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History of the Christian Church, Volume V: The Middle Ages. A.D. 1049-1294.
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§ 100. Abaelard’s Teachings and Theology.


Furnished with brilliant talents, Abaelard stands in the front rank of French public teachers. But he was a creature of impulse and offensively conscious of his own gifts and acquirements. He lacked the reverent modesty and equilibrium which become greatness. He was deficient in moral force to lift him above the whips and stings of fortune, or rather the calamities of his own making. He seems to have discerned no goal beyond his own selfish ambition. As Neander has said, if he had been a man of pure moral character, he would have accomplished more than he did in the domain of scholarly study. A man of the highest type could not have written his Story of Misfortunes in the tone that Abaelard wrote. He shows not a sign of repentance towards God for his treatment of Heloise. When he recalls that episode, it is not to find fault with himself, and it is not to do her any reparation.

His readiness to put himself in opposition to his teachers and to speak contemptuously of them and to find the motive for such opposition in envy, indicates also a lack of the higher moral sentiment. It is his own loss of fame and position that he is continually thinking of, and lamenting. Instead of ascribing his misfortunes to his own mistakes and mistemper, he ascribes them to the rivalry and jealousy of others.13741374    The Story of Misfortunes was written while he was abbot of St. Gildas. It has been compared to the Confessions of Augustine. But no comparison could more sadly offend against truth. Abaelard revealed his inward states to gain a worldly end. He wanted to draw attention to himself and prepare the way for a new career. His letters to Heloise are not so much to assure her of his orthodoxy as to make that impression upon the Church authorities. This is the position taken by Deutsch, pp. 43 sqq., Hausrath, 275 sqq., and Nitsch, art. Abaelard in Herzog.

Abaelard’s writings are dialectic, ethical, and theological treatises, poems and letters to Heloise, and his autobiography. His chief theological works are a Commentary on the Romans, the Introduction to Theology, and a Christian Theology, the last two being mainly concerned with the Trinity, a colloquy between a philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian and the Sic et Non, Yes and No. In the last work the author puts side by side in one hundred and fifty-eight chapters a collection of quotations from the Fathers which seem to be or really are contradictory. The compiler does not offer a reconciliation. The subjects on which the divergent opinions are collated range from the abstruse problem of the Trinity and the person of Christ to the questions whether Eve alone was seduced or Adam with her, whether Adam was buried on Calvary (the view taken by Ambrose and Jerome) or not (Isidore of Seville), and whether Adam was saved or not. His chief writing on Ethics was the Scito te ipsum, "Know thyself."

In some of his theological conceptions Abaelard was in advance of his age. The new seeds of thought which he let fall have germinated in recent times. His writings show that, in the twelfth century also, the critical sense had a representative.

1. In the conflict over Realism and Nominalism Abaelard occupied an intermediate position. On the one hand he ridiculed the nominalism of Roscellinus, and on the other he controverted the severe realism of William of Champeaux. He taught that the universal is more than a word, vox. It is an affirmation, sermo.13751375    The French writers designate Abaelard’s theory Conceptualism, and hold that he substituted conceptus for voces. Deutsch, p. 105. Walter Map, writing in the second half of the twelfth century, speaks of Abaelard as "the leader of the Nominalists, princeps nominalismi, who sinned more in dialectics than he did in his treatment of Scripture." Wright’s ed., I. 24, p. 41.e creation.

2. Of much more interest are Abaelard’s views of the ultimate seat of religious authority and of inspiration. Although his statements at times seem to be contradictory, the conclusion is justified that he was an advocate of a certain freedom of criticism and inquiry, even though its results contradicted the authority of the Church. He recognized the principle of inspiration, but by this he did not mean what Gregory the Great taught, that the biblical authors were altogether passive. They exercised a measure of independence, and they were kept from all mistakes.

