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§ 23. John Gerson, Theologian and Church Leader.

In John Gerson, 1363–1429, we have the most attractive and the most influential theological leader of the first half of the fifteenth century. He was intimately identified with the University of Paris as professor and as its chancellor in the period of its most extensive influence in Europe. His voice carried great weight in the settlement of the questions rising out of the papal schism.

Jean Charlier Gerson, born Dec. 14, 1363, in the village of Gerson, in the diocese of Rheims, was the oldest of twelve children. In a letter to him still extant,383383    Schwab, p. 51. his mother, a godly woman, pours out her heart in the prayer that her children may live in unity with each other and with God. Two of John’s brothers became ecclesiastics. In 1377 Gerson went to Paris, entering the College of Navarre. This college was founded by Johanna, queen of Navarre, 1304, who provided for 3 departments, the arts with 20 students, philosophy with 30 and theology with 20 students. Provision was made also for their support, 4 Paris sous weekly for the artists, 6 for the logicians and 8 for the theologians. These allowances were to continue until the graduates held benefices of the value respectively of 30, 40 and 60 pounds. The regulations allowed the theological students a fire, daily, from November to March after dinner and supper for one half-hour. The luxury of benches was forbidden by a commission appointed by Urban V. in 1366. On the festival days, the theologians were expected to deliver a collation to their fellow-students of the three classes. The rector at the head of the college, originally appointed by the faculty of the university, was now appointed by the king’s confessor. The students wore a special dress and the tonsure, spoke Latin amongst themselves and ate in common.

Gerson, perhaps the most distinguished name the University of Paris has on its list of students, was a faithful and enthusiastic son of his alma mater, calling her "his mother," "the mother of the light of the holy Church," "the nurse of all that is wise and good in Christendom," "a prototype of the heavenly Jerusalem," "the fountain of knowledge, the lamp of our faith, the beauty and ornament of France, yea, of the whole world."384384    Schwab, p. 59.

In 1382, at the age of nineteen, he passed into the theological department, and a year later came under the guidance of D’Ailly, the newly appointed rector, remaining under him for seven years. Gerson was already a marked man, and was chosen in 1383 procurator of the French "nation," and in 1387 one of the delegation to appear before Clement VII. and argue the case against John of Montson. This Dominican, who had been condemned for denying the immaculate conception of Mary, refused to recant on the plea that in being condemned Thomas Aquinas was condemned, and he appealed to the pope. The University of Paris took up the case, and D’Ailly in two addresses before the papal consistory took the ground that Thomas, though a saint, was not infallible. The case went against De Montson; and the Dominicans, who refused to bow to the decision, left the university and did not return till 1403.

Gerson advocated Mary’s exemption from original as well as actual sin, and made a distinction between her and Christ, Christ being exempt by nature, and Mary—domina nostra — by an act of divine grace. This doctrine, he said, cannot be immediately derived from the Scriptures,385385    In scriptura sacra neque continetur explicite neque in contentis eadem educitur evidenter, Du Pin’s ed. III. 1350. For sermons on the conception, nativity and annunciation of the Virgin’ vol. III. 1317-1377. Also III. 941, and Du Pin’s Gersoniana, I. cviii. sq. but, as the Apostles knew more than the prophets, so the Church teachers know some things the Apostles did not know.

At D’Ailly’s promotion to the episcopate, 1395, his pupil fell heir to both his offices, the offices of professor of theology and chancellor of the university. In the discussion over the healing of the schism in which the university took the leading part, he occupied a place of first prominence, and by tracts, sermons and public memorials directed the opinion of the Church in this pressing matter. The premise from which he started out was that the peace of the Church is an essential condition to the fulfilment of its mission. This view he set forth in a famous sermon, preached in 1404 at Tarascon before Benedict XIII. and the duke of Orleans. Princes and prelates, he declared, both owe obedience to law. The end for which the Church was constituted is the peace and well-being of men. All Church authority is established to subserve the interests of peace. Peace is so great a boon that all should be ready to renounce dignities and position for it. Did not Christ suffer shame? Better for a while to be without a pope than that the Church should observe the canons and not have peace, for there can be salvation where there is no pope.386386    Potest absque papa mortali stare salus, Du Pin, II. 72. The Tarascon sermon is given by Du Pin Pin, II. 54-72. Schwab’s analysis, pp. 171-178. A general council should be convened, and it was pious to believe that in the treatment of the schism it would not err—pium est credere non erraret. As Schwab has said, no one had ever preached in the same way to a pope before. The sermon caused a sensation.

