Bradwardine, Thomas

(c.1300-1349), theologian and archbishop of Canterbury

by Gordon Leff

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Bradwardine, Thomas (c.1300-1349), theologian and archbishop of Canterbury, was of obscure origins. The sequence of his academic career would suggest that he was born about 1300, rather than 1290, as surmised by Henry Savile, editor of the only printed edition of Bradwardine's main work, his De causa Dei contra Pelagium, published in London in 1618. Although Chichester is now generally taken to have been Bradwardine's birthplace, that view, in part at least, rests on a misreading of the reference to Chichester in De causa Dei; it is named there merely as the place where his father was living, and there is no suggestion that Bradwardine was born there, or of how long his father had lived there. Bradwardine's family may have originated from the village of Bredwardine, a few miles to the west of Hereford, which in 1331 was forfeited to the king; but there is no known connection.

Early career, 1321-1339
Bradwardine's name first appears in 1321 as a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford. By 1323 he was a fellow of Merton College. Membership of Balliol was reserved for those not yet masters of arts. Merton, however, was for those studying for one of the higher faculties, especially theology. Bradwardine must, therefore, have graduated master of arts by 1323. He would then have had to perform three years' necessary regency (teaching) in the arts faculty, compulsory for new masters of arts. It therefore seems probable that he would have enrolled for the theological faculty in 1325, after the completion of his three years. He was twice elected university proctor, in November 1325 and January 1327, and was one of the university's representatives in its dispute with the archdeacon of Oxford in May 1328. There is no evidence for an earlier belief that it was in his capacity as proctor that Bradwardine visited the papal court at Avignon, and that while there he heard a dispute on future contingents in which a celebrated Toulouse master took part. It has been suggested that the latter was the Franciscan Pierre Aureole. But Aureole died in 1322, probably before Bradwardine had graduated master of arts and three years before he became proctor. It seems much more likely that the occasion was between 1335 and 1336, after Bradwardine had been made a papal mandatory in February 1335. He may have participated in the disputation; and his own question on future contingents (ed. Genest, in Recherches Augustiniennes) probably dates from two or three years previously. His concern with the problem was therefore of long standing, and culminated in the third and last book of De causa Dei, which was devoted to it.

Bradwardine spent until 1335 at Merton, perhaps then joining the household of Richard Bury (d. 1345), bishop of Durham and chancellor, and his circle of scholars. He had already been made a canon of Lincoln, with the prebend of St Botolph's, Lincoln, by papal provision in 1333, having become a bachelor of theology; he was still called a bachelor of theology in 1336 when he received a benefice in the gift of the bishop of Chichester. In the following year he was appointed chancellor of St Paul's, London, a position he held until 1349. The chancellor carried responsibility for the teaching of theology, and it seems plausible that Bradwardine was himself already a master of theology. In that case, his period of regency in the theological faculty--which need not have lasted for longer than a year--would have been completed by 1337, and he could have become a master of theology in 1336. Such a chronology would have enabled Bradwardine to take up his appointment at St Paul's, and then to become a royal chaplain in 1339, without having to return to Oxford to lecture there. Instead these two appointments mark a change from an academic to a public career. Henceforth Bradwardine's fortunes followed the king's, until he was translated to Canterbury in 1349.

Royal service, 1339-1349
Bradwardine's De causa Dei certainly suggests that he did not return to Oxford, though it clearly originated there, in lectures given in response to the request of his fellow Mertonians, to whom it is addressed. The lectures were designed to combat the nefarious doctrines of those whom he called the 'modern Pelagians'. But, where in the first two books he remarks, in passing, that he was writing in Oxford, in the third book he refers only to London in a similar context of using it as an example. He may well have written, or finished, the third book after he had left Oxford, perhaps from lectures at St Paul's. His post-epistle to his Mertonians clearly implies that he was no longer among them to do what he was enjoining on them, namely, to restore discipline; he also apologized for the delay in completing the work because of the demands of other time-consuming business, suggesting involvements that had taken him away from academic life. Despite proposals for an earlier date, that of 1344, found in all the extant manuscripts of De causa Dei, would seem to be the correct one.

