Scholastic Thought – Professor William R. Cook

August 29, 2012

Giovanni Bellini’s Allegoria Sacra (Sacred Allegory) hangs in the Uffizi in Florence. The subject of this painting is a mystery to art historians. The earliest figures of Christian and ancient mythology are gathered together on a balustrade by a sea or a wide river, surrounded by hills on which can be seen, in the distance, village huts and a palazzo. St. Sebastian, the Madonna, a centaur, small children playing by a tree in the center, a Saracen-Muslim, a man somewhat like the Apostle Paul with a sword in his hand, in the background a peasant with a mule, two beautiful ladies one of whom is St. Catherine, a naked old man reminiscent of Job – this is a far from a complete list of the heroes who Bellini brought together in this picture. One interpretation of this painting is that it showed Purgatory, where the souls of the righteous, of virtuous pagans and of unchristened children await their fate – heaven or hell.

Some notes from Professor Cook’s great courses lecture on the history of the Catholic Church.


In a real sense, Christian learning is as old as Christianity itself; that is to say, if we take a look at the texts of the New Testament, they are written by not only intelligent people, not only people of faith, but people who have a great deal of learning. We know, of course, than the entire New Testament was written in Greek, and therefore any New Testament writer could have read, and in many cases we know did read, great Classical texts by authors such as Plato or Thucydides. I mentioned examples of that: The Letters to the Hebrews, for example, pretty clearly shows in one passage that the author has read Plato and uses Platonic language and Platonic ways of thinking in order to explain a part of the faith to the people who were the original audience for that letter.

We need to remember from the very beginning that the question really arises: In what ways can Christians use things outside the biblical tradition, outside the Hebrew predecessors, to interpret the meaning of Jesus, to explain it, and to persuade people who were, in fact, very often Greek-speaking gentiles to follow, to convert to Christianity.

We know that there was a debate in the early church over exactly what kind of learning was useful, or even acceptable, to Christians. On more than one occasion I’ve already mentioned the famous question of Tertullian, a third century theologian: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” What has that great pagan learning of the past to do with our faith and the way we teach and practice our faith? We saw that Tertullian’s answer was “It has nothing to do with it.”

It is important to say that Tertullian was not trying to dumb down Christianity; he wasn’t saying Christianity is for people who don’t think or don’t reason. In fact, Tertullian used a very sophisticated Latin vocabulary, even though he did not like the idea of using foreign — that is, non-Judeo-Christian — ideas as ways of understanding or explaining Christianity.

But we saw that Tertullian’s position really wasn’t the dominant position in the Latin-speaking West. For example, I’ve pointed out that both Augustine and Jerome in somewhat different ways both thought a great deal about the question of the relationship of pagan learning to Christianity to the revelation that’s contained in the Bible.

In both cases, we would say perhaps that Augustine and Jerome were sort of moderate on this issue; that is to say, clearly Classical knowledge doesn’t get you there. Classical knowledge, to use Augustine’s image, can sort of show  you where you want to go; but only faith in Jesus, only the knowledge of the Christian scriptures can show you how to get there. Nevertheless, Augustine and Jerome recognized value in their own lives personally of the classics, and also recognized their value in understanding, teaching, and explaining the Christian faith.

We saw that Jerome, in fact, was a great: scholar; he translated the Bible — that is to say, the Hebrew scripture and the Christian scripture, which of course was written in Greek — into Latin, ” and his translation became the standard translation used for 1,000 years of Catholicism. Clearly, it took a great scholar to be able to do that.

Let me also suggest that tone of the issues that the Latin-speaking West had to deal with was the fact — and again, I’ve mentioned this before — that all the councils, the four ecumenical councils, were held in the Greek-speaking word, had mostly Greek bishops, and issued all of their teachings and decrees in Greek; and there were some difficulties in translating some of that theology, some of those texts, into Latin because Greek was a more highly nuanced language with regard to having a sort of philosophical therefore borrowed theological vocabulary. It’s important to remember that Latin theology developed somewhat differently than the theology of what later on we’d call the Orthodox world at least in part simply because of the languages being so different.

When we talk about the development of Latin theology, as we saw in a previous lecture, the figure we turn the most to is Saint Augustine. Saint Augustine’s writings today — the ones that survived — are about 50 volumes worth of writing, and clearly he is the great Latin theologian of the West. However, remember that Augustine died in 430, and literally — the barbarians, in this case the Vandals, were at the gates of Hippo where Augustine was bishop and where Augustine died. Therefore, as we know, not long after Augustine died — less than a half century — Roman imperial authority in the West had essentially collapsed and for all practical purposes disappeared.

