The famous Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus has passed into history under the title "Doctor of the Immaculate Conception", and deservedly so. For, by opposing the teaching of the majority of the theologians of his time, he opened the way to a positive understanding of this Marian privilege. Five and a half centu­ries later, Mary's Immaculate Conception was solemnly defined as a revealed truth and dogma of the faith by the extraordinary Magis-terium of the Church.

Outline of His Life and Times

It is certain that our author was born in Scotland around 1265. After completing his initial studies, he entered the Franciscan order at a very young age, about the year 1280. He received priestly ordination in 1291, and, in 1303, after gaining his bachelors in theology, he obtained a teaching post in Paris, as commentator on the books of Peter Lombard s Sententiae. Very soon, however, he was obliged to leave the city. This happened because, in June 1303, he had refused to subscribe to an appeal to the Council that had arisen against Pope Boniface VIII at the initiative of Philip the Fair, King of France, a proud adversary of the pontiff. The following year, Scotus returned to Paris to work toward a doctorate, which he obtained in 1305.1 He subsequently taught at Oxford, Canter­bury, again at Paris, and finally at Cologne, where he died in 1308.

Although Duns Scotus died at a rather young age, he left behind an impressive reputation for knowledge and holiness. He was named Doctor subtilis and recognized as the greatest representative of the Franciscan

1 See H. S. Denifle, Chartularium Universitatis Parisiensis, vol. 2 (Paris, 1891), p. 117.


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theological school, which took up the Scotist system as its own doctrinal foundation.

The first critical edition of Duns Scotus' writings appeared in 1639 in Lyons, edited by the Irish Franciscan theologian and historian Luke Wadding, and was reprinted in twenty-six volumes between 1891 and 1895 in Paris by Louis Vives. Not all of the works published in this edition, however, are authentic. Some are definitely spurious, while others are the notes of students who followed the master's lectures, to which he subsequently gave his approval. Given this situation, the work of the Scotist Commission is highly commendable. The Commission was established at the Pontifical Atheneum Antonianum in Rome and has been publishing a new critical edition of Scotus' works since 1950. To date, volumes 1-7 and 16-19 have been published as the Editio Vaticana.

Scotus' Marian Doctrine2

Marian doctrine occupies a place of great importance in the theological system of John Duns Scotus. He expounds it especially in his commen-

Studies of the Marian doctrine of John Duns Scotus are extremely numerous. We cite those that appear most helpful, namely, those that are up-to-date and most suited for deepening our knowledge of this great Franciscans teaching on the Mother of God: C. Balic, Joanms Duns Scoti, doctoris mariani, theologiae marianae elementa (Sibenik, 1933); idem, De debito peccatt originalis in B. VM. Investigations de doctrina quam tenuitJoannes Duns Scotus (Rome, 1941); idem, Ioannes Duns Scotus, Doctor Immaculatae Conceptionis, vol. 1, Textus auctons, Bibliotheca Immaculatae Conceptionis 5 (Rome, 1954); idem, "II reale contribute di Giovanni Scoto nella questione dell'Immacolata Concezione", Antonianum 29 (1954): 457-96; idem, "Ioannes Duns Scotus et historia Immaculatae Conceptionis" Antonianum 30 (1955): 386-440, 486-88; idem, "De regula mariologica Joannis Duns Scoti", EuntesDocete 9 (1954): 110-33; B. Innocenti, "II concetto teologico di maternita divina in Giovanm Duns Scoto", Studi Francescani 3 (1931): 404-30; I. Uribesago, "La coredencion mariana a la luz de la cristologia de Escoto", EstMar 9 (1944); 219-37; G. Roschim, 'Duns Scoto e l'Immacolata", in Mar 17 (1955); 183-258; idem, "Questioni su Duns Scoto e l'Immacolata", EphMar 7 (1957): 372-407; L. Babbini, Ancora su Duns Scoto, dottore dell'Immacolata: Valutazione delle tre repliche del rev. Padre G. Roschini (Genoa, 1958); J. F. Bonnefoy, Le Ven.Jean Duns Scot, docteur de I'Immaculee Conception: Son milieu sa doctrine, son influence (Rome, i960); G. Roschini, Duns Scoto e l'Immacolata secondo il Padre J. Fr. Bonnefoy (Rome, 1961); K. Koser, "Die Immaculatalehre des Joannes Duns Scotus", Franziskanishe Studien 36 (1954); 337-84; R. Rosini, "II volto dell'Immacolata "el Penslero di Giovanni Duns Scoto", in CongrRom 5:1-29; R. Zavalloni and

John Duns Scotus (d. 1308) 245

tary on the Sententiae of Peter Lombard, in particular the In 3 Senten-tiarum, d. 3, q. I3 and d. 4-4 He lays particular stress on three mariological principles: Mary's divine motherhood, her perpetual virginity, and her freedom from original sin.

