Home » Course Material » Gabriel Biel


Gabriel Biel



? – 1495


–          was born at Speyer during the 1st quarter of the 15th century.

–    is little-known w.r.t. his childhood, youth, or early adulthood.

–          was ordained to the priesthood in 1432 and entered Heidelberg University .

–          distinguished himself academically and became an instructor in the faculty of arts.

–          did further study in 1442-1443 at the U. of Erfurt (where Luther was later to study.  Erfurt was the centre of German Humanism, and both Biel and Luther absorbed little of it.)

–          enrolled in 1453 in the faculty of theology at U. of Cologne (21 years after his ordination.)

–          immersed himself ( Cologne ) in the Nominalist thought of Occam (as contrasted with the “older” thought of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus.)

–          was engaged in mid-life chiefly in day-to-day matters of church life.

–          was cathedral preacher in Mainz, and at this time associated himself with and thereafter remained a member of the Brethren of the Common Life (BCL: a group that pursued devotional depth — what today we call “spirituality” — and ethical rigour in a communal setting, but found nothing at all disagreeable about the church’s theology.)

–          was appointed in 1484 (Luther was born in 1483) professor of theology at the U. of Tuebingen .

–          was appointed in 1489 rector of U. of Tueb .  (Likely he was 75 years old now.)

–          died in 1495, having spent his last years exclusively among the BCL.

–          Note: one of his theological “grandsons”, Johann Eck, was Luther’s principal opponent and formidable opponent in disputations at Leipzig (1519), Worms (1521) and Augsburg (1530.)






Presuppositions:  (i) the Nominalist understanding of God: chiefly in terms of will or power.

(ii) the Nominalist understanding of grace: God is able to do anything that is not simply contradictory; e.g., God cannot make a square circle.  (This is not “something” that God can’t do; rather, it is by definition a “no-thing”, nonsense.  In the same way God cannot annihilate himself, since God exists necessarily.)


Note: (i) the Nom’t und’g of grace begins with philosophical speculation.

(ii) the     ”           ”  of grace is characterized by power.

The Prot. Reformers will have much to say on both points.



God is the source of all power, concerning which there are two kinds:

potentia absoluta: metaphysical freedom to do anything at all that isn’t self-conradictory.

potentia ordinata: a limited capacity, power, or freedom which God has because of God’s



By PA God has willed to create.  (He was under no necessity to create.)  But once he has created a finite world, then God is bound ( PO ) by his self-imposed order.  If he were to violate this order he would be inconsistent.

E.g., God has willed that pain follow injury ( PO ).  There is no metaphysical reason for this; of his own unconstrained will he has willed it.  God could have (PA) created the world in any way he wanted, but in fact has created it as we have it. (Note here the Nominalist stress on the “freedom” of God.)

By PO God has imposed upon himself a way or pattern of dealing with us his finite creatures, and (more tellingly) with us his sinful creatures.  Therefore it is of utmost importance that we recognize his way of dealing with us and conform ourselves to it.


A question that theology has always asked is, “How do sinners get right with the all-holy God?”  I.e., how do people who are wrongly related to God come to be rightly related?  How are sinners “justified”, set in the right with God?



An Overview of Biel ‘s Understanding of Justification


Biel casts his answer in terms of the respective roles that God and humans play in justification and final glorification.


Our role has to do chiefly with the nature of the human act.

Any human act can be evaluated w.r.t. its bonitas or goodness. (Here “goodness” is a moral category not a theological category.  The Reformers will dispute this and insist that “goodness” is the good, the Kingdom ofGod .)

Upon such an act of bonitas God freely, gratuitously confers dignitas or reward.

God doesn’t have to (PA), but he has willed himself (PO) to reward bonitas.

The good act, now elevated to dignitas by grace (of Christ), gives the human agent a claim on salvation.

In other words, a morally good act merits grace by “congruent merit” (PO), an instance of God’s mercy. Bonitas, now elevated to dignitas by grace, merits eternal salvation by “condign merit” (PA), an instance of metaphysical necessity.

As already noted, the elevation of bonitas is not strict justice on God’s part, but is rather an instance of God’s generosity.

Once bonitas has been graced and therein elevated to dignitas, however, strict justice applies: God must grant eternal salvation to dignitas (PA) or God contradicts himself, God denies himself — and this is inherently impossible.



The Presuppositions of Biel’s Understanding



In a state of nature (i.e., outside the state of grace) humans, trying their utmost, can love God more than anything else.  In other words, people can will themselves to love God above all else.

In a state of nature humans have the capacity to choose both good and evil, without which capacity we should cease to be human.

The will (will is this capacity for choice together with the act of choosing) is blind and has to be guided by reason.


Reason is not impaired in the way that will is.

Reason presents the will alternatives for moral action: reason informs the will and advises the will.  The will, acting on this information and advice, produces spontaneously (i.e., the will is not moved by anything else) a morally good act (bonitas.)


Yet bonitas, however good, is never good enough to meet the requirements of the holy God.

God gratuitously (PO) infuses the act by grace.  Grace doesn’t infuse any act, only the morally good act; i.e., grace as seed has to be planted in fertile rather than stony ground.  Bonitas alone is such fertile ground.