Therefore, what we tend to do, unfortunately, is sort of assume because here come the Germanic tribes of a, b, and c that somehow or other theology must have also sort of gone downhill if not almost disappeared; that’s sort of the mythology of the fall of the Roman Empire in the West.

Let me suggest there are very important Catholic writings that occurred, really, in every century; however, they aren’t necessarily often studied today. One reason is because these were works written by monks in monasteries to a great extent — although not entirely- and therefore those works seem to be about topics that are not of particular interest to, if you will, in the pew Catholics today.

Certainly people study them, but they don’t seem directly relevant to Christians — Catholics in particular — raise today. However, I want to suggest that there is some wonderful Christian history, history written from a Christian point of view; I mentioned, for example, Gregory of Tours and the Venerable Bede as examples.

I also want to point out that one of the most important Catholic genres of literature of the early Middle Ages were the saints’ lives; and today, again, to a great extent saints’ lives are out of vogue. They are out of vogue in part because they sort of sound like they’re history on the surface — they tell a story that starts at the beginning of a life and ends at the end of a life — but they contain a lot of things that seem to many people today to be believable; and therefore we tend to sort of be uncomfortable with them and maybe even push them aside and look for something more sophisticated, we might say.

I would argue that those works are very sophisticated whether it’s a life of Saint Patrick, for example, written in the seventh century, or other Saint’s lives. I would suggest that in some ways if more Catholics — and I mean the pew Catholics, not seminarians, monks, and whatever — got to know the literature. It’s around, it’s in existence, and a lot of it has been translated into English, but it’s still not very widely read or very well known.

I also want to suggest that during the period of Charlemagne — we call the period around the time of Charlemagne, because of some cultural developments that took place, the Carolingian Renaissance, although there are many who would not want to apply the term “renaissance” to anything that happened in the eighth and ninth centuries — there was a renewed interest in Classical literature, although very limited amounts of Classical literature and there was a good deal of theological discourse and indeed, theological dispute. Some of those issues that were disputed and debated again, tend not to have a lot of interest for people today; some of them seem very obscure to us, for example. But I simply want to remind you there is a continuous tradition of Catholic writing and Catholic learning that runs even through the darker periods of the Middle Ages and all of Christian

But about the year 1000, we began to get the development of new kinds of thought; it began slowly, and then we’ll see it developed in the 11th and 12th century and really flourishes in the 13th century. The place we usually start is with a man named Gerbert, who was ultimately elected Pope Sylvester, and he was, indeed, pope in the millennial year; he was pope in the year 1000.

In his life before he was elected pope, he was one of the men to say: We need to have better schools, we need greater learning we need to go back to a curriculum that had existed in antiquity, in late antiquity, called the Seven Liberal Arts. The Seven Liberal Arts, like a lot of things that have seven on them, are divided into a group of four and a group of three. The first three are called the trivium — it simply means “Three,” you can hear the “tri” in there — and they are grammar, rhetoric, and logic.

By the time that Gerbert’s around, around the year 1000, it seems that in the monastic schools — which are about the only schools in Europe — the only subject that’s really being studied is grammar.

“Grammar” means “learning how to read and write Latin properly”; grammar is broader than it might sound like to us, because grammar involves reading ancient models of Latin to learn what good Latin is like. That can be, for example, Cicero, or it can be Virgil for poetry, or whatever. Nevertheless, grammar, it seems, was largely what was taught in the monastic schools in the 10th century. Gerbert said we need to go beyond that and recapture the interest in and study of the other two parts of the trivium: rhetoric, which is in a sense learning to read, to write, and understand and speak Latin elegantly beyond just having proper qualities; and then there is logic, which is learning to speak, read, and write and make an argument in Latin. Gerbert is one of the first one to say to various monastic schools — and he himself came from a monastic tradition — we need to have this somewhat broader education. As I said, there are seven liberal arts, and the four others called the quadrivium are more close to what we would call science today.

They are: arithmetic; geometry; music, and music here don’t mean learning to play the fiddle, music means the study of harmonics and ratios, if you will; and the fourth one is astronomy. At least with Gerbert there was a little bit of interest even in the quadrivium; and as there as this renewed interest in the Seven Liberal Arts, or at least the first three of them, we began to get a little more interest in Classical texts. That’s Latin texts, which of course people could read because Latin was the language of the church, but also there had been some Greek texts that had been translated into Latin late in antiquity: some works of Greek philosophy, science, and whatever; they were quite limited.

