Scholasticism

The theology and philosophy taught in the medieval schools from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries, and revived in later periods such as in the late sixteenth and seventeenth and nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It features the application of Aristotelian categories to the Christian revelation and attempts to reconcile reason and faith, philosophy and revelation. As a theological method it is associated with organized textbook theology and the thesis method.

The movement appeared in the cultural unity created by Christianity in Carolingian times. Despite the breaking up of Charlemagne's empire, the Carolingian intellectual tradition continued in the monasteries such as those emanating from Cluny and Cîteaux and the Franciscan movement. Scholasticism was taught in the monastic and cathedral schools, and with the founding of the universities (c.1200) such as Oxford, Pisa, Bologna, and Salerno the tradition was given great impetus. The rise of humanism in the fifteenth century and the Reformation* of the sixteenth helped to destroy the medieval synthesis that made Scholasticism possible. Later attempts to revive it have never been so successful as the medieval effort, since the knowledge explosion and the fact that no one system has a monopoly on truth have altered the condition that produced and fostered its growth.

John Scotus Erigena,* who used a system of education based on Greek thought and relied on the use of reason in studying revealed data, is sometimes called the first Scholastic, but that honor seems rather to belong to Anselm of Canterbury,* who asserted that faith should precede understanding but understanding could in turn deepen faith through reason. One of the best known and most creative figures of early Scholasticism was Peter Abelard,* who in his revolt against tradition and his insistence upon the right of the philosopher to use his own reason did much to shape medieval thought. In Sic et Non (Yes and No) he demonstrated that tradition and authority were insufficient in themselves by making a list of questions-such as, Is God omnipotent? Do we sin without willing it? Is God a substance? Is faith based upon reason?-and then quoting authorities on both sides of the question. Although Abelard left these questions unresolved, Peter Lombard* and Thomas Aquinas* used the same method and supplied answers. These scholars wrote a type of formal treatise, a summa, which dealt exhaustively with a given subject. In works like these a reader could find the distinctions necessary for a complete, logical analysis of all the arguments for and against each proposition that made up the subject. The Bible was the basis for Scholastic theology, and the Church Fathers were referred to when there was an especially difficult passage to deal with. The use of Aristotelian logic by men like Abelard led to controversies such as the problem of universals. Early medieval thought was Platonic, insisting on the reality of ideas such as Soul, Honor, Tree, or Chair. However, during the twelfth century the Nominalists, who believed that reality consisted of individual items, challenged the Realists. Abelard worked out a compromise idea, called Conceptualism, that ideas are real in the human mind.

By the early thirteenth century, Scholastics were caught in a new wave of thought as they were forced to cope with the influx of a vast philosophic and scientific literature, including the advanced work of Aristotle* translated from Arabic and Greek. For the first time they confronted a world-system which relied completely on reason and operated without reference to the Christian God. Such ideas as the prime mover, eternal motion, a denial of providence and creation, uncertainty about immorality and the soul, and a morality based on reason alone caused much anguish for many medieval scholars. Some such as Siger of Brabant* followed the work of a Muslim commentator, Averroes (d. 1036), and advocated a theory of double truth, i.e., that there is one truth in human reason-Aristotle-and another in religion-the Christian revelation. Others rejected Aristotle completely, and in 1215 and 1231 decrees were passed by the University of Paris and the papacy prohibiting the study of some of his works. The problem of Aristotle, however, was solved not by censorship but by intellectual debate.

In the end, it was not Siger's ideas that won out, but the Rational Scholasticism of the Dominicans.* The greatest of these men was Thomas Aquinas, whose method represents the ultimate Scholastic refinement of the organization of knowledge. Even more important than his method, however, was Thomas's use of reason. He believed that reason can tell what God cannot be, and one can assume that what is left is something like what He is. There is, he felt, no contradiction between faith and reason as long as rational inquiry is properly conducted. When the two do conflict, faith is to correct reason. If faith leads to a conclusion that defies human reason, the incompatibility exists because of a failure of rationality. Thomas accepted the Aristotelian view that the universe is orderly, but this is due to the reflection of order of the divine mind in the universe. In harmonizing Aristotelian metaphysics with Christianity, it is the Aristotelian elements that must be fitted into the Christian system. Critics have pointed out that this is done by taking particular statements from Aristotle out of context and placing them into a new Thomistic context.

