How the world-embracing dream of the scholastics died but left a legacy among the common people

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Franciscan Johannes Duns Scotus (Paris)

I close out the “potted history” of scholasticism in the theology chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis with a bit of a dirge.

All good things must come to an end. It was the profound skepticism of a group called the “nominalists” that finally killed the grand synthesizing experiment of scholastic theology. But far from being an elitist blip on the medieval church’s radar (OK, I’ll admit that metaphor is a bit too modern!), the labors of the scholastics continued to affect the laity profoundly through the friars’ vibrant preaching and education efforts–right through the period of the Reformation. (Today’s worldwide network of Jesuit colleges are just one part of that legacy.)


The story of scholasticism’s decline in a nutshell is that after Aquinas, a trend of thought came to dominate theology which tended to re-separate faith and reason. Two key figures in this trend were John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham.

John Duns Scotus: A step towards the divorce of faith and reason

Duns Scotus (1266-1308) was a Franciscan, and thus at odds with the Dominican Thomas Aquinas, if only by virtue of loyalty to his own order. Despite the fact that the Protestants later coined the word “dunce” in reference to him, he was a brilliant teacher, known in his time as the “Subtle Doctor.”

Against the scholastics, Duns Scotus tended to return to the belief that major Christian convictions cannot be demonstrated by reason, nor are they even consistent with reason. They must simply be accepted on the authority of the Church or of the Bible. To say that God operated completely according to reasonable principles was to Scotus like saying that he was not really free. On the contrary, Scotus affirmed that God’s will, although not capiricous or chaotic, was the ruling force in the universe, not his mind. He therefore said that “A thing may at the same time be true in philosophy and false in theology.”

William of Ockham: The completion of the divorce of faith and reason

What was started by John Duns Scotus was finished by William of Ockham, another Franciscan (1280-1349). Ockham was a radical nominalist—that is, he held that there are no universal ideas or categories at all. All that we can know are individual things. Therefore, he found the logic of the scholastics to be empty and useless to prove any of the Christian beliefs, including even the existence of God.

Essentially, Ockham and those who agreed with him (and their tribe rapidly increased in the late medieval period) had given up hope of reconciling the wisdom of man with the wisdom of God. To them, as to Paul, the cross and all that was involved in it were foolishness when judged by the wisdom of the Greeks, and man through his wisdom had not known God.


The last indignity (and final coffin-nail) suffered by the old scholastic tradition came in the time of the Enlightenment, when the unpaid bills of the institutional church came due. By the French Revolution (1789), the use of reason in elite theology had come to be associated in the minds of the people with the abuse of power and wealth by the church, which in turn was creating intolerable conditions for average people, that is, those of lower class than the aristocrats, the power brokers in the church and in the state. So Aquinas’s work went into a centuries-long period of relative disuse (although it continued to be taught within the Dominican order) until its rediscovery in the Roman Catholic “neo-Thomist” movement of the nineteenth century.


But did anyone really notice? Did scholasticism ever really did much for the common people. Wasn’t it a pastime for highly educated elites? Had it at all helped the masses, many of whom were illiterate? As we’ve seen in Lewis’s defense of the movement, ever since the 16th–century humanists got hold of scholasticism and gave it a good schoolyard thrashing, scholasticism has gotten a bad rap as obscurantist and elitist. But in part, the scholastic doctors were trying to make more intelligent and effective the loyalty to the Christian faith which had become nominal through the mass conversions of the earlier medieval centuries.

Indeed, by emphasizing the importance of reason in theology, they were actually beginning a democratization of the faith that bore fruit in the Reformation. Think about it: their use of reason in theology made knowledge of God accessible, not merely to the cloistered monk with his constant Scripture reading and intense mystical exercises, but to anyone able and willing to think.

Certainly, few before the late medieval period had the literacy and training necessary to engage in much study. But in time, scholasticism, the university, and an army of preaching, teaching friars would join to make the faith alive to many people who had never seen the inside of a monastery. Out of this popularization of scholastic theology came preaching and writing that would strengthen the faith of many more who had never seen a university.

The English bishops of the 13th century, for example, made sure the laity had a firm foundation of Christian doctrine. They produced manuals of instruction for parish priests to use in educating their parishioners. One, the De informatione simplicium by Archbishop Pechem (1281), laid out the standard syllabus, and it was quite detailed. It covered “the Apostles’ Creed, the ten commandments of the law, the two commandments of the gospel, the seven works of mercy [see “compassionate ministry” chapter], the seven virtues, the seven deadly sins [see “moral fabric” chapter], and the seven sacraments. These were to be expounded to the laity in the vernacular four times a year.”[1]

That same scholasticism-dominated 13th century birthed the Franciscan and Dominican orders—a new breed of monastics who travelled widely to preach and teach. With their focus on education, they not only preached a higher class of sermon than many priests, but also built large hall churches designed specifically for preaching. This attention to lay education, though sporadic even in the late medieval period, would continue with the Jesuit movement of the 16th century, tasked by the “counter-Reformation” Council of Trent to improve the religious smarts of priesthood and laity alike. In short, the scholastics set the table for an improvement in theological knowledge across the whole church – not just for an elite academic few.

[1] Joan Nuth, God’s Lovers in an Age of Anxiety: The Medieval English Mystic (Orbis, 2001), 28-9.

One response to “How the world-embracing dream of the scholastics died but left a legacy among the common people

  1. Pingback: That Was The Week That Was | The Pietist Schoolman

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