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“Everybody Loves a Lover,” sang Doris Day. Perhaps this explains why the medieval romance carried on by correspondence between a monk and a nun nearly nine centuries ago continues to cast its hypnotic spell on artists and audiences across the ages of pages in the dust-settled tomes of love lore. Before Cyrano de Bergerac (the fictional one, not the real one) pined for Roxanne, before John Alden stole the heart of Priscilla Mullins from Miles Standish, before Romeo gasped, “But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?” at the sight of Juliet, before Petrarch’s jaw dropped at the sight of Laura attending Good Friday mass, and before Beatrice inspired Dante to write La Vita Nuova-before any of those rank amateurs came along, there was Abélard and Héloïse.

Their love has been celebrated in painting and architecture. Poetry has been versed, songs have been stanzaed, plays have been staged, and movies have been celluloided, all in their honor. The 18th century English poet Alexander Pope sought to capture Héloïse’s regretful passion in his poem “Eloisa to Abelard.” The couple was the subject of the less-than-successful 1988 film Stealing Heaven, directed by Clive Donner and starring Derek de Lint as Abélard and Kim Thomson as Héloïse. In 1935 Cole Porter introduced them to Broadway audiences when he wrote:

    •  As Abelard said to Eloise
    • “Don’t forget to drop a line to me, please”
    • …It was just one of those things
    • Just one of those crazy flings
    • One of those bells that now and then rings
    Just one of those things

More recently, Howard Brenton’s play, In Extremis: The Story of Abelard and Heloise, opened at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London in 2006.

In spite of all this, and even being mentioned in what has become a jazz standard, you might say that Abélard and Héloïse are the most famous lovers that most people today have never heard of, at least outside of their native France. One might conclude from these playful lines that Porter was at least aware of the letters they exchanged long after their passionate romance came to a tragic end.

As it turns out, those letters are far more interesting than the artistic representations of the ill-fated couple. They can be especially spell-binding for anyone with an awareness of medieval European history in general, medieval church history in particular-or even more in particular: the history of theology. So many important themes intersect in their lives that would later become dominant in more “enlightened” and “romantic” times: faith and reason, love and learning, honor and shame, passion and duty-and perhaps above all for those captivated by the romance of their story, the question of which was the ultimate expression of Héloïse’s love for Abélard, her willingness to be his secret wife, or her willingness to don the nun’s habit and never see him again.

But for our purposes here, it will be the pervasive but often overlooked theme in their letters upon which I will focus. This is the 900-pound elephant in the room of their shared life, only in this case, unlike the elephant in the cliché, this one does not go unmentioned. Were it not for this one theme, nothing would have happened to Héloïse and Abélard the way it did. It is the theme of sin and redemption.

Ladies, break out your tissue boxes!

He was born of Breton stock in western France, and depictions of him with typically Celtic red hair go at least as far back as the 14th century. Extremely bright and musically talented, he was also, by his own admission, rather good looking. It was said that his appearance set the hearts of the young ladies all a-flutter even as young men came from all over Europe to sit under his teaching (cf. Michael T. Clanchy, Abelard: A Medieval Life, [Oxford, UK, and Cambridge, USA: Blackwell, 1999], 3).

Pierre Abélard has been known in Latin as Petrus Abaelardus or Abailard, in German as Peter Abaelard, and in English as Peter Abelard. He lived in a day when standardized spelling was not to be expected even for personal names, so it should not surprise us that 37 variations of “Abélard” have been recorded, and that’s only counting different spellings in his own language. (Cf. Das Rätsel eines Namens: Abaelardus; English translation by Google: The enigma of a name: Abaelardus. Indeed, a half-millennium later Shakespeare would sign his own name with at least eleven different spellings.) In his youth he was Pierre du Pallet, after the village where he was born in 1079-Le Pallet, ten miles east of Nantes in the historic province of Brittany (although Nantes is now the capital of Pays de la Loire).

We’re not really sure why he adopted the surname Abélard. There’s a very old story of a teacher noticing the bright young Pierre skimming neglectfully through some subjects after mastering others, at which point the teacher remarked, “When a dog is well filled, he can do no more than lick the bacon.” It seems that “to lick the bacon” was bajare lardum in medieval Latin, which could be shortened to Bajolardus, and eventually Abélard, the “bacon-licker” (George Henry Lewes, The History of Philosophy from Thales to Comte, [London, UK: Longman, Greens, and Co., 1880], 2:14). Others spread the rumor that the surname was a shortening of the French “Aboie le ciel” (“I” or “he bark[s] at the sky”; Joseph McCabe, Peter Abélard, [New York, NY, and London, UK: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1901], 11). If either of these stories is true it serves to confirm Abélard’s reputation as an irrepressible jokester, even when it was at his own expense (Clanchy, ibid., 4, 19).

