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The Original Dunce

The Original Dunce

What happens when you challenge and disagree with the most popular theologian in the middle ages? You are called a “dunce”, they place a tall pointed cap on you and sit you in the corner, but what is the origination of that word dunce anyway? The followers of John Duns Scotus in the 1500s were called Dun’s men and eventually Dunses which became dunces. The word dunce was later defined as “somebody who is incapable of scholarship”. The painting we have of John Duns Scotus has him wearing a funny pointed hat, so pupils who behaved badly were punished by wearing such a hat called the “dunce cap”. What earned John Duns Scotus such criticism? He dared to debate the great Thomas Aquinas who was considered the greatest theologian and philosopher of the middle ages.

Duns had wild ideas that there exists matter that has no form whatsoever, and it is the stuff underlying all change. He said that not all created substances have form and matter, that is, that purely spiritual substances do exist, and that one and the same substance can have more than one form—like us humans have at least two substantial forms, the soul and the body. Therefore, the human soul, in its separated state from the body, will be capable of knowing spiritual reality. Duns argued that the existence of God can be proved logically through its effects. He wrote that “an infinity of things that are essentially ordered is impossible, as the totality of caused things that are essentially caused is itself caused, and so it is caused by some cause which is not a part of the totality, for then it would be the cause itself; for the whole totality of dependent things is dependent and not on anything belonging to that totality.” I think this is a 13th century way of saying that all things that exist must be caused by something, and that “something” must be outside of the creation—meaning God. This “cause for the cause” argument was actually picked up by Aquinas and used in his apologetics for the existence of God.

Duns Scotus came under heavy criticism and was accused of heresy around 1300 when he was the first theologian to defend the idea of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, Christ’s mother. Duns came up with a logical argument for how Mary could be sinless, “Mary was in need of redemption like all other human beings, but through the merits of Jesus’ crucifixion, given in advance, she was conceived without the stain of original sin”. This was very controversial at the time (as it is now), but much later Pope Pius IX used Duns’ argument for the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Pope John XXIII inserted the reading of Duns Scotus’ theology in modern theology books, and Pope John Paul “beatified” Duns Scotus in 1993.

Frankly, reading the writings of Duns Scotus gives me a headache. I agree with some of his stuff, but not the immaculate conception of Mary. Nevertheless, he was definitely brilliant, and the IRONY is inescapable that from so great a thinker and intellectual is derived the term “dunce”. This tells you something about the critical and judgmental nature of man.
John Duns Scotus had another argument with Thomas Aquinas that I found compelling. Duns argued that the Incarnation of Christ would have occurred even if Adam (or man) had not sinned. When I read this I initially thought, “he really is a dunce!”, but after reading his argument, I’m not so sure.

Would We Be Celebrating Christmas Even if Adam had not Sinned ?

Aquinas used the cause-affect argument that the Incarnation was God’s response to man’s sin. Duns Scotus differed by saying that Jesus taking on the flesh was more than that. The Incarnation was God’s primary design, not an afterthought or a Plan B. Aquinas used passages in the Bible emphasizing God’s redemptive response to man’s alienation from God; while Duns used passages on the cosmic Christ like Colossians 1:16, “For by Christ all things were created both in the heavens and the earth…all things have been created by Him and for Him. And Jesus is before all things, and in Him all things hold together”. Aquinas argued that Jesus came into the world because of human failure, but Duns argued Jesus was the purpose and center of all creation. The Incarnation, to Duns, was the underlying reason for the creation. In the creation God shared His life and love by the Incarnation. This Christ-centered view of creation was criticized initially because Aquinas was so popular, but eventually the Church ruled that both approaches to the Incarnation have biblical support and are not mutually exclusive. After reading both arguments, I also think they are both right.

What Can We Learn From the Original Dunce ?

John Duns Scotus called his teaching on the Incarnation, “the Doctrine of the Absolute Primacy of Christ in the Universe”. Instead of splitting hairs in lengthy debates (like they did), consider what the “primacy of Christ” means to us. The Apostle Paul constantly wrote of us being “new creatures”, and being now “in Christ”. Isn’t that what life is all about? We are no longer just “earthen vessels”, but we now have a “treasure” in us which is Christ (2 Cor.4:7). This “power of God” in us is the expression of God’s love. In Romans 6, Paul wrote a series of contrasts about the old and the new—us before and after Christ. Through Christ, the old selfish person is gone, and the new spiritual person is alive. We are “united” to Him in the likeness of His resurrection—that is new spiritual and eternal life. Because we are united to Him, “we too walk in newness of life” (Rom.6:4). We used to have a master who was “the desires of our body of sin” (Rom.6:6), but we are now free from that master. Therefore, we are to consider ourselves “dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom.6:11). Since this is true, what should we do? Now we “should no longer live for ourselves, but for Christ who died and rose again on our behalf” (2 Cor.5:15). Who are we now? We are “new creatures” according to 2 Cor.5:17, and we are “ambassadors for Christ” entreating people to also be reconciled to God. We have been given a purpose, a mission to reclaim the world that has been tarnished by sin. Jesus is our example, our inspiration, our empowering force, and the reason for our existence. The world does not exist for us, it does not revolve around us, but we exist for Jesus—to serve Him and glorify Him. THIS IS THE PRIMACY OF CHRIST. As the angel told John about the second coming, “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit and culmination of the Word of God” (Rev.19:10); and Jesus said in the last chapter in the Bible, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end”.

I am beginning to think John Duns Scotus had a pretty cool name after all.

What’s in a Name ?

In the middle ages people were given names like John, and then referred to by where they came from or who their father was. John Duns Scotus was born in a little town named Duns in Scotland about 1266, thus the name Duns Scotus differentiated him as the John from Duns, Scotland. From this brilliant intellectual from the little town of Duns, we derive the critical term “dunce”. Not only was he not a dunce, he was right on about our true identity and reason for living being wrapped up in Jesus Christ. The question, “Would the incarnation have occurred even if the original sin never occurred?”, is actually silly because it did occur; but if by discussing it we are led to a better discussion about the “primacy” of Christ, then Duns Scotus is my new hero.


Picture of About the Author: Charlie Taylor
About the Author: Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor grew up in Dallas, Texas, graduated from the University of Texas Business School and went into the commercial real estate business for about twenty years before enrolling in and graduating from Dallas Theological Seminary with honors.

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