Knowledge, Love, and Ecstasy in the Theology of Thomas Gallus

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Boyd Taylor Coolman
Changing Paradigms in Historical and Systematic Theology
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Boyd Taylor Coolman’s volume, Knowledge, Love, and Ecstasy in the Theology of Thomas Gallus, is the most recent in the Oxford University Press’ series Changing Paradigms in Historical and Systematic Theology, edited by Sarah Coakley and Richard Cross. The purpose of the series is to provide illumination on the interconnection of the fields of “historical” and “systematic” theology, particularly through examining the history of reception, and the way that a reconsideration can shed new light on the doctrinal matters at work (i). In the pursuit of such a goal, Coolman’s book accomplishes its task, indeed as the first book-length treatment of Gallus in English, which will surely mark this book as an important work in the field of medieval theology, history of dogma, and systematics.

There are two necessarily-interwoven aspects of Gallus’s theology in play in this book. The first is that Gallus stands in the Dionysian tradition of medieval theology; and the second is that Gallus is himself a theologian extrapolating certain concepts building from that foundation in Pseudo-Dionysius. In the process, what Coolman seeks to do is to establish Gallus’s unique and important part in medieval doctrinal development—of note is the mediation of certain ideas on the affective dimension of knowledge to Bonaventure and The Cloud of Unknowing by Gallus (13-15). He does this by establishing seven features concerning Gallus’s thought: 1) the impact of a dynamic hierarchy of affective and intellectual cognition, rather than strict upper and lower conception; 2) through this dynamic proceeding and the return of the higher and lower orders in the soul, the soul becomes more ordered through its operations as it joins in union with God; 3) the affective dimension of cognition is not an anti-intellectual concept, but one in which the soul can most be affected; 4) a Christocentrism in which Christ engages the affective dimension to overcome the dilemma present in Pseudo-Dionysius’s apophaticism; 5) the soul is a hierarchy by nature; 6) a capacity resides in the soul for the very exceeding of the self—ecstasy; and 7) this is best understood within a framework of Gallus’s trinitarian metaphysics (22-27). Each of these aspects is woven through the course of this book, and Coolman more than adequately accomplishes his task in the ensuing pages.

Coolman traces these aspects in four parts. The first part, consisting of three chapters, discusses the basic structures of Gallusian thought, covering the Trinity as the fullness of divine goodness (chap. 1); the creation as proceeding from and returning to its origin in that source of the fullness of goodness (chap. 2); and the human nature as receptive and ecstatic within the context of a metaphysical “remaining” (chap. 3). The second part consists of four chapters on intellectual cognitio Dei as being subsumed into the higher aspects of the soul (chap. 4); the ecstatic process of knowing exceeding created realities and the knower (chap. 5); the higher mode of intellectual knowledge in the upper parts of the hierarchy that builds upon, and only makes sense in the context of, the anthropology laid out previously (chap. 6); and the affective dimension of cognition that unites the soul to God (chap. 7). Part 3 consists of a single chapter on the downward movement of the hierarchy of cognition in the soul, namely the affective dimension taking up into itself the intellectual dimension and affective knowledge fueling intellectual profundity (chap. 8). The last part deals with metaphysical remaining that is the source and effect of the ascent/descent concept of Gallus’s hierarchy (chap. 9). The conclusion draws all of these elements together, forcefully demonstrating the success of what Coolman sought to argue from the introduction. He does this while weaving the seven elements throughout, but always in a logical and clear manner through each chapter.

There are a few criticisms that one can lodge against this work. For one, this is the first published treatment of this subject in English, and as such, it has no published comparison or contrast, though works will surely arise to challenge or enhance its arguments. One may be warned that this work presumes a solid grounding in the Dionysian corpus and the tradition of the medieval theologians held in its sway, but this is a warning to potential readers—not a critique, but this book is demanding. One of the strengths of the book is that it is densely argued in an economical length, yet clear in almost every line written, which is no small feat in theology, historical or systematic. Coolman provides a helpful and enlightening scope by pointing to figures in the historical vicinity of Gallus such as Richard of St. Victor, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas. There is engagement with specialist scholars in the field, for example, Paul Rorem and Declan Lawell as well as prominent theologians of the twentieth century such as Marie-Dominque Chenu and Hans von Balthasar. One could have hoped, perhaps, for fuller exploration and engagement where such interesting points of contact with thinkers closer to the present are intimated.

All of this, however, is to say that Coolman’s book is a key starting point to further reflection on the variety of theological issues addressed here, and it is a helpful work for future reflection on the possibilities of the Dionysian tradition, as well as contextually aware readings of figures in that tradition which contribute to contemporary theological discussion. One can see the positive effect that will, hopefully, accompany the reception of this book by the field of Christian theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark P. Hertenstein is an indepdendent scholar.

Date of Review: 
July 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Boyd Taylor Coolman is associate professor of theology at Boston College. His research interests are in the history of Christian theology, particularly in the medieval period. He is especially interested in the life and thought of the Victorines in the first half of the twelfth century and in developments in early thirteenth-century scholastic theology at the Universities of Paris and Oxford. His publications include The Theology of Hugh of St. Victor: An Interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and Knowing God by Experience: The Spiritual Senses in the Theology of William of Auxerre (Catholic University of America, 2016).


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