For example, there was a little bit of Aristotle, a little bit of Plato, none of Thucydides, none of the great Greek tragedians we think of, none of Homer; so it was a very limited Greek list, but nevertheless, the interest in these subjects beyond grammar led to more interest in these Classical texts, because they would be of help in explaining, teaching, and persuading people about Christianity.

Around 1100, we had an Italian serving as the Archbishop of Canterbury in England, and his name was Anselm. Anselm used elements. of Greek Classical learning, in particular, formal logic — how to construct an argument — to write some very important books. He wrote a book called Why God Became Human (Cur Deus Homo, in Latin), and in it, he tried to explain using reason why, given the problem of sin and disobedience in the world; it was logical and necessary for God to send a son to take on our form, our life, and be crucified. It was trying to explain as much as possible the mysteries of the faith using reason, because, what Anselm believed was, if we can explain these things by reason or at least get closer to a full understanding by reason, that’s valuable in preaching, teaching, and evangelizing.

He wrote another book that is very interesting where he talked about the proof for the existence of God; how do you know God exists? Again, today, there are people who think his proof still makes some sense — we call it the ontological proof of the existence of God –  there are others who say, “Well, it doesn’t hold up today.”

Whichever one of those positions you take, what we need to recognize is Anselm believed it was important to try to explain as much as one can God’s existence by reason, because everybody can follow reason. Obviously you need faith, and, in fact, Anselm never lost sight of the primacy of faith; he even talked about the fact that what he’s trying to do was have his faith seeking understanding, or he said, “I believe in order that I may understand.” He did not deny the primacy of faith, but his faith could be reinforced and strengthened by reason, by being able to make arguments about the existence of God or why God became human — one of the unique claims, after all, of Christianity that would be a good thing. Anselm was an important churchman and a holy man; he is indeed Saint Anselm, there’s a college named for him in New England.

What I want to talk about now is to go another generation forward to a fellow named Peter Abelard. Peter Abelard was a Frenchman, kind of cocky as far as we can tell; he taught at what was called the Cathedral School in Paris. Ahelard sort of took some of what Anselm did and pushed the envelope further. Here’s the problem: We seek truth, but truth is very hard to find in the Christian tradition because, by this time, Christianity was more than 1,000 years old. You not only had the New Testament, but you had decrees of popes, decrees of councils, theological writings like those of Augustine — which again, run 50 volumes-and those of Jerome, Ambrose, Gregory, laid the other great writers of the church; and at least on the surface, they sometimes seemed to disagree with each other seriously. How do we deal with that? How do we understand what is true when our great authorities seemed to differ with one another?

Abelard had an answer. He wrote a book that has this wonderful title in Latin Sic et Non (it simply means Yes and No); and what Abelard says is, “What I want to do is construct wonderful questions, important questions, that we want an answer to. Then what I will do is the research to find what various authors have said about that topic”; some, no doubt, seeming to answer the question “yes” because he always sets the question up so it could be answered in theory “yes” or “no.” There are a number of “yes” answers, and very often a number of “no” answers. That’s as far as this book gets; that is to say, Abelard doesn’t draw the synthesis, doesn’t say, “the yeses are right,” or “the no’s are right,” or “both are sort of right,” he doesn’t do that; but what he suggests is this is the way we go about things: We ask the right questions, we do our research — we set these texts that seem to be in opposition to one another there — and then we use reason, we use our intellect to figure out what the truth is.

Peter Abelard really, in a sense, raised the bar for the importance of learning and reason, especially, again, that third part of the trivium, that is to say logic, in finding Christian truth. Some of you may know that Peter Abelard sort of got himself in trouble, not because of what he wrote so much — although there were opponents to what he wrote — over a, how do we say this politely, incident involving a student, a female student, he was tutoring is Paris named Eloise. The romantic story and the tragic aftermath is not relevant here, but if you don’t know that story, it’s the kind of thing of which operas are made; I’ll just leave it there and tell you that, by the way, their ashes are buried together — Eloise and Abelard — in a cemetery in Paris, and today, lovers and people about to get married go there and pay their homage to this tragic love affair of Eloise and Abelard.

