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  • Rereading Robert Grosseteste on the ratio incarnationis:Deductive Strategies in De cessatione legalium III
  • Justus H. Hunter

IN OXFORD, sometime between 1230 and 1235, Robert Grosseteste produced De cessatione legalium.1 The argument of the text is notoriously complex. Richard Dales and Edward King, editors of the critical edition, observe that it "is difficult to summarize because the arguments, complex in themselves, are further obfuscated by the circular and tangential conventions of the author's style."2 Indeed, Grosseteste's arguments often seem disorganized.

(Grosseteste) was not by nature a systematic thinker any more than he was by nature a tidy organizer of material from the past. His strength lay in discovering areas of knowledge to which he could make a new contribution. Having done this, he was content to leave it to others to go further if they could, while he passed on to the next problem.3 [End Page 213]

But instances should not be predetermined by impressions. As Stephen Hildebrand has shown, if the argument of De cessatione legalium lacks the organizational transparency of Grosseteste's Parisian counterparts, it is not so bewildering as Dales and King suggest:

Grosseteste's argument . . . is both coherent and comprehensive; it is not haphazard but deliberate and purposeful, even if sometimes circuitous. His great achievement is to clarify the larger theological contexts in which one must view the difficult question of the relation between the Old and New Testaments.4

The most commented-on arguments of De cessatione legalium are the opening paragraphs of book III. There Grosseteste argues that God would have become human, even if humanity had not fallen. Typically, these paragraphs are read as a series of loosely related arguments united by their conclusion that the Incarnation would have occurred, even if the Fall had not. The analytical reading I undertake here shows a greater unity in these passages than previously observed, as it will be seen that Grosseteste employs two basic strategies of argumentation here. Moreover, I will suggest that such an analytical reading is helpful for bringing the arguments of De cessatione legalium into conversation with later debates over the ratio incarnationis at Paris. This latter point will be illustrated by a brief look at St. Thomas Aquinas's arguments on the ratio incarnationis in the Scriptum and the Summa theologiae.5

I. De cessatione legalium

In the first chapter of De cessatione legalium, Grosseteste specifies the argument he will overturn: "There were many in the primitive Church who asserted that the sacraments of the Old Law together with the sacraments of the New Law must be observed and that there could be no salvation without observing [End Page 214] them."6 In part I, he recites and rebuts several arguments in support of these "many in the primitive Church." He then turns to Christology for a "slightly greater way of beginning."7 Though the assertion is somewhat cryptic, his procedure is not. Grosseteste returns to the Garden of Eden in order to narrate salvation history, and to locate the law and Christ in that grand narrative.

Grosseteste first establishes the need for both natural and positive law in every state of the rational creature.8 He then recounts the Fall of both angels and humans, drawing attention to the character of their temptation and failure.9 This brings him to an important conclusion:

It is clear, therefore, from the fact that man sinned, that there ought to be both the faith which was believed and the law which was upheld. But when man had broken the natural and positive law by sinning, and the same positive law before him, that is, of not eating the fruit, now was not law to him, because he was not in its power, another positive law would be uselessly given to him, unless first he was proven again in the observation of the natural law.10

Thus God left humanity to the natural law for some time, until the gift of the positive law might "be added for the fullness of obedience."11 That positive law was given, initially, to Noah and Abraham. However, due to sin, ignorance, and the growing [End Page 215] weakness of memory, by...


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