The Primacy of Christ in John Duns Scotus: An Assessment

Phillippe Yates FAITH Magazine January-February 2008

The theology of John Duns Scotus places Christ at the centre of a universe ordered by love. Christ is presented as the basis of all nature, grace and glory – the most perfect model of humanity. He is at the beginning, the centre and the end of the universe.

Lack of Appreciation

In this writer’s opinion Scotus has been greatly misjudged and misunderstood. The learned Jesuit, Father Bernard Jansen, once wrote that “rarely has the real figure of an eminent personage of the past been defaced as has that of the Franciscan John Duns Scotus.”[1] The philosopher Etienne Gilson, wrote “Of a hundred writers who have held Duns Scotus up to ridicule, not two of them have ever read him and not one of them has understood him.”[2]

There are several reasons why Duns Scotus has been so misunderstood and maligned. One of them is his own self-effacement that led him to shy from the limelight and work modestly and humbly in the background. Another is the subtlety of his thought, which sends teachers into despair as they try to mediate his ideas to their students and leads many to abandon the attempt as too difficult. This very subtlety which is the strength of his theology and philosophy fights against the diffusion of his ideas. A third reason is his passion for the truth that led him to oppose error wherever he found it and approach each question with an intense objectivity – an attitude that gained him enemies in his own day and has continued to gain him opponents down the ages whose pet theories are attacked byhis penetrating intellect. But perhaps the chief reason why he has been so attacked, and the saddest to recount, is because he is not St. Thomas Aquinas and indeed his system of thought disagrees with that of St. Thomas on some key points. Among those who refuse to admit of the possibility of a number of orthodox ways of expressing the mysteries of our faith, to affirm the greatness of Aquinas has all too often seemed to require denigrating the thought of Scotus.

The Rise of St. Thomas

At the end of the 19th century the Church was beginning to recover from the persecutions and suppressions of the Enlightenment, the French revolution, the Napoleonic era, and the liberal revolutions throughout Europe. Not one country had been spared these ravages in one manner or another and it was only when a relative peace between the Church and the world was established towards the end of the 19th century that the Church could begin once more to reconstruct its intellectual and physical structures. Pope Leo XIII surveyed the intellectual landscape and sought a Catholic system of thought upon which this renewal could be based. He found the system of St. Thomas to be eminently rational, defensible and proclaimable. In the encyclical Aeterni Patris Leo XIII wrote that “a fruitful causeof the evils which now afflict, as well as of those which threaten us, lies in this: that false conclusions concerning divine and human things, which originated in the schools of philosophy, have crept into all the orders of the State, and have been accepted by the common consent of the masses.”[3] He went on in detail to describe the way that Christian philosophers, with reason guided by faith, have down the ages opposed the errors of their time. As a remedy for the errors of the nineteenth century Pope Leo recommended above all St. Thomas, saying “among the scholastic doctors, the chief and master of all towers Thomas Aquinas, who, as Cajetan observes, because ‘he most venerated the ancient doctors of the Church, in a certain way seems tohave inherited the intellect of them all.’ The doctrines of those illustrious men, like the scattered members of a body, Thomas collected together and cemented, distributed in wonderful order, and so increased with important additions that he is rightly and deservedly esteemed the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic faith.”[4]

Leo supported his recommendation of the teaching of St. Thomas with an impressive list of sponsors of the Angelic Doctor. Corporate sponsors included the Dominicans, of course, but also the Benedictines, Carmelites, Augustinians, the Society of Jesus and many others who bound their members in their statutes to follow the teaching of St. Thomas. To these endorsements he added a list of Popes who have recommended St. Thomas: Clement VI, Nicholas V, Benedict XIII, Pius V, Clement XII, Urban V, Innocent XII and Benedict XIV are all quoted as supporting the teaching of St. Thomas. Leo finally quotes the testimony of Innocent VI who says “His teaching above that of others, the canons alone excepted, enjoys such an elegance of phraseology, a method of statement, a truth of proposition, thatthose who hold to it are never found swerving from the path of truth, and he who dare assail it will always be suspected of error.”[5]

Not only Popes but councils have held St. Thomas in singular honour, with the Council of Trent even keeping a copy of the Summao n the altar along with the scriptures and the decrees of the Popes, to consult for enlightenment.

