Holkot, Robert (d. 1349)

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(d. 1349)

Robert Holkot [Holcot] was the most significant Dominican theologian of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He received his doctorate at Oxford, lecturing on Peter Lombard's Sentences, the main theology textbook, in the years 13311333, and served as regent master there, most likely from 13361338. He spent time in London as a clerk for Richard of Bury, the bishop of Durham, and probably lectured on the biblical Book of Wisdom at Cambridge from 13401342. From 1343 to his death from the plague in 1349, he resided at the Dominican priory in Northampton.

The Condemnations of 1277 and the arguments of John Duns Scotus at the turn of the fourteenth century established the view that no absolute necessity governs creation: God has always had the power to do other than he does and to create a reality other than this one. The working out of the implications for philosophy and theology of such a contingent reality framed scholarly debate during Holkot's time. The tools available to attack the problem had also undergone major changes. In the generation prior to Holkot, William Ockham had subjected thirteenth-century Aristotelianism to a severe critique. Holkot adopted Ockham's philosophy as his starting point.

The most important and controversial of Holkot's views involve his use of the distinction between God's absolute and ordained power. Omnipotence means that God has the absolute power to do whatever does not involve a contradiction. Because no necessity attaches to the ethical precepts that govern the created order (God could without contradiction have created a world in which merit would accrue to doing the opposite of each of the Ten Commandments), human salvation depends upon a covenant between God and human beings established under the New Law of Christ. God's ordained system, the system that instantiates one or another of the many possible creatable orders, displays his expressed power, but could have been, or in the future could still be, other than it is.

Because, in Holkot's view, divine goodness owes nothing to creation, there would be no contradiction in God's replacing the current order with another, even without fulfilling the promises or covenants integral to the current ordination. The principle of noncontradiction provides the ultimate security. If God were to change the ordained system, he would either inform people of the new conditions for salvation or not. If God did not, then no one could be held accountable for the new conditions. It would involve a contradiction for God to hold people to account for what they can not know.

To analyze the contingent theological order, Holkot adapted the rules of "obligational" debate, a form of debate in which an "opponent" usually proposed some contingent possibility as the initial starting point, to be held true during the debate, and a "respondent" would admit or exclude further proposed propositions as they were consistent with or contradicted the initial proposition. For Holkot, God's revelations functioned like the initial proposals in such debates, and it was incumbent on the believer to hold them as true and to accept the consequences of supposing them true, all the while knowing that the contingent order of creation might mean they were false and never have been true. Holkot's development of this "obligational" theology was his most distinctive contribution.

See also Aristotelianism; Duns Scotus, John; Ockhamism; Peter Lombard; William of Ockham.


Gelber, Hester Goodenough. It Could Have Been Otherwise: Contingency and Necessity in Dominican Theology at Oxford, 13001350. Leiden: Brill, 2004.

Hoffmann, Fritz. Die theologische Methode des Oxforder Dominicanerlehrers Robert Holcot. Bieträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie und Theologie des Mittelalters: Texte und Untersuchungen, n.s. no. 5. Münster: Aschendorff, 1972.

Kennedy, Leonard A. The Philosophy of Robert Holcot, Fourteenth-Century Skeptic. Studies in the History of Philosophy, no. 27. Lewiston: The Edward Mellon Press, 1993.

"Robert Holkot [Holcot]." In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, July 2001. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/holkot/

Hester Goodenough Gelber (2005)