The Medieval Review 11.07.21

Alban, Kevin J., O. Carm. The Teaching and Impact of the 'Doctrinale' of Thomas Netter of Walden (c. 1374-1430). Medieval Church Studies 7. Turnhout: Brepols, 2010. Pp. xvi, 298. $102.00. 978-2-503-53179-3. . .

Reviewed by:

Ian Christopher Levy
Providence College

The Carmelite theologian, Thomas Netter, has endured a curious fate over the last six centuries. In his day he was widely respected not only within his own order--having served as prior provincial--but in service to the English crown and to the papacy. His reputation for orthodoxy and erudition extended beyond his lifetime as later Catholic churchmen turned to his work in the fight against Protestantism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Hence this malleus haereticorum who had wielded his hammer so diligently against Wycliffites and Hussites proved an invaluable resource to future generations engaged in their own struggles against heresy. And yet for many modern scholars of the Conciliar Era, Netter is neglected; he is pushed to margins by the likes of Pierre d'Ailly, Jean Gerson, and Nicholas of Cusa. Actually, one is more likely to read of Netter among the many studies of English Wycliffism, although here the interest is primarily in the heretics against whom Netter wrote. Netter does receive more substantial recognition among scholars of the medieval Carmelites, and is thus considered alongside such confreres as Guido Terreni, John Baconthorpe or Gerard of Bologna. Although in these instances, it is Netter's ecclesiology that receives the bulk of the attention to the exclusion of much else.

I am happy to report that Thomas Netter's star may be on the rise these days. 2009 saw the publication of a substantial collection of essays devoted to Netter's career, theology, and legacy: Johan Bergstrôm-Allen, T.O.C., and Richard Copsey, O.Carm., eds., Thomas Netter of Walden: Carmelite, Diplomat and Theologian (c. 1372- 1430) (Faversham and Rome, 2009). And the very next year we have received this significant monograph by Kevin Alban, O. Carm. Alban, who has already been publishing on Netter for some time, thus proceeding along the path trod by that fine scholar of English Carmelite history, Richard Copsey. Here Alban has produced the first monograph devoted to the theology of Thomas Netter. What makes this study especially valuable is that, while clearly a work of historical theology, Alban has provided a comprehensive portrait of Netter in his medieval Carmelite milieu. Such a context might at first seem rather obvious; how else to present a medieval Carmelite? But, in fact, Alban has astutely noted that our understanding of Netter is often skewed precisely when Netter's specifically Carmelite theological and spiritual training has been over-looked, with the result that he is only read through the lens of the heresy that he is refuting. Indeed, one of the central aims of Alban's book is to correct the rather one-sided portrait of Netter as "hammer of heretics" as though his response to Wycliffism wholly defined him as a theologian. No doubt, Netter's massive Doctrinale antiquitatum fidei catholicae ecclesiae contra Wiclevistas et Hussitas is devoted to the refutation of heresy, but embedded within Netter's defense of orthodoxy is a great deal of weighty theology covering a wide range of topics from Scripture and the Church to sacraments and sacramentals. More than that--and here is Alban's principal contribution--there is a deeply affective Carmelite spirituality which is not always evident upon first reading. Alban is able to elucidate this spiritual, contemplative component not only through an analysis of the Carmelite rule and tradition, but also through his study of Netter's correspondence. Thus we find that Netter the late medieval friar is not only well trained in scholastic method and well read in patristics, but is very much at home with the more contemplative monastic theology found in the works of great Cistercian writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St Thierry.

Alban seeks to draw out the uniquely Carmelite underpinnings of Netter's Doctrinale and its resonance with earlier monastic theology, but he also finds here a specifically Christocentric focus in Netter's thought, an emphasis on the union of the divine and human natures in the One Person of Jesus Christ, which lends coherence to Netter's wider theological vision. This is seen chiefly in Netter's ecclesiology: as Christ's divinity is mediated by way of his humanity, so the Church--herself the body of Christ--manifests the otherwise invisible presence of God through visible structures and gifts. On this score, Alban quotes Netter that "Christ decreed our sacraments to be visible, just as he himself came visibly." And, says Alban, "This sums up very succinctly Netter's position not only of his treatment of the sacraments, but of his theological approach in general. Christ came as a visible, corporeal man, not as some invisible force. In the Church, therefore, the visible and the tangible are not simply appropriate (convenientes) signs of the divine, but are almost an extension of it; they are implied by and part of the incarnational nature of the faith" (197).

