An Analysis of 'Wyclif and the Oxford Schools' by J. A. Robson – Chapter 1

Chapter 1 “Early Career and the Scholastic Background at Oxford”

Much of the discussion of this first chapter of Robson’s relates to the higher critical matters of Wyclif’s life, particularly as it relates to his matriculation and career at Oxford. Some of the details of his early career are somewhat sketchy because the first time that we find evidence of him he is already a probationary fellow at Merton college in Oxford. This evidence dates back to 1356. Of course, Robson notes that Workman places Wyclif at Balliol (Robson:10, fn.2). The Merton connection indicates that the terminus ad quem for Wyclif’s graduation as Bachelor of Arts must be 1356. Four years later he would become magister (Master) of Balliol (Robson:13). Some eight years were necessary for Wyclif to attain the degree of doctor (magister theologiae) after graduating Bachelor of Theology. This second Bachelor (admissio ad lecturam libri Sententiarum) was taken subsequent to his Master of Arts and included the reading of Lombard’s Sentences. Shortly after taking his doctoral degree, Wyclif found himself in the service of John of Gaunt (c.1371-1372). During this time his interest in philosophical matters waned and as his resources were absorbed into the pursuit of the needs of the state. Wyclif studied and wrote extensively on political theory. Ironically, the majority of Wyclif’s scholastic, philosophical, and theological works were written while he was a Master of Arts, teaching on the Arts faculty (1350’s-1360’s). Some theological works were written as a Master of Theology, c. 1360-1371 (Robson:17).

Robson recognizes the way point in history that Wyclif’s time came to be known. Indeed, he echoes previous sentiments that Wyclif was the last of the schoolmen and the first of the reformers. Robson then embarks upon a discussion of how the “New Way” (Via Moderna) effected the scholastic debates of the Late Middle Ages. He notes two tendencies of the New Way: (1) a radical bifurcation between theology and metaphysics or between divine and human knowledge, and (2) a doubt concerning the possibility or even desirability of the great synthesis between those two areas of inquiry. The artist, Raphael captures the spirit of this great synthesis in his “School of Athens” painted on the Room of the Segnatura’s wall of St. Peter’s. Apparently, the hope of this synthesis was kaputt. This is the synthesis that Marsden (certainly no medievalist) recalls as the question of how to relate Christian truths to pagan learning (George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 34.). The great Augustinian tradition, a sort of Christian neoplatonism, had been laid low; ironically, by one who sought to prove its truth — Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas opened the door for the demise of the Augustinian metaphysical model. In short, it indirectly brought the charge of “confounding God and man in a single metaphysical system, for excessive determinism, and for depreciating unduly the play of divine and human will.” (Robson:19) In response, philosophers and theologians of the New Way posited “the transcendence of God, the primacy of his will, and the radical contingency of divine and human acts.” (Robson:19) In such an environment that pitted Scotus against Ockham, Robson thinks it is necessary to point out that the argument was larger than the front between realists and nominalists. In fact, Robson points out that on many matters, such as the voluntarist debate, some realist and some nominalists found themselves on the same side of the argument. Robson underscores this observation with this comment: “As pure philosophers, Ockham and Wyclif have more in common than is often allowed.” (Robson:19) Robson supports his argument by citing three theologians/scholastics who spanned the spectrum from “strongly realist to openly nominalist.” He first cites Henry of Ghent, a realist, for his support of voluntarism whilst holding to the Augustinian synthesis. Secondly, he cites Duns Scotus, the “Subtle Doctor,” for arguing for the schism between faith and reason after the manner of the via moderna, while at the same time arguing for a univocity of being which posits to both man and God the common universal of being. Scotus is considered the first great schoolman for the via moderna. The guiding light of the via moderna, the third schoolman to be cited by Robson was none other than the “Venerable Inceptor,” William of Ockham. Ockham’s innovation was the location of the real, the form, or the universal. They were not extramental or even necessarily divinely mental in their loci, but rather they were located with the singular. The singulars were real for Ockham, but he denied any hierarchy of universal reality. Ockham affirmed the impossibility of a Christian coming to a full understanding of God without revelation. Further, Ockham postulated that of primary importance are the omnipotence of God and shaving away of the necessary contingencies to make God’s will occur (Ockham’s Razor). Of this Robson says: “Here was an Augustinianism shorn of determinist overtones, emphasizing God’s supreme liberty of will, and denying the possibility of fathoming his purpose.” Robson rescues Ockham from skepticism and labels him as a fideist instead (Robson:24).

Wyclif reacts against the via moderna, but as Robson foreshadows obliquely, even Wyclif and Ockham had some points of agreement. Thomas Bradwardine and Walter Burley would be some of the first to take Ockham and his radical ideas to task. Much like the Protestant Reformation, the debate between Ockhamists and realists centered around the Augustinian tradition. Wyclif gained his armament against nominalism from the writings of Grosseteste, whom he frequently referred to as Lincolniensis. Citing Beryl Smalley, Robson concurs that Grosseteste was a bit retrospective even in his own day. He disavowed the dialecticians in favor of straight biblicism. For Grosseteste, theology must be tied to exegesis of the biblical text not rational dialectics. Rather unscholastic though he was, Grosseteste held a realism that evidenced “several strands” of the old Augustinian neoplatonism. Robson states that his realism’s focal point was his theory of light and he cites Smalley to prove his point. In short, the theory uses the analogy of God as Light and that this “light” is what gives created beings their intelligent consciousness. Beings are more or less intelligent depending uon what degree they participate in this light (obviously some college freshmen seem to suffer from lack of participation in said light). Robson notes that Franciscans of Wyclif’s era had warmed to Lincolnienis’ ideas and that, although as secular, Wyclif could benefit from their encouragement.

Toward the end of this chapter, Robson notes the parity and confluence of ideas between different schools of philosophical thought. Intellectually, these were tumultuous days with men who were enemies on one issue becoming confederates on another. At Oxford, during Wyclif’s years there, the landscape was marked by both the hardy predestinarianism of Bradwardine and the radical grace or Boldon. Various extremities of nominalism were refuted by members of the Oxford schools while, at the same time, not denying completely every tenet put forth by nominalism. Wyclif could draw upon Oxford dons Thomas Bradwardine and Richard FitzRalph for his own confrontations. By 1370 Wyclif could be considered a leader in the via antiqua over against the via moderna, but this should not be mistaken as total disagreement with every teaching propounded by the Ockhamists. Such were these swirling times of philosophical and theological controversy.


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