In the preface translated and published in the last issue of Christian Culture Philipp Nicolai introduces two mysteries which he says all Christian pilgrims in this vale of tears must know, namely, the theory and practice of eternal life. These two mysteries are treated in two major works, Theory of Eternal Life (1606) and Practice of Eternal Life (1619)1, which together represent the culmination of Nicolai’s deep thoughts on the topic. The following translation is the second in a three-part Nicolai series, excerpted from Book II, Chapter 2 of the Theory of Eternal Life.
My soul asks, “Beloved, what kind of a life is this eternal life in which you so greatly rejoice and which you praise as so blessed, so exceedingly blessed, before the children of this world? ‘I meditate within my heart,’ says David, ‘and my spirit makes diligent search’ [Ps. 77]. Beloved, what opportunity is there for us in this heavenly life and in its eternal goodness?”
To this I respond with joy, and as carefully and clearly as one can: “Listen, my soul. Eternal life is a sweet fellowship2, bond3, linkage4, and communion5 of all God-fearing and pious Christians with the only begotten Son of God and, through the Son, with the eternal Father and Holy Spirit. Yet such sweet fellowship consists in and is grounded in love and requited love. That is, that God lovingly knows us and in turn is lovingly known by us, and that by means of such love and requited love, as through a heavenly covenant and by spiritual pleasure, we have our existence and the joyful bliss of our hearts in God the Almighty. Moreover, God the Father, together with His only begotten Son and God the Holy Spirit, also resides, lives, and rests in every elect Christian through such a covenant of love and requited love as in His noble pleasure-home and palace and makes him a partaker of His divine nature. (…)
Dear children of the light, that the true kernel and sweet sap of this precious mystery might be revealed to us all the more, let us now all together properly consider these three points: first, what is God according to His essence; second, what opportunity is there in the fellowship between Him and us, His chosen children; and third, how far or wide does such a fellowship extend?
I cannot refrain from speaking with God my Lord and Savior like a child, and from asking Him so fairly, “Who are you, my God, You Maker of my body and soul? And what is Your essence? Oh, grant that I may learn to know You rightly. Show Yourself to me in Your revealed Holy Word, that I may find You and rightly know who You are.” My most beloved Savior Jesus Christ answers, “God is My Spirit” (Jn. 4). And the Apostle St. John says, “God is love” (1 Jn. 4). Oh how good it is, and sufficient for a blessed beginning, to hear that God is a spiritual being whose very essence is love. (…) I no longer allow myself to lose hold of these precious words, but rather diligently ponder them and understand them just as they are written. And so when I am asked who God really is, I learn to speak with Scripture and answer with Christ, “God is Spirit,” and with St. John, “God is love.”
It is true that love is also attributed to the children of man—for it is often rightly said that one loves another and that we ought to love among ourselves. But such a love in man is only a qualitas6, a created virtue. In contrast, God is the essential love, that is, neither a qualitas nor a created virtue, but an eternal, unending, and almighty spirit and the divine essence itself.
This unending, almighty, and eternal essence (as has been said) is nothing else than love itself, and all the works of this divine essence, the internal as well as the external, and the external as well as the internal, together with all its attributes, cry out to me and testify that God Himself is love. Now when I consider the internal works of the divine essence, God’s Word tells me that in God there is an eternal begetting, the image of the begetter, which sits eternally in the bosom of the begetter, and a proceeding breath, which the begetter and begotten image together eternally breathe out so that He eternally proceeds from both. The eternal begetter is the Father, the eternally begotten image is the Son, and the eternally proceeding breath is the Holy Spirit. Where else does this begetting come from than from love? (…) Now if this eternal begetting, this eternally being begotten, and this eternal proceeding from the begetter and from the begotten are the opera Trinitatis interna, that is, the internal works of the holy, highly praised Trinity within the eternal and unending essence of the Almighty, what else do they teach and testify to us than that God Himself is love?
