Sunday, August 7, 2016

Five Lesser Known, and Sometimes Reviled, Medieval Scholastics

In what remained of the Middle Ages after Aquinas, a series of scholastics made notable contributions to the thinking prevailing in Christian Europe, some quite controversially.


Bonaventure (1221-1274) was a contemporary of Aquinas, like him an Italian scholar who wrestled with the Greeks. However, Bonaventure (born Giovanni di Fidanza; legend that has his moniker given by St. Francis of Assisi) was primarily a churchman from humble origins; as a Franciscan, he rose to Minister General of his order, later he became a cardinal bishop as a reward for aiding the election of a fellow Franciscan as Pope Gregory X.

His work is primarily theological, the most important a commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences. He followed St. Augustine of Hippo into a Christian Platonism that was sex-negative, but positive toward authoritarian rule—including his own in his order, within which he suppressed many writings. Bonaventure thought that searching for truth philosophically could open the mind to three different routes to God. Some may see the “footprints” of God in creation and discern the Creator as the cause of the world. Others may understand the Divine Being as an illuminator of knowledge and donor of grace and virtue. Those more metaphysically inclined may see God as the absolutely perfect being whose essence is existence, an absolutely simple being who causes all other, composite beings to exist.

Apart from his personal influence at the Council of Lyons in the last year of his life, his writings were cited at many later councils, including those of Vienna (1311), Constance (1417), Basle (1435), Florence (1438) and Trent (1546). John Henry Newman states in his Apologia that Bonaventure’s writings influenced definitions of dogma and decrees concerning papal supremacy and infallibility at the First Vatican Council (1870). He was canonized in 1482 by Pope Sixtus IV.  Franciscans inclined to institutionalism, order and academic life pushed to enshrine Bonaventure as a Doctor of the Church in 1588 by Pope Sixtus V.

Albertus Magnus

Albertus Magnus or Albert the Great (1200-1280), was a German Dominican friar and bishop, later canonized as a saint. The title Magnus derived from the truly encyclopedic study of topics including alchemy, astrology, astronomy, botany, friendship and love, geography, justice, law, logic, minerology, phrenology, physiology, theology and zoology. Unlike Aquinas and Bonaventure, he was more of a philosopher than a theologian.

He held views some views that were unusual. For example, in contrast to the early Church Fathers, Albertus believed that astrology could help people understand themselves in a manner that was congruent with Christianity. However, he was more in line with prevailing Christian thought, yet still innovative, in his commentaries on music, in particular his psychological observations of the effect of plainchant on people’s disposition.

Albert is embraced in our time by “new age” eclectic thinking as a pioneer. In canonizing and honoring him for work mostly outside theology, the Church saw him as an example that a Christian can seek knowledge openly and unafraid to explore anything and everything.

Duns Scotus

John Duns, known as Duns Scotus (1266-1308), was a Franciscan born in Scotland who studied at Oxford, Paris and Cologne, where he died. He is best understood in terms of the title he was given in his own time Doctor Subtilis (subtle teacher) for his penetrating and subtle manner of thought.

His contributions are inquiries into abstract topics debated by philosopher-theologians: being, reality, the nature of matter, whether things are universal or particular and so on. Thus, he is best known for teaching about the “univocity” of being, meaning that existence is the most abstract concept applicable to everything that exists; the “formal distinction,” a way to establish differences between aspects of the same thing; and, thirdly, “haecceity,” the property that makes each thing individual. While these are not topics that concern the average Christian believer, they have an effect on the understanding of the universe.

In what is today called Scotism, God alone is absolutely immaterial, the Deity alone an absolute and perfect actuality, without any potentiality for becoming other than what She* is. In contrast, creatures, angels and human bodies and souls are of the same prime matter, though corporeal or spiritual, and endowed with potentiality and actuality; they are changeable and may become the subject of accidents. Scotus developed from such teaching a complex argument for the existence of God; he also argued for the Immaculate Conception of Mary, becoming an early but not the first advocate of the idea that Jesus’ mother was born without original sin.

In addition to being inaccessible to the average reader, including myself, Scotus’ obscurity is partially due to being purposely banished from English curricula following the Reformation. Indeed, he was only beatified, the step before being canonized, by Pope John Paul II in 1993.

