Sunday, July 24, 2016

Scholasticism’s Founders: Two Peters

The next two early scholastics, both baptized Peter, set up the form and substance of the developing school of thought. One provided a basis for the rational and philosophical manner of scholastic theologizing, while the other outlined the subject matter scholastic theologians were to wrestle with—but neither gave voice to a systematic set of novel propositions of his own.

Unlike Anselm of Canterbury, these two Peters do not easily present as paragons of saintliness or courage.

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was a kind of popular medieval “hippie” philosopher; his nonscholarly mark on history is a much-romanticized love affair, which may have had a dark side, brought to us through a selection of correspondence. Peter Lombard (1100-1164) established himself as the author of the quintessential theology textbook for centuries, but contemporaries charged that bribery, or at least cronyism, lubricated his pauper-to-prince ecclesiastical career.

Nonetheless, they cannot be ignored as major contributors who paved the way for the truly significant scholastics.


A French academic teacher almost all his life, Abelard excelled at an early age in what was then called the art of dialectic, a branch of philosophy, a form of disputation. He was encouraged to study by his father, Berengar, a knight whom Abelard emulated in taking up combat as his life’s pursuit, albeit in intellectual form, rather than military.

He was brilliantly and cooly rational, developing a following from among students from all over Europe to listen to him anywhere, from his classes in Paris to informal lectures near a hermitage in the wilderness. However, his restless mind failed to stop him from publicly humiliating his mentors. Nor did it hold him back from intellectually needling simple monks in the various communities from which he was expelled. Nor, finally and decisively, did it prevent him from blundering into a disastrous open disputation with the major monastic figure of his time, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a conflict that earned him a papal bull of excommunication, lifted only at the behest of a noted abbot.

Contemporary scholars admire his psychological insights into the idea of sin, as expressed particularly in Scito te ipsum (Know Thyself). In this work he weighs human actions and intentions. He inserts context into the mix as a basis for moral judgment, which results in stress on subjective intention as a determinant if not of the moral character at least of the moral value of human action. He is also notable for contributing to the theory of Limbo—afterlife for the unbaptized who die in infancy—in the 12th and 13th centuries. In his commentary on Romans, Abelard emphasizes the goodness of God and interprets St. Augustine’s “mildest punishment” as the irretrievable loss of the beatific vision of God, but not of an additional penalty.

Neither is a major mark: his moral theology remained on the fringes of Christianity, and the theory of Limbo never became an official teaching.

Where Abelard advanced faith seeking understanding was in his Sic et non (For and Against), written in the 1120s. In this work, Abelard assembles 158 questions about the faith, starting from the fundamental: must human faith be completed by reason? To answer, he taps the writings of the Church Fathers of the first three to four centuries, weighs them and returns either a positive answer (sic) or a negative (non). This may sound par for the course until one considers that before Abelard no one had dared subject the writings of the great Christian Fathers to rigorous critical reasoning.

In so doing, he is not disputing the teachings of the Christian Fathers. Indeed, he offers very sound advice to the Christian seeking to understand faith:

When, in such a quantity of words, some of the writings of the saints seem not only to differ from, but even to contradict, each other, one should not rashly pass judgment concerning those by whom the world itself is to be judged … Let us not presume to declare them liars or condemn them as mistaken … with our weakness in mind, let us believe that we lack felicity in understanding rather than that they lack felicity in writing “For it is not you who are speaking, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks through you” (Matthew 10:20). So, since the Spirit through which these things were written and spoken and revealed to the writers is itself absent from us, why should it be surprising if we should also lack an understanding of these same things?

Abelard does not attempt to work out and harmonize inconsistencies in early Christian thought, from which he draws the basis for his answers. In so doing, unfortunately, he left questions open and himself unprotected from those who sought to trap this relentless disputant with accusations of heresy.

Most important for scholasticism, he lays down rules for proper investigation (look for ambiguity, check the surrounding context, draw relevant distinctions, etc.) in the course of determining where the Church Fathers logically and rationally take their readers.


Indeed, Peter Lombard picked up the method from Sic et Non, which he cites, about 20 years later. Unlike Abelard, Lombard was an unquestioned member of the medieval church establishment. Despite his poor origins in Lombardy, he gained access to the rarified academic and power circles of Paris thanks to a superior intellect that apparently was perceived by all who met him.

He was ordained a subdeacon in 1147 and a priest in 1159, only slightly slower a pace than that of the average Catholic priest today, understandable in one who was a canon at Notre-Dame de Paris and a noted theologian. The pace became meteoric when only three years later he was ordained bishop of Paris. The see was not an archdiocese until 1622, but the city had been the capital of the Frankish kingdom since 508, and Lombard’s ascent to its episcopal chair could not have occurred without the consent of the king.

His appointments, both as canon at Notre-Dame and as bishop, set many contemporary tongues wagging. Some charged that money changed hands in the first appointment and that influence eased the second. However, Lombard lacked family money to have purchased titles and appointments, a fact accusers were never able to explain away. As for the bishopric, the accepted story is that his name was put forth by Philip, younger brother of Louis VII, archdeacon of Notre-Dame and a student of Lombard’s—unquestionably, at a minimum, Lombard knew the right people. In any case, he was bishop for little more than a year before dying, and even his tomb was destroyed during the French Revolution.

Yet Lombard’s major contribution to scholasticism—the Libri Quattuor Sententiarum (The Four Books of Sentences)—was produced long before the author became bishop, probably in the 1140s. The work is a distillation of biblical texts and passages from the Church Fathers and of many medieval thinkers, covering almost the entire field of Christian theology as known in his day. To put it in modern terms, it is an equivalent of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but for scholars and theologians; in fact, English translations from the Latin are rare and expensive.

What is entirely remarkable about it is that Lombard labored under an enormous handicap. Systematic theology—the orderly attempt to compare and relate all of scripture and teachings into a systematized statement of faith, as a whole and in particulars—did not exist. He paved the way for scholastics and all future theologians in ordering the vast material into four books, covering the Trinity (Book I), creation (Book II), Christ as the savior of fallen creation (Book III) and the sacraments that mediate Christ’s grace (Book IV).

Most notably, in his fourth book, Lombard became the first Christian writer to limit the number of ritual sacraments—outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace ordained by Jesus Christ—to the seven today regarded as such by the Catholic and Orthodox communions. At the time, some argued for as many as 14. Sacraments in a broader sense, as signs of divine grace, are, as one theologian pointed out to me, innumerable; in fact, the Orthodox speak of mysterion and Catholics of sacramentals, to refer to ritual expressions that denote or convey grace without the claim of tracing back to Christ when he walked the Earth.

Lombard did not intend to engage in disputation. His use of Abelard’s method of critical reason is applied to drawing out the essentials, making distinctions and articulating what can be reasonably deemed to be the message of the Christian faith on a broad variety of subjects, covering all topics explored up to his day by figures of note. The standing of his work as a respected textbook of Christian theology widely used through the 16th century is confirmed by the hundreds of citations by John Calvin and the repeated use of the Sententiarum by Martin Luther.

The two Peters, in effect, set the stage for the giant of medieval scholasticism, Thomas Aquinas.

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