The Conservative Reaction and the Condemnation of 1277

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The Conservative Reaction and The Condemnation of 1277

Bonaventure and the "Augustinians."

Even as Aristotle's naturalistic philosophy became foundational to university curricula, there was strong resistance to his ideas. Historians, with their penchant for labeling, have called this group "Augustinians," but in truth the term came to identify a whole complex set of teachings, not all the same. The most articulate of the group was Bonaventure (1217–1274), third successor of St. Francis as Minister General of the Friars Minor or, more popularly, the Franciscans. In the prologue to his major theological work, his Commentary on the Sentences, Bonaventure declares that he has no wish to be an innovator, that he wishes only to follow in the footsteps of the great St. Augustine, who not only is a valid guide for the things here below (the extent of Aristotle's competence) but is also master of the things above, sometimes called wisdom. In fact, he claimed that no question had ever been propounded by the masters whose solution may not be found in the works of Augustine. Bonaventure's own work relied heavily on that of Augustine; scholars have identified over three thousand citations of Augustine in the writings of Bonaventure. Like Augustine, moreover, Bonaventure insisted that theology must be rooted in faith; it is, in fact, faith in search of understanding, an idea that echoed St. Anselm's assertion in the eleventh century. He believed that there is an infinite distance between knowing Christ and knowing an axiom of Euclid. Theology cannot be a purely speculative science, but is rather a way of life. It is this emphasis on the affective as opposed to the intellective that distinguished Bonaventure's thought from that of his contemporary and fellow countryman Thomas Aquinas.

The Doctrine of Divine Illumination.

Central to Bonaventure's thought was the Augustinian doctrine of divine illumination. According to this doctrine, the knowledge received from the senses cannot account for the certitude that man enjoys with respect to truth. The sole sufficient cause of this certitude has to come from within. The problem becomes where this certitude originated. Either man is born knowing these truths (as Plato claimed) or man is dependent upon God's light, which strengthens the mind to know the meanings of things. If the latter is the case—and Christian philosophers (in Bonaventure's view) could not hold the former—then man possesses a simultaneous awareness of the truth of God's existence in every truth that is known, in the same way that man is aware of the presence of light in the perception of color. Bonaventure invented a new word for this concept: contuitio, or "contuition"—that is, a "seeing-with" or concomitant realization. It is not that Bonaventure does not have arguments for God's existence; he holds the record—twenty-nine in all, including the shortest ever written: "If God is God, God is." But they are not rigorous and breathe an air of casualness. They are, in short, not demonstrations in the strict Aristotelian sense. Bonaventure himself calls them "exercises for the mind," exercises to make more explicit what one holds already in an implicit way. Bonaventure's certainty of God's existence was such that he claimed to doubt his own existence more easily than that of God. Indeed, he calls the proposition "God exists" a verum indubitabile—"a truth which cannot be doubted."

Revelation and Reason.

Paradoxically, Bonaventure far exceeded Aquinas with respect to the confidence he placed in reason. In his Quaestiones disputatae de mysterio Trinitatis (Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity), Bonaventure maintained that it is possible to make intelligible this most mysterious truth of the Christian religion, namely the Trinity. Given the knowledge of the three Persons in the Godhead from revelation, it is possible for the reason to perceive the doctrine as logically necessary. Like Anselm, Bonaventure looked for "necessary reasons," a notion that Aquinas explicitly denied. Philosophically, Bonaventure's work can be seen as the extension of Augustine's, tempered however by the distinctive spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi. Some scholars, furthermore, have argued for the deep influence of Bonaventure's thought on contemporary philosophy: on hermeneutics, on process philosophy, and on German idealism. Within his own Order, however, he was within a short time supplanted by Scotism, the philosophical system of John Duns Scotus, which then became the quasi-official philosophy of the Franciscans.

The Condemnation of 1277.