Gerson, though not present at the council of Pisa, contributed to its discussions by his important tracts on the Unity of the Church—De unitate ecclesiastica— and the Removal of a Pope—De auferbilitate papae ab ecclesia. The views set forth were that Christ is the head of the Church, and its monarchical constitution is unchangeable. There must be one pope, not several, and the bishops are not equal in authority with him. As the pope may separate himself from the Church, so the Church may separate itself from the pope. Such action might be required by considerations of self-defence. The papal office is of God, and yet the pope may be deposed even by a council called without his consent. All Church offices and officials exist for the good of the Church, that is, for the sake of peace which comes through the exercise of love. If a pope has a right to defend himself against, say, the charge of unchastity, why should not the Church have a like right to defend itself? A council acts under the immediate authority of Christ and His laws. The council may pronounce against a pope by virtue of the power of the keys which is given not only to one but to the body—unitati. Aristotle declared that the body has the right, if necessary, to depose its prince. So may the council, and whoso rejects a council of the Church rejects God who directs its action. A pope may be deposed for heresy and schism, as, for example, if he did not bend the knee before the sacrament, and he might be deposed when no personal guilt was chargeable against him, as in the case already referred to, when he was a captive of the Saracens and was reported dead.

At the Council of Constance, where Gerson spoke as the delegate of the French king, he advocated these positions again and again with his voice, as in his address March 23, 1415, and in a second address July 21, when he defended the decree which the synod had passed at its fifth session. He reasserted that the pope may be forced to abdicate, that general councils are above the popes and that infallibility only belongs to the Church as a body or its highest representative, a general council.387387    See Schwab, pp. 520 sqq., 668.

A blot rests upon Gerson’s name for the active part he took in the condemnation of John Huss. He was not above his age, and using the language of Innocent III. called heresy a cancer.388388    In a sermon before the Council of Constance, Du Pin, II. 207. He declares that he was as zealous in the proceedings against Huss and Wyclif as any one could be.389389    Dialog. apologet., Du Pin, II. 387 He pronounced the nineteen errors drawn from Huss’ work on the Church "notoriously heretical." Heresy, he declared, if it is obstinate, must be destroyed even by the death of its professors.390390    Ad punitionem et exterminationem errantium, Du Pin, II. 277. He denied Huss’ fundamental position that nothing is to be accepted as divine truth which is not found in Scripture. Gerson also condemned the appeal to conscience, explicitly assuming the old position of Church authority and canon law as final. The opinions of an individual, however learned he may be in the Scriptures, have no weight before the judgment of a council.391391    See Schwab, pp. 599, 601.

In the controversy over the withdrawal of the cup from the laity, involved in the Bohemian heresy, Gerson also took an extreme position, defending it by arguments which seem to us altogether unworthy of a genuine theology. In a tract on the subject he declared that, though some passages of Scripture and of the Fathers favored the distribution of both wine and bread, they do not contain a definite command, and in the cases where an explicit command is given it must be understood as applying to the priests who are obliged to commune under both kinds so as to fully represent Christ’s sufferings and death. But this is not required of the laity who commune for the sake of the effect of Christ’s death and not to set it forth. Christ commanded only the Apostles to partake of both kinds.392392    Contra heresin de communione laicorum sub utraque specie, Du Pin, I. 457-468. See Schwab, p. 604 sqq. The custom of lay communion was never universal, as is proved by Acts 2:42, 46. The essence of the sacrament of the body and blood is more important than the elements, John 6:54. But the whole Christ is in either element, and, if some of the doctors take a different view, the Church’s doctrine is to be followed, and not they. From time immemorial the Church has given the communion only in one form. The Council of Constance was right in deciding that only a single element is necessary to a saving participation in the sacrament. The Church may make changes in the outward observance when the change does not touch the essence of the right in question. The use of the two elements, once profitable, is now unprofitable and heretical.