Buttressed by such a phalanx of support Leo XIII ended his encyclical with a ringing exhortation, “We exhort you, Venerable Brethren, in all earnestness to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas, and to spread it far and wide for the defence and beauty of the Catholic faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all the sciences”[6]
It was an exhortation that was welcomed and followed by many in the Church so that it has been written “We are accustomed to consider Saint Thomas, Thomism, and Aristotelianism as the predominant points of orientation and the most favourable
to the Church.”[7]

Given such a series of endorsements it is not surprising that many who naturally look for certainty in their faith and seek a rock on which to build that certainty, look to St. Thomas and see in him not only a guarantee of orthodoxy, but almost the only guarantee of orthodoxy, raising Innocent IV’s suspicion of those who disagree with St. Thomas, almost to a declaration that they are outside the bounds of faith.

A Different Emphasis

Now it is well known that within the Church there has been for centuries a series of disputes between the school of St. Thomas and that of Blessed John Duns Scotus. At a certain point the disputes became so acrimonious that the Pope had to impose silence on the two schools, forbidding them to speak of each other. At the root of the dispute lies the philosophy of the two masters. For while Aquinas embraced the philosophy of Aristotle and rendered it Christian, Scotus sought a synthesis of Aristotelianism with the traditional Augustinian philosophy of the Church Fathers. Scotus calls St. Paul the Christian philosopher and seeks in his philosophy to find a balance between Augustinianism and Aristotelianism in such a way that he often agrees with Aquinas but sometimes disagrees where therigour of his thinking leads him in other directions.

Perhaps one could sum up the differences in this way. Where the genius of Aquinas was to distinguish and make divisions, the genius of Scotus was to unite and order. Where Aquinas has each angel a separate species, Scotus has the angels united in several species but distinguished numerically. Where Aquinas made a distinction between the soul and its faculties, Scotus refused to admit such a division. Where Aquinas taught that in every human conception there are three souls, the vegetative, the sensitive and the rational, Scotus would have but one rational soul with virtual distinctions. Where for Aquinas justification is explained by two distinctive forms in the soul, grace and charity, Scotus would have the form consist only of charity. So while in Aquinas we find clear distinctions,in Scotus we find a luminous unity. You will find in Scotus a consistency throughout his doctrine that gives witness to that sense of unity in all things.

Blessed John Duns Scotus is famous in medieval thought for the ruthless application of the principle that entities are not to be multiplied without necessity. For him it was better to have a minimum of realities that ennoble the nature of a thing than to multiply realities when they are not necessary and do not ennoble nature – or as we might say today “keep it simple” and elegant! So even the universe has one universal order and one first cause. Scientists today are still following his intuition as they seek the grand unifying principle that will unify quantum theory with the theory of relativity to give one overarching explanation of the nature of the universe.

In this article I want to try to express why it is that I feel Scotus’ theology and philosophy are attractive, but, in the light of the some who find its unfamiliarity suspicious, I also want to allay those doubts.