It was the conservatives like Bonaventure who would triumph in the conflict with the radical Aristotelians—at least in the short run. The story is easily told, but more difficult to assess. Pope John XXI (c. 1210–1277), who in his earlier life had made a name for himself in logic (in fact, his book, the Summa logicalis, was the most widely used logic text in the thirteenth century), had heard rumors of suspicious teachings emanating from the University of Paris, the premier center for theological studies in the West. He ordered Stephen Tempier, the bishop of Paris, to investigate. Taking this papal letter as his warrant, Tempier hastily assembled a panel of theologians and in short order drew up a list of 219 propositions from the teachings of the Parisian masters that he condemned as heretical. Included in the list were approximately two dozen teachings of St. Thomas. The fact that the condemnation was issued three years to the day after Aquinas's death (7 March 1277) led some to suspect a personal insult to Thomas.

The Anti-Averroist Attack.

The list itself was a hodgepodge. Condemned as heretical were a book on courtly love, one on geomancy (the art of foretelling the future by studying the patterns formed when earth is randomly thrown on the ground), and one on necromancy (the art of prophesying through communication with the dead). Condemned also were some teachings originally ascribed to Avicenna as well as to St. Thomas Aquinas (as, for example, the teaching that angels are "nowhere," that is, not in a place). But the focus of the document was the teachings of the Latin Averroists: for example, that there is no more excellent state than to study philosophy; that the only wise men in the world are the philosophers; that God does not know things other than himself; that God is eternal in acting and moving, just as he is eternal in existing, otherwise he would be determined by some other thing that would be prior to him, and so forth. In the prologue to this very harsh document the bishop became the first to ascribe to the Averroists (averroiste) the teaching by which they came to be known:

For they [the Latin Averroists] say that these things are true according to philosophy but not according to the Catholic faith, as if there were two contrary truths and as if the truth of Sacred Scripture were contradicted by the truth in the sayings of the accursed pagans …

In other words, they held a theory of double truth.

The Divorce Between Faith and Reason.

If the principal aim was to wipe out the Averroist school, the condemnation was a failure. Its unintended effect, however, was wide-ranging: it created a new atmosphere, one in which theologians were more concerned with being right in the eyes of the Latin Church than they were in pursuing their insights to their logical conclusions. The greatest loss was to speculative theology, namely, a theology grounded in sound reason. In the new mood the trendy phrase became potentia absoluta "absolute power": even though it makes no sense to human reason, God can do anything—even make it such that Caesar did not cross the Rubicon (when it is known that he did). It was the divorce between faith and reason and the beginning of the end of the golden age of medieval thought. Philosophy veered off into increased skepticism, doubting the very ability of the mind to know things, the logical conclusion of which was the universal and methodological doubt of Descartes in the seventeenth century, which most recent scholars consider the beginning of modern philosophy. Theology on the other hand headed in the direction of fideism, the view that religious belief is based solely on faith and not on evidence or reasoning, and private religious experience. The outcome of this tendency is to be seen in the flourishing of mysticism in the fourteenth century and ultimately in the Protestant Reformation.


Luca Bianchi, "1277: A Turning Point in Medieval Philosophy?" in What is Philosophy in the Middle Ages? Miscellanea Mediaevalia 26. Ed. Jan A. Aertsen (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1998): 90–110.

Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Bonaventure. Trans. Dom I. Trethowan and F. J. Sheed (Patterson, N.J.: St. Anthony's Press, 1965).

Edward Grant, "The Effect of the Condemnation of 1277," in The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy from the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Disintegration of Scholasticism 1100–1600. Eds. Norman Kretzmann, Anthony Kenny, and Jan Pinborg (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982): 537–539.

John E. Murdoch, "1277 and Late Medieval Natural Philosophy," in What is Philosophy in the Middle Ages? Miscellanea Mediaevalia 26. Ed. Jan A. Aertsen (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1998): 11–124.

Anthony Murphy, "Bonaventure," in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 115: Medieval Philosophers. Ed. Jeremiah Hackett (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, Inc., 1992): 121–129.

Andreas Speer, "Bonaventure," in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Eds. Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone (London: Blackwell, 2003): 233–240.

John F. Wippel, "The Parisian Condemnations of 1270 and 1277," in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Eds. Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone (London: Blackwell, 2003): 65–73.

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The Conservative Reaction and the Condemnation of 1277

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The Conservative Reaction and the Condemnation of 1277