Tag Archives: scholasticism

Out of the medieval darkness: The REAL story of medieval theology


English: Illustration of the spherical earth i...

English: Illustration of the spherical earth in a medieval manuscript. The figure shows two men walking around the spherical earth, one going to the East and the other to the West, and meeting on the opposite side. O. H. Prior, ed., L’image du monde de maitre Gossuin, (Lausanne & Paris: Librarie Payot & C ie , 1913), pp. 93-4. 14th century copy of a 12th century original (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

OK folks, still at it: the “theology chapter” of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis is nearly done. Having introduced it with clips from my introduction of the “modern problem” which I hope this chapter can help address and my two-part review of Lewis’s relationship to philosophy and theology (of the modern and medieval varieties), the time has come to jump into the medieval material. Here is the “medieval introduction,” which finds that it must clear away some stereotypes before positing the “four balances” that medieval theology maintained – from which we can learn much today.

I. Medieval faith in reason? Surely not!

Possibly the number one reason many (I hope not most!) modern Protestant Christians will not give this book the time of day is that they assume medieval people were ignorant haters of scientific knowledge who believed in a flat earth and were sitting around waiting for the Enlightenment to happen so they could finally crawl out of the darkness and into the clear light of reason.[1]

It’s a shame we have to do this, but in order to get back to the brilliance of medieval theology, we first have to overcome the stereotype that medieval people were, well, stupid. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

One source of such nonsense today is a misbegotten (and top-selling – according to Amazon sales rankings) book by one William Manchester called A World Lit Only By Fire. Manchester is a historian, but he works way out of his field here.[2] And that is the most charitable reason I can think of for his straight-faced argument that even in Columbus’s time, and throughout the Middle Ages, people actually believed the world was flat. Historian of science (and editor of the 8-volume Cambridge History of Science) David Lindberg says “nonsense.”[3] Continue reading

The evangelical abdication of Truth; or, Two out of three is really, really bad


truth on handsWork continues on my book-in-progress, Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. The chapter with the working title “Passion for theology” has been kicking my butt up and down the street for a few days, but I got up at 4 this morning and the introduction finally came together. Here it is:

In the charismatic church where I came to Christ as a young man, we couldn’t wait for Sunday. Week after week we experienced such rich, life-changing ministry in worship and prayer. Night after night, the altar was jammed with eager worshippers seeking a “touch from the Lord.” And it seemed like He was always there to meet us and put his loving arms around us. After the service, we would leave the building with our hearts bursting with gratitude and joy. We even joked that it might not be safe to drive in that condition! And it didn’t take much prodding for us to evangelize, either: who wouldn’t want to share such riches?

I will always be grateful for those days, and for the divine condescension that worked among us with such power. Some folks accuse charismatics of not giving God or Christ his due. “There’s so much ‘me’ language in their songs,” they grump. And sure, our worship could become self-indulgent. But the critics just don’t “get” why charismatics use the first person so much in church. It’s because they live in constant awe that the God of Creation condescends to save and to love even them. What a God, who meets us in our brokenness and wraps his arms around us like the father with the prodigal son! The charismatic experience of God is like every love song on the radio. Try writing one of those without using the first person!

More than all of this, we loved church because we knew that we came away from it changed. Don’t get me wrong, there was still plenty of imperfection in our lives. But along with the love-fest came real personal transformation: Sins confessed. Grace experienced. Old wounds healed. Broken relationships restored. Release from addictions. God not only loved us—he made us better people. We experienced not only the Beauty of his presence among us, but also the Goodness that came from the operation of his Spirit in our hearts.

But here’s the thing. As the Greek philosophers knew, humans cannot live on Beauty and Goodness alone. There is a third realm necessary for human flourishing: the realm of Truth. And in that area, I sensed that the charismatic church of my twenties was standing on thin ice. Many of our key teachings came from self-taught celebrity preachers who skewed heavily to the topical—and away from the exegetical—end of the preaching spectrum. Their messages were rousing, to be sure. They got the people standing on their feet and coming up to the altar. But by dint of stringing together out-of-context Bible verses with some homespun wisdom, these teachers took us down some garden paths: The prosperity gospel. Blame-the-victim faith healing. Demon-in-every-doorknob spiritual warfare. We fell over ourselves to get to all that wonderful Beauty and Goodness, and we left Truth in the ditch. Continue reading

A few illuminating glimpses into medieval theology and theologians–thank you, David Bell


All of the following come from David N. Bell, Many Mansions: An Introduction to the Development and Diversity of Medieval Theology (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1996). This is a splendid book–a sort of sequel to Bell’s Cloud of Witnesses, on early Christian thought.

Many thanks to my t.a., Shane Moe, for transcribing these. In each case, the page number of the quotation appears at the beginning of the line. The quirk of lowercasing adjectival forms of proper nouns is Bell’s or his editors–not mine:

[For more “glimpses,” from Jaroslav Pelikan, see here.]

(20): [re: Major developments in European intellectual history from 6th century onwards] There are five mile-stones to mark our way: (i) the pontificate of Gregory the Great from 590 to 604; (ii) the Carolingian Renaissance of the late eighth and ninth centuries; (iii) the papal reform movements of the eleventh century; (iv) the renaissance of the twelfth century; and (v) the rise of scholasticism and the universities in the thirteenth century. Continue reading

Did either Martin Luther or C. S. Lewis understand (and appreciate) Thomas Aquinas?


