Scholasticism, a form of study and philosophy popular during the medieval period, focuses on transmitting as much knowledge as possible in a way that the listener or reader can understand.
What Makes Aristotle Vital to Scholasticism?
Scholasticism’s approach to education and philosophy relies heavily on Aristotle’s logic model.
Each major scholastic engaged extensively with Aristotle’s works. Unlike in Augustine’s works, Plato took a backseat to Aristotle for most of the scholastic period. Scholastics generally rejected Plato’s ideals in favor of Aristotle’s more logical and systematic view.
Aristotle provided the foundations for scholasticism through his use of reason, observation, and systematic inquiry. They attempted to use these categories to establish a rational basis for theological ideas. Aristotle’s epistemology—philosophy’s word for how we know what we know—is built upon observation, empirical inquiry, and logical reasoning. This becomes clear when in the Summa Theologica, Scholasticism’s magnum opus, Aristotle is referred to simply as “The Philosopher.”
What is the Scholastic Method in Philosophy?
Scholasticism’s main focus was to educate people on the intersection of philosophy and theology. Scholastics would accomplish this goal by reading and annotating the book along with supporting documents. Disagreements between these sources would then be noted. Then philosophers used linguistic analysis and logic to try and show that the ideas didn’t contradict.
When teaching others these texts, the teacher would read a text and provide his commentary on it. Then his students would go and meditate on the ideas presented and come up with challenges for the lecturer. Next, they would come back together and discuss and resolve the apparent contradictions. One of the underlying assumptions is that the philosophy of Aristotle was compatible with the Christian worldview.
Aristotle believed everything in creation had a purpose and would strive to fulfill it. He also believed that substance and essence could be separated, substantially influencing the Scholastic and Roman Catholic view of the Eucharist. Catholic emphasis on virtues also owes much to Aristotle, who taught that attaining virtues was the way to flourish.
How Did Scholasticism Develop?
Boethius, a Roman senator, who sought to reconcile the writings of Aristotle and Plato with Christian theology, laid the foundation for scholasticism. Edward Kennard Rand says Boethius is “the last of the Roman philosophers and the first of the scholastic theologians.”
Boethius translated the Greek texts of Aristotle into Latin. However, many of his works were lost for centuries. Due to the political instability of the 500s to the 900s, most of Europe stopped translating Classical Greek. Ireland was the one exception, partly because of its monasteries.
Monasteries enabled scholasticism to flourish because of the concentration of men devoted to studying and understanding the Christian life. Much like academics today, monks renounced most of life’s pleasures to devote themselves to study and learning. This enabled more dialogue among the monks pondering God’s word in light of Greek philosophers. Irish scholars were isolated from the political turmoil plaguing mainland Europe and Britain at the time. So they continued to study Ancient Greek texts in their original language.
In Toledo, Spain, one of these monasteries translated works from Greek to Latin. Following the Reconquista of Spain, Spanish scholars also began to engage with Islamic and Jewish philosophers. Islamic and Jewish scholars wrote extensively to incorporate and challenge Greek philosophy within their worldviews. These writings, combined with an emphasis on teaching, resulted in the modern ideas of scholasticism.
Who Were Some Major Players in Scholasticism?
Scholasticism had its greatest influence from the 11th through the 16th century. This period had several important figures who advanced the ideas forward. Scholasticism reached its height in the late 1200s with Aquinas. Aquinas’ influence caused Dante to make Aquinas his guide through heaven in the last volume of the Divine Comedy, Paradiso.
Anselm, sometimes called the father of scholasticism, wrote many works that set the stage for later scholastics to take up his mantle. His writings are presented as questions and answers between an anonymous student and himself. He sought to believe so that he may understand. This idea was repeated throughout his writings. He held that faith was the first step in understanding more of God through philosophy. His writings frequently referenced Aristotle, defining him as the scholasticism father.
Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the scholastics, wrote a mammoth work known as the Summa Theologica (Latin for “sum of theology”). This work, considered by many to be the greatest work of literature from the medieval period, clocks in at an astounding 1.6 million words. Aquinas’ attempt to summarize all of theology remains unfinished because Aquinas died before he finished the work. The work is structured with a question and objections to the question, then Aquinas gives his thoughts on the question and finally responds to each objection. This goes on for a wide variety of topics.
William of Ockham, another prominent scholastic theologian and thinker, made many advancements in the field of logic. Occam’s razor, the theory that states the simplest theory is typically the best one. Ockham’s magnum Opus, Summa Logica (not to be confused with Summa Theologica), addressed Ockham’s thoughts on Aristotle’s work and his own interpretation. Within this work, he also wrote in literary terms what was later written in the mathematical language of logic as DeMorgan’s laws.
Other figures included Alexander Hale, who set the stage for how future scholastics used Aristotle in their works. Dan Graves summarizes his contribution:
“A decisive moment in medieval scholasticism came when Alexander of Hales substituted Peter Lombard’s Sentences in place of the Bible as the basic text for his teaching. Like many who came after him, he also wrote a commentary on Lombard’s work.
