Some friends and I are beginning to plan a multi-day seminar on Christian humanism to be given to a group of scholar-teachers from across the country next spring. As we consider themes that might prove both interesting and helpful to such a group, I’ve framed some elements (still well short of an outline) as follows:
Nascent learning outcomes
Definitions: What, simply defined, is Christian humanism (hereafter, “CH”)?
Scriptural warrants: What are some key scriptural foundations of CH?
Doctrinal warrants: In what key Christian doctrines has CH been grounded?
Chronological scope, depth in the tradition: How has CH been present and active in all periods of Christian history?
Patristic roots and forms: How were the Church Fathers Christian humanists?
Medieval roots and forms: How were the scholastics and renaissance thinkers Christian humanists?
Reformation roots and forms: How were the Reformers Christian humanists?
20th century: CH as a tradition reclaimed during times of crisis: What social circumstances and intellectual contexts led WW II – era thinkers to attempt to reclaim facets of CH for their time? Are there parallels between the crisis of that era (to which some thinkers responded by looking to re-excavate CH) and our own moment of multifaceted crisis?
21st century: Application today: If CH is appropriately considered as a “crisis philosophy” that has something to say to our moment, then do we need to recapture CH today – particularly in contemporary North American culture?
Continuing this emerging series of posts on the vocation of the (Christian) faculty member–and this will surprise none of my regular readers–I want to take a moment to brag on a recent issue of Christian History magazine, which delves into the Christian (and, here’s a surprise, medieval) history of the university.
And when Marsden was responding to a symposium convened to discuss the new edition of his Soul of the American University, and reflecting in that response on the original, Christian humanist purposes of the university, which motivated its medieval founders, he was moved to refer to the author of the lead article, Regent College scholar of Christian humanism Jens Zimmermann, and to recommend the issue as a whole:
Sacramentalism provided the seedbed for the pursuit of scientific knowledge, especially in the high-medieval period of the birth of the universities (from the 11th to the 14th centuries). In part, it did this by birthing – and this is our fifth fact – a truly devotional, awe-filled approach to that pursuit.
Think about it: when we may look at the natural world not only as the arena of God’s work but as a physical reality that reflects his divine glory, then how else would we approach it but with awe and wonder? And since medieval and early modern followers of Christ indeed believed this, they approached their study of the world not only out of a duty to apply the gift of reason, but also out of a sense of awe that the world is a conduit to God’s presence and glory. Should it surprise us, then, that the natural philosophers of that age spent hours and days and years of their lives in meticulous proto-scientific experimentation and hypothesizing?
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.
“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.” 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.
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.” Continue reading →
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 →
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