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Voluntarism and conciliarism in the work of Francis Oakley

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Francis Oakley has devoted much of his scholarly effort to elaborating three claims about the conciliar theory made early in the last century by John Neville Figgis: that it was rooted in secular precedents (false, as shown by Brian Tierney); that it exercised a lasting influence on early modern European political thought (true); and that conciliar thinkers transformed principles of medieval constitutionalism into political theory properly speaking (also true). Thanks in large measure to Oakley's work, and in spite of whatever unanswered questions may remain, the ‘road from Constance to 1688’ is now securely mapped across the landscape of early modern political thought.<\p>

Voluntarism occupies a less prominent but more fundamental place in Oakley's writings, because it posed a challenge to the arguments with which conciliar theorists aimed to establish a constitution for the church. They met the challenge with the distinction between God's absolute and ordinary, or ordained, power. This distinction is fundamental to Oakley's work in a double sense: it clarifies a central issue in the history of European thought; but it also helps to understand the point of his investigations into that history. The point is not to trump papal absolutism with the ace of conciliar supremacy, but to trump all forms of dogmatism by asserting ‘the necessity of admitting, and with full candor, the historicity, the relativity, the reformability of all doctrinal pronouncements’.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Dept. of History, The University of Chicago, 1126 East 59th Street, Chicago IL 60637, USA .

Publication date: January 1, 2001

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