Peter Lombard: Mastering the Sentences

"This is what the god of this world works in those children of unbelief [2 Cor. 4:4, Eph. 2:2] who do not submit their will to reason, ...

[Today's blog post is the second entry in the Defining Systematic Theology series.]

The Sentences of Peter Lombard (c. 1096-1160) stand among the most influential theological writings in the history of the church. Well over a thousand commentaries or glosses on the Sentences were composed by subsequent thinkers, including Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther. Most medieval university professors of theology were expected to lecture through the Sentences. "No piece of Christian literature has been commented upon more frequently - except for Scripture itself."

In our treatment of Hugh of St. Victor, we observed how Hugh's hermeneutic informs the structure of his systematic theology. The relationship between biblical interpretation and dogmatics remains quite close in Lombard's work (and in fact Lombard studied under Hugh in Paris).

As Philipp Rosemann observes, the Latin term sententia has multiple meanings. Primarily, it "signifies an opinion expressed by an authoritative writer." However, "sententia also means the deeper - as opposed to merely grammatical or literal - sense of Scripture, which indicates the origin of the authoritative statements of the Fathers in scriptural interpretation." In other words, the Sentences are meant to express the dogmatic content of Scripture as read by the church catholic throughout history. Lombard's hermeneutic is one of not merely individual but also ecclesial interpretation.

That latter point is really important to Lombard:
This is what the god of this world works in those children of unbelief [2 Cor. 4:4, Eph. 2:2] who do not submit their will to reason, nor apply themselves to the study of doctrine. Instead, they strive to make the words of wisdom fit what they have dreamed up; they follow not the reason of truth, but of what pleases them. Their evil will incites such people not to an understanding of the truth, but to the defense of what has pleased them; they do not desire to be taught the truth, but turn their ears away from it and toward fables. [2 Tim. 4:4] ... inflicting upon others the itching of their own ears [2 Tim. 4:3] under the new dogma of their own desire.
Lombard is explicit about his intent to minimize his own voice and opinions and to instead amplify the voices of past authorities. However, for him the ultimate emphasis is to be placed not even on the teachings of the authorities themselves, but to the objective reality which they witness about.

Much like Hugh before him, Lombard is operating from an Augustinian hermeneutical and sacramental framework. He begins with the statement that "all teaching concerns things or signs." From there he enters into a brief summary treatment of Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana, explicating the distinction between signs and things (all signs are things, but not all things are signs), and between things to be used, things to be enjoyed, and things which are both to be used and enjoyed.

Though it may not be immediately apparent to the modern reader, this series of distinctions is forefronted intentionally to set the systematic structure for the Sentences as a whole:
Some things are to be enjoyed, others to be used, and yet others enjoy[ed] and use[d]. Among those which are to be used, there are even some through which we come to joy, such as the virtues and powers of the spirit, which are natural goods. Before we treat of signs, we must discuss all of these, and first the things which are to be enjoyed, namely the holy and undivided Trinity.
Note the inversion of our modern expectations here. By speaking of human knowledge through signs, active use of things, and enjoyment of things, it might seem to the reader that he has grounded his theological enterprise in human subjective experience, in our perspective and our reality. Yet it is precisely this treatment of signs and things which prescribes a theological system that begins with the reality of God, the thing most fully to be enjoyed. God is the source of our human knowing and action, as well as the teleological end in which we find our fulfillment in joy. Thus, discussion of God's being is prioritized even over extended treatment of the signs by which we come to know about God.

Rosemann explains:
This, then, is Peter Lombard's outline of the structure of the Book of Sentences. A discussion of the Trinity (things to be enjoyed) will precede a treatment of creation (things to be used), which will lead to a third part of the work devoted to man and angels (things that are objects of both enjoyment and use). This will be followed by a theology of the virtues (things through which we enjoy), before the work comes to an end in a part on the sacraments (signs).
The doctrine of the incarnation is treated at length alongside the theology of the virtues. "In becoming flesh, God deigned to be not only the ultimate end of human existence, but the road to that end as well; in other words, God, the ultimate object of enjoyment, allowed himself to be used for human salvation," Rosemann writes. "The virtues find their place in book 3 because Peter approaches them from the point of view of the human Christ; put differently, Peter analyzes the virtues in their most perfect and exemplary state." Lombard's moral theology is Christologically governed. We see how human beings are to live and act by looking not at ourselves but at the perfect image of our humanity.

Medieval commentators did not teach the Sentences uncritically, but often found it to be an edifice upon which they could construct their own theological formulations of traditional catholic teaching. Yet one could not stray far from the organization and instincts of the Sentences without some explanation for it - Lombard's text was the systematic theology text to come to terms with, and valued not only for its pedagogical usefulness but its ability to serve as a foundation for new theological endeavors. Lombard's careful attention to the orders of being and knowing, biblical hermeneutics, and church authority in the shaping of his system should likewise inspire fresh reflection on these things in our own day and age.

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