Celebrations of Learned Men: Nibley, Schoolmen, and the Denial of Revelation

Worlds Without End is once again pleased to host Allen Hansen. Allen is originally from Israel, but is currently studying journalism at Utah State University. He is a regular commenter here at WWE and has authored a couple previous posts, including one that was presented at the 2013 Mormon Scholars in the Humanities conference. The following was originally post at his personal blog, Calba Savua’s Orchard. Welcome back, Allen!

Moses Maimonides, Jewish Quarter of Cordoba, Spain

Moses Maimonides, Jewish Quarter of Cordoba, Spain

John Gee posted an interesting Hugh Nibley quote in a recent blog post:

I have discussed the supplanting of the gospel by the teaching of the schools (in ancient times, that is) in a number of studies, but to show what I mean, one example close to home will suffice. On 23 March 1955, I engaged in a public discussion in Salt Lake with my friend Sterling McMurrin. I closed my rather feeble address with the words, “At this point (i.e., after we have discovered the depths of our own ignorance) we can begin the study of the gospel; there is no further need for waiting around until ‘history’ can make up its mind.” Immediately Sterling (for it was his turn to speak) arose and introduced his own discourse by saying, “now we will hear the real gospel.” This brought a round of applause from the university crowd–did they realize what it meant? It was a frank declaration that the celebrations of the learned men and not the utterances of the prophets comprise the gospel. This has been the credo of the Christian schoolmen since the days of Clement of Alexandria: the university–Christian, Moslem, Jewish, or pagan–has its own religion, and the basic tenet of that religion is the denial of revelation.” (Hugh Nibley, “Nobody to Blame,” CWHN 17: 128-29.)[1]

Sterling McMurrin, of course, was an LDS philosopher often critical of the church, but still fairly sympathetic to it.[2] Here he forms one half of a classic Nibley construct- the inherent dichotomy between the scholar and the man of god. When institutionalized, such learning becomes a counterfeit gospel, a false priesthood at odds with and fatal to the true gospel.[3]

You see the point: The scholar and learned divine must necessarily get their knowledge from the written word, and then trouble begins. The prophet, on the other hand, who may well be illiterate, gets his knowledge by direct intercourse with heaven. The orientation of the two is entirely different.[4]

It seems a little inconsistent  for a tenured professor to have held those views, but whatever his beliefs, Nibley was nothing if not sincere. At times he even expressed a more-or-less favorable opinion of scholars:

Lehi takes his place among the titans of the early sixth century; a seeker after righteousness, a prophet, a poet, a scholar, a man of the world, a great leader, and a founder of nations. A thoroughly typical product, we might add, of 600 B.C. and of no other period in history.[5]

While there is some truth to Nibley’s claim that pneumatic authority was marginalized, I. E., that the “lights went out,”[6] I contend that his view misunderstands the medieval philosophical and scholastic traditions. Taken as a whole, each of these three religions- Judaism, Christianity, Islam- revolved around revealed tradition. Revelation was central to each, and scholars for the most part agreed that there was a limit to what could be discovered and grasped by human intellectual effort. Divine revelation bridged that gap between man and God, but the rest could, and, indeed, should, be explored to the fullest extent possible.

The 15th century Karaite authority, Elijah Bashyatchi, stressed that accepting a revealed truth or commandment ought to precede all other inquiries into it:

The proper thing for every believer in the Law is to receive these ordinances first by tradition, and only afterward, with the help of his divine Rock, to seek the knowledge of the cause for every ordinance, according to its interpretations, particulars, and biblical examples. This is the way of him who desires and longs for moral perfection… If he were to endeavor first to learn the reasons and the biblical examples for every commandment, and accept it by tradition only afterward, he would be like a man who refuses to eat bread until he learns how it was sown, how it was harvested, how it was ground, and how it was baked, and who would consequently go hungry a long time until he shall have learned its causes and beginnings.[7]

The great scholar of esoteric Islam, Henri Corbin, pointed out that for Muslim philosophers, their Greek and Hellenistic counterparts had partaken of revelation, and thus their science was itself a facet of prophetic inspiration:

The term hikmah is the equivalent of the Greek sophia, and the term hikmat ilahlyah is the literal equivalent of the Greek theosophia. Metaphysics is generally defined as being concerned with the ilahiyat, the Divinalia. The term ‘ilm ilahi (scientia divina) cannot and should not be translated by the word theodicy. Muslim historians, from al-Shahrastani in the twelfth century to Qutb-al-Din Ashkivari in the seventeenth, take the view that the wisdom of the ‘Greek sages’ was itself also derived from the ‘Cave of the lights of prophecy’… Philosophical enquiry (tahqiq) in Islam was most ‘at home’ where the object of meditation was the fundamental fact of prophecy and of the prophetic Revelation, with the hermeneutical problems and situation that this fact implies. Thus philosophy assumes the form of ‘prophetic philosophy’… Correspondingly, it is not possible to speak of hikmah in Islam without speaking of mysticism—without speaking, that is to say, of Sufism both from the point of view of its spiritual experience and from that of its speculative theosophy, which has its roots in Shiite esotericism. As we shall see, al-Suhrawardi and, after him, the whole school of ishraqiyun directed their efforts to uniting philosophical enquiry with personal spiritual realization. In Islam above all, the history of philosophy and the history of spirituality are inseparable.[8]

Not only was Islamic philosophical enquiry concerned with a revealed text and tradition, gaining “knowledge by direct intercourse with heaven,” was not seen as inimical to the scholastic pursuit. The Ishraqi school, a highly influential school of thought in the Muslim world, even considered it the defining feature of acquiring knowledge.

