Essay / Theology

The Rise of the Scholastic Theological Method

This is post 2 of 4 in a series on the monastic theological method. It looks forward to the publication of Greg Peters’ new book: Monastic Theology as Theological Method: The Superiority of the Monastery to the University. Join us in this article as Dr. Peters discusses the object of scholastic thought, noting key and historical critiques along the way:

In my last post I noted that theology began to lose its way when it lost its proper end, which is communion with God. This decline is connected to a series of historical events, especially the rise of the universities in the twelfth century and the advent of the Order of Preachers (i.e., Dominicans). The origin of the earliest medieval universities (e.g., Paris and Oxford) is complex but the origin of the Dominicans is straightforward and can be easily summarized for it was Dominic de Guzmán’s preaching mission to combat the Cathars (the so-called “pure ones”) that gave birth to the Dominicans. In 1203, Dominic (d. 1221), a Spaniard, encountered Cathar heretics in southern France. He noted that the Cistercian monks tasked with preaching against the heresy had failed, mostly because the Cistercians were required by their monastic rule to pray regularly in community. They were not properly suited to the kind of vita apostolica needed to combat the Cathars. So, Dominic founded an order of preachers in 1215 that were suited to the task. Given that preaching would be their principal activity, Dominic sought to create a brotherhood of educated priests. By 1218 the vision had grown for the Dominican friars not only to provide for the theological education of the preachers but to capture the leading intellectual centers of the day, especially Paris. Many of the first friars come from the ranks of university students and by 1229 the Dominicans possessed a licentia docendi (the right to teach) from the University of Paris.

What the universities and the Dominicans made possible was the rise of the “scholastic method,” which dominated medieval theological practice from the thirteenth century up to the Reformation of the sixteenth century and has been highly influential on pre-modern and modern theological method. Scholastic theology was done primarily by those in the universities. The scholastic theologian’s methodology made use of not only early Christian literature (primarily the Bible and the early Christian fathers) but of non-Christian philosophy too, especially the then newly rediscovered Aristotle. The scholastic method is characterized by a particular system of teachings and concepts, distinctions, propositional analyses, logical techniques, and rules of debate. Moreover, the scholastic method is typified by the teaching procedure known as the quaestio; that is, the educational form wherein logical, syllogistic reasoning is employed, oftentimes to resolve a doubtful point. The principal task of the scholastic theologian is the investigation of new problems and to search for new answers to these theological problems. The scholastic theologian did not fully ignore the early Christian theological tradition but he certainly did not limit himself to these sources but sought insight from the non-Christian (e.g., Hellenistic, Jewish, and Arabic) philosophical (even theological) traditions as well. Thus, one can conclude that the scholastic method “creates and distinguishes Scholastic theology as a scientific or academic theology, and thus as a particular undertaking, from other sorts of theology” (Ulrich Leinsle, Introduction to Scholastic Theology, 8).

The language of “scholastic” or “scholasticism” derives from the Greek word σχολή, which can mean leisure, or “leisure devoted to the sciences.” Σχολαστικός is used for the first time by Aristotle (d. 322 BCE) in his Politics signifying an activity done for its own sake that is unfettered by the immediate requirements of living. Later philosophers continue to use this language to describe someone who lives for contemplation (θεωρία) and/or concerned with all elements of education and schooling. In the high Middle Ages, the term scholasticus is not used in reference to a particular kind of theology but becomes, in the modern era, a term that carries negative connotations and implies reference to Aristotle, barbaric Latin, hair-splitting, sophistry, useless logical disputations and pastoral barrenness. In time “scholastic theology” stands over against “positive theology,” in that scholastic theology engages in speculation whereas positive theology stands in reference to exegesis and canon law, for instance. Yet, already in the early sixteenth century that both Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (d. 1536) and Martin Luther (d. 1546), for example, criticized scholasticism and its methodology.

Erasmus was a leading light of the European Renaissance and a frequent critic of the late medieval Church. Nonetheless, he remained in the Roman Church, choosing not to align with the Protestant Reformation. His best-known literary work is In Praise of Folly, a critique of abuses published in 1511. In the work Folly, personified as a woman, claims that what appears to be Folly outwardly, is actually wise inwardly. Folly rails against that which she judges to be foolish in the areas of politics and society. But Erasmus’ biting satire is also used to level criticisms against the Church, including theologians, monks, clergyman and scholastic theology. Regarding the latter,

Then there are the theologians, a remarkably supercilious and touchy lot … for they abound in newly coined expressions and strange-sounding words … These subtle refinements of subtleties are made still more subtle by all the different lines of scholastic argument, so that you’d extricate yourself faster from a labyrinth than from the tortuous obscurities of realists, nominalists, Thomists, Albertists, Ockhamists, and Scotists … Such is the erudition and complexity they all display that I fancy the apostles themselves would need the help of another Holy Spirit if they were obliged to join issue on these topics with our new breed of theologian.

Erasmus’ main issue with scholastic theologians is that they obscure the meaning of their theology and ignore the fact that theology’s goal is holiness.

One of Luther’s earliest works is the Disputation against Scholastic Theology, in which Luther says that scholastic theology holds to too high a view of human reason, thinks that free will is less corrupted by sin than it actually is and suggests that the Gospel is insufficient because of an overreliance on philosophy, especially Aristotle. For example, “If a syllogistic form of reasoning holds in divine matters, then the doctrine of the Trinity is demonstrable and not the object of faith” (§39). Luther sees that scholastic theology teaches that for one to be a theologian one has to become one with Aristotle. Luther adamantly opposes this understanding: “To state that a theologian who is not a logician is a monstrous heretic—this is a monstrous and heretical statement” (§45). Luther’s critique of scholasticism did not diminish over the years even if he followed positions of some of the scholastic theologians when he felt they were right.

Thus, one can see that scholastic theology is the result of a particular set of historical moments, it came about almost by accident but became so popular so quickly that it by and large displaced the kind of theological method that preceded it (i.e., monastic theology). This, of course, does not make it “bad” or inferior but as it grew it became a kind of thing that was hated by those who thought that theology should be done in a different key. Again, it lost its proper end for the telos of communion with God was largely missing in favor of endless discussion and the domestication of the inscrutable and deep things of God. The situation has not greatly improved in the intervening centuries. Hence the need for a revised monastic theological method. Apart from that, theology will continue to suffer.

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