To these statements Gerson added practical considerations against the distribution of the cup to laymen, such as the danger of spilling the wine, of soiling the vessels from the long beards of laymen, of having the wine turn to vinegar, if it be preserved for the sick and so it cease to be the blood of Christ—et ita desineret esse sanguis Christi — and from the impossibility of consecrating in one vessel enough for 10,000 to 20,000 communicants, as at Easter time may be necessary. Another danger was the encouragement such a practice would give to the notions that priest and layman are equal, and that the chief value of the sacrament lies in the participation and not in the consecration of the elements.393393    Quod virtus hujus sacramenti non principalius in consecratione quam in sumptione, Du Pin, I. 467. Such are some of the "scandals" which this renowned teacher ascribed to the distribution of the cup to the laity.

A subject on which Gerson devoted a great deal of energy for many years was whether the murder of tyrants or of a traitorous vassal is justifiable or not. He advocated the negative side of the case, which he failed to win before the Council of Constance. The question grew out of the treatment of the half-insane French king, Charles VI. (1880–1422), and the attempt of different factions to get control of the government.

On Nov. 28, 1407, the king’s cousin, Louis, duke of Orleans, was murdered at the command of the king’s uncle, John, duke of Burgundy. The duke’s act was defended by the Franciscan and Paris professor, John Petit,—Johannes Parvus,—in an address delivered before the king March 8, 1408. Gerson, who at an earlier time seems to have advocated the murder of tyrants, answered Petit in a public address, and called upon the king to suppress Petit’s nine propositions.394394    Vol. V. of Gerson’s works is taken up with documents bearing on this subject. Gerson’s addresses, bearing upon it at Constance, are given in vol. II. See Schwab, p. 609 sqq., and Bess, Zur Geschichte, etc. The Chartularium, IV. 261-285, 325 sqq., gives the nine propositions in French, with Gerson’s reply, and other matter pertaining to the controversy. The University of Paris made Gerson’s cause its own. Petit died in 1411, but the controversy went on. Petit’s theory was this, that every vassal plotting against his lord is deserving of death in soul and body. He is a tyrant, and according to the laws of nature and God any one has the right to put him out of the way. The higher such a person is in rank, the more meritorious is the deed. He based his argument upon Thomas Aquinas, John of Salisbury, Aristotle, Cicero and other writers, and referred to Moses, Zambri and St. Michael who cast Lucifer out of heaven, and other examples. The duke of Orleans was guilty of treason against the king, and the duke of Burgundy was justified in killing him.

The bishop of Paris, supported by a commission of the Inquisition and at the king’s direction, condemned Petit and his views. In February, 1414, Gerson made a public address defending the condemnation, and two days later articles taken from Petit’s work were burnt in front of Notre Dame. The king ratified the bishop’s judgment, and the duke of Burgundy appealed the case to Rome.395395    Schwab, p. 620.

The case was now transferred to the council, which at its fifteenth session, July 6, 1415, passed a compromise measure condemning the doctrine that a tyrant, in the absence of a judicial sentence, may and ought to be put to death by any subject whatever, even by the use of treacherous means, and in the face of an oath without committing perjury. Petit was not mentioned by name. It was this negative and timid action, which led Gerson to say that if Huss had had a defender, he would not have been found guilty. It was rumored that the commission which was appointed to bring in a report, by sixty-one out of eighty votes, decided for the permissibility of Petit’s articles declaring that Peter meant to kill the high priest’s servant, and that, if he had known Judas’ thoughts at the Last Supper, he would have been justified in killing him. The duke of Burgundy’s gold is said to have been freely used.396396    Mansi, XXVII. 765, Quilibet tyrannus potest et debet licite et meritorie occidi per quemcumque ... non expectata sententia vel mandato judicis cuiuscumque. For D’Ailly’s part, see Tschackert, pp. 235-247. The party led by the bishop of Arras argued that the tyrant who takes the sword is to be punished with the sword. Gerson, who was supported by D’Ailly replied that then the command "thou shalt not kill" would only forbid such an act as murder, if there was coupled with it an inspired gloss, "without judicial authority." The command means, "thou shalt not kill the innocent, or kill out of revenge." Gerson pressed the matter for the last time in an address delivered before the council, Jan. 17, 1417, but the council refused to go beyond the decree of the fifteenth session.

