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Ockham’s Other Razor: Pinckaers Account of Ockham’s Notion of Free Will

The following is the first of two posts dealing with Servais Pinckaers account of two different conceptions of human freedom: freedom for excellence vs. freedom of indifference.  Pinckaers thinks that the notion of “freedom of indifference” is bogus, and that the more classical view of free will, freedom for excellence, is much better.  NOTE:  Ockham’s Other Razor is my label, and does not occur in Pinckaers.


Pinckaers, Servais, O.P. The Sources of Christian Ethics, Translated by Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995.


Freedom for Excellence vs. Freedom of Indifference

Moral theories characteristic of the patristic age and the great scholastic periods were dominated by questions of human happiness and the virtues and conceived of human freedom as freedom for excellence.  Modern moral theories are predominated by notions of obligation and commandments and assume a notion of human freedom called freedom of indifference (329).

St. Thomas explained freedom as a faculty proceeding from reason and will, which unite to make the act of choice. … For him, free will was not a prime or originating faculty; it presupposed intelligence and will.  It was rooted, therefore, in the inclinations to truth and goodness that constituted these faculties (331).

Ockham, on the contrary, maintained that free will preceded reason and will in such a way as to move them to their acts.  ‘For I can freely choose,’ he said, ‘to know or not to know, to will or not to will.’  For him, free will was the prime faculty, anterior to intelligence and will as well as to their acts. (331).

Ockham’s Other Razor: Pinckaers’s Short Narrative of Moral Theory

Pinckaers is partial to Thomistic moral theory and assumes that freedom for excellence is much richer a concept for moral theory than notions of freedom of indifference (329).  His disdain for moral theories based on the notion of freedom from indifference is not intended to be subtle in his account of its origins and contours.  Pejorative language pervades his description of what he thinks the notion of freedom of indifference causes in moral theory—a “destruction” of the harmony between humanity and nature (333), a “banishing” of considerations of human nature and spiritual spontaneity (333), a “rupturing” of the human soul (335), “the upheaval of all moral ideas and their systematic organization” (335), a “shattering” of the beautiful Thomistic order (337), a “disruption” of the field of moral theory that yields bizarre and uncoordinated contours of human action (338).

The chapter’s basic narrative goes something like this: Moral theories were getting along wonderfully with a rich and orderly account of human nature and morality (based on Aristotle and the Fathers but expressed perhaps most fully in St. Thomas) when Ockham came along and tampered with the notion of human freedom in a way that ruptured the unity and coherency of moral theory and led to unnecessary disjunctions and false dichotomies.  Ockham’s view of human freedom was like a germ that infected every aspect of moral theory, completely restructuring it and redefining all its parts.  Moral theories have been infected with this disease ever since.

Although perhaps less known, this was Ockham’s Other Razor—the one that took the harmonized parts of the beautiful Thomistic synthesis between human nature and morality and cut them up into disjointed pieces.  By Pinckaers’s judgment, Ockham’s Other Razor slit the throat of Thomas’ brilliant synthesis, bleeding the life out of dynamic moral theory.

Pinckaers’s Fuller Account of Ockham’s Other Razor

In Ockham’s view of human freedom, although many things can potentially influence the will, nothing can be allowed to determine the will outside itself—not human reason, not God’s will, or human emotions/desires/passions (331).  Thus, it has to have the ability to choose to do what is contrary to reason, God’s will, and human passions.  So, for example, it can choose to be happy or not be happy.  This will is the ultimate self because even if one aspect of “the self” desires something with great passion, the will has to have the power to say “No!”  This freedom was thought to be at the very core of human nature—the very “being” of a person (332).  Pinckaers concludes that “this is doubtless the origin of the divorce between moral theory and the desire for happiness, which has been effected in our times” (333).

It is called freedom of indifference not because the human will cannot be influenced by something other than itself, but that it always must retain enough “indifference” (or autonomy) to never be determined by such outside influences, for if it is determined by anything outside itself, it is not ultimately “free.”  In fact, “it even seemed that freedom could find no better way of asserting itself than to struggle against” human sensibilities, habits, passions, etc. (335).  Only one passion can be considered primitive to man—his passion to self-affirmation, “to the assertion of a radical difference between itself and all else” (338).

