The Patristic Roots of John Smith’s True Way or Method of Attaining to Divine Knowledge

In Thomas Cattoi & June McDaniel (eds.), Mystical Sensuality: Perceiving the Divine through the Human Body. Palgrave-Macmillan (2011)
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The literature on the Cambridge Platonists abounds with references to Neoplatonism and the Alexandrian Fathers on general themes of philosophical and theological methodology. The specific theme of the spiritual senses of the soul has received scant attention however, to the detriment of our understanding of their place in this important tradition of Christian speculation. Thus, while much attention has been paid to the clear influence of Plotinus and the Florentine Academy, far less has been given to important theological figures that also form a vital part of the tradition the Cambridge Platonists find irresistible. Similarly, scholarship on the spiritual senses has tended to ignore early modern Protestant developments in this tradition focusing instead on patristic, medieval, and later modern figures. In response to these oversights, the present chapter provides a close reading and analysis of the reception and modification of Origen of Alexandria’s (185-252) doctrine of the spiritual senses in the “Discourse on the True Way or Method of Attaining to Divine Knowledge” by the Cambridge Platonist, John Smith (1618-1652). Although Smith accepted much of the doctrine as he found it in Origen his allegiance to modern notions of methodology, derived especially from Descartes, as well as his Protestantism, made taking the doctrine on authority or antiquity alone unacceptable. Smith therefore offered his own case for the spiritual senses, at once intentionally mimicking the Alexandrian’s interpretive synthesis of Platonism and Scripture (“Origen as model”) and echoing Origen’s own words (“Origen as source”). Whereas Origen made spiritual sensibility intelligible by means of Middle Platonic thought, Smith’s Neoplatonism provided the conceptual tools needed to make sense of biblical passages without suggesting a merely metaphorical meaning for sensory language concerning the awareness of spiritual realities. In this way, both tradition and innovation guide Smith’s reformulation of the doctrine of the spiritual senses. In addition to demonstrating Smith’s debt to patristic thought, this chapter also discusses his influence on such leading figures in modern theology as John Wesley (1703-1791) and Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). The chapter thus presents an important moment in the development of Christian speculation about the spiritual senses that begins to bridge scholarship on the Patristic and Enlightenment periods.

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Derek A. Michaud
University of Maine


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