How theology became the Queen of the Sciences (and how Aristotle helped us see that “all truth is God’s truth”)


Aristotle, wondering where the rest of his body went

Aristotle, wondering where the rest of his body went

You may know that there was some sort of general shift in the high medieval period (1000 – 1300) from a Platonic to an Aristotelian worldview. What you may not know is how deeply that affected the way Western Christians came to see God and the world. Here’s the skinny, in another clip from the “theology chapter” of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis.

Once again, this is a draft, and I’ve scattered through it, here and there, little clues for myself on how I might use and restructure this material as I moved toward a finished book – pardon our dust!

Aristotle’s re-discovery

Why was Aristotle so important to the development of scholasticism?

Basically, until the rediscovery of the body of his works in the 13th c., the prime philosophical influence on Christian thinkers in the West was Plato, via the neo-platonic thought of Augustine.


Rel/Sci: Plato had essentially been a mystic, and his philosophy had been based on the principle that ideas such as the True, the Beautiful and the Good had real existence, apart from the visible world. In fact, he believed that the passing forms of this visible world, which we know through our senses, are not a real source of knowledge. Only our reason, which leads us to know these changeless, universal patterns called ‘ideas,’ would give true knowledge. This position is also known as ‘realism,’ and is held by such early scholastics as Anselm—again, as he and others of his time had inherited it through Augustine.


SCI/REL:  Aristotle, on the other hand, was far less mystical than Plato. To him, the visible world is real. Ideas are not presupposed structures which exist somewhere “out there.” They exist as an integral part of the phenomena of the visible world. Therefore, the world is the prime object of knowledge for Aristotle. He is, in other words, a scientist. In fact, much of that part of his writings which were now rediscovered in 13th-c. Europe dealt with physics and biology. His philosophical position, known as “moderate realism,” came to be the accepted position of most scholastics from Abelard on.

The central issue of the scholastic philosophy was the nature of universals—that is, of broad, descriptive categories of things, such as genera and species. There were three positions on universals.

The first was that of the extreme realists. These philosophers included just about everyone in Europe up to the time of the scholastics, including early scholastics like Anselm. The extreme realists followed Plato in saying that universal categories had their own reality—that is, they existed apart from and antecedent to individual objects. For example, the genus “man” (humanity) both existed before, and determined the existence of, individual humans.[1]

Increasingly in the time of the scholastics, from Abelard on, this view was challenged by that of the moderate realists. Moderate realism followed Aristotle in saying that universals existed only in connection with individual objects. You can see how this is a view favorable to the development of science. Suddenly, it becomes important to come down from Plato’s philosophical “Ivory tower” and actually study the particulars of things, in order to discover the universals that were contained in them.

Ockham: A third view arose at the end of the scholastic period. This was the position of the nominalists, who said that universals in fact had no reality—they were only abstract names (think of the English word “nominal,” which means “in name only”) for resemblences of individuals, existing only in the human mind. This view was partially responsible for breaking up the scholastic synthesis between faith and science.

So, the new breed of Aristotelian moderate realists, with their increased attention to data-gathering and analysis (based on the belief that the “things” of the world, including the data of tradition and scripture, really can lead us to universal truths), sparked a new style of study: How do you go about discovering truth in any given area of enquiry, including theology? You amass data (natural, traditional, scriptural), and then you apply “scientific” and philosophical reason – not just cloistered mystical contemplation of universals according to the Platonic mode of the extreme realists. In this way, every topic of theology, from the nature of God, to the interpretation of God’s laws, to topics like the Trinity and the sacraments, becomes subject to detailed, rational study—under the assumption that the particulars of that study will lead to Truth.[2]

The rediscovery and its effects

Aristotle was rediscovered in the West in phases; in fact, the story of the rediscovery of Aristotle is almost itself the story of the development of scholasticism.

In the early Middle Ages, only Aristotle’s teachings on grammar and logic were known, and theology was limited more or less to patristic exegesis.

By Anselm’s time, the 12th c., Aristotle’s dialectic method of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is being used in theology, and we can talk about the beginnings of systematic theology. Still, in this second period, this dialectic method was used as a novel tool, without a real sense of how it fit with a worldview of the universe as a rational place explicable in terms of logical principles.

It was not until the 13th c. that this worldview began to come into play in theology, through the full rediscovery of all of Aristotle’s works, including his scientific and metaphysical works. The great power of his explanations of physics, in particular, caused a ‘rush’ within the church to respond.

The Prince of the School Men: Thomas Aquinas (1225? – 1274)

“Thomas Aquinas[‘s] breadth and lucidity, his orderly rationality and fair-mindedness, and his unshakeable allegiance to the tradition of the western church, have made him the repository of everything that was best in thirteenth-century western thought. . . . To men struggling with confusion he demonstrated the possibility of systematic and clear-cut theological statements. . . .”[3]

The greatest synthesizer of Aristotle and Augustine, and the greatest of the scholastics, was Thomas Aquinas.

A Dominican from the age of 19, this large, quiet man was known for a time as the “dumb ox.” There is in fact a biography of him by G. K. Chesterton under that title. Aquinas taught, in his later years, mainly in Paris, and his two great books are the Summa Contra Gentiles, a textbook for missionaries, defending Christianity agains the Muslims, and Summa Theologica, still the basis of much modern theology, especially Roman Catholic theology.

Love/logic: Like Anselm, Abelard, and Lombard, Aquinas was no dried-out intellectual. A powerfully warm, spiritual, pious man [as was Anselm – this combination of love and logic is not some sort of inexplicable anomaly: it tells us something important about medieval theology. That’s why this chapter is titled “a passion for theology”], he did indeed pioneer an advanced Christian philosophy, using a scholastic method, but he was far from relying on that method as the sole means of reaching God.

USE: Faith/reason: Aquinas’s approach was to say that faith completes reason, and reason upholds faith. He was convinced that for all reasonable people he could establish beyond reasonable doubt that God exists, is eternal, and has certain other attributes: this he attempted to establish in his “five proofs” of the existence of God, calling God the First Cause, the Prime Mover, and so forth. Through such proofs, a non-Christian could be led, Aquinas said, to the “vestibule of faith.”

However, he also said that “Scriptural revelation . . . contains things which are necessary to salvation and which could never be found out by reason alone.” These included the incarnation and the resurrection, which he felt are revealed only in Scripture and accepted only by faith.

SCI/REL: He believed with Aristotle that you could get real knowledge by studying the natural world and thinking things through. Yet, going beyond Aristotle, he also saw faith in Biblical revelation as a road to truth.

SCI/REL / WORD/WORLD:  Then, and this is where the idea of a “synthesis” between faith and reason comes into play, Aquinas asserted that because God is the origin of both nature and revelation, both reason and faith are from Him and cannot be in conflict with each other. In other words, all truth is God’s truth, and there is nothing to be feared from any amount of scientific study of the world or of human culture.

Aquinas’s significance

Aquinas was the great apologist to the intellectuals of his day. His great achievement was stating the relationship between reason and faith so that those who accepted Aristotle’s naturalistic philosophy could feel that they might consistently remain Christians.

[1] See Pieper, Scholasticism, 61

[2] “If a question like the ‘problem of universals’ plays a large part in the formation of scholasticism, it does so ultimately because the solution affects the philosophical approach to God, the interpretation of the divine law for man’s moral life, or the theological treatment of the Trinity, of man’s sin, of redemption, of the sacraments.” Fairweather, Scholastic Miscellany, 31

[3] R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Eerdmans, 1970), p. 80

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s