Mews, Constant J.

title.none: Colish, Peter Lombard

identifier.other: baj9928.9507.003 95.07.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Mews, Constant J., Dept of History, Monash University, Australia

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Colish, Marcia L. Peter Lombard. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994. Pp. x + 893. ISBN: ISBN 9004098615.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.07.03

Colish, Marcia L. Peter Lombard. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994. Pp. x + 893. ISBN: ISBN 9004098615.

Reviewed by:

Mews, Constant J.
Dept of History, Monash University, Australia

There can be no doubting the significance of Peter Lombard (c.1100-1160) within the intellectual history of the Middle Ages. When he arrived in Paris in 1136, a remarkable generation of teachers was already engaged on the task of analysing Christian doctrine in a rational and systematic fashion. Hugh of St Victor (d.1141) was extending the Augustinian themes of masters of Laon around the theme of sacraments in salvation history; on the Montagne Sainte- Genevieve, Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was expounding Christian doctrine from the standpoint of his own, Aristotelian logic. Gilbert of Poitiers (c.1075-1154), who taught in Paris before he became bishop of Poitiers in 1141, was also applying strict linguistic concerns to Christian doctrine, though from a rather different metaphysical standpoint. Peter Lombard has never attracted the same kind of interest as generated by these early pioneers. Nonetheless, his Four Books of Sentences, written c.1155-57, were of fundamental importance in providing an articulate response to the plethora of questions about Christian belief raised in the schools during the time of Peter Abelard. By the early thirteenth century, the Lombard's Sentences had become the standard focus for theological commentary at the University of Paris. Even the young Martin Luther imitated this exercise. A critical assessment of the Lombard's achievement is certainly overdue. The sheer weight of his reputation as the voice of Christian orthodoxy has, however, tended to create a dulling effect on historians of scholasticism in the twentieth century. In an exhaustive, eight hundred page study, Marcia Colish has endeavoured to rescue Peter Lombard from frequently voiced adverse assessments that he was not interested in philosophy, a dull expositor of tradition, whose teaching was coherently organised, but was fundamentally impersonal and unoriginal. She argues vigorously against such a presentation, maintaining that her hero consistently manifests a "combative, principled and systematic spirit" (p. 609). With systematic rigour, she surveys the Lombard's life and works in relation to the various currents of thought he encounters in Paris. The greater part of her study is devoted to a step by step analysis of the Sentences. She methodically compares his exposition of God, the creation, Christ, ethics, the sacraments and the last things to the various opinions held on these subjects by contemporaries. Her study thus has the potential to introduce the reader not just to Peter Lombard, but to the wider intellectual ferment of the twelfth century.

Colish certainly succeeds in demonstrating that Peter Lombard is much more than a pale compiler of traditional perspectives. She is driven by such proselytising zeal, however, for her hero, that she regularly focuses on "logical inconsistencies" in the thought of the Lombard's predecessors. In reacting against conventional neglect of the Lombard's significance, she situates herself within the combative sphere of the twelfth-century schools, rather than standing apart from their internal debates. Her writing thus wavers between being history of theology and theology itself. She does not examine the political tensions agitating the Parisian schools (of particular relevance for understanding the controversy between Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard, as well as between Bernard and Gilbert of Poitiers). These debates are considered simply in terms of the logic of ideas, generally to establish inconsistencies within the thought of Abelard and Gilbert. The central direction she sees in twelfth-century theology is a thrust towards systematisation, achieved more successfully by scholastic than monastic theologians. They stand or fall, in her judgement, by this criterion. Just as for Jean Leclercq, St Bernard was the archetype of what he identified as "monastic theology", so for Colish, Peter Lombard is the supreme exemplar of scholastic theology. Harshly critical of notions that Abelard was founder of scholasticism (first elaborated upon by Victor Cousin in the early nineteenth century), she transfers her honours to someone who heard Abelard lecture, but rose to prominence only after Abelard had been condemned for heresy in 1140.

The monastic/scholastic division, however, inevitably blurs when subject to closer focus. Peter Lombard came to Paris in 1136, after studying under Alberic of Rheims, an old antagonist of Abelard, carrying a letter of recommendation from Bernard of Clairvaux to the abbot of St Victor. The most profound theological differences were not between monks and scholastics as two coherent groups, but between the schools of Paris, which in the 1130s and 1140s were not subject to any overarching authority. Bernard and his admirers enjoyed close connections with St Victor, founded by William of Champeaux and theologically indebted to Augustinian tradition. The longstanding rivalry between St Victor and Ste Genevieve, epitomized in the 1130s by the intellectual competition between admirers of Hugh and those of Abelard, is central for understanding the Lombard's achievement in distilling from each elements moulded into a much more comprehensive synthesis. One of the great virtues of Colish's systematic analysis is to explore the Lombard's debt to Victorine thought, as well as to expose his significantly more analytic method. From her own analysis, however, there can be no doubting that St Bernard himself contributed to his understanding of Christian doctrine. The fact that our earliest copy of the Sentences, dated to 1158 (used as a frontispiece to Colish's first volume), is from Clairvaux, challenges her assumption that monks were interested in moral edification, unlike doctrinally oriented scholastics.