No past action can determine any future action; all human action occurs in “isolated succession” such that personality, Pinckaers argues, becomes unintelligible (336-37).  Pinckaers complains: “Human discontinuity is one of the basic tenets of Ockham’s psychology” (338).  In this view of human freedom, anything that one might conceive of as being able to have a great deal of influence over the will is set against it (loyalty, reason, natural inclinations, desires, God will)—they become a threat to human freedom (340).  This also effects the doctrine of God.  The moral will is capricious because God is absolutely free—it cannot be derived from the nature of things (342).  Since God’s will is revealed in the human conscience, moral theory can be worked out apart from an account of God (349).  Reason’s imperatives, however, are irrational (they are not grounded in the nature of things or in the nature of God, 348).


A litany of accusations is leveled throughout Pinckaers’s account of Ockham’s view of human freedom that the reader must carefully consider.  It is the “origin of the divorce between moral theory and the desire for happiness” (333); it demands  human action occur in “isolated succession,” and thus makes what we call “personality” ultimately unintelligible (336-37); it sets God’s will over against the human will as one higher capricious will against a lower capricious will (342); it makes God’s will irrational because it is not based on the nature of things or on the nature of God himself (348); it creates all sorts of unnecessary dichotomies between freedom and law, freedom and grace, subject and object, etc. (350).  There is much overlap between Pinckaers’ critique of freedom of indifference and the more extensive critique leveled by American theologian Jonathan Edwards.

The next post will explore what Pinckaers offers as an alternative to Ockham’s notion of freedom: freedom for excellence.

Thomas à Kempis on Spiritual Desolation

Thomas à Kempis. The Imitation of Christ. Translated by Richard Whiteford. Edited by Harold C. Gardiner, S.J. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Book II, Admonitions Leading to the Inner Life: 9. Of Lack of Solace and Comfort. (II.9), 87-90.

It is no great thing to despise the comfort of man when the comfort of God is present. But it is a great thing, and indeed a very great thing, that a man should be so strong in spirit as to bear the lack of both comforts, and for the love of God and for God’s honor should have a ready will to bear desolation of spirit and yet in nothing to seek himself or his own merits.

… We are always glad to have solace and consolation, but we desire to have no tribulation, and we will not easily cast forth from ourselves the false love of ourselves. …

[W]hen spiritual comfort is sent to you by God, take it humbly and give thanks meekly for it.  But know for certain that it is the great goodness of God that sends it to you, and not because you deserve it. … That time of comfort will pass away, and the time of temptation will follow shortly after.

When comfort is withdrawn, do not be cast down, but humbly and patiently await the visitation of God, for He is able and powerful to give you more grace and more spiritual comfort than you first had. … David said: You have withdrawn your face from me, and I am perturbed. …

… The company of good men and the fellowship of devout brethren and faithful friends, the possession of holy books or of devout treatises, the hearing of sweet songs or of devout hymns may avail little and bring but little comfort to the soul when we are left to our own frailty and poverty.  And when we are so left, there is no better remedy than patience, with a complete resignation of our will to the will of God.

I never yet found any religious person so perfect that he did not experience at some times the absence of grace or some diminishing of fervor. … [G]reat consolation is promised by our Lord to those who are found unshaken in their temptation.  And therefore the Lord says: To him who overcometh I shall give to eat of the tree of life.

The Making of Mary Magdalen in Medieval Legends ::: Katherine Ludwig Jansen

The following is a book review of Katherine L. Jansen’s renown scholarly contribution to medieval studies that focuses on how so many legends developed during the Medieval period about Mary Magdalen to the point that she became second only to Mary (the mother of Jesus) in veneration.  She doesn’t just tell us how these stories developed, but what they say about medieval notions of godliness/sanctity/piety.  She shows how the supply and demand principle can also be applied to preaching during the medieval period (and probably to preaching in every age).  That is, she shows how Mary Magdalen was shaped into all sorts of colorful legendary images to fit the needs of the day as perceived by the preachers of the day.  The friars couldn’t help but let their imaginations run wild with the Magdalen stories in order to use her as the “model” alternative to whatever they perceived as the corruption of society.  The legends developed because they were practical for preaching.  

Katherine Ludwig Jansen, The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in Later Middle Ages.  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000.  

