Towards Understanding Revelation


Good afternoon. We are going to starting look at Joachim of Fiore today, a very unique and controversial character. We will look at some of his theories, but not in terrific depth: they are very complex, and that complexity has led to misunderstandings by even his followers. He was well-known into the 18th century, with followers and ideas designated as “Joachite,” and “Joachism.”  Sometime after that he and his ideas fell into relative obscurity, until Marjorie Reeves (1905-2003), a British historian, began to study and write about him. She is still considered the authority on the subject.

Let’s start with a short paragraph from an article entitled THE INFLUENCE OF JOACHIM IN THE 13TH CENTURY, by Frances Andrews. This paragraph sets the scene for this time period:

“The end of the 12th century was one of the periods of great eschatological potential in the medieval Latin west. In October 1187 Jerusalem was lost to a Kurdish sultan, Saladin, and the Crusade campaigns which followed were catastrophic. Tensions between the English and French crowns were at a peak, and in June 1190 the western Emperor, Frederick I Barbarossa, drowned in the river Göksu (Saleph) on his way to the Holy Land. Things were no better in the Iberian peninsula: in July 1195 the Almohad Muslim prince Ya ‘qub I al-Mansur (the victorious) defeated the Christian King Alfonso VIII of Castille at the Battle of Alarcos…Marjorie Reeves, who spent a long life studying Joachim’s influence, summed it up with convenient economy. He was to be renowned as: ‘the prophet of the Antichrist, the interpreter of the seven-headed dragon, the oracle on the fate of Jerusalem, the recipient of a miraculous gift of spiritual understanding, the prophet of the two great mendicant orders, and the proclaimer of 1260 as the year of crisis.’  Of these, the last, at least, would have surprised him: Joachim himself was careful never to specify a date.”

Now let’s look at a little of what Bernard McGinn has to say about Joachim of Fiore in VISIONS OF THE END:

“Joachim of Fiore (c.1135-1202) is not only the most important apocalyptic author of the Middle Ages, but one of the most significant theorists of history in the Western tradition. His writings are extensive — some still are unedited, and others are available only in defective early printings. The secondary literature about the Abbot and his thought is not only vast, but also filled with marked divergences of opinion on central issues…

The Abbot met with many of the important personalities of the day, including Richard the Lionhearted, the Emperor Henry VI, the Empress Constance, Pope Innocent III, and the young Frederick II…Joachim’s thought revolves around three central issues: the interpretation of Scripture, the mystery of the Trinity, and the meaning of history…Like many of the theorists of history of his century, he protested against the rise of Scholasticism, believing that theology could not be distinguished from the interpretation of Scripture…”

Next we will look at a brief synopsis of Joachim’s life from an article entitled DIAGRAMMATIC DESIGN AND THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY IN JOACHIM OF FIORE by Gabor Ambrus, a Postdoc from Charles University in Prague:

“Joachim of Fiore was born around 1135 in Celico, Calabria, which at that time belonged to the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. Trained at the court of justice in Cosenza, as a young man Joachim was destined for the career of an official, but a conversion experience in the Holy Land lead him first to become a lay preacher, then an ordained deacon and finally a Benedictine monk. After being elected abbot of his monastery in Corazzo, Joachim spent one year and a half in the Cistercian monastery of Casamari, where, in order to be able to devote his time to writing, he petitioned Pope Lucius III to allow him to be relieved of his duties, to which the Pope readily agreed. A couple of years later, Joachim retired to a hermitage in Petralata and finally founded a new religious order, the core of which was a monastery at Fiore in Calabria. During his lifetime, Joachim received approbation from no fewer than three Popes, and although his reputation was damaged by the condemnation of one aspect of his doctrine of the Trinity by the Fourth Lateran Council, he continued to be held in high esteem for his holy life by many, including figures of the stature of Dante.”

Returning to VISIONS OF THE END, let’s look at a quote that describes Joachim’s first vision, from “Joachim’s vision of the meaning of Revelation”:

“Having gone through the preceding verses of the Book of Revelation to this place (Rev. 1:10), I experienced such great difficulty and mental constraint beyond the ordinary that it was like feeling the stone that closed the tomb opposed to me…Since I was involved in many things, forgetfulness led the matter far away. After a year, the Feast of Easter came round. Awakening from sleep about midnight, something happened to me as I was meditating on this book, something for which, relying on the gift of God, I am made more bold to write…

“Since some of the mysteries were already understood, but the greater mysteries were yet hidden, there was a kind of struggle going on in my mind…Then, on the above-mentioned night, something like this happened. About the middle of the night’s silence, as I think, the hour when it is thought that our lion of the tribe of Judah rose from the dead, as  I was meditating, suddenly something of the fullness of this book and of the entire agreement of the Old and the New Testaments was perceived by a clarity of understanding in my mind’s eye. The revelation was made when I was not even mindful of the chapter mentioned above.”

