Part 5: Catholic Europe. Lesson 7 of 8.
Lesson 32. Scholastics

Through today’s lesson, we hope you will make better use of reason in your work because you better understand both the possibilities and the limitations of human reason.

1.Faith balancing reason. The late middle ages were times of immense energy and creativity.  In the field of theology, this was a time when faith and reason were seen as supporting one another, and were in balance.1  New ways of looking at things emerged when European scholars were given copies of the writing of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. (Aristotle lived in the fourth century BC, and was a student of the other famous Greek philosopher Plato).  The books had been destroyed when the barbarians conquered Europe in the 400’s, but were preserved in the Middle East, and were brought to Europe by Muslim scholars who traveled to the Muslim areas of Spain.

2.Plato. Before AD 1000, most church scholars had been basing their explanations of the Bible on the thought of Plato.  The schools in the Roman Empire taught the thought of Plato, so the Roman church scholars naturally knew about Plato’s ideas.   According to Plato, everything has an ideal form as its basis.  Plato’s “world of ideals” asserts that the things we sense in this world are but a reflection of the ideal world.  The actual things you see may have flaws, but the real form is perfect.  For example, a man may have a broken leg, but the ideal of man is not damaged.  The ideal bases are unchanging and eternal, but the things we see are changing and temporary. Church scholars concluded that God is one of these unchanging things, and so also are concepts like justice and kindness.

  1. Aristotle. After AD 1000, scholars gradually changed and used the thought of Plato’s student Aristotle to explain the Bible. They rediscovered Aristotle because the Muslims had preserved many of the Greek manuscripts that had been destroyed in Europe when the Roman Empire was ended by the Germanic invasions. The scholars received these books from the Muslims who were living in Spain.  Aristotle did not accept Plato’s concept of  “unseen ideals.” He based his ideas on the things that we actually can see.  Rather than reasoning about ideal forms, he studied the things we can see made his conclusions from them. He studied society, not “unseen ideals,” to explain “justice” and “kindness.”  When theologians used Aristotle’s methods to study religion, they produced many different kinds of “systematic theology.” In Europe’s Middle Ages, those who used philosophy and reason in religious research are called “scholastics.”  They disagreed about how to balance faith and reason. They disagreed about how to explain free will and how to explain communion. These issues are still debated today.   Other disagreements arose over how to balance faith and reason, and how to balance free will with God’s power to choose us.  These issues are still debated today. This chapter introduces the most influential scholastics in the time before the reformation.

4.Existence of God. One of the first outstanding scholastics was Anselm.  Like Augustine, he used reason to explain concepts that he had already accepted by faith.  His contribution to the following two questions is still useful today: (1)  The existence of God. and (2) The reason for Christ’s death.  He showed the influence of Plato in his two arguments for the existence of God.  (1) if we think about something “good,” there must be a model for good called the “highest good;” that would be God.  (2) The greatest thing we can imagine is God; if He doesn’t exist, then he wouldn’t be the greatest thing we could imagine.  Throughout the following centuries, scholars have continued to look for ways to prove the existence of God.  The Bible, however, does not try to prove God through reason.  John writes, “no one has seen God at any time, but the only Son, who is in the bosom (intimate connection) with the Father, has made God known.2   Since our reason cannot prove God, God sent the only Son, that is, Jesus, to make himself known.

5.Work of Jesus. In 1070 Anselm wrote the book “Why did God become Man?”  This was an important question, because it did seem degrading for God to become a man.  He reasoned that it would be degrading for God to forgive sins without some kind of payment.  Mankind owes the payment, but only God is great enough to pay it.  God paid it by become human so He could die for us.  This explanation remains common today.  Evangelists say “God is just, so He must punish sin; but God is love, so He does not want to punish you.  Therefore God has punished Jesus in your place.” ³

6.Using Doubt. A scholar named Abelard tried to find a middle way between Plato and Aristotle.  His theory was that an ideal, such as an ideal “dog,” does not exist, but the perfect idea about an ideal dog does exist in the mind of God.  In a book of 1122, Abelard collected conflicting quotations from Bible scholars and tried to resolve them.  His approach was the opposite of Anselm and Augustine, who believed first, and then used reason to explain beliefs.  Abelard said the way to truth was to doubt, and to find the truth by asking questions.  He wanted to use reason to find the truth, and then he would believe it.  In this way, he was a fore-runner of the eighteenth century age of reason.  Because he would believe only things that he could accept by reason, Abelard did not accept Anselm’s idea about the need for Jesus to pay the debt for our sins.  Denying Christi’s sacrificial death, he said Christ’s death inspires us by its example of love.  This idea was adopted by some scholars in the 19th century who wanted to explain Christianity in a way that did not require supernatural elements, such as God becoming man.  The conflicts of today were argued already in the middle ages.

