Every faithful Catholic—if they don’t already—should get to know John Duns Scotus, the 13th century Franciscan whose brilliant flights to the heights of speculative theology earned him the nickname the “Subtle Doctor.”
John Duns Scotus, whose feast day is Saturday, may have earned a permanent place in the pantheon of Catholic theologians if for no other reason than the mark he left on Marian dogma, but his reflections on the nature of divine being and the necessity of the Incarnation—that’s with or without original sin—compel our curiosity. Here are four reasons it’s worth getting to know Scotus.
1. The Immaculate Conception. Perhaps his lasting contribution to the faith and devotion of the Church is in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. To be sure the Church had long believed that Mary had lived a sinless life. (St. Augustine famously declared that “When sin is treated, there can be no inclusion of Mary in the discussion.”) But the question of original sin was a thornier one. Many of the greatest saints of the Church—like St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Thomas Aquinas—found themselves caught between a theological rock and a hard place. While wanting to affirm her exceptional purity as Mother of God they also did not want to exempt anyone from the need for salvation through Christ.
In the 13th century John Duns Scotus found the solution: Mary was pre-emptively saved from original sin by Christ and therefore was conceived without sin. Scotus argued that if Christ had the power to preserve her from actual sin it would have been fitting for Him to also preserve her from original sin. Somewhat ingeniously, he argued that to maintain otherwise was to detract from Christ as the perfect Mediator. He ended up winning over the Church to his position, although it took many more centuries before this belief received a dogmatic definition, in 1854. (Click here to read an excerpt from Scotus’ argument.)
2. The Necessity of the Incarnation. Scotus believed the Incarnation was the greatest good God had done in the world—perhaps not the most original or controversial position. But the questions this truth raised for him took him to new heights in theological speculation. The Church has long understood the Incarnation at the center of God’s redemptive plan for mankind and all creation, as indeed it was. But what if there had been no need for redemption? What if there had never been a fall from an original state of grace? Would there still have been an Incarnation? For Scotus, it was unthinkable that such a great good was somehow contingent on humanity sinning. He concluded: “To think that God would have given up such a task had Adam not sinned would be quite unreasonable! I say, therefore, that the fall was not the cause of Christ’s predestination and that if no one had fallen, neither the angel nor man in this hypothesis Christ would still have been predestined in the same way.”
3. Divine Being as Infinity. Scotus contributed much to our understanding of God’s being. For Scotus, God was the wholly other and infinite. He challenged his students—then and now—to ponder what it really means to say that God is infinite. Usually, when we think of something as infinite we think of extensive infinity, according to Scotus: the line that goes on forever, an infinite series of numbers or quantities, the vastness of space, eternity, and so on. Scotus wanted us to think about intensive infinity—an infinity of degrees that goes far beyond mere extensive infinity. It’s in this context that we can speak of God as infinitely good, or infinitely powerful. And Scotus pushed this insight yet further. For Scotus, as one scholar explains, God has infinity as his “intrinsic way of existing.” (For a selection of Scotus’ writing on this topic, click here.)
4. Will and intellect. While Aquinas privileged the intellect over the will, Scotus assigned primacy to the will, conventional wisdom holds. (There’s more to it, of course.) Scotus therefore placed emphasis on loving God over knowing about Him. This departure from Aquinas had some intriguing implications. One is his contention that the beatific vision was not the highest form of happiness to be achieved (in heaven). Instead, Scotus prefers to talk about “beatific love.” As one historian puts it, “St. Thomas taught that the intuitive contemplation of the Divine Essence in the beatific vision is the principal and indeed the essential element in man’s final happiness: Scotus teaches that it is by the act of perfect love of God in the next life that final happiness is to be attained.”
A dunce for Christ
Later generations of European thinkers—particularly Renaissance humanists and Protestant so-called Reformers—would scoff at Scotus and the scholastic method of theology he employed, which sometimes seemed to lose itself in seemingly arcane and trivial distinctions. Their derision of Scotus is the origin of our word “dunce” today. To be sure the scholastic method was not without some limitations, but Scotus showed us just how far it could take us in penetrating into the deepest mysteries of God. May we all follow his example in being dunces for Christ.