Abelard and the Doctrine of the Atonement (1)

Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


It is a bit difficult to make choices concerning the indi-vidual about whom to write when many others taught the same heresy as we wish to describe in this article. The heresy has to do with our Lord’s atoning work on the cross. The choice of the story of Abelard is, therefore, somewhat arbitrary.

Yet, there are certain reasons why I have chosen to write about Abelard and not others who held to the same heresy concerning the atonement as this man. The first reason, probably the most important, is that Abelard himself was a contemporary of Anselm, and, in fact, studied briefly under him.

That may not immediately strike one as being a good reason to choose him. But I ask the reader to consider the fact that Anselm was not only the sole defender of a sound and biblical doctrine of the atonement in the entire Middle Ages, but he was also a man whom God used to make an important and significant development of the doctrine. In fact, one really looks in vain for any significant development of the truth in the entire period from Augustine to the Reformation—a period of over 1000 years. Anselm is the exception. He did what no other medieval church man did. And he developed the truth in a crucially important area.

I have written on Anselm earlier. One can find the material in Portraits of Faithful Saints, pp. 73-78. If one would read that chapter, this present article would have more meaning.

The second reason for choosing Abelard as the representative of heretical views on the atonement is that Abelard represented an extreme position. If I may make that a bit clearer, the question that was at issue was really the necessity of the atonement. That is, was Christ’s atoning sacrifice necessary for salvation? or could God have saved without Christ’s suffering and death on the cross?

Anselm insisted on the absolute necessity of the atonement for salvation. Many others, in fact almost all medieval theologians, denied this necessity of the atonement. Some said that the atonement was partially necessary, but not completely so; others said that it was not necessary at all, but served a different purpose. The latter view is the extreme view. It was the view of Abelard.

Perhaps another reason for writing on Abelard can be mentioned. His life was an extremely interesting one. It throws a lot of light on what life in the church during the Middle Ages was like. It gives us insight into the activities of a genuine scholar, though heretic. It even has the spice of romance about it. It makes for fascinating reading.

That brings up another point that needs mentioning. Abelard was not heretical only in his views of the atonement; he was heretical in many other views. He had a wrong doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture, of the Trinity, and of faith and knowledge. For these views he was condemned by his own church. Yet, for his views on the atonement he was never condemned. That says a lot about the state of Roman Catholicism in the time in which Abelard lived.

I am not going to write very much about Abelard’s heretical views on inspiration and the Trinity; my concern in this article is the doctrine of the atonement. To a discussion of Abelard and that doctrine we turn.

Abelard’s Rise to Fame

Though Abelard went through life with the name Peter, he was given at birth the French version, Pierre. To designate the place of his birth, he was called Pierre de Palais, for he was born in the village of Palais, a small village in Brittany. The year was 1079.

He was born of nobility, and his father, Berengar, was lord of the village and a knight. Abelard gave up his prerogatives among the nobility in favor of a life of study and teaching. He was, from an intellectual point of view, qualified for this kind of a career, for he was a brilliant student, a gifted teacher, and an original thinker—somewhat too original for his own good.

His first teacher was a man by the name of Roscelin, a gifted teacher in his own right. It must be remembered that in those days a gifted teacher would simply begin teaching somewhere. He would usually draw students to him who would then pay him to be instructed by him. Sometimes he was connected to a school (usually a cathedral school), but not always. The more gifted he was, the more students he attracted, the greater grew his fame, and the fuller were his pockets.

After a brief stay with Roscelin, Abelard wandered about for a time engaging in some teaching here and there. He eventually moved to Paris and studied under William of Champeaux, himself a man with a reputation that extended to the far reaches of Europe.

It was during these years of study under William that one of Abelard’s chief personality traits appeared. Abelard was plagued all his life by a towering pride. Perhaps this was bred into him by his birth among the nobility, but it was fed by his intellectual acumen and success in studies. Pride is common to all men who have fallen in Adam, but intellectual pride is a curse on those who are responsible for studying and teaching, and it is almost as great a barrier to salvation as riches are to a wealthy man. Abelard had plenty of intellectual pride.

Abelard set himself up as a rival to William and began to teach views differing from William in an obvious attempt to steal William’s students. He was remarkably successful. He drew students by the hundreds, from all parts of Europe. He claims in his autobiography, though probably with a bit of exaggeration, that he took all of William’s students from him.

But intellectual pride was not limited to Abelard; William also had his share of it. Because of his position and “seniority” in academic circles in Paris, William was able to force Abelard out of the city. This was in 1113, while Abelard was still relatively young.

It was at this point that Abelard went to Anselm, who, although he later went to England to become archbishop of Canterbury, was at this time still in France.

Schaff has an interesting comparison of the two men.

[Abelard’s] fame was derived from the brilliance of his intellect. He differed widely from Anselm. The latter was a constructive theologian; Abelard, a critic. Anselm was deliberate; Abelard, impulsive and rash. Anselm preferred seclusion; Abelard sought publicity. Among teachers exercising the spell of magnetism over their hearers, Abelard stands in the front rank and probably has not been excelled in France. In some of his theological reflections he was in advance of his age…. A man of daring thought and restless disposition, he was unstable in his mental beliefs and morally unreliable.

