Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678): Theology of the heart


Theology is a life and not just an academic discipline, as the title of this blog indicates. The remarkably gifted German-Dutch lay theologian Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678) illustrates this in her Eukleria, one of the major works of the Labidist movement, which was founded by Jean de Labadie (1610-1674). This movement, though Reformed in a general sense, incorporated Jansenist, pietistic, ascetic, sectarian and mystical elements, which are evident in the excerpt below, and thus I advise the reader to “eat the meat and spit out the bones” – the main thing I want to point out in this post is how “head knowledge”, as vital as it indeed may be, is not enough, but must lead to praxis, albeit not necessarily in the pietistic/mystical way Van Schurman describes it. That being said, for a woman she was highly educated by 17th century standards, and excelled in theology, art, music and literature, as well as being proficient in a reported 14 languages. Van Schurman had mastered a wide range of classical medieval theology but found new life in her conversion to Reformed Christianity and in her later association with Jean de Labadie. Although women were not admitted to the university, the prominent professor Gisbertus Voetius allowed her to attend his lectures on theology hidden behind a curtain. She is the first woman to feature on this blog. Her work has so far not received much attention in the English-speaking world. The highly personal nature of her writing is typical of pietism, as can be seen below:

“It appears sufficiently demonstrated [from what I have related about my life] that I have laboured much in superfluous things. For I knew no limit in the pursuit of the academic sciences. Thus I [found that I] had to hasten to the truths of Reformed Theology and to the exercises of holiness to which I [now] subject all other things.

These academic sciences, in which I seemed to have made such [intellectual] progress, while they are blessings, they are judged in the light of the Reformed faith. And so it seemed that [in my studies] I no longer progressed directly and significantly forward but moved only in a circle, finding that, in general and in regarding particular matters, I needed continually to go back to the beginning. Not only did I exercise myself in contemplation of reality, but I also desired in my own way, and within my own limits, the grace to exert myself in positive theology. Just as in most things the comprehension and the thing itself differ completely, so I now learned every day the great distinction between truths grasped in the understanding, which are depicted in the conscience, and the love by which something is appropriated in the heart, between a conversion of the conscience and the [deeper] conversion of the heart, and between conversion itself and progress.

I acknowledge that to a certain extent I understood all of theology and loved it, so that in contemplating it I would well have died. And therefore in order that nothing should slip my mind, and because I did not always know what might happen to me, I devised orderly tables both of theoretical [dogmatic] and of practical theology (that which antiquity called the exercise of ascetism), complete with all their distinctions, subdistinctions, and descriptions. In these tables I could dutifully contemplate all these princes of the sciences as in the blinking of an eye. But what indeed had I more than a mere cultivated form and image of science?

Who can say why I did not rest content in this but along with this knowledge deeply sought to exercise godly fruits of piety? And so I invested a great deal of pious energy in fasting and praying, both in public and in private, in ordinary and extraordinary exercises, and I could gladly be found pursuing these without ceasing… I led others through praying morning and evening at home, and covenanted myself each day so far as was possible to pray alone three times at set hours after the example of the prophet Daniel; and I reckon that this was no unpleasant offering for God because I so singularly sought to do my best, although often in these prayers the heavenly oil and rejoicing were lacking… So that I eventually through experience learned that man in place of [heartfelt prayer] labours in vain with chosen words, that one ought more to use humble sighings and above these must become contemplative. And this agrees with the holy scriptures which command us to pray without ceasing, in spirit and in truth… I think Lactantius has also noticed this when he said that to have a great heart is the best religion. But the apostle has defined it with true evangelical words when he had to address the children of God, saying, ‘The Spirit comes to help us in our weaknesses. I know not what I should pray but the Spirit comes with irrepeatable sighs.’ Therefore it is necessary that the Spirit of Christ be in us for he prays that our heart and strength might be joined with God so that he might sink us into the unending ocean of the divine.”

– Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678), Eukleria, ch. 4