuttgart), which is wholly devoted to Eckhart, added considerable manuscript material. Pfeiffer was followed by others, especially Franz Jostes, Meister Eckhart und seine Junger, ungedruckte Texte zur Geschichte der deutschen Mystik (Collectanea Friburgensia, iv., Freiburg, 1895). But some pieces are of doubtful genuineness, and the tradition concerning others is very unsatisfactory. It was a great surprise when in 1880 and 1886 Denifle discovered at Erfurt and Kues two manuscripts with Latin works of Eckhart, the existence of which Nicholas of Cusa and Trittenheim had indeed mentioned, but which had since then been considered lost. There can be no doubt as to their genuineness, but thus far only the (comparatively extensive) specimens which Denifle had published (in ALKG, ii.) are known. The extant writings appear to be only parts of a very large work, the Opus tripartitum, which, to judge from the prologue in the first part treated of more than 1,000 propositions, in the second part debated a number of special questions, and in the third part, first expounded Biblical texts (opus sermonum) and afterward explained the books of the Bible in their order with special reference to the important passages. Entirely unknown at present are the contents of the more important manuscript of Cues, especially the exposition of the Gospel of John.


View of God

At present a final understanding of Eckhart's world of ideas has not been reached. Nevertheless an attempt may be made to delineate his fundamental psychological approach, based upon the material at hand. He agreed that the great need of man was that his soul be united with God, the perfect goodness; for this a knowledge of God and his relation to the world, a knowledge of the soul and the path of approach, are necessary.

Our salvation depends upon our knowing and recognizing the Chief Good which is God Himself. I have a capacity in my soul for taking in God entirely. I am as sure as I live that nothing is so near to me as God. God is nearer to me than I am to myself... Thus must the soul, which would know God, be rooted and grounded in Him so steadfastly, as to suffer no perturbation of fear or hope, or joy or sorrow, or love or hate, or anything which may disturb its peace... the soul should be remote from all earthly things alike so as not to be nearer to one than another. It should keep the same attitude of aloofness in love and hate, in possession and renouncement, that is, it should be simultaneously dead, resigned and lifted up. (Excerpt from sermon: "The Nearness of the Kingdom," translated by Claud Field, Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

Eckhart does not doubt that such knowledge is given in the traditional liturgy of the Church, but makes clear that it is not sufficient for one who is longing for salvation; that he must attain it through his own understanding. Eckhart accordingly does not move and live in ecclesiastical tradition after the manner of Bernard of Clairvaux or Hugo of St. Victor; in his thinking on the highest questions he is independent and in this way he arrives at practical explanations of "the way," which do not conform with the traditional teaching of the Church.

The last and highest object of thinking is the Deity, i.e. the divine entity as distinguished from the persons, yet Eckhart often uses "God" in the sense of "Deity," where his thought does not call for accurate definitions. The Deity is absolute being without distinction of place or manner (ALKG, ii. 439-440). No predicate derived from finite being is applicable to the Deity; but this is therefore not mere negation or emptiness. Rather is finite being, as such, negation; and the Deity, as the negation of finite being, is the negation of negation, i.e. the absolute fullness of being. For Eckhart, pseudo-Dionysius’s negative theology is clearly wrong. When in other passages Eckhart himself designates God as non-existent, he only means that he has none of the characteristics of finite existence. The same apparent contradiction is found, where Eckhart on the one hand calls God absolute being, and on the other denies that he is a being (319, 4; 659, 1); but he reconciles the two views (268-269). The same is the case with occasional seemingly paradoxical expressions, e.g. that God is not good, etc. (269, 18; 318, 35-319, 3). The essential elements of finite things are present in God, but in an exalted degree and in a manner that can not be comprehended by man (322, 20; 540, 2-7).