Colish reserves some of her harshest words for Peter Abelard, "one of those academics constitutionally incapable of finishing anything he started" (p. 48). Apart from sloppy syntax, such a generalisation does a serious disservice to consideration of the circumstances of Abelard's career and the manuscript tradition of his writings. Abelard's writings never enjoyed the systematic protection and dissemination offered by a major scriptorium. She makes assertions about the Lombard's originality and capacity for innovation, such as that "he draws on works, such as the Eighty-Three Diverse Questions, not cited by other theologians at the time" (p. 86) that can be refuted simply by turning to the index of Abelard's Sic et Non. In her zeal to insist on a radical distance between the Lombard and Abelard, she glides over an important statement by John of Cornwall that Peter Lombard continually had a copy of Abelard's Theologia before him (a passage I discuss in the introduction to my own edition of the Theologia 'Scholarium' in CCCM 13 [Turnhout, 1987], pp. 264-77). When she mentions John of Cornwall, a former pupil of Peter Lombard, it is to challenge his criticism of his teacher's Christological theory and assertion that it derived from Abelard's teaching. She concludes her case for dismissing John's testimony with the stern comment that this was "a spectacularly poor performance for a person who had actually studied with Peter Lombard, reminding us that even the best of instruction sometimes falls on stony ground" (p. 431). In my own study of the manuscript tradition of Abelard's Theologia, I have been able to confirm John's statement about the Lombard's reading and to observe the remarkable accuracy of his citation of Abelard. Even if John of Cornwall cannot be relied on to summarise the Lombard's Christology, his perception of shared concerns with Abelard, does reflect contemporary awareness that Lombard was engaged in active intellectual dialogue with a controversial predecessor. While Colish provides a service in systematically going through the areas of disagreement between the Lombard and Abelard, her claim that Abelard's legacy to systematic theology is "a rather scanty one" (p. 48) is surely a questionable one in the light of the Lombard's eagerness to engage in informed debate with Abelard. Unlike Hugh of St Victor, Peter Lombard took up specific questions raised by Abelard, refuting them from the same body of patristic proof texts as Abelard had supplied (along with others, notably the newly translated John Damascene). While the Lombard certainly disagreed with many of Abelard's theological opinions, following the broad line of thought of the masters of Laon and St Victor, his recognition of the need to engage in Abelard's style of theological disputation marked a significant step beyond the preferred methodology of Bernard of Clairvaux or those trained at St Victor.

If one sees the central thrust of twelfth-century thought as much in the formulation of new questions as in the urge to systematise solutions to these questions, credit need not be given to any particular individual, be it Abelard or the Lombard. Arguments about who is "the best scholastic" ultimately become rather sterile. The fascination of theology in the mid twelfth century lies in the diversity of positions adopted, rather than in the inherent superiority of any one school of thought. Part of Colish's criticism of Abelard turns on her assumption that he left no work of systematic theology of her own. This ignores one of my central observations in editing Abelard's Theologia, that the various sentence collections, sometimes titled Sententie Petri Abaelardi in the manuscript are not compositions by disciples (such as the so-called "Hermann"), extending ideas of Abelard in a systematic fashion, but are records of Abelard's own teaching, preserved by students. She refers rather inaccurately to my argument (p. 51 n.43), without recognising that David Luscombe, whose authority she invokes for accepting the traditional hypothesis about disciples of Abelard, has since accepted their Abelardian inspiration (Vivarium 30 [1992], p. 128). Although she uses the Sententie Parisienses edited by Artur Landgraf in 1934, Colish does not comment on his brilliant analysis of the manuscript in question, showing that it emanates from Abelard's own classroom. Peter Lombard composed his Book of Sentences two decades later in a very different intellectual climate. Comparing an incomplete and potentially inaccurate record of lectures with a polished book of Sentences leads Colish to elevate Lombard's "logical consistency" over these unnamed Abelardians, without taking into account the cultural shift that had taken place in the formulation of theological discourse. Some of the most interesting sections of her book involve comparison between Peter Lombard and Robert of Melun, his direct contemporary. If her study had focussed on the period 1140-1160, without frequent sorties into the period 1110-1140 to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the Lombard's achievement, a clearer picture might have emerged why the Lombard should eventually emerge as the dominant figure of his generation. Perhaps the most attractive feature of the Lombard's Sentences is the lack of polemical criticism of individuals. His writing is uniquely focused on arguments.

Colish provides a seemingly thorough survey of the literature on twelfth-century scholasticism, most richly formulated by German neo-scholastics in the first half of this century. There are a few remarkable lapses. She re-iterates the old canard that Abelard "withdrew" the cosmological dimension of the work of the Holy Spirit in his Dialectica after 1140, when there is no substantial difference between what he says here and in every version of his Theologia (p. 259). More unsettling is her assertion that the psalm commentary of Bruno (c.1032-1101) scholasticus at Rheims before founding the La Grande Chartreuse, "was probably written between 1141 and 1154, after he had become a Carthusian" (!) and that "it has a decidedly monastic flavour" (p. 159). Not only does she misreport the argument of Van den Eynde that it was written by "pseudo-Bruno", but she skirts much more extensive criticism of Van den Eynde's re-dating of a clutch psalm commentaries to the mid twelfth century, that belong to the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. She simply ignores the important doctrinal discussion and rhetorical terminology in Bruno's commentary (and I would argue in favour of his authorship) Landgraf had noted in the 1930s. Blurring all important chronological details has the effect of producing unequal comparisons, inevitably in the Lombard's favour.

