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Gabriel Biel

Scholastic (ca. 1425-1495)

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Biel, GABRIEL, called “the last of the Scholastics”, b. at Speyer, Germany, c. 1425; d. at Tubingen, 1495. His studies were pursued at Heidelberg and Erfurt. While still a young man, he was noted as a preacher in the cathedral of Mainz, of which he was vicar. Later he became superior of the “Clerics of the Common Life” at Biitzbach, and in 1479 was appointed provost of the church in Urach. At this period he cooperated with Count Eberhard of Wurtemberg in founding the University of Tubingen. Appointed in 1484 the first professor of theology in the new institution, he continued the most celebrated member of its faculty until his death. Though he was almost sixty years of age when he began to teach, Biel’s work, both as professor and as writer, reflected the highest honor on the young university. His first publication, on the Canon of the Mass, is of permanent interest and value. His second and most important work is a commentary on the “Sentences” of Peter Lombard. In this he calls Occam his piaster, but the last three books show him more Scotist than Nominalist. Scheeben describes him as “one of the best of the Nominalists, clear, exact, and more positive as well as more loyal to the Church than any of the others” (Dogmatik, no. 1073). The historian Janssen declares that he was one of the few Nominalists who erected a theological ‘system without incurring the charge of unorthodoxy. (Cf. Geschichte des deutschen Volkes, I, 127, 15th ed.) He was neither narrow nor excessively speculative. Though a Nominalist, he was tolerant of Realism, which also flourished at Tubingen under the leadership of Konrad Summenhart. A Scholastic, he was, to quote Janssen, “free from empty speculations and ingenious intellectual juggling, being concerned with questions and needs of actual life” (ibidem), was interested in the social movements of his time, and maintained friendly relations with the Humanists. One of the latter, Heinrich Bebel, gave him the title of “monarch among theologians”. His theological writings were repeatedly brought into the discussions of the Council of Trent.

Living as he did in a transition period, Biel exhibits characteristics of two intellectual eras. According to some, he was a Scholastic who expounded Aristotle rather than the Scriptures; according to others, he defended freer theological teaching, and opposed the ancient constitution of the Church and the authority of the pope. As a matter of fact, he acknowledged the primacy and supreme power of the Roman Pontiff, but, in common with many other theologians of his time, maintained the superiority of general councils, at least to the extent that they could compel the pope’s resignation. And he displayed no more theological freedom than has been claimed and exercised by some of the strictest theologians. Among the opinions defended by Biel concerning matters controverted in his day, the following are worthy of mention: (a) That all ecclesiastical jurisdiction, even that of bishops, is derived either immediately or mediately from the pope. In this connection it is to be noted that his defense of the episcopal claims of Diether von Ysenburg won him the thanks of Pius II. (b) That the power of absolving is inherent in sacerdotal orders, and that only the matter, i.e. the persons to be absolved, can be conceded or withheld by the ordinary. (c) That the minister of baptism need have no more specific intention than that of doing what the faithful, that is, the Church, intends. (d) That the State may not compel Jews, or heathens, or their children to receive baptism. (e) And that the Contractus Trinus is morally lawful. All of these opinions have since become the prevailing theological doctrine.

The subject on which Biel held the most progressive views is political economy. Roscher, who with Schmoller introduced him to modern students of economics, declares that Biel’s grasp of economics enabled him not only to understand the work of his predecessors, but to advance beyond them. (Cf. Geschichte der Nationalokonomik in Deutschland, 21 sqq.) According to Biel, the just price of a commodity is determined chiefly by human needs, by its scarcity, and by the difficulty of producing it. His enumeration includes all the factors that govern market price, and is more complete and reasonable than any made by his predecessors. (Cf. Garner, L’idee du juste prix, 77.) The same author maintains that concerning the occupation of the merchant or trader, Biel is more advanced than St. Thomas, since he attaches no stigma to it, but holds it to be good in itself, and the merchant entitled to remuneration because of his labor, risks, and expenses. Biel’s discussion of these subjects is contained in book IV of his commentary on the “Sentences”. He wrote a special work on currency, ein wahrhaft goldenes Buch, in which he stigmatizes the debasing of coinage by princes as dishonest exploitation of the people. In the same work he severely condemns those rulers who curtailed the popular rights of forest, meadow, and water, and who imposed arbitrary burdens of taxation, as well as the rich sportsmen who encroached upon the lands of the peasantry. His works are: “Sacri canonis Misses expositio resolutissima literalis et mystica” (Brixen, 1576); an abridgment of this work, entitled “Epitome expositionis canonis Missae” (Antwerp, 1565); “Sermones” (Brixen, 1583), on the Sundays and festivals of the Christian year, with a disquisition on the plague and a defense of the authority of the pope; “Collectorium sive epitome in magistri sententiarum libros IV” (Brixen, 1574); “Tractatus de potestate et utilitate monetarum”.


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