Eckhart made some statements that have been characterized as pantheistic.[1] For example, he said,"A flea to the extent that it is in God ranks above the highest angel in his own right. Thus, in God, all things are equal and are God Himself." This and other statements resulted in his being charged with heresy. He later acknowledge the extremity of his assertions wherein humans and everything are absorbed into God and become one.[1]

Trinitarian process

The absolute, unqualified being of the Deity Eckhart also calls unnatured nature. This unnatured nature, however, manifests itself in the natured nature, the three persons. The Trinity is the self-revelation of the Deity (540, 31; 390,12-22). In it God comprises himself. Accordingly, Eckhart attributes to the Father a sort of genesis; only the Deity is absolutely without any progression and reposes everlastingly in itself. The Father was made through himself (534, 17). This self-revelation of God Eckhart designates as a cognition, a speaking, or a demeanor. The Father perceives the whole fullness of the Deity (6,S); or, what is the same, he speaks a single word, which comprises everything (70, 25). He procreates the Son (284, 12); for the Father is father only through the Son. The Son, however, is in everything like the Father, only that he procreates not (337, 3). The essence of the Father is also that of the Son, and the essence in both is no other than that of the Deity. From the pleasure and love which both have for each other springs the Holy Ghost (497, 26). Eckhart leaves no doubt that the entire trinitarian process must not be conceived of as a temporal one, but as a process extending throughout eternity (254, 10). Wilhelm Preger thought that Eckhart's distinction between Deity and God should be interpreted as a distinction between potentiality and actuality. To this interpretation Denifle (ALKG, ii. 453 sqq.) has strongly objected and cited Eckhart's Latin writings, in which he, with Thomas Aquinas and others, designates God as actus purus, thus excluding all potentiality. Denifle is right, in that Eckhart does not consciously and deliberately make any such distinction; but it can not be denied that his conception leads to it. Especially significant is Eckhart's explanation in 175, 7 sqq. where he tries to illustrate the relation between the fatherhood as it is determined in the Deity and the paternity of the person of the Father by the relation between the maternity peculiar to the Virgin as such, and the maternity which she acquires by bearing. But this is exactly the relation of potentiality and actuality (cf. also the peculiar passage 193, 33). It must be admitted that Eckhart here expresses two views which can not be harmonized with one another, though the second is not fully developed. Eckhart had a wealth of ingenious ideas, but he was unable to systematize them.

God in Creation

The self-manifestation of God in the Trinity is followed by his manifestation in his creatures. Everything in them that is truly real is God's eternal being; but God's being does not manifest itself thus in its entire fullness (101, 34; 173, 26; 503, 26). In this antithesis may be expressed the relation of Eckhart's philosophy to panentheism, both as regards similarities and differences. According to Eckhart, God's creatures have not, as Thomas Aquinas held, merely ideal preexistence in God, i.e. their conceptual essence (essential quidditas) coming from the divine intelligence, but their existence (esse) being foreign to the divine being. Rather, the true being of creatures is immanent in the divine being. On the other hand, every peculiarity distinguishing creatures from each other is something negative; and in this sense it is said that the creatures are a mere nothing. Should God withdraw his being from his creatures, they would disappear as the shadow on the wall disappears when the wall is removed (31, 2). This perishable being is the creature confined within the limits of space and time (87, 49). On the other hand, every creature, considered according to its true entity, is eternal. It is obvious that this necessarily involves a modification of the idea of creation. Even Augustine of Hippo and others like him felt this difficulty. While they did not, as did Eckhart, connect the existence of the world with the being of God, they did consider it wrong to attribute to God any temporary activity. Albert the Great, one of Eckhart’s masters, tried to avoid the difficulty with the sentence, "God created all things from eternity, but things were not created from eternity"; but this is more easily said than conceived. According to the bull of 1329 (p. 2), Eckhart asserted that "it may be conceded that the world was from eternity." It is impossible here to investigate this view further; but reference must be made to the close relation into which Eckhart brings the process of the Trinity and the genesis, or progress, of the world, both of the real and the ideal world (76, 52; 254, 16; 284, 12; cf. Com. in Genes., ALKG, ii. 553, 13-17).

