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Gerson Jean Charlier

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Gerson, Christianus
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(Doctor Christianissimus), one of the greatest names in the history of France and of the Gallican Church. He was named Gerson fiom a village in the diocese of Rheims, where he was born, December 14, 1363. He entered the college of Navarre in 1377, and passed through all the degrees. He then studied theology sevensyears under the grand master Pierre d'Ailly, whom he succeeded as chancellor of the university and prebendary of Notre Daumme in 1396. Here he strenuously devoted himself to improving the course of theological study, on which his views may be seen in a letter to D'Ailly, dated April 1, 1400, De reformationes Theologi (Opera, volume 1). But the difficulties of his petition were very great. The university was in disorder; the state was torn by contending factions; the Church was divided by the great papal schism which began in 1378, when Urban VI was elected pope at Rome, and Clement VII at Avignon. Gerson found so much opposition in his efforts to reform theology, and to bring peace to the Church, that he decided to retire from Paris to the quiet charge of the cathedral at Bruges, a preferment given to him by Philip of Burgundy. At last he gave up this purpose, and gave up, with it, the tranquillity of his whole life. Gerson was more than once deputed to the popes during the schism. In a memoir, De unitate ecclesiastica, he defended the Council of Pisa (q.v.), and conducted himself in a firm though prudent manner when the council proceeded to depose Gregory XII and Benedict XIII, and to elect Alexander V. It was during the sitting of this council that he published his famous treatise De auferibilitate Papae, to prove that there are cases in which the assembled Church may command two rivals to desist from their strife, and has a right to depose them if they refuse, for the sake of peace and unity. The Council of Constance (q.v.) opened a new field for his talent; he took a place there as ambassador from king Charles VI, from the Church of France, and from the University of Paris, and he directed all the measures which were adopted respecting John XXIII, who had succeeded Alexander V, and whose licentious conduct, had tended rather to increase than to allay the schism. In this council Gerson and D'Ailly were the chief leaders in the so-called reforming part).

The discourses which Gerson on various occasions pronounced during the council, and the treatises which he published, were intended principally to show that the Church may reform itself, as well in its governors as in its members; and that it has the power of assembling, without the consent of the pope, when he refuses to convoke it; to prove the necessity of holding councils, as well general as special; to prescribe the payment of first-fruits, and to extirpate simony, which had become very common. He had established, as the basis of the decrees of the council, the doctrine of the supremacy of the Church in all which concerns faith and morals, and on this subject a discourse on the Immaculate Conception has been ascribed to him, but which was, in fact, pronounced at the Council of Basle after his death. It was principally through his efforts that the council declared itself independent of all popes, and superior to them." The piety of Gerson, though strong and zealous, was neither superstitious nor credulous; he denounced, in his treatise Contra sectam Flagellantium, the abuse made of flagellation, of which Vincent Ferrier was the advocate. He also composed a book, De probatione spiritum, in which he gave rules for.distinguishing false revelations from true ones. The pretended visions of St. Bridget would have been condemned at his instigation had they not found an apologist in the cardinal Torquemada; and though his theology was professedly mystical as opposed to scholasticism, he opposed the theories of John Rusbroeck, of the passive union of the soul in the Deity, which is similar to the pure love of the Quietists. He also wrote against D'Ailly on judicial astrology, which was then in high repute among the princes of Europe, and which he combated with great success, even in his old age, against the physicians of Lyons and Montpellier. Before that time, his treatise on this subject, De astrologia reformata, had procured for him the praise of the learned bishop of Cambray. In another treatise, De erroribus circa artem magicam, he attacks the superstitious errors of magic and the prejudices of the empirics.

With regard to toleration, Gerson was involved in all the errors of his times. At the trial of John Huss (q.v.), his writings and speeches contributed greatly to the condemnation of that eminent reformer, who was burnt by order of the Council of ConstanceJuly 6, 1415. He took a similar share in the prosecution of Jerome of Prague (martyred May B.C. 1416). "Cut off," said he, in a letter to the archbishop of Prague, "the heresies, with their authors, and burn them." He called this terrible punishment a "merciful cruelty." Gerson's hopes for a reform of the Church at the Council of Constance were bitterly disappointed. The election of Martin V (November 11, 1417) put an end to all hope of reform, and Gerson retired, fatigued and discouraged, from the scene of sterile disputes. He had contributed by his writings to the revocation of a bull of Alexander V in favor of the preaching friars, against the privileges of the clergy and of the universities. Gerson's zeal raised against him many enemies, and the fear of the dangers to which he would be exposed from the Burgundian faction induced him to take refuge in Germany, disguised as a pilgrim, about the time of the last sittings of the Council of Constance. In Bavaria he composed his De Consolatione Theologir, a mixture of prose and verse, containing an apology for his conduct at the Council of Constance. Soon after he retired into Austria, where the duke offered him an asylum at Vienna. In 1419 he returned to France, and took up his abode at the monastery of the Celestines at Lyons, of which his brother was prior. Here he. spent his remaining years in catechizing poor children, of whom he required no other reward than their simple prayer, "Lord, have mercy on thy poor servant Gerson." He died July 12, 1429.

We now state briefly the relations of Gerson to the Church, to theology, and to philosophy.