Synthetic Theology

In his theology Scotus seeks to build everything on his Christology – a Christology that is at the same time Pauline, Johannine and Franciscan. Pauline, because it develops the insight that Christ is the “image of the invisible God, the first-born of every creature. For in him were created all things... through and unto him” (Col. 1: 15-17). It is Johannine since it sees love at the root of God and of creation. “I say therefore that God first loves himself”, Scotus says in the Paris commentary. Finally it is Franciscan in that it seeks to harmonise all things in Christ according to the divine plan so that the bond between all creatures is recognised with each being assigned its own place in God’s loving creation.
Scotus’ theology, like his character, is that of the via media, treating all opinions with respect and then seeking a synthesis that draws out the best from each one examined. Often does his summation of an outline of different doctrines begin with the words “I hold the middle course.”
His theology was not merely theoretical. He lived what he believed. In 1303 the King of France forced the University of Paris to accept his convocation of a Council to judge the Pope and declare the King’s right to administer church property. Scotus’ signature was tenth on the list of those opposed – earning for himself exile from Paris and the foremost university of the day. So he was willing to risk life and reputation to defend the primacy of the Pope. For his defence of papal supremacy Scotus later was given the epithet “Hercules Papistarum” (Hercules of the Papists).[8] In this defence of papal authority he followed and contributed to a Franciscan tradition espoused by Bonaventure and Olivi. Scotus’ teachings in turn helpedinspire the Franciscans who outlined a theology of papal infallibility in the decades that followed.[9] Once the Pope and King had been reconciled Scotus was permitted to return to Pairs and resume his teaching.

The Immaculate Conception

During his time at Paris Scotus took his well known stand on the Immaculate Conception of Mary. It was a risky doctrine to defend, especially for a young theologian early in his career. For in defending the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception Scotus was defending a doctrine that the most eminent theologians of the age from St. Bernard of Clairvaux to St. Thomas Aquinas had declared to be suspect. Even the Franciscan St. Bonaventure, while recognising that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was not contrary to Scripture, had opposed it as being less safe, reasonable and common than the maculist position. There were some 200 objections to the doctrine raised by theologians. However, while the learned objected, the people of God, with their inspired sense of right doctrine,continued to promote the doctrine of Mary’s singular privilege. This was especially true of the Church and the faithful in England. There were theologians who defended the immaculist position, St. Anselm was thought at the time to have done so, although now we know that the defence was written by his biographer Eadmer and not by Anselm. William of Ware, Scotus’ teacher at Oxford, devised the argument “it was possible, it was fitting and therefore God did it” in order to defend the Immaculate Conception (an argument sometimes erroneously attributed to Scotus himself) but it is not certain whether this was before or after his pupil had so brilliantly defended the doctrine in public disputation in Paris. In John Duns Scotus, the faithful masses found a theologian who could articulate theirfaith and show to sceptical intellectuals the truth of their intuition.

John Duns Scotus dealt with the objections of the theologians in a masterful manner. In essence the objections were based on concern to defend the redemptive nature of Christ’s passion and resurrection. For it was felt that to accept that a human being had been conceived without sin was to deny that all redemption came through Christ. Thus, argued opponents of this Marian privilege,to affirm Mary’s Immaculate Conception was to belittle the redemption won by Christ. So Scotus set out to prove before the Masters of Paris that this objection had no foundation. He began by affirming “If it is not contrary to the authority of the Church or of the Scriptures, it seems that what is more excellent is to be attributed to Mary.” The objection was raised that scripture did indeed oppose this Marianprivilege for in the letter to the Romans St. Paul says “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.” (Rom. 5: 12). This apparently irrefutable text, Scotus argued, proves nothing against the Marian privilege. All agree in universal redemption in Christ, but why should this universal redemption necessarily rule out the Immaculate Conception of Mary? In fact it follows from Christ’s universal redemption that Mary did not have original sin. The most perfect mediator ought to have the most perfect act of mediation in regard to the person in whose favour he intervenes. Mary, his mother, is the person in whose favour Christ intervenes the most as mediator of grace. This wholly perfect act ofmediation requires in the one redeemed preservation from every defect, even from the original defect. Therefore the Blessed Virgin was exempted from every stain of sin. Instead of belittling Christ and circumscribing his power, Scotus argues, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception exalts him, attributing to Jesus the most perfect and sublime redemption. This redemption is most perfectly won for Mary, because of her role as the Mother of God, the one through whom the Incarnation would occur. So Mary, far from being outside the realm of redemption, is more indebted than the rest of us to our Saviour Jesus Christ for she has received a more radical redemption.