Relation of the Soul to God

The unqualified Deity, the Trinity (birth of the Son or of the Eternal Word), and the creation of the world are to him three immediate moments, which follow each other in conceptual, not temporal sequence. All creatures have part in the divine essence; but this is true of the soul in a higher degree. In the irrational creature there is something of God; but in the soul, God is divine (230, 26; 2,31, 4). Though God speaks his word in all creatures, only rational creatures can preserve it (479, 19). In other words, in the soul, where he has his resting-place, God is subjective, while in the rest of creation he is merely objective. The soul is an image of God, in so far as its chief powers, memory, reason, and will, answer to the divine persons (319, 1). This accords with the view of Augustine. Just as there is the absolute Deity, which is superior to the persons of the Godhead, so in the soul there is something that is superior to its own powers. This is the innermost background of the soul, which Eckhart frequently calls a "spark," or "little spark." In its real nature this basis of the soul is one with the Deity (66, 2). When Eckhart sometimes speaks of it as uncreated (286, 16; 311, 6), and then again as created, this does not involve a contradiction. While, on the one hand, it rests eternally in the Deity; on the other it entered into the temporal existence of the soul, i.e., it was made or created through grace. But it is not in this original unity with God that the soul finds its perfection and bliss. As it has a subjective being, it must turn to God, in order that the essential principle implanted in it may be truly realized. It is not enough that it was made by God; God must come and be in it. But this has taken place without hindrance only in the human soul of Christ (67, 12). For all other souls sin is an obstacle.

Sin and redemption

But wherein does sin consist? Not in the finiteness, which is never removed from the soul (3S7, 3; 500, 1 1), but in the direction of the will toward the finite and its pleasure therein (476, 19; 674, 17). The possibility of sin, however, is based in finiteness, taken together with the free will of the creature. If it is the destiny of the soul to be the resting-place of God, then the direction of the will toward the finite makes this impossible; and it is this that constitutes sin. Redemption, therefore, can take place only when the creature makes room in his soul for the abstract experience and work of God; and the condition for that is the turning away from the finite. For God is ever ready to work in the soul, provided he is not hindered and the soul is susceptible to his influence (27, 25; 283, 23; 33, 29; 479, 31). The inner separation from everything casual, sensual, earthly and the yielding to the work of God in the heart, that is the seclusion or tranquility of which Eckhart speaks again and again. For him this is the basis of all piety. But what is it that God accomplishes in the soul? The birth of the Son. As the soul is an image of the Deity, if it is to fulfill its destiny, then that process by which the deity develops into the three persons must take place in it. In the soul, the Father procreates the Son (44, 28; 175, 15-20; 479, 10; 13, 12). This takes place during the life of the soul in time; and, too, not merely at a particular moment, but rather continuously and repeatedly. This is not merely a copy or analogon of that inner divine process, but is in truth that very process itself, by which it becomes, through grace, what the Son of God is by nature (433, 32; 382, 7; 377, 17). From this view of Eckhart's follow a number of the most striking statements in which the soul is made to share in the attributes and works of God, including the creation (119, 28-40; 267, 4; 283, 37-284, 7). However, according to Eckhart, a complete fusion of the soul with the Deity never takes place (387, 3). He also opposes the doctrine of Apocatastasis (65, 20; 402, 34; 470, 22).

Place of Christ

According to Eckhart, sin is not the real cause of the incarnation (591, 34). God wished rather to receive the nature of things through grace in time just as he had them by nature in eternity in himself (574, 34). Just as a man occupies a central position in the world, since he leads all creatures back to God, so Christ stands in the center of humanity (180, 7; 390, 37.) The same thought is found in Maximus the Confessor and Johannes Scotus Eriugena, but whence did Eckhart get it? Even at the creation of the first man Christ was already the end in view (250, 23); and now after the fact of sin, Christ stands likewise in the center of redemption. After the fall, all creatures worked together to produce a man who should restore harmony (497, 11). This took place when Mary resigned herself so completely to the divine word that the eternal word could assume human nature in her. However, this temporal birth of the son is again included in his eternal birth as a moment of the same (391, 20). And now God is to be born in us. In his human life Jesus becomes a pattern for man; and in all that he did and experienced, above all in his passion and death there is an overwhelming power that draws man to God (218-219) and brings about in us that which first took place in Christ, who alone is the way to the father (241, 17).


