Alexander of Hales

Alexander of Hales

Alexander Hales(c.1185—1245) (also Halensis, Alensis, Halesius, Alesius;) also called Doctor Irrefragabilis (by Pope Alexander IV in the Bull De Fontibus Paradisi) and Theologorum Monarcha was a notable thinker important in the history of scholasticism and the Franciscan School.



Alexander was born at Hales (today Halesowen, West Midlands), Shropshire, England between 1180 and 1186. He came from a rather wealthy country family. Alexander had gone to Paris in order to study the arts. After he had studied in Paris, he had become a master of arts sometime before 1210.[1] He had been made a canon of St. Paul in London later, and by 1231 was and Archdeacon of Coventry. At the age of 50 (ca. 1236-37), he had made the most significant change of his life and entered the Franciscan order. He had further become the first Franciscan to hold a University chair. Alexander had died in Paris, France on August 21, 1245, but before passing he had resigned his chair in favour of Jean de la Rochelle.

In being the first Franciscan to hold a choir at the University of Paris, he had been the teacher of many significant disciples, most notably Bonaventure. Bonaventure referred to Alexander as his "father and master" and wished to "follow in his footsteps".[2] Other disciples of include, Richard Rufus of Cornwall and Jean de la Rochelle.


Alexander is known for reflecting the works of several other Middle Age thinkers, especially that of Saint Anselm, and Saint Augustine. He is also known to quote thinkers such as Saint Bernard, and Richard of Saint-Victor. He differs from those in his genre as he his known to reflect his own interests and those of his generation.[3] When using the words of his authorities Alexander does not review their reasoning but also gives conclusions, expands on them, and offers his agreements and disagreement with them.[4] He was also different in that his Pre-Lombardian figures, and use of Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux works were not cited as frequently by other 12th century scholastics.[5] Aristotle is also quite frequently quoted in Alexander's works. Alexander was fascinated by Pseudo-Dionysian hierarchy of angels and in how their nature can be understood, given Aristotelian metaphysics.[6]

Among the doctrines which were specially developed and, so to speak, fixed by Alexander of Hales, are the thesaurus supererogationis perfectorum (treasury of supererogatory merits) and the character indelibilis (sacramental character) of baptism, confirmation, and ordination. That doctrine had been written about much earlier by Augustine of Hippo and was eventually defined a dogma by the Council of Trent. He also posed an important question about the cause of the Incarnation: would Christ have been incarnated if humanity had never sinned? The question eventually became the focal point for a philosophical issue (the theory of possible worlds) and a theological topic on the distinction between God's absolute power (potentia absoluta) and His ordained power (potentia ordinata). John Gerson tells us “The doctrine of Alexander is of a wealth surpassing all expression. It is said that someone asked St. Thomas what was the best manner of studying theology; he replied that it was by attaching oneself to a Master. And to which Doctor? he was asked again. To Alexander of Hales, the Angelic Doctor replied."[7]

Summa Universae Theologiae

He had written the summary/commentary of Peter Lombard's four books of the Sentences. It had exposed the trinitarian theology of the Greeks.[8] This had been the most important writing that Alexander had claimed, and had been the earliest in genre. While it is common for scholars to state that Alexander was the first to write a commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, it is not quite accurate. There were a number of "commentaries" on the Sentences, but Alexander appears to have been the first magisterial commentary. Although it was Alexanders most significant writing, it had not been completed, therefore leaving historians left with many questions on the reliability and quality of the writing. This was taken into consideration when the Summa had been examined by Father Victorin Doucet for different editions of them. The sources has seem to be the resulting problem of the Summa, "counted there were 4814 explicit quotations and 1372 implicit quotations from Augustine, more than one quarter of texts were cited in the body of the Summa.[9]

Other Historical Works

Among his own works Alexander also influenced Jean de la Rochelle to compose the Summa of Theologica.[10]

Alexander also influenced and sometimes is confused with Alexander Carpenter, Latinized as Fabricius (fl. 1429), who was the author of the Destructorium viciorum, a religious work popular in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.[11] Carpenter also authored other works, such as "Homiliae eruditae" ("Learned Sermons").[12][13]

Historiographical Contribution

Alexander was said to have been the earliest scholastics to engage in Aristotle's newly translated writings (Metaphysics).[14] This had been a very important to the ideals of scholastic thought. He had also steered scholasticism in a more systematic direction with him momentous decision to use the Sentences as the basic textbook for treating the whole of theology.[15] He also appears to be the first theologian to use more than by mere chance of haphazardly concepts drawn from the Metaphysics of Aristole.[16]

A medieval scholastic

In doing so, he elevated Lombard's work from a major theological resource to an authoritative text from which masters could teach. The commentary (or more correctly titled a Gloss) survived in student reports from Alexander's teaching in the classroom and so it provides a major insight into the way theologians taught their discipline in the 1220s.