The culmination of Bradwardine's royal service was on Edward III's expedition to France in 1346, which issued in the English victory at Crécy, on 21 August, to which Bradwardine was an eyewitness. There is, however, no evidence that--as was once believed--he had also gone on an earlier journey with Edward to Flanders and the Rhine in 1338. After the subsequent English victory over the Scots at Nevilles Cross, on 17 October 1346, Bradwardine was appointed one of the negotiators to make peace with France. He himself celebrated the king's double triumph in his victory sermon, Sermo epinicius, preached before the king and assembled nobles shortly after Nevilles Cross; it was delivered in English, but preserved in a Latin version. The sermon, on a text from 2 Corinthians 2: 14, expressed in popular form, with a strong infusion of jingoism, Bradwardine's central theological concern, that God is the sole author of all good, and grants victory freely to whom he wills, who are always the virtuous.

The nature of the occasion is testimony to Bradwardine's high standing. That was confirmed when, on 30 August 1348, following the death of John Stratford, archbishop of Canterbury, Bradwardine was elected by the monks of Canterbury as Stratford's successor. But they offended the king for having failed first to obtain his licence to elect, and they were compelled to choose the dying John Ufford instead. Ufford, however, died before his consecration; and this time, on 4 June 1349, Bradwardine was duly elected, and consecrated by Pope Clement VI six weeks later, on 19 July, at Avignon. Bradwardine's election as archbishop of Canterbury broke the prevailing tendency to exclude eminent theologians from the higher offices in the church. Whether he was the exception because of his reputation, or because of the growing dearth of alternative candidates resulting from the black death, which had by then had a devastating effect, must be a matter of speculation. In the event it was of no consequence, for on 26 August 1349 Bradwardine himself died from plague at Canterbury, having been archbishop for thirty-eight days. He was buried at Canterbury.

Mathematical writings
Bradwardine continued the combination of mathematician, scientist, and theologian characteristic of Oxford since the time of Robert Grosseteste (d. 1253). In his own lifetime and the following centuries he was scarcely, if at all, less eminent as a mathematician than as a theologian, as may be gauged from the early printing of his works on geometry, arithmetic, and motion: Geometria speculativa (Paris, 1495; Valencia, 1503), Arithmetica speculativa (Paris, 1495; Valencia, 1503), Tractatus de proportionibus or De velocitate motuum (Paris, c.1481; ed. and trans. H. L. Crosby, 1955; repr. 1961). These, in addition to his logical exercises on insolubles (Insolubilia, ed. Roure, 205-326) and his unpublished tractate on the continuum, as well as a treatise on fallacies (attributed to him) and a collection of physical questions, date from his period of regency in the arts faculty and his early years in the theological faculty. So may an aid to memory, and a rhyming composition on numbers, also unpublished. So far no extant manuscripts have been identified of other works ascribed to him, including astronomical tables.

Of the above works, Bradwardine's Tractatus de proportionibus was of far-reaching significance. It gave a new mathematical direction to the study of the mechanics of motion in all its forms, which was taken up and developed by his younger Mertonian colleagues and successors. It was widely read at Paris and other continental universities in the second half of the fourteenth century and the fifteenth century; and it continued to be influential until the time of Galileo. In this treatise Bradwardine was concerned to reaffirm mathematically, against apparent anomalies, Aristotle's doctrine that movement only occurs when force is greater than resistance, and that no motion results when there is an equilibrium of forces or where a resistant force is greater than a motive force. Bradwardine sought to show that force and resistance are related exponentially in a geometrical ratio, rather than by a simple arithmetical difference. Hence, to produce twice the velocity, the proportion of force to resistance must be squared, not doubled, and cubed for triple the velocity and so on. This formula applied not only to the cause of motion, 'in relation to the forces of the movers to the things moved' (dynamics), the subject of chapter 3, but also to 'the magnitudes of the things moved and of the space traversed' in time (kinematics), the subject of chapter 4. Although the distinction between dynamics and kinematics was only incidental to Bradwardine's enterprise of finding a universal rule that would govern each of these facets, it became established largely as a consequence of his differentiation of them.

Bradwardine, however, remained bounded by the language of Euclid's Elements, which prevented him from being able to express his concepts in the most appropriate mathematical form; and his so-called 'word-algebra', of using letters for variables, was more a shorthand, used extensively in philosophical discussion. Yet notwithstanding these limitations, and the almost complete absence of empirical corroboration, Bradwardine's Tractatus marked a new phase both in formulating physical theory in mathematical terms, virtually for the first time in the middle ages, and in setting subsequent themes for investigation, above all the measurement of instantaneous change (that is, change at any given instant) in every kind of motion, rather than the definition of completed change, as in Aristotle's rules. By the seventeenth century both approaches had been superseded by the improved methods and understanding that Bradwardine had helped to initiate.