By this argument Scotus won over the University of Paris, which decreed that from thence forward the 8th December would be a feast day in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary and every student at the university would have to swear to uphold the Immaculist thesis before taking their decree.

The Primacy of Christ

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which the Church definitively approved and declared infallible in 1854, was predicated upon the primacy of Christ. For it is precisely because Christ is the summit of creation and the first-born among creation that it is fitting that his mother should be preserved from all stain of sin. It is only fitting that the one for whom creation was made should be born of the holiest of the saints, indeed anything less is scarcely conceivable.

But to understand the primacy of Christ and the novelty of what it means, we should first contrast with it the doctrine that is more familiar. The doctrine that the deacon proclaims in the Exultet on Easter night is what we might call the anthropocentric doctrine of the Incarnation. Adam and Eve were created good, but sinned and fell into the grip of the devil. Their sin cut them off irrevocably from God and so God decided to repair the damage done by sending his Son to take that sin upon himself and so restore human beings to righteousness. But the redemption won by Christ’s death was greater than the original state of innocence for it brought humanity to an intimacy with God that they had not known in Eden, for in the person of Christ humanity was brought into union with God. This isthe doctrine that Anselm proclaimed and Aquinas followed. It is a doctrine that is perfectly orthodox.

But there is another manner of looking at the Incarnation, that is also permitted by the Church, although you will find it less widespread. It is a Christocentric thesis, which includes creation and Incarnation in one great theory of the love of God that underlies all existence. This is the theory proposed by Blessed John Duns Scotus in which everything that is is viewed through the lens of the primacy of Christ, the freedom of God and the contingency of the world.

The Purpose of Creation

God is absolutely free and therefore if he creates it is because he wants to create. He wants to create in order to reveal and communicate his goodness and love to another. So creation is a freely willed act of our God who loves and who, St. John tells us, is love. Only a Christian can say that God is love, none of the other religions, monotheistic or other, could possibly make such a claim. But a Christian can, and in order to be true to revelation, must affirm this about God. For God to be love he must be more than one person, for love requires a lover and a beloved. In Scotus’ theology God is the Trinity in a communion of love – an eternal movement of the lover (the Father), the beloved (the Son) and the sharing of love (the Spirit). This Trinity who creates is the model of all realityand especially of human relationships.

God’s love is the cause of creation and it is also at the root of all creation. Because God loves, he wills that the creation he makes should also be infused by love. Since love must go out to another, it is only right and good that the highest object of creation’s love should be God himself, for nothing within creation could be a more fitting object of love than the God who lovingly created.
So God made creation in such a way that it should love, and above all love the divine nature that is the object of love of all the persons in the Trinity. Now for creation to be able to love to the highest extent, there must be at least one created thing capable of the highest love. That created thing is the human nature of Christ. The human nature of Christ was predestined by God to that highest glory of the beatific sharing in the inner life of the divine persons. Once God had decided upon this predestination of Christ’s human nature, then he willed the union of Christ’s divine nature with his human nature in the person of Christ since only a human nature united to the divine nature in one person could love to the highest extent, the extent to which God loves. St. Paul tells us thatChrist was the first-born of all creation, and Scotus’ theology makes sense of this affirmation. Scotus did not believe that the acts of creation and Incarnation were separate, but part of one divine plan. So rather than the Incarnation being a sort of “Plan B” to rescue humanity after the fall, in Scotus’ theology it is the whole purpose of creation. Christ is the masterpiece of love in the midst of a creation designed for love, rather than a divine plumber come to fix the mess of original sin. Thus the Incarnation is placed by Scotus in the context of creation and not of human sin.

Since all of creation is made for Christ, then for the coming of Christ there had to be within creation a nature capable of understanding and freely responding to God’s love. Humanity is free to love and has the capacity to understand God, precisely because such a nature is desired by God to be united in Christ to the divine nature of the Son. Creation is a preparation for the Incarnation which is the outcome that God willed from the very outset. St. Paul puts it like this “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now” (Rom 8:22)

Christ and Creation

Aquinas emphasised the material and formal causes in creation, but Scotus placed his emphasis on the final cause as determining the work of the artist. In other words it is the purpose of creation that determines its form. Since creation is created to love, it is ordered to allow it to fulfil the role for which it was created. So we find ourselves in a universe united around its purpose – which is to reflect in love the loving God who created it.

