The Least Made Greatest

“All of these reasonings having been gone through, the Philosopher says in the first chapter of On the Heavens ‘the superior glory of its nature is proportionate to its distance from this world of ours.’ For this purpose might also be adduced what the Apostle says in Ephesians concerning Christ: ‘that ascended above all heavens, that he might fill all things’ (Eph. 4.10).” -Epistle to Can Grande della Scalla, 27

It is interestingly medieval (expectedly interesting) that Dante would use Ephesian 4:10 with Aristotle to get a point about Heaven across. It is the distance from earth that makes places superior in Aristotle’s (and thus Dante’s) eyes, and this is somehow part of the meaning of St. Paul in the Ephesians 4:10 quote provided in the letter. The context of the Scriptural citation is:

“Therefore it says,

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”

(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)”
(Ephesians 4:8-10 ESV)

This seems to assume that St. Paul is working with the same sort of cosmological theory, where the earth is the “lower regions”. So when Christ ascends to Heaven after the Resurrection and sends the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, filling the Church, as the “fullness of Him who fills all in all”. I think it is fair to say that I didn’t quite understand the meaning of the “that he might fill all things” being connected to “ascending far above all the heavens”, but this letter clarified a certain cosmological presupposition I had previously been missing. The farther away from the earth, the more superior in glory and in God’s presence. But, as Christ ascends, he fill all things all the more, because God already fills all things by His Spirit, and Jesus gave His Spirit in its fullness.

What Dante is missing, is that this action of Christ’s humiliation in Incarnation (descending to the lower regions) is actually a full restoration of what was already a reality (God filling all things). The earth used to be the least superior because of distance from God, but then God came to the lower regions in Christ, and exalted it (the quote St. Paul utilizes is Psalm 68:18, which is about God ascending Mt. Zion (The Israel of God’s dwelling place with God) and establishing it above all other mountains). This makes it so that all things are given to His Body, the Church (the host of captives), and gifts (the Spirit’s fullness at Pentecost poured out on “all flesh”) This is fascinating because what was formerly unclean (many things under the Mosaic administration) have been made clean, just like earth itself is made superior because of the Church. Dante’s cosmology is helpful for understanding St. Paul, and St. Paul is helpful for pointing out that the cosmos’s “least” (earth) has been made “greatest” in Christ, contra Dante’s picture of Paradiso he describes in this letter.

My question is how Dante’s cosmology deals with the bane of Hellenistic philosophy which is the Bodily Resurrection at the Second Coming (or even the implications of the Resurrection of Christ at His first coming!). You certainly can’t work with Aristotelian categories when the whole Greek dualistic system is turned on its head by a glorified (called “spiritual” in 1 Corinthians 15) physical bodily reversal of entropy.

This is posted at the blog for my Dante class as well.

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