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17.12.09, Slotemaker and Witt, Robert Holcot

17.12.09, Slotemaker and Witt, Robert Holcot

Robert Holcot (d. 1349) was one of the most significant theological figures in the decades after Ockham: Regent Master in Theology at the University of Oxford probably during the years 1336-38, and possibly at Cambridge in the early 1340s. But, like many scholastic theologians, he had a career that was wider than that of a mere professor: in the late 1330s, he was associated with the house of Richard de Bury, Bishop of Durham and noted bibliophile; and from 1343 until his demise in the Black Death, he lived at the Dominican priory at Northampton, the place of his early education, and just a few miles from Holcot where he was born. Slotemaker and Witt divide his intellectual life into three phases: scholastic, Biblical, and pastoral. The scholastic phase includes his commentary on the Sentences and Quodlibetal Questions; the Biblical covers his lectures on the Scriptures as a master at Oxford (and possibly Cambridge); and the pastoral, mainly from the last few years of his life, which includes the considerable corpus of sermon literature (both sermons and preaching aids) associated with his name, and some of the later Biblical commentaries (in particular the largely pastorally-driven commentary on Ecclesiasticus, unfinished at the time of his death). While Holcot made important and lasting contributions in all of these areas, it was for his Biblical commentaries that he was most well-known by his contemporaries and immediate successors, in particular his massive commentary on the book of Wisdom, of which some 175 manuscripts survive. The association with Richard de Bury provided Holcot with the opportunity to read widely in classical literature, and he made full use of his learning in the years after 1340.

Slotemaker and Witt do a marvelous job giving an account of such a rich and rewarding intellectual life as Holcot's. There are aspects of Holcot's thought that strike one as humane and rather broad-minded, and it is these features that Slotemaker and Witt tend to highlight. Central to Holcot's theology is the kind of pact or covenant theology that characterizes much fourteenth-century thought: God has made a covenant with his people to the effect that God will give grace to those who do what they can (quod in se est)--where quod in se est includes the sincere attempt to act in accordance with law and to find God on the part of those outside either the Christian or the Jewish faiths (ch. 1). Equally, since Holcot believes that belief is not under our voluntary control, theological beliefs contrary to the articles of faith are heretical only if they result from a desire not to live in accordance with the faith (ch. 2). Slotemaker and Witt use their discussion of sacramental theology to sum up a lot of what they want to say about Holcot: "Holcot believes that the ultimate efficacy of these sacraments lies in the hands of God rather than the work itself. In this way, Holcot's views on the sacraments remain strikingly pastoral. He is forever at pains to reassure pilgrims and genuine seekers that if they, in good faith, attempt to approach God in the way that he has prescribed, they can rest assured the God will always respond" (102). Of course, much of this is in itself uncontroversial in the context of fourteenth-century theology (however unrespectable it may have become in certain circles in the sixteenth). But there seems no doubt that the stress in Holcot lies on what is flexible and pastorally sympathetic.

There is a great deal of material packed into this book, and I would like to spend the rest of this review looking at places where--it seems to me--some of the discussion is a little too compressed, and some of the points unclear or misleading. I will focus on four issues from the opening, scholastic, chapters of the book: the dialectic of the two powers of God; the nature of faith; reason and the doctrine of the Trinity; and God's knowledge of future contingents.

The distinction between God's absolute and ordained power is a distinction between what can do under the constraint merely of the principle of non-contradiction, and what God can do given, in addition, the constraints of the order he has set up. As Slotemaker and Witt point out, the distinction has long been criticized on the grounds it seems to imply that God is somehow capricious or arbitrary, and that God could change the established order to something completely different. They assimilate Holcot's view on the matter to those of Aquinas and Ockham, and present the two-power distinction as a single, unified theory about which there was consensus in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Now, as far as I can see Aquinas and Ockham view as purely hypothetical the range of things that God could do absent the current order: they do not envisage God acting in ways other than in accordance with the current order. But as Slotemaker and Witt make abundantly clear, Holcot holds that God could indeed establish a new order; and not only that, he appeals to God's absolute power "to preserve God's ability to be merciful to those who have done their best and yet remain unable to live up to the requirements of the common law" (47), and to explain how (e.g.) the innocents slaughtered by Herod's soldiers (Luke 2:16-17) are in fact saved (46). So here we seem to have a quite different understanding from that proposed by Ockham. It seems that what Slotemaker and Witt are really trying to emphasize is merely the thought that when Holcot's God acts outside the established order (or establishes a new order) his motivations are always good. Overall, I found the discussion far from clear.

