During his general audience on Dec. 30, Pope Benedict XVI resumed his catechesis on the Christian culture of the Middle Ages. He spoke about Peter Lombard, an outstanding theologian, whose best-known work, the Sentences, became the standard introduction to theology for centuries, influencing the thought of scholars such as Sts. Albert the Great, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas.
Dear brothers and sisters,
During this last audience of the year, I would like to speak to you about Peter Lombard, a theologian who lived during the 12th century and who is especially renowned because one of his works, the Sentences, was used as a standard text at schools of theology for many centuries.
Who, then, was Peter Lombard? Although there is little information about his life, we can reconstruct some essential facts. He was born between the 11th and the 12th centuries near Novara in northern Italy, in a land that had belonged to the Lombards for some time — hence the reason he was given the name of “Lombard.”
He came from a family of modest means, which we can deduce from the letter of introduction that Bernard of Clairvaux wrote for him to Gilduin, superior of the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris, asking him to take in Peter for free, since Peter wished to go to Paris to pursue his studies.
During the Middle Ages, it was not merely the nobles or the wealthy who could pursue their studies and aspire to important roles in the life of society at large or in the life of the Church. Even people of humble origins could attain such roles, like Gregory VII, the pope who held his ground in a confrontation with Emperor Henry IV, and Maurice of Sully, the archbishop of Paris who ordered the construction of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and who himself was the son of a poor peasant.
Peter Lombard began his studies in Bologna, but later went to Reims and then to Paris. From 1140 onwards, he taught at the prestigious school of Notre Dame.
Respected and appreciated as a theologian, Pope Eugene III entrusted him eight years later with the task of examining the teachings of Gilbert Porretano, which had stirred up a great deal of controversy since they were regarded as not completely orthodox. After he was ordained a priest, Peter was named bishop of Paris in 1159, just a year before his death in 1160.
Like all teachers of theology of his time, Peter wrote treatises and commentaries on sacred Scripture. However, his masterpiece consists of the four books of the Sentences, a text that was conceived for the purpose of teaching.
According to the theological method used at the time, students had to be familiar with the teachings of the Fathers of the Church through study and commentary, as well as the teachings of other authoritative writers.
Therefore, Peter assembled a vast documentation, consisting principally of the teachings of the great Latin Fathers of the Church, especially St. Augustine, but that was also open to the contribution of contemporary theologians.
He used, among other things, an encyclopedic work of Greek theology that had only recently acquired renown throughout the West, The Orthodox Faith by St. John Damascene.
Peter Lombard’s particular merit was to have organized all the material that he had carefully gathered and chosen into a systematic and harmonious framework. In fact, one of the characteristics of theology is that of organizing the heritage of our faith in a unified and well-ordered fashion.
Thus, Peter divided his Sentences, the patristic sources on the various themes, into four volumes.
The first volume was devoted to God and the mystery of the Trinity; the second to creation, sin and grace; and the third to the mystery of the Incarnation and the work of redemption, with an ample discussion of the virtues. The fourth volume was devoted to the sacraments and the Novissimi: the ultimate realities, those of eternal life.
The overall vision that emerges includes almost all the truths of the Catholic faith. This systematic overview and its clear, well-organized, schematic and consistent presentation explain the extraordinary success of Peter Lombard’s Sentences. They allowed a certain security in learning on the part of students and ample room for deeper analysis by those teachers who used his books.
A Franciscan theologian, Alexander Hales, who lived a generation after Peter, introduced a subdivision to the Sentences that facilitated its consultation and study.
Even the greatest theologians of the 13th century, Albert the Great, Bonaventure of Bagnoregio and Thomas Aquinas, began their academic careers by commenting on the four books of Peter Lombard’s Sentences, enriching them with their reflections. Peter Lombard’s text was used in all the schools of theology until the 16th century.
A Unified View of Faith
I would like to emphasize the fact that an organic presentation of the faith is an indispensable requirement. Indeed, the individual truths of the faith shed light on each other, and an overall, unified view of these truths makes the harmony of God’s plan for salvation and the centrality of the mystery of Christ emerge.