Plainly, for Biel sin has not made it impossible for humans to act “rightly” without the aid of grace; i.e., the will is not devastated in this regard.

When we fail to act rightly, we fail because of improper cognition (i.e., ignorance): reason did not bring forward the proper object of the will’s willing.

The defect lies not in the  will but in reason.  Conversely, not the good will but reason (knowledge) is the foundation and root of all virtues. * Therefore the primary task of the church is not to be the herald and “custodian” of God’s grace (God will always add grace to bonitas), but rather to provide people with the proper information about God and the human good, information that assists people in moral improvement.  I.e., this information apprises people as to which acts genuinely are bonitas.


How is such information acquired?

(i)                 partly by a natural knowledge of God and his will;

(ii)               partly by a revealed knowledge of God and his will, accepted on the authority of the church or on the authority of a particular preacher.

These two kinds of knowledge together constitute “acquired faith”, acquired faith being the source of all virtue.

Still, as mentioned earlier, these virtues do not meet the requirements of God.  For this reason there is always needed grace, the middle term that elevates bon. to dign., at which point the requirements of God are met.

Iustitia (“justice”) is the metaphysical necessity of God’s granting eternal salvation to dignitas. (PA)


It should be noted in Biel’s scheme that God graces not only the morally good act but also all aspirations; anyone who tries to be “God’s friend” (a mediaeval term) will find God gracing that effort.

For this notion Biel adduces the following scriptural support:

Zechariah 1:3 — “Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you.”

James 4:8: — “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Revelation 3:20  — “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens

the door, I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me.”

(Biel reads all such texts as supporting human initiative w.r.t. our salvation.)


  • For Biel, the essence of biblical Christianity is the congruent elevation of moral act or aspiration.  God elevates such not from any constraint grounded in his being but from his overflowing kindness (i.e., his will.)

“Doing one’s best” (even if that “best” is highly deficient or defective) is at the same a “begging for mercy”; such importunity the gracious, merciful God never spurns.


Then for Biel justification is [A] by grace alone, since God alone supplies that grace which elevates bonitas todignitas; [B] by works alone, since we must “do our best.”

The emphasis, of course, always falls on [B].    [A] is the rational, outer structure whose inner content is [B].

The church preaches and teaches [B], leaving God to supply [A]


Humankind’s motivation for moral act/aspiration is twofold: (i) fear of judgement

(ii) hope of salvation.


Biel explicitly rejects justification sola fide (by faith alone) as “an error of carnal and idle men.”  To believe that we can be saved sola gratia (by grace alone)is to “scorn God’s justice.”  Since genuine love for God is within everyone’s reach even after the fall and in the wake of the fall’s damage to us, it is our responsibility to initiatethe process of justification by making that effort which God will then honour and render worthy (meritum de condigno) of eternal salvation.


Despite Biel’s reference to grace, grace merely forms the outer structure whose inner content is human achievement; i.e., grace lends our achievement/aspiration salvific force.  Put differently, grace makes it possible for us to save ourselves.

Plainly Biel’s notion of justification is essentially Pelagian.



 The 16th Century Reformers’ Disagreements



1]  Outside the state of grace humankind cannot love God at all (never mind love God above all.)

Humans can certainly be religious, but religiosity as such is simply idolatry, a barrier

behind which people flee God in the guise of seeking God.


In the wake of the fall our will is in se curvatus.  We are afflicted with “concupiscence”,

rendering ourselves the centre of ourselves and the measure of everyone (-thing) else.


2] Instead of reason guiding the will, the will (the human “heart”) warps reason.

With respect to God, reason is perverted and largely of the order of rationalization.

We can never reason our way to God’s truth or God’s way with us: the cross.


3] While morally good act/aspiration is always possible (even actual), it is neither a sign of grace nor a step toward grace.

Morality is not the vestibule to the kingdom.  The harlots and the tax-collectors enter the

kingdom ahead of the morally upright.

In the light of the kingdom (grace), morality has the same significance as religion: an

abomination to God.


4] The entire discussion of condign versus congruent merit contradicts the logic of scripture.

The only “merit” is that of Jesus Christ.  His obedience to his Father is imputed to

(reckoned to) those who cling to him in faith.


5] We do not fail to act rightly merely because of improper information/cognition.

The root human problem is not ignorance but perverseness.  Humankind wills to

make itself its own lord.

God’s giving us what we want (this is also his curse) — “You shall be as gods, knowing good

and evil” (Genesis 3:5) — means that we extend ourselves into areas of life that God has

marked “off limits”, and so marked for our blessing.  No amount of information can overturn

the human predicament.  (This is not to denigrate the informational content of the gospel.  It is,

however, to deny that even the gospel as information can rectify us.)

People ultimately need not information but deliverance.

Our root problem is not that we are deprived (lacking something) but rather depraved




6] The primary task of the church is NOT to provide people with proper moral information about
God and goodness (so as left-handedly to foster concupiscence) but

to attest Jesus Christ in the totality of his reality as attested by prophet and apostle,

to embody his truth and reality amidst the world’s life.


