A Word on Reading the Scholastics

Here are a few points that will help us enter into the wonderful world of scholastic theology.

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to spend thousands of hours reading and studying the writings and theology of the scholastic period through the course of my PhD, my teaching, and especially through working on this: a translation of one of the more important works of scholastic theology by St. Bonaventure. Since the writings of the scholastics can be a bit difficult to enter into, I thought I would write a primer on scholastic theology as an entry point for interested readers.

Scholasticism broadly defined is the theological and intellectual movement surrounding the schools of Paris in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is marked by an adherence to the theological tradition, grounded in the teachings of the Bible and the theological exposition of St. Augustine. The basic tenant of Scholasticism was Augustine’s mantra Credo ut intelligam (I believe so that I may understand), or to put it more simply, faith seeking understanding. There are two things that made Scholasticism different from previous intellectual movements: the sic et non method, and the use of Aristotle (This one, not this one).  These two (the method and the philosophy) combined to form a theological movement that posited and explored the thesis that everything could be understood and explained through faith and reason. Therefore, if we do not either understand how the sic et non method works or know a bit about the Bible, Augustine, and Aristotle, we cannot read, understand, or explain the scholastics in an intelligent way. Here are a few points that will help us enter into the wonderful world of scholastic theology.

 1. The fallacy of historical anachronism
The first thing we must note when undertaking to read writings from the past is that we should avoid the fallacy of historical anachronism. What’s that? It’s when we impose later developments onto earlier ones and either criticize the earlier for not having exhibited evidence of the latter, or assume that something in a latter development is also an integral aspect of the earlier ones. An example of this would be in criticizing medieval authors because they do not articulate their soteriology in the exact language of the canons of the Council of Dort. We could however hold medieval writers to the canons of the Council of Orange since it preceded the Middle Ages. The basic idea here is that if something didn’t exist yet, we can’t expect someone to know about it. It would be like expecting Abraham Lincoln to know the intricacies of the whip and nae nae, for example.

 2. The sic et non method
The sic et non method was the way scholastic theology was done, thus it is often called eponymously the scholastic method. The sic et non method was introduced by Peter Abelard in the 12th century. Abelard was a rock star in the classroom, mesmerizing his audiences with his lectures. In them he would posit a question, for example, “Must human faith be completed by reason, or not?” Then he would present the arguments for answering “yes” (Latin, sic) followed by the arguments for answering “no” (Latin, non). Abelard would argue passionately and vigorously for each side of the position, but would never give his answer. He would just leave the audience hanging! While this method lead to his fame, it would not develop into anything more than a show prop for about 100 years.

Meanwhile, around the same time, the theological standard for orthodoxy was being developed by another Peter, this one named Lombard. His Four Books of the Sentences was the standard exposition and articulation of Western (Augustinian) theology for 500 years. This book, not Thomas Aquinas, was the theological textbook of the Middle Ages, and has left such an imprint on the Western theological landscape that we can even see it in the arrangement of books and subjects in Calvin’s Institutes.

In the 13th century, the teachers of Paris, lead by Alexander of Hales, synthesized Abelard’s lecture method and Lombard’s theological textbook to form the scholastic method. It began as an academic exercise. Alexander had his students (one of which was the famous scholastic theologian and contemporary of Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure) write a commentary on the sentences of Peter Lombard, using a modified form of the sic et non method. Alexander and his students added to Abelard’s method of presenting the yes and no a statement of the correct answer (in the opinion of the student) and then answers to the objections.

Thus when reading any of these scholastic texts, one must understand that the first statements one finds at the beginning of each section are not the opinions of the author! They are simply popular arguments for and against that the author is presenting for the sake of the method. If the reader wishes to understand what the author is actually teaching on the subject, he must skip down to the respondeo, which begins with the words “I respond.” There you will find the opinion and rationale of the author on the question. Following the response then are the responses to the objections that did not agree with the opinion that the author took.

This academic exercise was undertaken by students of theology studying for a doctorate in the late Middle Ages. Jan Hus, the famous Czech reformer, wrote one of these commentaries as a part of his magisterial studies in Prague, and in it he exhibits the same method developed by Alexander and his students.

The Summa theologica by Thomas Aquinas, though not a commentary on the sentences (he did produce one) employs the sic et non method. Thus readers of the Summa need to understand how the method works.

 3. Augustine and Philosophy – He loved Philosophy!
St. Augustine laid the theological and intellectual framework for Western civilization. His mature synthesis of Christian society can be found in his capstone work The City of God, which was written in 426, four years before his death. In the City of God Augustine argues that the philosophical basis for Christian thought should be what we now call Neo-Platonism, and he even states that Plotinus, the chief expositor of Neo-Platonism in his nine-volume work The Enneads, was the closest of the pagan philosophers to come to a true understanding of God (See Book X in The City of God). In The City of God and other writings Augustine synthesized the Christian faith and Neo-Platonic philosophy to lay the intellectual foundations for the Christian west.

 4. The Scholastics and Augustine
As was already stated above, the theology of the Western church in the Middle Ages was thoroughly Augustinian. This is so in almost every aspect of every subject of theology. For example, medieval theologians were Augustinian in their thoughts on sacraments, sin, grace, anthropology, theology proper, ecclesiology, eschatology, and every other “ology” you can think of. Augustine was the teacher par excellence of the medieval church.

Specifically, on the topic of salvation and grace, medieval theologians consistently maintained their adherence to the Augustinian doctrines of grace. These doctrines are articulated in his treatises against the Pelagians, and also made canonical by the declarations of the Council of Orange. This theology posited the existence of Original Sin, handed down from parent to child all the way back to our first parents, and that original sin destroys the ability in any human being to love God or achieve salvation or do any good work outside the divine aid of God. Augustine also taught that believers must have an act of God performed on them to even make them dispositive for grace. He taught that believers were chosen by God (predestined) to receive this grace a part from any merit in themselves. He also taught that this grace was conferred to believers by a free gift of God through sacraments. No orthodox western theologian (medieval, Reformational, or otherwise) ever strayed from this opinion until the modern period.

