Medieval Christian scholars used to bestow honorary titles upon their most brilliant colleagues. They named St. Thomas Aquinas “Doctor Angelicus” (“Angelic Doctor”); Roger Bacon “Doctor Mirabilis” (“Marvelous Doctor”); St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “Doctor Mellifluus” (“Honey-spoken Doctor”), etc. The brilliant young Franciscan theologian, Blessed Duns Scotus, was given the title “Doctor Subtilis” (“Subtle Teacher”). And sharp-minded he was!
There has been some debate over John’s nationality. Because both the Irish and Scottish were anciently called “Scots,” the Irish have tried to claim him as an Irishman. By now, however, it seems pretty clear that he was a Scotsman, born in the little town of Duns in southeastern Scotland.
John’s family seems to have had the same name as the town. His paternal uncle, a Franciscan friar of Dumfries, Scotland, was named Elias Duns. It was Elias who gave John his earliest education. When he was 15, John himself entered the Franciscans, and around 1290 was sent for further schooling to Oxford University. Once ordained a priest in 1291, he was dispatched to Paris to study for the masterate of theology. His teacher was the eminent Spaniard Gonzalvo of Balboa. Friar John came back to Oxford in 1296, and from 1297 to 1301 lectured on the theology of Peter Lombard. (Peter’s book, the Sentences, was then the standard theological text.)
In 1302 Father John returned to Paris, hoping to finish his magisterial degree. After a year or so, however, he hit a snag. King Philip of France appealed from Pope Boniface VIII to an ecumenical council in a matter in which he and the pope had been disputing. It is wrong to appeal from a pope to a council, for the pope is head of the council; so Duns refused to sign the King’s protest. For his refusal he was sent into exile. His exile from the university was brief, however, and after he had received his degree in 1305, Duns taught two more years in Paris. In late 1307 he was sent to teach at Cologne, Germany. There he died on November 8, 1308, aged about 42. He was buried in the Minoriten (Franciscan) Church at Cologne. His Latin epitaph reads: “Scotland bore me, England received me, France taught me, Cologne holds me fast.”
Fr. Duns’ chief writings are his lecture notes on the Sentences, notes that he constantly revised. Over the years some of his alleged theological views have been disputed by scholastic theologians of other schools of thought. Frequently he has been criticized for works that were wrongly attributed to him. Although Duns did take a fresh and independent look at Catholic teachings, what this influential scholar taught was basic Catholic doctrine: God’s infinite love; Christ as “God’s greatest work” (a very Franciscan point of view); and Mary’s role in our redemption. Regarding Mary, it was Blessed John who evolved the arguments in proof of her immaculate conception. Five centuries after he wrote, the Immaculate Conception was defined as a dogma of faith.
Duns’ theological disciples were called Scotists. During the 16th century, first the Renaissance scholars and then the Protestant Reformers (both despisers of medieval culture), ridiculed the Scotists as hair-splitting sophists, and labeled their followers as “dunses” (or “dunces”). Hence, our familiar English word “dunce” for a stupid person!
The Church, however, has always considered Fr. John to be no “dunce”, but a genius and a holy man. The Franciscans have long regarded him as a saint, and in 1991 Pope John Paul II officially approved, thus equivalently declaring him “blessed”.
–Father Robert F. McNamara