Surprised by Scotus

Thomas M. Ward’s Ordered by Love: An Introduction to John Duns Scotus helps clear away some misconceptions about the 14th-century Franciscan friar and helps readers appreciate his important  contributions to philosophical and theological thought.


Have you ever had an opinion of someone or something, perhaps informed by little, if any real substantive evidence, only, upon actually learning about that person or thing, that you were terribly, and perhaps even culpably misinformed?

If we’re honest about being on an intellectual journey, rather than having already definitely arrived at a destination, I think we should all have those moments now and again. Otherwise, we’ll suffer from an arrogance and rigidity that’s liable to impede, if not erode the well-being of our minds and hearts, stifling our growth in virtue.

That’s certainly what happened to the Jewish religious leadership upon encountering Jesus of Nazareth. The chief priests and the Pharisees scoffed at Him and His humble background, declaring in John 7:52: “Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee.” (They were actually even wrong about that, Jonah was from Galilee). Indeed, they thought so little of Him that they preferred His death over the murdering insurrectionist Barabbas (Lk 23-18-19).

It’s an extreme example, I’ll submit — not all intellectual laziness is akin to betraying Our Lord. We need not look far to find examples closer to home. I’ll offer one example for myself, occasioned by Thomas M. Ward’s book Ordered by Love: An Introduction to John Duns Scotus.

I’ll confess that prior to reading Ward’s book, I’m not sure I had ever read anything by the Franciscan friar Scotus, who died in 1308. If I did, perhaps in some undergraduate religious studies course, the memory of Scotus’s brilliance has long since vanished. Though Scotus was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1993, I’m guessing most Catholics share my ignorance — I couldn’t find a single example in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that cites his work. The “subtle doctor,” as he’s called, is a moniker true in more ways than one!

If anything, I’m more familiar with the work of one of Scotus’s pupils: the notoriously hubristic William of Occam (d. 1347). Occam is known, not only for his “razor,” but for his teachings on nominalism and univocity, both of which in turn influenced Occam’s most famous intellectual descendant. His name was Martin Luther, and he claimed that he “absorbed completely” the Occamist school.

Nominalism is the idea that universals are not objective; univocity is the idea that God and creation both in some sense share the idea of “being.” Both of these, as I argue in my book The Obscurity of Scripture, have tended to cause all manner of philosophical and theological problems within Protestantism. Nominalism undermines Catholic teaching regarding the unity of God and creation, as well as natural theology; univocity tends to lead its adherents to view God and man as existing on the same metaphysical plane, and thus in competition with one another. This is why, for example, Luther believed salvation must be wholly God’s work.

Because of this, it’s easy (if a bit intellectually lazy) to blame Scotus for Luther’s philosophical errors. If we can trace a line from Luther to Occam, and then from Occam to Scotus, I (and many other Catholic writers and thinkers) have surmised, then surely the Franciscan Scotsman must also be philosophically compromised. Ward’s treatment of Scotus helps us see why that view is at least simplistic, and perhaps even erroneous.

Scotus, writes Ward, “was ambitious in his efforts, but always deferential to the Church’s teaching.” He cites Franciscan Allan B. Wolter’s description of the seventeenth century as the “golden age of Scotism” in Catholic universities, and seventeenth-century Cistercian John Caramuel’s observation that at the time the Scotist school was more popular than all others, including the Thomists, combined. Nevertheless, since Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Aeternei Patris, the influence of Scotus has been eclipsed by that of Aquinas.

Yet there is much overlap between Scotus and Aquinas. Consider Scotus’s argument that unaided human reason can perceive what he calls a “Triple Primacy,” the idea that there is a First Cause of everything besides itself; that there is an Ultimate End of everything in the universe; and there is a Most Perfect nature possible. Anyone familiar with Aquinas’s “Five Ways” will recognize those three proofs for God’s existence, which Scotus argues leads to a “most fertile” conclusion.