Many of us have had such sudden revelations on the meaning of some difficult passage of Scripture that we are studying, and we recognize the underlying excitement in his description. And yet, others may doubt the interpretation, even though we feel strongly that we were lead to it by God. My take on this is that while the Bible is Truth, that Truth can be taken and be effective within us in different ways. As a simple example, let’s look at Mark 4:35-41:

And the same day, when the even was come, he saith unto them, Let us pass over unto the other side. And when they had sent away the multitude, they took him even as he was in the ship.  And there were also with him other little ships. And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full. And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow; and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish? And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith? And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? (KJV)

This passage is usually taken to be about faith; and it can be looked at as about faith in several different ways. But, let’s say that I have been having issues with human weakness, such as falling asleep while praying. I could read this passage and be thunderstruck by this: “…they took him even as he was in the ship…And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow…” Jesus was fully human as well as fully God, and this suggests that He was very humanly tired when He boarded the ship. And even though He would have known that the Apostles would need Him, He fell asleep. I would realize that God and Jesus understand if I fall asleep while praying, and that would be a big important revelation to me. Is it the only possible revelation that could be had from this passage? Of course not, even aside from the concept of faith. Does it make it less Truth if I can have different revelations from it? Of course not; one could make a case that the ability to take many revelations from most Bible passages is part of the reason that it’s Truth.

Joachim was looking for a way to understand Revelation during his time in history. Yes, God could have given him the same vision that He gave John on Patmos, and perhaps, with his human mind, Joachim might have come to a full understanding of Revelation. Most likely, he would not have, and certainly God would have known best on that issue. So, I look at it this way: God gave Joachim a revelation that he could deal with, and that helped him understand his own time better. Is it the only way to look at history or at Revelation? Of course not; as I try to present Joachim’s explanation, some of you will think he was entirely nuts, some will wonder why he bothered, and others of you will resonate with his concept and perhaps think of it as a revelation for yourselves. Whether it speaks to you or not, there is no right or wrong to it. It is not Truth, it is only a possible understanding of a piece of Truth.

Ok, enough philosophizing for now. I’m not going to quote from Marjorie Reeves here. The book I have of hers is very scholarly, and much more detailed than I want to get at this time. There are some good quotes, though, that can be used during the verse by verse to help expound on some of Joachim’s thoughts, so that’s where I will use them.

For now we will move on to the book APOCALYPTIC SPIRITUALITY: TREATISES AND LETTERS OF LACTANIUS, ADSO OF MONTIER-EN-DER, JOACHIM OF FIORE, THE SPIRITUAL FRANCISCANS, SAVONAROLA also by Bernard McGinn, put out by Paulist Press. This book is part of the THE CLASSICS OF WESTERN SPIRITUALITY series. Here is the first bit:

“Joachim of Fiore shares much with the Jewish and Christian apocalyptic prophets and scribes of the biblical period. A sense of immediately impending crisis, more evident in him than in either Lactantius or Adso, provides the motive for the proclamation of his message…Like the prophet Ezekiel whom the Lord had made the watchman over Israel, the Calabrian felt compelled to announce the message of coming doom to his generation. Even though his admonitions to do penance might be disregarded by most, they must still be preached in season and out.

“Powerful as was the abbot’s deep pessimism concerning the coming troubles, in the manner of many Old Testament prophets, or of John of the Apocalypse, he holds out hope for the blessed remnant who will remain faithful during persecution…”

I believe that as the Church started to veer away from the original tenets of the faith, people began to feel uncomfortable and “pessimistic” without always knowing why. My problem with the above quote is the part about “the blessed remnant who will remain faithful during persecution.” If the coming crisis is that of persecution, then this statement is fine. If, on the other hand, the meaning of the coming crisis is the tribulation described by John at Patmos, then we are not talking about “persecution” per se….we are talking about the Wrath of God, in which case: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9; KJV), in other words, the Church should be gone before the Wrath starts.