There is still a great deal of value in her copious reporting of opinions on a host of disputed questions in twelfth century theology. She takes seriously the questions they discuss, rather than confine herself to glib statements about "scholastic method". In her important analysis of the Lombard's treatment of God (seminal for its influence on so much subsequent medieval discussion of the subject), she carefully explores the weight he gives to transcendent being in God, quite different from Abelard's analysis of the divine persons in terms of attributes relevant to God's relationship to the world. If he could read Colish's analysis, Abelard would have protested that he was only speaking in terms of analogies, and that he was unable to define who God was. She observes that of Abelard's comparison of the human and divine natures in Christ to electrum as "one of his most deplorable analogies" (p. 409). She does not comment that Abelard was here simply commenting on an image used by Ezekiel (8:2) of the Son of Man. If her presentation of Abelard's Trinitarian theology and Christology is flawed by lack of sympathy with the analysis of signification on which it is based, she does provide us with an analysis of what the Lombard perceived as its weaknesses.

Gilbert of Poitiers is another figure who is presented through the Lombard's eyes, rather than through presentation of his own semantic theory, She qualifies his vocabulary as "rebarbative" (p. 132), and his handling of substance and person as "problematic" (p. 137). Even such a respected and widely influential figure as Hugh of St Victor is charged by Colish with "conflating and confusing an economic view of the Trinity with a view of the Trinity in se" (p. 232). Hugh is also charged with being "unhelpful in his polyvalent use of sacrament" (p. 524) and "imprecise and often confusing handling of the idea of sacrament", notably in conflating sacraments and sacramentals (p. 525). It seems high-minded indeed to charge Hugh with theological confusion when these were distinctions not made in his generation. Colish does not deny that on the doctrine of God, as on so many other subjects, the Lombard stood for a re-assertion of Latin orthodoxy, against the detours offered by those pioneers of an earlier generation. Although she demonstrates that Peter Lombard was philosophically articulate, she does not deny that as a theologian he was opposed to those who sought to fuse secular philosophy with Christian doctrine. Peter Lombard was aware that their ideas needed to be discussed rationally, not simply ruled out of court. She shows well how the Lombard was willing to debate with Abelard and Gilbert, and even develop ideas of Hugh of St Victor (certainly a major influence on his sacramental theory). One misses, however, a sense of the plurality of philosophical visions within the period, each with its own logical system, all claiming to be the voice of true religious orthodoxy.

Many may be interested in Colish's detailed survey of twelfth-century teaching on sexual relationships and marriage (pp. 628-98). She usefully sets the Lombard's consent theory of marriage against the context of other views, such as that of Gratian, who emphasised physical consummation as necessary to make a marriage. As she acknowledges with respect to comments in his psalm commentary, Peter Lombard shared with contemporaries a contemporary tendency "to soften the harshness of Augustine's teaching" (p. 186). She claims that his handling of the sexual rights of spouses was "uniformly egalitarian" (p. 767). There is no doubt that the Lombard's discussion of marriage is much fuller than that of Abelard (who never devoted much attention to sacramental matters). She describes the Abelardian position that marriage was a concession to human, but which did not signify divine grace as "a negative appraisal and logically inconsistent" (p. 641). It then transpires, however, that not only did Hugh of St Victor not see marriage either as a medium of grace (p. 646), but that Peter Lombard himself had no different an opinion. Colish does not hesitate to chastise her subject on this account: he "could have extended his theology of marriage into these directions, advancing farther than he does and bringing marriage into full accord with his treatment of the other sacraments. But this he does not do." (p. 695) Such speculations reflect a general tendency to evaluate texts by imposing a conceptual grid from a subsequent generation.

A formidable erudition and industry has nonetheless gone into these two volumes. On many issues, she shows that Peter Lombard was not simply a mouthpiece for tradition. Her analysis of his teaching on sin, for example, demonstrates a profound pastoral sensitivity, concerned to formulate a delicate balance between the role of intention and sinful action. His Christology likewise emerges as sensitive to the more humanistic tendencies of theology in his day. On the face of it, it would seem that Peter Lombard was not as implacably opposed to every insight of Peter Abelard as Colish would seem to suggest. Abelard was not the only representative of the tendency to accentuate the role of human nature in ethics and Christology, but he was the most controversial.

Colish undoubtedly identifies with what she sees as Peter Lombard's "combative" spirit. She has certainly offered a publication comparable in scale to that of the Four Books of Sentences. A smaller publication would have the benefit of distilling the significant themes from the mass of detail it contains. Her approach is in the strict sense, neo-scholastic, continuing the debates of the twelfth-century schools. Whether this is the best approach for understanding the broader context of their thought is a separate matter.