(1.) As to the Church, his whole life was spent in mourning over its abuses and corruptions, and in struggles for reformation. Full of respect for the papacy, which he considered necessary to the existence of the Church, he nevertheless opposed both its spiritual and temporal encroachments. He looked upon the dogma of the infallibility and consequent inviolability of the popes as a remnant of superstition which could not be extirpated too soon. To the whole mass of the faithful, assembled in general council, he attributed alone infallibility, the power of binding and loosing, the right of deciding, without appeal, all matters pertaining to faith and discipline, and that of judging the pope himself, whom his high position does not render impeccable. "Let the ecclesiastical power," said he, "so restrict itself within its natural limits as to remember that secular authority, even among the heathen, has its distinct rights, its laws, its verdicts, on which the spiritual power must guard from encroaching, lest the secular power might also encroach on the faith and lawful rights of the Church." By his settled doctrine of the relation existing between the papacy and the general councils on the one hand, and between the spiritual authority and the temporal power on the other, Gerson may be considered as one of the originators of Gallicanism (q.v.), and the forerunner of Bossuet (q.v.). The spirit of the famous "four propositions" of 1682 breathes in every page of the writings of the chancellor of the university.

(2.) There are two elements to be distinguished in Gerson's philosophy: the outward scholastic element, with its pedantic divisions and subtle distinctions, and the mystical element, which lifted his soul, thirsting for God, above the dry forms of the schools into the superior sphere of ineffable love. Gerson distinguishes in the nature of the soul a double set of faculties, whose highest degree is the simple understanding, and whose highest effort is the instructive perception of spiritual truths; and the affective faculties, which, in their highest flights, attain to a state of ecstatic enjoyment, whose proper object is God.

(3.) His theology is that of love. Faith and penitence are the wings on which divine love rises and attains to the possession of the Infinite Being. This possession is naturally imperfect; here below none can see God face to face, "for there shall no man see it and live;" but it produces peace in the heart; the ignorant and the lowly can attain to it, and it is much superior to that which results from speculative theories, with their attending abstractions and syllogism, and the uncertainty and the agonizing doubts which often accompany them. Gerson's is a mild form of mysticism, based on the nicest analysis: it does not lead to the absorption of the personality into the bosom of the Infinite Being, nor exclude the normal exercise of the function of the intellect and volition. Gerson was a determined enemy of scholasticism. He signalized, as the origin of all the evils of theology, that vain curiosity which leads to the disregard of the most reliable authorities, the dangerous taste for novelty in things and in words, the love of argument, and the mixing up of the different sciences. Revelation, with him, is the limit of theology, and to endeavor to carry it farther by human reasonings is to lead it astray. "If the Scriptures are insufficient as a means, of arriving at God, where shall we find anything to lead us higher? Let us then guard against attempting to help theology by an admixture with other sciences, and against introducing into it the exercises of the schools." As to practical religion, as we have already said, Gerson was of the moderate mystical school. In his view all the moral and intellectual powers of man were originally in harmony with each other, and directed to God; but sin destroyed this harmony, and it is the object of mystic theology to restore it. But, in order to effect this, it must first know the nature of the powers of the mind, and the manner of acting upon them. Following Richard de St. Victor (de Contemplatione), Gerson distinguishes in the operations of the two orders of faculties three different degrees: in the vis cognitiva, 1. the cogitatio, involuntary tendency of the soul to moral consideration; 2. the meditatio, voluntary effort to learn the truth; 3. contemplatio, the voluntary inquiry into spiritual, and especially divine subjects; in the vis affectiva, 1. the desire, libido; 2. piety, devotio, 3. loving aspirations, dilectio ecstatica, and anagogica, inseparably connected with the contemplatio: these are only separately or theoretically considered. In this union of love with contemplation resides the true essence of mystic theology, which is essentially a theology of love. Gerson designated it as theologia affectiva, in contradistinction from: scholastic theology, which he called theologia speculativa. Love consists only in an "experimentalis Dei perceptio," from which, however, Gerson abstracts all that is material or figurative. In his definition of it, he says: "By love is the eternal Word born in the soul, and the unity with God achieved." That wonderful book, De Imitatione Christii is attributed by many of the best critics to Gerson. On this question, (See KEMPIS).

There are several editions of Gerson's collected works, but the most complete is Opera Omnia J. Gersonii, op. et stud. L. Ellies du Pin (Antwerp, 1706, 5 volumes, fol.). Volume 1 contains a life of Gerson, an essay on the authorship of the Imitation of Christ, a critical catalogue of his writings, together with his dogmatical works. Volume 2 contains his treatises on ecclesiastical polity, etc.; volume 3, his writings on moral theology; volume 4, exegetical writings; volume 5, controversial writings, sermons, etc. Some works are included in this edition which do not belong to Gerson. See Richer, Vie de Gerson; L'Enfant, Hist. of the Council of Constance; Le'cuy, Essai sur Gerson (Paris, 1832, 2 volumes, 8vo); Schmidt, Essai sur Gerson (Strasb. 1839); Thomassy, Jean Gerson (Paris, 1843, 16mo); Faugere, Eloge de Gerson (Paris, 1837); Engelhardt, de Gersonio Mystico (Erlang. 1843, 4to); Illgen's Zeitschrjft fur d. hist. Theol. (1833); Studien u. Kritiken (1835), page 278; Jourdain, Doctrina Gersonii de theolog. myst. (Par. 1838, 8vo); Michelet, Hist. de France, volume 4; Bonnechose, Reformateurs avant la Reforme, 1:160; Neander, Ch. Hist. volume 5; Neander, History of Christian Dogmas, 519, 607, 612; Mosheim, Ch. Hist. 2:443; Dupin, Hist. of Eccles. Writers, cent. 15; Hoefer, Nouv. Biog. Generale, 20:283 sq.; Hase, Ch. Hist. 250, 251; Hook, Eccles. Big. 5:306; Schwab, J. Gersoneine Monographie (Wiirzburg, 1858, 8vo); Herzog, Real-Encyklopadie. 5:89 sq.

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Gerson Jean Charlier'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​g/gerson-jean-charlier.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.
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