In the Latin West, the attitude of the scholastics to prophecy was complex, but for the famed doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, Thomas Aquinas, revelation still stood at the basis of God’s relationship to man.

Thomas Aquinas expresses in his De ente et essentia the relationship between the Creator and the fallen creature. According to the idea of the analogia entis, an analogy will always exist between God and man. This analogy is based in man’s being created in God’s image, which is expressed primarily in man’s reason, the direct place of encounter between him and God. For Thomas and the entire Scholastic tradition, reason is seen as the umbilical cord between God and man, and yet reason in itself will never sufce to fully understand and know God. Even if the analogia entis teaching expresses that there is and remains an analogy between God and man, it is far more important to acknowledge in this analogy a greater difference: while man and God can meet, this meeting can occur only on the condition that God never can be completely or fully comprehended.

This continued analogy guarantees the possibility that God can lift the veil that lies between himself and man and communicate himself to man. Although before the Fall there was continued openness, after it revelation was required whereby man might commune with God. And if the continued analogy makes continued revelation possible, God’s love makes it necessary. During the entire history of Israel, the prophets are the champions of continued openness and communication between God and man, his instruments through which he seeks to reestablish the broken unity. It is this revealing activity of God’s love that is continued in the vocation of the Christian prophets, whereby Christian prophecy may be seen as the most immediate expression of God’s revealing activity. It is immediate because not only is it a sign of God’s general revealing activity, but it is, in itself, a type of experienced revelation.[9]

Here, too, man experiences direct communication from God, and this experience is to culminate in man’s ultimate goal- union with God.

Prophecy is revealing in its mode, inasmuch the prophet considers his or her experience a form of direct communication from God through which God reveals his truths. Second, Prophecy is revealing in its scope, inasmuch as God through the prophet seeks to attain the goal of his activity, namely, to lead man back to his original union with God.[10]

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, or more commonly in English, Maimonides, was the seminal figure of medieval Judaism. Physician, scientist, religious codifier, theologian, scholar, politician, philosopher, and benefactor of wide-flung Jewish communities, it is hard to exaggerate Maimonides’ influence on both his contemporaries and subsequent generations, down to the Judaism of today. Maimonides was also widely read in a Latin translation, where his Guide for the Perplexed with its resolution of the supposed inconsistencies between the Bible and the science of the day in turn influenced the scholastics.

As Abraham Joshua Heschel noted, Maimonides (oft considered the arch-rationalist) was practically obsessed with the idea of prophecy:

During his youth, he delved into the arcana of prophecy, and his deep thoughts about it became the nucleus of his intellectual and spiritual life. Only this personal motive offers an explanation for the extraordinary centrality of prophecy in Maimonides’ philosophy, for the intellectual passion with which he asked himself these questions.[11]

A recent academic study highlighted the centrality of the Torah in Maimonides’ thought:

The prophecy of Moses is distinguished from the prophecy of other prophets in four respects. The most significant of these differences is that “the prophets other than Moses received prophecy in an allegory or riddle, while Moses received his prophecy clearly and lucidly.”

From this description it follows, as Maimonides states, that Moses’ prophecy was rooted in the intellect alone, while the prophecy of the other prophets depended on the human imagination and the senses. Describing the prophecy of Moses in the seventh of his thirteen principles, Maimonides wrote: “There remained no veil he did not rend and penetrate, nothing physical to hold him back, no deficiency, great or small, to confuse him. All his powers of sense and imagination were suppressed, and pure reason alone remained.” Thus, the Law of Moses, the Torah, is as close to reason, that is philosophy, as any law can be. This closeness leads Maimonides to emphasize, in his legal writings, that halakhah is based primarily on the Torah, rather than on rabbinic deductions. For the same reason, he relies on the philological considerations laid out in the Treatise on the Art of Logic for his interpretation of the Bible for the masses; it is in this way that he can bring their understanding of the biblical text, and particularly their understanding of the nature of God, closer to philosophic truth. Finally, syllogisms listed in the Treatise on the Art of Logic—again philosophic arguments—make it possible for him to show the religious person who has studied philosophy that no contradiction exists between biblical teachings, correctly interpreted, and philosophic truths.[12]

The Torah’s importance for Maimonides stemmed from it being a revealed text, and not only that, but revealed by the highest level of prophecy attainable by man. The talmuds were secondary in importance (though still authoritative) when it came to establishing legal rulings, as the reasoning was a natural, human process and thus inferior to the pure reason of revelation.