Scotus also offered early support for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which was a somewhat controversial thing to do in thirteenth century Europe. A few years after Scotus publicly defended the doctrine, Paris theologian John of Pouilly darkly suggested that those who endorsed the Immaculate Conception should be answered “not with argument but in some other way.” Yet Scotus’s argument in favor of the Immaculate Conception appears in Pope Pius IX’s 1854 declaration of the dogma Ineffabilis Deus.

Ward also argues that Scotus’s doctrine of univocity has been misunderstood. He explains: “Whereas Scotus’s actual view is that the concept or term ‘being’ is used the same way for both God and creatures, others have claimed that his view instead is that God and creatures are beings in the same way.” Scotus would insist that God is infinite being, whereas any creature is finite being; nor does God and His creation in any way share being, though creatures participate in God’s being as effects participate in their causes (that, too, sounds like Aquinas).

Though Aquinas rejects univocity in favor of the analogy of being (i.e. creation has being in a sense that is analogical, and not identical to God, since God is being itself), Ward argues that Scotus did not define univocity in the way that his errant interpreters did. In effect, and as Catholic philosopher Edward Feser explains in his review of Ordered by Love, Ward believes critics of Scotus are wrongly reading a metaphysical implication out of a semantic ­thesis, “a claim about the meanings of our words rather than about the nature of the reality to which those words refer.” Ward also argues that Scotus believed in realism (as did Aquinas), and not the nominalism of Occam and later Protestants who are understood as following in the Occamist school.

As Feser acknowledges, Ward’s admittedly abbreviated treatment of these debates (it is an introduction after all), is unlikely to resolve the now centuries-long debates between Thomists and Scotists. Nevertheless, the success of Ordered by Love is to understand why we should understand Scotus not simply as a foil to Aquinas, but as an important, influential thinker in his own right.

“Purity of heart is the will’s freedom from all disordered delight,” the Scottish Blessed wrote in his Ordinatio. That’s about a good summation of virtue as anything one will find in the Summa Theologiae. And one that should influence our treatment not only of Scotus, but anyone whom we are inclined to think we know better than we actually do.

Ordered by Love: An Introduction to John Duns Scotus
By Thomas M. Ward
Angelico Press, 2022
Paperback/Hardcover, 174 pages

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About Casey Chalk 35 Articles
Casey Chalk is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.


  1. I set up a bookmark a while back in my browser for book titles. Books get featured often at CWR and elsewhere and I can’t get to them right off but can keep track of them with a listing. Later when I have to look for new reading I can simply scan through the bookmark. Thanks.

    At one time I was tracking titles using FIREFOX Pocket but later the browser updated and wiped out the Pocket.

  2. Scotus also proposes that the Incarnation event could have happened even in the absence of a sin “original” to ourselves (rather than the Creator) and requiring a divine Redemption…

    The Rev. J.B. Carol, O.F.M, in his exhaustive “Why Jesus Christ?” (Trinity Communications, 1986), summarizes: “…Adam and the permission of his sin are willed by God FOR THE SAKE OF CHRIST [italics]—not the other way around” (p. 473); “…we always seem to arrive at the same conclusion: the existence of Christ and Mary was not contingent on the Fall as foreseen through the scientia visionis [historical events like the Fall as already known by God’s eternal vision]” (p.147).

    Meaning (as a non-theologian, I hope I have this right!) that from “the beginning” the coming of Christ in time is a superabundance of divine charity, more than only a contingent act of damage control for the Fall. Perhaps only the bread would be consecrated at the Mass—since the sacrificial separation of blood (the consecrated wine) would not be necessary?

    About the partly congruent theologies Aquinas and Scotus, Carol’s volume includes at the end 208 pages of detailed documentation of support from 307 Thomists (!) and 1,179 Scotists, from the 13th through the 20th centuries.

    • Thank you Beaulieu. Working with what you provide here, I find this from Duns Scotus to be too speculative –

      ‘ Scotus also proposes that the Incarnation event could have happened even in the absence of a sin “original” to ourselves (rather than the Creator) and requiring a divine Redemption… ‘

      The same philosopher that “demotes” abstraction (universals?) seems to get snagged on it. Whereas the points are better treated with in Aquinas. Scotus’ thought in this area could be honed better by admitting delicacy in Aquinas.

