Abelard and Theology

  • Marcia L. Colish
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


As a theologian no less than as a logician, Peter Abelard has been hailed as the father of scholasticism. Both in the rules for critiquing authorities laid out at the beginning of his Sic et non and in his challenge in the Dialogus, that believers need to bolster their creeds with rational arguments, he takes to the field as the emblematic opponent of Bernard of Clairvaux, their standoff representing the last ditch effort of monastic obscurantism to halt the advance of scholastic enlightenment. In this essay, I wish to question this standard picture of Abelard the theologian. Despite his insistence on the need to apply reason and critical analysis to the Christian tradition, his project turns out to be better stated in theory than it was worked out in actual practice. And, in some of the substantive areas where he is deemed the most radical, he emerges as closer to the theological mainstream than is often appreciated.


Twelfth Century Christian Tradition Secondary Literature Consensus Position Fall Humanity 
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  1. 2.
    Peter Abelard, Ethics, ed. and trans. David E. Luscombe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    Peter Abelard, Sic et non, éd. Blanche B. Boyer and Richard McKeon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), prologus.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    see Marcia L. Colish, Peter Lombard, 2 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 1:51 n40.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    The various references in this section are summarized in Colish, Peter Lombard 1, pp. 305–319. See more recently, Barbara Newman, God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), ch. 2.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    Nancy van Deusen and Marcia L. Colish, “Ex utroque et in utroque: Promissa mundo gaudia, Electrum, and the Sequence,” in The Place of the Psalms in the Intellectual Culture of the Middle Ages, ed. Nancy van Deusen (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999), pp. 114–30.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    See Marcia L. Colish, “The Virtuous Pagan: Dante and the Christian Tradition,” in The Unbounded Community: Papers on Christian Ecumenism in Honor of Jaroslav Pelikan, ed. William Caferro and Duncan G. Fisher (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 46–54, 59–61.Google Scholar
  7. 22.
    M.B. Pranger, “Elective Affinities: Love, Hatred, Playfulness, and the Self in Bernard and Abelard,” in Medieval and Renaissance Humanism: Rhetoric, Representation, and Reform, ed. Stephen Gersh and Bert Roest (Leiden: Brill, 2003), pp. 55–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 23.
    Kilian Walsh and Irene Edmonds, in Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, 4 vols. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1971–1980), 1:150.Google Scholar

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© Stephanie Hayes-Healy 2005

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  • Marcia L. Colish

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