John Duns, commonly called Duns Scotus, also called Doctor Subtilis (the Subtle Doctor) for the subtle and penetrating manner of his thoughts, and Doctor Marianus for his contribution to the development of the dogma of Immaculate Conception, is generally considered to be one of the three most important philosopher-theologians of the Middle Ages, together with Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham and had considerable influence on both Catholic and secular thought. Little is known of his early life. He probably came from the village of Duns in Scotland. He took the Franciscan habit, in c. 1280 and was ordained priest in 1291. He studied arts and theology in Oxford where he also taught, and later probably in Cambridge as well. Then he moved to Paris and to Cologne, where he died. His principal work is the commentary on the “Sentences” of Peter Lombard and commentaries on Aristotle’s and Porphyry’s works. Duns Scotus was accused of undermining Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis of faith and reason. The criticism does not seem to be justified, since Aquinas himself was accused by the Archbishop of Paris of undermining faith and making it subject to reason. Unease with Aquinas’s synthesis was widespread with similar condemnations in other countries as well.
Duns Scotus made substantial contributions in the fields of natural theology, metaphysics, the theory of knowledge, and ethics and moral psychology, and he considered his intent in challenging, existing theories as eminently positive. For example, he emphasized the primacy of love over knowledge, of will over intellect, both in God and in humankind. Our response, therefore, should be one of love even more than of knowledge. Aquinas’s order of importance was subtly altered. Scotus introduced, too, a fresh and fuller interpretation of Christ’s work of redemption. It was seen as an expression of God’s love for humankind than as a settlement of debts due to sin, and it was accomplished throughout Christ’s life on earth, not just by His death on the cross. He argued that Christ’s coming was not conditioned by any other historical events and in particular that His Incarnation would have taken place irrespective of the Fall. For Scotus this also entailed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a doctrine that he was the first well-know theologian to defend.
But perhaps one of the most important contributions of Duns Scotus was his challenge to Aquinas’s understanding of “being” as the primal metaphor for understanding God. Thomas had understood God primarily in terms of the effulgence of being. One of his favourite proof texts was Exodus 3:14 “I am who I Am.” However, by stressing so strongly the ontological connection between God and the created order, Thomas came close to limiting God’s absolute freedom by entrapping Him in his own system, as it were. Duns Scotus reacted against this tendency by positing the primacy of God’s will. Within the being of God, the divine will takes precedence over the divine intellect. God is not bound by necessity to the great chain of being but He is nonetheless free to bind Himself by His word and His promise. Duns Scotus made use of the distinction between God’s absolute power (potentia absoluta) and God’s ordained power (potentia ordinata). The former refers to the power by which God, hypothetically, could do anything which does not involve the law of contradiction but by His ordained power God could limit Himself. Within the framework of the absolute freedom of God, it became crucial to stress that in fact God had bound Himself to by His ordained power. God’s covenant or pact, that is, God’s promise or word is the basis of the history of salvation. These discussions had significant impact on the religious and intellectual debates of the Middle Ages, and in a particular way, on the Reformation. Thus the thought of Duns Scotus exercised a profound influence in the Middle Ages and beyond. In modern times there has been renewed sympathy with his appreciation of the non-intellectual elements in man. The word “dunce” was coined by the Humanists and the Reformers to ridicule Scholasticism but the intellectual power of Scholastics like Duns Scotus was beyond doubt. He was beatified in 1993.
(Professor of Church History
at Oriens Theological College, Shillong)