The duke of Burgundy got possession of Paris in 1418, and Gerson found the doors of France closed to him. Under the protection of the duke of Bavaria he found refuge at Rattenberg and later in Austria. On the assassination of the duke of Burgundy himself, with the connivance of the dauphin, Sept. 10, 1419, he returned to France, but not to Paris. He went to Lyons, where his brother John was, and spent his last years there in monastic seclusion. The dauphin is said to have granted him 200 livres in 1420 in recognition of his services to the crown.

It remains to speak of Gerson as a theologian, a preacher and a patriot.

In the department of theology proper Gerson has a place among the mystics.397397    Gerson’s mysticism is presented in such tracts as De vita spirituali animae and De monte contemplationis, Du Pin, III. 1-77, 541-579. Mysticism he defines as "the art of love," the "perception of God through experience." Such experience is reached by humility and penance more than through the path of speculation. The contemplative life is most desirable, but, following Christ’s example, contemplation must be combined with action. The contemplation of God consists of knowledge as taught in John 17:3, "This is life eternal, to know Thee and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent." Such knowledge is mingled with love. The soul is one with God through love. His mysticism was based, on the one hand, on the study of the Scriptures and, on the other, on the study of Bonaventura and the St. Victors. He wrote a special treatise in praise of Bonaventura and his mystical writings. Far from having any conscious affinity with the German mystics, he wrote against John of Ruysbroeck and Ruysbroeck’s pupil, John of Schönhofen, charging them with pantheism.

While Gerson emphasized the religious feelings, he was far from being a religious visionary and wrote treatises against the dangers of delusion from dreams and revelations. As coins must be tested by their weight, hardness, color, shape and stamp, so visions are to be tested by the humility and honesty of those who profess to have them and their readiness to teach and be taught. He commended the monk who, when some one offered to show him a figure like Christ, replied, "I do not want to see Christ on the earth. I am contented to wait till I see him in heaven."

When the negotiations were going on at the Council of Constance for the confirmation of the canonization of St. Brigitta, Gerson laid down the principle that, if visions reveal what is already in the Scriptures,398398    In his De probatione spirituum, Du Pin, I. 37-43; and De distinctione verarum visionum a falsis, Du Pin, I. 43-59. then they are false, for God does not repeat Himself, Job 33:14. People have itching ears for revelations because they do not study the Bible. Later he warned399399    De examinatione doctrinarum. Du Pin, I. 7-22. against the revelations of women, as women are more open to deception than men.

The Scriptures, Gerson taught, are the Church’s rule and guide to the end of the world. If a single statement should be proved false, then the whole volume is false, for the Holy Spirit is author of the whole. The letter of the text, however, is not sufficient to determine their meaning, as is proved from the translations of the Waldenses, Beghards and other secretaries.400400    Si propositio aliqua J. scripturae posita assertive per auctorem suum, qui est Sp. sanctus, esset falsa. tota s. scripturae vacillaret auctoritas, quoted by Schwab, p. 314. The text needs the authority of the Church, as Augustine indicated when he said, "I would not believe the Gospel if the authority of the Church did not compel me."

