Summary :John Duns Scotus was one of the great philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages. His brilliantly complex and nuanced thought earned him the title “the Subtle Doctor”. A Scotsman and a Franciscan, he is associated with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was beatified in 1993 by Pope John Paul II.
Patrick Duffy tells his story here.
John was born at Duns, a village near Berwick-on-Tweed in Scotland. After schooling with the Franciscans he entered the the Franciscan order at Dumfries where his uncle Elias Duns was superior. John studied at Oxford and Paris and was ordained a Franciscan priest in 1291. In 1297 he returned to teach theology and philosophy at both Oxford and Cambridge.
As a philosopher
As a philosopher, John was aware of the richness of the Platonic-Augustinian-Franciscan tradition as well as that of Aquinas, Aristotle and the Muslim philosophers, but he was also an independent thinker. As a moral philosopher, he defended the reality of free will with this practical quip: “If I start beating someone,” he said, “they will tell me to stop. But how can I stop if I haven’t free will?”
Expulsion from Paris
In 1303 when King Philip the Fair wanted to enlist the University of Paris on his side in a dispute with Pope Boniface VIII, John Duns Scotus dissented and with eight other friars was forced to leave France. However, he was able to return less than a year later. After his return to Paris, he continued his lectures on the Sentences of Peter Lombard and received his doctorate in theology in 1305. Although appointed the Franciscan regent master in theology at Paris, for some reasons no one quite understands, Scotus was transferred to the Franciscan studium at Cologne, probably beginning his duties there in October 1307. He died there in 1308; the date of his death is traditionally given as 8th November. He was buried in the Franciscan church near the famous Cologne cathedral.
Theologian of the Immaculate Conception
John is traditionally regarded as the theologian who put the argument from reason in defence of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
That the flesh from which the Son of God was to be formed should ever have been subject to the influence of the Evil One whose power he came on earth to destroy would have been incongruous. Eadmer (1064-1124), the companion and secretary of St Anselm of Canterbury, presented an argument from congruity (fittingness) that Mary was free from original sin, using the Latin axiom: Potuit, decuit, ergo fecit (“God was able to do it; it was appropriate; therefore He did it).
Scotus addressed the question implicit in Paul’s quotation from Romans 5:12: “It was through one man (Adam) that sin came into the world, and through sin death, and thus death has spread through the whole human race because everyone has sinned.” Here Paul is telling us that everyone inherits original sin and its consequences. Therefore Mary needed to be redeemed. But at Mary’s conception Christ had not yet come to accomplish the redemption. Scotus argued for a pre-redemption that preserved Mary free from original sin through anticipating and foreseeing the merits of her Son’s passion and death. The question was: when did this happen? Since Mary was a daughter of Adam, when was she preserved from original sin and its consequences? This was another obstacle to be cleared. In resolving this second problem the Subtle Doctor cleverly saw his way clear by making the necessary distinction between the order of nature and the order of time.
With Mary, conception and sanctification were simultaneous, producing a twofold situation at the first moment of existence. At one and the same time, Mary, as a human descendant of Adam and Eve, contracted the debt of original sin and became by the privileged infusion of grace a daughter of God, which preserved her from the consequences of the common lot of fallen nature by a special anticipation of the merits of the Savior.
Removing these two impediments, John Duns Scotus cleared the path for a theological acceptance of this Marian prerogative thus paving the way for its solemn definition by Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1854.
Hopkins’ poem Duns Scotus’s Oxford
Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a poem entitled Duns Scotus’s Oxford. The last three lines pay tribute to Scotus as “the rarest-veinèd unraveller” (the subtle doctor) and to his argument for Mary’s Immaculate Conception – “a not rivalled insight”. The last line is beautifully anbivalent in its use of the word “fired” – in the two senses of (a) arousing intense controversy and (b) arousing intense devotion.
Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped and poisèd powers;
Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there, sours
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural rural keeping—folk, flocks, and flowers.
Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;
Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.