Good looks, a brilliant mind, immense talent, the ability to overwhelm opponents in debate, and the willingness to challenge the powerful eventually made Abélard into the most popular teacher in Europe, but not without first leading him straight into conflict with the master of the school at Notre Dame cathedral, William of Champeaux (c. 1070-1121). The American political scientist and university professor Wallace Stanley Sayre (1905-1972) has been credited with the insight that the bitterness of academic politics runs so high “because the stakes are so low.” But in the Middle Ages the boundary between academic politics and real politics, where people could be banished or worse, was not as clearly drawn, and so the stakes were often much higher. And no matter how much he might complain about the outcome when it was not in his favor, Abélard thrived on high stakes.

As his gifts emerged in Paris and began to make him the kind of dominating personality he was destined to be, Abélard’s relationship with William became characterized by jealousy that turned to rivalry and led to the kind of feud of which legends are made. After leaving Notre Dame to found his own competing school down the road from Paris, and then retreating back to Brittany for a few years to convalesce from exhaustion and illness, Abélard eventually returned to Paris and was appointed head of the school at Notre Dame at around the time he turned 30. Even though William had by then moved on to found another school, he was more than a bit miffed by this development (John Marenbon, The Philosophy of Peter Abelard, [Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999], 12).

Six years later, in 1115, Abélard was made a canon of the Notre Dame cathedral. While this may not have meant that he was already ordained to the priesthood, it was obvious that he had an ecclesiastical career marked out for himself (McCabe, ibid., 107-108), which in turn meant a life of bachelorhood-at least in the legal sense. Was his reputation for chastity well-earned as he pursued the brass ring of fame in a church-dominated academic world, or was he really a lothario in clerical garb for all those years? The jury may never finish deliberating on that question (Marenbon, ibid., 14-15), but at the beginning of the 12th century it was becoming increasingly clear that anyone who wanted to advance in the church hierarchy could not be married, at least not openly. The papal requirement of priestly celibacy had been one of the issues that erupted in the Great Schism between Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy in 1054, even though the Catholic church itself was having a significant problem enforcing it (William E. Phipps, Clerical Celibacy: A Heritage, [New York, NY, USA, and London, UK: Continuum, 2004], 129ff.). In his typical fashion, Abélard had decided to abide by the celibacy rules, not so much because of the recent threatenings and pronouncements of church synods, but because he had considered the arguments for it and thought they made some good points. At least that’s how he would later present it.

But then his head was turned.

Enter Héloïse

She was attractive, perhaps even beautiful. Abélard would later tease us with a remark that, “In looks she did not rank lowest” (while being considerably more generous to himself).

She was young, probably still in her teens. Abélard, meanwhile, was in his mid-30s.

She was intelligent, even precocious. In fact, compared to most young women of her day, she was brilliant. Abélard would later write, “…in the extent of her learning she stood supreme.”

Most importantly, she was there, in Paris, in the household of a fellow Notre Dame canon named Fulbert. Héloïse was Fulbert’s niece, although some speculate that she may have actually been his daughter from an illicit relationship. Fulbert certainly loved her as if she were.

And if ever Cupid had selected an arrow precisely suited to knock a comet like Abélard from the heavenly ladder he was climbing, it was Héloïse. By his own account he became “All on fire with desire for this girl” and began planning and maneuvering to get as close to her as possible. He took advantage of both Fulbert’s desire to see Héloïse educated and his own chaste reputation in order to get hired as her tutor-and not only that, but even to get Fulbert to furnish him a room in his house!

As he recounted his cunning manipulation years later he expressed surprise at Fulbert’s naïveté, but little or no remorse. When he got to the part where Fulbert put him in full charge of the object of his lust, he coyly wrote, “Need I say more?” (“Quid plura?” cf. Clanchy, ibid., 4). Apparently he needed to, since he forthwith proceeded to salaciously serve up the juicy details in a manner that could earn his memoir a parental advisory label today. For her part Héloïse was as starstruck by Abélard’s fame as he was smitten by her. If it took any length of time for him to seduce her, it does not appear to have been long.

Eventually rumors began to spread, but Fulbert would hear none of them. He could not believe that his perfect Héloïse would do such a thing. He could not believe that he’d been so wrong about Abélard. And perhaps he could not believe that anyone bright enough to have gotten as far as he had in the world could be dumb enough to mess with someone as well-connected politically and financially as Fulbert apparently was.

But the day inevitably came when the exploding shards of his shattered trust sent Abélard and Héloïse running for cover. Fulbert caught them in the act.

A calamitous series of events

After Fulbert learned of the betrayal by witnessing it with his own eyes, Abélard would obviously have to bunk somewhere else. His once promising future as a teacher in the church was now but a fragile robin’s egg in the clenched fist of a furious new enemy.

And things were about to get worse. Héloïse sent Abélard a letter. She was pregnant.

So one night while Fulbert was away Abélard came for Héloïse and whisked her off to his sister’s house in western France where she stayed until she gave birth to a boy whom Héloïse named-for whatever reason-Astralabe. Abélard then returned to Paris to attempt to reconcile with the now even more enraged Fulbert.

