Tag Archives: Thomas Aquinas

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

The capital vice of gluttony: notes on a conversation

Here are my notes from the Calvin Seven Deadly Sins seminar, day 10, containing thoughts from Rebecca De Young of Calvin College, Robert Kruschwitz of Baylor, and the participants. The topic is gluttony, Rebecca got us going with a slideshow and commentary. This is an opportune time to say: buy Rebecca’s book Glittering Vices, on the traditional seven capital vices (“deadly sins”). It is wonderful and edifying. It will help you in your Christian walk:


Bob: book on Fasting. He’ll use it in a moment in talking about Aquinas.

Rebecca: slideshow: “Death by Chocolate? Aquinas on the Vice of Gluttony” (talk given at Calvin, Feb 2009)

We have reduced our notion of gluttony to being overweight, eating in excess. Some basis for this. Gluttony the word has this broader connotation of excess, surplus. “Greedy for knowledge” is to want too much of it—we use it in this extended sense. Lust, luxuria, can also be used this way. Too much of anything. Not just sex.

So in this talk, wanted to convince people that for Aquinas, wanted to broaden the notion, but also to show food and the body as basic goods of nature. Continue reading

Chesterton on Chaucer: The testimony of two biographers

One of the modern figures I think I will be using in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants as guides into the Middle Ages for today’s readers is the early 20th century author and apologist G. K. Chesterton. Among Chesterton’s works are biographies on St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi and a work of literary criticism on Chaucer.

I will post, below, the assessments by two of Chesterton’s biographers of his Chaucer work. But first I can’t resist repeating the famous story about how the brilliant academic medievalist Etienne Gilson responded to Chesterton’s biography of Aquinas. Remember that Chesterton himself had no academic degree in medieval philosophy or any other related topic. Here’s how biographer Maisie Ward reports Gilson’s response: Continue reading

C S Lewis explains how to study the Middle Ages

What follows are excerpts from a letter from C S Lewis to a friend of his, in which he explains (in answer to his friend’s query) how he himself learned about the Middle Ages–and how his friend might wish to pursue that study. Because these are notes for my own use, I have at a couple of points simply inserted into the running text, in square brackets, footnotes I found useful:

The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. II

This is the letter to his nun friend, Sister Madeleva: Magdalen College, Oxford, June 7th 1934, which contains his suggested program of study of the Middle Ages. p. 140ff:

[n. 14, 140: “Sister M. Madeleva CSC (1887 – 1964), a member of the Congregation of Sisters of the Holy Cross, was a teacher of English at St Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. While staying in Oxford during Trinity Term 1934, she attended Lewis’s lectures on medieval poetry, and had a particular interest in the lecture devoted to Boethius. Besides lending Sister Madeleva his notebooks giving details of the works mentioned in his lectures, L invited her to visit him in Magdalen. On her return to Notre Dame in 1934, Sister Madeleva was made President of St Mary’s College, a post she held until her retirement in 1961. Here numerous books include [a list follows including studies on Chaucer and the Pearl poem, indicating a continued interest in medieval studies]. . . .”]

“The [141] history of my lecture is this. After having worked for some years on my own subject (which is the medieval allegory), I found that I had accumulated a certain amount of general information which, tho far from being very recondite, was more than the ordinary student in the school could gather for himself. Continue reading

The Christian integralism of Dorothy Sayers: Precursor to radical orthodoxy?

It occurs to me as I look over the previous post of notes from Lee W. Gibbs, The Middle Way: Voices of Anglicanism (Cincinnati, OH: Forward Movement Publications, 1991) that Sayers sounds like a precursor of today’s “radical orthodoxy” movement. This is so both in her insistence that theology be resurrected as “queen of the sciences” and in her ressourcement from the Middle Ages. Here’s the bit that triggered the thought:

“Sayers is not so much anti-science or anti-technology as she is a Christian integralist who perceives that science and technology have become over-emphasized and predominant in the modern world, too often at the expense of theology and philosophy as equally valid and necessary paths to truth and knowledge. What she calls [109] for is a return to the more proper balance achieved during the Christian Middle Ages, where philosophy was seen to be a subdivision of theology, and science a subdivision of philosophy.” (108 – 9)

And here’s the wikipedia bit on radical orthodoxy. Note especially the “Main Ideas” and “Influences” listed here: Continue reading

Marshall McLuhan: We must separate G. K. Chesterton’s moral insights from his Victorian literary medievalism

Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian Roman Catholic philosopher and literary critic who gave us ‘The medium is the message” and “the global village,” had some penetrating things to say about G. K. Chesterton in the introduction to the little book Paradox in Chesterton, by Hugh Kenner (London: Sheed & Ward, 1948). I think he got Chesterton both very right and very wrong. Right in talking about Chesterton’s moral thought. Wrong in trying to separate that thought from various aspects of his literary imagination and literary style.