There is much more that could be said on the topic, but Nibley’s sharp dichotomy between schoolmen and revelation simply does not withstand scrutiny. Not for Islam, not for Christianity, not for Judaism. The university- or the pursuit of knowledge in general- is no more in opposition to the gospel than any other human endeavor could be. It all depends on how we approach it. Do we exclude the sphere of the university from true religion, or do we make the gospel a part of our lives, everywhere?


[1] http://fornspollfira.blogspot.com/2013/08/a-little-nibley.html

[2] As an example, see https://dialoguejournal.com/wpcontent/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V17N01_20.pdf

[3] Hugh Nibley, Leaders and Managers: http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=578.
For a critique of another false dichotomy in Nibley’s commencement speech, see http://www.withoutend.org/boss-critique-nibleys-leaders-managers/

[4] Nibley, “Prophets and Scholars,” in The World and the Prophets. http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=54&chapid=489

[5] Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1979), 39. http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=60&chapid=581. Even this positive appraisal was qualified: “Lest we hastily conclude that Lehi was but a typical wise man of his age, and no more, we have but to set up his story and his sermons beside the stories and sermons of his great contemporaries of the East and West. What a contrast! For all their moral fervor, nothing could be less like the inspired utterances of the man from Jerusalem than the teachings of the great Greeks, with their worldly wisdom and their bleak pessimism.” (An Approach…, p. 43-44.)

[6] A representative example of Nibley’s view on apostasy is found in his “The Passing of the Primitive Church: Forty Variations on an Unpopular Theme,” in When the Lights Went Out: Three Studies on the Ancient Apostasy. http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=43&chapid=217

The call to repentance of the apostolic fathers is a last call; they labor the doctrine of the Two Ways as offering to Christian society a last chance to choose between saving its soul by dying in the faith or saving its skin by coming to terms with the world. They have no illusions as to the way things are going: the church has lost the gains it once made, the people are being led by false teachers, there is little to hinder the fulfillment of the dread (and oft-quoted) prophecy, “the Lord shall deliver the sheep of his pasture and their fold and their tower to destructions.” The original tower with its perfectly cut and well-fitted stones is soon to be taken from the earth, and in its place will remain only a second-class tower of defective stones which could not pass the test… The apostolic fathers take their leave of a church not busily engaged in realizing the kingdom but fast falling asleep; the lights are going out, the Master has departed on his long journey, and until he returns all shall sleep. What lies ahead is the Wintertime of the Just, the time of mourning for the Bridegroom, when men shall seek the Lord and not find him, and “seek to do good, but no longer be able to.

The talmudic pericope on the controversy of the oven of achnay depicts the tension between pneumatic authority on the one hand, and the idea expressed in the talmudic dicta “a sage is greater than a prophet,” and “prophecy has been taken away from the prophets and has been given to the sages,” on the other. Even here, however, the question is nuanced. If God gave the law to his legislators, are they allowed to arrive at their own interpretations, conclusions, and rulings, or not?

[7] Elijah Bashyatchi, Adderet Eliyahu, as quoted in Leon Nemoy, Karaite Anthology: Excerpts from the Early Literature (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1952), 242.

[8] Henry Corbin, The History of Islamic Philosophy (Kegan Paul International: London and New York, 1993), xv-xvi. http://www.amiscorbin.com/textes/anglais/Hist_Iran_Phil_Corbin_part_I.pdf.
For example, even the pagan god Hermes Trismegistus was considered to be the prophet Idris, that is, Enoch. This facilitated Muslim adoption of the science in the Corpus Hermeticum. See Kevin van Bladel, The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Following the term coined by Marsilio Ficino, this concept in Christian thought is generally termed prisca theologia. Rabbi Yosef Shelomo Delmedigo expressed one of the Jewish approaches to this: “Plato’s opinions are similar to the opinions of the Sages of Israel and in a few instances it appears that he spoke as a Kabbalist. No fault can be found in his words, and why should we not accept them, for they belong to us, and were inherited by the Greeks from our ancient fathers?” For the fuller quote, and a discussion of the various prisca theories, see Moshe Idel, “Prisca Theologia in Marsilio Ficino and in Some Jewish Treatments,” in Michael J. B. Allen, Valery Rees, and Martin Davies, ed., Marsilio Ficino, His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy (Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2002) 137-158.

[9] Niels Christian Hvidt, Christian Prophecy: The Post Biblical Tradition (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 124.

[10] Ibid., 125.

[11] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Maimonides: A Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983), 26. See also the essay on Maimonides in Heschel’s Prophetic Inspiration After the Prophets: Maimonides and Other Medieval Authorities, ed. Morris M. Faierstein (Hoboken: Ktav Publ. House, 1996).

[12] Arthur Hyman, “Maimonides as Biblical Exegete,” in Dobbs-Weinstein, Goodman, Grady, ed., Maimonides and His Heritage (New York: State University of New York Press, 2008), 10.


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