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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Theologia Deutsch--Theologia Germanica: The Book of the Perfect Life. Edited, translated with introduction and notes by David Blamires. (Sacred Literature Series: Altamira Press) (Hardcover). Reviewed for H-German by R. Emmet McLaughlin, Department of History, Villanova University. 

A Tale of Two Translations 

The Theologia Deutsch (or Theologia Germanica) is known by name to most historians of early modern Europe, though few have actually read it. An anonymous fourteenth-century mystical tract, it owes its notoriety to Martin Luther's publication of it in 1516 and 1518. 190 editions in German, English, Dutch, Latin, Swedish, Danish, Russian, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese followed by 1961. It was a staple of the Radical Reformation and Pietism. In the sixteenth century, Ludwig Haetzer republished it in 1528 along with interpretive "Propositions" by Hans Denck that were often found in later editions. Sebastian Franck produced a Latin paraphrase of the Haetzer version at the end of his life (1541-42). In the wake of his clash with Calvin over the execution of Michael Servetus (1553), Sebastian Castellio published Latin (1557) and French (1558) translations. A little more than a decade later, Valentin Weigel, long under the influence of medieval mysticism, provided a "Short Account and Introduction to the German Theology" (1571). Johannes Arndt published an edition and Philip Jakob Spener recommended it. Given a cloud of such witnesses, Luther may have come to regret making the book available to a larger public. Nonetheless, his 1518 edition remained the standard version until the nineteenth century.

Catholic scholars welcomed the discovery of another complete text in 1843, the so-called Wuerzburg or Bronnbach manuscript from 1497. Although the Theologia Deutsch remained on the Index of Prohibited Books into the second half of the twentieth century, they had feared that Luther had "corrupted" the text. Later finds, especially the 1477 Dessau manuscript of the complete text, proved the reliability of Luther's 1518 edition and revealed that Bronnbach included extensive additions designed to "monasticize" it. The Dessau copy formed the basis of the 1982 critical edition by Wolfgang von Hinten. Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century English translations were based upon Bronnbach. In 1980, however, Bengt Hoffman brought out an English translation of Luther's 1518 edition in the series Classics of Western Spirituality.[1] The Hoffman version long remained the most widely available. The present translation by David Blamires, sometime professor of German at the University of Manchester, uses the von Hinten critical edition and is for most purposes superior to Hoffman's.

Blamires's introduction offers a simple, well-informed retelling of the history of mysticism in the later middle ages. It is pitched at the right level for undergraduates and for other readers with no background in mysticism. Hoffman's introduction, on the other hand, had been caught up in inner-Lutheran debates about medieval mysticism's influence on Luther. Hoffman followed the twentieth-century school of Lutheran theology that credits Luther with an ontological understanding of righteousness rather than the purely alien forensic righteousness favored by most Luther scholars. Raising this issue would not have been a bad thing had Hoffman been explicit and explained the opposing school more fully. His general historical background is also misleading and unhelpful since he relied on textbooks that were already dated when he wrote. The two introductions clearly address different audiences and purposes. Although Blamires's book appears in a series devoted to contemporary understanding among the world's religious communities, he is interested in the Theologia Deutsch for its historical significance. Hoffman, perhaps truer to the intention of his series, presents the text as a resource for contemporary spirituality.

The translations reflect these differences. Blamires chose to use the critical edition. Because of its place in the Lutheran tradition, Hoffman translated the Luther text. Students of the Reformation may well prefer the 1518 edition for precisely that reason, as well as for Luther's short prologue. For those interested in historical impact, the Luther text is clearly the more important. It was Luther's Theologia Deutsch that was usually reprinted, translated, and paraphrased. However, Hoffman's translation of that text is problematic. His Theologia Deutsch has subtle Lutheran resonances. For one thing, the original's impersonal references to the Perfect Being are sometimes personalized where there is no basis in the text. This is especially misleading in those passages where the medieval author is making the point that the Perfect Being is beyond knowledge and cannot be described. It is not "this or that." It is not "He." Hoffman also has the unfortunate habit, as here, of capitalizing words, for example "Word" (p. 64), again with no basis in the text. Perhaps most intrusive is his choice of vocabulary that reflects Lutheran theology more than medieval mysticism, e.g. "acting unrighteousnessly" (p.

