By Adam Davis

Scotism is a philosophical and theological system that follows in the tradition of John Duns Scotus. Scotus was a scholar from the Franciscan order, and lived from roughly 1266 to 1308. He was a prominent scholastic philosopher, and is a Doctor of the Catholic Church. He is called the "Subtle Doctor" for his fine-grained academic method. Scotus' writings are voluminous and run across many different subjects. This article will briefly consider some of the major theological doctrines he developed (or contributed to) through the lens of Evangelical Christianity, undergirded by a Thomistic philosophical approach.

Perhaps Scotus' greatest theological impact pertains to the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. This position maintains that Mary, Jesus' mother (touching His human nature), was conceived without sin. Scotus argued that Mary needed redemption like all other human beings, but through the merits of Jesus' crucifixion given in advance, she was conceived without the stain of original sin. The Catholic Church declared this doctrine to be dogma in 1854, with a heavy leaning on Scotus' work.

To draw this conclusion, Scotus ventures beyond any reasonable theological deduction. First, the Bible clearly teaches that only Jesus Christ is without sin (1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5). Thus, the Immaculate Conception has no basis in Scripture. A second conundrum also develops from this doctrine and rationale. If Mary could be (essentially) supernaturally conceived without a sin nature, then why not Jesus? To avoid staining Jesus with sin, Mary had to be without sin. But then there is no good reason to think that Mary's mother should not have the same requirement, and so on. It should be noted that the Catholic Church does attempt to answer these questions, but the many relevant concerns have not been sufficiently addressed.

Scotus expounded on the differences between mortal and venial sins. Like the Immaculate Conception, this is a core teaching of the Catholic Church. Mortal sins are those that separate man from God for eternity if unrepented. Venial sins are lesser sins which injure the relationship between God and man, but do not result in permanent fissure. Scotus believed that Adam could sin venially before the Fall (Genesis 3). This differentiation within sin is not biblically supported, nor is there any reason to think Adam sinned before he and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.

Scotus also believed that Christ would have become incarnate even had Adam not sinned. He is quoted as saying:
To think that God would have given up such a task had Adam not sinned would be quite unreasonable! I say, therefore, that the fall was not the cause of Christ's predestination and that if no one had fallen, neither the angel nor man in this hypothesis Christ would still have been predestined in the same way. (Source)
This is a very curious notion that does not find any discernable basis in Scripture. It seems that quite the opposite is the case, given what the apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21, "He made Him to become sin that knew no sin so that we might become the righteousness of God." Jesus Christ Himself says "The Son of Man came to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45).

Underwriting the aforementioned issues with Scotus' major theological conclusions is the evangelical commitment to Sola Scriptura. This doctrine, meaning "Scripture Alone," is adopted from the Protestant Reformation and holds that the Bible is the sole authority for Christian faith and practice. When church teaching cannot be reconciled to Scripture, the teaching must be rejected. Jesus Himself condemned the Pharisees for making the word of God void in favor of the traditions of man (Matthew 15:1-9). Yet, some of Scotus' doctrines go beyond the issue of biblical foundationalism and come dangerously close to impugning the nature of God.

Scotus thought that man can produce esse simpliciter. This means that man can produce being by generation. Because he denied a distinction between essence ("what" something is) and existence ("that" something is), Scotus held that man can produce being in the same way God can. But creation of being can only belong properly to God. Only God is Being itself and so only God can impart being. That which exists apart from God stands in receipt of being from God at each moment that it exists; nothing exists apart from God upholding it (Acts 17:25-28; Hebrews 1:3). Something cannot give what it does not have. Man cannot produce esse simpliciter because man does not have esse simplicter.

Scotus further believed in univocal predication of the divine attributes. This is to say that when one says "God is wise" and "Solomon is wise" the meaning of the word "wise" is the same in each predication. Scotus defends his doctrine of univocity by appealing to his oft-used notion of the infinite. Thus, God is wise and Solomon is wise in the same sense but the degree of perfection differs.

The doctrine of univocity is very difficult to accept, because God is not the same kind of being as Solomon. God is not a being, but Being itself. It is also odd to say that God's goodness only differs by degree from man's goodness. A man might be good insofar as he achieves the proper end (telos) of his nature, but God is His own end and He cannot be said to "have" goodness, rather He just is goodness itself. Thus, a comparison of goodness by degree, even invoking the infinite, does not do proper justice to goodness, wisdom, nor any other divine attribute. When speaking about God, it seems the only way one can properly do so is by analogical language (e.g. partly the same, partly different). Moreover, the Bible seems to imply the cogency of analogical language, for instance in Isaiah 55:8-9.

John Duns Scotus was an original thinker and contributed a great deal to western thought. He is worthy of study because he made interesting contributions to significant issues in philosophy and Christian theology. Although evangelical Christians will find many of his conclusions objectionable, Scotus' work provides an excellent means for diving into important questions about church doctrine and practice.

Image Credit: Justus van Gent; "John Duns Scotus"; 1460-1480; Public Domain

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Published 3-27-17