The highest expression of this purpose is the one who loves most perfectly, Christ who is the goal of creation and to whom all of creation tends. For Christ is the meaning and model of all that is created and every creature is made in the image of Christ. Every leaf, stone, fruit, animal and person is an expression of the Word of God, spoken in love. Christ’s entry into creation is not then an entry into an alien environment, but the culmination of all that creation is and means. The Incarnation completes creation rather than supplementing it, as the anthropocentric view of creation would have us believe. Scotus’ theology is an expression of the insight that St. Francis of Assisi expressed in his poem the “Canticle of the Creatures”: God is praised through creatures, precisely because allcreatures have life through Christ, in Christ and with Christ. For Christ is the Word through whom all things were made.

This Christoform theology of creation presents Christ as the blueprint for creation. In Christ the divine-human communion reaches its culmination and so in Christ the meaning and purpose of creation reaches its highest point. In Christ, what all of creation is ordered towards, that is the praise and glory of God in a communion of love, finds its centre and its highest meaning. With the Incarnation at its centre, creation becomes a cosmic hymn to the Trinity, in which the universe, bound together in and through the cosmic Christ, offers praise and glory to God.

One Order of Being

So we know God through the created world, but we have not yet looked at howw e know God through the created world. Scotus teaches that the path to knowledge of God runs through our being. For our being and God’s being are of the same order. That is to say that there is a common meeting ground between the Creator and his creatures since all possess being. This doctrine is called that of the univocity of being. For Aquinas God’s being and created being are of a different order and so while we can in some way participate in God’s being we will always be separate from it. Thus, for Aquinas, created reality can teach us what God’s being is like but can never show us what God’s being is. Scotus teaches, by contrast, that there is only one order of being. The first principle of being isone, true and good and all beings are related to it in a way that brings out the unity of all that is. So it is not that there is God on one side in His state of being and creatures on the other in a separate order of being. Instead all being is related in the order of being of which God is the first principle but is not inherently separated from created being.

Scotus does not teach that God’s being and created being are one and the same thing but God’s being and created being are two different modes of being. God’s being is infinite and created being is finite. We can see the sense of this intuitively – for the most surprising thing about existence is that there is anything. What is striking about all that is is that it exists at all, that it “has being”. The only alternative would be for there not to be anything. So it seems reasonable to say that being is one concept.

Because things are, because there is being, we seek to know. What we get to know when we know being, is not just being as created but, because there is but one concept of being, we get to know the first principle of being, God Himself.

Thus our seeking to know creation is not something separated from our seeking to know God. All created things have a dignity in that they all share being not only with one another but with God. So the ineffable being of God is made known through the known existence of creation. In this way, through our contemplation of creation we can apprehend the divine mystery – it is no longer beyond reason. Although of course, since God’s being is infinite and created being finite, the fullness of the mystery still lies beyond reason. Thus in Scotus’ theology creation is endowed with a light that is of the same order as the light that shines in God. Just as looking at a fire we understand what light is so that when we see the sun we can know that it is light that we see – so by looking at creation wecan see a spark of life that radiates something of God’s life. Or as Ilia Delio puts it “Creation is not a window but a lamp, and each unique created being radiates the light of God.”[10]

It follows from the essential univocity of being that the divine mystery can be perceived from within the created order. In the Incarnation what is true in the basic created order of things (that God is at the root of all that is and all that is shines forth with the light of God) becomes even more explicitly expressed when a created nature becomes united in one person to the divine nature of the Word. In this way creation reaches its fulfilment.