64) for "thut unrecht." Luther may have understood the Theologia Deutsch in this way, but it is doubtful that the original author would have understood or appreciated such an interpretation. Blamires translates the same phrase simply as "acts unjustly" (p. 34).

Hoffmann's title reflects the ambiguity of his enterprise: "The Theologia Germanica of Martin Luther." If Luther made no emendations to the text, it is unclear in what sense the text is "of Martin Luther." The medieval manuscripts actually bore no title. The designation Theologia Deutsch_derives from an early edition (a pirated version of Luther's 1518 edition) and Theologia Germanica from the first English translation (1648). Interestingly, the von Hinten critical edition made use of a superscription from the unreliable Bronnbach manuscript referring to the author: "Der Franckforter." Blamires uses both of the traditional titles as well as one that he takes from earlier modern German editions. As he makes clear, the latter is simply descriptive of the treatise's contents. Also, his translation scrupulously avoids anachronistic language. It adheres very closely to the text. Like the original, it is blunt, simple, and prosaic. The result is a difficult text that requires the reader to acknowledge its "otherness" in order to penetrate its meaning. Insofar as any translation can accurately convert one language into another, one is reading the medieval text, the text that Luther read and that he made available to later generations. This is the translation that historians will wish to consult.


Note: [1]. Martin Luther, The Theologia Germanica of Martin Luther, trans. Bengt Hoffman (New York: Paulist Press, 1980).

H-NET BOOK REVIEW: Published by H-German@h-net.msu.edu (November, 2004)


Mystical Theology: The Glosses by Thomas Gallus and the Commentary of Robert Grosseteste De Mystica Theologia edited by J. J. McEvoy (Dallas Medieval Texts and Translations, 3: Peeters Publishing) The treatise by the Pseudo-Dionysius De Mystica Theologia was translated into Latin in the ninth century, but it had to await the first decades of the thirteenth to receive interpretation and commentary. Thomas Gallus, a member of the Victorine School at Paris , glossed the Latin version of lohannes Sarracenus in 1233. This new, critical edition and translation takes into consideration all five known manuscripts, two of which are recent discoveries. The commentary by Bishop Grosseteste was made at Lincoln around 1242. It was based upon his new version of the Greek text. Grosseteste's Latin version and his commentary are published here with a translation.

These earliest Latin commentators ventured a full-scale reappropriation of the contents of the Mystical Theology. They explored the trans-conceptual ecstasy of the individual soul that passes through purification and illumination to union with God by means of an exceptional grace of divine love. Between them they provided the context within which not only the later mystical theology of monastery and university but also the actual spiritual experience of countless souls was formed.

The third volume of the Dallas Medieval Texts and Translations brings together two closely related texts. Both are commentaries on the Mystical Theology, a treatise that has helped to shape Christian discourse upon God from the time of its composition, some-time in the early sixth century A.D., until the present day. The influence of the Mystical Theology on the tradition has been as profound and far-reaching as the identity of its author has remained mysterious. We still do not know who the Pseudo-Dionysius really was. Professor James McEvoy, the distinguished expert on the reception of the Dionysian writings in the West who is responsible for the present volume, speaks of two phases in the assimilation of Eastern mystical theology in the Latin Middle Ages.

The first of these phases occurred in Carolingian times, and was dominated by the figure of John Scottus Eriugena. The second phase was initiated, toward the middle of the twelfth century, by the two authors whose works are edited and translated in this book, Thomas Gallus and Robert Grosseteste. Since the two were not only co-workers in the field of mystical theology, but friends who exchanged their writings with each other, the publication of their commentaries in one volume is most appropriate. The significance of the treatises here published is best described in a sentence from Professor McEvoy's conclusion: "The entire later interpretation of the Mystical Theology was deflected into the path it actually followed through the combined influence of Thomas Gallus and Robert Grosseteste. These earliest Latin commentators provided the context within which not only the mystical theology of monastery and university but also the actual spiritual experience of countless souls was formed."

