SermonIndex Audio Sermons
Access over 100,000+ Sermons from Ancient to Modern : Christian Books : CHAPTER VII THE SCHOOLMEN AND THEOLOGY

The Church And The Empire by D. J. Medley


[Sidenote: Secular Studies.]

Mediaeval learning, whether sacred or secular, was founded upon authority. The Scholasticus, who took the place of the ancient Grammaticus, was not an investigator, but merely an interpreter. On the one side the books of the sacred Scriptures as interpreted by the Fathers were the rule of faith; on the other side as the guide of reason stood the works of the Philosopher, as Aristotle was called in the Middle Ages. But until the thirteenth century few of his works were known, and those only in Latin translations. Here were the materials, slight enough, on which hung future development. The secular knowledge taught in the ordinary schools was that represented by the division of the Seven Arts into the elementary Trivium of Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, followed by the Quadrivium of Music, Arithmetic, Geometry, and Astronomy. The scope of the Trivium was much wider than the terms denote. Thus Grammar included the study of the classical Latin authors, which never entirely ceased; Rhetoric comprised the practice of composition in prose and verse, and even a knowledge of the elements of Roman Law; Dialectic or Logic became the centre of the whole secular education, because it was the only intellectual exercise which was supposed to be independent of pagan writers. In the Quadrivium -- the scientific education of the time -- Arithmetic and Astronomy were taught for the purpose of calculating the times of the Christian festivals; Music consisted chiefly of the rules of plain-song. It was the subjects of the Quadrivium which were subsequently enlarged in scope by the discoveries of the twelfth century. Apart from these subjects little attempt was made at a systematic training in theology. In so far as any such existed it was purely doctrinal, and aimed merely at enabling those in Holy Orders to read the Bible and the Fathers for themselves and to expound them to others.

[Sidenote: Scholasticism.]

Now the speculative intellect trained in dialectic had no material to work upon save what could be got from the Scriptures, the Fathers, and the dogmas of the Church; and Scholasticism is the name given to the attempt to apply the processes of logic to the systematisation and the interpretation of the Catholic faith. The movement was one which, narrow as it seems to us, yet made for ultimate freedom of human thought; for it meant the exercise of the intellect on matters which for long were regarded as beyond the reach of rationalistic explanation. There was much difference of opinion among the thinkers as to the limits to be assigned to such freedom of speculation on the mysteries of the faith, some starting from the standpoint of idealists and endeavouring to avoid the logical consequences of their speculations; while others, adopting so far as possible a position of pure empiricism, set tradition at defiance, and hoped by the aid of reason to reach the conclusions of divine revelation.

[Sidenote: Realists and Nominalists.]

The philosophical problem to which the mediaval thinkers addressed themselves is one that it is essential to the progress of human thought to solve. Whence do we derive general notions (Universals, as they were called), and do they correspond to anything which actually exists? Thus for the purpose of classifying our knowledge we use certain terms, such as genera, species, and others more technical. Do these in reality exist independently of particular individuals or substances? One school of philosophers, basing their reasoning upon Plato, maintained that such general ideas had a real existence of their own, and hence gained the name of Realists. But another school, who took Aristotle as their champion, held that reality can be asserted of the individual alone, that there is nothing real in the general idea except the name by which it is designated; while some of these Nominalists, as they came to be called, even proclaimed that the parts of an individual whole were mere words, and could not be considered as having an existence of their own. With the application of these definitions to theological dogmas we reach the beginning of Scholastic Theology. Here both sides were soon landed in difficulties. Nominalism, in its denial of reality to general notions, undermined the Catholic idea of the Church: in its recognition of none except individuals it destroyed the whole conception of the solidarity of original sin; while those of its professors who allowed no existence of their own to the parts of an individual whole, resolved the Trinity into three Gods. On the other hand, the danger of Realism was that, since individuals were regarded merely as forms or modes of some general idea, these philosophers were inclined to make no distinction between individuals and to fall into pantheism. As a result, the personality of man, and with it the immortality of the soul, disappeared, and even the personality of God threatened to lose itself in the universe which He had created. These tendencies will be clear from a short account of the chief schoolmen or writers on Scholastic Philosophy.

[Sidenote: Roscelin and Anselm.]

