As we prepare our reading lists for 2019, let us take this opportunity to remind ourselves of perhaps the most significant book that Christians—all the way from the casual reader to the master’s level seminary student—have almost completely forgotten about.
From 1155 to 1157 Peter Lombard wrote and compiled his Four Books of Sentences. As much as this four-volume work is one of systematic theology, it is almost equally one of historical theology, particularly in compiling and defending the theology of the early church. The author’s stated aim was to provide the theological views of the church Fathers, “So that one who seeks them shall find it unnecessary to rifle through numerous books, when this brief collection effortlessly offers him what he seeks.”To this end, Lombard unashamedly defended and promoted the collective theological testimony of the Fathers: “Here you will find the precedents and teaching of our ancestors. Here, by the sincere profession of the Lord’s faith, we have denounced the falsehood of a poisonous doctrine. Embracing an approach to showing the truth without incurring the danger of professing impiety, we have pursued a moderate middle course between the two. And if in some places our voice has rung out a little loudly, it has not transgressed the bounds set by our forefathers.”
So who was Peter Lombard? Well, we actually know very little about his personal life. The first known account of Peter was in a letter written by Bernard of Clairvaux around 1136. Outside of this, and prior to his writing of the Sentences, only a barebones reconstruction through historical imagination, sparse evidence, and basic reasoning can give a biographical glimpse of Peter. (By the way, if you want to read more about the life of Peter of Lombard, checkout our new forthcoming website where an entire page will be dedicated to biographies of many of the most significant figures and theologians throughout church history.)
Far and away Peter’s most significant contribution was the Four Books of Sentences. And of course, as with any work of this nature, the author’s selections of theologians to reference required significant redaction. Nevertheless, his selections were not made on a personal or anecdotal whim. Rather, his selections would not have been surprising in the least to his contemporary theologians. A quick thumb through volume 1 will show that the most frequently reference theologians are Augustine of Hippo and Hilary of Poitiers. A bit of a closer look, and the reader will also find references also to Jerome, Ambrose, Gregory the Great, Origen, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Bede, and the early commenter of Paul’s letters called Ambrosiaster.
While the Lombard’s main effort was in compiling patristic theology worth passing to succeeding generations, this was not at the expense of his commentary and use of the biblical witness. Certainly he runs the risk of conflating the theology of the Fathers to a level of authority reserved only for God’s word, and perhaps Peter even does this at times. However, his aim was not to falsely build up man’s word to the level of God’s word, but to explain God’s word by the true, accurate, helpful, and significant words of Christians throughout the early centuries of the church. A fair critique of theSentencesmust be done from this latter perspective.
Peter Lombard’s Four Books of Sentencescaptures the theology of the church Fathers from the early 4thcentury, preserves them in his own time, and hands them down to generations for another 4 centuries. For four-hundred years after the publication of the Sentencesthis work was the standard textbook for theological training, even including, for example, up to and through the time of Martin Luther. In fact, Luther would have had much of the Sentencescommitted to memory. In sum, if one considers the time from the earliest patristic references in the book, captured as a timecapsule in the twelfth century, and supremely relevant for theological training until at least mid-sixteenth century, then the primary content and influence of this work spans nearly 1300 years of Christian history and theology. Giulio Silano’s lament that the Sentencesis “one of the least read of the world’s great books”is doubless true. Surely this realization is reason enough to take up and read a volume of this set in 2019.