First he begged for forgiveness, which was not forthcoming, and then he promised to marry Héloïse, but on one condition: that the marriage remain secret so as not to interfere with his career. In Abélard’s mind, this was probably a better deal than Fulbert actually thought he would get.

Fulbert consented, and his wrath appeared to be appeased, so Abélard went back to fetch a very skeptical Héloïse. She did not believe that her uncle would ever get over the betrayal, but she returned with Abélard anyway. Her instinct would prove correct.

After a small private wedding attended by a few friends who were in on the secret, all those in attendance including the bride and groom departed separately and discreetly, apparently unobserved. But it wasn’t long before Fulbert began exacting his satisfaction by spreading the news of the marriage far and wide. Héloïse, who was now back in Fulbert’s house, denied it  furiously and Fulbert reacted so abusively that Abélard became concerned for her safety.

Once again Abélard came for Héloïse, only this time to take her to the convent where she had been educated as a young girl in a town outside Paris. They continued to steal moments alone with each other. Years later Abélard would express his guilty feelings over making love in the convent dining hall.

Even in this secluded environment he thought it necessary to disguise his new wife, so he had her dress like a nun. This certainly was not a requirement of the convent. Under the circumstances she could have stayed there as long as necessary with no wardrobe change.

In the end, it turned out to be a terrible miscalculation that only served to up the ante. Not only did the disguise not work, but when Fulbert caught wind of it he assumed that Abélard was making Héloïse a nun to get out of the marriage.

Late one night when Abélard was fast asleep in what he thought was a secure room in his house, Fulbert’s servants came to his door. They bribed one of Abélard’s own servants to open it for them. Making their way to his room, they viciously attacked Abélard-and castrated him.

It must have caused a terrible commotion. Soon far more people knew of the terrible assault on Abélard than had known of his marriage to Héloïse. He tells us that the next day the whole city gathered outside his house in mourning. The perpetrators were hunted down and brought to what seemed to be justice at the time: they were not only castrated themselves but blinded as well. In comparison, Fulbert, the man who hired them, got off easy. True, the church authorities confiscated his property and expelled him, but within a couple of years he was back at Notre Dame, restored to his position (Clanchy, ibid., 198-199), while his own anger had taken something that could never be restored.

Assess the damage, take stock of the options, and move on

If nothing else, Abélard thought of himself as a rational man. Now it was time to make a rational decision, even if it had to be made to the sound of hot tears pouring from two broken hearts. If their secret marriage was now public knowledge, so was their public humiliation. From Abélard’s medieval perspective, there now seemed to be only one refuge for the tragic couple.

If Fulbert had committed crimes against them, it was also clear that they had committed sins against God. Besides, the thought of Héloïse taking up with someone else was probably more than Abélard could bear. The veil she had donned as a stratagem she would now wear as a postulant. At his direction she took vows to become a nun at the convent where she’d been staying.

People tried to talk her out of it. Surely God would not require such a harsh penance after all she had suffered! But there was something those well-meaning friends did not understand. She was not doing it for God. She was not doing it for the church. She was not even doing it for herself, or the state of her soul. She was doing it only for Abélard. She was still in love with him.

For his part, Abélard retreated into a monastic life. And that was it. They did not see each other again for ten years.

Trying to make sense of it all

One day when Abélard was about 54, he sat down and wrote a long letter to a friend and fellow-monk who was depressed by the problems in his life. Assuming that misery loves company, he wrote, “In comparison with my trials you will see that your own are nothing, or only slight, and will find them easier to bear.” Alright, well, maybe it doesn’t love that kind of company. In any case, the letter has come down to us as Abélard’s Historia calamitatum, or “The Story of His Misfortunes,” and virtually everything we know about him up to the time he wrote it comes from it.

Although she doesn’t think we should be too hard on the way Abélard comes across, scholar Betty Radice (1912-1985) writes, “A first impression of the Historia can be that it was written by a self-centred though not insensitive man, whose youthful years were ruled by self-assertion, pride and ambition.” (Radice, ed., and trans., “Introduction,” in The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, [London, UK, and New York, NY, USA: Penguin Books, 1974], 26.) It seems that the opinion of medieval scholar Michael T. Clanchy would be that this is putting it rather mildly.

What gives zest to Abelard’s ‘history of calamaties’ is the way he writes as a great hater as much as a great lover. He presents himself as a complete egoist: everything he does is of the utmost importance and interest, in his own opinion, and everyone he meets-including Heloise-exists only in the light of his own brilliance. Events move fast on a big stage in Abelard’s account of his ‘calamities’, as he is relentlessly pursued by the furies he has brought to life and he only just avoids being lynched as a heretic and imprisoned for treason, to say nothing of other escapades. In the period after the writing of his autobiography, his ‘calamaties’ accelerated as the accusations for heresy and disloyalty were renewed, led this time by St Bernard abbot of Clairvaux. Abelard was now up against the most powerful voice in Christendom. St Bernard spoke out against what he saw as corruption and moral decay in high places, castigating princes, prelates and even the pope himself. When St Bernard warned that Abelard was an acolyte of Antichrist, the cardinals in Rome had to heed him and Abelard was condemned as a heretic in 1140.

