A few illuminating glimpses into medieval theology and theologians–thank you, David Bell


All of the following come from David N. Bell, Many Mansions: An Introduction to the Development and Diversity of Medieval Theology (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1996). This is a splendid book–a sort of sequel to Bell’s Cloud of Witnesses, on early Christian thought.

Many thanks to my t.a., Shane Moe, for transcribing these. In each case, the page number of the quotation appears at the beginning of the line. The quirk of lowercasing adjectival forms of proper nouns is Bell’s or his editors–not mine:

[For more “glimpses,” from Jaroslav Pelikan, see here.]

(20): [re: Major developments in European intellectual history from 6th century onwards] There are five mile-stones to mark our way: (i) the pontificate of Gregory the Great from 590 to 604; (ii) the Carolingian Renaissance of the late eighth and ninth centuries; (iii) the papal reform movements of the eleventh century; (iv) the renaissance of the twelfth century; and (v) the rise of scholasticism and the universities in the thirteenth century.

(77): “Once the universities became established, franciscan professors were the rule rather than the exception. Francis himself would never have approved, but Francis was dead.”

Use (79): [The preaching Orders such as the Franciscans and Dominicans] manifested a devotion to the dispossessed that was often lacking in the members of the other Orders.

(89): she [Heloise] gave birth to a son to whom Abelard gave the extraordinary name of Astrolabe.

(90): Abelard is a strange and inconsistent character, impossible, I think, to assess. He was devout, arrogant, chaste, passionate, intolerant, kind, a superb logician, and wonderful with words. He loved to criticize, abut hated criticism. His students adored him, but students tend to love flashy and iconoclastic lecturers. Much of his trouble he brought upon himself, and although he may have been guiltless of the heretical views of which he was accused, one cannot blame his opponents for accusing him. His language and terminology were sometimes dangerous, sometimes foolhardy, and if he was misunderstood, he was misunderstood with good reason.

(94): [discussing Abelard and the scholastic perspective] Human reason, the greatest of God’s gifts to humankind, was given to us to be used, and to refuse to use it is blasphemous.

(102): Aristotle, however [despite the favorable views of philosophy among Christian thinkers in the medieval period], was not always regarded in particularly favorable light. The main philosophical foundations of the early church had been platonic, not Aristotelian, and in general the early Christian fathers regarded Plato and Aristotle as diametrically opposed. Plato was seen as the idealist, seeking the source and meaning of all things in God; Aristotle was seen as the materialist, the proto-scientist, looking for meaning in things themselves. Plato, they thought, always looked upwards; Aristotle always looked outwards; For Aristotle sense-experience was everything, and all could be explained in rational and materialistic terms. Furthermore, as we noted in Chapter 1, Aristotle’s investigations in the various sciences had, in a sense, diminished the role of the Creator, for things which hitherto had been believed to be of divine origin were now thought to occur in accordance with natural laws. All in all, then, Aristotle was a temptation and a danger. He offered more to human reason than it had ever been offered before, but in so doing he tempted reason beyond its proper limits.

(139, on late medieval nominalism and realism): The history of the dispute between the rival supporters of these two positions is extraordinarily complicated, but the essential difference between the two views is not difficult to understand. Let us begin with three triangles: … Each of these triangles is of a different size and different area, yet we recognize all three as triangles. How? Because all three share something in common, something we might call ‘triangularity’. But just what is ‘triangularity’? Is it an abstract concept that has no real existence outside our own minds? Is it simply a convenient word or term that we use to describe a certain shape? If you agree with this, you are a Nominalist, someone who believes that such concepts as ‘triangularity’ or ‘dog-ness’ or human-ness’ or ‘square-ness’ are no more than names (nomina, in Latin) and that they do not have a real existence outside our own minds. I suspect that most people today are Nominalists.

There were others, however, especially Platonists, who disagreed with this. For them, ‘triangularity’ or ‘dog-ness’ had a real existence apart from individual triangles and dogs, and we therefore refer to this group as the Realists. But what sort of real existence are we talking about? We obviously cannot pick up ‘triangularity’ and put it in our pocket. We cannot collect ‘dog-ness’ and ‘human-ness’ and ‘square-ness’ and stick them in a book like stamps. Of course not. But that is not to say that they do not exist. They exist, said the Realists, in the mind of God, the Divine Mind, and it is because our soul has a point of contact with this high level that we can recognize triangles when we see them and realize that a giant wolfhound and a tiny Chihuahua are both dogs. For the Realists, we are not creating ‘triangularity’, we are recognizing it, and in this, the Realists were, in general, echoing the view of most of the early fathers.

