Thursday, July 8, 2010

Peter Lombard vs. John of Damascus: Round 1.

I've been reading Peter Lombard's Sentences, which have for the first time been published in English. It's actually sort of weird that it's taken this long, though I suppose most anyone who was interested in them probably could read Latin.

Anyhow, as those of you who've read my banner know, I wrote a M.A. thesis comparing Luther to John of Damascus and therefore I'm very familiar with his work De Fide Orthodoxa. De Fide Orthodoxa was used very widely in the west. Aquinas makes many references to it in the Summa and Luther knew it. Chemnitz quotes it a great deal in Loci Theologici and also in the Two Natures book.

What it seems like to me is that Lombard is trying to write a western version of John's work- though I would need more historical proof to prove this. The point of John's work is basically the same as that of Peter's. It's a text-book summarizing the theology of the Fathers on the various loci of theology. Also, the books are structured the same way. Book 1 is Trinity, Book 2 is creation, Book 3 is Incarnation, Book 4 is sacraments and last things. Now granted this is the structure of the Creed as well, but Peter probably had John in mind since he obvious read John's work in that he quotes him. He quotes him infrequently, but he does so nevertheless. In terms of percentage, according to the translator (and simply reading it, you would get this impression also), 90% of the quotations are from Augustine.

So, how do the Sentences compare with De Fide Orthodoxa? Well, I'm only through the first book at this point, (whereas I have of course read all of John) so I can't make a complete judgment.

I will say that John has a much more sophisticated Trinitarian theology than does Peter in some respects. For example, in terms of interpreting certain Trinitarian texts in the NT John has much more sophisticated intellectual tool box given to him by the Cappadocians. So, for example, John interprets Jesus' statement "I am in the Father and the Father is in me" to be a statement about Perichoresis. For those unfamiliar, this is the idea that each person of the Trinity dwells in the other, that is, inner penetrates the other. Peter, following Augustine (who as I recall from my reading of De Trinitate about 7 years ago!) does not have the idea, interprets the statement as simply an affirmation of the unity of divine substance, which, if taken in the wrong way, could lead back to Modalism- which was of course always the biggest heresy in the west. Of course, it's not a bad way of interpreting it and if you're not a Modalist, then you can probably get away with understanding that way. But it's definitely not as good as the Cappadocian/Damascene explanation.

Another interesting piece is how the statement "the Father is greater than me" is interpreted. Following Augustine again, Peter interprets the statement to be a reference to the human nature of Christ. This is fairly typical of western Christology, which, following Leo the Great, tries to divide the two natures. Again, as a Lutheran, who follows Cyril, John has a much better answer, namely, that the Father is greater than the Logos in the sense of origin. That is, he has priority insofar as he is the fount of divinity. His person is of course not greater than the person of the Son. This again follows the interpretation of the Cappadocians, and, I think, is better because it avoids dividing the person of Christ.

In order to be fair to both of them, I will periodically report on how Peter continues to do. So far, I think the Damascene has won this round.


  1. Jack,

    Lombard's Western reading seems to be enshrined in the Athanasian Creed: "Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood." Since the creed encapsulates Augustine's Trintarian theology (maybe even written by Fulgentius I've read), what do you think that means for how we interpret texts like "the Father is greater than me" if we want to adhere to the meaning of the ecumenical creeds? As you know, I'm as convinced of and committed to Cyrillian Christology as you are, but I'm just curious as to what you think about this. And apparently I couldn't wait until after work to ask you at dinner. :)

  2. Bethany- I mean, it might be a reference to that verse in John. It certain isn't explicitly so.

    In any case, I would make three points. Frist, Cyril or any other orthodox teacher of the early Church wouldn't disagree with the statement that Christ is "equal in Godhead" and "inferior in humanity" to the Father. Secondly, like I said, there's nothing inherently wrong about saying that Christ is talking about his human nature in this verse. Christ does sometimes talk about his humanity in the abstract: "all power in heaven and on earth have been given unto me" "the Father alone knows, not the angels, not even the Son" and so forth. I think that it's natural that we should prefer the Cappadocian reading since 1) It is more natural in the context 2) It works better with the analogy of faith because it does not over emphasize the duality of the two natures, that is, to make them sound like they are two subjects. Thirdly, although the Athanasian creed is technically a Lutheran Confession, we are not (as Walther, Pieper, and Preus note) bound to all of the details of their exegesis of Scripture, merely the ultimate conclusions. So, even if the Athanasian Creed is interpreting the verse that way (being that it is really an "Augustinian" Creed, it very likely is)there's no reason why we should accept that interpretation of the verse, as long as we agree with the dogmatic claims on the basis of other verses- which is pretty theologically easy.

  3. Jack,

    Cool. Thanks! :)


  4. My own impulse at the moment would be to favor John over Peter in style and content, although that's at least partially colored by my dissertation subject, Robert Grosseteste, who loved and translated John, and opposed the use of the Sentences in its ascendancy in the Theology curriculum (to be fair, his objection was probably to the use of the Sentences as a substitute for study of Scripture). Also, Peter writes in an idiosyncratic Latin which is often obscure. Once you get used to it, the Sentences are not as well organized as we would wish, or indeed as the comprehensive works of theology which followed Peter. Peter is most often examined nowadays in providing an occasion for some later thinker to develop some insight.

    As to the question of whether Peter imitated John, I may have something more to say about that in a few weeks of my current study. Maybe we'll compare notes in a later post.