Shedd: Thomas Was Right, Scotus Was Wrong

A controversy respecting the atonement sprang up between Duns Scotus and the followers of Aquinas, which involved fundamental principles in ethics and religion, and divided the Romish Church into two great parties of Thomists and Scotists. Duns Scotus denied the Anselmic doctrine that sin is of infinite demerit, and consequently denied that the suffering of Christ is of infinite value. The relation of the atonement of the Son of God to the sin of mankind, he maintained, is merely an arbitrary and constituted one. The principle upon which he founded his theory was: “Tantum valet omne creatum oblatum, pro quanto acceptat Deus illud, et non plus.” There is no interior fitness and adaptation between Christ’s atonement and man’s sin. God was pleased to accept this particular sacrifice as an offset and equivalent for human transgression, not from any intrinsic value in it, but because he so pleased. He might have accepted any other substitute, or he might have dispensed with accepting any substitute at all. In opposition to this view, the followers of Aquinas maintained the old Anselmic theory of the infinite demerit of sin, and the infinite and objective value of Christ’s satisfaction. In this controversy, the soteriology of the adherents of Aquinas is more in harmony with the Protestant view and feeling; so that we might reverse what Melanchthon remarks of Augustine, and say, that “the opinion of Aquinas is more pertinent, fit and convenient when he disputed than it was when not disputing.” And yet it would be difficult to see how the followers of Aquinas could in the end avoid the conclusions of Duns Scotus, if they started from that doctrine of a relative necessity of satisfying justice which we have seen Aquinas held, in common with all the Schoolmen excepting Anselm. If omnipotence and bare will are more ultimate in the Divine Nature than justice and truth are, then it is difficult to see how Scotus can be censured for holding, that in the last analysis God can dispense with an atonement altogether, and that whatever value the existing judicial provision possesses in the divine plan, it possesses not in itself, but solely by virtue of its optional acceptance by the Omnipotent One who is not limited by anything, not even by his own moral attributes. The controversy, however, ran high between the adherents of Aquinas and Scotus,—the Dominican order generally siding with the former, and the Franciscan with the latter. The Nominalists in philosophy also naturally favoured the views of Scotus, as his theory was that of a nominal and putative satisfaction, in distinction from a real and objective one. The extravagantly speculative minds of the age, those who have given the reputation of hair-splitting and excessive dialectics to Scholasticism, also adopted the positions of Scotus.

W. G. T. Shedd | A History of Theology (New York: Scribners) 2.315


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  1. Totally misread the headline. –> “Shedd: (Judge Clarence) Thomas Was Right, Scotus (SCOTUS?) Was Wrong.” There was an 8-1 decision and Justice Thomas was the lone dissent? What happened? 🙂

    • That was not your fault; the title was amateurish “clickbait”, designed to elicit your exact response.

      • H. L.

        Not true. Johannes Duns Scotus is always referred to as Scotus in the literature just as Thomas Aquinas is referred to as Thomas. I thought it was interesting that a 19th century Presbyterian Theological College was thinking about Scotus and Thomas on this issue.

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