Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202)

Light of truth

Also known as Joachim of Flora, he was a biblical scholar, exegete and mystic. He was born in Celico, Calabria, and while he was an official in the court of the Norman kings of Sicily, he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he may have had the first of three experiences of spiritual illumination, the latter two at Easter and Pentecost, as recorded in his own writings. He became a monk in the Benedictine, later Cistercian monastery of Corazzo. Elected Abbot against his will in 1177, he later relinquished this office to lead a more contemplative life, finally receiving papal permission in 1196 to establish his own congregation, “San Giovanni in Fiore.” Three Popes encouraged his mystical writings but the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 condemned his Trinitarian doctrine, but his reputation for sanctity was safeguarded.

The central doctrine of his writings was a Trinitarian conception of the whole of history, viewed in three great periods. The first, characterized by the Ordo conjugatorum, the so-called age of the married people, is the “Age of the Father” in which mankind lived under the Law until the end of the OT dispensation; the second, characterized by the Ordo clericorum, age of the clerics, is the “Age of the Son” lived under Grace and covering the NT dispensation which Joachim calculated as forty-two generations of about thirty years each; the third characterized by the Ordo monachorum, or contemplantium, the age of the monks or contemplatives, is the “Age of the Holy Spirit.” This age would see the rise of new religious orders to convert the whole world and to usher in the Ecclesia Spiritualis, the age of the spiritual Church. Joachim never advanced his doctrine of the third age to a point of danger to ecclesiastical authority but his expectations concerning history had a far reaching influence in the following centuries among groups who carried his ideas to revolutionary conclusions, notably some of the Franciscan Spirituals who were called “Joachimites.” Tthe Franciscan Gerard of Borgo San Donnino in 1254 claimed to complete Joachim’s pattern of threes by proclaiming the “Eternal Gospel” which were excerpts from Joachim’s works, which superseded the OT and NT. His views received ecclesiastical condemnation and led to another condemnation of Joachim himself. But his vision continued to captivate the imagination of many throughout the later Middle Ages and posed a serious challenge to the worldly and corrupt medieval Christendom.

Joachim of Fiore is considered the most important apocalyptic thinker of the whole medieval period, and maybe after the evangelist John, the most important apocalyptic thinker in the history of Christianity. Joachim, like many 12th century monks, was fundamentally a scriptural commentator. He was trying to understand and write a commentary on the Book of Revelation, and was finding it impossible because the book was too difficult. And he wrestled with this (he uses the term “wrestling”) for a number of months. And then, one Easter morning, he awakened, but he awakened as a new person, having been given a spiritual understanding (spiritualis intelligentia), of the meaning of the Book of Revelation. And out of that moment of insight Joachim launched into his exposition of his Trinitarian doctrine. But Joachim’s view of history was rather optimistic because after the crisis of the Antichrist, which he thought as imminent, as right around the corner in his own days, there would come a new era of the Church on earth, the contemplative utopia of the Holy Spirit, a monastic era of contemplation. That is the heart of Joachim’s great vision and contribution to western apocalypticism. Joachim was a great symbolist, a picture-thinker, in a sense. He had a wonderful symbolic imagination.

Joachim’s view of the opposition between good and evil was, of course, central to him, as it is to any apocalyptic thinker. But Joachim wasn’t into what we might call active apocalypticism, that one must take up arms against the forces of evil. Joachim felt that God controlled history, and that good would need to suffer, and the good would suffer indeed from the persecuting Antichrist, but that God would be the one who would destroy Antichrist and bring about this final age in history.

Isaac Padinjarekuttu
(Professor of Church History at Oriens Theological College, Shillong)

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