Jansen’s Aims and Concerns 

Jansen’s overall concern is to give a complete picture of the cult of the Magdalen in medieval times, its symbolic meaning, and how it reflects changing views of sanctity at that time (14).  She interprets the process of gender reversal as an aid for the mendicants in opposing “the [masculine] institutional church” of Peter (15).  Emphasis on the invention of a Magdalen that went beyond historical accuracy is intended to underscore how the image of the Magdalen reflects medieval philosophical and social exigencies about women—the dignity of women, whether they are permitted to preach and have authority, the problem of prostitution, etc. (15).  The author is concerned to show just how the Magdalen of legend became so many different things to medieval laity—the penitential symbol, the exemplar of the active and contemplative life, the symbol of hope for all sinners, the apostle of the apostles, etc.  Finally, she is concerned to expose the audience response to the preaching of the Magdalen (16).             

The author believes that preachers were prone to bend the truth about Mary Magdalen and invent all sorts of fanciful things about her in order to have better fuel for their fiery preaching.  For example, she says wittingly: “The subject of the Magdalen’s vanities itself became a vanity, as it were, inasmuch as besotted medieval writers spent endless hours lingering on detailed descriptions of them” (156).  She also believes that men used the symbolism of the Magdalen to reinforce medieval gender ideology.  For example, she says: “Vanity, lust, prostitution: how did these things pertain to the sketchy facts of Mary Magdalen’s life as recorded in the gospels?  In a word: they did not.  … Preachers made them conform to the rather vague biographical facts of her life in order to address exigent questions about the nature of Woman, women’s place in society, the need for female protection, and the problem of prostitution” (146).    

She also has confidence that the laity’s voice can be discerned in the preaching when one listens carefully.  In fact, she believes that the preaching of the medieval period (and probably preaching in general) can easily mirror audience values and devotion.  For example, after giving an excerpt from a Franciscan preacher’s sermon in which he represents the Virgin Mary as “the more powerful light” in the heavens (the sun) and Mary Magdalen as “the less powerful light” (the moon) “leading sinners lest they despair,” Jansen says the lights correspond to two paths of salvation.  Then she says: “The friar’s audiences, often for very personal reasons, were eager to find the confluence of the two paths.  That is, it shows how members of the preachers’ audiences interpreted the symbol of the holy sinner in the light of his or her own desires” (286).

These assumptions shape Jansen’s historical account decisively.  She is constantly filling the reader in on how the assumptions of medieval preachers are based on legends that developed through imaginative embellishments as well as political events.  Her careful detail in tracing the “making” of the Magdalen from the sketchy biblical figure to the hagiographic sources show that the mendicant sermons (that drew heavily from them but added even more imaginative detail) were structured by the interests of their audiences (and therefore, medieval society as a whole).  The figure of the Magdalen that preachers and hagiographers were “making” was one that would fit the needs of medieval times and values.  Her chronological “tracing” of this “making” is intended to underscore this point.      

The Vita Mixta [the mixed life]

Through Gregory the Great’s sermons, he associated Mary Magdalen with the women “whom John calls Mary,” then interprets the Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet (while Martha became anxious with work) as mystically representing the contemplative life (34).  Mary had chosen the better life.  This was also furthered by the vita eremitica [life of a hermit] which “assimilates Mary Magdalen’s biography to the vita of Saint Mary of Egypt,” who fled to solitude in the Egyptian desert and lived as a hermit. 

The identification of Mary Magdalen with Mary of Egypt in the vita eremitica was a crucial step toward the making of another Magdalen image, the vita apostolica [life of an apostle].  Once the Magdalen was associated with Mary of Egypt and Abbot Geoffrey’s inventio in Burgundy, the vita apostolica incorporated the popular explanation of how the relics of the Magdalen came to be in Burgendy through the “holy theft” of Badilus, who supposedly stole them from Provence.  The vita apostolica, building on this legend, goes further in explaining, then, how Mary Magdalen’s relics came to be in Provence before the “holy theft”—during the first wave of persecution, she and her family members fled from Egypt by sea, landing in southern Gaul and evangelizing the people there before retiring back to solitude (39).  Combined with the embellishments based on the biblical depiction of Mary Magdalen as having the privilege of announcing the resurrection of Christ to the rest of the apostles (Christ having appeared to her first and given her this directive), the title apostolorum apostola [apostle of the apostles] became a powerful symbol of the vita apostolica.  This inspired the laity and in turn raised questions about women’s ability or authority to preach.