[Clanchy, ibid., 2.]

If this brief sketch of his personality is accurate, it would seem that Abélard was James Dean, Don Juan, and Narcissus all rolled into one medieval monk. My own opinion lies somewhere between Radice’s and Clanchy’s.

Yes, Abélard loved to push the envelope. Where Bernard of Clairvaux taught simple obedience to the mysteries of the faith, Abélard “delighted in contradiction and argument” (Clanchy, ibid., 6), “revelling in the cut-and-thrust of debate” (Radice, ibid., 11). He was uniquely suited to be the vanguard of a new disputatio movement, replacing the boring old lectio method of going sentence-by-sentence through the church fathers, commenting on their vocabulary and grammar, and accepting it all on faith. Abélard’s method actually looked for problems to debate and conflicts to resolve, a procedure that Bernard found arrogant and dangerous. Abélard was the great “bad boy” of the Middle Ages, which may have played no small part in Héloïse’s attraction to him.

He was cool, confident, and in control. Even after Fulbert’s attack, he was able to fall back, regroup, and come up with a plan. Part of that plan was to rehabilitate himself in order to pave the way for his reentry into the spotlight of academic fame, which explains why a private letter like the Historia calamitatum ended up in general circulation, and eventually a copy of it in Héloïse’s hands.

Héloïse responds

We can only imagine how she must have felt, reading her own story as if it were Abélard’s alone. We can only speculate what her emotional state was as she took quill in hand to initiate her own personal correspondence with the man who was technically still her husband but permanently out of her reach. As we read that letter today, she seems to have bought completely into his tale of ceaseless woe. How treacherously he had been treated by those envious of his many gifts and talents! How tragic for both of them that he was separated from the one person who truly appreciated him!But while we may not know what she was feeling, we know what she was thinking, because after she fully secured her flanking position, she sneaked up on him.

Tell me one thing, if you can. Why, after our entry into religion, which was your decision alone, have I been so neglected and forgotten by you that I have neither a word from you when you are here to give me strength nor the consolation of a letter in absence?[“Letter 1. Heloise to Abelard,” in Radice, ibid., 116.]

They had not been totally out of touch over all those years. While Héloïse worked her way up to the position of prioress, second only to the abbess of her convent, there had been opportunities for formal contact. Sometimes the contacts had been frequent enough for local gossips to insinuate that Abélard could not stay away from her. From Héloïse’s perspective, however, that was wishful thinking. From the moment she took her vows, her relationship with Abélard was transformed from a passionate romance into a distant, official, collegial acquaintance. Many years later the shock of this sudden change had not worn off, and was only compounded by the conclusion that everyone, including she, was drawing.

Tell me, I say, if you can-or I will tell you what I think and indeed the world suspects. It was desire, not affection which bound you to me, the flame of lust rather than love. So when the end came to what you desired, any show of feeling you used to make went with it. This is not merely my own opinion, beloved, it is everyone’s. There is nothing personal or private about it; it is the general view which is widely held. I only wish that it were mine alone, and that the love you professed could find someone to defend it and so comfort me in my grief for a while. I wish I could think of some explanation which would excuse you and somehow cover up the way you hold me cheap.


Ouch!  Although these stinging words come near the end of Héloïse’s first letter, Abélard deals with them at the very beginning of his reply.

If since our conversion from the world to God I have not yet written you any word of comfort or advice, it must not be attributed to indifference on my part but to your own good sense, in which I have always had such confidence that I did not think anything was needed…

[“Letter 2. Abelard to Heloise,” in Radice, ibid., 119.]

Was he serious? As Radice asks, “Could he have really thought that?” (Ibid., 27.)  It was not his best moment.

Partners in guilt and grace?

If it was not immediately clear to Abélard that Héloïse was carrying around deep, unhealed spiritual wounds, and that as a true man of God it was incumbent upon him to deal with them pastorally, it eventually seems to have sunk in. While he had, at least to some extent, come to terms with the fact that he had brought his loss of romantic bliss upon himself, she was not yet ready to own up to guilt in any meaningful sense. In her second letter to Abélard she cries out in bitterness, “O God-if I dare say it-cruel to me in everything! O merciless mercy!” (ibid. 129).

The truth be told, even after all those years in the convent, Héloïse was morally confused, and her former(?) teacher Abélard was largely to blame. Around the time they were corresponding Abélard published a work on ethics called Ethica or Scito teipsum (Know Yourself), the title of which is a quote from the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (c. 469-399 bc): Γνῶθι σεαυτόν (Gnōthi seauton). Even if she had not actually read this work, she was obviously familiar with its teaching, since she echoes it in her first letter to Abélard:

Wholly guilty though I am, I am also, as you know, wholly innocent. It is not the deed but the intention of the doer which makes the crime, and justice should weigh not what was done but the spirit in which it is done.