      It’s a good lesson, I do not mean not to canonize him.

      I know very little on Duns Scotus but allow me a little expansion, albeit amateur.

      First, theology can get too abstracted, that’s true. It can relate with the old man hankering after his own glories and it can happen in these dimensions as well. And it slows thought and dims perception.

      Indeed we can see it in our own selves.

      Second, Man’s own history itself informs the truth of things, namely, on original sin and Incarnation of the Word. Without the Redemption, all would be lost; and it was and is not God Who is ever bound by this, only Man.

      Philosophy and theology also are bound! We could never get them right except for Redemption.

      Third, nothing substitutes the praise due to God. Praise God. Redemption doesn’t return Adam to his original self, rather, Adam is raised up higher than he had been for the exaltation of God in the Son. Then too, philosophy and theology now have this content and purpose.

      Fourth, there is no need for us to have everything in God “squared” to some original stasis (another contradiction). Redemption, again, is in Christ.

  3. Scotus was not a nominalist but he was a voluntarist. His defence of Divine Freedom was such that God must be free from necessity. Hence, there is no getting away from it, Scotus could argue that should God command the blessed to hate him then because what God commands is good, and God is free to command otherwise. (I paraphrase but correctly I believe). I agree with Thomas Williams reading of Scotus, that nothing constrains Scotus’ God, His Divine Freedom.

    Nominalism followed from voluntarist notions of Divine Freedom and not vice versa. Thus, Ockham follows the voluntarist path and merely brings it to its full conclusion with nominalism and similar positions such as conceptualism.

    I believe voluntarism to be an error, for as Thomas Aquinas argued, that should God need to move discursively in thought from one position to another (as I read it, in order to express Divine Freedom) then Aquinas is clear we are not talking about God at all, but something philosophical. Further, as Augustine said, if God needs to do otherwise in order to be free then God is not free, for in truth God can only do the good.

    I agree with Thomas Williams, that much ink is spilled trying to redeem Scotus’ thought. He is a voluntarist and it can be argued strongly that voluntarism is alien to the Christian Catholic notion of Divine Freedom following from Augustine and continued by Aquinas.

    Pope Benedict rightly threw some shots over the bow vis a vis Scotus in his Regensburg speech.

    • I largely agree with William’s reading of Scotus (although Williams would certainly reject the notion that Scotus’s theology need to be “redeemed”). However, Scotus doesn’t understand the will’s freedom to require discursive reasoning, instead he argues that the will is free in that whatever it chooses is synchronically contingent because it could be otherwise. This doctrine is also certainly in Aquinas, even if it is not distinguished as sharply as it is in Scotus.

  4. My undergrad alma mater, the College of St. Francis, supposedly was the only Catholic institution of that time that taught Scotistic metaphysics rather than Thomistic. About all that I recall from two semesters of Metaphysics (brilliantly taught, by the way) is the use of Disjunctives to prove the existence of God by starting from one’s own perceptions of one’s one self rather than perceptions of the external world. We were also taught that Christ and Mary were willed from all eternity and not a Plan B after the Fall of Man. Finally, it was suggested that a major reason for the triumph of St. Thomas’s thought was the clarity of his writing. Scotus is said to have written difficult Latin “with a Scottish accent”. Back then, there was no critical edition of Scotus that would facilitate study of his work

  5. I’m a dyed in the wool Thomist, but I’m glad to see that Scotus is getting the acknowledgement he deserves. Studying Scotus in graduate school, it became immediately clear to me that however much I might disagree with him, this was one of the greatest Catholic theologians to ever live and that he needed to be acknowledged as such. However, I think the same is true of Ockham. When you take the time to read Ockham, you should realize that he is an absolute master of Catholic philosophy and logical argumentation and you must take him seriously rather dismissing him on ideological grounds. It’s true that Luther himself was an ockhamist, but I think whatever connection there might be between Ockham and Lutheran theology is much weaker than generally thought. After all, the vast majority of the early Lutheran theologians were realists, not Ockhamists.

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