Mary's Motherhood

Basing his exposition on the authority of St. John Damascene, our author explains that Mary is the true Mother of God. For she did not give birth to a mere human being whose nature was later joined to divinity, as Nestorius claimed, but to a human nature that, from the first instant of its existence, had been assumed by the Word of God so as to form one single being in which the Person of the Word supplies the personhood that belongs to a human nature. For this reason it is said that the Person of the incarnate Son of God subsists in two natures; and Scotus demonstrates this by the fact that the Word immediately assumed a complete human nature, for which his Divine Person supplies the absence of human personhood.5 He receives his original existence from the divine nature of the Word, while he receives a second existence, that is to say, his existence as man, from his human nature, which is secondary.6

In the mystery of the Incarnation, the Virgin truly cooperated in the conception of the incarnate Word. She furnished the Word with a human nature, thus fulfilling the role he had granted her, becoming a mother in the fullest possible sense of the word. Scotus strongly empha­sizes the role played by the Mother of the Lord in the Incarnation, which guarantees a fully human dimension to the bodily conception of the Son of God. In addition, Scotus' thesis introduces a genuinely new element in comparison to the scientific theories of his time, which, being an­chored in the teaching of Aristotle,7 assigned the woman a purely passive role in procreation. These theories held that only the man had an active

E. Mariani, eds., La dottrina mariologica di Giovanni Duns Scoto, Spicilegium Pontifici Atenaei Antoniani 28 (Rome, 1987) (the second part contains the Marian texts of Duns

Scotus, ed. E. Mariani). 3 Ed. Vives, 14:159-76. 4 Ibid., 14:180-203. 5 See In 3 Sententiamm, d. 2, q. 2, n. 5; ed. Vives, 14:131. 6 Ibid., d. 6, q. 3, n. 2; ed. Vives, 14:326. 7 See De animalium generatione 1, 21.

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role, while the woman was limited to offering the matter needed for the formation of her offsprings body. Scotus, by contrast, followed a thesis already formulated by Galen, according to which both parents have an active role in the generative process. Scotus' explanation takes as its point of departure a purely natural point of view:

Every active cause that has the power to bring about any effect, if not preceded by something else totally causing that effect in the very instant it is produced, can act on behalf of its own production. If this was the case with all other mothers, then it was the case with Mary; namely, as a non-principal active cause. The Holy Spirit gave her, at the same time, the potential to receive and to bear, not however that he gave her that fruitfulness in a miraculous way, by which she cooperated; no, she had it naturally, because she was not sterile, and because of this capacity she could have cooperated naturally to bring forth a son, should a natural father have begotten one by her.8

But Scotus points out that the woman's generative capacity is not the principal and independent cause of conception; by nature, it is subordi­nate to the man's generative capacity, and therefore it cannot function without having been activated by the involvement of a man. In the generation of the incarnate Word, the action of the principal natural cause (a man) was replaced by the mysterious and miraculous action of the Holy Spirit, who activated the Blessed Virgin's capacity for fruitful­ness, which she possessed by nature, acting in her case as the principal cause and conferring an unmistakably supernatural character.

On the other hand, the action of the Holy Spirit did not in any way diminish Mary's role in the generation of the Son. Duns Scotus points out that Mary was able to cooperate fully by means of her own personal causal action, since the intervention of the Holy Spirit, who acted with the causality proper to divine omnipotence, could not pose any obstacle to the exercise of her maternal function. The Holy Spirit only supplied, to an outstanding degree, the causality of a human father.9

8 In 3 Sententiarum, d. 4, q. unica, n. 10; ed. Vives, 14:194. Scotus adds, "Only that mother had the obediential potency to be the Mother of the Word. For she was the Mother of the Word by the fact that the Word subsisted in that [human] nature which he had united to himself" (ibid.).

9 See ibid., nn. 8—10; ed. Vives, 14:192—94.

John Duns Scotus (d. 1308) 247

Nevertheless, since there was no involvement of a human father in the generation of the incarnate Word, it seems obvious that Mary's active role acquired an exceptionally important quality, being the unique in­stance of its kind. Consequently, Mary, as a unique mother, acquired a maternal, and thus a uniquely personal, relation to her Son, who, by virtue of his divine nature, was already subject to an eternal and un­created relation to his heavenly Father. Given the absolutely central position of the incarnate Word in the economy of salvation, it is clear that Mary's divine motherhood acquires a fundamental importance and represents a function that is considered fundamental with respect to all the other prerogatives and functions of the Virgin Mother.