Thomas fashioned a view of the universe in which a being was good to the extent that it resembled God. Since God is a simple, incorporeal, purely spiritual being, that which is most spiritual is closest to God and that which is most material is farthest away from Him. This permits the construction of a Great Chain of Being consisting of God, angels, men, animals in order of their intelligence, plants, and inanimate objects. The moral plan of the universe is rational, hence reason as well as revelation can tell men what to do since God wills nothing arbitrary, but everything according to man's needs. Good and evil are objective realities. For example, God forbids theft and adultery because they disrupt society and make people unhappy. Aristotle had stated that the happiness of man consists in realizing his true nature, and Aquinas agreed, adding that man's true nature is union with God.

The position of Aquinas was attacked by scholars like William of Ockham* who advocated a type of double truth, but a more effective countertrend came from the Mystical Scholasticism of Bonaventure.* A professor of theology at Oxford and governor- general of the Franciscans,* he taught that rational knowledge of God is impossible, because God is different from man in quality as well as quantity. Thus knowledge of God can only be equivocal, hazy, and analogous. One may prepare for an understanding of God by separating himself from the world and by looking for reflections or shadows of God in objects. Then a man may advance to finding God within himself and experiencing His presence through grace. Finally, God's being is infused within the soul.

Another variety of Scholasticism, that based upon Empiricism, helped to prepare the way for modern science. Franciscans were the leaders in this movement as in Mystical Scholasticism, and two of their great scholars at Oxford, Robert Grosseteste* and Roger Bacon,* studied optics and the behavior of light, investigating perspective and the properties of prisms, rainbows, and mirrors. These scholars emphasized three principles of science now taken for granted: first, they believed in a scientific cosmology, a view of the world consistent with the observations of the senses; a second contribution was their emphasis on experimentation; and a third approach was the use of measurement and of quantitative concepts in the explanation of the world.

More modern Scholasticism is generally associated with a method of systematically applying reason to revealed knowledge. The Roman Catholic Church in the Counter-Reformation* used Scholasticism; in fact, at the Council of Trent* in the sixteenth century the works of Aquinas* lay open on the high altar along with the Bible as works of reference. A nineteenth-century revival of Scholasticism was inspired by the papal encyclical Aeterni Patris, which declared Thomism eternally valid.

Following the first generation of Reformers, despite Luther's condemnation of Aristotle and the Schoolmen, “Protestant Scholasticism” developed. A struggle within Lutheranism after the founder's death between the Gnesio-Lutherans and the Philippists was brought to a close by the Formula of Concord* (1577). This developed into a system of doctrine resembling Scholasticism and led to the late seventeenth-century growth of Pietism* as a challenge to orthodoxy. The Calvinists attempted to use the Institutes as the same sort of dogmatic statement as the Formula, but this led to a long series of disputes and the growth of the Arminian* movement. The major statement of Reformed Scholasticism is the decrees of the Synod of Dort* (1618-19). The contemporary heirs of Protestant Scholasticism are groups such as the American fundamentalists. The Scholastic emphasis of the Roman Catholic Church has been modified during the twentieth century, especially since the meeting of Vatican II.*

F.C. Copleston, Aquinas (1955) and A History of Philosophy (1962-63); M. DeWulf, An Introduction to Scholastic Philosophy (1956); G. Leff, Medieval Thought-Saint Augustine to Ockham (1958); J. Pieper, Scholasticism (1960); J. Dillenberger, Protestant Thought and Natural Science (1960); D. Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought (1962); R.W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages (1962); R. Scharlemann, Thomas Aquinas and John Gerhard: Theological Controversy and Construction in Medieval and Protestant Scholasticism (1964).