Exploring the Connections between Metaphysics and Political Thought in the Age of Wyclif and Gerson

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Exploring the Connections between Metaphysics and Political Thought in the Age of Wyclif and Gerson

Lecture by Alexander Russell,

Given at the University of Toronto, November 21, 2012

Alexander Russell, an Associate Fellow at the Renaissance Centre, University of Warwick and a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto, spoke about his preliminary research into the intersections of medieval theology, philosophy and conciliarism. In particular, he focuses on how important late medieval thinkers such as John Wyclif (c. 1320 – 1384) and Jean Gerson (1363–1429) understood metaphysics and how this had an instrumental effect on their political thought.

The first portion of Russell’s talk focused on John Wyclif philosophical and ecclesiological ideas, and on how could change within the Catholic church be justified. This was an important issue at the time, as the church was undergoing a Papal Schism from 1378 to 1417, in which two men simultaneously claimed to be the true pope. This situation caused deep anxiety within the church.

Wyclif defends the unity of the church, and puts forward the notion that Jesus Christ, not the Pope, is the single head of the church. He sees Christianity as a continuum, made up of all the pre-destined souls of the faithful, past and present. The English theologian said this continuum was indivisible, as Christ’s body existed across time and space and that the Bible itself was eternally valid.




Wyclif underscores his view that the Pope could not be the head of the church by noting that if all of the predestined souls existed in time and space, it meant that there would be hundreds of Popes throughout time who could make the claim of being the head. Wyclif finds that the Pope’s authority only comes from God’s grace, since he is otherwise just an equal member of the righteous.

Russell notes that Wyclif’s ideas had an important influence on medieval European theologians, but church leaders rejected many of his arguments. This includes Jean Gerson, a French scholar based at the University of Paris. Although he was not intimately acquainted with Wyclif’s writings, his De potestate ecclesiastica was in part a refutation of the Englishman’s ideas.

Gerson presented this work to the Council of Constance, an ecumenical council that was held from 1414 to 1418, where various church officials deposed the various competing Popes and elected Martin V to the Holy See. The French scholar, who was a leading participant in the council, believed that a general council could depose Popes and he used some metaphysical ideas to make his argument. Like Wyclif, Gerson sees the church as a human body, but whereas the former said that this body cannot change, the latter says that temporal changes do exist. For instance, new priests enter the church while older priests pass away. He also notes that the powers of the Papacy fluctuate due to civil law and political changes. Gerson also believed that humans can be secondary causes in the carrying out of divine will.

Russell’s research is in its initial stages and he expects his theories to evolve as he explores the sources further.

- report by Peter Konieczny

Sharan Newman