Peter Abelard 21 April 1142

The "heavenly birthday" of Anselm is also that of Peter Abelard, a brilliant lecturer, debater, and philosopher of the following generation. Anselm and Abelard are often regarded as two poles in Christian understanding of the Atonement (see articles cited in the entry for Anselm). (Note: In books and articles about Abelard, you may find references to his dealings, not always friendly, with a scholar named Anselm of Laon. This man should not be confused with Anselm of Canterbury.)

Pierre du Pallet (who while at college took the nickname "Abelard" as his surname) was born in 1079 at Palets, a Breton town near Nantes, of parents who belonged to the minor nobility. His lifetime coincides with the great era of Gothic cathedral-building in France and elsewhere, and with the rise of the great medieval universities at Paris, Chartres, Bologna, Oxford, and elsewhere. Abelard from his earliest years showed an aptitude and inclination for an academic career, and as a young man entered the University of Paris, where he rapidly acquired a reputation for intelligence, wit, debating skill, arrogance, and embarrassing his professors.

In his day, theologians tended to prove their points chiefly by quoting statements from the Church Fathers. Abelard produced a book called Sic Et Non ("Yes and No"), in which he took numerous theological issues and produced quotations from the Fathers on one side, set next to quotations from the Fathers on the other side. He then proceeded to reconcile the contradictions, pointing out that language is ambiguous and depends on context, and that statements that appear to answer the same question "Yes" and "No" may on closer examination turn out to be answering different questions.

The great philosophical dispute of the day concerned Universals. We say that Citation, Secretariat, and Man-o-War, are all horses. One group of philosophers (then called "Realists" but now called "Idealists", and taking their cue from Plato) said that there is an objectively existing Something that the aforesaid C, S, and MoW all have in common: namely, their equine nature. A second group of philosophers (then called "Nominalists" but now called "Realists", and taking their cue from Aristotle) said that it was silly to assert the existence of anything here except the concrete individual particular objects called C, S, and MoW, and the name "horse" which we agree to give to them all. Hence the competing slogans, "Universals are Real" and "Universals are Names." When Abelard appeared on the scene, it was dominated by Realists. He took the Nominalist side, with modifications that enabled him to sidestep the standard realist objections, and his skill in debate won him many admirers. (He tells us himself that he mopped up the floor with his opponents, and silenced or convinced all his professors, but that may be a teeny bit exaggerated.) For background material, the reader is referred to Chapters 14 to 16 of Henry Adams' book Mont-Saint-Michel And Chartres. For evidence that the question can still rouse passions today, the reader is referred to Ayn Rand's An Introduction To Objectivist Epistemology, available in paperback at your local bookstore or library.

For many years he found his chief joy in philosophical analysis and debate, but then personal considerations intervened. He saw a young girl named Heloise, and fell in love with her. He managed to get himself accepted as a boarder at the house of her uncle, who was the guardian of Heloise and a great admirer of Abelard. Abelard and Heloise became physically intimate. Now Abelard was not a priest or monk or otherwise sworn to celibacy. However, he was a canon of Notre Dame Cathedral, a necessary part of his being a lecturer at the Cathedral School, and this meant that if he got married he would lose his job and his professorship. When Heloise became pregnant, Abelard wanted to marry her, but she argued that he was a great philosopher, destined to change the intellectual history of the world, and that his work was far too important to be imperilled by the consequences of marriage. Eventually, they got married, but secretly. (Abelard, characteristically, named the baby "Astrolabe".) There was now a problem. In order to keep the uncle happy, Abelard had to tell him that they were married. In order to keep his job, Abelard had to tell everyone else that they were not. Eventually, the uncle decided that Abelard was lying to him and had ruined his niece and was preparing to abandon her. In rage, he hired a band of cutthroats to seize Abelard and castrate him, which they did. Heloise then went into a convent and became a nun, and eventually the abbess, and lived a most exemplary and chaste life thereafter, although she did continue to exchange love letters with Abelard. Abelard for his part determined to become a monk and entered the Abbey of St. Denis, but he and his fellow monks did not agree; and after a while parted by mutual consent. Abelard went back to lecturing. (Astrolabe was adopted by Abelard's sister.)

He wrote a book on the Trinity, called Theologia, and it aroused considerable controversy, although his opponents had trouble finding specific statements in it that they could prove to be heretical. The problems, as nearly as I can determine were two. (1) The application of his Nominalist views to the doctrine of the Trinity seemed to imply that the Three Persons of the Trinity had a real existence, but that the One God was only an abstraction. And this his opponents found heretical. (2) His book, and his general attitude, did not seem to allow for any mystery in the Trinity or in the nature of God. He seemed to be saying that if only one was a sufficiently clever fellow, such as Abelard, one could quite easily arrive at a complete understanding of every aspect of God's nature, just by a little thoughtful analysis. And this his opponents found cheeky.