[Ibid., 115.]

Héloïse may not have shared Abélard’s precise assessment of the morality of their earlier behavior, but the reasoning she used to arrive at her own assessment was all his. In Ethica, Abélard wrote that actions were neither good nor bad in themselves, that their moral value depended on the intentions behind them, that a person’s intention is good when he believes the action will please God, and that people only sin when they violate their own consciences (“Peter Abailard: Ethics or the Book Called ‘Know Thyself,’” in Eugene R. Fairweather, ed. and trans., A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham, [Philadelphia, PA, USA: The Westminster Press, 1956], 289-291.) Why Héloïse thought that fornicating with Abélard might please God is anybody’s guess, but it obviously did not offend her conscience. One of the most famous lines in her correspondence comes in her first letter, when she writes,

God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.

[Ibid., 114.]

Abélard was far from a beacon of moral clarity. It never occurs to him to apply his criterion of good intentions to Fulbert’s behavior toward him. Sometimes he even wrote as though disguising Héloïse as a nun was a worse sin than conceiving a child with her out-of-wedlock. But now she was openly admitting that even after she took her vows the whole nun routine was nothing but an act. As faithful as she was in discharging her duties, her heart was not in it. At some point it must have occurred to him that his influence on her had been less than salutary. It was time to try to talk some spiritual sense into her.

Come too, my inseparable companion, and join me in thanksgiving, you who were my partner both in guilt and in grace. For the Lord is not unmindful also of your own salvation…

He bought you not with his wealth, but with himself. He bought and redeemed you with his own blood. See what right he has over you, and know how precious you are.

[“Letter 4. Abelard to Heloise,” in Radice, ibid., 149, 152.]

But to a man who believes that sin can only be charged to an intention and not to an action itself, what could words like these mean? What does “salvation” and “redemption” mean to a person who thinks that just about any act can be justified as long as the person committing it really believes it would make God happy? If sin is merely a violation of one’s own conscience, why not speak of being saved from our own scruples rather than the penalty of God’s law?

Creating another option

Anyone who is serious about being a Christian must be serious about salvation. We must not only be able to answer the question, “What must I do to be saved?” but also “Why do I need to be saved?” And any attempt at a Christian understanding of salvation must sooner or later explain the death of Christ on the cross. It must answer the question, “What does Christ’s death have to do with my salvation?” In Abélard’s day theologians did not take the answers to these questions for granted, and were, in fact, becoming more preoccupied with them.

Abélard was about 19 when Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109) published Cur Deus Homo, or Why God Became Man, which set out to replace the “ransom” view (or “ransom to Satan” view) of Christ’s atoning death on the cross with something that seemed more sensible to the mentality of the High Middle Ages. Although this “ransom” idea could not be found in Scripture, Anselm decided to base his arguments against it on reason, since his goal was to demonstrate the rational consistency of the Christian faith to unbelievers. But the ransom view remained popular, and “By Abelard’s time St Anselm was no longer central to the debate, as he had been dead since 1109 and he left no school of followers” (Clanchy, ibid., 283). In fact, one of Abélard’s contemporaries, Hugh of Saint Victor (1096-1141) virtually ignored Cur Deus Homo when he outlined his own version of the ransom view (“Hugh of Saint Victor: On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith,” in Fairweather, ed., ibid., 303-305).

Abélard did not like the ransom view any more than Anselm did, but neither was he prepared to accept that latter’s alternative: the notion that Christ’s death was a payment of satisfaction that God accepted in lieu of penalizing humans for offending His honor. Unlike Anselm, Abélard never provided an extended explanation of the meaning of Christ’s death, but what he did write about it has been the object of denunciations and the subject of debates ever since. Commenting on Romans 3:19-26, he wrote:

Now it seems to us that we have been justified by the blood of Christ and reconciled to God in this way: through this unique act of grace manifested to us-in that his Son has taken upon himself our nature and preserved therein in teaching us by word and example even unto death-he has more fully bound us to himself by love; with the result that our hearts should be enkindled by such a gift of divine grace, and true charity should not now shrink from enduring anything for him….

Wherefore our redemption through Christ’s suffering is that deeper affection in us which not only frees us from slavery to sin, but also wins for us the true liberty of the sons of God…

[“Peter Abailard: Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans (An Excerpt from the Second Book),” in Eugene R. Fairweather, ed. and trans., A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham, (Philadelphia, PA, USA: The Westminster Press, 1956), 283-284.]

These remarks present Christ’s death as the supreme example of God’s love, which is designed to arouse such loving gratitude in our hearts that we forsake sin and follow Him. Most imporantly, Abélard says that this is how Christ’s death justifies us.

