BLESSED JOHN DUNS SCOTUS:
Franciscan Theologian & Philosopher
Father John Duns of Scotland – the Blessed John Duns Scotus – was a great Franciscan theologian and philosopher of the Middle Ages who has been one of the most influential Franciscans through the centuries.
He was identified as John Duns Scotus to indicate where he was born – at Duns in the county of Roxborough, Scotland (Scotia being the Latin name for Scotland). Born in 1226 of a wealthy Irish farming family who had settled in Scotland, John was educated by the Franciscans.
He entered the order at the age of fifteen and in 1280 received his habit of the Friars Minor at Dumfries where his uncle Elias Duns was superior. Because he possessed one of the keenest and most penetrating minds, even before his ordination he already taught theology to his brethren.
After novitiate John studied at Oxford and Paris and was ordained a priest on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1291. It was only after some eight years of continuing his studies at Paris and Oxford that he began to lecture first at Cambridge in 1301 and a year later at the Sorbonne, Paris.
However at that time in 1303, French King Philip IV (the Fair) tried to enlist the University of Paris on his side in a disgraceful quarrel with Pope Boniface VIII. When he fearlessly refused to sign the petition of King Philip, he was banished-forced to flee from the country thus interrupting his teaching at Paris continuing it at Oxford.
In 1305 he finally obtained his doctorate at the University of Paris by using his dialectical skill in contention with the Dominican upholders of the teaching of Thomas Aquinas. He continued teaching in Paris. Wherever he taught, students came in droves to learn from him, having heard of his genius and learning. He became the most famous teacher during the first decade of the 14th century.
The Subtle Doctor
He was given the title of the Subtle Doctor (Doctor Subtilis) because “there was nothing so recondite; nothing so abstruse that his keen mind could not fathom and clarify; nothing so knotty that he, like another Oedepies, could not unravel; nothing so fraught with difficulty or enveloped in darkness that his genius could not expand.” John Duns Scotus, considered the greatest medieval British philosopher and theologian, was indeed sharp and subtle of the intellect.
Doctor of Mary
In a sense it is to Father John that the Catholic Church owes its dogma on the Immaculate Conception because Pius IX who solemnly defined the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854 drew heavily on his work. Up to this time the dogma had always been accepted as an article of the faith by the faithful. They believed that “ at the first moment of her conception, Mary was preserved free from the stain of original sin in view of the merits of Christ.” It was when Father John returned to Paris in 1306 that he refuted all the objections of the scholars at that time to this prerogative of Our Lady. Because he championed Mary so he came to be known as the Doctor of Mary. In 1307, even the University of Paris officially adapted his position, which was once called a “Scotish opinion.”
Because Father John had so many admirers of his doctrine and they began to teach it, even during his lifetime he became and has remained the leader of the Franciscan school of philosophy and theology called “Scotist” after him and his philosophy known as Scotism.
The Scotist views were followed by the Jesuits.
The Thomists, followers of Thomas Aquinas, were opposed to the Scotists. They coined the word “dunce” as a term of contempt against a Dun’s man.
However because of the depth of his thought and the sharpness of his mind, Scotus remains among the highest place as philosopher and theologian.
Duns Scotus belonged to the school of philosophy called Scholastic Realism which maintains that there is a world outside the human mind which man is able to perceive directly without recourse to the senses.
Like Anselm, he tried to present a philosophical “proof” for the existence of God.
The proper object of the human intellect is not essence of material things as Aquinas teaches but being as being.
Scotism sees creation as primarily an act of the will of God so that things exist and are true and good because God wills them. However, God wills always “in a most rational and orderly way.”
Ethics and Theology
Scotus’ ethics maintains that goodness and duty are meaningful only inasmuch as they are related to supreme goodness and duty.
However the theology of Scotus centers on the definition of God as infinite Love. Creation is the effect of God’s love. He communicates His goodness to creatures so that they will love Him freely. Man’s heavenly happiness will consist primarily in the love of God.
Divine love shines particularly in the Incarnation of the Word. This would have taken place even if Adam had not sinned.
Several of Scotus’ doctrines have gained wide recognition even among theologians outside his school.
An Ideal Franciscan Student
Though Father John was brilliant, sharp and subtle of intellect he was amazingly a very humble, prayerful and religious man who was a close follower of St. Francis of Assisi.Since he followed the Franciscan school, which gave the primacy to love and to Christ, therefore he had the exact combination St. Francis wanted in any friar who studied.
Toward the end of 1307 he became professor at the Franciscan school in Cologne where he died prematurely at the age of 42 on November 8, 1308.
He lies buried in the church of the Franciscans near the famous Cathedral of Cologne. Though his name is included in the Franciscan martyrology and he is venerated in many places, Father John remains “blessed” awaiting canonization.
However he is honored as a saint to a large number of the faithful who have visited his tomb for centuries.
SOURCES OF REFERENCE:
The Book of Saints – p. 279
All Saints – pp. 487 – 488
Butler’s Saint for the Day – pp. 525 – 527