For a while this summer, I dug deep in the sources to try to discover whether C. S. Lewis’s strong taste for virtue ethics, manifested both in his Abolition of Man and in his Mere Christianity (among other places) reflected an equally strong appreciation for Thomas Aquinas. At the Marion Wade Center, I pored over the massive four-volume set of Aquinas’s Summa that once resided in Lewis’s library. There were almost no annotations in that set by Lewis, but then again, many of the books he loved most were likewise unmarked.

I read through certain letters of Lewis in which he cautions his correspondent to stay away from the neo-scholasticism of Jacques Maritain and others (he identified T. S. Eliot with this movement). To Dom Bede Griffiths he wrote, “There is no section of religious opinion with which I feel less sympathy.” Lewis seems to have objected to the neo-Thomists’ insistence on certain philosophical formulations and understandings as essential to the faith: “there are some of this set who seem to me to be anxious to make of the Christian faith itself one more of their high brow fads.” This would seem to rub against Lewis’s commitment to “mere Christianity.”

Also, Chris Mitchell of the Wade Center warned me that Lewis got most of his understanding and appreciation of virtue ethics directly from Aristotle, rather than via Aquinas. So I began to worry that Lewis was in fact anti-scholastic, and that I would have a hard time using him in my Medieval Wisdom book as an guide into the passion for precise theological understanding that characterized the great scholastics. Continue reading

Are you guilty of vainglory? I know I am!


Folks, if you want to see whether Aquinas’s (and other medieval) moral philosophy is useful for Protestants today, then you should check out Rebecca De Young’s book Glittering Vices. Dr. De Young will lead the seminar on the seven deadly sins I will be attending at Calvin College next month.

This morning I had the pleasure to hear Dr. De Young present a paper on the vice of vainglory. I (and not just I, but at least one other person I spoke with) was both enlightened and convicted (in a constructive way) by what I heard. I DO talk about myself too much. I DO, even in this blog, self-present in vainglorious ways. There ARE remedies (though Dr. De Young didn’t get to them in this paper).

Here are my scratched-down, piecemeal notes on that session, minus the handout she provided for us: [For further notes I took on the conference, of a more general nature, see this post.]

From “Spin” to Silence: Aquinas and Cassian on the Vice of Vainglory

Rebecca Konyndyk De Young, Calvin College

Vainglory was contracted into pride after Thomas (certainly by the typical list of 7 deadlies in the 20th/21st c.)

Today pride and vanity often used synonymously.

Before (including in Aquinas), they were separated, helpfully. Vainglory had to do with excessive desire for others’ attention and approval. Pride might also include a power dimension, over other people. [she noted other distinctions I didn’t catch.] We lose a range of explanation if we drop the distinction.

Continue reading

Many Mansions: A splendid introduction to Christian thought in the Middle Ages


I’m currently reading Many Mansions: An Introduction to the Development and Diversity of Medieval Theology, by David N. Bell of Memorial University, Newfoundland. The volume also includes a host of medieval images selected and described by Terryl N. Kinder. The book is from the excellent Cistercian Studies Series (#146) (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1996).

This is a rare book in the field of introductions to the history of Christian thought, in that it deals with both medieval Western and Byzantine (medieval-era) Eastern theology in a clear, compelling, accessible manner appropriate for use in an undergraduate or graduate classroom—though students in either may occasionally have to look up words that the author uses without glossing; part of a winsome and erudite style. Continue reading

Signs of the times: What spiritual and social renewal looked like to the Pietists in the early 1700s


The following is a “progress report” on the famous Pietist renewal. It was published an appendix to a 1716 book by Pietist church reformer August Hermann Francke, Pietas Hallensis. It may be interesting and instructive to ask: are these the sorts of signs of spiritual and social renewal that we would get excited about today? How are we doing in these areas?

Part I of the book itself is a brief account of the “rise, occasion, and progress” of the Halle complex. The complex, in Halle, Germany, was dedicated to renewing society through Christian services offered in a hospital, schools, a printing house, and much more–see this post for an account of Francke’s life and the Halle complex. It starts with descriptions of each part of the complex, then relates instances of financial miracles (unexpected gifts) by which these works were sustained once Francke had committed himself in faith to undertaking them.

You may have heard of the orphanage of 19th-century German minister George Muller, which inspired the “faith missions” of many 19th-century missionaries (that is, missionary works with no visible means of financial support, sustained by prayer and the free-will gifts of “friends”). Halle was Muller’s pattern and inspiration.

Part II of Pietas Hallensis includes many more accounts of individual gifts, in the years 1707 and 1708, including the texts of many touching letters enclosed. The report on the Pietist renewal reproduced below comes from an appendix to part II, titled “Signs of the times since 1688.” The book was printed in 1716, so the period reported on stretches across roughly 28 years.

Here is the report (with a few comments interjected by me); I read the book and made these notes in a 1994 seminar on the Pietists given by Richard Lovelace at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachussets: Continue reading

Summary of chapter 4: An all-embracing passion for theological knowledge


In one sense, all of medieval theology was a series of footnotes on Augustine, who had insisted that knowledge begins with faith and faith provides a foundation for knowledge. During the high and late medieval periods, Augustine’s impulse blossomed, through thinkers such as Anselm of Canterbury and Abelard, into a full-blown scholastic theology. Scholasticism gets a bad rap (“Angels on the head of a pin” and such like), but 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 centuries. Indeed, they were actually beginning a democratization of the faith that bore fruit in the Reformation. Their use of reason in theology made knowledge of God accessible, not merely to the cloistered monk with his intense and constant mystical exercises, but to anyone able and willing to think. Continue reading