Scholars have noted that one of Netter's principal lines of attack was to appeal to the historical and ordered integrity of the visible Catholic Church against John Wyclif's invisible Church of the predestined. One might argue that Netter overstated (hardly unusual in medieval polemics) Wyclif's adherence to this invisible gathering of the elect, but there is no doubt that this emphasis on the manifest lines of tradition and authority was a mainstay of Netter's entire program. Alban is the first scholar, however, to root Netter's ecclesiology so firmly in the Person of Christ. Tapping into this Christological heart, itself informed by Carmelite prayer and contemplation, Alban has revealed a depth to Netter's theology that others have missed. For Netter, the Church as body of Christ, serves as the nexus between God and man, uniting through her visible forms of liturgy and sacraments the divine and human realms so as to bring them into the fullness of communion.

There is a further element which Alban brings out that may be of special interest to modern Catholic theologians: Netter's contention that the mystery of man is revealed most fully in the Person of Jesus Christ. Alban writes: "For humanity to engage in the process of self- understanding, Netter implies that it is necessary to understand first that the God-made-man in Jesus Christ is the highest and best example of what it means to be human. ...Netter seems to make the principle behind the hypostatic union in Christ a tenet not only of Christology, but also a model for his anthropology" (78). This insight is not only important for historical theologians as Alban brings to light for the first time such facets of Netter's thought, but it also speaks to contemporary Catholic theology. Following along the lines of the great Jesuit theologian, Henri de Lubac, the Second Vatican Council stated that "Christ...fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear" (Gaudium et Spes 22). In recent years, with the revival of neo-scholasticism among modern Thomist theologians, some have resurrected the notion that man might possess a "pure nature" (natura pura) distinct from his super-natural yearning for union with God--and some claim to find this in Thomas Aquinas, thereby vindicating Cajetan's interpretation and discrediting de Lubac. Yet, given what Alban has uncovered, Netter would seem to be very much in keeping with de Lubac and Vatican II, not to mention Pope John Paul II, on this matter. One hopes that Alban will pursue further Netter's Christological anthropology as it speaks to modern theological debates.

Such Christological discussions can be found in the third chapter of Alban's book: Netter's Doctrine of God, Humanity, and Christ. As noted, though, Alban provides the first fully comprehensive treatment of Netter's thought. Other chapters deal with such topics as Netter's ecclesiology, the religious life, sacraments, liturgy, and Netter's legacy. It was in Book Six of the Doctrinale that Netter took up liturgical rites, sacramentals, prayer to saints, pilgrimages, and images. In other words, it is here that he dealt with much that comprises the daily life of the Church as opposed to its formal structure, which he had already dealt with in Book Two. Now it is one thing to find clear evidence of episcopal authority in the New Testament, but something else again to provide apostolic warrant for all manner of liturgical and devotional practices found in the late medieval English Church. Some Wycliffites objected to such things as pilgrimage and the veneration of relics on the grounds that they had no scriptural support. And it is here that we wade into the waters of the so-called Scripture/Tradition question. Broadly stated, most medieval theologians--including John Wyclif (who is not to be conflated with later Wycliffites)--believed that all Catholic doctrine was contained in Holy Scripture, at least implicitly, and could be understood with the exegetical assistance of the fathers and holy doctors. A few others, for instance the Anti-Wycliffite Franciscan, William Woodford, seem to allow for a measure of Catholic doctrine that lacks scriptural evidence, but instead belongs to a sacred extra- scriptural tradition. Into which category does Netter fall? The conventional answer is that he belongs to the first group and thus stands quite close to Wyclif on that front. That would be virtually incontestable except for the extensive defense of non-scriptural practices in Book Six. Now I would argue that the material in Book Six does not change the original assessment, precisely because he is there defending practices which, however pious and efficacious, do not constitute Catholic doctrine necessary for salvation--for that Netter still relies on the unique authority of Holy Scripture. Late medieval treatments of the relative authority of Scripture and Tradition are extremely nuanced and perhaps even contradictory at times (cf. Duns Scotus), so it might be rash to offer an unequivocal assessment of Netter's view. Alban, to his credit, does proceed cautiously and raises a very interesting question in the process. Given the fact that Netter composed Book Two of the Doctrinale some twenty years prior to Book Six (1428-29), might Netter's theories of scriptural and extra-scriptural authority have undergone a development? That is certainly plausible. Perhaps it was his very attempt to refute Wyclif on Wyclif's terms that prompted Netter to re-think his own position. And this, in turn, means that scholars may have to consider at least two stages in Netter's thought with the result that one could speak of an early and late Netter.

Much more could be said here on the myriad of topics which are covered throughout Alban's study. The chapters contained therein will certainly provide fodder for further discussion, debate, and research. It is heartening to know that scholars now have a solid resource at hand to which they can turn, one which will benefit a wide range of interests. And it should be said, by the way, that Brepols has done a very nice job with the production; it is a sturdy, well-printed volume with a wonderful fifteenth-century manuscript illumination on the cover depicting Netter presenting his Doctrinale to Pope Martin V. If we are indeed on the cusp of a Netter renaissance, then Alban's book will be seen to have played a significant role in that.