Johannes Eckhart ("Meister Eckhart") was one of the greatest of the medieval German mystics. He was born about 1260, perhaps at Cologne, joined the order of the Dominicans, and held many high offices. He died in 1327 during his trial on charges of heresy before the Court of Inquisition at Cologne, which ended in 1329 in the condemnation of 28 propositions contained in his sermons.
The roots of Eckhart's mysticism are found in Neo-Platonism. There is evident in his doctrines a strong dependence on Thomas Aquinas, whom he, however, surpasses in that he strives to transform into knowledge the deep and powerful feeling of his piety without reserve.
His mystical-theological ideas may be summarized as follows:
God is the supreme Being. He is the One and Only, the one true and good existence. As the source of all things He is beyond comprehension--negative or positive. Any statements about God are always inadequate and a robbery of God. Therefore Eckhart could say that in God there is neither good nor better nor best. He who says that God is good is just as wrong as he who says the sun is black. God's existence and essence coincide completely; thought and being are identical with Him.
In this essence of God, the "denatured" nature of God is to be distinguished from His "natured nature," which is the revelation of His triune being in relation to the universe. The concept of Trinity is, however, not to be here understood in a dogmatic sense, since Eckhart completely transforms and interweaves it with a mystical pantheism. The Father eternally begets the Son (the Word) and in Him ideas. In the fact that God recognized Himself in the Logos, He Himself lives in the Son and this love of the Father to the Son "is the Holy Spirit." In the Logos God brings forth all things. "All things are God Himself," and "God is all things."
Every creature is a phenomenon of God and bears in itself "a record of divine nature." This is especially true of reasoning creation, i.e., man, who bears within himself the "divine spark." In him Eckhart recognizes the "reversal point (Umkehrpunkt) of the world process." In his innermost being man yearns to become fully one with God. In order that this may take place, all the striving of the soul must be directed toward turning from all creature, from sin, the world, indeed from himself. To become rich in God man must become poor in the creature. "If anyone wants to come into the origin (Grund) of God, into His greatest, then he must first come into his own origin, into his least." But then man rises to God, and is so-to-speak deified (genuinely Neo-Platonic); the circle closes, for "Being is the Father, unity the Son, and goodness is the Holy Spirit. Now the Holy Spirit takes the soul that is sanctified in the Purest and the Highest, and bears them into His origin, that is the Son, and the Son bears them at once into His origin, that is the Father, into the source, into the inheritance, in which the Son has His being." This "parting" from the manifoldness of the external world is man's highest task. To be sure, he should occupy himself in this world; but above all outward deeds, above the righteousness by works of the sense is the "inner work," purity of mind, "poverty of the soul and its return to the divine source."
Until 1886 only the German writings of Eckhart were known--mostly sermons, tracts, and sayings; since that time Denifle has discovered a long list of Latin writings by Eckhart and has translated excerpts. Eckhart's importance rests, however, on his German works, for it was his striving to impart "the innermost and truest truth" not as the privilege of an exclusive circle, but for all the people. It was especially in "simple piety" but that he felt himself understood, and so, as Windelband says, he "transposed the most delicate formulations of concepts into a German form with linguistic forcefulness of a genius." Thereby Eckhart burst the narrow bonds of medieval scholasticism and through his stress on the new birth he becomes the forerunner of a new understanding of Christianity. Not only Luther and the other reformers profited from it, but also the extra-church circles, especially the Anabaptists.
Eckhart became the representative of a specifically German theology, the head and center of a numerous circle of disciples, and as Ludwig Keller (p. 163) correctly says, the "originator of impulses, from which all the parties that in later centuries grew out of the Waldenses, have been more or less touched."
It is very probable that Hubmaier, Haetzer, and especially Hans Denck, at least indirectly, were strongly influenced by Eckhart and German mysticism in general. This is seen in their doctrine of the freedom of the will, in their slight interest in the dogma of the Trinity, and, especially in the case of Denck, in his teaching on regeneration. There is a conspicuous relationship between Eckhart and Denck in style of writing and the entire complex of ideas. Where Eckhart speaks of "the impoverishment of the creature" and of "poverty of the soul" as a condition for entry into God, Denck uses very similar expressions when he says that we "must therefore become so spiritually poor that we feel we must of ourselves perish." Similarity is again seen in the expressions with which on the one hand Eckhart describes the divine birth in the depths of the soul and on the other hand Denck describes the new birth of the elect of God.
But however related in language, style, and manner of expression, Eckhart and Denck may be, their agreement is of a merely formal nature. Factually there are very deep differences. In Eckhart the concept of God is philosophically abstract and mixed with pantheistic mysticism; in Denck it is real and concrete. In Eckhart Christ appears essentially only as the Logos, and, in so far as he reflects on the Incarnation at all, it is only as an example (Loofs, 629); in Denck Christ is the "Lord and Prince" of salvation. In Eckhart the new birth is an act of deification, almost in a Neo-Platonic ascetic sense; in Denck the new birth is preceded by a moral collapse, a "sitting in the abyss of hell"; it is the needle's eye "through which immense camels must slip and yet cannot do it," until God helps them, and the eye of the needle becomes for them a narrow door to life. In Eckhart moral obligations of a practical nature retreat quietistically; in Denck they are developed into full activity in the service of God for the world. In Eckhart, all is in its essence asceticism, ecstasy, mysticism; in Denck it becomes discipleship of Christ and a listening to the revelation of God in Christ, which finds its resolution in the "inner word," which, to be sure, has a counterpart in Eckhart's "divine spark."
The effects of Eckhart's mysticism are later to be found in Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), G. W. Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), and Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Also in Gerhard Tersteegen's (1697-1769) hymns there are echoes of Eckhart, without, however, the danger of falling prey to pantheism, which is inherent in Eckhart's system.
Schmidt, C. "Eckhart" in Realencyclopädie für Protentantische Thelologie und Kirche. 3. Aufl. IV: 26 ff.
Loofs, Fr. Dogmengeschichte. 4th ed. Halle, 1906: Section 71: "Die Laienfrömmigkeit and die Mystik als Wegbereiter einer Reduktion der publica doctrina auf die Sphäre der Heilslehre."
Windelband, W. Lehrbuch der Geschichte der Philosophie. 4. Aufl. Tübingen, 1907: 279ff.
Wuttke, Ad. Handbuch der christlichen Sittenlehre I. 3. Aufl. Leipzig, 1874: 142f.
Keller, Ludwig. Reformation; Meister Eckhart, a Modern Translation by R. B. Blakney. New York, 1941.
Jones, Rufus M. The Flowering of Mysticism. New York, 1939.
Cite This Article
Händiges, Emil. "Eckhart, Johannes (ca. 1260-1327)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1955. Web. 25 Jan 2015. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Eckhart,_Johannes_(ca._1260-1327)&oldid=56110.
Händiges, Emil. (1955). Eckhart, Johannes (ca. 1260-1327). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 January 2015, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Eckhart,_Johannes_(ca._1260-1327)&oldid=56110.
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