Duns Scotus and St. Thomas
A Different Emphasis
"... 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 the rigour 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.
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).
In this defence of papal authority he followed and contributed to a Franciscan tradition espoused by Bonaventure and Olivi. Scotus’ teachings in turn helped inspire the Franciscans who outlined a theology of papal infallibility in the decades that followed. Once the Pope and King had been reconciled Scotus was permitted to return to Pairs and resume his teaching---Phillippe Yates, The Primacy of Christ in John Duns Scotus: An Assessment, FAITH Magazine January-February 2008 ...Read it all