The rule upon which he treated the Fathers and the Scriptures is set forth in the Prologue of the Sic et Non.13761376    See also Introd. ad Theol., Migne, 178. 980.lectual freedom, for the accredited belief was that their statements were invariably consistent. Abaelard pronounced this a mistake. Did not Augustine retract some of his statements? Their mistakes, however, and the supposed mistakes of the Scriptures may be only imaginary, due to our failure to understand what they say. Paul, in saying that Melchisedek has neither father nor mother, only meant that the names of his parents were not given in the Old Testament. The appearance of Samuel to Saul at the interview with the witch of Endor was only a fancy, not a reality. Prophets did not always speak with the Spirit of God, and Peter made mistakes. Why should not the Fathers also have made mistakes? The authority of Scripture and the Fathers does not preclude critical investigation. On the contrary, the critical spirit is the proper spirit in which to approach them. "In the spirit of doubt we approach inquiry, and by inquiry we find out the truth, as He, who was the Truth said, ’Seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.’ "13771377    Dubitando ad inquisitionem venimus, inquirendo veritatem percipimus. Sic et Non, Migne, p. 1349. Deutsch, pp. 159 sq., speaks of this spirit of free inquiry, Die Freiheit der Forschung, as the note running through all Abaelard’s writings.

The mystical and the philosophical elements, united in Anselm, were separated in Abaelard. But Abaelard followed the philosophical principle further than Anselm. He was a born critic, restless of mind, and anxious to make an innovation. In him the inquisitive temper was in the ascendant over the fiducial. Some writers even treat him as the forerunner of modern rationalism. In appearance, at least, he started from a principle the opposite of Anselm’s, namely, "nothing is to be believed, until it has been understood."13781378    Hist. Calam., Migne, 178. 142. Nec credi posse aliquid nisi primitus intellectus, etc.13791379    Introd. ad Theol., Migne, p. 1051, also p. 959. Fides quippe dicitur existimatio non apparentium, cognitio vero ipsarum rerum experientia per ipsam earam praesentiam.es not rest upon authority, but upon inquiry and experience. There are times, however, when he seems to contradict himself and to set forth the opposite principle. He says, "We believe in order to know, and unless ye believe, ye cannot know."13801380    Credimus ut cognoscamus; nisi credideritis, non intelligetis. See other quotations in Hefele, V. 463-469; also Deutsch, in his chapter on Faith and Knowledge, pp. 168 sqq.mporaries felt that he was unsound and that his position would overthrow the authority of the Church.13811381    So the charges of Bernard and the Synod of Sens, and Otto of Freising. De gestis Frid., 48.

The greater doctrines of the Trinity and the existence of God, Abaelard held, could not be proved as necessary, but only as probable. In opposition to the pruriency of Scolasticism, he set up the principle that many things pertaining to God need neither to be believed, nor denied, for no danger is involved in the belief or denial of them.13821382    Introd. ad Theol., Migne, p. 986.w or not, and whether God will grant pity to a certain most wicked man or not. On the other hand be declared that to affirm that we cannot understand what has been taught about the Trinity is to say that the sacred writers themselves did not understand what they taught.13831383    Introd. ad Theol., Migne, p. 1052.13841384    Catholica quippe est fides, id est universalis quae ita omnibus necessaria est ut nemo discretus absque ea salvari possit, Migne, p. 986. In view of such a statement, Poole’s remark has much in its favor, "it was not really Abaelard’s results that formed the strength of the indictment against him, but the method by which he reached them," p. 153.

3. In his statement of the doctrine of the Trinity, Abaelard laid himself open to the charge both of modalism and Arianism. It called forth Bernard’s severest charges. Abaelard made no contribution to the subject. The idea of the Trinity he derived from God’s absolute perfections. God, as power, is the Father; as wisdom, He is the Son; as love, the Spirit. The Scriptures are appealed to for this view. The Father has put all things in His power, Acts 1:7. The Son, as Logos, is wisdom. The Holy Spirit is called good, Ps. 143:10, and imparts spiritual gifts. The figure gave much umbrage, by which he compared the three persons of the Trinity to the brass of which a seal is made, the form of the seal, and the seal itself proceeding from, or combining the brass and the form. "The brass itself which is the substance of the brazen seal, and the seal itself of which the brass is the substance, are essentially one; yet the brass and the seal are so distinct in their properties, that the property of the brass is one, and the property of the brazen seal another." These are ultimately three things: the brass, aes, the brass capable of sealing, sigillabile, and the brass in the act of sealing, sigillans.

