Soundings, Think

A model scholar and theologian

Peter Lombard (1096-1161)

“Peter Lombard serves as an example of a theologian who is faithful to both Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.”

PETER LOMBARD is without doubt one of the most influential theologians in the Middle Ages. Born in Novara, Italy, he first studied theology at Bologna and Rheims. It was Bernard of Clairvaux who encouraged the young student to continue his theological studies in Paris. In Paris, Peter became associated with the famous school of Hugh of St. Victor, which deeply influenced his theology.

Upon completing his studies, Peter was appointed to the chair of theology at the famous school of Notre Dame. At Notre Dame, Peter quickly rose in the ranks of the ecclesiastical hierarchy even while he served as professor of theology: he became a canon in 1145, sub-deacon in 1148, deacon in 1150 and archdeacon in 1156. In 1159, he was enthroned Bishop of Paris, but died in 1161 after occupying the office for less than two years. However, he is remembered for his achievements as a scholar and theologian, not for his work as a cleric.

Peter was in many ways a model scholar and theologian of his time. Unfortunately, most of his scholarly works are lost. But those that are extant clearly show him to be a careful and meticulous scholar, even if he did not possess the originality or creativity of other theologians after him like omas Aquinas. Peter was both a biblical exegete and a systematic theologian. His biblical studies influenced his theology, and his dogmatic works provided the framework for his interpretation of the Bible. His surviving exegetical works include the Psalms and the Pauline epistles, called the Collectanea. As a scholar who was actively involved in the Church, he was also a consummate preacher and catechist. Sadly, scholars are able to retrieve only 30 of his sermons delivered at Notre Dame.

The most significant accomplishment of Peter Lombard is of course the Four Books of Sentences, his work on systematic theology. In this work, he adopts a genre of theological writing that was widely used in his day. e Sentences is a textbook on theology that assembles the authoritative works of theologians on a given topic as a form of compendium. Excerpts of the writings of these theologians are strung together to support the position of the author of the textbook, and to refute opposing views. e retrieval of these sources from the writings of various theologians requires considerable erudition and knowledge on the part of the compiler and author of the textbook.

Peter is reputed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the ancient sources, and this is clearly seen in how they are employed in the Sentences. But he was not merely a compiler and synthesiser of theological sources. In arranging the sources in a particular way, he presents a clear case for the position he holds on the great themes of the Christian faith. Scholars have found his views to be moderate, serving as the via media between extremes.

The Sentences deal with the usual topics in systematic theology. In the first book, Peter deals with the doctrine of God, particularly with the concept of God as Triune comprising three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. e second book focuses on the doctrine of creation. It includes discussions on the doctrine of angels (angelology) and important themes like sin and grace.

In the third book, he develops his Christology, which many later theologians took issue with because of its Docetic tendencies: his understanding of the Person of Christ tends to emphasise the deity of the incarnate Son while downplaying his humanity. In the fourth book, he turns his attention to the sacraments and the doctrine of the last things (eschatology). He developed a powerful sacramental theology in the last book of Sentences, which played a significant role in the decision of the Church to fix the number of sacraments at seven. The Sentences mark the culmination of his achievement as a theologian.

Mention has already been made of Peter’s contribution to sacramental
theology in Book IV of the Sentences. Since Augustine in the 5th century, the Church has defined sacrament as the “visible sign of an invisible grace”. In the 11th century, Hugh of St. Victor extended this definition by insisting that the sacrament does not only make visible God’s invisible grace, but it also mediates that which it signifies. is means that the sacrament does not only point to something, but it makes that which it points to present. As that which mediates God’s grace, the sacrament may therefore be described as an efficacious sign.

Peter took up this insight and argued that the sacraments objectively convey God’s grace. He also boldly plunged into the intense debate on the type of Christ’s body present in the host through transubstantiation in the Eucharist. Is it Christ’s historical or resurrected body that is present in the host after the latter is consecrated at the altar? Peter maintained that it is the historical body of Christ that is present.

The success of Peter Lombard’s Sentences is due mainly to his disciples – Peter the “Devourer” (of knowledge, not food) and Peter of Poitiers – who used them for their theology courses. As a result, the Sentences has become the standard textbook for theology courses in monasteries and universities throughout medieval Europe, and continued to be the main theological resource for four centuries. It was only in the 17th century that Peter Lombard’s Sentences as the standard textbook was eclipsed by the growing popularity of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica.

Peter Lombard serves as an example of a theologian who is a careful and judicious scholar. But most importantly, he serves as an example of a theologian who is faithful to both Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.