Biel, Gabriel (c. 1410–1495)

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Gabriel Biel, the Ockhamist philosopher and theologian, was born at Speyer, Germany, and died at Einsiedel (Schönbuch). He studied philosophy and theology at Heidelberg and Erfurt, joined the Brethren of the Common Life, and became a professor of theology (1484) at the newly founded University of Tübingen, where he taught the "modern way," that is, according to the nominalist position of William of Ockham. Biel's "Commentary on the Sentences" (Epithoma Pariter et Collectorium Circa IV Sententiarum Libros, Tübingen, 1495) is a skillful summary of Ockham and a collection of the views of other medieval thinkers from Anselm to John Duns Scotus. Widely read in the German universities, Biel exerted a strong influence on Martin Luther (see P. Vignaux, Luther, Commentateur des Sentences, Paris, 1935).

As a philosopher, Biel was quite ready to criticize and to offer his own developments of Ockham's nominalism. Basically a theory of knowledge, his thought had some influence in ethics and political philosophy. For Biel formal logic displaced metaphysics because he considered universals to be but names (nomina ) arbitrarily applied to classes; he considered all existents to be completely individual in character. Essence and existence are not really distinct principles in things but are merely distinguished in thought.

Biel's psychology was, like Ockham's, close to Augustinianism: the powers of the soul are not distinct faculties; intellect is the soul understanding, will is the soul desiring and loving. Biel was a psychological voluntarist; for him the most important psychic activity of man was willing. He taught that all man's conscious activities entailed some use of will. Man was viewed as a volitional rather than rational animal.

In practical philosophy, he considered moral goodness to consist in volitional conformity to God's will. The obligatory force of law has no basis in the nature of created things but is solely due to the fact that God has willed a certain action to be right. This is moral and legal voluntarism. "God could command that a man deceive another through a lie," wrote Biel, "and he would not sin" (Epithoma, II, 38, q. 1, G).

See also Anselm, St.; Augustinianism; Duns Scotus, John; Essence and Existence; Luther, Martin; Ockhamism; Psychology; Voluntarism; William of Ockham.


Bonke, E. Doctrina Nominalistica de Fundamento Ordinis Moralis apud Guillelmum de Ockham et Gabriel Biel. Rome, 1944. Pp. 5783.

Davitt, T. The Nature of Law. St. Louis: B. Herder, 1951. Pp. 5568.

Feckes, C. Die Rechtfertigungslehre des Gabriel Biel und ihre Stellung innerhalb der nominalistischen Schule. Münster, 1925.

Vernon J. Bourke (1967)

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Biel, Gabriel (c. 1410–1495)

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