The standard scholastic view on the nature of faith includes the claim that faith--unlike knowledge of evident truths--is under our voluntary control. Holcot disagrees: we cannot command ourselves to believe things "by sheer will power" (49). Holcot takes this to be a general truth; he thinks, a fortiori, that we cannot command ourselves to believe things (such as the Christian faith) that are for all we can tell, absent revelation, logically contradictory. Slotemaker and Witt give as their primary example illustrative of what Holcot has in mind an attempt to believe that there is a dinosaur on an apparently empty table (49). But this is hardly apposite as an illustration of Holcot's general point that we cannot make ourselves believe in the absence of evidence; it illustrates his subsidiary (and less important) point that we cannot make ourselves believe in the presence of countervailing evidence (our well-founded belief that there are no longer any dinosaurs). The discussion, in short, misleads, and makes Holcot's point look rather less remarkable, and its support less strong, than it actually is.

Holcot is notorious for holding that the doctrine of the Trinity simply violates Aristotelian logic, such that it is impossible to discern pro statu isto that is it not logically contradictory. As Holcot sees it, at least in his Sentences commentary, Christian revelation requires an additional logic, the logic of faith, with its own supplementary rules. It is usually held that Holcot later retreated from this extreme view to the Ockhamist view according to which Aristotelian logic is universal, and that it is possible to diagnose the formal error in apparently sound (but materially false) theological syllogisms (e.g. The Father generates; this Father is the divine essence; therefore this divine essence generates [77]). Slotemaker and Witt state (without arguing the case) that Holcot's extreme view persists in his later work too. In my view they may be right about this; but more textual analysis from the later texts would be required to show it. In any case, the discussions in this part of the book are not always quite right, or quite clear, and it is hard to avoid the impression that the authors were struggling with the material. For example, they state that Ockham's diagnosis of the fallacious syllogism just given is that the term "'Father'...supposits for more than one thing" (78). Not so: Ockham's claim in the passage Slotemaker and Witt reference is that the error springs from the fact that 'essence' supposits for (i.e. refers to) one thing that is the same as three things. And another argument from Holcot is garbled too. An objection to the Trinity that Holcot offers attempts to show that no doctrine of the Trinity can avoid positing a quaternity. Holcot argues from the fact that the Father is the divine essence, and is constituted by paternity, that "there are four things in the divine: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and paternity" (81). But Holcot's argument is that each person (exemplified here by the Father) is the same as the divine essence and constituted by a personal property: the four things that there are are the essence and the three personal properties. In any case, at the heart of the general dispute here is Ockham's view of the intelligibility of positing that "one thing is the same as three things." Ockham thinks he can help himself to Scotus's formal distinction in this context. Holcot thinks talking of any kind of distinction is just word-play, simply another way of describing the problem, not an attempt at a solution. Slotemaker and Witt pass over this in silence.

I find the discussion of God's knowledge of future contingents confusing, too, for a couple of reasons. First, Slotemaker and Witt speak as though Holcot, in claiming that God knows the future, but not deteminately, is abandoning traditional logic and the principle of bivalence (that every proposition is either true or false) (91). But we are also told that the point of the denial is simply that some truths are (and remain) logically contingent, and that God's knowledge of these does not in any sense cause them to be necessary (92). But these are two very different things: the latter claim does not require denying bivalence. Indeed, it might be thought that the latter claim is just a way of describing the very problem to be solved. What Holcot thinks, and how he solves this apparent dilemma, is not made at all clear here. Secondly, we are told that the initial problem of foreknowledge results from accepting "Aristotle's two-value truth system" (90). But Slotemaker and Witt have spent the previous two pages telling us that Aristotle rejects bivalence for future contingent propositions--see his (in)famous discussion of the sea battle in De interpretation 9. Again, I left this discussion feeling more confused than enlightened. Still, these discussions--and the book as a whole--pack a lot of material into short compass, and the faults, such as they are, are to this extent forgivable.