Saint John of the Gross (1542-lSfl) waTlaeatified by Clement X in 1675, canonized by Benedict XIII in 1726, and declared Doctor of the Catholic Church by Pius XI
in 1926. He was the principal theologian of the Discalced Carmelite Reform in Spain
during the latter years of the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent but
his theological significance extends far beyond the Carmelite and counter-reformational
context, for, in point of fact, his works reveal very little of the doctrinal and ecclesiastical disputes which were being waged in Christendom in general, and in his
own religious order in particular. His primary literary purpose is neither apologetic
nor polemical. He is a theological poet who sought to exegete his own lyrics with
extensive prose commentaries whose content is an empirical theology, and whose
purpose is a didactic explanation of the personal experience of God.
Three principal doctrinal works of John have survived to the present day: The
Dark Night of the Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living
Flame of Love. Other minor poems and writings of John are extant, but they contain little of theological value which is not found amply exegeted in the major works.
John's chief contribution to the history of Christian thought is his empiricomystical approach to theology. His epistemological method is empirical rather
than speculative, and the content of his theology is more ontological than discursive.
Beginning with the Pauline doctrine that "faith comes by hearing," John of
the Cross seeks to know God by auditive faith rather than by dialectical reasoning.
His idea that God can be known intuitively through the Logos appears to have its
rootage in the epistemological concept of Duns Scotus rather than that of .Augustine
(Illumination) or Aquinas (Abstraction). He clearly perceives the immense dis¬
tinction between a cognition about God through the human agent intellect and a
personal encounter with the Being of God through the direct impact of the Word
upon man by the Spirit. He is adamant in his rejection of all forms of natural theology and discursive reasoning as means for knowing God out of Himself. Faith
alone is held out as the only proportionate means for man to experience the Reality
of God, and, in John's doctrine, even faith is a God-given virtue (along with love
and hope) which man can appropriate solely by a humble receiving. This faith is
rooted in divine sovereignty and grace and allows no admixture human selfattainment for it. fulfillment.
The goal of John's theology is union of the human and divine natures, and to
realise this the Saint expounds his lengthy doctrine of divinely infused contemplation.
This teaching begins with discursive meditation in order to establish the habitual
discipline which is necessary for the Spirit's sanctifying work in the soul. Basically,
the reason for infused contemplation in John's system is to accommodate the soul
for divine occupancy, and such a process requires the radical transforming work
of the Word and Spirit. Of particular theological interest in this divine work of
soul perfection is John's doctrine of transcendental "touches" by which the Logos
makes sanctifying contacts with the substance of the soul. These "touches" have
both a purging and an illuminating effect in man's nature and they elevate the soul
into greater dialogical communion with God.
Ultimately the process of contemplation results in the spiritual marriage of
the Word with the soul, and here the Mystical Doctor's teaching on divine union is
presented. The three theological virtues--faith, hope, and love--and the three
Persons of the Trinity are shown by John to be respectively the means and the Agents
of this oneness between God and man. The union is simultaneously cognitive and
moral, operational and volitional, ontological and eschatological. It has both permanent and transcient elements, and, though it does not eliminate his creaturely existence, it does unite man so intimately with the operations and essence of the Trinity
than man actually becomes a son of God by adoptive participation in the Godhead.
The distinctive contributions of John are to be noted in his empirical approach
to divine knowledge and in his insistence that faith and faith alone is the means for
the unitive experience of God. His theology is also helpful in defining the role of
images in Christian worship and the extra-sacramental nature of divine grace. However, the terminology he employs to describe man's union with God is excessive at
times, and his theological environment so circumscribed some of his more Biblical
ideas that it inhibited him from carrying them out to their rightful end in his writings.
This is true of his doctrines of Chriatology, Divine Grace, and the Church. His theology, consequently, suffers severely in these three basic areas, but in the main his
emphasis on the ontological and operational aspects of intuitively received knowledge
from God is outstanding and deserves greater examination and application within both
the Protestant and Poman traditions of the Christian Church.