Abelard on Understanding the Trinity (Notes:72)

Unlike a lot of the figures discussed in series of notes, Abelard is one of those medieval figures whose life we both know a lot about and who’s living significantly impacted his work. Born in 1079, he was the son of a minor Nobleman in Brittany. He gave up his rights as the elder son so he could become a scholar. But, while studying under a number of well-known scholars, he managed to make enemies of all of them. Essentially, Abelard was a show-off and arrogant who was openly dismissive of scholars many years his senior and in accomplishment. Soon, though, he developed a reputation of his own and set up a school; his pupils were attracted to his magnetisms and sought him out, some even camping out in the nearby countryside to be close to him. In short, his students loved him as much as his former teachers loathed him.

When in his mid-thirties, Abelard ended up in Paris teaching at the Cloister School. Inexplicitly, though, he soon fell in lust with a woman named Hellenize. Abelard was completely carried away: he abandoned all pretense of teaching or taking his students seriously and he even allowed his love songs to be sung in public. Soon, though, Hellenize was pregnant and she gave birth to a boy. Returning to Paris to try and make amends to Hellenize’s family. He said that he would marry Hellenize but only if the marriage was kept secret so as his reputation as somebody of the mind was kept intact. Unfortunately for Abelard, Hellenize did not go along with this plan: she thought that her uncle would never go along with such a plan but, more idealistically, she thought that it would mean a death of his profession—philosophy—if he were to marry her. Hellenize said that she would rather be his mistress than his wife.

But, Abelard insisted, though, and they were married. Meeting in secret, though, proved to generate difficulties with Hellenize’s uncle and so Abelard moved them to a convent in the countryside. But, even there, Abelard’s passion overtook him and they would meet in secret to fornicate wherever there was a moment of seclusion. After some ups and downs with professions, though, Abelard was castrated by henchmen under the employ of Hellenize’s uncle, who thought that Abelard was forcing her to become a nun. Once castrated, Abelard took to the monastic life and returned his dedication to the mind while Hellenize became a nun.

From this point on, Abelard and Hellenize take widely different paths. Hellenize still loved Abelard but requited that she would not speak of their affair anymore; eventually, she became head nun of her convent, though we are unsure if she ever found happiness in her profession. Abelard, meanwhile, embarked on an epic reformulation of the Christian doctrine.

Of his project, he wrote his first book in 1120, but just a year later it was condemned and he was forced to “cosign the book to the flames”. Such didn’t stop Abelard, though, who wrote a second treatise which was twice as long as the first and added a great deal more controversial material. This manuscript, though, was left unfinished as Abelard started a third treatise. It was this third treatise which “did Abelard in” as it came to the attention of the Beernaert of Cleo (?). In short, Beernaert convinced an ecclesiastical council in advance to condemn Abelard’s writings as heretical. So, Abelard appealed to the Pope and left for Rome. Though Abelard has connections in the Papal entourage, things did not go his way; in July of 1141, Pope Innocent the 2nd excommunicated Abelard and his followers. Pope ordered that Abelard be confined to a monastery and perpetual silence, which prevented him from teaching, and for his books to be burned. Thankfully, though, thanks to the intervention of Peter the Venerable, though, the excommunication was lifted, and Abelard was even able to teach again (he was even reconciled with Beernaert). Abelard would remain under Peter’s protection until his death just a year later.

When it comes to Abelard’s philosophy, though, Abelard had three main pillars of thought; one, he placed special attention on the Trinity in the context of understanding human knowledge. Two, Abelard maintained that pre-Christian philosopher recognized the Trinitarian nature of God. Not that they could have recognized it but that they did in fact recognize it, that it was possible for people to come to understand the Trinity by themselves. Third, Abelard promoted the use of philosophical techniques to defend the idea of the Trinity. Here was the idea that just because God is beyond human comprehension does not exclude sloppy thinking.

To get into a bit more detail, though.

