Knowing God by Experience: The Spiritual Senses in the Theology of William of Auxerre by Boyd Taylor Coolman

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Boyd Taylor Coolman
Catholic University of America Press
Date of release


Knowing God by Experience: The Spiritual Senses in the Theology of William of Auxerre

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Book review

Author of the first true summa of theology, William of Auxerre (d. 1231), early magister at the University of Paris, is considered a seminal figure in early thirteenth-century scholasticism. From the uncertain climate of the late twelfth century, William's Summa Aurea emerges with impressive originality and scope. Scholars have long recognized his contribution to the evolution of scholastic thought and his influence on later figures, such as Bonaventure and Aquinas. Yet, until now, William has been largely unstudied, his theological achievement and pervasive influence thus remaining shrouded.

For William, the end of human life is an experiential apprehension of God. To capture the fullness of this encounter, he employs the ancient doctrine of the soul's spiritual senses. Not only will the blessed see divine beauty, they will also hear its symphony, smell its odor, taste its sweetness, and touch its suavity. A striking feature of William's theology, though, is that he integrates this spiritual aesthetic within a scholastic view of theology as a science, involving conceptual rigor and intellectual cognition. Knowledge of God proceeds from simple affirmation of creedal doctrine, through deeper understanding, and culminates in pleasurable spiritual sensation. The result is "wisdom," connoting both understanding and savoring, and thus evoking this "tasted knowledge," which unites scholastic speculation and spiritual experience.

This book, the first English-language monograph on William of Auxerre, traces the motif of the spiritual senses through his Summa Aurea, using it as an illuminating and unifying lens through which to appreciate his theology. Given William's importance and his neglect, much commends this study to scholars of medieval theology, philosophy, and spirituality. Bridging a pivotal phase in medieval theology, William incorporates certain twelfth century monastic sensibilities, while at the same time grappling with the Aristotelian philosophy rapidly gaining currency. This study also highlights William's initiation of scholastic use of the doctrine of the spiritual senses and, finally, it sets the stage for a fuller appreciation of William's wide-ranging influence on later scholastic luminaries.


Boyd Taylor Coolman is Assistant Adjunct Professor in Historical Theology at Duke Divinity School.


"This first-rate study will be of greatest interest to scholars in medieval theology, philosophy, and spirituality. Its usefulness will be enhanced by a more-than-introductory knowledge of medieval thought."- P.L. Urban Jr., Choice

"An excellent work, both breaking new ground and contributing to the ongoing scholarly debate. Its great innovation comes in shedding light on the theology of William of Auxerre, much talked about but rarely investigated, almost never with this subtlety and in such detail."--Steven P. Marrone, Tufts University

"[Coolman's] excellent, close reading of William's Summa aurea augments our sense of this early Scholastic era in connection to its past as well as its future. This book is an essential contribution to the medieval studies and theology section of any research library."--Kevin Hughes, The Thomist

"[An] exquisitely crafted book. The writing is clear and graceful throughout, and the book itself is beautifully rendered by CUA Press. From the perspective of both content and the pleasure of reading, this one is not to be missed by anyone with a love for medieval theology." -- Joan Nuth, Theological Studies

"[A] fine study... a useful and important contribution and counterbalance to the already existing studies." -- David N. Bell, Speculum

"Coolman's study is an exemplary contribution not only to the study of William and his doctrine of the spiritual senses but

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