Each science, each kind of wisdom has a matter and a subject on which its attention is turned. Hence this most sacred wisdom, whose name is theology, has a subject on which it is is turned. That subject is thought by some to be the whole Christ: that is to say, the incarnate Word, together with his body, the Church. Or perhaps it would not be unfitting to say that the subject of this wisdom is that One of which the Saviour himself speaks in the gospel of John
- Hexamëron, Robert Grosseteste
Theology alone, however, is the science that is similar to a net according to both perfections. It both looks like a triangular net in terms of its argumentation and it is used to capture things, namely people, from the waters of worldly mutability.
- Robert Grosseteste and the Theologian's Task, James R. Ginther (printed in Robert Grosseteste and the Beginnings of a British Theological Tradition, Maura McCarroll (ed)
Robert Grosseteste (c.1170-1253) is a remarkable and remarkably complex figure whose eclectic nature is typical of his times. As a polymath with a wide range of interests he produced scientific treatises on subjects such as light and optics while formulating his own particular approach to theology. As a lecturer he taught theology at Oxford and later attached himself to a Franciscan community, a transition that in measures of wealth can be called a demotion. As a cleric he rebuked the Papacy for its worldliness and wrote vehemently against Jews in a letter to the countess of Winchester, Margaret de Quincy, a letter being described as a particularly ugly case of Medieval anti-semitism.
Because of his multi-faceted character there are many things to be said about Robert, and many things have been said and continue to be said. In this presentation I will try to give a brief survey of Grosseteste's approach to theology in view of some of his influences.
The collection of essays edited by Maura O'Carroll implies by its very title, Robert Grosseteste and the Beginnings of a British Theological Tradition, that the uniqueness to Grosseteste's work is born from a certain insularity. Robert Grosseteste did not study at a university as a youth, but at the Lincoln cathedral school and later at Cambridge which was not yet a university in the latter quarter of the 12th century. Little is known about his early years and therefore his actual education in Lincoln is a matter of speculation. There is, as it seems, a mismatch between his parochial origins and his immensely wide mastery of arts. However, this may very well indicate that despite parochial origins he did not receive a parochial education. Since we can't move beyond the realm of speculation in this matter due to lack of evidence, one should be cautious to become too excited by the possibilities offered by such an eclipse of information. Yet I would like to point out that Lincoln was the birthplace of William de Montibus, a theologian who in the 1180s was called back to Lincoln from his school in Paris. Clearly, through this figure, who ought to have been familiar to young Robert, Lincoln received impulses from a wider world.
In 1225, most likely due to his appointment as rector at a small village, he began lecturing at Oxford, starting on exegesis of the psalms and gradually widening his theological scope. This points at two important factors. First of all he must have had a substantial enough education to be allowed lecturing at Oxford, by this time a university, and it is again very tempting to suggest that hypothetic ties with William de Montibus would have been a benefit in that regard. Secondly, as James Ginther points out in his essay on Grosseteste's theology, it shows that whatever his education from Lincoln Robert sought to expand his knowledge and his reading and although he was an Oxford lecturer in the 1220s he was not a full-fledged scholar at the time of his arrival there.
During his time in Oxford he was elected archdeacon of Leicester, a position from which he resigned in 1231 to become rector in a Franciscan community outside the city walls. This decision may have been spurred by a sermon against academic pride held by a Dominican friar in 1229, a sermon Grosseteste included in one of his private manuscripts.
Grosseteste remained a lecturer at the community until 1235 and in later ages he has been accused of being instrumental in diverting the Franciscans from poverty in favour of learning and scholarly pursuits, exemplified by Roger Bacon. However, this points to a perhaps unjustly construed dichotomy between learning and the Franciscan vows of poverty. Servus Gieben, himself a Franciscan, points to St. Francis' respect for learning and his encouragement of Anthony of Padua's lecturing even after the latter took up the Franciscan habit.
Additionally, Cuthbert Hess points out that Grosseteste's emphasis on the precedence of Scripture and his use of scientific thought as a tool of understanding the Scripture in its literal sense, is very much aligned with the Franciscan views. It was also in this period Grosseteste wrote his highly eclectic On the Six Days of Creation, and it should be suggested that this work may have been influenced just as much by Franciscan theology as by his reading of Aristotle, Augustine or Saint Basil visible in his works Dicta and On the Six Days of Creation respectively.
Although Grosseteste in his writings relies heavily on his influences this does not mean his theology lacks a personal stamp. On the contrary, as James Ginther points out, Grosseteste had his very own idiosyncracies and is original in his own right. This mixture of personal conjecture and outside influences is clear in his treatment of the relationship between mundane sciences and theology as explained in his Dictum 118. To exemplify this let us look at how this divide is put forth by Grosseteste himself:
Similarity between things can occur either through the form, function or both. To illustrate the hierarchy of sciences Grosseteste compares them to a triangular net, the reason for which stems from the philosophical notion that triangles were "the principal shape of all things." The mundane sciences, Grosseteste puts forth, is similar to the triangular net in its form, a simile probably pointing to the careful design of argumentation inherent in mundane sciences. Theology, on the other hand, is similar to the triangular net both in form and function, as the arrangement of argumentation is the same as in the mundane sciences, while the function of theology, as with a triangular net, is to save the souls "from the waters of worldly mutability." Additionally the hierarchy is justified through what the respective sciences draw man unto. Mundane sciences directs the student to what is below him or what is equal to him, while theology directs the studen towards what is above him, i.e. God.