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Professor Hopes to Shed New Light on Medieval Theological Education


Franklin T. Harkins, Ph.D., says that his studies of angels speak to the issue of how God communicates with humans.
Photo by Patrick Verel

Franklin T. Harkins, Ph.D., assistant professor of theology and medieval studies, is working to shed new light on the nature of theological education in the High Middle Ages.

As part of a yearlong Mellon Fellowship at the Pontifical Institute of Medi­aeval Studies (PIMS) in Toronto, Harkins has been researching how theology was taught and learned at the universities and in the religious houses of medieval western Europe.

His work at PIMS involves editing and studying a Latin text, virtually unknown to modern scholars, that enjoyed wide circulation and use throughout western Europe from the 13th through the 15th centuries. This text appears in some of the manuscripts under the title Filia Magistri, or “The Daughter of the Master.”

The Filia Magistri is an anonymous 13th-century abridgement of Peter Lombard’s Four Books of Sentences. The Sentences, produced in the mid-12th century, consist primarily of the statements of Augustine and other ancient Christian authorities on the gamut of theological topics, he said. From the 13th until the 16th century, all aspiring masters of theology at European universities (from St. Thomas Aquinas to Martin Luther) were required to lecture publicly and produce a formal commentary on the Lombard’s book.

The Sentences became, then, the primary “textbook” of scholastic theology during the High and Late Middle Ages, being commented on by theologians more than any other book save the Bible, Harkins said.

“Modern scholars have tended to think of the Sentences and the rich tradition of commenting on it as confined strictly to the university context. They also have imagined that once Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas arrived at the University of Paris around the middle of the 13th century and began to produce ‘full-blown’ commentaries on the Sentences, the earlier traditions of glossing and abridging the Lombard’s text were forever eclipsed,” Harkins said.

But the manuscript witnesses to the Filia Magistri tell quite a different story, indicating that abbreviated versions of the Sentences were made well into the 15th century for the theological instruction of mendicants, monks and canons who were not bound for the university.

Furthermore, the Filia circulated in the manuscripts with penitential manuals, treatises and sermons on the virtues and vices, homilies on various feast days, expositions of the Hail Mary and poems on the Our Father and the Apostles’ Creed.

“This pattern of manuscript trans­mission suggests that Dominicans and other religious not only used this abridgement for their own theological education and spiritual edification, but also employed it in their preaching and pastoral ministry,” Harkins said.

“One of the really interesting things about Peter Lombard’s book is that it became an indispensable pedagogical tool in the university classroom. So one of my primary research questions about the Filiais, ‘What happened pedagogically when this theology textbook was abbreviated and updated?’ Because modern scholars have tended to denigrate the Sentences as an ‘unoriginal’ compilation of patristic opinions and would see even less value in studying an abbreviation of such a work, we still know extremely little about how the Lombard’s book was taught and learned ‘on the ground’ during the Middle Ages. But here again, the Filia Magistri promises to shed new light on our understanding,” Harkins said.

Perhaps most importantly, Harkins has found that in terms of its theological content, the Filia Magistrisets forth the same basic teaching on various theological issues that one finds more fully developed in formal commentaries.

“In applying the latest philosophical categories and theological insights to the Lombard’s presentation, the Filia aligns with the basic doctrines of Albert, Bonaventure and Aquinas, though the new commentary genre—with its greater independence from the source text—enables these theologians to develop their points at much greater length and with more conceptual nuance and linguistic precision,” he said.

“Such comparative analyses not only teach us much about the theological training of ordinary Franciscans and Dominicans, but also invite us to think in new ways about the theological work of university masters such as Bonaventure and Aquinas in light of their own mendicant training and vocations,” he said.

Harkins has been invited to include his work on the Filia Magistri in volume three of Mediaeval Commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, which is scheduled to be published in 2013.

Another example of Harkins’s recent work on scholastic theology will be published this summer in the journal Recherches de Theologie et Philosophie Medievales. His article, titled “The Embodiment of Angels: A Debate in Mid-Thirteenth Century Theology,” examines how university masters wrestled with the metaphysical reality of angels in light of scriptural teaching and philosophical understandings.

“In Genesis 18, three visitors come to Abraham, and the Christian tradition identifies them as angels. They have bodies and they seem to eat with Abraham. So scholastic thinkers sought to reconcile the philosophical truth that angels are purely spiritual and incorporeal beings that don’t need bodies to operate with the revealed reality that they nevertheless seem to be embodied,” he said.

“No mid-13th-century master thought that angels had real, organic bodies like humans do. Rather, they all taught that these incorporeal creatures merely assume bodily forms so that humans might be able to see them, experience them corporeally, and thereby understand the divinely ordained purposes for which they have been sent.”

Harkins’s other major area of research interest is medieval Jewish-Christian relations. Here he draws inspiration from Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions. Harkins’s publications in this area include an essay titled “Unwitting Witnesses: Jews and Judaism in the Thought of Augustine” (Augustine and World Religions, Lexington Books, 2008), and a volume he edited in honor of his doctoral director, the late Rabbi Michael Signer, titled Transforming Relations: Essays on Jews and Christians throughout History in Honor of Michael A. Signer (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010).


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