John C. WEI, Gratian the Theologian. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2016.  Pp., vi + 353.  ISBN: 978-0-8132-2803-7. $65.00, hardcover.  Reviewed by Patrick HAYES, Redemptorist Archives of the Baltimore Province, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19123.


 Wei, a former student of Anders Winroth at Yale University and now practicing law (in addition to his Ph.D. in medieval history, he took the JD at the Law School in 2015), makes his most fully developed argument that the early twelfth-century jurist Gratian was fully engaged with the foremost theological minds of his day.  In this way, the first volume of the Corpus iuris canonici—Gratian’s so-called Decretum—is more than a commentary on rules and norms but a profoundly theological and highly nuanced document as well.  Gratian would not understand himself as a theologian, given the narrow parameters of that term in his own day, but his legacy can be understood as integral to theological development, particularly in his remarks on penance and sin, nature and grace, and God’s justice and our salvation.

The granular detail Wei provides should complement and stretch recent scholarship on Gratian and the Drecretalists.  One thinks, for instance, of Atria Larson’s Master of Penance: Gratian and the Development of Penitential Thought and Law in the Twelfth Century (CUA Press, 2014), which, along with Wei’s volume, forms part of the prestigious Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Canon Law series edited by Kenneth Pennington.  Larson links Gratian to the theological ferment then occurring in places like Laon and argues that he could be, and indeed, was considered a master in his own right.  Wei pushes that claim further.  He accepts the notion, first posited by his doktorvater, that the Decretum bares marks of an earlier recension.  This, Wei notes, colors how to interpret both the work as such and its theological underpinnings.  To elucidate this claim, Wei examines three specific areas: Gratian’s use of the Bible, his penitential theology, and his treatment of the sacraments and liturgy.

After giving a broad survey to the biographical and jurisprudential historiography of the man, Wei discusses the importance of the biblical texts for theology and ecclesiology.  Gratian followed a method of interpretation that might be called soft literalism (my term).  In Wei’s estimation, “what Gratian generally focuses on is the literal sense, and what he tries to explain is why the literal sense does not conflict with other biblical and non-biblical authorities rather than trying to prove that these texts do not have a literal meaning” (55).  In short, he is more interested in harmony than rigidity.  The same method tends to hold true in his treatment of the glossa offered by the Church Fathers.

In his chapter on penance, Wei finds favor with an idea brought forward by Peter Brown about the “peccatization” of the world.  In short, late Roman Christians conceived of God as a kind of all-powerful Roman emperor—one who dispensed mercy, indulgence, and amnesty.  However, with the collapse of the empire, Christians reduced their relations to the transcendent to two universals: sinfulness and repentance.  In the calculus of wrong-doing there existed ways to overcome certain types of sins (alms, for instance, for petty thievery or abstinence from conjugal relations for more heinous crimes like incest).  By the time Gratian put his thoughts down, penances were believed to hold some power of rectification of the soul before God, but the discussion had moved beyond the manner of the penance to the source and resulting end of the practice, particularly in cases of recidivism.

Wei’s final chapters pertain to Gratian’s De consecratione, which is the part of the Drecetum dealing mainly with sacraments.  The influence of this portion on later sacramental theologians (Peter Lombard’s Sentences among the most prominent) is undeniable.  Despite the question by some scholars over De consecratione’s authorship, Wei admirably accounts for the debates in Gratian’s context: on issues related to sacramental validity, the minister, and the effects of baptism and confirmation.  A penultimate chapter wonders whether Gratian might be understood as a liturgist.  An appendix, index of citations, fulsome bibliography and general index make this a laudable contribution to the history of canon law and its deputed founder.