Tag Archives: scholasticism

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


Bleiglasfenster in der Kapelle (Seitenschiff) ...

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 DECLINE OF SCHOLASTICISM

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. Continue reading

How theology became the Queen of the Sciences (and how Aristotle helped us see that “all truth is God’s truth”)


 

Aristotle, wondering where the rest of his body went

Aristotle, wondering where the rest of his body went

You may know that there was some sort of general shift in the high medieval period (1000 – 1300) from a Platonic to an Aristotelian worldview. What you may not know is how deeply that affected the way Western Christians came to see God and the world. Here’s the skinny, in another clip from the “theology chapter” of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis.

Once again, this is a draft, and I’ve scattered through it, here and there, little clues for myself on how I might use and restructure this material as I moved toward a finished book – pardon our dust!

Aristotle’s re-discovery

Why was Aristotle so important to the development of scholasticism?

Basically, until the rediscovery of the body of his works in the 13th c., the prime philosophical influence on Christian thinkers in the West was Plato, via the neo-platonic thought of Augustine.

Plato

Rel/Sci: Plato had essentially been a mystic, and his philosophy had been based on the principle that ideas such as the True, the Beautiful and the Good had real existence, apart from the visible world. In fact, he believed that the passing forms of this visible world, which we know through our senses, are not a real source of knowledge. Only our reason, which leads us to know these changeless, universal patterns called ‘ideas,’ would give true knowledge. This position is also known as ‘realism,’ and is held by such early scholastics as Anselm—again, as he and others of his time had inherited it through Augustine.

Aristotle

SCI/REL:  Aristotle, on the other hand, was far less mystical than Plato. To him, the visible world is real. Ideas are not presupposed structures which exist somewhere “out there.” They exist as an integral part of the phenomena of the visible world. Therefore, the world is the prime object of knowledge for Aristotle. He is, in other words, a scientist. Continue reading

Thinking God’s thoughts after him: the rise of the medieval scholastics


Scholasticism

Scholasticism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been posting bits of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis as they get written. Today I launch into a three-part section of the chapter on the medieval passion for theology. This whole section deals with the peak movement in medieval theology: scholasticism.

Scholasticism is a much-misunderstood movement still covered with the mud of Enlightenment disdain (“All they did was sit around debating the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin”). But its actual goals, development, and achievements lead us to some surprisingly modern applications. These take-aways for today have to do with the ways scholastic thinkers managed to hold together (not without tension and controversy) faith & reason, love & logic, religion & science, and Word and world, which will be the subject of the section following these three. As usual, all of this is still in draft stage, so you’ll see the sawdust and rough edges of the workshop.

So, on to part I of what my friend Bruce Hindmarsh likes to call the “potted history” of this fascinating movement in medieval Christian thought:

Definition, significance, and brief potted history of scholasticism

Although many areas and movements in medieval thought are worthy of study, this chapter will focus on scholasticism.

Definition

“Scholasticism” just means “theology done in the schools.” The schools in question were “the monastic and cathedral schools of the eleventh and twelfth centuries—Bec, Laon, Chartres, Saint Victor, Notre Dame de Paris—and the universities of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries—Paris and Oxford and the long line of their younger sisters.”[1] Essentially, medieval scholasticism was the birthplace of systematic theology: the attempt to apply logical categories and modes of argumentation – especially Aristotelian dialectics – to the materials of Scripture and Christian tradition.

Significance

One of the remarkable things about scholasticism was the way it wove reason and tradition together. Though the 12th-century renaissance did amount to an awakening on “the positive value of human logic and the autonomy of the human mind,” it was based as well on the value of authority. We would do well to imitate the scholastics in this, for among those later Western thinkers who Fairweather says used the forms of thought, asked the questions, and raised the solutions of the scholastics are Luther, Calvin, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant.  He concludes, “The great teachers of medieval scholasticism are among the most significant intellectual ancestors of the modern West, and their theological and philosophical ideas have played a large part in the doctrinal formation of every Christian communion which stems from Western Europe.”[2] Continue reading

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