With both the image of Mary as apostolorum apostola and as representing the contemplative life of a Hermit, the Magdalen came to be seen as representing the vita mixta—the mixed life of active works of mercy and mystical contemplation.

The Symbol of Vanity

Mary Magdalen was used by medieval preachers as a symbol of vanity to address what they thought of as female specific sins.  How did Mary come to be thought of as a symbol of vanity in the first place?  The first step was to identify the unnamed sinner in Luke’s gospel (Lk 7:36-50) as Mary Magdalene according to the “famous Gregorian conflation” (147).  Gregory also allegorized the Magdalen’s seven demons as the seven deadly sins, which transformed the pre-Christian Magdalen’s demonic possession into “a disease of the soul caused by sin” (147).  The second step was to use the medieval imagination to fill in the gaps in Luke’s story—namely, to answer this question: What was the sin of this unnamed sinner (i.e. Mary Magdalen)?  The medieval preachers—for pragmatic reasons—identified the sin as a sexual sin.  This identification was reinforced by association, since this was also the nature of sin attributed to the unnamed female sinner of John’s gospel (Jn 8:3-11).  Preachers could not help themselves in indulging their imaginations where scripture was silent in order to make good preaching material to condemn what they thought were gender specific sins of the Women of their day. 

The third step was to assume the need to explain how it was that the unnamed sinner (assumed to be Mary Magdalen) came to be caught in the snares of sinful vices.  Since it was thought that Mary had been named after a castle (the castellum of Magdala) preachers began to tell a very creative story about how she was stripe regia (royal stock) and therefore fell into the vices were thought to attend riches: luxuria [lust], idleness, sinful autonomy (i.e. not under the rule of a man).  Because it was already believed that Mary Magdalen was a beautiful women, preachers exploited the relationship between vigorous and youthful beauty with vanity and sexual sins.  Furthermore, these warnings of the medieval preachers were attended by all sorts of gender assumptions of the medieval period.  Since one’s physical appearance represents the constitution of their souls, women were weak and easily seduced.  Thus, by a combination of imaginative embellishment of a story in the Bible of an unnamed sinner combined with gender assumptions of the middle ages, medieval preachers depicted Mary as the perfect example of vanity—she was a young women easily deceived, susceptible to vanity for so many reasons—her beauty, her gender, her riches, her idle time, her autonomy, etc.  “Heaven help the fragile woman, her powers of ratiocination and moral scruple enfeebled by her sex, when cursed by the quadruple threat of wealth, freedom, beauty, and fooloshness”! (154).

By using Mary Magdalen—who was also the perfect example of penitence—the preachers gave themselves the opportunity to exhort the women in their audience to repent of their vanities according to typical medieval “anti-vanity discourse” (155) that condemned makeup, jewelry, dancing, costly clothes, superfluous hair, lack of subordination to men, etc.  Jansen claims that in spite of such imaginative vanity (pun intended) of medieval preachers, “they never wandered too far from the parameters that Gregory the Great had established for them” (158).             

The Exemplar of Perfect Penance

When Pope Innocent III assembled patriarchs, bishops, priors and abbots for the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, among other things, they set out to reformulate penitential theology.  Medieval theologians had already paved the way with their distinctions between culpa (guilt) and pena (temporal consequences/punishment for sin)—the pena being something that could be remitted by the proper performance of satisfaction.  Canon twenty-one of the council, omnis utriusque sexus (“everyone of both sexes”), demanded that no one participate in holy communion unless they have an annual confession of his or her sins and made satisfaction according to their priest.  Although contrition, satisfaction, and absolution were already a part of official church teaching, confession itself was not (that is, it was never required by the authority of the church although it was widely practiced before the Fourth Lateran Council).  Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 C.E.) would go on to defend this decree (along with Scotists) by maintaining that remission of the culpa was contigent on two things: 1) perfect contrition, and 2) the priests absolution. 