For his contemporaries, however, Alexander's fame was his inexhaustible interest in disputation. His disputations prior to his becoming a Franciscan cover over 1,600 pages in their modern edition. His disputed questions after 1236 remain unpublished. Alexander was also one of the first scholastics to participate in the Quodlibetal, a university event in which a master had to respond to any question posed by any student or master over a period of three days. Alexander's Quodlibet also remains unedited. It is because of this questioning that he became known as the 'Doctor irrefragabilis'.


When he became a Franciscan and thus created a formal Franciscan school of theology at Paris, it was soon clear that his students lacked some of the basic tools for the discipline. Alexander responded by beginning a Summa theologiae that is now known as the Summa fratris Alexandri. Alexander drew mainly from his own disputations, but also selected ideas, arguments and sources from his contemporaries. It treats in its first part the doctrines of God and his attributes; in its second, those of creation and sin; in its third, those of redemption and atonement; and, in its fourth and last, those of the sacraments. This massive text, which Roger Bacon would later sarcastically describe as weighing as much as a horse, was unfinished at his death; his students, William of Middleton and John of Rupella, were charged with its completion. It was certainly read by the Franciscans at Paris, including Bonaventure. Bonaventure once referred to Alexander as "our father and master" (noster pater et magister), but it is unlikely that the Seraphic Doctor ever studied under Alexander.

Alexander was an innovative theologian. He was part of the generation that first grappled with the writings of Aristotle. While there was a ban on using Aristotle's works as teaching texts, theologians like Alexander continued to exploit his ideas in their theology. Two other uncommon sources were promoted by Alexander: Anselm of Canterbury, whose writings had been ignored for almost a century gained an important advocate in Alexander and he used Anselm's works extensively in his teaching on Christology and soteriology; and, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, whom Alexander used in his examination of the theology of Orders and ecclesiastical structures.


  1. ^ Cullen,p.105
  2. ^ Cullen,p.105
  3. ^ Studies in Scoloasticism
  4. ^ Studies in Scholasticism
  5. ^ Studies in Scholasticism
  6. ^ Studies in Scholasticism
  7. ^ Gerson, Opera omnia. Epistola Lugdunum missa cuidam fratri Minori, vol. 1, p. 554.
  8. ^ Backus,p.301
  9. ^ "Backus,p. 303
  10. ^ Backus,p.302
  11. ^ Gerald Robert Owst: The Destructiorium viciorum of Alexander Carpenter, Church Historical Society, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1952, 40 pp.
  12. ^ Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee (eds.): The Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, vol. III (Brown - Chaloner), pp. 1062-1063.
  13. ^ George Watson (ed.): The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, Volume 1, 600-1660. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974, p. 803.
  14. ^ Cullen,p.104
  15. ^ Cullen,p.104
  16. ^ Principe,p.215


  • Backus,Irena The Reception of the Church of Fathers in the West.From the Carolingians to the Mauists(E.J Brill, Leiden,1997)p. 301-303
  • Christophe M. Cullen."Alexander of Hales" in a Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, ed. Jorge J.E. Graciaand Timothy B. Noone (Blackwell Publishing,2006),p. 104-09
  • Colish, Marcia L., Studies in Scolasticism(Ashgate Publishing Limited,2006)p. 132-33
  • David Burr.The Antiechrist and the Jews in Four Thirteenth-Century Apocalypse Commentaries ed.Steven J. McMichael and Susan E. Myers(Brill Academic Publishers,2004)p. 23,41
  • Principe,Walter H.,"Alexander of Hales" Theology of the Hypostatic Union(Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies,1967)p. 13-255
  • Smith, Philip.The History of the Christian Church,During the Middle Ages with a Summary of the Reformation, centuries XI to XVI.(Harper and Brothers,1885)p. 287-555

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