Our two commentators came, broadly speaking, to similar conclusions in mystical theory. However, they approached the text of MT somewhat differently — Gallus as a conscious facilitator of a resolutely monoglot, Latin readership, and Grosseteste as a serious philologist. Thomas inherited the ambition of John Sarrazen, which was to improve on the literalism, the obscurity (for the Latin reader) and the translating blunders of the version by Eriugena. Sarrazen might even be thought of, ironically, as the translator of Eriugena — into Latin! — for that may well be how he saw his role: to produce a more readable and flowing version of the Corpus Dionysiacum. Gallus in turn attempted to take this aim further along the same course by improving upon the readability of Sarrazen's version — and then improving upon his own improvements! The huge success which awaited his efforts showed just how well he had judged the requirements of the scholastic milieu at Paris .

Grosseteste, on the other hand (as we have indicated in introducing his work on MT), applied all his Greek knowledge and his late-acquired Hellenist and Byzantinist culture to the exegesis of the meaning, which is to say, of the words, of the Pseudo-Dionysius. Words, words, words! — that was his whole business as exegete. He made no concessions to those who wanted a quick digest (or "extract") which they could assimilate with some ease. Grosseteste expressed his determination to disregard any aim at readable Latin in his translation and commentary, in favor of a serious, and inevitably quaint and foreign-sounding, exploration of the vocabulary, the thought-structures and the spiritual message of the Pseudo-Areopagite. He did not spare himself nor his team (for he had helpers), but his work was too lengthy and too philological to attract any but serious scholars to copy and use it.' Gallus's was a good example of the successful assimilation of a foreign-language work, whereas Grosseteste wanted his Latin reader to achieve a truly hermeneutical sense of the difference between Latin and Greek as languages and vehicles of culture, even within the Christian unity.

The convergence between the interpretations of MT by Thomas Gallus and Robert Grosseteste, and the complementary nature of their interpretations, attracted the attention of a number of medieval scholars, who individually set scribes to work copying alternating extracts from the Exposicio and the Commentarius. Six manuscripts, all of South German and Austrian provenance, conform to this description. To these may be added the Strasbourg printing of 1502-1503, which contained the version and commentary of Lincolniensis and also the Sarrazen translation together with the Extractio of Vercellensis on MT The material link thus forged by later centuries between their interpretations corresponded quite happily to a historical reality, for together these two friends may be said to have initiated the second Latin reception of the Mystical Theology. Their individual efforts united to launch what rapidly became a movement.

It cannot be too much emphasized that the entire later interpretation of MT was deflected into the path it actually followed through the combined influence of Thomas Gallus and Robert Grosseteste. These earliest Latin commentators provided the context within which not only the mystical theology of monastery and university but also the actual spiritual experience of countless souls was to be formed. MT may justly be described as the most influential treatise in late medieval spirituality. However, the spirituality it conveyed was not, or was not only, the dialectical ascent through knowing and unknowing that is the true meaning of the Greek work (that culmination of the Areopagite's message), but the transconceptual ecstasy of the individual soul that passes through purification and illumination to union with God, by means of an exceptional grace of divine love. The centrality of love, and of Jesus Christ, in Western mystical doctrine and practice had no counterpart in MT, where the former was not so much as mentioned. It is scarcely thinkable that the book as it stands would have entered into the mainstream of medieval spirituality had not its first commentators ventured a full-scale reappropriation of its contents. The following passage from a conference pronounced by Bishop Grosseteste encapsulates the added value which he brought to MT, likely enough under the influence of Gallus:

Since after this ascent love has no further place to seek and find the Beloved through its own vehemence, drawing back all the lower powers mentioned and making them rest from all their acts, it apprehends nothing at all, but stands beyond all creatures and beyond itself in the darkness of the actual unknowing both of itself and of all things, waiting like Moses on the dark summit of the mountain for the Beloved to manifest himself to it directly. Only when this has occurred does the noblest power of the soul enjoy full life.

"Mystical theology" can be rendered "hidden speech of God," in other words, apophatic theology. The harmonization between the book of that name (MT) and the biblical Canticle of love is the meaning of the thought quoted above. In this passage the crucial dimension of mysticism (in the distinctively modern sense of the term) is already present. The words of Grosseteste look forward to St. Bonaventure, The Cloud of Unknowing, Chancellor Gerson, and perhaps also in some measure to the women mystics who were drawn, not to the apophatic treatise and the questions and discussions which it raised, but beyond theology to Jesus Christ as their Beloved.

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