Peter Lombard, Author of Famed "Sentences"

Dan Graves, MSL

Peter Lombard, Author of Famed "Sentences"

As Peter Lombard sharpened his goose quill, his mind groped for an illustration. The Trinity was truth, but a truth no less difficult to explain in the twelfth century than it is today.

"...No sufficient knowledge of the Trinity can be had," he wrote. "Nor could it be had...without the relation of doctrine or of inward inspiration..."* That did not mean that nothing could be said on the subject, he hastened to add. Things that we can see help us understand invisible things.

"Memory, understanding, and will are one: one mind, one essence...In those three, a kind of trinity appears. So the rational mind, considering these three and that one essence in which they appear, extends itself to contemplation of the Creator and sees unity in trinity and trinity in unity. For it understands that there is one God, one essence, one principle."

Trinity was just one issue that Peter Lombard dealt with. Medieval scholarship relied heavily on authority. To make the task of students and professors easier, the well-read teacher gathered crucial quotes from the main authorities into one work. The result was his Four Books of Sentences.

Peter arranged quotes from the Bible and from the church Fathers by topics in divisions called books. He subdivided all this material under questions. Since the authorities often did not agree, he analyzed their language and gave his own resolution between them. But when it suited him, he made no attempt to resolve the differences. On the whole, little in the work was original with him--which was as he intended.

In spite of this, the Sentences became the foremost theology textbook of the thirteenth century, admired for their superb organization. Long after Peter died, which is sometimes given as this day, July 20, 1164,** his work was the standard text in universities. In fact, it held a prominent place until the sixteenth century. It was more popular than Thomas Aquinas' writings.

One reason for their popularity was that he left many questions open, giving later scholars opportunity to suggest their own answers. Scholars who wanted to make a name for themselves wrote commentaries on Peter's Sentences. Among those who did were such famous names as Aquinas, Bonaventura, Scotus and Ockham.

This popularity brought Peter's work under attack. But the fourth Lateran council (1215) upheld his orthodoxy. One complaint against him was that he stressed the divinity of Christ over his humanity.

Because of his influence as the author of the Sentences, Peter Lombard also influenced church doctrine. He wrote that a sacrament is both a symbol of grace and a means to grace. He decided that seven church functions fulfilled his conditions--baptism, confirmation, Eucharist (Protestants call it communion, or the Lord's Supper) Penance (confessing a sin and receiving a discipline for it), Extreme Unction (anointing with oil as a symbol of repentance and healing, usually when a person is at death's door), Holy Orders and Matrimony. The Council of Trent adopted Peter's position as the official doctrine of the Roman Church. (For the most part, Protestants limit the sacraments to Baptism and the Lord's Supper.)

*The quotes on the Trinity are adapted into modern English from Runes' Treasury of Philosophy.
**Although most authorities do not suggest a date for Peter's death, Encyclopedia Americana, 1956, gives this as the day.

Bibliography:

  1. Durant, Will. The Age of Faith. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950; especially at p. 953.
  2. Edwards, Paul, editor. Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Macmillan and the Free Press, 1967.
  3. Ghellinck, J de. "Peter Lombard." Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Appleton, 1914.
  4. "Lombard, Peter." Encyclopedia Americana, 1956.
  5. "Lombard, Peter." Encyclopedia Britannica, 1967.
  6. "Peter Lombard." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (www.iep.utm.edu/l/lombard.htm)
  7. "Peter Lombard." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  8. Runes, Dagobert. "Lombard, Peter. Trinity." Treasury of Philosophy. New York: Philosophical Library, 1945.

Last updated November, 2006.

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