Soon Abelard took issue with Anselm also and left him to seek greener pastures elsewhere. He was sufficiently arrogant to describe Anselm as a man with a wonderful flow of words, but not thoughts; as one who lights a fire but fills the house with smoke.

The years that followed were Abelard’s glory years. He went to Paris because William, who had retired, was no longer a threat, and he was invited to preside over the cathedral school. Schaff once again has an interesting description of these years.

All the world seemed about to do him homage. Scholars from all parts thronged to hear him. He lectured on philosophy and theology. He was well read in classical and widely read in sacred literature. His dialectic powers were ripe and, where arguments failed, the teacher’s imagination and rhetoric came to the rescue. His books were read not only in the schools and convents, but in castles and guildhouses. William of Thierry said they crossed the seas and overleaped the Alps. When he visited towns, the people crowded the streets and strained their necks to catch a glimpse of him. His remarkable influence over men and women must be explained not by his intellectual depth so much as by a certain daring and literary art and brilliance. He was attractive of person…. To

these qualities he added a gay cheerfulness which expressed itself in composition of song and in singing….

Abelard’s Mighty Fall

The Scriptures warn us that pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. So it was with Abelard.

His fall came about through what has become known in history as the “Heloise affair.” The grim and sordid details are not necessary to relate. Heloise was the daughter of a canon, attractive, younger than Abelard by many years, and in need of instruction. Abelard persuaded her father that he was eminently suited to be her tutor. The end was a passionate love affair, an illegitimate child, a hasty marriage which really never was a marriage, and disgrace for them both. In a fury over Abelard’s deceptiveness, Heloise’s father conspired with others to have Abelard mutilated, and both he and Heloise ended in monasteries.

Abelard never changed from the proud man he had always been. He really wanted no part of marriage, fearful that it would spoil his career. He insisted on being married in secret and he spoke disparagingly of this divine institution.

What accord has study with nurses, writing materials with cradles, books and desks with spinning wheels, reeds and ink with spindles! Who, intent upon sacred and philosophical reflections, could endure the squalling of children, the lullabies of nurses and the noisy crowd of men and women! Who would stand the disagreeable and constant dirt of little children!

Abelard’s Heresies and Final Days

And yet, in a way, it was not his fornication which brought him down, but his heresies. It is well to be reminded of the fact that heresy in the church is deliberate. When an officebearer in the church or a teacher in the school begins to teach false doctrine, it is not ignorance which leads to this sorry state. It is a deliberate perversion of the truth. And such deliberate distortion of the truth is almost always, if not always, rooted in intellectual pride. Pride in one’s knowledge, in one’s acumen, in one’s intellectual abilities, in one’s vast learning, leads to the desire to promote oneself in the eyes of others. What better way to promote one’s great gifts than to be original in one’s thinking? And what better way to demonstrate one’s originality than by teaching doctrines which have not been taught before—at least in the form in which one now proposes them? Or what better way to show one’s independence from other great theologians in the history of the church than by taking issue with them at certain points?

So it was with Abelard. It is the great temptation that comes to all who occupy positions of leadership in the church of Christ. It is a devil, for ministers at least, often worse than riches.

Abelard did deny the Trinity. We do not need to go into the heresy here, for, in fact, his heresy was an old one. He identified various virtues of God with the persons in the holy Trinity and thus denied the personal distinctions in God altogether. It was a kind of modalism, which teaches that God, one in person and one in being, reveals Himself in three different ways.

He was condemned in 1121 by the synod of Soissons. He was required to burn his own books. And he was sentenced to read the Athanasian Creed (which defines the doctrine of the Trinity; it can be found in the back of the Psalter used in the Protestant Reformed Churches) in public.

For a time Abelard became the abbot of a monastery in Brittany, but he was totally unable to control the wild behavior of the monks who lived in gluttony, drunkenness, and immorality. In fact, on two different occasions these monks, chafing under his efforts to reform them, tried to kill him, once by putting poison in his wine.

For a time he became the counselor of the monastery to which his wife Heloise had retired as a nun, but this did not work, and public opinion, scandalized by the idea, forced him to flee once again.

Much of his life from this point on is obscure, because his autobiography breaks off at this point, and he seems to have become a lost man. He wandered about from place to place, staying in each place for a while, teaching and gathering a circle of students. But his influence was gone.

In 1141 he was once again tried, this time by the synod of Sens, for other heresies. He refused to defend himself, but appealed to the pope. He was, however, condemned by Innocent II, who ordered him to be silent and to retire to a monastery. Innocent ordered his books to be burned and his followers to be excommunicated.

Abelard spent his last days in his studies, “reading constantly, praying often, gladly keeping silence.” But he was broken by his sufferings and died in 1142. He was buried in the monastery where Heloise lived, and when she died, she was buried alongside him.

The heresies for which he was condemned by the synod of Sens were especially denials of the inspiration of Scripture. He taught that the same inspiration which brought into existence the Bible was present in the great Greek and Roman philosophers as well as in pagan holy writings. Degrees of inspiration are present in all writings and the degree of divine influence varies from one writing to another. Scripture, therefore, contained many human errors.

How modern Abelard was. Those who deny Scripture’s inspiration today have not advanced much beyond Abelard.

… to be continued.