We need more ‘Peter Lombards’ in the world.
Though he is not among the oft-spoken theologians, Lombard likely stands of equal or greater importance to the kingdom of God — at least, in our limited vision of history. While the legacy of many theologians lives on in their ideas, or quotations, or rhetoric, Lombard’s lasting impression remains his frameworks. Many theologians are known for their methods, their madness, or even their martyrdoms, but how many are remembered merely for their frames?
In a world which loves to deconstruct, we need structure-shaping activities. Often lost aimlessly in diverse opinions, a postmodern society that lives in liquid, we need solid places to grow and play! Sure, these never will be perfect; but, children (theology students) need playgrounds to experiment, learn, and grow. Peter Lombard provided that place for his generations, and opportunity for great minds to gradually progress.
Systematic theologies today remain as important as ever; and Lombard’s work began the entire project. The former scholastic (and for a short period, also the Bishop of Paris) attempted to bring the full-range of Christian thought together by scribing the book called, in Latin, the Libri Quatuor Sententiarum, The Four Books of Sentences. Simply abbreviated as The Sentences, in time, this text eventually became the standard textbook of its age, serving as every student’s primer to theology and the history of theology.
Through the providence of God, Lombard’s synthesis of various questions served the church by aiding its readers as they walked through competing views and quotations on a large number of topics. And, by organizing these comments on Trinity, creation, evil, sin, and every consequent topic, Peter put together a pedagogy that radically shaped the next generations.
Written about 1150 A.D, and put together in four parts (a sort of quadriform), the books themselves possesses a dialectical quality which immerse the reader in the thought of the Patristics and of Scripture: tradition and the Bible hand-in-hand, side-by-side. What it does so well, and desperately needed today, is helps the student weigh opinions on diverse matters, in an organized manner, while leaving the door open to add even more. Lombard did such a service to Western Europe that we could compare his work to John the Baptist — preparing the way and laying a foundation for even greater minds to come.
All this is significant in a few ways: first, though Lombard never offers more than a few comments compared to the massive number of quotations, if one really wants to understand Aquinas, Scotus, Luther, and Calvin, we would do well to read what they were reading. For centuries this work shaped nearly every Western theologian, at least until Martin Luther and John Calvin. Lombard sets the agenda through his organization for centuries to come in the theological community of Western Europe.
But, second, The Sentences helps remind us to swim calmly in the waters of historical interpretation, also founded the task of organizing our thoughts in systematic theology, and always immerses us in biblical theology, pointing back to the Scriptures themselves. This trio of topics surely should be the foundation every seminarian needs, if not the entire leadership of the church!
Basically, Lombard’s work can be seen as a model of theological organization. He simply puts together a sort of curriculum, one which helps people learn the Scriptures and the history of interpretation simultaneously. And, in reviewing both, the student sharpens their own ability to analyze concepts and properly think about theology. The Sentences first orders theology, then provides opportunity to grow in theology; it engages with past theology, and always roots theology in the Scriptures. Systematic theology, contemporary theology, historical theology, and biblical theology all come together under one roof.
Now, realizing not everyone can expect to have massive success when it comes to their published works, maybe we can tropologize this history in a way which narrows down this story into a small principle and an application. What would it look like to be like Lombard in our local churches?
Pastors, what structures are in place in your congregation to help the young, the convert, and the growing? In ten, twenty, thirty years, would your congregants learn ‘the whole counsel of God?’ Are your teachings organized and balanced by old opinions? Do you promote a synthesis of biblical, systematic, and historical theology?
Seminarians, do you aspire to learn without reference to the antiquities? Are you grappling with the efforts of past interpreters? Teachers, are your curriculum’s centred on the Scriptures, comprehensive and balanced, ordered and open-ended? Do you take a backseat to old opinions for the sake of greater clarity and growth? Or, do we instead flood the classroom (or the pulpit) with contemporary opinions? For the sake of our students, let us opt for the former, rather than the latter.
So in conclusion, as we aspire for Lombard-like leaders, willing to be fairly invisible, who set up future generations for success, consider the list that Fred Sanders copies out of Lombard’s works— the fivefold elements in a theologian’s mind. May we all, if anything be reminded to be ‘Lombardic’ in this way, as we consider these final things.1
- The trustworthiness of the promiser, which delights the theologian.
- The immensity of the work, which terrifies the theologian.
- The desire for progress, which encourages the theologian.
- The weakness of failure, which discourages the theologian.
- The zeal for God’s house, which overcomes the weakness.