Bradwardine the theologian
Bradwardine's Tractatus de proportionibus was published in 1328; by then he had turned to the study of theology. Henceforth he became a theologian and a churchman. He seems already to have undergone a literal, Pauline conversion, brought about by a changed comprehension of the words from Romans 9: 16: 'So it depends not upon man's will or exertion, but upon God's mercy.' He recounted in De causa Dei how, when he was in the arts faculty, he fell, in his foolishness and vanity, into the error of Pelagius:

I rarely used to hear anything about grace, except perhaps in an equivocal manner; but every day I learned that we are masters of our own free acts, and that it is in our power to do either good or evil, to be virtuous or vicious, and many similar things. (Bradwardine, De causa Dei, 308)
At first, whenever he heard a passage from St Paul read in church, extolling grace and depreciating free will, such as from his letter to the Romans 9: 16, he was displeased, because towards grace he was graceless. But afterwards, even before he had become a theological student, the words appeared to him like a beam of grace, and he seemed to see that the grace of God preceded all merits in time and nature; and that, in both respects, God antecedently willed that he who merited should be saved, and antecedently worked the merits in an individual before the individual himself. For God was the first mover in all movements. 'I therefore give my thanks to him who gave me this grace as a gift' (Bradwardine, De causa Dei, 308).

De causa Dei
De causa Dei was the outcome of that revelation, some fifteen years later, and the passage from Romans 9: 16 was the most cited text in it. For the years between, apart from the question on future contingents, mentioned earlier, and a recently discovered manuscript collection of other questions, in which it is included, and which appear to have formed part of Bradwardine's lost commentary on the Sentences, there are no other known surviving theological works from Bradwardine's time in the theological faculty. His commentary on the Sentences, which, at Oxford, came in the seventh year of the theology course, would probably have been delivered in the academic year 1332-3; and the question on future contingents could have come from the third of the four books of the Sentences. Whatever its provenance, that question represented an early theological exercise, which, as already indicated, was the forerunner of the third book of De causa Dei. De causa Dei, therefore, remains Bradwardine's surviving theological monument.

Although primarily a polemic, its nearly 900 printed folio pages approximate also, in scale and range, to a theological summa, touching all those facets of God's nature and his governance of creation that concern human free will, grace, merit, predestination, divine foreknowledge, revelation, necessity, and contingency. Together they cover many of the same topics as a commentary on the Sentences, albeit not in the same compendious manner. De causa Dei follows the characteristic scholastic combination of reason and authority. The contrast between the two components is, if anything, accentuated by its geometrical form, as a body of interrelated axioms, theorems, proofs, conclusions, and corollaries, beginning with proofs for God's existence. The arguments themselves are in the accepted disputatory logical mode, drawing, like any such work, upon the recognized canon of doctrines from Bradwardine's predecessors, extending from Aristotle and Augustine to Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus (d. 1308). They are complemented by the appeal to the authority of the Bible, which stood supreme as the word of God and the rule of faith, supported by the testimony of the saints and fathers, and other inspired individuals, pre-eminent among them Augustine, arch-opponent of the Pelagians of his own day and doctor of grace, who set the tone for Bradwardine's own re-enactment of many of the same attitudes.

Like Augustine, Bradwardine saw himself as the defender of Christian truth; and a feature of De causa Dei is the sustained citation of supporting names and texts, often for pages at a time, in that conviction. In addition to Augustine, from whom Bradwardine derived both his doctrine of grace and his general outlook, he took from Aristotle the concept of a first unmoved mover as one of his two proofs for God's existence. The other was from Anselm's idea of God as the highest good, than whom a more perfect cannot be conceived. To Thomas Aquinas he owed the order of causes between God, as first cause, and his creatures, as second causes, in which the first cause was not only the immediate mover and conserver of every second cause but the prior and more immediate mover and cause in any created action. Here, as throughout, Bradwardine brought his own interpretation to established notions. God was thus what he termed necessary coeffector or pre-effector of everything created, including the free acts of the human will.

Divine coefficiency and issues of necessity
This doctrine of divine coefficiency has long been widely interpreted as determinism; and only in more recent years has that view been seriously and justifiably challenged. For Bradwardine, divine coefficiency did not mean the negation of human free will; it was its condition, and merely expressed philosophically the theological truth stated in St John's gospel 15: 5, the most repeated text after Romans 9: 16, that 'Without me, you can do nothing'. That dependence upon God as first and most immediate cause and conserver derived from the difference between a necessary being, who was eternal and uncaused, and a possible being, which owed its existence to another cause, and so of itself was merely contingent--a contrast earlier adopted by Duns Scotus. Bradwardine also followed Scotus in locating the source of all necessity and contingency in God's will as the cause of all creation. The contingency and freedom in both God's will and the human will lay in the power of each to choose between contraries, a power that they retained even after having chosen between them.