Now when I arrive at the external works of God, as in the creation, the redemption of the human race, the regeneration of man, the revelation of God in the law and gospel, and in all works of His governance, I again find that God Himself is love. For He loves all things that are, does not hate what He has made, and gives us His dear Son out of fervent love. He also pours out His love into our hearts in the sending of the Holy Spirit. And in the law He demands from us principally nothing else, as His chief mandate, than love toward Him and our neighbor. Likewise, He proclaims to us His sincere love in the holy gospel, shown to all the world in Christ Jesus. He protects out of love the whole Christian Church on earth. He nourishes and sustains us out of love. And when He is angry, punishes, and curses, all this He does as a one who is zealous, that is, on account of His offended love and for the salvation of His name, because He Himself is called love and therefore must of necessity resist all works of hate. See how strongly and mightily the external works of the Almighty, which St. Augustine calls opera Trinitatis extra, also testify that God Himself is love. (…)
Let this much be said concerning the first point. Now for the second point, it is truly a great glory and inexpressible blessing that this great God and holy Lord of Sabaoth (who is essential love itself) unites, binds, and keeps Himself in loving fellowship with us (who are but dust and clay). Therefore it may well be asked in amazement, “Beloved, what kind of a fellowship is this, and what opportunity do we have in it?” (…)
Now it is God Himself who, according to His very essence, is eternal, unending, and almighty love. (…) And as it pertains to the three persons of this divine essence, God the Father is the heart, fountain, and headspring of eternal immeasurable love. The Son, however, is the aeternus logos, ratio, sapientia, vita, imago,7 that is, the eternal reason, wisdom, eye, mirror, appearance, image, and soul of the eternal and unending love within the Father’s heart. And the Holy Spirit is the strength, the breath, and the movement of eternal, unending love in the Father and the Son, as in the heart and soul of the Godhead.
From this we deduce that the Christian truly must have a heavenly life and fellowship with God in which God the Father kindly condescends out of fervent, sincere love with the image of His essence, namely, with His only begotten Son, logo aeterno, the eternal wisdom, reason, soul, thoughts, life, and the eye of His love. And with such lovely mien and penetrating, sincere expression He pours out His Holy Spirit, the holy and heavenly seed and breath of His essence. For it is just in this way that He possesses, imbues, inflames, and fills all righteous Christians so lovingly that in return they open wide the eyes of their hearts toward the Son of God, logon aeternum, the heavenly light and mirror of the almighty Father, and lay hold of Him in His revealed Word. They let His voice be more delightful to them than gold or silver and let it taste sweeter to them than sugar, honey, and the honeycomb. They view the fair countenance of the Father nowhere else than in the Son, aeterno logo, in the mirror and image of His glory, taking joy and receiving their heart’s desire in such a heavenly expression. Moreover, they commit their bodies and souls to Him as His possession and everlasting dwelling place, allowing themselves to be governed, guided, and led by His Spirit and breath.
Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the heavenly orator, counselor, and interpreter of the heavenly Father, calls this fellowship, using one intelligible little word, the knowledge of the true God and of Him whom He has sent, His only begotten Son (Jn. 17). Mark this well and diligently observe it. For wherever any true love, any works of loving refreshment, loving joy, and loving fellowship are described in God’s Word, as for example in conjugal love and in the conjugal relation of husband and wife (in which is there joy, pleasure, and unity8), the word know is given, and in it is understood all the works of gentle love. “Adam,” says Scripture, “knew his wife Eve” (Gen. 4). (…)
In the same way, this eternal heavenly life is also a pure and lovely knowledge filled with sweet heavenly pleasure. For my soul is wonderfully known by God’s Son, my Creator, Lord, and Savior, as a bride by her bridegroom, unto spiritual union. And I in turn blessedly know Him, to the eternal praise, glory, and honor of God, and to my eternal salvation and fellowship with the divine nature. (…)
The heavenly life of a Christian is therefore a sweet knowledge, a lamp in his heart, a pleasure of his soul, a joy of his spirit, and a knowledge that surpasses all the science of this world, all the earthly wisdom of man, and all art and experience of the learned heathen. For wherever a Christian denies himself and commits to this One his body and soul, there is a knowledge of sweet love, inflamed by a sincere kiss and fervent desire. With such knowledge he practically jumps out of his own skin toward this one object9, grasping and clinging to it. And that other object10 to which he turns and directs such knowledge, namely, all his thoughts, his heart, soul, love, desire, passion, confidence, rest, longing, kiss, joy, and all he has been given,11 is neither gold nor silver, neither the pleasure of his eyes or flesh nor some pompous being of this fleeting world. It is neither heaven nor earth nor any mere creature, however it be named, but rather (oh, the exuberant eternal glory!) such knowledge reaches God, clings to God, and possesses God in heaven—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, the true God, one in essence and Trinitarian in person—and nothing higher, nothing better, nothing lovelier may be preferred to Him.
Here follows now the third question. (…) How closely and deeply can such a fellowship reach? Is such a bond and union to a spirit like many citizens being one corpus12 or like Christian spouses, man and wife, according to God’s institution being one body, one flesh, and one blood13?
