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16 - Jacob Boehme and Christian Theosophy


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 May 2016

Glenn Alexander Magee
Long Island University
Glenn Alexander Magee
Long Island University, New York
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The term “theosophy” literally means “wisdom of God.” This can be interpreted either as “God's wisdom” or as “wisdom about God.” As we shall see, this ambiguity is actually crucial to understanding theosophy. Not only are both interpretations correct, in the end – at least in the Christian theosophy of Jacob Boehme – they come to mean the same thing.

The first person to use the term “theosophy” seems to have been Porphyry (ca. 234–ca. 305), and since then the word has been used by many authors in many ways, positively and pejoratively. It is now most famously associated with the Theosophical Society of Madame Blavatsky (1831–1891). However, “Christian theosophy” is something quite distinct from Blavatsky's movement.

Christian theosophy is an early modern, Protestant German mystical movement. It can be seen as a precursor to both German Romanticism and German philosophy, especially Idealism. Indeed, Hegel himself said of Boehme that he was “the first German philosopher; the content of his philosophizing is genuinely German [echt deutsch].” The main Christian theosophers are all German, though the movement had a significant influence in England and France.

There is general agreement among scholars as to the intellectual streams that coalesce to form theosophy: medieval German mysticism, alchemy, Paracelsism, and Kabbalism. Of the authors who are recognizably theosophical, some of the early figures include Valentin Weigel (1533–1588), Heinrich Khunrath (1560–1605), and Johann Arndt (1555–1621). The supreme exemplar of the tradition, however, is the famed cobbler of Görlitz, the philosophicus teutonicus, Jacob Boehme (1575–1624). Indeed, the Christian theosophical tradition may, for all intents and purposes, be considered the Boehmean tradition, and it is Boehme and his thought that are the focus of this essay.

In the year 1600, Boehme had an experience of mystical gnosis. Gazing at a gleam of light reflected in a pewter vessel, he was suddenly opened to an immediate experience of the Being of all beings. He remained silent for twelve years, then began writing the work that would come to be known as Aurora, oder Morgenröte im Aufgang. Boehme intended this only as a personal exercise, but he showed the work to friends who then circulated it.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2016

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Boehme, Jacob. Sämtliche Schriften. 11 vols. Ed. Peuckert, Will-Erich and Faust, August. Stuttgart: Fromanns Verlag, 1955–1961.
Boehme, Jacob. Aurora (Morgen Röte im Auffgang, 1612). Trans. Weeks, Andrew et al. Leiden: Brill, 2013.
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Waterfield, Robin (ed.). Jacob Boehme. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2001. (Selections and commentary.)
Weeks, Andrew. Boehme: An Intellectual Biography of the Seventeenth-Century Philosopher and Mystic. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.

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