Mr. McGinn goes a little further here in describing Joachim’s first revelation, and then provides a description of his second:

“…No image or figure accompanied this Christological illumination that was so central to Joachim’s exegesis and theory of history. This is what the Augustinian doctrine of the kinds of visions would term an ‘intellectual vision,’ a truth infallibly revealed without the aid of images internal or external. Here the illumination came first and then Joachim had to seek verbal and visual ways to portray it. But the abbot of Fiore also had ‘spiritual visions’ in the Augustinian sense, that is, showings in which something was revealed through a form or symbol seen within the mind. Joachim describes the one he had on Pentecost Sunday at Casamari in the following words:

“‘In the meantime, when I had entered the church to pray to Almighty God before the holy altar, there came upon me an uncertainty concerning belief in the Trinity as though it were hard to understand or hold that all the Persons were one God and one God all the Persons. When that happened, I prayed with all my might. I was very frightened and was moved  to call on the Holy Spirit whose feast day it was to deign to show me the holy mystery of the Trinity. The Lord has promised us that the whole understanding of truth is to be found in the Trinity. I repeated this and began to pray the psalms to complete the number I had intended. Without delay at this moment the shape of a ten-stringed psaltery appeared in my mind. The mystery of the Holy Trinity shone so brightly and clearly in it that I was at once impelled to cry out, ‘What God is as great as our God?’

“The ten-stringed psaltery is one of the fundamental symbols [see header photo, you can see the base of the triangular psaltery], along with trees, eagles, circles, and the alpha and omega, that appear throughout Joachim’s main works. It is tempting to think that all these symbolic forms may have been revealed to the abbot, but he is silent about other visions…Joachim did not put himself forward  as the prophet of a new revelation, but as the exegete to whom God had granted the gift of understanding the truth already revealed but hidden in the Bible.”

Joachim of Fiore was most well-known for his illustrations. He drew complex designs and pictures to illustrate his ideas and theories.  Marjorie Reeves is convinced that Joachim thought in pictures rather than words, and that could very well be. From the last quote, Mr. McGinn seems to think that Joachim may have received his symbology as a series of visions, but there is no direct proof of that either. Whether it was the symbols or the words that came first, it doesn’t matter to our understanding.

I’ve been trying to find some good quotes to explain, in outline, how Joachim’s theories worked. Bernard McGinn in APOCALYPTIC SPIRITUALITY seemed to offer that, but as I read and reread it, I realized that he was using high-brow language to say things I really didn’t agree with. Basically, he was saying that prior to the 12th century most people looked at Revelation as a personal description of their soul fighting evil, and that it wasn’t until Joachim that Revelation was really viewed as prophecy. I believe I have already disproved that idea with what I have posted to the blog so far. 

I think I found a reasonable explanation of Joachim’s eschatology in an Andrews University (Michigan) dissertation paper by Dojcin Zivadinovic, entitled THE ORIGINS AND ANTECEDENTS OF JOACHIM OF FIORE’S (1135-1202) HISTORICAL-CONTINUOUS METHOD OF PROPHETIC INTERPRETATION. But first, let’s revisit THE INFLUENCE OF JOACHIM IN THE 13TH CENTURY, by Frances Andrews for a nice introduction:

“Aspects of Joachim’s thinking had great creative potential, prompting the rapid development of pseudo-Joachite texts full of ideas which were (or could be) identified with Joachim, but which are not to be found in his works. But there was no fixed ‘text’ and indeed, Joachim’s own approach to his writings itself exemplifies the fluidity. Using a comparison, or concordance, of the two biblical Testaments, he explained the course of world history as seven ages (etates), with seven times (tempora) of the Church and three stages (status) of spiritual growth, culminating in that of the Holy Spirit.  An essential element of Joachism was thus to be the expectation of a historical period of radical change in the life of the Church and of the world brought about by the Holy Spirit.  The period after the defeat of the Antichrist and before the end of the world would be the earthly Sabbath, a time of peace–that is, the third status, the idea which was perhaps most responsible for his lasting influence in the history of ideas.  But Joachim himself only gradually refined his thinking on these millenarian issues, silently changing his mind about some of the details, sometimes in the course of a single work, and not always achieving certainty.” 

We will end here for today. Next time we will delve into Joachim’s ideas in more detail. In the meantime, I’ll be praying that the Holy Spirit is bringing you comfort.

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