Jean Gerson (1363-1429)

Jean Gerson, generally speaking a nominalist and a mystic, served as chancellor of the famed University of Paris after his teacher, Pierre d’Ailly, stepped down from that position to become the Bishop of Puy. Coming into his own as a scholar not long before the Hundred Years War between France and England was drawing to a close, he had occasion to write in the defense of Joan of Arc against the charge of sorcery. He wrote brilliant tracts concerning the reform of the Church, particularly via the mechanism of a General Council. As a mystic he would also advocate a genuine heart knowledge of God as opposed to merely intellectual-theological knowledge. In a time of horrifying schism and widespread clerical-hierarchical corruption Gerson advocated that men’s faith be Christ-centered. In this spirit he is known for his saying “Do penance and believe the Gospel.” He advocated that the universities should focus more of their teaching upon Christ and less upon theological abstractions about the metaphysics of the Godhead. His “mystical” concern for the inclusion of the laity in Church business led him to defend the Brethren of the Common Life, a relatively recently (14th century) founded order which would in time produce such worthies as Desiderius Erasmus and Wessel Gansfort.

Gerson was a student of a major conciliarist and nominalist theologian, Pierre d’Ailly, and shared many of his concerns regarding ecclesiology and the reform of the Church. Along with d’Ailly, Henry of Langenstein, Dietrich of Niem, Conrad of Gelnhausen, and others Gerson helped bring about the Council of Constance, the first of the great councils called in the Conciliar Movement of the fifteenth century. This series of councils solved the Western Schism, a period of forty years in which the Church was plagued by chaos as a result of an irremediable breakdown in the Papal Monarchy system. After a number of diplomatic efforts designed to allow the various popes to “save face” (efforts which all of them repeatedly rejected on the grounds that they could not allow their personal dignities as purportedly exclusive Supreme Pontiff to be besmirched), it became clear to many of the most influential theologians and bishops that conciliarism was the only option to solving the schism. Gerson would play an important role at the Council of Constance: in addition to participating in the trial of John Huss, he was instrumental in holding the assembly together when it was in danger of fracturing.

In his Tract on the Unity of the Church (1408):”(Selections translated in Ewart Lewis, Medieval Political Ideas, Vol. 2 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954), pp. 402-406.)”: he echoed the point adduced by his master d’Ailly (and many others) that positive law cannot be the beginning and end of discussions about cultural health and social order:

The essential unity of the church continues always in her relation to Christ her Bridegroom. For ‘Christ is the Head of the Church’ [Ephesians 5:23], in Whom we are all one, according to the apostle, even if He has no vicar: that is, when His vicar is bodily or civilly dead or when there is no probability that Christians will ever show obedience to him or to his successors. Then the church, by divine and natural law, to which no positive law rightly understood offers any obstacle, can assemble herself in order to procure for herself, at a general council representing her, one certain vicar; and she can do this not only by the authority of the lord cardinals, but also by the assistance and aid of any prince or other Christian. For the mystical body of the church, most perfectly established by Christ, does not have less right and strength for the procuring of her own union than has any civil, mystical, or true natural body; for there is no provision in immediate and immutable divine or natural law that the church cannot congregate herself and unite herself without a pope or without any particular rank or college, in which death or error can, in particular instance, occur.:”(Consideration II, ibid., pg. 403.)”:

Not content merely with abstract principles, however, Gerson went on to specify specifics concerning the removal of “the vicarious spouse of the Church” (the Roman Pope) by the whole Church and “without his consent or against his will” because she is acting during a time of emergency on the principle of “equity”:

…And who does not see that there could be many cases, some of which are involved in the present situation, in which the church would be not edified but destroyed, not united but scattered, not fed but devoured, if he who had been duly and canonically ordained the vicarious spouse of the church would not yield voluntarily, or would not be ejected against his will? And let no one wonder at what we say, as if it contradicted the commandment, ‘Touch not my annointed’ [Psalms 105:15]. In the same way it would be right for any individual, in case of violence attempted by a true pope against his chastity or life, to repel force with force, instigated by blameless self-defence, and thus he would have a lawful right to lay violent hands upon the pope or throw him into the sea. Why should it not likewise be lawful on occasion for the whole church to do the same, in her own defence and in the cautious repression of attempted violence.:”(3. Consideration X, ibid., pg. 403)”:

Obviously, Gerson says, the existing positive laws of the Church require that a General Council be summoned and “approved” by the Roman Pope, but this is no immutable barrier to the preservation of the Church herself. If perchance someone should ask on the basis of what authority a General Council might do such things, seeing that in the specified situation it is essentially a “headless body”, Gerson answers that Holy Scripture (Mark 2:23; I Sam. 21:6) teaches the principle that necessity may allow existing rules to be overridden for the sake of a greater good. In the context of the Schism, this meant that Christ had endowed the Church directly with power always to prevent her own destruction–regardless of the state of the existing laws and procedures. He describes the papalist faction currently engaged in resisting the call for a General Council as being advocates of a “pestilential and most pernicious doctrine”:

These men place papal authority above the council, or at any rate, not inferior to it. It is indeed settled among them that like is equal to like and the inferior does not have authority in the higher things. The Blessed God, who made clear by [his] light the divine laws through this holy Council of Constance, when he gave by a disturbance to this same body understanding of the existing schism, has liberated the Church herself from this pestilential and most pernicious doctrine.:”( My translation of the following unattributed text of Gerson’s as found in Mandell Creighton, A History of the Papacy From the Great Schism to the Sack of Rome (New York and Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1904), pg. 386: Posuerunt isti papalem auctoritatem supra concilium aut saltem non imparem. Est autem certum apud eos quod par in parem et minor in superiorem non habet imperium. Benedictus autem Deus, qui per hoc sacrosanctum Constantiense concilium illustratum divinae legis lumine, dante ad hoc ipsum vexatione praesentis schismatis intellectum, liberavit Ecclesiam suam ab hoc pestifera perniciosissimaque doctrina.)”:

Intriguingly, it is sentiments such as these that have caused polarized views of Gerson (and d’Ailly as well) to be promoted by controversialists on both sides of the Roman Catholic-Protestant divide. The former, at least in some older works, portray Gerson as a member of a group of desperately confused men not in possession of the later light of a more refined and rigidly dogmatic papalism (such as that advocated by the First Vatican Council in 1870, some four and a half centuries after Gerson died). Gerson is represented by such Roman Catholic authors as unfortunately being too influenced by the “revolutionary” work of William of Ockham, and is sometimes classed contemptuously with the later program of French resistance to papalism that is termed “Gallicanism.” He is simultaneously looked upon with a mixture of reverence (for his mystical piety) and somewhat restrained rebuke (for his conciliarist ecclesiology).

On the other hand, Protestant polemicists (particularly in the seventeenth century) tended to look upon Gerson and the conciliarists as prototypes of their own reforming work. Yet Protestants generally speaking are certainly not comfortable with Gerson’s “mystical” theology and piety, which included devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Like the other conciliarists, Jean Gerson does not seem to fit into either set of post-16th century refined polemical categories. Perhaps as citizens of an entirely different world, as advocates of a spirit of catholicity that seems far superior to our own, he and his colleagues have much to teach us today.

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