Place in the Development of Doctrine:
Function of Loci Communes in
Sixteenth-Century Exegesis and Disputation
The Unaccommodated Calvin, Richard Muller argues that Calvin adopted the
plan for the Institutes from the topical model of Philipp Melanchthon
and Rudolph Agricola. Agricola defined the grounds for argument by identifying
the loci, or “the ‘places’ or topoi in which they might be found”
(109). And Calvin adopted this topical
approach for the purpose of exegesis and disputation (102-11). Since loci communes “most frequently took the
form of a gathering of theological topics drawn out of the work of exegesis and
disputation” (5), the question is how do loci communes function in both
exegesis and disputation?
locus communis is a rhetorical concept, this question directs us to the
rhetorical treatises of the time. Understanding what locus communis
meant in the rhetorical treatises of the early sixteenth century, however, is
not as straightforward as it at first may appear. Erasmus, for example, in his
ecclesiastical rhetoric, Ecclesiastes, explains four uses of the locus
communis (400-2). To complicate matters, later in the century Lodovico
Carbone in his treatise on rhetorical and dialectical commonplaces lists some
twenty uses of the term locus communis (86-88).
For our purposes, however, we turn to
Melanchthon because he devotes a section to the loci communes in his
rhetoric and because he authored the most famous theological commonplace book
of sixteenth-century. In his Elementa rhetorices, Melanchthon notes a
new use of the locus communis. In the section De locis communibus,
Melanchthon explains that students need training in topics not to invent
arguments, but to find them in good authors.
For once the way is known, afterwards these matters don’t have to
be sought out in the rhetorical handbooks, but they must be taken from both
common wisdom and from other arts. In fact these teachings are not so much
fitting for invention as for choosing appropriately when the things are offered
from other arts.[i] (451)
Melanchthon loci communes guide the reading of authors in order to
extract commonplaces and digest them into discipline-specific commonplace books
such as his own Loci Communes (1521).
The advantage of extracting loci
communes from reading is their usefulness when transferred from a specific
question at issue to a general question (451). For example, Melanchthon
gives as the specific question “Should war be marshaled against the Turks?”
This question depends on the general question “Should Christians wage war or
not?” If the reader transfers the question at issue from the specific question
to the general question, contextual factors in the specific question, but
irrelevant to the general question, fall out, and only the material consonant
with the general question remains (451). Reframing the question at issue thus
helps determine what is relevant.
As an example of how this works in exegesis,
Melanchthon cites II Samuel 12 where the prophet Nathan chastises David for
adultery. Interpreting the passage depends on understanding the general
commonplace not only of chastisement but also of forgiveness. This procedure
renders the proper doctrinal interpretation, a procedure that Jesus exemplifies
when he excuses his disciples from harvesting grain on the Sabbath by invoking the
more general locus of mistaken traditions of the Pharisees (452). Such a
transfer, Melanchthon notes, is especially useful when loci communes are
used to prove arguments and not just to amplify passages. Often the transfer
yields the major premise in a syllogism (452).
This new use of the commonplace in
exegesis serves two functions. First, it allows the exegete to discern what is
relevant in a passage and avoid elements unrelated to the exegetical purpose.
Second, with the question made general, the loci communes provide proof
for arguments so the interpreters may apply the commonplaces to make new
arguments, and, what is more difficult, understand new arguments in terms of
the loci communes (452). Melanchthon
criticizes the practice of indiscriminately collecting authors’ sayings because
this practice persuades only fools (452). For the best method of extracting and
organizing loci communes, Melanchthon recommends Rudolph Agricola’s De formando studio, in which Agricola
explains the two-step process of reading classical authors and excerpting
passages for commonplace books. Agricola urges the same method for sacred
literature and recommends the full explanation of this process found in his
work De inventione dialectica, to which we now turn.
In book two, chapter twenty-six, Agricola
raises two questions: how to recognize arguments in authors and how to
determine from which commonplace arguments are drawn. He raises these questions
because authors don’t argue openly as dialecticians would. Rather, skillful
authors hide arguments in a style so natural that it makes the arguments
difficult to detect. Moreover, authors obscure arguments with figures of
speech. Finally, authors often disguise the premise and the conclusion in a
single proposition (354). The result is that the unwary reader is easy to
Agricola offers simple cases to explain
first how to recognize arguments and second how to identify the relevant locus communis. The first task requires
finding the middle term of the implied syllogism. The middle term is the term
in a premise not used in the conclusion. In the following example, “A philosopher will not rightly put away
his wife; therefore, Cato will not rightly put away his wife,” the middle term
is “philosopher.” The second step in finding the argument is to compare the
middle term to the term in the conclusion that does not occur in the premise.