The Specificity of Being

But if Christ is the pattern of everything in creation, does this not make creation too uniform, too bland, too samey? In Scotus’ philosophy each particular being has its own intrinsic, unique and proper being. Thus everything has an inherent dignity, an essential “thisness”[11] that makes it itself and not something else. So while univocity of being provides a philosophical basis for the unity of all created things his understanding of “thisness” ensures that within that unity each created thing has its own place, a place that can be taken by no other. We tell one thing from another by perceiving the “thisness” that each thing possesses.

When we combine the notions of the primacy of Christ with those of univocity of being and the essential thisness of each thing then we can see a powerful ecological message emerging for the people of our day. For if all things are rooted in a being which is of the same order as the being of God, if all things are predicated on Christ as the first-born of all creation, and if each thing expresses this in a unique, and uniquely beautiful way – then we are forced to contemplate our created order with awe and reverence. For each creature shines with something of God that can be expressed by no other. Each sun, star, proton, grape and grain is charged with a divine meaning – a meaning that no other can express. And each creature speaks to us of Christ who is the first among creatures.

Poetic Inspiration

The significance of this doctrine has not been lost on poets and theologians, and especially on one of the greatest of English religious poets Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins, writing in Oxford in the 19th century, considered it a privilege to be in the city in which Duns Scotus had lived six hundred years earlier.

“Yet ah! This air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace.
Of realty the rarest-veined unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.”[12]
Scotus’ theology inspired some of my favourite lines from Hopkins. In this extract from the Wreck of the Deutschland we hear Hopkins expressing the univocity of being in his poetic language of “instressed” meaning:
“I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely-asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
Glow, glory in thunder;
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west;
Since tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when
I understand.”[13]
In “God’s Grandeur” we hear Hopkins telling of the manner in which we perceive something of God in those moments in which we are open to the reality of nature. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like a shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil.”[14]

And from the first poem I ever loved, Hopkins delights at the majesty of a windhover in the early morning skies and perceives the fire of Christ in the beauty of the creature’s actions:
“Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!”[15]
In this poetry we discover that when a grain of sand is being a grain of sand, it is doing what it is. And if we enter closely enough into what it is doing/being (Hopkins called it do-being) we see Christ. Trying to express it in prose is difficult and so it is not surprising that it is the poet Hopkins who best interprets it for us. Nor is it surprising that many theologians, numbed from the effort of trying to figure out what this subtlest of scholars is on about, retreat with gratitude to the clarity and simplicity of Aquinas’ assertion that whereas God has true being, we have being only by analogy. One who has stopped and stared at a cloud or a tree or a brick or a stone or a twig or a bird or anything – and felt that in doing so he was in touch with God, might understand betterScotus’ philosophy of univocity of being. It provides a key to understanding the fascination we have for nature and the relationship between our scientific curiosity and our faith that few other theologies can deliver.

The Jesuit palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin had just such a moment when the Franciscan scholar Fr. Allegra explained to him Scotus’ doctrines of univocity of being and the primacy of Christ, for these were insights that Teilhard’s own intuition had led him to. He declared “Voila! La theologie de l’avenir.” (There it is! The theology of the future.)

Synthesis with Science

It is not just theologians and poets who benefit from exposure to Scotus’ theology. For the physicist who searches for a unifying principle for our universe can find his insight reflected in his faith and so nourish his relationship with God by understanding that his science is intimately connected to it. The biologist who looks with fascination at the structure of a beetle can see in the thisness of each beetle the glory of Christ peeking through. The child watching with fascination as the ant carries a leaf 50 times its size is undergoing a moment of contemplation. This should not really surprise us for Scotus was raised in the same intellectual milieu of Franciscan Oxford that had produced Roger Bacon, the father of modern scientific methodology.
We can grasp the attractiveness of such a theology, but its unfamiliarity sometimes puts us off. Is there not something of pantheism in this? Does Scotus not devalue Christ’s saving work by positing that the Incarnation is not a result of the need to rescue us from the folly of our sin? Is it really Catholic?

