Thus far in our overview of the middle ages we’ve covered a lot of ground. We began in the Byzantine Empire, moved onto the expansion of holy Roman Empire, and how these things culminated in the great schism between the East and the West. We then turned to examine the dawn and growth of Islam, how that forced some evolution within Roman Catholicism, the papacy, and how all of this led up to the crusades. We would be done and could move onto pre-reformation times at this point…but there are three things before us that demand our attention: the theologian Anselm, the rise of scholasticism, and the theologian Thomas Aquinas. As I unfold these three things to you tonight I hope to show you today how these three go together, and how it’s near impossible to talk about one without the other two.
Anselm of Canterbury
One could make a very good argument that between St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas there is no greater theological figure of history than Anselm. Here’s the outline of his life:
-Born in Italy: 1033
-Spent early life in monastery of Le Bec in Normandy.
-Mentored by a man named LanFranc, the archbishop of Canterbury at the time.
-Eventually succeeded LanFranc as the archbishop of Canterbury in 1093.
-He was a bold man, had a good amount of courage.
-He was a thinker, had a good mind as well.
-These two strengths coupled together formed him into quite a figure to be reckoned with.
-He is known as the Father of Scholasticism. A movement known for its approach to reality involving careful intellectual vigor. So the ‘Scholastics’ were those devoted to serious thinking, careful and critical analysis of language, nuance, and distinction.
-Logic reigned in this camp (embracing what is logical/rational, leaving behind what is illogical/irrational).
-Today, the term scholastic is often used in a negative manner, describing one who is overly irrelevant and intellectual.
-On one hand we understand this. Later on Martin Luther would be one who argued against a scholastic approach to life and Scripture saying it is too dry. And we must admit that there really were those who remained in that vein.
-But an honest assessment of Anselm would lead us to conclude that he does not fall into this category. But on the other hand the world is still benefitting from the scholastics. Not only we’re they great thinkers who left us with much to ponder on, but they were the largest champions of the new emergence of universities. And through their influence many universities were begun all around western Europe, which would become global as the ages progress.
-All in all, Anselm is known for two things: his arguments for the existence of God and his defense of the incarnation/atonement.
Arguments for the Existence of God
-Ontological: God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Originally this thought was explosive, but nowadays it usually only fascinates philosophers.
-Cosmological: there is a first cause.
-Teleological: there is a grand design/purpose to all things.
-Moral: all have a conscience, inherent right/wrong
-Historical: all believe in ‘God’
-Weakness of these arguments? 1) The only prove what you presuppose. 2) They don’t get one to the God of Scripture, they’re not Christian arguments. (this isn’t to say these aren’t helpful…)
-Anselm knew this, and said these express fides quaerens intelectum or faith seeking understanding.
Anselm on the Incarnation/Atonement
-He is very well-known for his work called Cur Deus Homo, or ‘Why the God-Man?’
-In this work Anselm sought to defend/prove the logical coherence of the gospel with directly referring to the gospels or the actual events of Jesus’ life (what are the pros/cons here?).
-Main point is this: we are sinners and we’ve dishonored God and His glory. Because of this we have a double problem. a) none can honor God as we ought to, b) none can pay God back the debt we owe Him. We are therefore, to Anselm, forever debtors to God.
-How can this twofold problem be resolved? If man is to be saved, God alone must provide the solution. In becoming man, Jesus Christ both honored God fully as well as paid the debt we owe Him.
-To Anselm then, the gospel is the essence of logic (Acts 26:25).
-He wrote many other works, is often criticized for not arguing against more things present within Roman Catholicism (exaltation of Mary and sacraments), but he was a child of his times as we are. What he did write on is lovely, and we should be thankful for that.
-He lived into the very early years of the 12th century, when he died in 1109 on a bed of ashes, symbolizing a man who know full well of his sinfulness and natural state before God.
Brief Word on Scholasticism
-After Anselm’s death his theology and scholastic method continued on and gained ground.
-Strength of this was, as we’ve said, the founding of more universities and learning/the life of the mind/etc…
-Weakness was that theological studies in universities slowly created a distance between theology the Church, the place where theology ought to be flowing from the strongest.