The combination of this decree with the fresh emergence of mendicant preaching created an irresistible diffusion of the new demands of penance by the usage of the symbol of Mary Magdalen—even thought she never actually makes a confession in the gospels!  Although preachers were quick to draw on other examples of contrition in the Bible—David, Peter, Matthew—the example of choice for such mendicants was, of course, Mary Magdalen.  As we have already seen, according to so many legends that developed in the Middle Ages, she was seen as having gone from being the perfect example of sinful vanity and sexual sin to becoming a woman who was one of Christ’s most faithful followers, having completely abandoned the world to become a hermit in the Egyptian desert after announcing Christ’s resurrection to the disciples, then by fleeing persecution evangelized Southern Gaul!  According to the Magdalen lore, she went from one extreme to the other.   Therefore, with the new demands of the Fourth Lateran Council, she became something else—the exemplum perfecte penitentie (the example of perfect penance) according to the fourfold obligation spelled out by omnis utriusque sexus.  Her seven vices were all transformed into seven virtues through penance.  Her tears became a powerful symbol of her perfect contrition—signifying an archetypal emblem gendered female, and simultaneously symbolizing baptism and rebirth because her tears (representing perfect contrition) washed away her sin.  In this case the gender associations of medieval times predisposed women to “more inclined to enter the salvific state of contrition” (210) because the physiology of the female body made women more disposed to cry. 

Since it was common for medieval preachers to teach that Magdalen’s tears of contrition “washed away her sins” (that is, removed her culpa and pena), once confession was demanded by the Fourth Lateran Council, preachers were in a sticky situation.  Where was a place for confession the Magdalen’s example?  Many continued to preach that perfect contrition alone was salvific, in spite of the demands of the Fourth Lateran Council.  Others argued that for Mary Magdalen it was salvific, but that after Christ ascended, sacramental confession was established (216).  For others, however, it was just the right occasion to embellish the story of the Magdalen once more by adding something not in the text of the gospels—her long and well articulated confession to Christ!  This was the solution of Innocent III.  In his sermons, he completely reconstructed a confession that ended up making its place in literary history, for “in both Cavalca’s vita,” “the Franciscan Meditations on the Life of Christ,’” and a text dating in 1474 that has a seventeen-verse confession written in first person, “Mary Magdalen makes long, lachrymose confessions” about everything under the “fifteenth-century sun”! (217-18).  Other aspects of penance were easily added to this: her whole life of service and contemplation was her works of satisfaction and her kisses (or her alabaster according to the culinary motif) signified her absolution (229-30).  By following her example—who was once the peccatrix—average Christians could have true hope of absolution—the speculum spei (“mirror of hope,” 232-33)!      

Examples of the Magdalen Cult’s Influence 

The Lollardy who followed Wycliffe’s teachings was in theory committed to the idea of lay preaching—both men and women.  Walter Brut—an educated lay Lollard even believed women could have the authority to grant absolution.  He defends his view of bi-gender preaching by recourse to Mary Magdalen when on trial in 1381.  He said: “It is confirmed, for we read that blessed Mary Magdalen preached publicly in Marcilia and in the area around about, which through her preaching she converted to Christ.  Because of this she is called the ‘Apostle of Apostles’” (273).  He was not alone in defending women’s right to preach by recourse to the Magdalen.  Other heretical groups such as the Waldensians and even “semi-orthodox” groups also used her in a like manner.     

Margaret of Cortona, when perplexed about her loss of virginity (based on the assumption that virgins had a better change at heavenly reward) found her conscience somewhat appeased when, supposedly, the Lord spoke to her in a vision and told her that Mary Magdalen was among the chorus of virgins in heaven (288).  Since by the late Middle Ages, the Magdalen was seen considered a virgin on account of her “vigilantly maintaining her chastity after her conversion,” she became a hope to people like Margaret that she too could still have the chance of achieving a similar status in heaven.

Charles II spent thirty years of his life erecting physical signs of his devotion to the Magdalen (308).  Charles believed she would protect his kingdom so long as she was honored properly (309).  He founded churches in her name and “desired that the Magdalen’s praises be sung” (312).  Charles also commissioned many works of art that depicted her and founded convents in her name (312).  The Dominican Order was the primary beneficiary of his devotion, so in return, the Dominicans became “the principal publicists of [Charles’] singular relationship with the saint” (313).  Charles even had the supposed skull of the Magdalen “transferred to a golden head fitted with a crystal face through which the faithful could view the rather macabre relic” (313).  The house of Anjou would continue this sort of devotion long after Charles was gone.  The Magdalen cult indeed became a royal cult, to the point that “there was no better way to show loyalty to the king than to show reverence for his heavenly protector” (315).

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