As much as Abelard wanted to use reason, wanted to use logic, to figure out exactly what the truth of Christianity is through all the maze of a thousand years of tradition, he didn’t have very good tools to do it with it. The great writer about logic was Aristotle, and with very few exceptions Aristotle’s writings did not exist in Latin in Abelard’s time, so Abelard was using what we might say are snippets of Aristotle’s writing. But in the latter half of the 12th century, there was a movement to get Aristotle — all of Aristotle — into Latin so it could be used at the various schools and what would soon emerge as the universities of Europe.

Interestingly enough, the translation was not made from Greek into Latin, but rather from Arabic into Latin because Muslims had been using Aristotle for centuries; they had translated it from Greek into Arabic, they had commented on Aristotle – that is to say they’d written commentaries — and they were dealing largely with the same question that Christians were dealing with in making use of Aristotle: How can a Greek polytheist be of any use to a religion that is monotheistic, that is revealed, and that has a sacred text, because none of those things apply to any of the Greek forms of religion that Aristotle or others of his time would practice. The advantage of translating Aristotle from Arabic into Latin was that you had Arabic commentators, and they were used in the 13th century a great deal by the greatest theologians of that time as guides to how to use Aristotle for the kinds of things they were using Aristotle for.

Another thing that happened in the second part of the 12th century was the creation of what became the great authoritative textbook of theology called The Four Sentences of Peter Lombard.

Almost every student for the next several hundred years who did an advanced degree in theology wrote as what we might call a kind of doctrinal thesis, a commentary, on Peter Lombard’s Sentences. There were also new educational institutions developing, in particular the university. In Paris, Bologna and other cities, we had a new kind of institution because the monastic school; and the cathedral school really didn’t include the new kinds learning, the enthusiasm for Aristotle; and so the University of Paris evolved into the cathedral school that Peter Abelard taught in, it was not directly under the control of the bishop and the cathedral chapter as the school had been early on.

Another reason why we had a flourishing of theology and a concern for getting the details right in the 13th century was because of the rise of heresy; we talked about the Cathars and the Waldensians. When nobody challenges the basic truths of the faith, there isn’t any need to define it carefully; but when those are challenged, you need to get things in the right language. You need to say, “We believe this, we don’t believe that; this is correct, this is incorrect.” The very challenge of heresy led to the need for clarification and explanation in more detail than perhaps was necessary before.

What we talked about developing in the 13th century is a particular kind of theological discourse that we call scholastic theology. “Scholastic” doesn’t just mean here “academic”; scholastic theology refers to a kind of theology that was done at the universities — the most important one of which was Paris — in the 13th and following centuries.

Let me just simply try to say that although there is a method to scholastic theology very much based on what Abelard did; let’s make some questions — and by the way, it gets much more complicated: Is it the number of questions? How do you relate question one to question two? Then question three must follow question one and two; organization becomes important — but let’s ask questions, let’s get the various answers that exist in our tradition, and then let’s synthesize them. Maybe they really are ultimately not in disagreement at all; maybe one simply is right, one simply is wrong.

It isn’t always you get the same kind of answer; you don’t always get a synthesis. But very often what these theologians discovered was if you asked the right questions and read specific passages in context, understanding exactly what words meant in specific contexts, many of the apparent difficulties and contradictions disappeared or at least were minimized.

Let me suggest that not all scholastic theologians agreed on things; agreed on how you do things, nor did they get the same results. Let me try to suggest briefly three major schools within scholastic theology. The most conservative we can use as our representative here: Saint Bonaventure, the great Franciscan theologian who died in 1274. For Bonaventure, although the technique of Aristotelian argument was important to him, the substance of Aristotle’s thought — what he said about politics, literature, or ethics — was not particularly important to Bonaventure; so if you will, he borrowed more the technique than the content of Aristotle, and he was in that sense more conservative. I think it’s still fair to call Bonaventure an Augustinian; and his theology was perhaps as much mystical as it was academic.

The main school of scholastic theology, the one we know the best today, was represented by Thomas Aquinas who died the same year as Bonaventure, in 1274. Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican; and it’s Thomas Aquinas and his fellow Dominicans that really were the major figures in what we call scholastic theology.

By and large, it’s fair to say, that Aquinas used both the techniques — the methods of arguing — of Aristotle; but also much of the substance of Aristotelian thought, whether it’s about politics, literature, ethics, or the many other issues that Aristotle talked about. Don’t get me wrong, Thomas of Aquinas was perfectly willing to disagree with Aristotle when Aristotle directly contradicted scripture. Aristotle believed in the eternity of matter; Thomas Aquinas said, “Aristotle’s wrong, because we. know from Genesis that matter is not eternal. God created matter at the beginning”; we learned that in Genesis 1, after all.

