Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Henrik Lagerlund

Gabriel Biel

  • Pekka KärkkäinenEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-024-1151-5_177-2


Gabriel Biel (c. 1410–1495) was a theologian in Tübingen and a leader among the Brethren of Common Life. He was the most widely known representative of the late medieval via moderna, which was greatly influenced by fourteenth-century thought. He was the first professor of theology to teach the via moderna at the University of Tübingen, and he also had a remarkable impact on the Brethren of Common Life. Biel studied in Heidelberg, Erfurt, and Cologne. After graduation, he was a cathedral preacher in Mainz and joined the Brethren of Common Life before receiving a professorship of theology in Tübingen. Biel’s main works consist of a commentary on the mass, Canonis missae expositio, and a Sentences commentary, Collectorium in quattuor libros Sententiarum. Both in philosophy and in theology, he was a close but not unoriginal follower of William of Ockham. Biel’s Sentences commentary is formally an abridgement of Ockham’s commentaries, but several other authorities, including Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, Gregory of Rimini, Peter of Ailly, and John Gerson, are cited extensively. In metaphysical and epistemological views, Biel closely followed Ockham, adopting his criticism of intelligible and sensory species, but rejecting his notion of multiplicity of substantial forms. Biel’s ethics was mostly inspired by Ockham but also by Scotus and Gregory of Rimini.

Gabriel Biel was born in Speyer in about 1410. He was already an ordained minister when, in 1432, he matriculated in the faculty of arts at the University of Heidelberg. There he received the baccalaureate degree in 1435 and the master’s degree in 1438. Thereafter, he served as a master in Heidelberg; but in 1451 he took up with study of theology in Erfurt, where he matriculated in the faculty of arts. In 1453, Biel matriculated in the faculty of theology at the University of Cologne, but in 1457, he received a licentiate of theology in Erfurt, although he never earned a master’s degree.

Soon after receiving the licentiate degree, Biel moved to Mainz, where he served as a cathedral preacher and vicar for several years. In the struggle over the see of Mainz, Biel sided with Adolf of Nassau, who was appointed as archbishop by the pope. In the course of the controversy, Biel even had to flee Mainz and subsequently wrote a treatise entitled Defense of the Apostolic Obedience. During his years as a cathedral preacher, Biel joined the order of the Brethren of Common Life and subsequently stayed in Brethren Houses at Marienthal, Butzbach, and Urach. During that time, he became an influential leader among the Brethren. In 1484, Biel was appointed as professor of theology at the University of Tübingen and became the first professor to represent the via moderna on the theological faculty. In 1485 and 1489, Biel was elected Rector of the university. During his last years, Biel retired from academic life and served as provost of the Brethren House of St. Peter’s at Einsiedeln in Schönbuch, where he died in 1495.

The main corpus of Biel’s philosophical writings, most of which date back to his early years as a master in Heidelberg, has not been thoroughly studied. The focus of research has been on his mature theology, although the philosophical views of his major theological works have also attracted some attention. In his philosophical views, Biel seems to have been a close follower of Ockham. This impression may partly be due to the fact that in the first book of his Sentences commentary, which is the main source for Biel’s philosophical views, he mainly abbreviated Ockham’s more elaborate discussions. In his discussion of theological issues, Biel also utilized extensively the views of other authorities, such as John Duns Scotus, Gregory of Rimini, Peter of Ailly, John Gerson, and even Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure.

Biel based his metaphysical and epistemological views on Ockhamist conceptualism and ontological principle of parsimony. These included the views that all entities in the world are either singular substances or accidents and that there are no universal entities, but rather universals are merely accidents in the human mind. In Biel’s theory of knowledge, the starting point is found in the intuitive cognition of present singular entities based on sense perception, which are a presupposition for further cognitions. According to Biel, the mind forms universal concepts out of similarities between the concepts of singular entities, and therefore the universal concepts are not conventional, but rather natural mental signs of the extramental similarities (convenientia rerum), insofar as the mind apprehends such similarities. In accordance with Ockham, Biel rejected the notions of intelligible and sensory species as unnecessary. He also discussed the fictum theory of universal concepts adopted by early Ockham but clearly opted for Ockham’s mature theory of universal concepts as acts of thinking about many things at once.