Great as Gerson’s services were in other departments, it was, to follow his sympathetic and scholarly biographer, Schwab, from the pulpit that he exercised most influence on his generation.401401    Gerson hatte seine einflussreiche Stellung vorzugsweise dem Rufe zu danken den er als Prediger genoss, Schwab, p. 376. He preached in French as well as Latin, and his sermons had, for the most part, a practical intent, being occupied with ethical themes such as pride, idleness, anger, the commandments of the Decalogue, the marital state. He held that the ordinary priest should confine himself to a simple explanation of the Decalogue, the greater sins and the articles of faith.

During the last ten years of his life, spent in seclusion at Lyons, he continued his literary activity, writing more particularly in the vein of mystical theology. His last work was on the Canticles.

The tradition runs that the great teacher in his last years conducted a catechetical school for children in St. Paul’s at Lyons, and that he taught them to offer for himself the daily prayer, "God, my creator, have pity upon Thy poor servant, Jean Gerson"—Mon Dieu, mon Createur, ayez pitié de vostre pauvre serviteur, Jean Gerson.402402    See Schwab, p. 773, who neither accepts nor rejects the tradition. Dr. Philip Schaff used to bring the last literary activity of President Theodore D. Wolsey, of Yale College, into comparison with the activity of Gerson. In his last years Dr. Wolsey wrote the expositions of the Sunday school lessons for the Sunday School Times. It was for young boys and perhaps for boys spending their first years in the university that he wrote his tractate entitled Leading Children to Christ.403403    De parvulis ad Christum trahendis, written according to Schwab, 1409-1412, Du Pin, III. 278-291. It opens with an exposition of the words, "Suffer little children to come unto me" and proceeds to show how much more seemly it is to offer to God our best in youth than the dregs of sickly old age. The author takes up the sins children should be admonished to avoid, especially unchastity, and holds up to reprobation the principle that vice is venial if it is kept secret, the principle expressed in the words si non caste tamen caute.

In a threefold work, giving a brief exposition of the Ten Commandments, a statement of the seven mortal sins and some short meditations on death and the way to meet it, Gerson gives a sort of catechism, although it is not thrown into the form of questions and answers. As the author states, it was intended for the benefit of poorly instructed curates who heard confessions, for parents who had children to instruct, for persons not interested in the public services of worship and for those who had the care of the sick in hospitals.404404    Opusculum tripartitum: de preceptis decalogi, de confessione, et de arte moriendi, Du Pin, I., 425-450. Bess, in Herzog, VI. 615, calls it "the first catechism."

The title, most Christian doctor—doctor christianissimus — given to John Gerson is intended to emphasize the evangelical temper of his teaching. To a clear intellect, he added warm religious fervor. With a love for the Church, which it would be hard to find excelled, he magnified the body of Christian people as possessing the mind and immediate guidance of Christ and threw himself into the advocacy of the principle that the judgment of Christendom, as expressed in a general council, is the final authority of religious matters on the earth.

He opposed some of the superstitions inherited from another time. He emphasized the authority of the sacred text. In these views as in others he was in sympathy with the progressive spirit of his age. But he stopped short of the principles of the Reformers. He knew nothing of the principles of individual sovereignty and the rights of conscience. His thinking moved along churchly lines. He had none of the bold original thought of Wyclif and little of that spirit which sets itself against the current errors of the times in which we live. His vote for Huss’ burning proves sufficiently that the light of the new age had not dawned upon his mind. He was not, like them, a forerunner of the movement of the sixteenth century.

The chief principle for which Gerson contended, the supremacy of general councils, met with defeat soon after the great chancellor’s death, and was set aside by popes and later by the judgment of a general council. His writings, however, which were frequently published remain the chief literary monuments in the department of theology of the first half of the fourteenth century.405405    The first complete edition of Gerson’s writings appeared from the press of John Koelhoff. 4 vols. Cologne, 1483, 1484. The celebrated preacher, Geiler of Strassburg, edited a second edition 1488. Separated from the Schoolmen in spirit and method, he stands almost in a class by himself, the most eminent theologian of his century. This judgment is an extension of the judgment of the eminent German abbot and writer, Trithemius, at the close of the fifteenth century: "He was by far the chief divine of his age"406406    Schwab, p. 779, note. Theologorum sui temporis longe princeps.


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