4. In his treatment of the atonement, Abaelard has valuable original elements.13851385    They are found in his Com. on Romans, as well as in his Introd. ad Theol. and his Sermons, V., X., XII.rence to Anselm’s great treatise. Man, Abaelard said, is in the power of the devil, but the devil has no right to this power. What rights does a slave have over another slave whom he leads astray? Christ not only did not pay any price to the devil for man’s redemption, he also did not make satisfaction to divine justice and appease God’s wrath. If the fall of Adam needed satisfaction by the death of some one, who then would be able to satisfy for the death of Christ? In the life and death of the Redeemer, God’s purpose was to manifest. His love and thus to stir up love in the breast of man, and to draw man by love back to Himself. God might have redeemed man by a word, but He chose to set before man an exhibition of His love in Christ. Christ’s love constitutes the merit of Christ. The theory anticipates the modern moral influence theory of the atonement, so called.

5. Abaelard’s doctrine of sin likewise presents features of difference from the view current in his time.13861386    They are set forth more particularly in the ethical treatise Scito te ipsum and the Com. on Romans, especially in an excursus on original sin, appended to chap. V., Migne, pp. 866-874. to eat the forbidden fruit, that is, after her desire was aroused and before the actual partaking of the fruit.13871387    He thinks the tree whose fruit excited the sexual passions was the vine. Hexameron, Migne, p. 777.

The seat of sin is the intention, which is the root, bearing good and bad fruit.13881388    Com. on Romans, chap. II. 6. Deutsch, pp. 344 sqq., deals at length with Abaelard’s views on Sin.tentio, is not the simple purpose, say, to kill a man in opposition to killing one without premeditation, but it is the underlying purpose to do right or wrong. In this consciousness of right or wrong lies the guilt. Those who put Christ to death from a feeling that they were doing right, did not sin, or, if they sinned, sinned much less grievously than if they had resisted their conscience and not put him to death. How then was it that Christ prayed that those who crucified him might be forgiven? Abaelard answers by saying that the punishment for which forgiveness was asked was temporal in its nature.

The logical deduction from Abaelard’s premises would have been that no one incurs penalty but those who voluntarily consent to sin. But from this he shrank back. The godless condition of the heathen he painted in darkest colors. He, however, praised the philosophers and ascribed to them a knowledge through the Sibylline books, or otherwise, of the divine unity and even of the Trinity.13891389    Introd. ad Theol., Migne, p. 1008.ent II. that, while Abaelard labored to prove Plato a Christian, he proved himself to be a pagan. Liberal as he was in some of his doctrinal views, he was wholly at one with the Church in its insistence upon the efficiency of the sacraments, especially baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Because Abaelard stands outside of the theological circle of his day, he will always be one of the most interesting figures of the Middle Ages. His defect was in the lack of moral power. The student often finds himself asking the question, whether his statements were always the genuine expression of convictions. But for this lack of moral force, he might have been the Tertullian of the Middle Ages, whom he is not unlike in dash and original freshness of thought. The African Father, so vigorous in moral power, the Latin Church excludes from the number of the saints on account of his ecclesiastical dissent. Abaelard she cannot include on account of moral weakness.13901390    Hausrath, pp. 293 sqq., assigns to Abaelard a place in the front rank of such martyrs. He justifies him for declining to stand by his conclusions in these words: "It would be unfair to demand that a scholar, who was under the pressure of such circumstances (that is mediaeval ecclesiasticism should have the courage of a farm hand, or carry his views to their logical conclusion like a statesman."rors charged against him, he might have been given a place among the martyrs of thought.13911391    Abaelard left admiring pupils, some of whom, like Omnibene, wrote books of Sentences based upon their teacher’s Theology, and followed his threefold division of faith, the Sacraments, and love. See Denifle, Archiv, pp, 613 sqq.



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