Authors Eric Parker Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

The Generation of the Son: Ficino’s De Christiana Religione (X)

In this installment of Ficino’s De Christiana Religione we move directly to chapter thirteen while passing over chapters eleven and twelve. In those chapters Ficino treats Christ’s authority in the eyes of Gentiles and Muslims while offering rebuttals to those perspectives with arguments borrowed from church fathers. The following chapter treats the eternal generation of the Son in the Trinity from a philosophical perspective. Readers will notice the Neoplatonic influence in Ficino’s account of generation. His basic principle regarding generation comes from Proclus, that is, that the more superior a life form is the less externally (and the more internally) it generates. In his Elements of Theology Proclus states “[F]irst natures in proceeding are more conjoined with their causes, being as it were, germinations from them.”1 This is true, for Proclus, because that which is generated from higher substances is a lesser participation in being. The scale of being descends downward from the highest Intellect as light descends from the brilliance of the Sun to the faint glow of the weakest spark.

Ficino Christianizes this Neoplatonic principle in Augustinian fashion by placing the Trinity at the height of the scale of perfectly inward beings and emphasizing the essential unity of the persons of the Godhead. This gives added meaning to the concept of man as the “image” of God since the image now refers explicitly to man’s “trinitarian” ability to produce an image of his own soul within himself in the intellect’s “seeking, knowing, and loving its own act and itself in itself.” It is also worth reminding the reader that Ficino’s conclusions are grounded in his humanist theology. One can see this in his closing statement that the foundation of theology is God and the “heroic leaders” (i.e., prophets, disciples, apostles) of the faith rather than philosophy. We might point out the absence of any mention of the Church as an authority. This does not mean that Ficino did not consider the Church to be authoritative but that his humanist project for the reform of theology depended upon a return to the earliest witnesses of theology, both pagan and Christian, rather than the Medieval doctrinal authorities. Surely, his doctrine of man as an image of the Trinity and a microcosm plays into this return to the sources since man is fully capable of “seeking, knowing, and loving” the truth for himself wherever he might discover it.

Translation: Chapter 13

Chapter XIII

Concerning the eternal generation of the Son of God.

The life of each creature generates its offspring in the seed itself before [generating] outside of itself. Also, the more superior the life form is, the deeper within [interiorem] itself it generates. In this manner the vegetative life, both in trees and in animals, generates a seed like a tree and in an appropriate body like an animal before it either casts [the seed] outward or produces a tree from it or any other external [action]. In this manner, the sensitive life, which is superior to the vegetative, produces a likeness and intention of the [sensible] object within itself by means of the imagination before it moves the members [of the body] to sculpt [the likeness of the object] in external matter. But, just as the first offspring [fætus] of the imagination, because it is in the very soul itself, so it resembles the soul more than the offspring of the vegetative life, which does not come to be in the soul but in a body.

In this manner, the rational life which is more excellent than the sensitive, gives birth within itself to both the reasons of things and to its very self, just as if it were to bring its offspring into the light prior to either speaking or acting. The first offspring of reason resembles the soul more than the offspring of the imagination. For the power of reason is reflected in and through its own offspring by seeking, knowing, and loving its own act and itself in itself. The imagination does not do this. In this manner, the life of angels is more excellent than rational life [because] it gives birth within itself to the ideas of its very self and of things by a certain divine instinct before it brings them forth into the matter of the world. This offspring is more inward [interior] for the angel than its own reason because it is neither moved to act by each external object in succession nor is it changed.

For this reason the divine life, because it is the most eminent and fruitful of all [forms of life], generates its offspring in a much greater resemblance [to itself] than the other [forms of life], and it generates it within itself before producing it outside of itself. [The divine life] generates, I suggest, by understanding, just as God, by perfectly understanding himself and everything within himself, conceives the perfect notion of the whole of himself and everything within himself, which is the exact and perfect image of God and the superabundant [superplenum] exemplar of the universe. Orpheus called this [image] Pallas [Athena] who was born out of the head of Jupiter alone. Plato refers to this [image] as the son of God the Father in his epistle to Hermias. In [his] Epinomis [Plato] calls him “logon,” that is, both “reason” and “word,” saying: “Logos, the most divine of all beings, arranged the visible universe.” Mercury Trismegistus often makes mention of the word and son of God and also the spirit. Zoroaster also associated [him] with the intellectual offspring of God. These [authors], indeed, say what they were able and that, surely, by God’s help, but only God understands this and the one to whom God chooses to reveal it. The abundance of God (which is the infinite Good in act) eternally generates himself in an infinite act by means of an immense, good, and eternal nature. Whatever is outside of God is finite. Therefore, God generates himself in himself, [and] the infinity of the Son is, without a doubt, from the infinity of the Father.

It is necessary, furthermore, that an offspring of this sort is much more inward [intimam] in God (as I said before) than the notion of an angel in the angelic mind. Since for angels being is, of course, other than understanding, the notion that is generated by understanding is other than the essence of the angel itself. In God, on the other hand, because being and understanding are the same, the notion which God, by understanding himself, is always begetting as the most exact image of himself and the one whom he generates are the same essence, however, by a certain wonderful relationship, as the begotten is distinguished from the begetter. Finally, by eternally thinking this sort of eternal notion of himself, the infinite Good, by means of the same infinity, eternally breathes out [spirat] Love within himself and to himself. Therefore, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit of love are called three “persons” by theologians. The divine nature, in fact, adheres completely within them so that God is one and simple, yet differing by a certain unknowable relationship.

So, in the order of things there are two extremes and two mean terms. Indeed, in each angel there is one angelic person (as some say) in one nature of its own species and vice versa. There are, surely, multiple persons with multiple natures within a pregnant woman, and at the opposite [extreme] there are multiple natures in one person in each animal.2 In God, on the other hand, there are many persons in one nature. This, however, is enough concerning [the Trinity] at the present time, although it is never really enough. The foundation of this contemplation, on the other hand, is not to be sought from philosophy but from the heroic leaders of Christianity and from God. For, rightly does Isaiah say: “What eye has not seen, what ear has not heard, what has not come into the heart of man, God has revealed to those who love him,” [Is. 64:4; 1 Cor. 2:9].3

  1. Proclus, Elements of Theology, XXXVI
  2. Ficino appears to argue here that a pregnant woman and a “pregnant” angel are the two means terms between the extremes of God generating within himself and animals generating outside of themselves
  3. Ficino, Opera, vol. 1, (Basil: 1561), 18.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.