But I think it’s fair to say in general that Aquinas believed that there was compatibility between what we might call faith and reason; between the revelation contained in scripture and the reason as the best reasoners — that is to say, people like Aristotle — were able to do things. Thomas Aquinas  developed this idea that Abelard had a century earlier way beyond anything that we could’ve imagined, perhaps. The collection of questions all very carefully arranged so that one follows the previous one, today, even though that work was unfinished, it covers about 4,000 printed pages (by the way, he died at the age of 50, which makes you wonder what you have done with your life since he was able to crank out 4,000 pages and he wrote other things, too, in his 50 years of life).

But in addition simply to the quantity, he tried to include everything; he wrote about all human knowledge. Even though we would say he was bound to fail in this great work called the Summa Theologiae, it’s one heck of a try; it’s one of the great intellectual achievements — Christian or not, it seems to me — in the history of the West.

The third school of scholastic theology, which is the least important and I’m going to mention it very briefly, we call the Latin Averroists, named after an Arabic commentator on Aristotle called Averroes. The Latin Averroists basically used Aristotle uncritically; while Thomas Aquinas was willing to challenge Aristotle when necessary and Bonaventure was skeptical of a lot of Aristotle, it seems these Latin Averroists were not particularly discriminating when they used Aristotle, and therefore they came to something that we sometimes call — maybe this isn’t quite the right term — a double truth; something could be true in philosophy but false in theology, and vice versa. They were always on the edge of condemnation at the University of Paris.

These scholastic theologians — again, Bonaventure and Aquinas being the greatest examples, but there were many, many more in the 13th and following centuries — turned out an extraordinary amount of theology, carefully argued and thought theology; but also, it’s clear when we read, for example, Thomas Aquinas, maybe the great reasoner about Christianity of all time. He was also a man of very deep and profound faith; he’s not just a great Catholic scholar, I remind you, he’s also a Catholic saint, and his life — as well as his writings — is an important contribution to Catholicism.

Let me suggest that one of the popularizers of a great deal of scholastic theology in the vernacular — because all of the theology was written in Latin — was the great Italian poet Dante. Dante, in fact, meets both Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure in Heaven, and clearly his laying out of this great scheme of the afterlife and trying to include all Christian knowledge is simply not a theological treatise in verse, but certainly he borrows very deeply from both Dominican and Franciscan tradition because he was educated by both of them in Florence.

Let me suggest that by the 16th century, there were some real problems. People like Erasmus (great Catholic writer) and Martin Luther (the founder of Protestantism) mocked the scholastic method because, they said, first of all, too much of this Aristotle guy; but even more so, they sort of mocked it because it could very easily be turned into trivialization of Christianity, it could become a lot of academic debate rather than a real search for truth. On the other hand, in the 16th’ century during the Protestant Reformation, Catholics wanted clarity in their thought; they wanted to be able to respond precisely to the Protestants. Who’s the number one guy who could help them do that? Good old 13th century Thomas Aquinas; and so Aquinas gained a great deal more importance in the Catholic Church because he’s the most useful theologian to refute the Protestants.

Let me suggest, finally, that as we look at scholastic theology, we can praise its great achievements and its contributions to the church; but let me also suggest a couple problems with this kind of theology: First of all, it’s hard to go from some of these very technical debates and these sort of very scholarly works to how does this make a preacher better? How does this make an individual Catholic better out there on the farm, in the workshop, as a merchant? It didn’t easily and automatically translate into better pastoral care. Second of all, it subordinated everything to theology: Science was included in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa, and everything in the Summa wasaimed toward knowing about God. If science is a handmaid of theology – a 13th century term — that means then that science has to be guided by theologians rather than being guided by having its own way of finding truth its own experimental way. It’s only really in the 14th century that there is least a partial divorce between science and scholastic theology that allowed for a more independent development of science.

Finally, to go back to the criticism of people like Erasmus, it was very easy to go from this profound kind of exploration of Christian understanding say, “I want to win a debate with you. Let’s argue more about less and less.” Anybody who’s been to a university knows that’s a tendency that academics have. So one of the criticisms of scholastic theology is what we might sum up as people spend their time debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin rather than anything that really is relevant to the faith.

Scholastic theology is one of the most important kinds of theology church ever produced, and it flourished in the context of the other things we’ve talked about in the 13th century.

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  1. [...] II. Sobre o pensamento escolástico. [...]

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