(1)    It is difficult to make out how Abelard sees the relationship between Faith and Reason, but one can make out that he denies the possibility of any genuine conflict between the two. To Abelard, Reason is limited when it comes to thinking about God. As a result, we need to rely on authority and accept it as a fulcrum to our limitation of understanding. Abelard saw this as a counterweight to the excessive belief in the power of dialectic; of which, Abelard thought that many so-called dialecticians were merely pseudo-dialecticians. To Abelard, these people were practicing an irrational kind of rationalism because they do not acknowledge any limits on the power of human reason and any rational person would place a limit on human reason. For Abelard, we must accept things on authority before we can understand them rationally. In short, he accuses many dialecticians as rejecting authority simply because they cannot make sense of it. To Abelard, part of understanding God is using analogies, what he calls “similitudes”, that which allows us to catch a side-ways glance at a God normally beyond our understanding.

(2)    Abelard insists that the Doctrine of the Trinity can be grasped by Reason, at least to a certain extent. Abelard believed that in pre-Christian philosophers, one could grasp certain understandings of the Trinity in a kind of deflected manner, that some had grasped certain elements of the doctrine. It was this aspect which forced him to cosign his first treatise to the flames; the idea that pagan thinkers like Plato could understand select aspects of the Trinity was repulsive to many Christians and wiped away a sheen of religious exceptionalism. So, therefore in his second work, he devotes a great deal of time justifying his attention to pagan writers. Abelard says, then, that pagan writers knew this by claim of Reason. This is connected to Abelard’s stance on monastic reform; he would chastise his followers in saying that even pagans led more righteous lives than this, as Christians we must do better. Such constant nagging didn’t always go down well with his monks who, as one-story reports, tried to murder Abelard. In any case, according to Abelard, pagans knew that God was “power, wisdom, and goodness”. These three aspects were likened to the Trinity. Furthermore, these pagans knew that ‘the word’, the second person of the Trinity that is Wisdom, was ‘generated’ or ‘begotten’. Pagans also recognized the word was co-eternal to the one it was generated; Abelard, through a dubious reading of Plato, even argued that the third person, the Holy Spirit, was someone who was split, so to speak, from God. All of this would be controversial enough, but Abelard takes it a step further and claims that gentile philosophers before Christ were even ‘Saved’, that is, they were admitted into that perfect union with God by reading Paul. Abelard justified all of this by relying on the truth of illumination: if pagans had the truth, it is only because God showed it to them. Such a framework does not unduly exult human reason but gives credit to God.

(3)    When grasping the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, Abelard argues that we should not argue something we do not understand. Instead, we should work to form a rational account of the Trinity which works to dissolve its apparent paradoxes. It is here where we can approximate the use of God through various analogies and careful argumentation. In arguing this, though, Abelard must steer clear of two heresies: one, Tripheism. This is where one argues for the existence of three gods instead of the trinitarian nature of the single God split into three different but united forms. The second is Modalism, and this is where one argues that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not three distinct persons, but three different modes or ways in which God is understood or acts at different times. To Abelard, what is needed to understand the Trinity, is an account of sameness and difference. We must find how the same God can be three different persons without falling into heresy. Abelard, then, rejects Boethius’s account of sameness and difference and maintains that we must find a different, better way of accounting for sameness and difference. For Abelard, then, he has recourse to a collection of analogies: he says to think of a signet ring that somebody has used to press an image onto wax. Are the image and the wax one in the same or different? In one sense, they are the same—they are a waxen image, one would not list them as two different things—wax and an image—if one was conducting an inventory check. Yet, in another sense, they are different: after all, certain things are true of the wax which are not true of the image and vice versa. The waxen image is made from wax, but the waxen image is not made from wax; the wax has an image pressed on it but the waxen image does not have an image pressed on it. The ways in which the wax and the image are the same are what Abelard calls “essential sameness”; the ways in which the wax and image are different, is what he calls “difference in property”. So, taking this analogy, we can apply it to the Trinity. The three persons are essentially the same, just as the wax and image are one concrete item, but father, son, and Holy Spirit are one concrete item—God. Just as the wax and image differ in property, so does the Trinity. For example, something is true of the Son which is not true of the Father, namely, that the Son is begotten while the holy ghost is preceding.