Mary's Virginity

Scotus' treatment of Mary's perpetual virginity is somewhat inconsistent. His analysis of this theme considers its three components: before, dur­ing, and after the birth of Christ. Accepting an opinion already shared by some Fathers of the Church and later theologians, he says that the Virgin took a vow of virginity in absolute terms, not reserving the option to renounce the vow, in case she should come to know that God had arranged things differently:

In every vow, however absolute, it seems that this condition is included: if God pleases. Because no one should offer anything to God whether God wills it or no, and no one acts righdy when he intends to offer something to God in this way. Therefore a vow remains absolute, even with this condition understood.10

The absolute character of Mary's vow is seen to be asserted by the Virgin's words to Gabriel: "How can this be since I do not know man? " (Lk 1:34). Scotus explains:

If she had simply not known man, without intending never to know one, there would be no problem because, if she had subsequently known a man, provided she was not sterile, she would have conceived. And so it was a question about the more-than-marvelous way [she would conceive], because she had most firmly decided, or vowed, that she would never be known by man, and to make this understood the angel

10 In 4 Sententiarum, d. 30, q. 2; ed. Vives, 19:278.

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explained when he answered her: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you" (Lk 1:35)."

Scotus thinks that the Blessed Virgin, without having been aware of it beforehand, made a vow that fully coincided with certain details of God's plan for the Incarnation of his Son.

The Virgin Is Preserved from Original Sin

The third main point of Scotus' Mariology concerns the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, which the Scottish theologian defended with conviction. As we have said, this is the most interesting and original chapter of his Marian doctrine, its proudest hour. We will focus our attention primarily on this theme, which best allows us to evaluate the historical and theological importance of Duns Scotus' Marian doctrine. In terms of strict historical order, he was not the first author to teach the mystery of the Immaculate Conception. We have already mentioned Eadmer, and we could add Robert Grosseteste and William of Ware, as authors who had already declared in favor of this truth of the faith. These are all ecclesiastical figures from in or around England, as was Duns Scotus himself, and this confirms that a certain mentality existed in that region of Christendom that tended to accept the Immaculate Conception. This may also be deduced from the fact that England was the first country in the West in which the celebration of the liturgical feast of Mary's Conception was introduced. First observed around the middle of the eleventh century, then suppressed after the Norman conquest of 1066, it was restored around 1127.12 But it was Scotus who fully developed the doctrine of Mary's preservation from original sin and bolstered it with vigorous probative argumentation, thus outlining a true theological proof of the doctrine.

It must be recognized that this sort of theological proof lacks a consistent proof based on Scripture and that appeal to the tradition of the Fathers of the Church appears rather weak. Yet, Scotus let himself be

11 Ibid. 12 See A. W. Burridge, "L'lmmaculee Conception dans la theologie mariale de

l'Angleterre du Moyen-Age", Revue d'Histoire Ecclesiastique 32 (1936): 570—97; A. M. Cecchin, "L'Immacolata nella liturgia occidentale anteriore al secolo XIII", Mar 5 (1943): 58-114.

John Duns Scotus (d. 1308) 249

led by his intuition as a believer, thus managing to outline a doctrine that contains all the fundamental elements of the dogma. He formulates a second principle, according to which it is legitimate to attribute to the Blessed Virgin what seems to be more excellent, as long as this is not opposed to the witness of Scripture and to the teaching authority of the Church,13 and he applies this principle to the mystery of the Immaculate Conception.

Using his considerable logical ability, Scotus was able to overrule the objections traditionally raised against the Virgin's immunity from origi­nal sin. In essence, these objections may be reduced to two: the unavoid­able transmission of original guilt to all the descendants of Adam and the universal scope of the redemption wrought by Christ, because of which no human being can obtain salvation without having been redeemed by the incarnate Word.

Duns Scotus was able to demonstrate how the truth of these two conditions does not necessarily create any obstacle to the Marian privi­lege of the Immaculate Conception. He admits that, if only the law of nature had been at work in Mary, she too would have had to contract original guilt. In her case, however, there was an exceptional preservative intervention on God's part, based on the foreseen merits Christ the Redeemer acquired by his redemptive work. In this connection, Scotus writes:

As a consequence of common generation, Mary would have had to contract original sin had she not been preserved by the grace of the Mediator.14

These words clearly show our author's reasoning. Mary's exceptional condition was caused, not by the introduction of a change into human nature, but by an external supernatural intervention. Further, her ex­emption from original sin does not in any way mean that the redemption was useless. Instead, her privilege shows how redemption was wrought in the Blessed Virgin in a unique way. Instead of being liberated from a

13 See In III Sententiarum, d. 3, q. 1, n. 5; ed. Vives, 14:165. Scotus employs a variant of the famous axiom: Potuit, decuit, ergo fecit, which, often erroneously attributed to Scotus, was already present, in substance, in earlier theological tradition; the precise form is the work of the Scotists. See R. Rossini, Mariologia del beato Giovanni Duns Scoto (Castel-

petroso, 1994), p. 80, n. 16. 14 Balic, Joannes Duns Scotus, Doctor Immaculatae Conceptionis, 1:16.

