Sunday, March 09, 2008

Spinoza's Christ

Previously I mentioned a passage from Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in which Spinoza speaks of Christ in very laudatory terms:

We may be able quite to comprehend that God can communicate immediately with man, for without the intervention of bodily means He communicates to our minds His essence; still, a man who can by pure intuition comprehend ideas which are neither contained in nor deducible from the foundations of our natural knowledge, must necessarily possess a mind far superior to those of his fellow men, nor do I believe that any have been so endowed save Christ. To Him the ordinances of God leading men to salvation were revealed directly without words or visions, so that God manifested Himself to the Apostles through the mind of Christ as He formerly did to Moses through the supernatural voice. In this sense the voice of Christ, like the voice which Moses heard, may be called the voice of God, and it may be said that the wisdom of God (i.e. wisdom more than human) took upon itself in Christ human nature, and that Christ was the way of salvation.

In Spinozistic terms, the comparison with Moses is very much in Christ's favor. While Moses is regarded as one of the greater prophets in the Tractatus, 'prophet' always has at least a slightly derogatory tone in Spinoza's works; the prophet is always a sort of poor man's imitation of the philosopher. The phrases by which Christ is described here, e.g., "a man who can by pure intuition comprehend ideas which are neither contained in nor deducible from the foundations of our natural knowledge," on the contrary, are in Spinozistic terms high praise indeed. Indeed, there is no one in all of Spinoza's corpus that Spinoza praises more highly.

Now, at first glance it is slightly odd that a Jewish freethinker would rate Christ so highly. At least, one can assume that he doesn't intend to affirm Christianity in so doing, and that raises the natural question of what he does intend. It might be helpful to add to the mix a passage from a letter Spinoza wrote to Henry Oldenburg:

Lastly, in order to disclose my opinions on the third point, I will tell you that I do not think it necessary, for salvation to know Christ according to the flesh: but with regard to the Eternal Son of God, that is the Eternal Wisdom of God, which has manifested itself in all things and especially in the human mind, and above all in Christ Jesus, the case is far otherwise. For without this no one can come to a state of blessedness, inasmuch as it alone teaches, what is true or false, good or evil. And, inasmuch as this wisdom was made especially manifest through Jesus Christ, as I have said, His disciples preached it, in so far as it was revealed to them through Him, and thus showed that they could rejoice in that spirit of Christ more than the rest of mankind. The doctrines added by certain churches, such as that God took upon Himself human nature, I have expressly said that I do not understand; in fact, to speak the truth, they seem to me no less absurd than would a statement, that a circle had taken upon itself the nature of a square.

All of the passages on Christ that we find in Spinoza's have puzzled commentators, and I don't pretend to have a perfect account. But one of the common interpretations seems to fit the evidence in the best way: Spinoza regards Christ as an exemplary predecessor to his own work. After all, one way to regard Jesus is to think of him as a Jew who broke away from the parochial doctrine of the Pharisees in order to teach a universal morality of love of God and neighbor. Given that Spinoza himself is a Jew who breaks away from the parochial doctrines of rabbinical Judaism (the descendants of the Pharisees) in order to teach a universal morality of love of God and neighbor, I would suggest that this is exactly how he views Christ: Christ is the ideal pre-Spinoza.

And everything seems to bear this out. Spinoza obviously has no interest in seeing Christ as the founder of the Christian Church; he considers the Church to be nothing other than the collapse of Christ's pure doctrine into the darkness of superstition and irrationality. Likewise, he holds that many of the terms in which Christ is described can be seen as metaphorical expressions for the summit of philosophical life. (In a sense, this is doing to Christian doctrine what he already thinks the early Christians did to Jewish doctrines, namely, interpret figuratively things that had originally been taken literally.) He very explicitly makes this move in interpretation in another letter when talking about the resurrection of Christ, which he argues is a spiritual resurrection, a metaphor for Christ's "giving by His life and death a matchless example of holiness", and thus rising above the 'dead', i.e., the people of this world (cf. Mt. 8:22); similarly, his disciples are raised from the dead in the sense that they imitate his life of holiness.

Thus Spinoza accepts that Christ is filled with the Spirit of God -- in the sense that the Idea of God dominates his mind. This idea of God can be called divine Wisdom indwelling the man who is Christ, and since Christ's life perfectly expresses this idea, we can say that divine Wisdom took on human nature in him. Christ is the way of salvation in the sense that he lives a life worthy of all imitation, one governed by reason and love of God and neighbor, that rises above superstition to contemplation of nature; and without the divine Wisdom, i.e., the Idea of God, that we can learn from Christ's example, no one can attain to perfect, stable happiness.


  1. elohimeliseo1:17 AM

    Thank you

  2. Brandon

    Why not just take Spinoza at his word?

    Ps. Spinoza may not have thought of Christ as a philosopher. ..

  3. branemrys7:15 AM

    That's a comment cryptic enough to be unhelpful.

    I do take Spinoza at his word. The question is what Spinoza intends in saying it, on which there is no agreement among those who have commented on it.

  4. branemrys8:49 AM

    When someone with a character like Spinoza's writes something and that notion is consistent in his work, we can assume there is little need for understanding what he is trying to.

    No, this is simply false always. When someone with an intelligence like Spinoza's writes something and people think they understand it easily, they are usually wrong; establishing that someone has understood something adequately requires proof, not assumption.