Answer: O my dear soul, this heavenly fellowship (where God and His elect are knit and bound together) reaches far more deeply than civil community or than the loving marital union between God-fearing spouses could ever reach. For our blessed fellowship with God reaches ad mutuam immigrationem et inhabitationem,14 that is, unto the lovely inhabitation of one being in the other, so that, namely, the Lord our God through sweet love and requited love considers and knows us as a possession in which He powerfully, kindly, and so lovingly resides and dwells with His divine nature, Spirit, and gifts. And in return, He causes us to be in Him and to have in God our Lord and Savior our rest, our joy, our sweet life, and all our pleasure, and to consider Him our heart’s sole inhabiting comfort, inhabiting power, and inhabiting eternal salvation, so that I say to Him: “Lord, You joy of my heart, You strength of my life, and my highest treasure in my inward part, my highest good, when I only have You I ask nothing of heaven and earth. And when my body and soul pine, then You, God, are the comfort of my heart and my confidence forever” (Ps. 73). (…)
Therefore it is said, and I also can say: “God is in me, and I am in God my Lord and Savior.” For here one dwells, rests, and keeps himself in the other through a wonderfully sweet, lovely, and wholly joyous commercium15, or fellowship—that is, God the highest Majesty, the eternal Father, together with His only begotten Son and Holy Spirit, with fervent sincere love for man comes in the Word, with the Word, and through the Word (where in His name it is preached, heard, and clung to by believing hearts) into me and gives Himself to me with His bountiful goods as my possession, so that He Himself deigns to be my greatest treasure, my very great reward, my life, my joy, and the inner light of my soul. He occupies and wholly seizes me—my heart, my soul, my body, and all my members—and knows me so exactly and intimately that all the hairs upon my head are known and numbered by Him, and that I am with both body and soul His temple, palace, and possession and am entirely owned by Him. (…)
It is indeed a strong bond of my body and soul that the two creatures, body and soul, are one person, and that my body exists, moves, and lives by the indwelling of the soul. But this life is by far not to be compared with my heavenly life, whereby I say with St. Paul that it is not I, but rather God’s Son who dwells and lives in me with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and who is the life of my soul, the joy of my heart, and the power of my spirit. Such a heavenly life bestows and creates in me a joyful and invigorated spirit (which no earthly life either does or can do), so that I can overcome the world, move mountains, drive away the devil, destroy my enemies all around (since they surround me as thick as bees) in the name of the Lord, and perform great wonders. For I am stronger than a lion, immortal, knowing nothing of death or of the power of hell, but rather I scorn death, devil, hell, the whole world, and all foes and bravely cry: “I defy you, O death, and you, O hell, and you, all wicked spirits and tyrants, all you who would bereave me of my life! Be shattered, O you peoples, and be cursed” (Is. 8). “O death, where is your sting? O hell, where is your victory?” (1 Cor. 15). “I go forth in the strength of the Lord God” (Ps. 71). “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4). “By my God I can leap over a wall” (Ps. 18).
Behold, you children of the light, the joyous boldness and the power and strength that eternal heavenly life bestows and creates in me, which is therefore far more greatly to be preferred to my natural life, just as the heavens are higher than the earth, and as eternal heavenly goods are exceedingly more greatly to be preferred to temporal goods. (…)
Therefore a child of the light says, “Farewell, O world, with all your prideful pomp. Farewell with your lustful eyes and flesh and with your whole arrogant life. Depart all wisdom, strength, and wealth, which neither is nor is called the blessed knowledge of God. The Lord does not delight in the strength of the horse, nor does He take pleasure in the legs of man, but rather delights in them that rightly know Him and wait for His goodness and are attentive to His Word, that He may reside and dwell in them. Therefore I will make my boast in the Word of God. I will boast in the Word of the Lord. I boast that He has let me know His secret wisdom, and I say to my soul, “Now bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits” (Ps. 103). Amen.
1 Posthumously written and published by Nicolai’s friend and assistant at St. Katherine’s in Hamburg, George Dedeken.
7 eternal word, reason, wisdom, life, image
11 all sein datum
13 ein Blut; cp. text from paragraph omitted above, “daß der Mann sein Weib sich so nahe zu ihr helt … und helt sie aus Gottes keuscher Ordnung für sein Fleisch und sein Blut.”
14 unto the mutual moving into and dwelling in15 lit. social intercourse; reference to the right of Roman citizens to form contracts and own property under Roman law.