Church Teaching

Well, one could justify the orthodoxy of Scotus’ doctrine from patristic and biblical sources and there are books that do so. One could also subjectively point to the conformity of Scotus’ theology with personal experience of God and observation of creation. I could say, and it would be true, “Scotus speaks to my soul as he spoke to Hopkins and Teilhard de Chardin and as he has spoken to so many down the ages.” But such a justification for following his theology lays one open to charges of subjectivism. Fortunately, there is an objective authority that urges Catholics to look to Scotus as a source of orthodoxy: the magisterium of the Church.

Down the ages much has been written and preached to discredit Scotus in the eyes of the faithful, largely in the misguided view that to do so was to protect the authority of Aquinas. But there has never been a need for this, and the Church has never approved it. Instead in our day we have seen a great affirmation of the value of Scotus’ teaching by the ordinary magisterium of the Church. On 20th March 1993 Pope John Paul II beatified Blessed John Duns Scotus, whose cult has always been observed in Cologne, Edinburgh and Nola. In his sermon on that day the Holy Father invited “everyone to bless the name of the Lord whose glory shines forth in the teaching and holiness of life of Blessed John, minstrel of the Incarnate Word and defender of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.”[16] He also quoted his predecessor Pope Paul VI who said that the doctrine of Blessed John Duns Scotus “can yield shining arms for combating and chasing away the dark clouds of atheism which casts its shadow upon our era”, and continued to state that the doctrine “energetically builds up the Church, sustaining her in her urgent mission of the new evangelisation of the peoples of the earth.”[17] In 2003, when the Scotus commission presented to the Pope the 20th volume of a critical edition of the Opera Omnia of Blessed John, John Paul was fulsome in his praise of the subtle Doctor saying:

“Duns Scotus, with his splendid doctrine on the primacy of Christ, on the Immaculate Conception, on the primary value of Revelation and of the Magisterium of the Church, on the authority of the Pope, on the possibility of human reason to make, at least in part, the great truths of the faith accessible, of showing the non-contradictoriness of them, remains even today a pillar of Catholic theology, an original Master and rich in ideas and stimuli for an ever more complete knowledge of the truths of Faith.”[18]
If we look at his predecessor’s declaration which Pope John Paul quotes, we get an even more explicit affirmation of the doctrine of Blessed John Duns Scotus and its truly Franciscan nature.
“Saint Francis of Assisi’s most beautiful ideal of perfection and the ardour of the Seraphic Spirit are embedded in the work of Scotus and inflame it, for he ever holds virtue of greater value than learning. Teaching as he does the pre-eminence of love over knowledge, the universal primacy of Christ, who was the greatest of God’s works, the magnifier of the Holy Trinity and Redeemer of the human race, King in both the natural and supernatural orders, with the Queen of the world, Immaculate Mary, standing beside him, resplendent in her untarnished beauty, he develops to its full height every point of the revealed Gospel truth which Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Paul understood to be pre-eminent in the divine plan of salvation.”[19]
Supported by such eloquent and authoritative statements I have no hesitation in affirming that the theology of Blessed John Duns Scotus is not only attractive, but eminently sound and worthy of study and proclamation – for in it we find answers to many problems of our times.

A British Vision

As an Englishman and a Franciscan I would dare to go further. The English, like Hopkins, instinctively warm to Scotus’ theology because it grew and was nourished in the English thought of the Oxford Franciscan school. This school, the only orthodox theological tradition to have originated in this country, drew not only from the mystical insight of Saint Francis but also from the pragmatic Anglo-Saxon theology of its first lecturer Robert Grosseteste, whom Richard Southern describes as “an English Mind in Medieval Europe”.[20] It originated in the aftermath of and under the influence of the Magna Carta which underlies so much of the modern political development of Britain. The Oxford Franciscans, with their links to the barons’party, were among the keenest promoters of this constitutional settlement that led to our current Parliamentary democracy.[21] Similar ideas are also present in the Declaration of Arbroath, the founding document of Scottish nationhood. Scotus’ philosophy and theology dominated the pre-reformation Scottish church.[22] The Oxford school produced figures such as Roger Bacon and Scotus himself who are crucial to the development of English and Scottish thought. Given the solid English and Scottish pedigree of scotistic thought, it is arguable that the loss of the scotistic tradition in Catholic theology has contributed to the alien feel of Catholic thought to many in these countries. It is,perhaps, not the fact that our theology is Catholic that makes it feel alien to many of our compatriots, but the fact that it derives from a continental tradition (Parisian/Italian Thomism) that is uncomfortable with our traditions of individualism and pragmatism. If this is correct then the recovery of Scotus’ theology into mainstream theological discourse in this country can make a crucial contribution to an evangelisation that does not require abandonment of our national heritage but instead taps into the deepest intellectual and cultural instincts of the English and Scots. Now there’s a prize worth running after – a Catholic, orthodox theology that appeals to both English and Scots culture.

