Out of the medieval darkness: The REAL story of medieval theology


English: Illustration of the spherical earth i...

English: Illustration of the spherical earth in a medieval manuscript. The figure shows two men walking around the spherical earth, one going to the East and the other to the West, and meeting on the opposite side. O. H. Prior, ed., L’image du monde de maitre Gossuin, (Lausanne & Paris: Librarie Payot & C ie , 1913), pp. 93-4. 14th century copy of a 12th century original (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

OK folks, still at it: the “theology chapter” of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis is nearly done. Having introduced it with clips from my introduction of the “modern problem” which I hope this chapter can help address and my two-part review of Lewis’s relationship to philosophy and theology (of the modern and medieval varieties), the time has come to jump into the medieval material. Here is the “medieval introduction,” which finds that it must clear away some stereotypes before positing the “four balances” that medieval theology maintained – from which we can learn much today.

I. Medieval faith in reason? Surely not!

Possibly the number one reason many (I hope not most!) modern Protestant Christians will not give this book the time of day is that they assume medieval people were ignorant haters of scientific knowledge who believed in a flat earth and were sitting around waiting for the Enlightenment to happen so they could finally crawl out of the darkness and into the clear light of reason.[1]

It’s a shame we have to do this, but in order to get back to the brilliance of medieval theology, we first have to overcome the stereotype that medieval people were, well, stupid. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

One source of such nonsense today is a misbegotten (and top-selling – according to Amazon sales rankings) book by one William Manchester called A World Lit Only By Fire. Manchester is a historian, but he works way out of his field here.[2] And that is the most charitable reason I can think of for his straight-faced argument that even in Columbus’s time, and throughout the Middle Ages, people actually believed the world was flat. Historian of science (and editor of the 8-volume Cambridge History of Science) David Lindberg says “nonsense.”[3]

Manchester’s story goes that before Columbus, Europeans believed nearly unanimously in a flat earth—a belief allegedly drawn from certain biblical statements and enforced by the medieval church. This myth, according to Lindberg, seems to have had an eighteenth-century origin, elaborated and popularized by Washington Irving, who flagrantly fabricated evidence for it in his four-volume history of Columbus. It was then picked up and widely disseminated in 20th-century America by the notoriously anti-Christian president of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White (dates), and others.

The truth is that it’s almost impossible to find an educated person after Aristotle (d. 322 B.C.) who doubts that the earth is a sphere. In the Middle Ages, you couldn’t emerge from any kind of higher education, whether in a cathedral school or in a university, without being perfectly clear about the earth’s sphericity and even its approximate circumference.

This case alone should raise the alarm: for their own reasons, the “philosophes” of the Enlightenment era, and many academics since then, have made hay with the stereotype of medieval ignorance. That doesn’t make it true, as we will see.

II. On the contrary, medievals had a high regard for reason

For medievals, as for the early church, reason is the image of God in us – His greatest gift to us. Discovering how best to employ it is an important part of our stewardship as those given dominion over creation. To take just one piece of evidence for this, how about the Christian conversion of such philosophers as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria? As Jaroslav Pelikan put it, “When the Christian gospel came into the world, it succeeded in converting the most rational of men, the Greek philosophers, to its message; this was proof that the gospel was not to be dismissed as irrationality and ‘insanity’.”[4]

The church had always taught that we are made in the image of God, and it had seen this “imageness” (as David N. Bell puts it in his delightful romp through medieval Christian thought, Many Mansions) as primarily residing in human rationality. I confess that if I had read Bell and understood this as a young adult, it would have saved me a lot of misery. I spent years struggling over the question of whether the disciplines of the mind, such as are practiced in the university, can be of any service whatsoever to the church. Bell, channeling the church fathers, gives this resounding answer:

“If we are images of God, and if God is eternal, it follows that we cannot be images of God in our physical and corruptible flesh since flesh is not eternal. But if our flesh is not eternal, what is? The answer is obvious: our soul. The soul, however, was believed to have more than one part. The lower part served to animate the body and enabled it to move around. That is something we share with the animals. But the higher part enabled us to think rationally and comprehend abstractions, and that is something we share only with the angels and God. The church therefore maintained that human beings are images of God in the higher, rational part of the soul, and that reason is the greatest natural gift we have.”