Whatever one may think of Eckhart's philosophical and dogmatic speculations, his ethical view, at any rate, is of rare purity and sublimity. The inner position of man, the disposition of the heart, is for him the main thing (56, 39; 297, 11; 444, S; 560, 43) and for him this is not a result of reflection. One feels that it comes from the core of his personality; and no doubt this is the principal reason his sermons made such a deep impression. He speaks little of church ceremonies. For him outward penances have only a limited value. That man inwardly turn to God and be led by him seems to be the main purpose of Eckhart's exhortations to let no one think that because this or that great saint has done and suffered many things, he should imitate him. God gives to each his task, and leaves every one on his way (560 sqq. 177, 26-35). No one argues more decisively than Eckhart that good works alone do not make a man righteous; instead, man must first be righteous in order to do righteous works. Nor does he recommend that one flee from the world. Better to flee from oneself, selfishness, and self-will. Otherwise one finds as little peace in the cell as outside of it. Though he sees in suffering the most effective and most valuable means of inner purification, Eckhart believes one should not seek sufferings of his own choosing, but only bear patiently whatever God imposes. He recognizes that it is natural for one to be affected either pleasantly or unpleasantly by the various sense-impressions; but in the innermost depths of the soul one must hold fast to God and allow himself to be moved by nothing (52, 1; 427, 22). It need hardly be added that he highly regards works of charity. Even supreme rapture should not prevent one from rendering a service to the poor.

Future scholarship will presumably arrive at a more accurate estimate of the importance of Eckhart, but it is unlikely to challenge the significance given him by Henry Suso and Tauler.

Time and Space

One of the unique aspects of Eckhart's 14th c. theology is his inclusion of atypical concepts that have more of a contemporary ring.

Nothing hinders the soul so much in attaining to the knowledge of God as time and place. Therefore, if the soul is to know God, it must know Him outside time and place, since God is neither in this or that, but One and above them. If the soul is to see God, it must look at nothing in time; for while the soul is occupied with time or place or any image of the kind, it cannot recognize God. (Excerpt from sermon: "The Nearness of the Kingdom," translated by Claud Field, Christian Classics Ethereal Library)

Philosophy and Psychology

Eckhart's philosophy, psychology and pneumatology are original and seminal. He distinguished between the psyche and the spiritual element in human beings, as did such early Gnostics as Valentinus. Valentinian spiritual seed can be compared to Eckhart's fuenklein, scintilla animae, ground of the soul or soul-spark, which he identifies with "Imago Dei" from the Bible. This indestructible and divine element in the human being is for Eckhart (and for the major Christian mystical theology, including the concept of "synteresis" in the Eastern Orthodox tradition) only a potentiality, a latent function that needs to be nourished by virtuous living and spiritual vigilance in order to grow and expand. This differs from perfect Buddha nature in Mahayana Buddhism or Atman in the Hindu Vedanta. The "Imago Dei" is sometimes compared to the fallen Adam, exiled from Paradise, and the new Adam, potentially the final destination of soul-spark if, through classic Christian spiritual stages of purificative, contemplative and illuminative life, it comes to the unitive life where soul-spark is self-transformed into Logos.

"So I say that the aristocrat is one who derives his being, his life, and his happiness from God alone, with God and in God and not at all from his knowledge, perception, or love of God, or any such thing....This much is certain: when a man is happy, happy to the core and root of beatitude, he is no longer conscious of himself or anything else. He is conscious only of God...To be conscious of knowing God is to know about God and self. As I have just been explaining, the agent of the soul which enables one to see is one thing and the agent by which one knows that he sees is another. [2]

Here Eckhart foreshadows the phenomenological understanding (i.e. Merleau-Ponty) that our lived world is lived in a pre-reflective manner (what Husserl called the "natural attitude"). And this pre-reflective or implicit understanding is different from the "knowing" which is reflective understanding. For Eckhart, these two modes of engagement with the world are mutually exclusive.[2]


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