Since Abélard used the word “example” in this passage, some have linked his view with the “example” or “exemplarist” view of the atonement, while others have objected to this label. Given the rather fluid ways in which this term has been used, it’s not immediately clear who is right. Even so, if these remarks were all we had to go on, we would be forced to conclude that Abélard’s view of the atonement was purely subjective in nature, teaching that the meaning of Christ’s death is to be found only in what it does in us rather than for us. In other words, it simply makes us better people by being the Ultimate Example of Love.

But this would leave Abélard with a very big problem, since it would not account for the very objective problem of humanity’s guilt before God and the biblical teaching that Christ’s death solved that problem. Since he presents these comments as a summary of his exposition of Romans 3:19-26, which has some very pointed things to say about the guilt of universal sin, how could he avoid the question of how we obtain forgiveness for our sins?Well, he doesn’t. Commenting on the final clause of Romans 3:25 in the Latin Vulgate, propter remissionem praecedentium delictorum (“for the remission of previous sins”), Abélard wrote:

“For the remission.” That is to say that through this righteousness-which is love-we may gain remission of our sins, even as the Truth in person [i.e., Christ] says concerning that blessed woman who was a sinner, “Many sins are forgiven her because she hath loved much.” [Luke 7:47] I say that remission is granted, yes, even for past sins, “through the forbearance of God”-because of the long-suffering of God, who does not summarily punish the guilty and condemn sinners, but waits a long time for them to return in penitence, and cease from sin, and so obtain forgiveness.

[Ibid., 279.]

In other words, the very love that Christ’s death arouses in us becomes the basis for our forgiveness. Because the love inspired by Christ’s death makes us better people, we are forgivable, and so God promptly forgives us. There! The objective problem of our guilt before God is dealt with, so Abélard’s view is not purely subjective after all.

Nevertheless, what Abélard leaves us with is the notion that the love Christ showed through His death exerts a moral influence upon us, arousing our love and leading to our forgiveness and salvation. It may not be purely subjective in the sense that it doesn’t resolve any objective problems, but it is subjective in the way that matters most. For Abélard, whatever “punishment” Christ may have suffered or “penalty” He may have paid did not directly remove the guilt of our sins, but only made us capable of removing it ourselves.

No one has summarized his view more succinctly than Reinhold Seeberg (1859-1935), who wrote:

The view of Abelard is thus evidently: God sent his Son to the sinful human race as a revelation of his love, and as a teacher and example. By this means faith and love are aroused in in sinful men. This love becomes the ground for the forgiveness of their sins. On the other hand, the love of Christ leads him to continue to teach men and to intercede for them before God. Thus their insufficient merits are completed.

[Seeberg, The History of Doctrines, Charles E. Hay, trans., 2 vols., (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Book House, reprinted 1978), 2:71-72.]

Thus it was Abélard who first bequeathed to theology the “moral influence” view of the atonement.

Objections overruled

Some scholars are unhappy with the conclusion that Abélard stripped Christ’s atonement of the sacrificial nature we find described for it in Scripture. Alister McGrath, for one, especially objects to identifying Abélard’s view with the infamous “example” view of the atonement. He writes:

Abailard is an exemplarist if, and only if, it can be shown that he understands Christ to be our example, through whose imitation we are redeemed-whereas it is clear that he understands Christ to be our example in the sense that, because we are redeemed by him, we now wish to imitate him.

[McGrath, “The Moral Theory of the Atonement: An Historical and Theological Critique,” Scottish Journal of Theology 38 (1985): 209; emphasis his.]

Fair enough. McGrath was particularly displeased by the way a particular late-19th/early-20th century theologian gloatingly used Abélard as a poster child for an extremely liberal view of salvation. So the criterion he is presenting here seems to be that in order for us to pin the “example” label on Abélard’s view we have to show that it matches the teaching of the 16th century heretic Faustus Socinus (1539-1604),  who taught that, “The death of Christ was an example set before men for their imitation…” (Archibald Alexander Hodge, The Atonement, [Philadelphia, PA, USA: Presbyterian Board of Education, 1867], 316).

In the Socinian “example” view, it was the nobility of Christ’s act, as opposed to the love that it showed, that inspired people to imitate it, and as they did they would reform their ways thus earning forgiveness. Some have found this view different enough from Abélard’s that they have treated it separately (e.g., Charles M. Horne, The Doctrine of Salvation, [Chicago, IL, USA: Moody Press, 1984], 20-21, 25). McGrath, on the other hand, sees the “examplarist” and “moral” views as interchangeable, and he doesn’t think Abélard could be charged with either of them. Interestingly, Hodge also treated them as interchangeable, and thought Abélard could be charged with both.