Use (143): To understand it [Sabellianism], we need only consider the actions of any human being: a woman may act as a mother (when she is with her daughter), as a daughter (when she is with her mother), and as a doctor (when she is at work). But there are not three distinct persons here, nor are the modes of activity limited to three. The same woman may also act as a granddaughter, as a teacher, as a customer in a shop, and so on. But if we apply this idea to the Trinity, we are obviously in trouble: just as the one woman is not three distinct persons, neither is the one God. Abelard appeared to be leaning towards this concept and therefore seemed to be guilty of heresy on two counts: not only was he saying that the three persons of the Trinity were not equally powerful, equally wise, and equally good, but he was also transforming them into mere qualities or attributes of God.

(148): [Following discussion of Gilbert of Poitiers’ and Roscelin’s attempts to explain the Trinity] We see, then, that purely logical approaches to the Trinity often lead to disaster.

(151): Reason provides instruction to love, and love illumines reason.

(152): Without reason, love sees its object dimly and indistinctly; without love, reason in sterile and fruitless.

(152): [Following discussion of Williams’ belief that Roscelin, Abelard, and Gilbert were trying to transcend reason with reason and failed because any attempt to accomplish this is bound for failure and, if sustained, for heresy] To what extent this is true is another question. It has become fashionable in recent years to draw a stark contrast between ‘monastic’ theology and ‘scholastic’ theology, the former reflecting the ideas and ideals of the contemplative life, the latter those of the active life. Monastic theology, we are told, bases itself on the Bible and the fathers, and its keywords are faith and experience. Scholastic theology bases itself on Plato, Aristotle, and the liberal arts, and its keywords are reason and logic. The contrast is convenient, but misleading. There is a difference between the two, but before the time of Thomas Aquinas it was a difference in degree, not in kind. Both monks and schoolmen recognized the authority of the Scriptures and the fathers, and although it is true that they approached the same texts in different ways, the difference lay only in emphasis. The schoolmen no more rejected faith than the monks rejected logic, and neither Abelard nor Gilbert had the slightest desire to substitute human reason for the church’s authority.

(158, Pseudo-Dionysius on the divine perfection and attributes): Here is the domain of square circles and white blackness, of not-good goodness and super-living life. God is beyond the concepts of mind and soul. In him there is no imagination, no opinion, nor even understanding as we can understand it. He cannot be described, cannot be comprehended, cannot be conceived. In him there is neither number nor order nor greatness nor smallness nor equality nor inequality nor similarity nor dissimilarity. He does not move, does not stand still. He is not life nor light nor darkness nor truth nor falsehood nor substance nor eternity nor time. We cannot name him or know him.

“We may never affirm or negate anything of him, for although we may affirm or negate things apart from him, him we neither affirm nor negate. For the perfect and single cause of all things is beyond all affirmation, and the simple pre-eminence of his Absoluteness is above every negation and beyond all things.”

And so, says Pseudo-Dionysius, since none of our concepts can ever encompass a God who is unknowable and beyond concepts, we must know him through unknowing. Our human understanding must withdraw back into itself, cast off all that it thinks it knows—even its knowledge of the Divine Names—and aim to achieve a mystical union with God which, in ecstatic rapture, will provide it with an extra-conceptual knowledge of him in what Pseudo-Dionysius calls ‘the dazzling darkness of the silence of hidden mystery’.

(159, on Pseudo-Dionysius): “It may be true that the Deity is ultimately unknowable in conceptual terms, but this does not mean we cannot know him.”

(162): “The real impact of greek philosophical thought was to be seen not in the byzantine empire, but in the muslim world and the latin west. We therefore get the odd situation that in many ways the latin Aquinas was more greek than any Greek after John Italos [11th-c. Byzantine philosopher]!”

(167): “…the purpose of asceticism is to reduce our love of self and increase our love of God.”

(223, John of Damascus and the eastern  tradition on the work of Christ): “The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ—and also the coming of the Holy Spirit—were to be seen as a unity, and the work of Christ cannot and must not be reduced to some sort of legalistic exchange.”

(248): [Regarding life through Mary vs. death through Eve] In the west, this saving work of Mary could be encapsulated very neatly in a pun. In Latin, Eve is Eva. What happens if we reverse the letters of Eva? We get Ave, the first word spoken by Gabriel in his salutation to the virgin. Ave, gratia plena, ‘Hail, full of grace’ (Lk 1:28). Mary, therefore, has reversed the work Eve and, through her perfect obedience, has cooperated with her Son in the work of redemption.

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