I call upon all theologians and priests to follow Peter Lombard’s example and to always bear in mind the overall vision of Christian doctrine so as to guard against the modern-day risks of fragmentation and undervaluation of individual truths.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church and its Compendium supply us with precisely this complete picture of Christian revelation, which we should accept with faith and gratitude. Therefore, I would like to encourage each member of the faithful as well as Christian communities to draw profit from these instruments in order to gain a deeper knowledge of the contents of our faith.
The faith will then appear as a marvelous symphony that speaks to us of God and his love for us, thereby eliciting our firm allegiance and diligent response.
In order to have an idea of the interest to readers today of Peter Lombard’s Sentences, I would like to give two examples. Inspired by St. Augustine’s commentary on the Book of Genesis, Peter asks why woman was created from Adam’s rib and not from his head or from his legs. He explains: “What came forth was neither a dominator nor a slave to man, but rather a companion” (Sentenze 3, 18, 3).
Then, still basing himself on patristic teaching, he adds: “This act represents the mystery of Christ and the Church. Indeed, just as woman was formed from Adam’s rib as he slept, so the Church was born from the sacraments that began to flow from Christ’s side as he slept on the cross, that is, from blood and water with which we are redeemed from punishment and purified of sin” (Sentenze, 3, 18,4).
These are profound reflections that are still valid today, in an era where the theology and spirituality of Christian marriage have given greater depth to the analogy of the spousal relationship between Christ and his Church.
In another passage from his principal work, Peter Lombard, writing about the merits of Christ, asks: “For what reason, then, did Christ wish to suffer and die, if his virtues were sufficient to gain him every merit?”
His response is insightful and effective: “He died for you, not for himself!”
He then continues with another question and answer, which seem to reproduce the discussions that took place during the classes of medieval theologians: “In what sense did Christ suffer and die for me? So that his passion and death could be an example and a cause for you — an example of virtue and humility, a cause for glory and freedom; an example given by God, who was obedient unto death, and the cause of your liberation and your blessedness” (Sentenze 3, 18, 5).
Among the more important of Peter Lombard’s contributions to the history of theology, I would like to single out his treatise on the sacraments, of which he gave a definition that I would call definitive: “A sacrament properly so called is that which is a sign of God’s grace and the visible form of invisible grace, in such a way that it carries its image and is its cause” (Sentenze 4, 1, 4).
With this definition, Peter Lombard grasped the essence of the sacraments: They are the cause of grace and have the true capacity to communicate God’s life.
Later theologians never abandoned this view and utilized the distinction between material and formal elements introduced by the “Master of the Sentences,” as Peter Lombard was later called.
The material element is visible sensory reality. The formal element consists of the words spoken by the minister. Both are essential for a complete and valid celebration of the sacraments — matter, the reality through which the Lord visibly touches us, and the word, which gives the spiritual significance.
In baptism, for example, the material element is the water that is poured over the head of the child and the formal element is the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Moreover, Peter Lombard stated clearly that the sacraments alone objectively transmit God’s grace and that there are seven: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, the anointing of the sick, holy orders and matrimony (see Sentenze 4, 2, 1).
Friendship With Christ
Dear brothers and sisters, it is important to recognize how precious and how indispensable this sacramental life is for each Christian, in which the Lord, by means of these material realities, in the community of the Church, touches and transforms us. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, the sacraments are “powers that come forth from the body of Christ, which is ever living and life-giving ... actions of the Holy Spirit” (No. 1116).
During the Year for Priests that we are celebrating, I exhort the clergy, especially those who minister to souls, to cultivate first and foremost an intense sacramental life of their own in order to be able to help the faithful.
The celebration of the sacraments should be marked by dignity and decorum, promote personal prayer and community participation and a sense of God’s presence and a missionary zeal. The sacraments are the great treasure of the Church, and it is up to each one of us to celebrate them so that they may bring forth spiritual fruit. In them, an ever new and surprising event touches our lives: Christ, through visible signs, comes to meet us. He purifies us, transforms us and allows us to participate in his divine friendship.
Dear friends, we have come to the end of this year and stand at the door of the new year. My wish is that the friendship of Our Lord Jesus Christ might accompany you each day of the year that is about to begin. May this friendship with Christ be our light and guide, helping us to be men and women of peace — of his peace! Happy New Year to all of you! Register translation