7.Free will. The question of free will was also debated during the middle ages, and the debate continues today.  Scholars either supported Augustine’s view, that our salvation comes only by God’s initiative of grace, or the opposite view, that we do good works and therefore merit the grace of God.  Scholars thought of different ways to combine these two ideas.  One idea was that God moves us by grace, but then we ourselves voluntarily do the good works.  In 1525 Luther wrote a book called “The Bondage of the Will,” which takes a strong position on the side of Augustine, stating that we cannot choose to come to God, but only God’s grace can bring us to Himself.  John Wesley had a differing view: God’s grace gives us the ability to choose God.

8.Thomism. Thomas Aquinas was the culmination of the scholastic movement.  His name is Thomas and he comes from a city in Italy called Aquino.  He wrote a huge book called “sum of theology.”  He carefully listed and compared all the viewpoints about each topic, then drew his conclusion and used reason to defend it.  He acknowledged that there are important facts about God that we cannot know unless God reveals them to us, but he felt that after they are revealed we can use reason to study them and defend them.  Many other systems competed with the system of Thomas, but the Roman Catholic Church has regarded the writing of Thomas as standards for their understanding of theology; in factin 1879 the pope declared that Thomas is the authority for the Catholic Church, and Catholic priests must study Thomas’ system.  Thomas’ system is called “Thomism.”  The Catholic use of natural law reached a high point in the writings of Thomas.  Since the 1960’s, Catholic theologians are not limited to the ideas of Thomas.  Some of the newer ideas in Catholic theology are found in Lesson 40.

9.Nominalism. In the 14th century William of Occam contributed to the separation of faith from reason.  He promoted the idea of free will, and applied it to God.  He said that if God were truly free, God could do whatever he wanted to, whether it was reasonable or not.  This approach prepared the way for modern science.  For example, Aristotle had supposed that planets must move in circles, because circles were perfect.  But if God can do anything, then the only way we can know how planets move is to observe them.  Since God is free, then reason and philosophy cannot help us to know him.  Ockham represents a strong alternative to the view of Plato.  He went even beyond Abelard and insisted that only the individual is real.  This approach is called “nominalism,” which means that we can only name individual things, not ideas.  The next stage of thought would represent an emphasis on the importance of the individual.  Luther was educated in Ockham’s ideas, and in Luther’s teachings we can see how Luther accepted some parts and rejected others. For example, the reformation placed great emphasis on the importance of the individual.  Luther agreed that logic and philosophy were not able to bring us to God, and pointed us away from philosophy and back to the Bible for our knowledge of God.

10.Observation. By the end of the middle ages, the ideas of Aristotle seemed to have replaced those of Plato.  However, in the next stage of culture, called the Renaissance, there was a new interest in Plato.  But the rise of modern science represents the triumph of Aristotle over Plato.  Scientists accepted Aristotle’s idea that truth is found by examining actual things, rather than reasoning about the supposed perfect ideal of things.  The scientists did not necessarily accept all of Aristotle’s conclusions, but it was difficult for scientists to promote their conclusions when different from Aristotle.  Even though Luther did not promote the use of philosophy to know God, other theologians after his time have continued to use Aristotle’s rules of logic or other philosopher’s views to explain the Bible and God. A common outline is in footnote 5.

11.Renaissance. The word “renaissance” means “rebirth.”  The thing that was reborn was a new interest in the writings of the Greek and Roman culture from the years before the Middle Ages.  This was the cultural context in which the Reformation happened: therefore it can help us to understand the reformation.  In some ways it helped, but in other ways the Reformation was a reaction against it.  The new interest in people, called “humanism,” helped the reformation to emphasize personal faith for the forgiveness of sins, but at the same time caused some people to prefer their own personal ideas over God’s revelation in the Bible.  The new interest in original languages contributed to Bible study, but at the same time the interest in non-Christian authors promoted ways of life that were not compatible with Christian morals.

12.Manuscripts. New methods were developed to study and compare manuscripts.  This helped to form a more accurate version of the Bible.  In 1516 a Catholic humanist scholar published an accurate Greek New Testament based on comparing many manuscripts. Reformation leaders based their translations into local languages on this Greek version.  The study of manuscripts still continues, and new Greek versions that include even more manuscripts are still being published.  A famous achievement was when in 1440 a scholar showed that a document¹ saying that a Roman emperor from the 300’s had given the pope a lot of property throughout Europe was actually written much later, in the 700’s. 4

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1)Unlike later, in the modern era, when many people believed that reason was more dependable than faith). and today’s “post-modern” era, when reason is regarded with suspicion as an excuse for getting power over other people.

2) John 1:18

3) Protestants do call it a substitution, because Peter writes that Jesus “bore our sins on his body on the cross.”   (1 Peter 2:24).  In Roman Catholic theology, love led Jesus to give himself as a sin-offering for us on the cross.  Roman Catholics call it a payment of debt, but do not call it a substitution.

4) the document was called “The Donation of Constantine.”

5) A common outline for systematic Theology:

1.about God — theology
2.about humankind — anthropology
3.about Christ — christology
4.about the Holy Spirit — pneumatology
5.about the church — ecclesiology
6.about end of life and end of world – eschatology

Articles ab out each of these 6 can be found at