Meister Eckhart

Eckhart von Hochheim (1260-1328), known as Meister Eckhart (Master Eckhart), was a German theologian, philosopher and mystic.  He was briefly a Dominican provincial superior of Bohemia but most of his career was academic. He earned the title Master of Sacred Theology at the University of Paris, where he also taught, going on to lecture in Strasburg, Frankfurt and Cologne, where he died. Like Scotus, Eckhart is on the esoteric edge of medieval scholasticism.

His modern renown has to do with mysticism. In his own time, the Franciscans, ecclesiastical rivals of the Dominicans, believed that his teachings could mislead untutored Christians to heresy. Eckhart was accused of heresy, brought before the local Franciscan-led Inquisition and tried as a heretic by Pope John XXII, but died before the verdict against him was received.

Eckhart was broadly accused of encouraging a freelance mysticism as practiced by counterculture medieval women known as Beguines or Beghards. He was also charged with proposing the view that sacraments, including the Eucharist, coupled with a complete surrender of the self leads to a total transformation “into” God; in this state a person can attain such a degree of perfection as to become utterly without sin, no longer needing to pray, to deny the body nor to be subject to any human authority or church. Another related charge involved pantheism, due to the claim that Eckhart proposed that every creature can become intimately connected with God in a similar form.

Posthumously, Eckhart was linked to an anonymous work, the 14th-century Theologia Germanica, which is said to have influenced Martin Luther’s struggle against indulgences. Eckhart’s mostly lost writings were largely forgotten until the 19th century. Recently, he gained popularity thanks to the book Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart's Creation Spirituality by Matthew Fox, a Dominican priest expelled from his order in 1993 and currently a retired Episcopal priest.

Speaking for himself, Eckhart offered this explanation: “When I preach, I usually speak of detachment and say that a man should be empty of self and all things; and secondly, that he should be reconstructed in the simple good that God is; and thirdly, that he should consider the great aristocracy which God has set up in the soul, such that by means of it man may wonderfully attain to God; and fourthly, of the purity of the divine nature.”

William of Ockham

William of Ockham (1287-1347), an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher and theologian, is commonly known for “Occam's razor,” a methodological principle of rational inquiry, but he also produced works on logic, physics and theology. He studied at Oxford and Paris, where he may have had Duns Scotus as a teacher.

William was humorously called “the first Protestant” by a Catholic author, largely because his keen mind subjected everything to searing criticism, including the established ecclesiastical order and the academically recognized system of philosophy of his day.

He protested papal reform of the Franciscan rule, calling Pope John XXII a heretic for rejecting apostolic poverty. This was the teaching that guided 13th century mendicant orders to live their lives without owning land or holding money following advice in Luke 10:1-24, which they saw as a way of reforming the Church. William went off to live with a dissident group of austere monks and was excommunicated for doing so without permission, a sanction posthumously lifted by Urban VI.

In philosophy, he advocated for reform in the method and content of scholasticism, aiming for simplification. Such effort yielded an important contribution to modern science and intellectual culture: efficient reasoning. This sprung from the well-known “Law of Parsimony,” now more commonly called Ockham’s Razor, which proposes a method of problem-solving: when there are competing hypotheses, one should chose the simplest, meaning the one requiring the fewest premises to prove the point.

In matters of faith, he was also a revolutionary. Breaking with Aquinas and other scholastics on the notion that the truth of the faith can be found through reasoning, William came to conclude that “only faith gives us access to theological truths. The ways of God are not open to reason, for God has freely chosen to create a world and establish a way of salvation within it apart from any necessary laws that human logic or rationality can uncover.” His faith also refused to place human rational limits on God. William argued that God could have, had that been the divine will, become incarnate as a donkey or an ox, or even as both a donkey and a man at the same time.

William’s freethinking ways failed to earn him canonization, although he is commemorated by the Church of England on April 10. He also lives on in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose as the fictional friar William of Baskerville, a character partially based on Ockham.

*No anthropomorphizing of God intended; a pronoun is needed: “It” sounds disrespectful and “He” is patriarchist.

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