February 1140 A.D. Remembering the Synod of Sens
on the section on Anselm, Muller continues to discuss some of the issues which
later became some defining issues in the evolving Christian Doctrine of God.
Questions over God’s Freedom, the Persons of the Trinity, “Divine Simplicity”:
Anselm’s genius certainly assured the ultimate victory of philosophical realism
in the debates of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the outcome was not, at
the time, sufficiently clear nor was the superiority of Realism sufficiently
manifest to prevent alternative views from appearing and from having their
influence, whether positive or negative, on the formulation of doctrine.
controversies of the twelfth century exemplify the diversity of early
scholastic formulation and the need, perceived by many of the teachers of the
era, to establish a normative language concerning God and the attributes. The
earlier of these two debates concerned Abelard’s views on the relationship
between God’s goodness and the work of creation, as addressed by the Synods of
Soissons (1121) and Sens (1140). The second debate was over the view of the
divine essence and attributes reportedly advanced by Gilbert de la Porrée and
condemned at the synods of Paris (1147) and Rheims (1148).
to the heightened realism of the school of Chartres and its conception of
creation as an emanation out of the divine, Abelard argued a clear distinction
between God and world in creation and identified creation as the result and the
revelation of God’s goodness. This fundamentally orthodox corrective to the
pantheistic tendencies of the day led Abelard, however, to a series of
conclusions that challenged the concept of God’s freedom in creation: given
that God is absolutely good and must always, therefore, act for the best, he
must create the world and, in fact, must create this particular world: Abelard
states explicitly that “it is necessary that God wills and makes the world, nor
does he exist at leisure, like one who, before he makes [something] is able not
to make it.”
the Cistercians Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St. Thierry, Abelard’s
views were condemned at the Synods of Sens and Soissons. Subsequent medieval
approaches to the question insisted on the freedom of God and, consequently,
the contingency of the world order.
particular importance to the development of the scholastic doctrine of God was
the controversy surrounding the teaching of Gilbert de la Porrée concerning the
distinction of persons and of attributes in the Godhead. Gilbert, a student and
follower of Anselm who was bishop of Poitiers from 1142 to 1154, was construed
by his contemporaries as teaching that the divine persons and the divine
attributes, as representing distinct ideas in the mind that conceives them,
must also be distinct within the divine essence.
in raising via Boethius the question of the relationship of goodness and being,
Gilbert had recourse to the formula diversum
est esse, et id quod est—existence is different from what a thing is, or,
existence is different from essence. Gilbert, following out the distinction,
was reported as making a real distinction between essence and existence, even
in God, and as positing real distinctions between one and another divine
attribute, between each of the attributes and the divine essence, among the
persons, and between each of the persons and the divine essence. His critics
concluded that he had taught that God was a composite being.
The Synod of
Paris (1147) condemned a series of propositions attributed to Gilbert on the
basis of reports of his commentary on Boethius’ De Trinitate. Inasmuch as Gilbert claimed to have
understood Boethius differently and inasmuch as the council did not have direct
access to his book, the abbot Gottschalk of St. Eligius was commissioned to
review the book and document its erroneous propositions.
his turn, was able to demonstrate how his own understanding of the propositions
was not at all heretical and thereby to avoid condemnation: he did not, he
argued, extend the logic of a distinction between essence and existence to
infinite Being, who has his being according to his essence and not by
participation. God is simple Being and is all that he has: it is not merely the
case that God is powerful and wise, God is his power and is his wisdom. Gilbert
escaped condemnation but, as Chossat points out, failed to resolve the basic
question of the basis for making distinctions among divine attributes.
importantly, the problems posed by the debate over Gilbert’s theology became a
focus of further discussion at the Synod of Rheims (1148), which, in the
presence of Pope Eugene III, affirmed as dogma a series of propositions
formulated by Bernard of Clairvaux, heard further explanations and retractions
from Gilbert, and thereby formalized the outlines of the doctrine of divine
simplicity in its relationship to the fundamental trinitarian definitions.
conciliar decision is not a matter of abstruse speculation and is certainly not
a denial of any and all manner of distinctions in God. The propositions of the
council stand primarily as arguments that (1) there may be no distinction
between divinity and God such as might imply that God was one being in a genus
and therefore somehow subordinate to the idea of Deity, (2) that the threeness
of person does not divide the divine essence or substance, (3) that the various
relations or properties—that is, personal or essential properties—associated
with God are not separable from God, and (4) that incarnation does not divide
therefore, hedged the concept of divine simplicity both positively and
negatively—positively as an affirmation of the absolute ultimacy and priority
of God and negatively as a concept that neither undermines the threeness of the
Trinity nor prevents the identification of attributes in God.
conciliar teaching did not extend beyond the teaching already present in the
writings of the fathers. Specifically, with relation to the problem of the
predication of divine attributes, the issue remained precisely where the
Christian Platonism of the fathers has placed it: the divine attributes,
considered as ultimate exemplars of the good, the true, the righteous, and so
forth, could no longer be understood as ideas having a real existence extra mentem Dei and, therefore, prior to God, as would have been the case with the Platonic Demiurge. So,
too, the eternal exemplars of temporal things must subsist in mente Dei and must subsist in such as way as to
respect the ultimacy of God as the source of all that is and, therefore, of all
that is good, or true, or righteous, and so forth.
A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of
Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 3: The Divine Essence And Attributes (pp. 35–37).
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
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