A poignant example of this can be found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, a medieval theologian often pilloried by some Protestant polemicists. In Question 109 of his Summa theologica, Thomas posits ten questions on the necessity of grace in human salvation. You are welcome to read this section, minding the use of the sic et non method I outlined above:

It is notable that Thomas’s answer to all ten of these questions is unequivocal: divine help is absolutely necessary for any good thing to come out of a fallen person. Here are the ten questions:

  1. Without grace, can man know anything? Answer: No
  2. Without God’s grace, can man do or wish any good? Answer: No
  3. Without grace, can man love God above all things? Answer: No
  4. Without grace, can man keep the commandments of the Law? Answer: No
  5. Without grace, can he merit eternal life? Answer: No
  6. Without grace, can man prepare himself for grace? Answer: No
  7. Without grace, can he rise from sin? Answer: No
  8. Without grace, can man avoid sin? Answer: No
  9. Having received grace, can man do good and avoid sin without any further Divine help? Answer: No
  10. Can he of himself persevere in good? Answer: No

Now, admittedly I have done a bit of contextualization to bring his terminology into our modern theological idiom. Thomas is a very precise thinker. So if you take my challenge and read the section, you will find that at times he will say that an extra work of grace is not needed. Nevertheless, none of these things can be done without divine aid. That is what we would call grace. Here are some examples:

Response to question 1: Hence we must say that for the knowledge of any truth whatsoever man needs Divine help, that the intellect may be moved by God to its act. But he does not need a new light added to his natural light, in order to know the truth in all things, but only in some that surpass his natural knowledge. And yet at times God miraculously instructs some by His grace in things that can be known by natural reason, even as He sometimes brings about miraculously what nature can do.

Response to question 2: And thus in the state of perfect nature man needs a gratuitous strength superadded to natural strength for one reason, viz. in order to do and wish supernatural good; but for two reasons, in the state of corrupt nature, viz. in order to be healed, and furthermore in order to carry out works of supernatural virtue, which are meritorious. Beyond this, in both states man needs the Divine help, that he may be moved to act well.

Response to question 3: But in the state of corrupt nature man falls short of this in the appetite of his rational will, which, unless it is cured by God’s grace, follows its private good, on account of the corruption of nature. And hence we must say that in the state of perfect nature man did not need the gift of grace added to his natural endowments, in order to love God above all things naturally, although he needed God’s help to move him to it; but in the state of corrupt nature man needs, even for this, the help of grace to heal his nature.

In these we can see that Thomas is making the distinction between what we would call saving grace and what we would call either common grace or simply, grace, i. e. the grace we need to continue to live the Christian life.

 5. The Scholastic theology of the will
One last thing should be said when thinking about how some scholastics, specifically theologians like Thomas and John Duns Scotus, discuss things like the will, the intellect, the mind, reason, and so on. When they do this they are operating on a whole host of assumptions, set by St. Augustine, on the philosophical foundation for nature and being. Augustine, for example, taught that there is in every human a higher soul and a lower soul (see De Trinitate, Book XII). Augustine also taught, as we have already established, that the human person was fallen and unable to do good or choose God outside of divine help. Scholastic theologians like Thomas and Scotus took this teaching to a particular place when they posited that it was fundamentally the human will that was fallen and thus made the human person unable to do any good thing or to love God or choose to serve him or have faith in him. This theology of the will served as the basis for much of Luther’s thought on the human person, salvation, and the will and is the underlying basis for his doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone.

The reason why Thomas and Scotus taught that there was a part of the human intellect that was untouched by sin has to do with where they placed the image of God in the human person, again following, you guessed it, Augustine. Since they all placed the image of God in the upper or rational soul, that part of the human person could not be touched by the fall, otherwise a person would cease to be rational, cease to be an image bearer, cease to be a person. Yet, these teachers protected the Augustinian teachings on grace in unequivocally stating that despite this, the human person could know nothing or do nothing outside of God’s divine help (as is shown above). Thus I think that anyone labeling these thinkers as semi-Pellagian is straying out of their lane.

Conclusion: Why this matters
Why does this matter? Simply, because there is a resurgent interest in the scholastic period and in thinkers like Thomas, Scotus, Ockham, and Bonaventure. I would add that theologians like Hugh of St. Victor (and the other Victorines), Lombard, Hales, and Anselm are also worthy of study. Thus if we are going to study and read these medieval thinkers, it is always good to read them correctly, contextually, and on their own terms. To put it even more simply, it matters because we want to tell the truth about what these folks actually said.

Why else does it matter? I think another good reason why reading these writers accurately matters is that when we do not tell a true or accurate story about medieval theologians (or patristic writers like Augustine), and then someone is presented with a more nuanced and accurate take on them which better accounts for their writings and their context, it discredits those who propounded the unfortunately false view and those who surround him or her. How many young Protestants have converted to Roman Catholicism (or seriously considered it) because they have heard truncated or even false takes on ancient and medieval writers only to hear a truer take from Roman Catholic authors and apologists? We as Reformed and otherwise Protestant are better served by engaging these ancient and medieval authors correctly, articulating where we differ, celebrating where we find commonality, and enriching on our own traditions where we find anew sources for growing and building upon our own little piece of the great Catholic Church.

Author: Tim LeCroy

Tim LeCroy is Pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Columbia, MO. He is husband of Rachel and father of Ruby and Lucy

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