His opponents arranged for a council at Soissons, chaired by the Papal Legate, at which his book was to be examined. Given Abelard's reputation as a cunning debater who could tie anyone in knots, his opponents were unwilling to debate him straightforwardly, and finally persuaded the Legate that the mere fact that Abelard had been circulating the book to the general public without first subjecting it to peer review was a sufficient reason to condemn the book. The book was accordingly burned, and Abelard left in disgrace. He was sent to the Abbey of St. Medard, but then back to his own Abbey of St. Denis. Here he got into trouble by pointing out a passage in the writings of Bede which questioned the tradition that St Denis (or Dionysius) of Paris, for whom the Abbey was named, was identical with the author of certain very highly regarded works of mystical theology (On The Divine Names and other works), and also with the Athenian convert of the Apostle Paul who is mentioned in Acts 17:34. This created such an uproar that he left the monastery and built himself a private chapel, at which he soon began to give lectures and acquired pupils. Again he got into trouble, since he had dedicated the chapel to the Comforter ("PARACLETE", see John 14:16,26), and it was objected that there was no precedent for dedicating a chapel to the Holy Ghost. He replied, with typical overkill, that in the first place there was nothing wrong with dedicating a chapel to the Holy Ghost, and in the second place, when he said "Comforter" he was referring to Christ, that the title of PARACLETE is not exclusive to the Third Person of the Trinity, since Jesus expressly calls Him "another Conforter."

He was offered a position as head of the monastery of Saint-Gildas-de-Rhuys, in Brittany, and he took it. But it turned out that the monks had expected that he would be very lax in enforcing the monastic rules, and he was instead quite strict. So they attempted to poison him, and he left. Meanwhile, the convent where Heloise was prioress had lost its lease, so Abelard went back to his private chapel and invited Heloise and her nuns to join him there. Some persons thought this arrangement suspicious, but he argued that his status as a eunuch placed him above suspicion. A few years later we find him out of retirement and lecturing again.

But there was fresh trouble ahead. Until now, Abelard had had the friendship and protection of Suger, Abbot of Saint Denis, and of the Pope and of the King of France (Louis VI). However, in 1137 the King died, and the monk Bernard of Clairvaux had become perhaps more influential than the Pope. And Bernard had no doubt that Abelard was totally wrong and a danger to the faith. He had written Sic Et Non, a book clearly intended to make the Fathers look as if they did not know how to express themselves clearly. He had written a book on the Trinity that smacked of tritheism. He had shown himself most deceitful and untrustworthy in the matter of Heloise. And, above all, he had written a book called Expositio in Epistolam ad Romanos ("Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans"), in which he had expressed views on the Atonement which seemed to Bernard to strike at the roots of the Christian faith. Anselm of Canterbury, a little over a generation earlier, had written that Christ came to offer a payment or satisfaction for their sins by suffering and dying in their place. Abelard, on the other hand, wrote that Christ came to win men's hearts by an example of reconciling love. Bernard was convinced that this was to deny the objective efficacy of the Atonement, and thus to deny the Atonement altogether.

Abelard was summoned to the Council of Sens in 1141, expecting to debate the matter with Bernard, only to find that the Council had already decided to condemn him and would not even permit him to speak in his own defense. He was commanded to write no more, and his books were burned. He undertook to journey to Rome and present his case there. On the way, he collapsed and took refuge at the Abbey of Cluny, where he remained under the protection of Peter the Venerable, one of the few men of that day who could stand up to Bernard of Clairvaux, to whom in fact he had once written: "You perform all the difficult religious duties; you fast, you watch, you suffer; but you will not endure the easy ones--you do not love." Abbot Peter persuaded Abelard to give up the struggle, and to leave the future of theology to the theologians of the future. Abelard remained at Cluny for a while and then was brought by friends to the priory of St. Marcel (a daughter house of Cluny), where he died 21 April 1142.

The Church has never quite known what to make of Abelard. He was, in both senses, a loose can(n)on. He was a man of spectacular gifts, and conspicuous sins. He fell into the sin of fornication. He was severely punished for it (deprived of the means whereby he had committed it) and he repented. He fell into the far more serious sin of intellectual pride, delighting in using his tongue as a weapon, a sword with which to skewer others and leave them wriggling helplessly. He was severely punished for it (forcibly silenced, deprived of the means whereby he had committed it) and he repented. His speculations have made many thoughtful Christians wary, uncertain where they might lead, and thinking them likely to lead to an explaining away of the fundamentals of the Christian faith. On the other hand, they have made many thoughtful Christians grateful to him for giving them a deeper understanding of, and firmer belief in, the fundamentals of the Christian faith. His name does not appear on any Church Calendar that I know of. Perhaps that is a decision that ought to be reconsidered.

A great deal of Abelard's writing has been preserved, including not only his formal treatises on logic and theology, but also many sermons, poems, and letters, including his love letters to Heloise and hers to him.

written by James Kiefer


Lord God of truth and love, who called Peter Abelard to your service, and endowed him with many excellent gifts: grant that we may seek diligently for the truth in our several callings, and may learn to love the truth more than our own cleverness. When we are wrong, grant that we may accept correction from others gladly and without resentment. When others are wrong and will hear us, grant us the grace to guide them gently, without gloating or patronizing or officiousness. When they are wrong and will not hear us, grant us the most precious gift of silence. Grant us fairness and honesty, justice and respect, in our dealings with all persons, and especially with those whom we love, and those who love us. Preserve us from using them as means rather than respecting them as ends. We are taught by Our Lord Jesus Christ that he, being lifted up, will draw all men unto himself. Grant that we, beholding his torn and bleeding hands stretched out to us in love, may find our hard hearts softened, and our stubborn pride brought low, and our rebellious wills tamed, by his gracious invitation; and that his love for us may call forth in us an answering love for him, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.