The first great names are those of Roscelin and Anselm of Canterbury. Roscelin (between 1050 and 1125), primarily a dialectician, rigidly applied his logic to theological dogmas. If we may judge from the accounts of his opponents, Anselm and Abailard, he took up a position of extreme individualism and denied reality alike to a whole and to the parts of which any whole is commonly said to be composed. The application of this principle to the doctrine of the Trinity landed him in tritheism, and he did not shrink from the reproach. Roscelin, a theologian by accident, was answered by Anselm who was primarily a theologian, and a dialectician by accident. If Roscelin was the founder of Nominalism Anselm identified Realism with the doctrine of the Church. But Anselm's Realism is not the result of independent thought. In his methods he has been rightly styled the |last of the Fathers.| His keynote was Belief in the Christian faith as the road to understanding it. Thus his object was to give to the dogmas accepted by the Church a philosophical demonstration. To him Realism was the orthodox philosophical doctrine because it was the one most in harmony with Christian theology. He applied philosophical arguments to the explanation of those tenets of the faith which later scholastic writers placed among the mysteries to be accepted without question.

[Sidenote: Abailard.]

The reputed founder of definite Realism was William of Champeaux (1060-1121), a pupil of Roscelin himself, a teacher at Paris, and ultimately Bishop of Chalons. By the account of his enemy Abailard, he held an uncompromising Realism which maintained that the Universal was a substance or thing which was present in its entirety in each individual. It was the presence of such crude Realism as this which gave his opportunity to the greatest teacher of this early period of Scholasticism, Peter Abailard (1079-1142). A pupil of both Roscelin and William of Champeaux -- the two extremes of Nominalism and Realism -- he aimed in his teaching at arriving at a via media to which subsequent writers have given the name Conceptualism. According to him the individual is the only true substance, and the genus is that which is asserted of a number of individuals; it is therefore a name used as a sign -- a concept, although he does not use the word. Thus he does not condemn the Realistic theory borrowed from Plato, of Universals as having an existence of their own; he regards them as ideas or exemplars which existed in the divine mind before the creation of things. But he opposes the tendency in Realism to treat as identical the qualities which resemble each other in different individuals, since that abolishes the personality of the individual which to him is the only reality. Like Roscelin he did not hesitate to apply his dialectic to theology. Here, while repudiating the tritheism of his master, he practically reproduced the old heresy of Sabellius which reduced the Trinity to three aspects or attributes of the Divine Being -- power, wisdom, and love. |A doctrine is to be believed,| he held, |not because God has said it, but because we are convinced by reason that it is so.| His whole attitude was that of the free, if reverent, enquirer. |By doubt,| he says, |we come to enquiry; by enquiry we reach the truth.| His book Sic et Non, a collection of conflicting opinions of the Christian Fathers on the chief tenets of the faith, was to be the first step towards arriving at the truth.

[Sidenote: Mysticism.]

He was condemned twice -- his doctrine of the Trinity at Soissons in 1121, his whole position at Sens in 1141. The leaders of orthodoxy met him not with argument but with a demand for recantation. St. Norbert during the early part of his life, and St. Bernard both early and late, pursued him with their enmity. Their objection was not to his particular views, but to his whole attitude towards divine revelation; and the conclusions in which the use of the scholastic method landed its advocates perhaps justified the rigid theologians in the general distrust of the exercise of reason on such subjects. St. Bernard did not hesitate to attack even Gilbert de la Porree, Bishop of Poictiers, an avowed Realist, who attempted to explain the Trinity. In fact, St. Bernard represents the reaction from Scholasticism, which took the form of Mysticism, that is, the purely contemplative attitude towards the verities of the Christian creed. In this he was followed with much greater extravagance by the school which found its home in the great abbey of St. Victor -- Hugh (1097-1143), who formulated the sentence |Knowledge is belief, and belief is love,| and Richard (died in 1173), who applied to the intuitive perception of spiritual things and to the love of them the same dialectical and metaphysical methods as the Schoolmen applied to reason.

[Sidenote: After Abailard.]

The results of Abailard's work are seen in two directions. His Sic et Non became the foundation of the work of the |Summists,| who, in the place of Abailard's purely critical work, occupied themselves in systematising authorities with a view to the reconciliation of their conflicting opinions. The greatest of these was Peter the Lombard (died 1160), who became Bishop of Paris, and whose Sententiae was taken as the accredited text-book of theology for the next three hundred years. With the Summists theology returned to its attitude of unquestioning obedience to the conclusions of the early Fathers. But in the second place, Abailard was indirectly responsible for |the troubling of the Realistic waters,| which resulted in many modifications of the original position.

[Sidenote: Classical revival.]