-Also, another weakness is that much study began to be separated from Scripture. This is clearly seen in that some of the questions pondered on in scholastic circles were: a) What time of the day did Adam sin? b) In the incarnation could God have become a woman? c) Will Adam have all his ribs in the resurrection? And the one everyone knows d) Can two or more angels occupy the same space, perhaps, the head of a pin?
-There are good ways to view these questions…(for example with Adam having all his ribs or not in glory, this brings to mind what degree of perfection the redeemed will enjoy in heaven…or with the angels dancing on the head of a pin, this brings to mind the nature of angels: are they corporeal or spiritual?)… but do notice that scholastics were given to asking questions no one else was asking or even seemed concerned with at all.
After Anselm there were other notable figures within scholasticism: Peter Abelard, Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter Lombard, and Francis of Assisi, but we’ll move ahead to the one man in whom scholastic thought reached its apex, Thomas Aquinas.
-Born in 1225
-Died in 1274
-Left behind more writing than almost anyone alive to date. It is said he could keep five secretaries busy at any given time throughout his work).
-Thomas was a quiet and shy man, but he was a large man in physical stature. If you couple this together people often thought he was quiet because he was dumb. Therefore, the nickname he was known by was ‘the great dumb ox.’ A more favorable nickname he has been given is the ‘angelic doctor’ because of his great learning and writing on the subject of angels.
-His family desired Thomas to go into Law, but from his youth Thomas’s heart was set on a religious life. This displeased his family greatly.
-In 1244 he became a Dominican monk.
-In 1248 he moved to Paris to learn under the Aristotelian scholar Albertus Magnus.
-He was licensed to teach, and moved home to Italy to do so, spending the majority of life there.
-In 1274 he was asked to attend the Council of Lyons and he died en route.
-You could get the impression that Thomas lived a cloistered life and didn’t do much…except for all the writing he did.
-Two works stand out among all his writings: a) Summa Contra Gentiles and b) Summa Theologica.
-But before getting to them, let me briefly mention Aristotle.
-Throughout the early Middle Ages, Aristotle’s works had not been widely circulated in Europe.
-As Europeans came into contact with Muslim scholars who had access to Aristotle’s writings, new translations of works by Aristotle became available in the West.
-Aristotle’s ideas greatly stimulated intellectual developments in Europe, contributed to theological reflection, and in part helped to bring about centers of learning such as universities.
-Aristotle’s writings opened up new topics of discussion, such as the relationship between reason, revelation, and faith.
-Some then claimed that divine revelation was no longer necessary. Others suggested that revelation teaches one truth and reason teaches another.
-However, theologians such as Thomas Aquinas made an effort to show how reason and philosophy could serve Christian faith and theology via Aristotelian thought, therefore, became an important tool among later medieval Scholastics as they wrestled with complex theological issues.
Summa Contra Gentile
-In this work Thomas reflected on the importance of
creation and concluded that an undervaluing of the created order can lead to an undervaluing of God Himself.
-Therefore, the approach taken by Thomas and other later Scholastics was to unite reason and revelation in an effort to integrate grace, nature, and the Christian life.
-This work was used to train/encourage missionaries in Spain.
-Still considered one of the greatest works of the Middle Ages.
-In this work Thomas, as the title suggest, summarize Christian theology.
-In it he emphasized the reasonableness of Christianity. The mind of God was reflected in creation and in salvation, and by studying God’s revelation, humans can better understand God by “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.”
-Interestingly, Thomas’ work only became popular after his death.
-In the sixteenth century, a revival of Thomistic theology took place within the Roman Catholic Church as it began to see Thomas’ writings as a useful resource for resisting Protestant teachings (especially concerning the Lord’s Supper).
-Today, he is regarded as a towering figure within medieval thought. Some disregard him entirely, thinking the only thing he did was give Christian theology an Aristotle flavor, others (those who’ve read some of his work) appreciate his contributions.
1) Study the Scriptures! – Psalm 111:2, etc.
2) Look Ahead – As the middle ages close it is clear to see that in scholasticism (from Anselm to Aquinas) the stage of ‘deep study’ was made. A few were about to walk onto this stage who’d study the Scriptures and come to conclusions that would eventually lead to the Protestant Reformation…which is where we’ll pickup, Lord willing, in our Church History series of 2021.