A Hagiography of Blessed John Duns Scotus
Blessed John Duns Scotus today has more influence on contemporary thought than any other medieval figure. He has also profoundly shaped Franciscan metaphysics and theology; arguably, only Francis himself has exerted more influence
on how we understand God, creation, and human nature.
John was born in 1266 at Duns in the county of Berwick, Scotland, and was descended
from a wealthy farming family. He was identified as John Duns Scotus to indicate his homeland: Scotia is the Latin name for Scotland. He became a friar minor under the direction of his uncle Elias Duns, superior of a friary at Dumfries. He was eventually sent to study at Oxford and Paris, the two leading centers of theological study in the world at that time. In 1291 John was ordained. He continued to study at Paris until 1297, when he returned to England, teaching at Oxford and Cambridge. In 1301 he returned to Paris to complete the requirements for a doctorate. In 1303 he publicly sided with Pope Boniface VIII against King Philip the Fair; consequently, he had to return to England once more on three-days’ notice to escape royal punishment, remaining there until 1305.
John’s teachings are notoriously complex, intricate, and challenging. Drawing deeply
from the Augustinian and Franciscan traditions, he also assimilated insights from Aquinas, Aristotle, and Islamic philosophy to create a highly original synthesis. In terms of metaphysics, he developed at least claims with strong contemporary relevance. The first is the univocity of being. This is the notion that both God and humanity share the same being, albeit different modalities--infinitely in the case of God and finitely
in human beings. Thus, it is possible to say that God and humans share, analogously, truth, beauty, goodness, and unity. The other salient metaphysical position concerns his interpretation of haecceity (Latin for "thisness"). Haecceity is the property or set of properties that define an individual thing, thus distinguishing an individual thing from others of its type or category. As Franciscan theologian Mary Beth Ingham explains in her work Scotus for Dunces: An Introduction to the Subtle Doctor, John concluded that haecceity is an ineffable part of any individual thing that is nonetheless the foundation for our knowing what makes it what it is.
This doctrine has important theological implications. The Scotist view of haecceity, when applied to creation, yields the view that from eternity God has held in the divine mind all created things in their distinctive "thisness." From every grain of sand and blade of grass to every star in the universe, to every human being, God's love results in a world filled with absolutely unique creations, each one being intrinsically good and intended by God to achieve its full haecceity. Applied to you and me, this means that God creates each of us in our individuality as an expression of infinite divine love.
The primacy of Christ is another of John’s central theological claims. Under the Scotist view of the Incarnation, God had intended from eternity to reveal to humanity His own being most fully in Christ, instead of as a response to Adamic sin. It is important to note that this intention is not grounded in a foreknowledge of that sin. That is, even if Adam had not sinned, the Incarnation would nonetheless have still happened because the Word becoming flesh is not in any since a response to the brokenness of the human condition. (Otherwise, God's freedom would be limited by human actions, John reasoned, which is impossible in that God is omnipotent.) It is part of God's eternal and overarching desire to be fully present in and with humanity. John is also responsible for developing arguments for the Immaculate Conception of Mary; his reasoning was relied upon by Pope Piux IX in establishing this claim as dogma in 1854.
In 1307 John Duns Scotus was sent to teach in a Franciscan school in Cologne, Germany. Less than a year later, he suddenly fell ill and died on November 8, 1308. He is recognized as a doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, being honored with the designation Doctor Subtilis, or Subtle Doctor, due to the intricacy and nuance of his arguments. . Beginning in the 19th century, advocates sought his beatification by Rome on the basis of a cultus immemorabilis (a reverencing of ancient standing). Pope John Paul II declared John venerable in 1991, and effectively beatified him in 1993 when he recognized John’s liturgical cult.
Blessed John Duns Scotus, 1266-1308, a Franciscan theologian, philosopher, and teacher. He was known by his peers and students as a gentle and humble friar.
And may you, O Lord, have mercy upon us.
Thanks be to God.