A justification for the attitude of the Church towards the followers of Abailard is to be found in the apparent exhaustion of the speculative movement which had started at the end of the eleventh century, and the consequent degeneracy of logical studies. It was a result of this that in the second half of the twelfth century many of the best minds were directing their energies into the channel of classical learning which was to prepare the way for the next phase of Scholasticism. Besides being a philosopher and a theologian, Abailard was also a scholar well read in classical literature. The cathedral school of Chartres, founded by Fulbert at the beginning of the eleventh century, was the centre of this classical Renaissance, and it rose to the height of its fame under Bernard Sylvester and his pupil, William of Conches; while the greatest representative of this learning was a pupil of William of Conches, John of Salisbury, an historian of philosophy rather than himself a philosopher or theologian.

[Sidenote: Origin of universities.]

It was in the twelfth century and out of the cathedral schools that the medieval universities arose. The monastic schools had spent their intellectual force, and during this century they almost ceased to educate the secular clergy. St. Anselm, when Abbot of Bec in Normandy, was the last of the great monastic teachers. But it was not from the school of Chartres but from that of Paris that the greatest University of the Middle Ages took its origin. Paris was identified with the scholastic studies of dialectic and theology, and it was the fame of William of Champeaux, and still more that of Abailard, which drew students in crowds to the cathedral school of Paris. But no university immediately resulted. Indeed, the Guild of Masters, from which it originated, is not traceable before 1170, and the four Nations and the Rector did not exist until the following century. Its recognition as a corporation dates from a bull of Innocent III about 1210. Its development starts from the close of its struggle with the Chancellor and cathedral school of Paris, in which contest it obtained the papal help. Before the middle of the thirteenth century the University had acquired its full constitution. But its great fame as a place of education dates from the teaching of the two great Dominicans, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas in the convent of their Order in Paris during the middle years of the century. This new outburst of philosophical studies was due to the recovery of many hitherto unknown works of Aristotle, and as a consequence classical studies were completely neglected and Chartres was deserted for Paris.

[Sidenote: Aristotle in the East.]

We have seen that the contemporaries of Abailard knew none but Aristotle's logical works, and these only in part and in Latin translations. So far nothing had interfered with the development of thought along |purely Western, purely Latin, purely Christian| lines. Churchmen who did not disapprove of dialectic altogether, had accepted and used Aristotle so far as they understood what they had of his works. Heretics there had been, but hitherto none had questioned the authority of the Bible or the Church. Meanwhile in the east a completer knowledge of Aristotle's works had been communicated by the Nestorian Christians to their Mohammedan masters. Greek books were translated into Arabic, and Arabian philosophy, already monotheistic, became permeated with Aristotelian ideas. Moreover, the union of philosophical and medical studies among the Arabs caused them to attach a special value to Aristotle's treatises on natural science. In Spain the Arabs handed on their knowledge of Aristotle to the Jews, and it was from the Jews of Andalusia, Marseilles, and Montpellier that the works of the Greek philosopher and his Arabian commentators became known in the west.

[Sidenote: Revival in the west.]

By the middle of the twelfth century the chief of these works -- texts, paraphrases, commentaries -- had, at the instance of Raymond, Archbishop of Toledo, been rendered into Latin by Archdeacon Dominic Gondisalvi, assisted by a band of translators. But the translations of Aristotle's own works were not from the original Greek, but from the Arabic, which laid stress upon the most anti-Christian side of Aristotle's thought, such as the eternity of the world and the denial of immortality. The result was an outbreak of heretical speculation along pantheistic lines. Swift steps were taken: the heretics were hunted down, and in 1209 the Council of Paris forbade the study of Aristotle's own works or those of his commentators which dealt with natural philosophy; while in 1215 the statutes of the University renewed the prohibition. But such prohibition did not include any of the logical works; and in 1231 a bull of Gregory IX only excepted any of Aristotle's works until they had been examined and purged of all heresy. Finally, in 1254, a statute of the University actually prescribed nearly all the works of Aristotle, including even the most suspected, as text-books for the lectures. Meanwhile fresh translations were made from the Arabic by Michael Scot and others at the instance of Frederick II, so that by 1225 the whole body of his works was to be found in Latin form. Further still, the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204 had brought back to the west a knowledge of a large part of Aristotle's writings in their original form. Translations were now made into Latin straight from the Greek; and Thomas Aquinas, seconded by Pope Urban IV, took especial pains to encourage such scholarship.

[Sidenote: The later Scholasticism.]

By this medium there was developed the great system of orthodox Aristotelianism which was the form taken by Scholasticism in the later Middle Ages. This was the work of the Friars, who, for the purpose of giving to their own students the best procurable training in theology, established houses of residence in Paris and elsewhere. The quarrels between the University of Paris and the municipality in the first half of the thirteenth century gave their opportunity to the Friars, and even after the settlement of the quarrels they remained and became formidable rivals to the teachers drawn from the secular clergy. It was only in 1255 that, after a severe struggle, the University was forced by a bull of Alexander IV to admit the Friars to its privileges, although it succeeded in imposing upon them an oath of obedience to its statutes.

