John Duns Scotus was born in Scotland, studied theology at Oxford, England, and was ordained. About 1304 he migrated to Paris and obtained his doctor’s degree. Pressing on to Cologne, Germany, he taught theology for about a year before dying on November 8, 1308, at a relatively young age, probably under 40. A monument was erected to John Scotus in the Franciscan church in Cologne in 1513, reading: “Scotia (Scotland) gave me birth, England nursed me, Gaul educated me, Cologne holds my ashes.”

Scotus possessed a brilliant mind that shook up medieval theology. He had few qualms about criticizing earlier Catholic theologians—Thomas Aquinas and Anselm and the others—and he delighted in rattling students by challenging established beliefs. But, like many theologians, he was better at questioning than answering. His own theology is difficult to follow, and for that reason he is known to church history as “The Subtle Doctor.” He has perplexed and frustrated so many students that the word “Dunce” was coined from the “Duns” in the middle of his name.

Scotus became the first major theologian to advocate the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception: that Mary herself was conceived without any sin, that she was pure and sinless from the moment of her conception. At a public debate in Paris, it is said, Scotus pummeled the followers of Thomas Aquinas with 200 arguments on this subject, and the two camps waged one of the most bitter controversies in the pre-Reformation church.

Yet Scotus didn’t teach his position as dogma, but as probability, writing: “Upon this question I say that God was able to effect it that Mary was never in original sin. He was able also to effect it that she remained in sin for a moment or for a certain time and was cleansed of it in the last instant of that time. Which of the solutions really took place … God knows.”

His position on the subject nonetheless became established church teaching when Pope Pius IX proclaimed it a dogma in 1854.

Keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly, and proper. Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise. You know the teachings I gave you, … So follow my example. And God, who gives peace, will be with you. (Philippians 4:8,9)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Nov. 8.

*Header: Creator: Raimond Spekking Copyright: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.de

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