An Analysis of 'Wyclif and the Oxford Schools' by J. A. Robson – Chapter 2

Chapter 2 – “Thomas Buckingham and the Reaction to the De Causa Dei

In this second chapter of Wyclif and the Oxford Schools, Robson uses the figure of the scholastic Exetor don, Thomas Buckingham as a sort of test case to underscore the theological milieu of the Oxford during the generation just prior to Wyclif. Buckingham is a contemporary of “Doctor Profundus,” Bradwardine, and actually challenges Bradwardine on several points. By contrasting an earlier work of Buckingham (Sentences, c. 1335) with a later work (Questions, c. 1350), he is able to decipher a significant shift in Buckingham’s thought that seems to be a product of the influence of Bradwardine. Here is Robson’s stated reason for his analysis of Buckingham:

But the clash of Ockhamist and anti-Ockhamist can only be understood by recognising the common ground between them. For, if they disputed the answers, conservative and radical thinkers were generally agreed as to what were the important questions. An Ockhamist like the young Thomas Buckingham, an Augustinian like Thomas Bradwardine, and a moderate eclectic like Richard FitzRalph, could concur in assuming that the major questions which confronted their generation concerned neither the nature of the Godhead nor the problem of human psychology (both matters which greatly exercised the minds of the thirteenth century), but the nature of God’s activity to man, our knowledge of him and his of us, the relation of his will to ours, and the capacity of men to act freely and completely both in their own power and in respect of God’s will towards them. The divine will was to be seen in every human act, and man’s strongest desire was to be justified to God (Robson:32).

On this there was to be no agreement. During this time, it was not necessarily Augustinian versus Ockhamist or Realist versus nominalist or even via antiqua versus via moderna. Rather, it was determinist versus varying degrees of contingency. Bradwardine was the determinist and Buckingham illustrates the sliding scale of contingency.

For a good amount of this chapter Robson sets up the discussion, much as I have here. Later he turns to more text critical issues related to where the MSS were found, in whose hand, and to whom the marginalia refer or, at least, to what issues they refer. Finally, he discusses the move that occurs from Buckingham’s Sentences to his Questions.

In his Sentences, Buckingham is strongly anti-determinist. He believes God’s will is untrammeled but not determining. God is free to make beings who are without sin who are also without grace. In this framework, Buckingham uses human knowledge as the model for Divine knowledge. This makes the freedom of the will of God inherently contingent – a fact that will not allow it to be determining. In contrast, Buckingham’s Questions move from this somewhat radical contingency position to one which Robson calls “moderate predestinarianism.” (Robson:50) In this system God’s determining will complements rather than contradicts human liberty. Buckingham hopes to forestall the errors of Pelagius (the free meriting of salvation without grace), the crass indeterminism of Stoicism, and the extreme voluntarism of Scotus. Yet, Robson seems hard pressed to demonstrate how Buckingham really escapes the condemnation of Bradwardine’s De Causa Dei. In the end, Buckingham only seems to convert his early views into a tortured indeterminate determinism that seems only to give lip service to Bradwardine’s critique of contingency and human free will. In these later theses, Buckingham is shown to be at odds with Bradwardine all the while he is ostensibly supporting a more mediating position. The shibboleth that Buckingham violates is that of merit. Buckingham seems to support the notion of a merit caused by grace, but he also allows for merit that precedes grace and has grace as its reward rather than its cause. This sort of relationship of merit to grace was totally repugnant to the” Doctor Profundus.” The only thing that is proven here is that Bradwardine’s criticism of contingency was so effective that it caused Buckingham to drop his more crass version of contingency in favor of a more nuanced and weaker version of the same thing. This, in Robson’s mind, demonstrates the tumultuous theological life of the Oxford schools just a generation prior to Wyclif.

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