Jean Charlier De Gerson

1363-1429. French theologian and church leader. He entered the University of Paris in 1377 and succeeded his friend and teacher Pierre d'Ailly* as chancellor in 1395. Schooled in the Nominalism of William of Ockham, he yet resisted its potential speculative and skeptical excesses. Strongly interested in practical Christian living, he sought to curb academic intellectualism by lecturing on mysticism and the spiritual life in the university; at the same time, he wrote against popular superstition and irrational enthusiasm. Such a man was naturally pained by the Great Schism.* At first he sought to moderate the hostility of factions in the church, but eventually he came to throw the authority of the leading university in Christendom behind a more radical cure for the schism. Disillusioned by the failure of the papal leadership, he held that in an emergency canon law could be set aside; in particular he followed Henry Langenstein in insisting that the pope was not absolute, but must be understood as the head, and so as part, of the body, the church, i.e., the totality of the faithful, and existing for the sake of the church. From this followed the revolutionary step, that the body has the right to call a failing head to account. So he took part in the Council of Pisa (1409) and the Council of Constance (1415-17) which burnt Hus and deposed three popes to end the schism. In all this, Gerson acted as the man of traditional order; the law could only be set aside in order to maintain the spirit of the law. His views were set out in De potestate ecclesiastica, (1416-17).

His concern for social order and morality was to be seen in his hostility to the priest John Petit, who wrote a tract on tyrannicide in order to justify the action of the Burgundian faction in France. Gerson secured the condemnation of Petit at Constance, but since the Burgundian party gained dominance at that time, his return to Paris after the council was impossible, and he ended his days in exile. As one of the chief theorists of the Conciliar Movement, Gerson has considerable importance in the history of the doctrine of the church and of Christian political thinking.