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sin she had contracted, she was preserved from contracting it, by virtue of the foreseen merits of Christ the Redeemer. In her case, then, there was a preservative redemption. It would be wrong to say that the Mother of the Lord had no need of redemption; to the contrary, it must be recognized that a different form of redemption was applied in her case. Scotus writes:

Just as others needed Christ, so that through his merits they might receive the forgiveness of sin already contracted, so she needed the Mediator to preserve her from sin.15

Purification and liberation from sin are not the only means to re­demption; it can also be accomplished by preventing sin from being transmitted to a person. Thus the universality of redemption is not called into question, because Christ is the Mediator and Redeemer of all human beings, including his Mother. In her case, Christ is Mediator and Redeemer in a more perfect and outstanding way. Duns Scotus demon­strates this by articulating, at this point, his theory of the most perfect Mediator:

The most perfect Mediator merits the removal of every punishment from the one whom he reconciles, but the original fault is a greater punishment than even the loss of the vision of God . . . because, of all punishments that might befall the intellectual nature, sin is the greatest. Therefore, if Christ reconciled in the most perfect way possible, he merited to remove that most heavy punishment from [at least] someone—and this could only be his Mother.16

To his great credit, John Duns Scotus gave the dogma of Mary's exemption from the sin of Adam such a defined form as to make it an integral part of the mystery of redemption. Mary's preservative redemp­tion is viewed as a necessity, postulated on the basis of the most perfect nature of Christ's mediative and redemptive work for the salvation of the human race.

15 Ibid. 16 In 3 Sententiarum, d. 3, q. 1, n. 6; ed. Vives, 14:161.

John Duns Scotus (d. 1308) 251



[Mary] did not contract original sin because of the excellence of her Son, inasmuch as he is Redeemer, Reconciler, and Mediator. For the most perfect mediator would perform the most perfect act of mediation on behalf of any person for whom he mediated. But Christ is the most perfect Mediator. Therefore, Christ showed the most perfect possible degree of mediating with respect to any creature or person whose Mediator he was. But for no other person did he exhibit a more excellent degree of mediation than he did for Mary. . . . But this would not have happened if he had not merited that she should be preserved from original sin.

I prove this with three arguments. First, in reference to God, to whom Christ reconciles others; second, in reference to evil, from which he liberates others; third, in reference to the debt of the person whom he reconciles to God.

First. No one placates another in the highest or most perfect way for an offense that someone might commit except by preventing him from being offended. For, if he placates someone who has already been offended, so that the offended party remits [punishment], he does not placate perfectly. . . . Therefore, Christ does not perfectly placate the Trinity for the guilt to be contracted by the sons of Adam if he does not prevent the Trinity from being offended by at least someone, so that consequently the soul of some one descendant of Adam would not have this guilt.

Second. The most perfect Mediator merits the removal of all punish­ment from the one whom he reconciles. But the original fault is a greater punishment than even the loss of the vision of God . . . because, of all punishments that might befall the intellectual nature, sin is the greatest. Therefore, if Christ reconciled in the most perfect way possible, he merited to remove that most heavy punishment from [at least] some­one—and this could only be his Mother.

Further, it seems that Christ restored and reconciled us from original sin more directly than from actual sin, because the necessity of the Incarnation, Passion, and so forth, is commonly attributed to original

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sin, but it is commonly supposed that he was a perfect Mediator with respect to [at least] one person; for example, Mary, given that he pre­served her from all actual sin. Therefore, he acted similarly on her behalf and preserved her from original sin. . . .

Third. A person who has been reconciled is not indebted in the greatest possible way to his mediator unless he has received the greatest possible good from him. But that innocence, which is the preservation from contracting or needing to contract guilt, can be had by means of a mediator. Therefore, no person would be indebted in the highest pos­sible way to Christ as his Mediator if Christ had not preserved someone from original sin.

—John Duns Scotus, In 3 Sententiarum, d. 3, q. 1; ed. Mariani, pp. 181-84



The Blessed Virgin Mary in the Thought of Medieval Latin Theologians

Translated by Thomas Buffer


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