Bradwardine, however, in keeping with his principle of divine coefficiency was, in contrast to Duns Scotus, equally concerned to stress the necessity inseparable from God's willing. Here he adopted a distinction between what he called antecedent and consequent necessity, which went back to Anselm. They represented the two indivisible facets of God's power as first cause and creator: antecedent necessity was his efficacious and sovereign will in contingently giving existence to everything that he willed; consequent necessity was the order that resulted from his willing as the effect of antecedent necessity. Had he willed differently, antecedently, as he was infinitely free to have done, he would have decreed a different order consequently. Thus, far from divine necessity's negating contingency--the common charge of Bradwardine's opponents--the two were concomitant; without the necessity entailed in the fulfilment of God's antecedent willing, there would be nothing to exist contingently as the consequence of his willing, including human free will. In that sense, God necessitated free will, as he necessitated everything else, as its first cause and necessary coeffector.

Grace and free will
These were the bases of Bradwardine's rejection of the claims by the 'modern Pelagians', who remained anonymous, for the independent powers of human free will at the expense of the need for grace and the certainty of God's revelation of future events. These claims were widespread in Bradwardine's day, especially at Paris and Oxford, but they spread to the universities throughout the continent. Those whom he called the 'modern Pelagians' did not belong to any one school; nor were the two issues of grace and future contingents always found together in the same thinker or treated in the same manner. They were each part of a contemporary debate about the contingency of creation and God's power to have ordered it differently: in particular to have done directly what he ordinarily did through intermediaries, where no contradiction was entailed. That applied to created grace as the requisite for justification and merit.

The doctrine of the dispensability of created grace, which in its contemporary form derived from Duns Scotus, was upheld by a wide spectrum of both Scotists and those influenced by Ockham; but it was by no means confined to them, and continued to find support during the fifteenth century. Bradwardine's 'modern Pelagians' were drawn from among its contemporary supporters, including probably Ockham, as a leading exponent of the dispensability of intermediaries, but hardly Scotus, whom he treated as an authority. What, to Bradwardine, was Pelagianism, through elevating the natural powers of the human will above the need for a supernatural gift, was for his opponents the opposite, by making God's will the arbiter in deciding to reward someone directly instead of through the gift of grace. It had nothing to do with the human will's power to transcend its natural limitations or to compel God's reward, but involved only God's freedom to choose how his will would be done. Bradwardine's hostility to the apparent autonomy conferred on human free will was further exacerbated by the paradoxes suggested by his opponents in the name of God's omnipotence, appearing to denude grace of any intrinsic goodness or inherent necessity. The disputes on future contingents had a comparable effect, calling into question the certainty of revelation about the future through the prophets and Christ. The freedom of the future was being made to derogate from the determinateness of God's decrees. De causa Dei was designed to restore their immutability.

There were three main areas of dispute. Two concerned grace; the third future contingents. The first of the two on grace held that its presence was not necessary in order to be justified and saved, but that an act of free will could be directly rewarded by God; the second--and, for Bradwardine, the most widespread and insidious--maintained that grace could be merited congruously (de congruo), as a moral claim upon God to award it. Both therefore subverted the eternally decreed order of grace and salvation, founded upon God's prevenient grace, as had earlier been revealed to Bradwardine; the second also destroyed the gratuitousness of grace, turning it from a gift into an object to be sold. The only merit that Bradwardine recognized was that which came from first possessing grace (de condigno).

The same prerequisite applied not only to justification and salvation and all the theological virtues, but also to the moral and philosophical virtues. God's necessary coefficiency was needed in all actions, good and bad. The difference was that good actions had to be preceded by God's freely bestowed grace, without which man was incapable of doing good or loving God; but, when a man sinned, God only co-acted in the action as an action: its sinfulness was from the intention of the human will. From that standpoint both grace and sin were the expression of man's impotence as a second cause, as much as the outcome of the central events of Christian history. In his dismissal of the intrinsic worth of created actions, and his conception of God, as always effecting, but never permitting, Bradwardine went beyond tradition. Over future contingents, the central issue was contained in what Bradwardine called the common opinion, originating with Aristotle, that only propositions about past and present events were determinately true or false; but propositions about future events were of what was yet to come, and so were contingent, neither true nor false. That appeared to make God's knowledge of the future equally contingent, entailing its mutability and the uncertainty of his revelation about the future, which could be falsified. Otherwise, everything would be eternally determined, which would negate free will. Bradwardine's reply was contained in the interplay of God's antecedent and consequent necessity, making all created time, as their outcome, the future as well as the past and present, both necessary and contingent, in having been immutably willed from eternity. While God, by his antecedent will, could have caused a different past, present, and future, the sequence that he has willed was necessary by his consequent necessity, guaranteeing the certainty of his revelation.

