Thomism at the Threshold of Modernity

From the 12th to the 16th centuries, Peter Lombard’s Sententiae in quatuor IV libris distinctae was the most influential theological text in Christendom. Indeed, no other piece of Christian literature save Scripture has garnered more commentaries: some fourteen hundred are extant. The last major theologian to comment on the Book of Sentences was the young Martin Luther, preceded by every prominent theological figure of the previous four hundred years, such as Alexander of Hales, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Ockham, Peter of Auriol, Marsilius of Inghen, and Gabriel Biel:”(For an excellent introduction to Lombard and his work, see Philipp W. Rosemann, Peter Lombard [OUP, 2004], esp. pp. 205-206 on how Aquinas consciously departed from Lombard stylistically: “We know from Tolomeo of Lucca that, in 1265-1267, Aquinas undertook a second, now lost, redaction of the first book of his Sentences commentary. Yet after book 1 he gave up, presumably because the structure of the Book of Sentences did not enable him to articulate his own vision of systematic theology. Subsequently, Thomas embarked on the composition of the Summa theologiae, which allowed him to create a new order for his theological material.”)”:. And the Sentences was not only a seminal theological text: much of the cutting-edge discussion and debate over optics and motion in the early fourteenth century took place in Sentences commentaries:”(See the thinkers and sources discussed in Katherine Tachau, Vision and Certitude in the Age of Ockham [Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988])”:. With this introductory comment on Lombard, here are Fr. Michael Buckley’s comments on the fateful decision to substitute Aquinas for Lombard as the standard textbook theology in Europe:

“In 1526, at the University of Salamanca, the first theologian, Francisco de Vitoria, introduced an unprecedented procedure into the teaching of systematic theology in Spain. Following his former teacher, Peter Crockaert, he commented not on the Book of Sentences of Peter Lombard, but on the Summa Theologia of Thomas Aquinas. Stealing into the great universities beyond the Pyrenees was the spring of the “Second Thomism.” Lombard had held medieval theology together, presenting a common series of texts upon which vastly different theological structures could be built. The Sentences gave all the theologians of the Middle Ages, irrespective of the color of their convictions, a common language and a common tradition within which the conflicting theologies of Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Durandus of St. Purcain, and Thomas Aquinas could contact and speak intelligibly with one another. The Sentences provided for the Middle Ages what Catholic theology has never been able to regain: a focus or a unity precisely within dispersion, a common series of theological statements, a vocabulary and a common intellectual tradition which allowed substantial disagreements, and an irreducible pluralism within a shared culture. Vitoria’s decision to split from this common language and tradition, opting for the work of Aquinas over the Lombard’s ordered assemblage of texts from the Fathers of the Church which were the common possession of all Christians. This factional schism within Catholic theology paralleled the sectarian divisions which were increasingly polarizing Christianity [i.e., the Reformation]. The Jesuits of the Roman College followed Salamanca’s suit, and [Leonard] Lessius in his turn brought the Summa Theologia of Aquinas into the Netherlands as the primary theological text. The University of Louvain first opposed and then adopted this innovation.”

—-Michael J. Buckley, S.J., The Origins of Modern Atheism[Cambridge,Mass:Yale Univ. Press, 1990] 43.

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3 Responses to Thomism at the Threshold of Modernity

  1. Peter Escalante says:

    That’s a very suggestive passage from Buckley: I hadn’t seen it before. It makes a great deal of sense; I’ll be thinking about this. Thanks, Bret.