In reality, there is enough of a difference that we can say that where Abélard’s moral influence view taught that sinners redeemed themselves by responding to Christ’s love, Socinus’s example view taught that sinners redeemed themselves through being inspired by His nobility. But that leads us to the assertion McGrath makes in response: according to him, Abélard did not teach that we redeem ourselves, but that we are redeemed by Christ. However, he does not present a case to support this conclusion; he simply refers to what someone else has written on the subject (R. E. Weingart, The Logic of Divine Love: A Critical Analysis of the Soteriology of Peter Abailard, [Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1970], 78-96), while the weight of scholarly consensus on  Abélard’s view has remained nearly unchanged. (Note, for example, how McGrath’s article was relegated to a footnote in the editors’ introduction to The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy, eds., [Downers Grove, IL, USA: InterVarsity Press, 2006], 18.) Meanwhile, while Marenbon concedes that Abélard’s view was not purely subjective (as do I), he warns us that Weingart’s “book must be read with caution, since the author’s desire to make Abelard’s thought conform with what he takes to be orthodoxy sometimes leads him to distort it” (ibid., 322). I don’t like the way liberals reach back into historical theology to find precedents for their views any more than McGrath, but the texts we have considered show that it is far from clear that Abélard actually taught the opposite of what has been attributed to him for many centuries, as McGrath insists.

One thing that makes Abélard’s texts particularly slippery is the way he goes around redefining terms, and it is frustrating when people who defend him don’t take note of it. In the comment on Romans 3:25 cited above he repeats his redefinition of God’s “righteousness” as His “love.” In a more recent defense of Abélard (Todd Rester, “Abelard, atonement, & … justification by faith?!Historical TheoBlogy, March 19, 2008), the author cites his use of the word propitatio (propitiation) in the same verse to prove he held an orthodox view of the atonement without apparently noticing that he explicitly limited the sense of propitatio to reconciliatio (reconciliation), even though the only meaning the two words apparently shared was “forgiveness” (cf. Leo F. Stelten, Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin, [Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995], 212, 225). If Abélard would have stuck with the biblical meaning of propitiation (the appeasement of wrath) it would have provided at least some basis for what Christ’s death did for us rather than merely in us.

Objectors also don’t seem to see how neatly Abélard’s “ethics of intention” dovetail with his moral influence view of the atonement. If sin itself cannot be objectively judged but must be subjectively appraised, it follows that salvation from sin is best conceived of as something primarily inside us, rather than primarily between us and God. In the end, Abélard’s moral influence approach overlaps with Socinus’s example view at so many points that A.A. Hodge can be excused for treating them as virtually interchangeable.

So what difference did it make?

Did Héloïse ever sense the love of Christ the way Abélard hoped she would? Years earlier a monastery had laid claim to the land her convent occupied and had evicted her and her sister nuns. Abélard had been lecturing in a building called the Paraclete, but he didn’t need it anymore so he donated it to them. Now that she had renewed contact with him, perhaps she could appeal to his sense of obligation to her and her nuns as a spiritual shepherd, even if he could not relate to her agony of soul. “She has agreed to try to put the past behind her, and from no on she has only to ask and Abelard will put all his learning and practical wisdom at the service of the Paraclete” (Radice, ibid., 32). The personal letters between them ceased, to be followed by letters of spiritual direction “written in the rather stiff, formal style of contemporary scholarship” (ibid., 31). Whether the moral influence of Christ’s death ever made enough difference in her life to relieve her persistent bitterness we may never know.

Abélard would now have to brace himself for the difference his writings were making in the church of his day. Bernard of Clarivaux had been reading them, and not only did he not like Abélard’s conclusions, but he didn’t like the way he was drawing them.

For Bernard the mystery of faith transcends human knowledge and can be gained only through mystic contemplation. … He sees Abelard as a danger to the faith of young people and simple men, and Abelard’s attempt to understand the Trinity as an evil example of intellectual arrogance and an insult to Christian belief.

[Ibid., 36.]

Bernard was swimming against a rapidly rising intellectual tide. The cathedral schools, which would later develop into the first European universities, were competing directly with monasteries for the best young minds of Europe, and Bernard personified a monastic reaction against changing times.

There was certainly a bit of overreaction in Bernard’s approach to Abélard, who was simply picking up the ball from Anselm’s “faith in search of understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). Anselm, in turn, had picked up the ball from Augustine’s (354-430) “I believe in order that I might understand”(Credo, ut intelligam).

Be that as it may, there were still some things Bernard found in Abélard’s writings that he legitimately found difficult to reconcile with orthodoxy. For example,

Bernard of Clairvaux charged Peter Abailard with teaching that Christ lived and died ‘for no other purpose than that he might teach us how to live by his words and example, and point out, by his passion and death, to what limits our love should go. Thus he did not communicate righteousness, but only revealed to us what it is.’

[McGrath, ibid., 207.]

This was part of a laundry list of charges that Bernard brought with him to the Council of Sens in 1140, which was initially supposed to be a debate, ended up being an inquisition, and was conducted like an entertainment event (Clanchy, ibid., 9). This was not the first time Abélard had to defend himself from charges of heresy. In 1121 he was forced to throw a book he had written in a fire to avoid being lynched at the Council of Soissons.

