Markus Vinzent's Blog

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Eckhart's biblical exegesis - his preface I to his book of expositions

‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth’. The third principal part of the Three-Part Work, namely the Work of Commentaries, begins here.
By way of preface it should be noted beforehand that I have gone through the Old and the New Testament in order, from outset to end, and I have written down whatever came to me then and whatever I remembered I said about the interpretation of these passages at any time. Not to be long-winded, I have taken care to abbreviate or to omit completely most of it, especially so that the better and more useful interpretations that the saints and venerable teachers, particularly Brother Thomas, have written are not neglected. On a few occasions I decided merely to note where their interpretations are to be found. Sometimes I thought that they should be briefly discussed. Let us begin with the words ‘In the beginning’. The opening of this book Genesis is widely dealt with by Augustine, especially in Super Genesim ad litteram and Super Genesim contra Manichaeos and in the three final books of the Confessions. And also by Ambrosius and Basil in his Hexaemeron. Also by Rabbi Moises [Maimonides], especially book II, chapter 31. Also Thomas [STh] p[art] I q[uestions] 45,45,46 and 47, and later there q[uestions] 65 to 74 inclusively.

Although a short preface, it is highly informative, as it is written, like any good introduction, retrospectively, not only after Eckhart had finished his work of going ‘through the Old and the New Testament in order, from outset to end’, but rather like a review of a longer period of him having worked through and written about the Scriptures, and also lectured about ‘the interpretation of these passages’. Eckhart is not a glossator of glosses. Despite him using readings of others, the saints, venerable teachers and ‘particularly Brother Thomas’, he takes the liberty of giving his own views. Or put more radically, even with his own teachings he does not want to be ‘long-winded’, but presents them in abbreviated form and leaves aside ‘most of it’, a pity for the Eckhart readers of today, but on the other side a challenge to take what he left us with and deduce from it, what was important to him. That he wants to cut short his own explanations so that those of others ‘are not neglected’ is a captatio, as he carries on that ‘on a few occasions’ he ‘decided’ that he should ‘briefly’ discuss the interpretations of them.

As before, he emphasises brevity as a key feature of his approach – and this at the beginning of a compendium of commentaries which cover hundreds of printed pages in over three volumes of the critical edition, while probably some of his works have even gone lost. At the end he gives the most important reference works which start with those of Augustine and two more patristic fathers (Ambrose and Basil), then he also adds the Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides, and eventually Thomas Aquinas. That this prologue opens with the Biblical verse from Gen. 1:1 shows that already with the prologue, Eckhart took Scriptures serious and that his emphasis on brevity is more than a rhetorical device. He begins with the Scriptures’ beginning, ‘in the beginning’, instead of referring in this prologue to any of the known verses that others often have used for their introductions, principia or introitus (like Bar. 3:37; 4:1; Ps. 93:12; Eccli. 24:33).[2] Such opening is more than simply copying the first verse of Genesis, it aligns the interpreter with God, the creator of heaven and earth, and makes him part of God’s creating process. Such process is dynamically understood, yet no long-windedness, but where almost everything can be omitted, where everything can be abbreviated, as everything takes place ‘in the beginning’. As with God himself who creates ‘heaven and earth’ ‘in the beginning’, in the principium, within the principium,[3] a creative act of everything within one moment of a single ‘now’, Eckhart’s interpretation is given ‘in the beginning’, hence, the Biblical verse frames the preface, it opens and closes it, and the preface is his first interpretation of this opening Biblical verse: ‘in principio etc.’

[1] Eckhart, Prol. in op. exp. I (LW I 183,1-11): ‘'In principio creavit deus caelum et terram'. Operis tripartiti pars tertia principalis, opus scilicet expositionum, incipit. Ubi prooemialiter praenotandum quod transcurrendo secundum ordinem vetus et novum testamentum ab exordio usque ad finem ea, quae pro tunc se offerebant et quae me dixisse aliquando circa expositiones auctoritatum memoriae occurrebant, annotavi. Prolixitatem tamen vitans plurima breviare curavi aut penitus omittere. Sane ne meliora et utiliora circa expositiones huiusmodi, quae vel sancti vel venerabiles doctores, praecipue frater Thomas scripsit, neglecta viderentur, interdum, licet raro, loca ubi talia invenientur ab iisdem exposita, notare hic volui et quandoque etiam succincte tangenda iudicavi. Exordium hoc scripturae Genesis tractat Augustinus diffuse, specialiter Super Genesim ad litteram et Super Genesim contra Manichaeos et in tribus ultimis libris Confessionum. Item Ambrosius et Basilius in suis Hexaemeron. Item Rabbi Moyses l. II c. 31 specialiter. Item Thomas p. I q. 44, 45, 46 et 47, item post ibidem q. 65 usque ad 74 inclusive. Incipiamus ergo et dicamus: In principio etc.’ (trans. by McGuinn, altered).
[2] See A. Sulavik, ‘Principia and Introitus in Thirteenth Century Biblical Exegesis with Related Texts’ (2004), 274-8.
[3] See C. Wojtulewicz, Meister Eckhart on the Principle (2015).

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