Plainly there is a truth-claim to the gospel and therefore a truth-content as well.  However, in

articulating the truth of the gospel the Reformers do not provide that vehicle in terms of which

we achieve something meritorious before God.  The truth/reality of the gospel isn’t naturally

intelligible, and therefore not the information on the basis of which we initiate the process

of salvation.


7] The grace of Jesus Christ does not pertain (only) to bonitas, thereby elevating it, while the grace of God is that which fashions the overall scheme of salvation.

There is no distinction between the grace of Christ and the grace of God and God himself;

i.e., grace is God himself in his presence and efficacy.  Put differently, grace is the effectual

presence of God.


8]  Iustitia (justice) is NOT (i) that by which we are measured, an abstract standard or code,

(ii) the metaphysical necessity of God’s rewarding dignitas.


Justice is the same as justification: God’s putting us in the right with himself, and thereby

vindicating himself and his people, relieving the oppressed, clearing the slander of

opprobrium heaped on those deemed “beyond the pale.”  (I.e., all that HITZDIQ — the

hiphel of ZADAQ — and DIKAIOUN entail in Isaiah, the psalms, and the NT)


9] “Doing one’s best” is not synonymous with begging for mercy, but is rather disdaining and spurning the mercy that God has wrought in the Son (the cross) and visits upon his people through the Spirit.

The greater the sincerity in moral effort, the stronger the bastion that our pride has built

and to which we point in defiance of Jesus Christ.


10]  Fallen humankind does not (because cannot) “unlock the door” to God.  Any unlocking is possible only by grace.

The Reformed tradition will invoke here a doctrine of election.

The Wesleyan tradition will invoke here a doctrine of prevenient (pre=before;

venire=to come) grace.


11] In the wake of the fall no one seeks God.  We flee God.  When we think we are seeking him we are in fact fleeing him.  God is “sought” in faith, not in unbelief.

The gospel is the declaration that the God (who never was lost or difficult to locate) has of his

mercy found us.  God seeks a rebellious race; that race does not seek him.


12]  There is no natural knowledge of God.  We pervert the “revelation” found in the creation (e.g., Romans 1) as fast as it is “beamed” upon us.  The apprehension of God available through the creation serves only to condemn us.


13]  There is no natural knowledge of sin.  Since knowledge of sin is a predicate of knowledge of God, and since God is known only in Jesus Christ (this is bedrock for the Reformers), the existence and nature of sin have to be revealed to us.

Only in the presence of Jesus Christ (the cure for sin) is the ailment seen for what it is.

When the psalmist cries, “Against Thee only have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4) he isn’t denying

that sin violates others besides God.  He is acknowledging, however, that sin is defined

to be such by reference to God and revealed to be such by God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ.

In other words, the revelation of God entails revelation of the nature and disgrace of

humankind. Until we know God (where such knowledge is always participation  — by faith —  in God’s own life), we can’t know the fact or nature of a defective relationship with God.


For the Reformers, knowledge of sin is always a predicate of grace (knowledge of Christ.)

Where this fact is not recognized, sin will always be misunderstood as immorality or vice

or the violation of taboo.  Jesus dies for the ungodly, not for the immoral.


14] “Acquired Faith”, a compend of natural knowledge and revealed knowledge, is wholly wide of the mark.

(i)                 faith is not knowledge in the sense of information (see #5), even as there is always a cognitive content to faith.

(ii)               faith, rather, is fellowship with Jesus Christ.  He embraces us by grace, and in the power of his embrace we find ourselves both able to embrace him and eager to embrace him.  Faith is always the grace-facilitated response to the action of the person of Christ.

(iii)             faith is never acquired in any case but is rather always a gift (exercised.)


15] To affirm that salvation is sola fide is not to scorn God’s justice (i.e., his judgement), but rather to submit to that judgement and receive/affirm the provision of righteousness that the judging/rightwising God has made.

God’s justifying us always includes his judging us.  God’s judgement is the converse of his mercy (he bothers to judge us only because he longs to save us) and aims at our restoration.  God’s justifying us presupposes his judging us.  Then sola fide, an acknowledgement that we can only receive what God has fashioned for us in our need, endorses God’s judgement rather than scorning it.


16]  The will is not free to choose but rather is bound.

It isn’t denied that we can choose among creaturely goods; e.g., to eat hotdogs rather than hamburgers, or to study rather than watch TV.  But as fallen creatures we can’t “choose” Jesus Christ; i.e., we can’t will ourselves into the righteousness of God.  What we most sorely need has to be wrought for us and pressed upon us; it isn’t something that we can choose to effect in ourselves.  We can choose (“embrace”) JC only as a result of his having “embraced” us.


17]  The distinction between an outer structure of grace and an inner content of (meritorious) work is unbiblical and therefore impermissible.


18] To embrace Jesus Christ in faith and therein become a beneficiary of his righteousness is at the same time to be the beneficiary of God’s; i.e., JUSTIFICATION IN THE PRESENT FORMS THE STABLE BASIS AND NOT THE UNCERTAIN GOAL OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE.


Victor Shepherd                                                                                                  January 2000