Jean Gerson as a Paragon for Evangelical Calvinist Tendencies: What Hath Mystical Theology to do With Scholastic?

Jean Gerson (1363-1429) medieval theologian and chancellor of the University of Paris offers a helpful vision towards the type of corrective that I’ve been hoping Evangelical Calvinism along with Ron Frost’s Affective Theology might offer the resurgence of scholastic Reformed theology we see evident in movements like The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, so on and so forth. We do see an attempt by some of these movements, especially at the more pastoral levels, to integrate a piety and spiritual practices that Gerson hoped to inject into his own scholastic context; but I don’t think scholasticism Reformed actually has the theological categories to consistently apply a genuinely ‘love-based’ theological trajectory for the church. In order to fill out my very introductory comments here about Gerson let’s hear from Steven Ozment’s more developed commentary, and build from there:

In his magisterial study, On Mystical Theology, Gerson (1363-1429), chancellor of the University of Paris and an accomplished spiritual writer, contrasted the different approaches to God and religion in scholastic and mystical theology. The work was both a summary of the tempermental differences that historically divided the scholastic and spiritual traditions and an eloquent statement of the latter’s superiority. Scholastic and mystical theologians were seen to differ, first of all, in their basic sources. Scholastics derived their information about God and religion from God’s “outward effects”; they studied the Bible and church history and read theological commentaries. Mystical theologians, by contrast, found their basic sources in records of God’s “internal effects,” that is, in evidence of divine presence in the recorded history and tradition of the heart. A second difference cited by Gerson was that scholastics relied on reason and distrusted the emotions, while mystical theologians trusted the affections—provided they had been disciplined by true doctrine—and believed that the reasons of the heart were closer to God than the speculations of the mind. Third, while scholastics strove to behold God as the highest truth, mystical theologians sought to embrace him as the highest good. A fourth difference lay in the mystical theologians’s belief that love could reach farther than reason and help the mind transcend its natural limitations; following the pes amoris, the pes cognitionis was able to enter regions otherwise inaccessible to it. Gerson compare this to the way fire caused water to boil over; heated by love, the mind bounded to new heights.

Gerson drew two further contrasts between scholastic mystical theology. He described the mystical way to God as the more democratic: “even young girls and simple people [idiotae]” could become experts in mystical theology, where love and personal experience, not formal university training, were the essential requirements. Finally, Gerson presented the mystical way as intrinsically more self-fulfilling, since love gave both the heart and the mind a satisfaction beyond any that the mere technical knowledge of scholastic theologians could provide.

As chancellor of the University of Paris, Gerson was a lightning rod for the conflicts within and between the various faculties. Within his own theological faculty, warring Scotist, Ockhamist, and Thomist factions proved so frustrating to him that he threatened to resign on March 1400. The threat won him new political power within the university, which made possible a positive effort to reform Parisian education by recapturing the unity of theology and spirituality that Gerson believed existed in the days of the church fathers and, more recently, in the life and work of the two medieval theologians who became his personal models: Bernard of Clairvaux and Bonaventura.

In his first reform proposals, Gerson traced the problems of the theological faculty to what he called “useless, unedifying, and insubstantial teachings,” by which he meant primarily the extreme speculations of Scotist theologians on such impossible topics as the generation of the Holy Trinity. Gerson believed that such probings beyond the mind’s ken gave laymen a false picture of Christianity and led other scholars in the university to suspect that the theologians preferred utterly incredible and absurd things (incredibilia et absurdissima) to the Bible and moral theology. These speculations divided the theological faculty itself, one side accusing the other of being bumpkins (rudes), while the other charged their critics with pure fantasy (curiosi et phantastici). Gerson found that scholastics generally had transmuted traditional theological vocabulary, in use since patristic times, into a language only experts understood. He described a favorite of the Parisian scholastics, Raymond Lull (1235-1316), a Franciscan tertiary, as a theologian who used terms even the theologians had not heard before.

Gerson proposed two basic remedies: first, he would require students to read less of book 1 of Lombard’s Sentences, where the nature of God is dealt with, and to give more attention to books 2 through 4, where they would learn about Jesus, the church, the sacraments, and the life to come—topics assumed less likely to occasion flights of fancy and bitter argument; second, he would forbid the discussion of sophistical questions (sophismata) and all topics declared suspect and scandalous by the church.[1]

It is no coincidence that Martin Luther’s spiritual father, Johann von Staupitz was influenced by Jean Gerson; we see this influence heavily engendering Luther’s own reforming efforts (which I’ve written on here).

What I want folks to see is that the issues I have been alerting folks to for years are issues that aren’t ones that simply have fomented whole cloth from my own very round head. I think what Gerson saw is something we are still contending with, especially with the resurgence of aspects of Reformed theology (think [at the popular level] Young, Restless, and Reformed et al.) today. Evangelicals have come to a breaking point, especially the younger generation, and they want more depth. Yet, I would contend, that what they have stumbled upon in the history only represents one stream of Reformed theology; they have failed to recognize that there are various eddies that make up the totus Reformed theologia landscape (in the history). What Gerson points up for us, once again, is that there is always this need to attend to the deeper realities of theology, realities that speculative theology (such as we find funding most of what is currently being resourced by young evangelicals and now Reformed theologians) does not have the resources to fund.

This is why I appeal to Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. These two in particular, among the modern theologians, have an eye to the Gersonian concerns that I do not find in much of what counts as Reformed theology currently. The emphasis of Barth and Torrance is to start their theologies with the Word of God (which is a very reformed notion/principia), and think God and relationship with God from a necessarily Trinitarian and thus love-relational grounding; from a filial grounding rather than a discursive and speculative one. This remains the locus classicus for what we are proposing as an Evangelical Calvinism; i.e. that the ground and grammar of all theology must be God’s Triune Life of Love (versus grounding our relationship in and through the discursive and speculative machinations of the theologians). I think this fits, in its own 21st century kind of way, with Gerson’s own 14th and 15th century concerns.

The bottom line is that who we think God is will determine everything else that follows, theologically. If we get God wrong everything else following will be skewed; such gravity is too much to overlook.


[1] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550: An Intellectual And Religious History Of Late Medieval And Reformation Europe (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), 73-5.