Blessed John Duns Scotus: Cantor of the Incarnate Word

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.

During his general audience on July 7, Pope Benedict XVI resumed his catechesis on medieval Christian culture. He spoke about Blessed John Duns Scotus, a distinguished Franciscan theologian of the 13th century.

Duns Scotus is best known today for his contribution to the development of Christian thought in three areas. First, he viewed the Incarnation as part of God’s original plan for creation and not the direct result of Adam’s sin. Secondly, he argued that the Virgin Mary was preserved from original sin as a privilege granted in view of her son’s redemptive passion and death, thereby laying the foundation for the eventual definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Finally, he devoted great attention to the issue of human freedom and its relationship to the will and to the intellect.

Dear brothers and sisters,

This morning, after several catecheses devoted to a number of outstanding theologians, I would like to introduce you to Blessed John Duns Scotus, another important figure in the history of theology from the end of the 13th century.

The inscription on his tomb provides us with a summary of the geographical scope of his life: “He was welcomed in England; he was educated in France; his remains are preserved in Cologne in Germany; he was born in Scotland.” We cannot overlook this, especially since we possess very little information on Duns Scotus’ life.

His Life

He was probably born in the year 1266 in a small village called Duns on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Attracted by the charism of St. Francis of Assisi, he entered the Friars Minor and was ordained a priest in 1291. Gifted with a brilliant mind and a penchant for speculation — his intelligence earned him the traditional title of Doctor Subtilis (“The Subtle Doctor”) — Duns Scotus was sent to study philosophy and theology at the famous universities of Oxford and Paris.

After he completed his education, he taught theology first at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and later that of Paris, where he began to prepare commentaries, like all the scholars of that era, on Peter Lombard’s Sentences. Indeed, Duns Scotus’ principal works represent the fruit of his classes and bear titles related to the places where he taught: Opus Oxoniense (Oxford), Reportatio Cambrigensis (Cambridge) and Reportata Parisiensia (Paris).

He left Paris after a feud broke out between King Philip the Fair and Pope Boniface VIII. Rather than sign a document hostile to the supreme pontiff that the king demanded of every religious, Duns Scotus chose voluntary exile. Thus, out of love for the See of Peter, he left the country, together with his fellow Franciscan friars.

Dear brothers and sisters, this incident reminds us of how many times in the history of the Church believers have encountered hostility and even persecution as a result of their faithfulness to Christ, to the Church and to the Pope. We admire these Christians because they teach us to safeguard our faith in Christ and our communion with the Successor of Peter — and thus with the universal Church — as a precious gift.

The relationship between the king of France and Pope Boniface VII’s successor was more friendly, and Duns Scotus was able to return to Paris soon after, in 1305, in order to teach theology with the title of Magister Regens, what we would consider a full professorship today.

Eventually, his superiors sent him to Cologne to teach at the Franciscan school of theology there, but he died on Nov. 8, 1308, at the age of just 43, leaving behind a significant number of works.

Because of his reputation for holiness, veneration for him quickly spread within the Franciscan order and the Servant of God John Paul II decided to beatify him on March 20, 1993, describing him as “cantor of the incarnate Word and defender of the Immaculate Conception.” This expression summarizes Duns Scotus’ important contribution to the history of theology.

The Incarnation

Above all, he reflected on the mystery of the Incarnation and, contrary to many Christian thinkers of that era, he maintained that the Son of God would have had to become man even if mankind had not sinned. In his Reportata Parisiensa he wrote: “To think that God would have renounced this work if Adam had not sinned would be completely irrational! I maintain, therefore, that the Fall was not the cause of Christ’s predestination and that — even if no one had fallen, neither angel nor man — Christ in this hypothetical situation would have been predestined for the same fate nonetheless” (in III Sent., d. 7, 4).

Such reasoning, perhaps a little surprising, arises from the fact that Duns Scotus considers the incarnation of the Son of God, which God the Father had foreseen from all eternity in his plan of love, to be the fulfillment of creation, making it possible for every creature in Christ and through Christ to be filled with grace and give praise and glory to God throughout eternity.

Duns Scotus, though aware that because of original sin Christ redeemed us with his passion, death and resurrection, makes it clear that the Incarnation is the greatest and most sublime work in the history of salvation — and that it is not conditioned by any contingent circumstance but is God’s original idea for ultimately uniting all of creation with himself in the person and in the flesh of his son.

A faithful disciple of St. Francis, Duns Scotus loved to reflect and preach on the mystery of Christ’s saving passion, an expression of the immense love of God, who lavishly communicates forth from himself the rays of his goodness and love (see Tractatus de primo principio, c. 4).

This love is revealed not only on Calvary but also in the holy Eucharist, to which Duns Scotus was deeply devoted and which he saw as the sacrament of Jesus’ real presence and as the sacrament of unity and communion that leads us to love each other and to love God as the supreme good of all (see Reportata Parisiensia, in IV Sent., d. 8, q. 1, n. 3).

Brothers and sisters, this notably “Christ-centered” theological vision opens us up to contemplation, to awe and to gratitude. Christ is the center of history and the cosmos. He is the one who gives meaning, dignity and value to our lives!