  2. [Posted by Cynthia Nielson]


    An excellent post! You might also be interested in an article by Rosemann in
    Philotheos called something like Lombard and Aquinas: From sacra pagina to . In that article, he compares/contrasts the prologue o the Sentences and the ST, and he focuses on one particular problem in
    Lombard that is overcome by Aquinas [i.e., overcome depending on whose view you take].
    In my read of his article (which was several months ago), I understood Rosemann not so much suggesting that we do away with divina scientia , but rather pointing out and warning of the inherent dangers in such a project. Rosemann argues that Thomas offers a better solution to the problem of human agency in Lombard’s view of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (side note:
    Luther sided with
    Lombard on this over Aquinas; Vermigli sided with Aquinas) and thus a theological advance has been made. However, while acknowledging this “advance,” Rosemann questions whether or not Thomas’ orientation to theology is superior to that of Peter Lombard given the two different conceptions of author/subject that emerge—the former a “methodical” subject, the latter a sub-ject who subjects himself to the Christian narrative.
    Rosemann sees in the movement to theology as
    , the possibility of our forgetting who we are and who God is and with that comes a loss of the sense of God’s mystery and perhaps mystery in general. He also sees manifestations of this movement to rational system in the language employed by the theologians—one utilizing metaphoric, poetic, “flexible” language and the other univocal, precise, and “static” language.

    With all of this I tend to agree, but I am still not sure how one can avoid making systematic conclusions or organizing and structuring material in a systematic way. Even in Lombard there is a movement from narrative to articulating a systematic framework.
    I wonder if one of the possible points of difference between Lombard and Thomas (not to denigrate the latter) is that Lombard makes a more self conscious effort to have his systematic framework “flow out of” the biblical narrative.
    I guess what I am trying to get at is the importance of seeing ourselves as part of the “story” and allowing the story to shape us (and re-shape us) instead of seeing theology as something “out there” and external to us.

    Here I will throw in a little Calvin “plug” (which is not to say that I think that he is without fault).
    Calvin of course read deeply from the Patristics and interestingly, as a result of his exegetical work on the OT and gospels, he changed the structure of the 1559 Institutes. As R. Muller argues, the
    are meant to be read in conjunction with Calvin’s commentaries.
    Building on Muller’s work and going beyond some of Muller’s observations Stephen Edmondson shows that the new additions to the 1559
    reflect a more narrative, biblical historical (
    historia salutis
    ) attuned Calvin. E.g., as Edmondson argues, Calvin inserts a discussion of sin (not just sin in the abstract but Adam’s sin as revealed in Gen 3) at the beginning of book II in order follow the biblical narrative of creation (book I), fall, redemption in Christ (book II), etc.
    By doing this, Calvin also wants us to see ourselves as part of the story, as in Adam (something similar to what St. Augustine does in the
    ). In essence by inserting his discussion of sin where he does, the anthropology that Calvin sets up in the division between books I and II is the division between Gen 1 and 2 (the creation of humanity in God’s image) and Gen 3, Adam’s fall.
    “Through this recognition, we can grasp that the introduction of sin in Book II signals not a doctrinal transition, but a cosmic cataclysm that will open out onto an inestimable blessing.
    We thereby gain an appreciation of the dynamism inherent in the
    We also recognize that Book I is an exposition of Gen 1 and 2. Book I begins where scripture begins—with creation—thereby reflecting scripture’s witness to the reader, while its purpose in relation to Book II is to introduce the principal characters of the narrative of fall and redemption with which Calvin deals in the latter book and to provide the essential back story against which this narrative makes sense” (“The Biblical Historical Structure of Calvin’s
    ,” pp. 8-9).

    Sorry for the extremely long comment.

    Again, great post.


  3. Thank you, Cynthia, for pointing to the Calvin relation. The question of the structure of theology is a tangled one, is it not? In some circles there seems to be an “ancient quarrel” between systematic and narrative theology, like that between poetry and philosophy. In any event, Peter Lombard’s “system” seems superior in that, as Heidegger says, he “puts the questioner into the question,” by inserting his own (historical) self into his theology. Aquinas seems to do theology like someone working a puzzle: the pieces either fit or they don’t according to Reason and Aristotelian metaphysical principles. Now, Aquinas DOES have a place for reverence and mystery, but does he ballance system and narrative? Maybe Calvin (more than Luther) is a good candidate for one who returns to the Lombardian “open” system (Gadamer?).

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