Alexander was a brilliant scholar. In his own day he was called the ‘unanswerable doctor’ and ‘king of theology.’ Born in Hales, Shropshire, England, he studied and taught in Paris. Although his method looked back to ancient authority, he was an innovator within the scholastic system.
In addition to making Peter Lombard’s Sentences his basic text, he was the first scholastic philosopher to build a summary of Christian theology using the newly discovered writings of Aristotle as its key authority. Because he became a Franciscan friar at the height of his career, his teachings became a powerful influence on Franciscan theology. Alexander didn’t stop with Aristotle, but also included Arabic ideas, as well as the more standard ideas of the neo-Platonists and Augustine of Hippo.
Christian summaries were not a new idea. Many people had already written their own versions. They were arranged under ‘questions.’ But because Alexander (and the others who worked on the Summa universae theologiae) quoted Aristotle as a reference to almost every question, using the newly recovered books on logic, metaphysics, physics and ethics, he paved the way for scholars like Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas who attempted to reconcile Aristotle’s thinking with Christian theology. In fact, Aquinas considered Alexander his favorite scholar and closely followed the outline of the Summa universae theologiae when he wrote his own, more famous, Summa theologica. He probably never actually studied with Alexander, however.
Some of the little we know about Alexander Hales comes from the writings of Roger Bacon, who was critical of him. Bacon thought Alexander got too much praise while real contributors to knowledge remained unknown.
Although it is not strictly true, Alexander is often regarded as the founder of the Franciscan school of theology. In large measure, he followed the path of Bonaventura, the first really great Franciscan theologian.
In 1245, Alexander attended the Council of Lyons in Paris. He died that same year on this day, August 21, 1245, probably during an epidemic. He was 59, a pretty good age in those days. Today we remember the works of those who learned from him more than we do his. However, he continues to be studied by scholars of that time period.”
(“Alexander of Hales Scholastic Innovator” by Dan Graves, MSL, published in Christianity.com on May 3, 2010).
What Happened to Scholasticism During the Reformation?
Scholasticism may have reached its heyday in the 1200s, but it still had a large influence during and after the Reformation. Two schools dominated during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the Reformed scholastics. These two schools had wholly different views on the nature of the church and of grace but shared an emphasis on scholastic teaching methods and intellectual rigor. Other streams of Protestantism mocked scholasticism for its lack of practicality. These three responses to the scholasticism of the Middle Ages represent several different views on practical theology.
The Catholic Counter-Reformation scholastics focused on defending the doctrines that were solidified at the Council of Trent, which centered around the church’s authority, the importance of the sacraments to get God’s grace, and the importance of tradition. They drew heavily upon Aquinas’ writings because of how thoroughly he addressed the relevant issues at the time of the Reformation.
Perhaps the Counter-Reformation scholastic with the greatest influence on modern Christianity is Luis de Molina, who developed the theory of Molinism. Molinism is the idea that God has middle knowledge, can see all possible choices of his creation, and chooses to bring about the world that brings him the most glory. This theory has regained popularity in the last few decades, with people like William Lane Craig popularizing it to reconcile God’s sovereignty and human free will.
Meanwhile, Reformed scholastics tried to apply scholastic rigor and philosophy to their ideas as outlined in the works of John Calvin and his successor, Theodore Beza, considered the father of Reformed scholasticism. Their main desire was to systematize Reformed Theology and to engage with people who disagreed with their views. Reformed scholasticism flourished in early seventeenth-century universities throughout the Netherlands. They engaged in many debates about God’s election and what that looks like. They were actively debating with the Counter-reformation theologians.
Other Protestants saw scholasticism as having little practical value. They developed the following question to mock medieval scholasticism: “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” There is no evidence for this question actually being debated. However, it underscores how pedantic the scholastics could be to describe and encapsulate the faith as best they could.
Why is Scholasticism Important For Believers Today?
Scholasticism benefits us today because it helps us understand more of who God is. Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, for example, is a great work about who God is. His work on the Trinity is some of the most in-depth and helpful works on the subject. While most Christians don’t need to read his works, we can benefit from learning his main ideas about God.
Scholasticism also helps us understand why Roman Catholics take some particular views. Aristotle’s influence particularly shows in their view of the Eucharist (communion). In their view, the substance of bread and wine does not change, but the essence transforms into the body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation).
Scholasticism’s views of God are helpful for us today because they enable us to understand with more clarity how the Trinity operates and how the members of the Trinity interact.
Dan Graves’ Bibliography:
Edwards, Paul, editor. Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Macmillan and the Free Press, 1967.
Turner, William. “Alexander of Hales.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1907.
Various encyclopedia and internet articles.
Photo Credit: © Getty Images/Volodymyr Zakharov
Ben Reichert works with college students in New Zealand. He graduated from Iowa State in 2019 with degrees in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, and agronomy. He is passionate about church history, theology, and having people walk with Jesus. When not working or writing you can find him running or hiking in the beautiful New Zealand Bush.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
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