In this case it is “Cato.” The reader examines the commonplaces to determine by
elimination and comparison the semantic relationship that best describes the
two terms “philosopher” and “Cato.” (See chart.)
first determination is whether the middle term “philosopher” compares with the
final term “Cato” intrinsically or extrinsically. In this case, the
relationship between “Cato” and “philosopher” is intrinsic. This determination
eliminates all extrinsic commonplaces. The second determination is whether
“philosopher” is part of Cato’s substance. It is not since being a philosopher is
not essential to being human. This determination eliminates the commonplaces
that belong to substance and leaves only those that are both internal and
non-substantial: adjacents, acts, and subjects.
The next determination is to compare the
three remaining commonplaces to see which best describes the semantic
relationship of the terms “philosopher” and “Cato.” Agricola eliminates the two
least related commonplaces: subject and act. “Philosopher” is not the subject
of “Cato” because being a philosopher is not the basis of or the source of
Cato’s being. Nor is “philosopher” an act of Cato because being a philosopher
is a state, not a change wrought by nature or will. Because “philosopher” is
Cato’s manner but not his substance, the locus communis best describing
the semantic relation between “philosopher” and “ Cato” is adjacent (355,
But here, Agricola cautions that the
middle term, which was compared to the final term in the conclusion, not only
implicates one commonplace, but also, if compared to the remaining term,
implicates yet another commonplace. Hence, the remaining term, “wife,” must
also be compared to “Cato.” To demonstrate the second task, Agricola
offers a new premise for the old conclusion: “Cato must not put away a good servant; therefore, how much less
ought Cato to put away a good wife.” The middle term of this new argument is
“good servant.” When “good servant” is compared to “Cato,” it relates through
the commonplace of connected things such as master and servant. Now the reader
can consider the semantic relations of “servant” and “wife” with respect to
“Cato.” “Wife” relates to “Cato” through the commonplace of compared things,
while “servant” relates to “Cato” through the commonplace of connected things.
Since the relationship between husband and wife is more evident than the
relationship between master and servant, the argument from compared things is
stronger than the argument from connected things, and is best inferred from the
locus of comparison (355-6).
process allows the reader both to evaluate the argument against its other
semantic possibilities and to identify the argument for a commonplace book. For
example, the reader could list the commonplaces as headings. Under the heading
“Arguments from compared things,” he would list the statement “Cato must not
rightly put away a good servant; therefore, Cato will not put away his wife.”
This same technique of reducing a literary passage to its propositional content
based on commonplaces applies equally to
The popularity of Loci Communes in
the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is puzzling without investigating how
the concept of locus communis changed in the rhetorical handbooks of the
sixteenth century, particularly among Melanchthon and his Lutheran followers,
who used Agricola’s understanding of the loci
communes for exegesis of scripture and for doctrinal disputation. As Owen
Chadwick notes in his landmark study, From Bossuet to Newman: The Idea of
Doctrinal Development, the Spanish Jesuits adopted propositional
disputation in theological discussions, thus ushering in a phase in doctrinal
development known as the propositional phase (21-48). This propositional phase,
however, was preceded by the use of propositions in loci communes, most
notably by Melanchthon. Melanchthon, as noted by Dickinson (54), first employed
loci communes for scriptural exegesis and theological disputation, but
he derived the procedure of reducing statements to their propositional content
and collecting the propositions into commonplace books from Rudolph Agricola.
Grant Boswell is an Associate
Professor in the Department of English at Brigham Young University. His specific research interests focus
primarily on rhetoric in the seventeenth century, including such topics as
rhetoric and religious disputes, rhetoric and Christian meditation, rhetoric
and education, and rhetoric and psychology. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
My translation. Nam via
quadam cognita, postea res non in libellis rhetoricis quaerendae sunt, sed tum
a communi prudentia, tum ex aliis artibus sumendae. Etenim haec precepta non
tam ad inveniendum conducunt, quam ad eligendum idonea, cum res ex aliis
List of Works
Rudolph. De inventione dialectica.
1539. Nieuwkoop: B. De Graaf, 1967: 1-471. Vol. 2 of Monumemnta Humanistica
Belgica. 12 vols. 1966-1979.
Lodovicus. De Oratoria et Dialectica
Inventione Vel De Locis Communibus Libri Quinque. 1589. Kessinger
Publishing’s Legacy Reprints: Print on demand.
Charles. The Dialectical Development of
Doctrine: A Methodological Proposal. Ann Arbor: Pryor
Desiderius. Ecclesiastes. I-II. Ed.
Jacques Chomarat. Amsterdam: North Holland, 1991. Vol. 5,
pt. 4 of Opera Omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami. 39 vols. 1969-2011.
Philipp. Elementa Rhetorices. 1542.
Halle/Braunschweig: C. A. Schwetschke, 1846: 417-506. Vol. 13 of Philippi Melanchthonis
Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia. Ed. C. G. Bretschneider and H. E. Bindseil. 28
A. The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in
the Foundation of a Theological Tradition. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.
Owen, Chadwick. From Bossuet to Newman: The Idea of
Doctrinal Development. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1957.