- Writings on Church and Reform
Writings on Church and Reform marks a major advance in scholarship on Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64). In the familiar I Tatti format of Latin texts with facing translations, it makes available a wide range of Nicholas's political and ecclesiastical works. Until now these have been represented in English mainly by The Catholic Concordance (1991), an early work (1433) that Cusanus wrote at the Council of Basel to defend conciliar authority. While Writings includes three selections from this early period, its main contribution is fourteen later works (1438- ) where Nicholas defends Pope Eugenius IV, and revises his ecclesiology and reform agenda to accent papal authority. The book thus dramatically broadens our view of Nicholas's thought on ecclesiastical matters throughout his career. By doing so, it enriches our understanding of his biography and philosophy-theology.
Especially important for the biography are six texts under the heading "The Hercules of the Eugenians," Aeneas Sylvius's title for Nicholas as advocate for Pope Eugenius IV. Cusanus's most controversial career move occurred in 1437, when he left the Council of Basel to support Eugenius's efforts towards a council of union with the Greek church. After Basel elected an antipope, Nicholas vigorously defended Eugenius's cause throughout Germany. The long memorandum of Cusanus's three-day "Oration at the Diet of Frankfurt" parades citations of canon [End Page 1238] law to persuade the German nobles to ally themselves with Pope Eugenius. In the "Dialogue against the Amedeists" —who supported Basel's anti-pope, Amadeus of Savoy —a Disciple asks a Master about "things which seem . . . contradictory in you" (273) concerning his turn to Eugenius. Izbicki suggests that here "Cusanus was working out the implications of his break with Basel even as the council's apologists were quoting his earlier works against him" (xii-xiii). Both the "Oration" and the "Dialogue" stress dissension at Basel, Eugenius's transfer of the council to Ferrara-Florence, and the "pressing concern" of reunion with the Greeks (309) as reasons for supporting Eugenius over Basel.
Several texts weave Nicholas's speculative themes into his ecclesiastical analyses. A work from his years at Basel, "To the Bohemians: On the Use of Communion," sketches his Eucharistic theology and reflects on history, changing rites, and Church authority. Beginning with On Learned Ignorance (1440) and On Conjectures (1441-42), Cusanus wrote a series of philosophical-theological works. The "Letter to Rodrigo Sánchez de Arévalo" (1443) invokes the "rules of learned ignorance" to envision a "conjectural Church," which reflects Christ within the sensible, historical world. Christ "enfolds" or contains the entire Church within himself; similarly, Peter "enfolds" the earthly Church, and thus enjoys a "plenitude of power" over it (439). The "Letter" then traces this scheme's policy implications for the papacy. Izbicki highlights another, more pervasive theological theme in these writings: "The Christian was to achieve reform by Christiformitas, conforming his life and devotion to Jesus himself" (xv). For only in this way can Christians, especially clergy and leaders, build up the Church. Several sermons develop this theme through biblical texts and images. I find the book's most polished and moving text in Sermon 280, on the parable of the good shepherd. As Nicholas urges the clergy of Brixen to be "Christiform shepherds" (491), the parable yields a lyrical Christology that fuses complex theology with rich, evocative images of protecting and feeding. Christiformity also drives Nicholas's last major policy statement, "A General Reform of the Church" (1459).
Writings on Church and Reform presents Nicholas not only as a fierce lawyer and vigorous polemicist, but also as a thoughtful and self-critical pastor and theologian. The book tracks his changing ecclesiology and reform agenda throughout his controversial career. Yet as a philosopher, I am most impressed by how clearly it highlights the interplay between the speculative and practical in Nicholas's life and work. Cusanus scholarship has rarely recognized this interplay...