The two previous webinars (“The Revival of Platonic Orientalism” and “The Real Hermetic Tradition”) were concerned with important forms of esoteric speculation that developed during the Renaissance in a Roman Catholic context. In all these cases, the notion of Tradition was crucial: in their search for truth, authors such as Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Lodovico Lazzarelli, or Cornelius Agrippa were all gazing backward to remote times, studying the writings of great ancient sages with a pious attitude of veneration and respect for the authorities of the past. However, in a Protestant context such an attitude had become impossible, because the very authority of “Tradition” had been called into question. Protestant polemicists argued that the Church had been thoroughly corrupted since the institution of the Papacy: it had become a vehicle for the Antichrist, and hence its representatives and their writings could not be trusted. This created enormous problems for Protestants: if the very Tradition of the church had lost its authority, then where should Christians look for the truth instead? There could only be one answer: they had to bypass all human mediators, and turn to God himself!
There seemed to be three ways of doing so:
- The first source of infallible truth was the Bible, God’s own word. It should be read directly by the believer, without intermediaries such as priests, and without relying on the interpretations provided by Tradition; hence the increasing demand for translations into the vernacular, beginning with Luther’s German translation.
- A second way of getting into direct contact with God was through individual experience. In the Protestant context, the individual stands directly face to face with God. He cannot rely on human authorities to figure out what God’s message is, but has to hope that, in answer to his fervent prayers, God will reveal himself directly by an interior illumination of his heart and mind.
- Finally, many Lutherans especially during the seventeenth century (influenced e.g. by alchemy and Paracelsus) came to see the Book of Nature as the third possible source of divine revelation. God was speaking to mankind through mysterious “signatures” inscribed in nature itself, so the task for human beings was to learn to decipher them.
This Protestant turn to Scripture, individual experience, and the Book of Nature can be traced in a whole series of new currents, such as various forms of “Christian Spiritualism”, a specific esoteric tradition known as Christian theosophy, and eventually in Pietism. This webinar focuses exclusively on perhaps the greatest of the Christian theosophers: Jacob Böhme. As will be seen, he exemplifies a potent combination of all three ways of knowing God’s will: the Bible, Experience, and Nature.
Böhme was born in Alt-Seidenberg, close to Görlitz, in 1575. Coming from a well-to-do peasant family, he became a “master shoemaker” in Görlitz in 1599, married, and had four children. He was, however, subject to melancholic depression and religious doubt: he failed to understand how a good God could have created a world so full of suffering and evil. How could the wrathful God of the Old Testament be reconciled with the God of Love of the New Testament? His practice of intense Bible reading and fervent prayers finally resulted in an experience of “illumination” in 1600. He writes that in this overwhelming state of religious ecstasy, he was allowed a Totalschau (total vision) into the inner heart of Nature and the Godhead. Against the background of this illumination (which was repeated a second time in 1610), he began writing a book to work out its implications. In 1612 it began circulating in manuscript under the title Aurora or Morgen Röte im Aufgang (Breaking Dawn), and immediately evoked much discussion and controversy.
The Lutheran chief pastor of Görlitz, Gregor Richter, reprimanded him severely for heresy, and Böhme remained silent for six years. But in 1618, the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, he resumed writing, and a whole series of books flowed from his pen during the next six years, until his death in 1624. Among the most important of them are Description of the Three Principles of Divine Being (1618), On the Threefold Life of Man (1620), Forty Questions about the Soul (1620), On How Jesus Christ became Man (1620), On Six Theosophical Points (1620), The Signature of All Things (1622), The Great Mystery (1623), and The Way to Christ (1624). In addition, we have his Theosophical Letters written during these years (1618-1624), as well as a speech of defense (1624) against the accusations of Gregor Richter, who remained his enemy until the end. They both died in the same year.
In the rest of the webinar, Wouter Hanegraaff gives a summary of Böhme’s basic theosophical system. It begins with the mysterious origin of all being, called the Ungrund, from which God himself is born as a body of Light referred to as die ewige Natur (Eternal Nature). This happens through a sevenfold process, with the appearance of seven “qualities”. The first three qualities, extending into the fourth, participate in what Böhme calls the “First Principle”: together, they form a dark and fearful world dominated by God’s wrath (see the dark circle on the right, which contains three smaller circles that represent the first three qualites). The fourth quality is referred to as der Blitz (the Flash): the dark and destructive fire of God’s wrath turns out to have a positive and beneficient dimension as well, for not only can fire destroy but it can give warmth and light as well. Hence the Blitz is the beginning of the great reversal in Böhme’s system, through which the wrathful First Principle (associated with God the Father) is transformed through three more qualities into the loving and blissful Second Principle (associated with God the Son: see the light circle on the left, which contains three smaller circles representing the final three qualities). With the completion of this sevenfold process, God has been born as a perfect body of light, in which the wrathful core has been rendered harmless and invisible: the dark wrath of God the Father is eternally redeemed by the love of God the Son, and so the two Principles form a perfect harmonious unity.
And then comes the great catastrophe: the angel Lucifer has been born as a perfect being of light in this heavenly world of Eternal Nature, but he wants to rise even higher. Because he is already perfect, this is simply not possible; and as a result Lucifer is “reborn” not as light out of darkness, but as darkness out of light. This “Fall of Lucifer” is an exact reversal of God’s birth, and has destructive results: it leads to a fatal disintegration of Eternal Nature. As a result of Lucifer’s Fall, the First Principle becomes a separate world: Hell, where Lucifer is reborn as Satan, the Prince of Darkness. The Second Principle is severely weakened by this separation, but because Light cannot be destroyed, it remains in existence as a reality next to the dark world. And finally, our own world comes into existence as a result of Lucifer’s Fall. This is the Third Principle: out of “Eternal Nature” (with no temporal or spatial dimension) has now emerged a world that exists in time and space. In this world, the forces of Light and Darkness (Love and Wrath) are unleashed as separate forces fighting one another. As human beings we are born in this fearful and threatening world, and we have the choice of aligning ourselves with the predominant powers of darkness and wrath, or resisting that temptation and striving to let the divine light of Love be born in our hearts. If we choose the latter and experience the “second birth”, we are reborn in bodies of light that continue after death, and contribute not only to our own personal salvation, but ultimately to the salvation of God himself and the future restoration and re-integration of Eternal Nature. By replicating the birth of God as Light out of Darkness, we are in fact reversing the effects of the Fall.
For a slideshow of the deep principles of Jacob Behmen by William Law, click here
This is the last of the three webinars hosted by Wouter J. Hanegraaff. Marco Pasi, Associate Professor of Western Esotericism in the Modern Period at the HHP of the University of Amsterdam, will start a new series of webinars later this year.
Watch the full version of the webinar or other Infinite Fire webinar episodes on our Ritman Library YouTube channel.