Peter Abelard: A Man of Reason and Faith

“We are like dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants:
we see more and farther than our predecessors
not because we have sharper vision or greater height,
but because we are raised up
and borne aloft on their gigantic stature” (John of Salisbury, 1159)

Peter Abelard, the 12th-century philosopher, and theologian is considered to be the “greatest logician of the Middle Ages” and “the first great nominalist philosopher” (King, 2010, para. 1). Abelard, Abbot of Mont Ste.-Genevieve, counseled men and women from all lifestyles but had the greatest influence on, “kings, philosophers, poets, politicians, theologians, and monks” as well as numerous popes and heads of state (Section 1.1, para. 1). His direct influence spanned the 12th-century, and while scholars previously considered his impact to be contained within the late Middle Ages, many theologians, philosophers, and critics today are rethinking his influence and are now crediting his philosophical views as instrumental to the development of Enlightenment thought (Section 1.1, para. 1).

Historically, scholars asserted that Abelard advocated reason over faith in religious matters, and credited him as the first person to use the term “theology” in his philosophical discussion of religion and religious doctrines (Section 1.1, para. 1). Moreover, Abelardian scholars identify him as a colorful personality, a man of strong conviction, wit, and intelligence (Section 1.1, para. 1). Thus, while historically he holds a minor position within philosophy and theology, his published works are experiencing a revival in scholarship – a new reading and a fresh interpretation – by many in the academic community. This re-reading of his works has helped scholars to gain fresh insight into the man and his meaning. As a result, it is this renewed interest in Abelardian scholarship that has brought to light some interesting interpretations that may suggest that Abelard’s religious views – that reason forms the foundation for faith – may have been, and still are, incorrectly applied. Abelard’s position on faith, his spiritual renewal later in life, and his awareness of the agency and activity of the Holy Spirit suggest a different interpretation: one of a man of reason – AND – one of a man of faith. This critical review of the life of Peter Abelard seeks to gain a new appreciation of the philosophical and theological importance of his works as they intersect with modern communication theory. Thus, this review will explore his life, his three main areas of scholarship, namely his writings on logic, theology, and ethics as they are situated within Christian moral theology.