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Lombard Provided a Road-Map to the Arguments of Earlier Theologians

Pierre Lombard, famous for his Sentences.

PETER LOMBARD wrote a book of theology so useful that four thousand other theologians commented extensively on it throughout the ages. These included some of the most famous theologians of all time—Albertus Magnus, Duns Scotus, and Thomas Aquinas, to name just three. Luther wrote notes on it and Calvin quoted it dozens of times. Libri quatuor sententiarum (Four Books of Opinions) is usually known as the Sentences. It was the most widely known textbook of theology in the Middle Ages. 

Scholars of the twelfth century, religious or otherwise relied heavily on reading previous authorities. To make the task of professors and students easier, Lombard gathered key selections from authorities such as Augustine, Ambrose, Hilary and Jerome into one work. It was a groundbreaking attempt to create a centralized “database” of all Christian teaching. 

Lombard arranged quotations from the Bible and the opinions of the church Fathers into four parts or books. The first book dealt with the Trinity, the second with creation and the fall, the third with the incarnation, and the last with the sacraments and eschatology (“last things” and the end of history). Where authorities disagreed, he often analyzed their language and suggested a resolution between them. But in some cases he simply stated the positions of the church fathers and made no attempt to harmonize their differences. By leaving questions open, he gave teachers and students the opportunity to suggest their own answers. That is why so many theologians wrote commentaries on the Sentences. 

Lombard sought to be insightful and informative in untangling theological problems, such as whether or not Father and Son both contain the Divine Essence. However, to anyone not immersed in medieval theology, his “clarifications” are hard reading indeed:

Thus we also say, that the Divine Essence did not beget the Essence. For since a one and a most high, certain thing is the Divine Essence, if the Divine Essence has begotten the Essence, the same thing has begotten its very self, which entirely cannot be; but rather the Father alone has begotten the Son, and from the Father and the Son the Holy Spirit proceeds.

In trying to resolve knotty differences between church fathers, Lombard knew he risked straying into heresy. In fact, some opponents even accused him of doing so. One complaint against him was that he stressed the divinity of Christ over his humanity. However, the fourth Lateran council (1215) upheld his orthodoxy. Despite those who spoke against the Sentences, it was admired for its brilliant organization. Lombard’s work was the standard text in universities until the sixteenth century. Following the Reformation and Enlightenment, scholarly approaches changed.

One of the Sentences’ most far-reaching influence was on sacramental doctrine. Lombard defined a sacrament as both a symbol of grace and a means to grace, listing seven church rites that fulfilled his definition—baptism, confirmation, Eucharist/Holy Communion/the Lord’s Supper), penance (confessing a sin and receiving a discipline for it), extreme unction (anointing with oil as a symbol of repentance and healing when death is thought to be near), holy orders (ordination), and matrimony. Four centuries after his death, which came on this day, 20 July 1164,* the Council of Trent made Lombard’s position on the sacraments the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. 

Dan Graves


*Encyclopedia Americana, 1956, gives this date, although other authorities leave the matter open to question.

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For more on Lombard, read "Seeking and teaching virtue" in Christian History #139 Hallowed Halls

and "A Gallery of Scholastic Superstars" in Christian History #73, Thomas Aquinas

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