[Sidenote: The change of position.]

It was the Franciscans who began this new intellectual movement in the persons of the Englishman, Alexander of Hales (died 1245), who was the first to be able to use the whole of the Aristotelian writings, and his pupil, the mystic Bonaventura (died 1274). But the scholastic philosophy as it is taught to this day was the work of the two great Dominicans, Albert of Bollstadt, a Suabian, known as Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), and his even greater pupil, Thomas of Aquino, an Italian (1227-74). The endeavour of these writers was to take over into the service of the Church the whole Aristotelian philosophy. It was a consequence of this that the old question of the nature of Universals was not so all-important, or that at any rate it ceased to be treated from a purely logical standpoint. The great Dominicans were very moderate Realists; but they treated Logic as only one among a number of subjects. Albert wrote works which in print fill twenty-one folio volumes (whence his name Magnus); but his fame has been somewhat obscured by the more methodical, if almost equally voluminous (in seventeen folio volumes) works of his successor. The result of their labours was a wonderfully complete harmonisation of philosophy and theology as these subjects were understood by their respective champions. This was brought about by the use of two methods. In the first place, the works of Aristotle on the one side, and the Bible and the writings of the Fathers on the other side, were treated as of equal authority in their respective spheres The ingenuity of the theologians was to be employed in harmonising them. It is, in fact, only from this period that |the Scholastic Philosophy became distinguished by that servile deference to authority| which we ordinarily attribute to it.

[Sidenote: Reason and faith.]

But, in the second place, any such harmonisation could only be carried out by some demarcation of territory. The earlier orthodox writers like Anselm, as we have seen, did not hesitate to attempt a philosophical explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity. But Aristotle and his Arabian commentators were monotheistic, and consequently the reconciliation between the Aristotelian philosophy and the Christian faith could only be effected by distinguishing between natural and revealed religion. The truths of the former were demonstrable by reason, of which Aristotle was the supreme guide. The truths of the latter were mysteries to be accepted on an equally good though different authority. By such methods these later schoolmen excepted and accepted the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, though they allowed the doctrine of the existence of God to be susceptible of logical proof. But notwithstanding these exceptions, the teaching of the Dominicans was a wonderful attempt to abolish the inevitable dualism between faith and reason.

[Sidenote: Thomists and Scotists.]

The history of Scholasticism after Thomas Aquinas is largely occupied by an account of the quarrel between the rival schools of Thomists and Scotists. The great teacher of the generation after St. Thomas was a Franciscan, Duns Scotus, the |Subtle Doctor,| who taught at Oxford and Paris and died in 1308. His teaching differed in two ways from that of his Dominican predecessor. In the first place he excepted a larger number of theological doctrines as not being capable of philosophic proof, so that his teaching tended to bring back and to emphasise the dualism between faith and reason. It is for this reason that his system has been considered as the beginning of the decline of Scholasticism. In the second place, the real quarrel between Thomists and Scotists centred round the question of the freedom of the will. The followers of St. Thomas maintained that although the will is to some extent subordinate to the reason, yet it is free to determine its own course of action after a process of rational comparison, by contrast with the animals which act on the impulse of the moment. The Scotists, on the other hand, taught that what is called the will is merely a name for the possibility of determining without motive in either of two opposite directions. The importance of this difference of view consisted in this -- that whereas the Thomists held that God subjects His will to a rational determination and therefore commands what is good because it is good, the Scotist taught that good is so because God wills it; if He chose to will the exact opposite, that would be equally good -- in other words, he attributed to God an entirely arbitrary will. The two greatest disciples of St. Thomas were Dante and the Franciscan Roger Bacon (1214-92), the latter of whom fell into disfavour with the superiors of his own Order in consequence of his scientific studies, and spent many years at the end of his life in prison.

[Sidenote: Results of Scholasticism.]

The Scholastic philosophy failed to justify the doctrines of the Church to a rapidly expanding world. But it is unjust and ungrateful to stigmatise its results as barren. In the first place it gave a most valuable training in logical method to the keenest intellects of the time. Moreover, the very attempt to establish the Christian faith by argument was an unconscious homage to the supremacy of reason as the ultimate guide; while, finally, in the philosophy of St. Thomas, all nature was regarded as a fit subject for enquiry, and some of the greatest Schoolmen, as we have just seen, were noted for their investigations into natural phenomena.

<<  Contents  >>

Promoting Genuine Biblical Revival.
Affiliate Disclosure | Privacy Policy