Summary of chapter 4: An all-embracing passion for theological knowledge


In one sense, all of medieval theology was a series of footnotes on Augustine, who had insisted that knowledge begins with faith and faith provides a foundation for knowledge. During the high and late medieval periods, Augustine’s impulse blossomed, through thinkers such as Anselm of Canterbury and Abelard, into a full-blown scholastic theology. Scholasticism gets a bad rap (“Angels on the head of a pin” and such like), but the scholastic doctors were trying to make more intelligent and effective the loyalty to the Christian faith which had become nominal through the mass conversions of the earlier centuries. Indeed, they were actually beginning a democratization of the faith that bore fruit in the Reformation. Their use of reason in theology made knowledge of God accessible, not merely to the cloistered monk with his intense and constant mystical exercises, but to anyone able and willing to think.

Granted, few before the late medieval period had the literacy and training necessary to engage in much study. But in time, scholasticism and the university, abetted by an army of preaching, teaching friars, would make the faith alive to many people who had never seen the inside of a monastery, and would result in writings that would strengthen the faith of many more who had never seen a university. Scholasticism also offered a broadening of horizons and a deepening of relationship between man and God, because it not only engaged the inner faculty of reason in the study of God, but also sought to comprehend the whole sweep of human experience in a single system.

This was, I believe, what Lewis meant when he said that medievals loved the universe in something like the way we love our own nation, neighborhood, or home. Certainly Dante, upon reading Boethius and Aquinas and falling in love with “Lady Philosophy,” was also falling in love with a system of knowledge that comprised not only the standard theological loci, but the sciences as well (at this point, this chapter complements and refers back to chapter 2). G. K. Chesterton picked up the scholastic torch as he spent his career insisting that Christianity was, far from an obscurantist opiate of the masses, actually the Most Reasonable Thing. Dorothy Sayers carried it onward, explaining the medieval (Thomist) synthesis of knowledge through essays and her brilliant notes on Dante’s Comedy.

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