Probably the most complete modern demolishment of the myth of medieval ignorance is Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason, in which he shows that neither science nor the rise of capitalism would have happened without the medieval Christian commitment to reason. We will return to that fuller argument when we consider “Word and world” later in this chapter. What’s important here relates to Stark’s argument that among world religions, only the Christians centered their religious thought in reason, developing a “theology,” properly so-called. “Theology necessitates an image of God as a conscious, rational, supernatural being of unlimited power and scope who cares about humans and imposes moral codes and responsibilities upon them, thereby generating serious intellectual questions such as: Why does God allow us to sin? Does the Sixth Commandment prohibit war? When does an infant acquire a soul?”[Stark, 5]

This development of a full-blown theology did not take place, Stark argues, among the Buddhists or the Muslims, or even the Jews. The latter two groups had this same God, but, he claims, were more focused on orthopraxis (law and behavior) than orthodoxy (belief and understanding). Not being a scholar of comparative religion, I won’t die on that hill, but the comparison is not necessary in order to make the point, and the high valuation of reason in early and medieval Christianity is patently clear to anyone who studies those periods of church history. If you are interested in knowing more about it, check out Chapter 1 of Stark’s book: “Blessings of rational theology.”

Because medieval Christians valued reason highly, seeing it as the image of God in humankind, they concluded that such an amazing gift must be given for a purpose. In Bell’s words, “It is not to be squandered or neglected, but used appropriately in the service of the Giver . . .” (Bell, 83) And so they set out to understand God, themselves, and their world in rational terms. And since reason was God’s gift, they used it with great passion and thoroughness.

III. But not reason “bare,” logic-chopping, angels on pins

Of course, since there were aspects especially of God that seemed beyond reason – the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Resurrection are just three – tension and controversy also arose. From the second century through the medieval period, and especially once the scholastic movement had begun in the 12th century, faithful Christians argued about how much of a role reason should be given—a discussion still going on today.

One thing became clear early on in this history of Christian thought, however. Good theology could not be done with reason alone, in the mode of pure abstraction and logic-chopping. Put in positive terms, this meant that reason and faith, logic and love must be held together. To separate them, the church fathers agreed, was to court heresy.

IV. The four balances of medieval theology introduced

In fact, I will argue in this chapter that there are four polar pairs that we too often separate today, and that the medievals tried valiantly (if not always successfully) to keep together. My principal burden here is that we have a lot to learn from that effort. To get faith and reason out of balance is to veer into either obscurantist fideism (“faith-ism”) or some intellectual substitute for Christian faith. To get love and logic out of balance is . . . well, I’ve already said in this chapter, evangelicals have fallen off one side of this wall today, to our detriment. To get religion and science out of balance is to veer into anti-intellectualism on the one hand or a liberal “demythologized” faith on the other. And getting Word and world out of balance leads either to cultural irrelevance or cultural captivity. The synthesis of the medieval scholastics, as we’ll see, represents the most breathtaking – and fruitful – attempt in history to keep all of these things together.


[1] The number two reason is quite probably that they assume medieval Christianity was not real Christianity at all, because it taught “works righteousness” or some such nonsense. Even a cursory glance at the most influential theologian of the whole period, Augustine, proves this canard false. When Luther taught “salvation by grace through faith,” he was drawing directly from Augustine – against some of the great North African’s heirs – a decided minority – who had gotten their heads screwed on wrong and were allowing human effort a salvific role.

[2] Yes I know. So am I in this book. Caveat emptor, I suppose. But I like to think I’ve done my homework better than Manchester! Posterity will judge . . .

[3] David Lindberg, “Christian History Interview: Natural Adversaries?” In Christian History 76: The Christian Face of the Scientific Revolution, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/2002/issue76/17.44.html.

[4] Pelikan, Medieval volume: Q, 257

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One response to “Out of the medieval darkness: The REAL story of medieval theology

  1. Pingback: A Baptist Pietist University Gets Medieval | The Pietist Schoolman

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