McGrath thinks that Bernard was way off in his assessment of Abélard’s teaching on Christ’s death, but we’ll never know how Abélard would have responded on the point in question because this time he chose not to defend himself but to appeal his case to the pope. The Council of Sens agreed with Bernard on nineteen points, Bernard informed the pope, and the pope agreed with both the council and Bernard: Abélard was a heretic, his followers were to be excommunicated, his books were to be burned, and he was to be confined to a monastery in perpetual silence.

His friend Peter the Venerable (1092-1156) took him into protective custody in his monastery at Cluny, and even wrote a letter to the pope indicating that he was able to help Bernard and Abélard settle their differences. Even if Marenbon’s assumption that Peter was exagerrating the extent of the reconciliation with Bernard is correct (ibid., 71), the concessions in the letter appear to have been enough to reconcile Abélard with the church, and he died in Peter’s arms on April 21, 1142 (Carl A. Volz, The Medieval Church, [Nashville, TN, USA: Abingdon Press, 1997], 123).

If, in the end, Abélard actually agreed with Bernard that Christ’s death “communicate[d] righteousness,” then it makes a big difference in terms of how we should view Abélard’s teaching. The question of how it does that would come up during the 16th century Protestant Reformation. The Reformers would say that God first declares us righteous in Christ (justification) and then makes us righteous in Him by His Spirit (sanctification). The Catholic Church, on the other hand, denied any real distinction between justification and sanctification, and said that God does not declare us righteous until He has fully made us righteous.

But that was a dispute for another century. The issue here was whether Christ’s death communicated righteousness at all to Christians, or whether we simply make ourselves righteous by being moved by moral influence of Christ’s example. The difference is huge! In the first case, God saves us through Christ. In the latter case, we ultimately save ourselves-which is clearly not an optional view for an orthodox believer in Christ.

So, does it really make any difference which one Abélard actually taught? I suppose the predominant scholarly consensus for the past nine centuries or so could be wrong. After all, here was a guy who compiled a 158 seemingly contradictory propositions from the Bible and the church fathers and published them in a book titled Sic et Non (Yes and No) without making any effort to harmonize them. Watching others get their knickers in a twist while trying to solve the conundrums he presented was his idea of a good time. Perhaps he wanted people to argue for centuries about his view of the atonement. But even if the phrase “moral influence” is not a good description of his view of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, Abélard’s comments on Romans 3:19-26 remain the classic articulation of the moral influence view. He may not have been a heretic, but he sure wrote like one, and the influence of his words has made a regretful difference in subsequent church history.

The same can be said for modern-day (postmodern-day?) Abélards who delight in issuing heresy out of one side of their mouths while claiming to be misunderstood out of the other. One such poser writes:

This is a window into the meaning of the cross. Absorbing the worst that human beings can offer-crooked religiosity, petty political systems, individual betrayal, physical torture with whip and thorn and nail and hammer and spear-Jesus enters into the center of the thunderstorm of human evil and takes its full shock on the cross. Our evil is brutally, unmistakably exposed, drawn into broad daylight, and judged-named and shown for what it is. Then, having felt its agony and evil firsthand, in person, Jesus pronounces forgiveness and demonstrates that the grace of God is more powerful and expansive than the evil of humanity. Justice and mercy kiss; judgment and forgiveness embrace. From their marriage a new future is conceived.

Then, because we are so often ignorantly wrong and stupid, Jesus comes with saving teaching, profound yet amazingly compact: Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, Jesus says, and love your neighbor as yourself, and that is enough.

[Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Zondervan, 2004), 97; italics is his.]

Here is the moral influence view updated for the politically-correct 21st century. Christ’s atonement does not judge sin by punishing it, but merely by exposing it. His sufferings do not actually atone for sin, they simply show us how forgiving of sin He is. Jesus did not come to perform a saving work on the cross, but to give us “saving teaching,” which can be accurately summarized as simply following His example. Exactly how this stirs our hearts to elicit a response from us is left unstated. But if Abélard wouldn’t claim this view as his own, Socinus surely would.

And yet McLaren claims to be an evangelical! Doesn’t he know that the “saving teaching” he refers to is actually Jesus’ summary of the Law of Moses (Matthew 22:34-40)-the same law that condemns us because we cannot keep it (Romans 3:9-31)? Doesn’t he know that the condemnation of the law placed a curse on us that Christ had to bear in our place if we were to be saved (Galatians 3:10-14)? Doesn’t he know that the difference between a moral influence view of the atonement and the biblical view that Christ vicariously bore the punishment for our sins is the difference between a false gospel and the true one? Apparently not.

So what difference does it make which view of the atonement you believe? In this case, it’s the difference between being trapped into trying to be saved through being inspired to become a good person, and realizing that Christ came to be the good Person you could not be, paid the price for the bad person you are, and set you free.

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