Basically, McLuhan thought we should all dump Chesterton the Victorian literary medievalist in favor of Chesterton the “master of analogical perception and argument who never failed to focus a high degree of moral wisdom on the most confused issues of our age.”[1]

This does not mean that McLuhan saw Chesterton as a systematic moral philosopher (which he certainly was not). McLuhan enjoined editors to produce, “not an anthology which preserves the Victorian flavor of his journalism by extensive quotation, but one of short excerpts which would permit the reader to feel Chesterton’s powerful intrusion into every kind of confused moral and psychological issue of our time.” Why? Because “he seems never to have reached any position by dialectic or doctrine, but to have enjoyed a kind of connaturality with every kind of reasonableness.”[2]

McLuhan is quite hard on Chesterton’s Victorian literary medievalism, as were many contemporary and later critics. He saw that frame of Chesterton’s work as derivative, low-quality, and not inherent to the great writer’s metaphysical-moral thought (his clear-sightedness into the many moral conundrums of his age, rooted in metaphysical insight):

“So very impressive is this metaphysical side of Chesterton that it is always embarrassing to encounter the Chesterton fan who is keen about The Ballad of the White Horse or the hyperbolic descriptive parts of Chesterton’s prose. In fact, it might be the kindest possible service to the essential Chesterton to decry all that part of him which derives so obviously from his time. Thus it is absurd to value Chesterton for that large and unassimilated heritage he got from [medievalist and all-round wacko] William Morris—the big, epic dramaturgic gestures, riotous colour, medieval trappings, ballad themes and banal rhythms. Morris manages these things better than Chesterton ever did: and nobody wants to preserve William Morris.”[3] Continue reading

Seven deadly sins: anger

Here’s a clip from our Calvin Seven Deadly Sins seminar today–Rebecca DeYoung presenting and a number of seminar participants posing questions on the nature of anger, especially as described by Thomas Aquinas (and to a lesser extent, John Cassian). As usual, this is in note form, gaps, elisions, and all:


More than any other vice, there is a debate over whether this is a vice at all.

Evagrius: anger at a brother is the single dominant obstacle to pure prayer. Like Cassian, he says: get rid of anger altogether. Cassian: you can be angry at your own sin. You can be angry at the demons. For Evagrius, that’s the function of the irascible appetites.

Cassian, p. 196, chap. 6. He is SO categorical against anger! NO exceptions as to utility, etc. Also metaphor re: the blinding effect of anger. “Blinds the eyes of the heart. Obstructing the vision by the deadly beam of a more vehement illness . . . it is irrelevant whether a layer of gold or one of lead or of some other metal is placed over the eyes; the preciousness of the metal does not change the fact of blindness.” Continue reading

Can the study of history have value for the church? Reflections after the Kalamazoo congress

A few reflections on my experience at Medieval Congress 2010, dictated as I drove from Kalamazoo to Midway Airport (through Michigan Wine Country–and stopping at a few tastings!) to return to the Twin Cities:

Sitting in that last session [where I heard the paper “The Beauty of the Person in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas,” by Margaret I. Hughes of Fordham Univ] reminds me again of the apparent integrity and usefulness of Thomistic moral categories and moral analysis (this first came across me at the conference in Rebecca DeYoung’s session on vainglory).

I’m aware always of David Steinmetz’s off-handed dismissal, in a class one day, of virtue ethics as something, as I understood him, inherently Pelagian. But I think again that there’s a high value in an anatomizing of the heart as an ultimately spiritual as well as intellectual discipline, and I think Aquinas works in that mode do many other ethical thinkers in the medieval period . . . and as do the penitential manuals and so on and so forth.

Do they always do it well or in ways we can appropriate today? I’m sure they don’t. But to examine closely our personalities, who we are as moral beings, how we are tempted, how we sin, and how we recover from sins and become purified through a life-long process of sanctification—there is great value in this; it’s a value that was captured in the Methodist movement, has been captured by the Pietists, the Puritans . . . It seems it’s inherently and faithfully biblical and worthy of further study. 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