In his psychology, Biel did not slavishly follow Ockham, although it is noteworthy that, unlike most of the contemporary proponents of the via moderna, he shared Ockham’s criticism of the species theory of cognition and even defended it with the help of a detailed analysis of the sensory process. However, following the common view of the via moderna, Biel rejected the view, shared by Ockham, of multiplicity of substantial forms in a human being. According to Biel, intellectual and sensitive souls are not really distinct entities but merely names of faculties of one, undivided intellectual soul, which is the substantial form of the human body.

Biel’s ethics is largely based on Ockham’s views. Moral qualities of the external actions are primarily judged according to their underlying intentions, which should be consonant with the will of God. While sharing much of Ockham’s ethics of divine command, Biel placed more emphasis on natural reason in agreement with Scotus and Gregory of Rimini. Therefore, Biel rejected the possibility that God would let human beings have the intention to hate God. The main undertone of Biel’s ethics still remains voluntarist and consonant with ethical positivism. According to Biel, God does not will anything because it is good or right. Furthermore, God can do something that he himself has declared to be unjust, yet whatever it is becomes morally right whenever it is done by God. While aware of the shortcomings of this position, Biel often argued for the immutability of moral order as an actually established order of creation.

According to Biel, the moral reasoning takes place through inborn faculties dedicated to this purpose: synderesis, conscience, and right reason. These faculties rely on different kinds of laws, which are hierarchically ordered under the supreme and eternal law, which is identical with God’s will. Knowledge of the eternal law is gained through three kinds of inferior laws: natural, biblical, and positive human laws. Among these, natural law has precedence, since it is directly derived from the eternal law, and its commands are known to all men through the dictates of right reason. Biel also acknowledged the possibility of an error in conscience, which delivers the final recommendation for particular actions to be done, and he tried to solve the related problem of conflicting moral precepts.



Primary Sources

  1. Biel Gabriel. (1510). Sermones. Hagenau (urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00007734-3).Google Scholar
  2. Biel Gabriel. (1968). Defensorium obedientiae apostolicae (H. A. Oberman, D. E. Zerfoss, & W. J. Courtenay, Ed. & Trans.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Biel Gabriel. (1963–1976). Canonis missae expositio (H. A. Oberman & W. J. Courtenay, Ed.). Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner.Google Scholar
  4. Biel Gabriel. (1973–1992). Collectorium circa quattuor libros Sententiarum (W. Werbeck & U. Hofmann, Ed.). Tübingen: Mohr.Google Scholar
  5. Biel Gabriel. (s.a.). Tractatus de potestate et utilitate monetarum. Oppenheim (urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00005927-1).Google Scholar

Secondary Sources

  1. Burkard, F. J. (1974). Philosophische Lehrgehalte in Gabriel Biels Sentenzenkommentar unter besonderer Berücksichtigung seiner Erkenntnislehre. Meisenheim am Glan: Anton Hain.Google Scholar
  2. Ernst, W. (1972). Gott und Mensch am Vorabend der Reformation St. Leipzig: Benno.Google Scholar
  3. Grane, L. (1962). Contra Gabrielem: Luthers Auseinandersetzung mit Gabriel Biel in der Disputatio contra scholasticam theologiam 1517. København: Gyldendal.Google Scholar
  4. Metz, D. (2001). Gabriel Biel und die Mystik. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner.Google Scholar
  5. Oberman, H. A. (1983). Harvest of medieval theology: Gabriel Biel and late medieval nominalism (3rd ed.). Durham: Labyrinth.Google Scholar

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of TheologyUniversity of HelsinkiHelsinkiFinland