[1] B. de Saint Maurice. John Duns Scotus A Teacher for Our limes. Franciscan Herald Press: Quincy II, 1958. p. 12.
[2] Quoted in A. Wolter and B. O’Neill. John Duns Scotus Mary’s Architect. Franciscan Herald Press: Quincy II, 1993. p. 1.
[3] Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter. Aeterni Patris, 4 August 1879. In John Wynne (editor) The Great Encyclical Letters of Pope Leo XIII. Benziger Brothers: Chicago, 1903, p. 35.
[4] ibid., p. 48.
[5] lnnocent IV, Serrn de St. Thomas. In ibid. p. 51.
[6] Leo XIII. Aeterni Patris. p. 56.
[7] B. Jansen quoted in: B. de Saint Maurice. op. cit. p. 13.
[8] Histoire religieuse de la nation frangaise. Paris, 1922. p. 274. Cf. E. Longpré. “Pour le Saint Siège et contre le gallicanisme.” In France franciscaine 11 (1928) 145.
[9] Cf. B. Tierney. Origins of Papal Infallibility1150-1350 A Study on the Concepts of Infallibility, Sovereignty and Tradition in the Middle Ages. Brill: New York, 1988.
[10] l. Delio. A Franciscan View of Creation: Learning to Live in a Sacramental World. Vol. II. The Franciscan Heritage Series. The Franciscan Institute: St. Bonaventure NY, 2003. p. 36.
[11] Scotus invented the Latin word “haecceitas” which translates literally as “thisness” to express his insight.
[12] Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Duns Scotus’ Oxford.” In: W. Gardner. Poems of Gerard Maniey Hopkins. OUP: Oxford, 1948. p. 84.
[13] “The Wreck of the Deutschland”. Ibid. p. 57.
[14] “God’s Grandeur.” Ibid. p. 70.
[15] “The Windhover: To Christ our Lord.” Ibid. p. 73.
[16] John Paul II. Sermon. Con queste parole. In The Pope Speaks 38 (July/Aug 1993) 245.
[17] lbid. 246.
[18] John Paul II. Discourse. With lively joy. Vatican, 16th February 2002. Cf.  
[19] Paul VI. Apostolic Letter. Alma parens. Rome: St Peter’s. 14th July 1966.  
[20] cf. R.W. Southern. Robert Grosseteste The Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe. 2nd Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Paperbacks, 1992.
[21] Grossteste excommunicated those in his Lincoln diocese who repudiated the Magna Carta and his friend and successor at the Franciscan school Adam Marsh was on good terms with Simon de Montfort. Little describes the Oxford Franciscans as “The spokesmen of the constitutional movement of the thirteenth century.” cf. A.G. Little. The Grey Friars in Oxford. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892. p. 32-33.
[22] ln his 1994 Gifford lectures, the philosopher Alexander Broadie described Scotus as “Scotland’s greatest philosopher” and outlines the influence of his philosophy on pre-reformation Scottish philosophy. Cf. A. Broadie. The Shadow of Scotus: Philosophy and Faith in Pre-Reformation Scotland. T&T Clark: Edinburgh, 1995. p. 1

Faith Magazine

January - February 2008