    That said, the rest of what you say is certainly along the right lines. I don't see, however, what in your clarification is supposed to be inconsistent with anything I said.

  5. Spinoza clearly says salvation is through Christ after the spirit. Christ after the spirit is not merely the temporal historical christ, but it is a thing we engage or 'go through'. Christ after the spirit is real and accessible to us here and now. The spirit of God is ineffable... we do not find salvation through the spirit of God but through Christ after the spirit. Spinoza does not say that christ found salvation through Christ after the spirit, as we might do.

    Christ after the spirit is the spirit of God. As such Christ is not merely a teacher nor version of 'Spinoza' ... Christ after the spirit is the uniquely the Way of salvation.

    I think Spinoza makes this clear in his various works.


  6. branemrys10:32 AM

    Yes -- notice that you are repeatedly having to add the qualification 'after the spirit', as distinguished from what people usually mean, which Spinoza calls 'after the flesh'.

  7. Brandon

    I add it because Spinoza uses the phrase... and cites Paul (Romans I think), which connects Spinoza's use of the notion to Paul's extended discussion. I think most Christian denominations and churches have established themselves "after the flesh" which bothered Paul and which Spinoza (and Quakers/Collegiants) also opposed).

    The "Christ after the spirit" perspective pervades the gospel of John.... which has much in common with Spinoza thinking...


  8. branemrys11:11 AM

    Yes, I am aware he uses the phrase; I. He also occasionally talks about Christ after the flesh, and thus it is important to recognize that he talks in two different ways on this subject, depending on whether he is talking about the Idea of God or the historical figure. The two are linked -- and it is the linkage that is the primary point of contention -- but one cannot treat the claims about the one as exhaustive of his position.

  9. In his letter to Oldenburg he is clear that we do not need to know Christ after the flesh for Salvation, but in regards to Christ after the spirit that is necessary. The disciples knew Christ after the flesh... in most of the Gospels they seem clueless in regards to Christ after the Spirit.

    To be religious as Spinoza defines it, one must intimately know Christ after the spirit. To be pious as Spinoza defines it, a person can follow Christ after the flesh in so far as one's grasp of that is informed by Christ after the spirit. The worship of Christ after the flesh can become idolatrous... as happened all too often.


  10. Incidentally... we only know Christ after the through our bodily organs, by imagination. We know Christ after the spirit from within by scientia intuitiva. ..

  11. branemrys2:37 PM

    Yes, I am aware of that. If you actually bothered to read the post, you would have seen that I quoted the letter from Oldenburg. This is not the point in question, though, since the point of discussion is not Spinoza's account of salvation or his account of piety but Spinoza's complete account of Christ. You repeatedly fail to take Spinoza at his word when he talks about Christ after the flesh, merely because you prefer to talk about Christ after the spirit. But Spinoza very clearly talks about both, because the contrast is essential to his position.

  12. branemrys2:43 PM

    You also, it should be point out, repeatedly fail to talk about the actual man Christ, the historical figure, who is what Spinoza explicitly starts with. The problem is not anything you've said about Christ after the spirit; it's that you keep leaving obvious gaps open that are clearly relevant to Spinoza's actual account of Christ.

  13. Brandon
    Is not the contrast between Christ after the flesh and Christ after the spirit, the same as the contrast between knowledge from or of imagination and knowledge from of intuition? If so, then we can not know Christ after the flesh adequately. What ever the historical was or did has no relevance. Spinoza would not have had much interest in knowing the historical Christ because the historical Christ would have not helped him to achieve his primary life's purpose of finding blessedness. We may adequately Christ after the spirit as the indwelling idea of God causing our spiritual person; but the historical Christ is of no used to us in this regard.
    I have not had much opportunity to share this kind of discussion. So.... thanks.

  14. branemrys6:31 PM

    I don't quite know what your argument is supposed to mean. The contrast can't be the same because 'Christ' and 'knowledge' are not synonymous; the latter is an epistemological distinction concerned with the way things are known and the former a distinction in that which can be meant by the name 'Christ'.

    Spinoza on multiple occasions talks about the man Christ: the man whose voice the Apostles heard, the historical figure Spinoza explicitly singles out in Tractatus as being the man endowed with a mind far superior to his fellow men, the man in whom the Wisdom of God was most clearly manifested, whose doctrine was preached, to the extent that they could discern it, by his disciples. These are all things Spinoza explicitly mentions. It is true that it is the Idea of God = Wisdom of God = Eternal Son of God = Christ after the Spirit that is the fundamental thing; but Spinoza isn't arbitrarily calling this 'Christ Jesus'; he says, more than once, that this was manifested in a particular man, who was called Christ Jesus. It is certainly also not true that Spinoza was uninterested in history; he discusses historical questions at great length in the Tractatus. It is true that other things were regarded by him as more important; it does not follow that we can ignore the actual evidence of his actual words in which he actually talks about that particular man, Christ, who taught in such a way as to manifest the Wisdom of God.

    You originally opened this discussion by asking whether we should take Spinoza at his word. I said yes, we should, and I say so here, too: Spinoza makes specific claims about the particular man called Jesus. He does not think that salvation is found in the historical figure; but he does explicitly say that salvation is found in the Wisdom of God, which that historical figure happened to manifest better than anyone else. It's right there in the Tractatus.


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