Although the defence of God's cause against the usurpations of human powers was De causa Dei's primary objective, its subsidiary concern was to nullify the threat both to God's will and man's will from any kind of countervailing naturalistic or astral determinism. De causa Dei is punctuated by refutations of articles containing such doctrines, condemned at Paris in 1277, which it meets in the same way by reaffirming God's omnipotence to the exclusion of all rivals to it.

Influence and significance
Bradwardine was one of the central thinkers of the fourteenth century. His influence can be seen upon the discussions of his contemporaries and successors, as well as in Chaucer's coupling of his name, in the 'Nun's Priest's Tale' (line 422), with the names of Augustine and Boethius on God's foreknowledge and man's free will. If his influence on John Wyclif (d. 1384) or the sixteenth-century reformers is no longer accepted, it was prominent in the renewed controversies over future contingents in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, attested by the printing of De causa Dei in 1618, and again in 1656. Theologically he remains a controversial figure, with no agreement over the exact character of his thought beyond its undoubted Augustinian inspiration. Despite enthusiastic defenders in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he came in the eighteenth century to be increasingly regarded as a theological determinist, who upheld the prevenience of God's will to the point of denying human liberty or autonomy. He was accordingly branded unorthodox, sometimes heretical, and accused of going beyond tradition. That view prevailed until recently. His own terminology did not help him, especially expressions like 'antecedent necessity' to denote God's actions towards his creatures. Since the late 1950s, however, there has been a change of view and a growing tendency to reject these assertions. Bradwardine's doctrines are now taken to be in keeping with tradition, albeit sometimes framed in a novel way. He did not deny free will, and he upheld the contingency of creation against claims for the influence of natural necessity. Even his notion of divine coefficiency said nothing that Aquinas had not said before him. This more recent emphasis restores a needed balance to the assessment of Bradwardine. If he still does not appear to conform completely to tradition, his system was more than an essay in divine omnipotence at the expense of human freedom.


T. Bradwardine, De causa Dei contra Pelagium (1618)
Thomas of Bradwardine, his Tractatus de proportionibus: its significance for the development of mathematical physics, ed. and trans. H. L. Crosby (1955)
J.-F. Genest, Prédétermination et liberté créée à Oxford au XIVe siècle (Paris, 1992)
J.-F. Genest, ed., 'Le De futuris contingentibus de Thomas Bradwardine', Recherches Augustiniennes, 14 (1979), 249-336
H. A. Oberman, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine: a fourteenth-century Augustinian (1957)
H. A. Oberman and J. A. Weisheipl, 'The Sermo epinicius ascribed to Thomas Bradwardine', Archives d'Histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen âge, 25 (1958), 295-329
Thomas of Bradwardine, his Tractatus de proportionibus: its significance for the development of mathematical physics, ed. and trans. H. L. Crosby (1955); repr. (1961)
A. C. Crombie, Augustine to Galileo : the history of science, AD 400-1650, 2 vols. (1952); rev. edn as Medieval and early modern science (Garden City, NY, 1959)
P. Vignaux, Justification et prédestination au XIVe siècle (1934)
E. J. Dijksterhuis, The mechanization of the world picture (1961)
J. A. Weisheipl, 'The interpretation of Aristotle's Physics and the science of motion', The Cambridge history of later medieval philosophy: from the rediscovery of Aristotle to the disintegration of scholasticism, 1100-1600, ed. N. Kretzmann, A. Kenny, and J. Pinborg (1982), 521-36
G. Leff, Bradwardine and the Pelagians (1957)
J.-F. Genest and K. Tachau, 'La lecture de Thomas Bradwardine sur les Sentences', Archives d'Histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen âge, 57 (1990), 301-6
M. L. Roure, 'La problématique des propositions insolubles au XIIIe siècle et au début du XIVe siècle', Archives d'Histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen âge, 37 (1970), 205-326
Emden, Oxf.

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