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Olivi Controversial in Death

May 03, 2010
Olivi Controversial in Death

John Peter Olivi was an original thinker of the thirteenth century. However, controversy swirled around his ideas. Twice his works were burned because he stood for unpopular causes.

After Francis of Assisi died, many Franciscans wanted to relax his strict rules of poverty. Pope Nicholas III asked Olivi for his opinion on the question. Olivi, a Franciscan friar since he was twelve, took the side of strict poverty. This won him a few devoted friends within his order but made him many more enemies. Graduates of the University of Paris attacked him, declaring 34 of his propositions in error. His works were confiscated. After that, he was a topic of debate in every chapter meeting of the friars. Finally, when Olivi was thirty nine, he was cleared of heresy charges and assigned to teach in a convent in Florence. Later he taught at Montpellier.

Scholasticism has a bad name. To moderns, its debates seem silly, although future generations will no doubt think the same thing about much that our universities spew forth. John Olivi was in the scholastic tradition, yet the questions he raised were part of a movement toward science. Peter Lombard produced a famous set of Sentences or short statements on the key doctrines of Christianity which became a textbook to the Middle Ages. Notable scholars wrote commentaries on these sentences. Olivi also wrote a commentary on Lombard's Sentences. The Sentences raised interesting scientific issues as theologians struggled to grasp the nature of creation, incarnation and other difficult concepts. Questioning and commenting on Lombard, Olivi wrote extensively on how we know what we know, on forms and bodies, on cause and effect, on questions of motion.

The thinker died on this day, March 14, 1298. Although he died affirming his belief in all that the church taught, death did not end his controversial status. He had accepted some of the ideas of twelfth century thinker Joachim of Floris who predicted three ages for mankind. The first age was the age of the Father. It corresponded to the age of Law. The second age, the age of the Son was ongoing, but would end around the middle of the thirteenth century according to Joachim. Then the third age, the age of the Spirit, would begin. Joachim held that those who opposed the vow of poverty were antichrists. Some of his followers even held that the pope was antichrist (the idea did not begin with Luther and the reformers). Although Olivi did not hold this view, he was tarred with the brush.

In 1318, angry friars destroyed his tomb. Franciscans condemned sixty of his propositions. After Louis of Bavaria used some of Olivi's arguments to resist papal authority, a church council declared portions of Olivi's writings were heretical.


  1. Copleston, Frederick."Franciscan Thinkers" chapter in A History of Philosophy, volume 2 Augustine to Scotus. Various editions available.
  2. Edwards, Paul. "Olivi, Peter John." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Macmillan, 1967.
  3. Oliger, Livarius. "Pierre Jean Olivi." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  4. "Olivi, Petrus Joannis." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  5. "Peter John Olivi." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/olivi/.
  6. "Prophecy." Dictionary of the History of Ideas, editor in chief Philip P. Weiner. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974.
  7. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.

Last updated May, 2007.


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