Like Pope Paul VI did in Manila, I too wish to cry out to the world today: “Christ reveals the invisible God. He is the firstborn of all creation, the foundation of everything created. He is the teacher of mankind and its redeemer. He was born, he died, and he rose again for us. He is the center of history and of the world; he is the one who knows us and who loves us; he is the companion and the friend of our life. … I could never finish speaking about him” (Homily, Nov. 29, 1970).

The Blessed Virgin Mary

Christ’s role in the history of salvation is not the only object of the Doctor Subtilis’ reflection. He also reflects on Mary’s role.

During Duns Scotus’ time, the majority of theologians opposed the doctrine that the Blessed Virgin Mary was free from original sin from the first moment of her conception.

Their objection, which seemed insurmountable, was that Mary would not seem to have had need of Christ and his redemption, which would appear to contradict the universality of the redemption wrought by Christ. It is for this reason that theologians were opposed to this thesis.

In order to help people understand how Mary was preserved from original sin, Duns Scotus developed an argument that Blessed Pope Pius IX would later use when he solemnly defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854.

This argument is that of “preventive redemption”: The Immaculate Conception represents the masterpiece of Christ’s redemption, precisely because the power of his love and of his mediation ensured that his mother would be preserved from original sin. Therefore, Mary was totally redeemed by Christ, but already before her conception.

His fellow Franciscans enthusiastically embraced and spread this doctrine, as did other theologians who — often with a solemn oath — undertook to defend and perfect it.

I would like to highlight something in this regard, which seems important to me. Outstanding theologians like Duns Scotus, especially as regards his teaching on the Immaculate Conception, have enriched through their specific contributions what God’s people already believed spontaneously about the Blessed Virgin, as manifested in their acts of devotion, in their expressions of art and, in a more general way, in the way they live their lives as Christians.

Thus, faith in the Immaculate Conception and in the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary, was already present in God’s people, even before theology found the key to interpret it in the totality of the doctrine of the faith. Therefore, the people of God precede the theologians, and all this occurs thanks to that supernatural sensus fidei, namely that capacity that the Holy Spirit infuses in us which gives us the capacity to embrace the truths of faith with a humble heart and mind.

In this sense, God’s people constitute the “magisterium that precedes,” to which theology later has to add depth and which theology has to accept on an intellectual plane. May theologians always listen to this fount of faith and safeguard the humility and simplicity of little ones!

That’s what I said a few months ago: “There have been great scholars, great experts, great theologians and teachers of faith who have taught us many things. They have gone into the details of sacred Scripture ... but have been unable to see the mystery itself, its central nucleus. ... The essential has remained hidden! On the other hand, in our time, there have also been ‘little ones’ who have understood this mystery. Let us think of St. Bernadette Soubirous, or of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, with her new interpretation of the Bible that is not ‘scientific’ but which delves into the heart of sacred Scripture” (Homily, Mass with the members of the International Theological Commission, Dec. 1, 2009).

Human Freedom

Finally, Duns Scotus tackled an area to which modernity is very sensitive, namely the topic of freedom and its relationship to the will and to the intellect. He stresses that freedom is a fundamental quality of the will, thus creating a voluntaristic sort of framework, which developed in contrast with what was called intellectualism of an Augustinian or Thomistic stamp.

St. Thomas Aquinas, like St. Augustine, did not consider freedom an innate quality of the will, but the fruit of the collaboration of the will and of the intellect.

The idea of innate and absolute freedom located in the will and preceding the intellect, both in God and in man, risks leading to the idea of a God who would not be connected to truth and goodness. The desire to safeguard the absolute transcendence and diversity of God by placing emphasis on his will so radically fails to take into account that the God who revealed himself in Christ is the God who is logos, who has acted and continues to act full of love toward us.

Of course, love transcends knowledge — Duns Scotus affirms, keeping in line with Franciscan theology — and can perceive more than thought, but it is always the love of the God who is logos (see Benedict XVI, Discorso a Regensburg, Insegnamenti di Benedetto XVI, II [2006], p. 261).

Moreover, the idea of absolute freedom in man located in the will, which leaves aside its relationship with truth, fails to recognize that freedom itself must be freed of the limits imposed on it by sin.

Speaking to Roman seminarians last year, I reminded them that “since the beginning and throughout all time, but especially in the modern age, freedom has been the great dream of humanity” (Address to the Pontifical Major Roman Seminary, Feb. 20, 2009).

However, modern history itself, as well as our daily experience, teaches us that freedom is authentic and helps to build a truly human civilization only when it is reconciled with truth. If it is disconnected from truth, freedom tragically becomes a principle that destroys the inner harmony of the human person, a source of abuse for the strong and the violent and a cause of suffering and mourning.

Freedom, like all the faculties with which man is gifted, grows and is perfected, Duns Scotus said, when man opens himself to God, placing great value on an openness to hearing his voice, which he calls potentia oboedientialis: When we seek to listen to divine revelation — to the Word of God — and to embrace it, then his message, which fills our life with light and hope, will reach us and we will be truly free.

Brothers and sisters, Blessed Duns Scotus teaches us that the essential thing in our lives is to believe that God is close to us and loves us in Christ Jesus and to cultivate, therefore, a deep love for him and for his Church.

We are the witnesses on earth to this love. May the Blessed Virgin Mary help us to receive this infinite love of God that we will enjoy fully for eternity in heaven, when our souls will finally be united forever to God in the communion of saints.

Register translation

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