Tag Archives: faith and reason

Medieval scholastics’ use of Scripture: Explaining what can be explained, but no more


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I was asked a little while back to provide a blog post for the American Bible Society, related to the new Medieval Wisdom book. It’s taken a while to come up with something appropriate for the ABS, but I think this will serve the purpose:

 

The scholastic theologians of the 12th and 13th centuries brought together faith and reason, love and logic, religion and science, and Word and world in a breathtaking synthesis that delved deep into the Bible for wisdom about our life with God. Their efforts and the understanding that came from them birthed such cultural institutions as the university, the research laboratory, and even the hospital. The great engine driving early and medieval Christians’ search for theological truth about God and the world was not idle or sterile intellectual curiosity but rather the desire to know how to live in the light of the Creator God’s love for his creation.

. . .

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 David N. Bell’s words, “It is not to be squandered or neglected, but used appropriately in the service of the Giver.” And so they set out to understand God, themselves, and their world in rational terms. More than this: since reason was understood as our surpassing gift from God, the medievals used it as one would any treasured instrument (think of a Stradivarius violin): with great passion, care, and discipline.

But this is not the end of the story about how medieval thinkers viewed and used reason. Since certain aspects of God seemed beyond reason — the Trinity, the incarnation, and the resurrection are just three — tension and controversy also arose. From the second century through the medieval period, and more urgently once the scholastic movement began in the twelfth century, faithful Christians argued about how much of a role reason should be given. One thing became clear early on. Good theology could not be done with reason alone, in the realm 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 was to court heresy, as the church fathers had insisted.

. . .

Shortly before the opening of the medieval era, in 451 A.D., at Chalcedon in Asia Minor, one of the few councils accepted as authoritative today by all three major confessions of Christianity formulated its famous “four fences.” In a simple yet profound statement, that gathered group of teaching pastors (“bishops”) insisted that Christians are bound to speak of Jesus as “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.”

These four fences— the “withouts”— preserve the mystery of the relationship of Christ’s human and divine natures. By them, the Chalcedonian pastors were claiming only that Scripture does not support a confusion, change, division, or separation between Christ’s two natures (and each of those errors, through over-rationalizing the Scripture account in one direction or another, was actually taught by one party or another at the time). The pastors were not trying to define rationally the precise nature of the relationship between the two natures, for that would be to attempt to penetrate where scripture revelation has not spoken.

Thus the Council at Chalcedon preserved a paradoxical tension beyond reason, which says a thing (Jesus) can be both 100 percent one thing (divine) and 100 percent another thing (human). Of course, in the realms of mathematics, logic, or physics, this statement is impossible. But harnessing reason in service of faith, the gathered pastors specified only as far as they felt Scriptural revelation allowed – and no further.

. . .

ATONEMENT

Centuries later, the scholastic theologians applied reason to faith in the same cautious manner – not to make too clear that which God has made obscure, but to do our best to understand the things of God without doing violence to their sometimes irreducibly puzzling or paradoxical nature.

One powerful example of this reason-protecting-mystery dynamic comes from the teachings of a thinker some call the “father of scholastic theology,” Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033 – 1109) – in particular, his reasoned explanation of the bloody scandal that was the crucifixion.

If you’re a thoughtful Christian — or a thoughtful non-Christian considering the claims of the Christian faith — then you’ve likely wondered about this yourself. This is maybe an even harder nut to crack than the paradox of Christ’s simultaneous identity as both fully human and fully divine. It may in fact be the greatest paradox imaginable.

What the Bible teaches about the atonement for humanity that the Second Person of the Trinity accomplished through dying at humans’ hands is not just incongruous – Why would an all-powerful God choose to redeem his human creatures in such a bloody and ignominious way? No, it is far worse than that, logically speaking. Because what the story of the crucifixion claims is this: that the divine being God, the only being who fully owns his own being eternally, not owing it to any parent or creator in time, entered the stream of time, lived within time, and then ceased, as all time-bound creatures do, to exist (at least, on earth as a creature).

Anselm’s Explanation

Anselm, a master of dialectic – that is, the rational investigation of disputed opinions – presented his elegant argument in his still influential Cur Deus Homo (“Why the God-man?”). In the mode of reverent “faith seeking understanding,” he asked this same question, “Why should we credit this story of atonement, in which the eternal maker of all things undergoes a typically bloody, painful human birth in a dirty, cold stable; lives a difficult, sporadically persecuted life; and finally allows himself to be subjected to an extra-legal proceeding, be declared a criminal, be nailed to a cross, and die? Couldn’t God have achieved our redemption in a less implausible, not to say illogical, way?”

Anselm does not make the story rationally consistent by cutting off some part of the revelation – by doing, that is, the sort of thing the early heretics did in order to get rid of the tension between God’s perfect divinity and his abject death. Anselm doesn’t solve the conundrum by saying, “Well, God didn’t really die because he never had a really human body, only the appearance of one,” which is an explanation that some had tried to give early on (the Docetist heresy). Nor does Anselm veer to the other possible explanation, “Well, somebody did die, but it was someone who was less than God: the very special man Jesus” (the Arian heresy).

Instead, Anselm reasons from the structures of social understanding around him; he seeks in those cultural materials an explanation that will satisfy his hearers without destroying the mystery. The explanation he hits upon is that God’s honor, like that of a feudal king, has been offended and diminished by the (original) sin of his human subjects and that this terrible transgression must be addressed through some act of “satisfaction” that restores the honor of the king. While avoiding resolving the mystery toward Docetism or Arianism, Anselm retains it and explains it through the reasonable cultural metaphor of “satisfaction,” working out the mystery in elegantly logical language so that people of his age can understand it.

Anselm’s explanations of the atonement does no violence to the central mystery, which is that the undying, fully divine God died. The biblical paradox is not disposed of. Just as the Chalcedonian Definition uses reason to retain the paradox of the two natures of Christ and the doctrine of transubstantiation uses reason to retain the paradox of bread and wine that is also Christ, Anselm has used reason to retain the Scriptural paradox of the God-man who dies, while asking how we can understand, at least in part, what God is doing through the atonement of Christ.

What can we learn about how to approach Scripture from the examples of Chalcedon and Anselm? Of course neither Chalcedon’s statement on the two natures of Christ nor Anselm’s on the atonement is the “last word” on the subject. Soon after Anselm came Peter Abelard, with another (but also Scripturally based) explanation of the atonement that took as its central metaphor, not the correction of a slight to a feudal Lord’s honor, but the compassionate action of a grieving father willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for his children, so that they would be emotionally impacted by their father’s sacrifice and return to him (such a story as we find in the parable of the Prodigal Son). And when John Calvin, centuries later, returned to Anselm, he reworked some of his ideas for his own time, in a penal substitutionary theory that seemed less feudal and more purely biblical – and is still hugely influential in 21st-century Protestant preaching around the world.

What this suggests is that every new generation and every new culture needs to do its own careful, sensitive work of “reasoning with Scripture.” While doing so, we could do much worse than follow the example of the scholastic exegetes, who, themselves following the example of the fathers at Chalcedon, set out to explore what may be explored with the wonderful gift of reason, but insisted on doing so within the bounds of the irreducible mysteries presented in the pages of the Bible.

Interview on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog


medieval wisdom coverMany thanks to Scot McKnight for hosting Dave Moore’s interview with me on my new book, posted here today: at his Patheos.com blog. Patheos friend Kathleen Mulhern even featured the interview on the front page of www.patheos.com, which is “not chopped liver,” as they say–given that site’s millions of viewers monthly. It is tremendously gratifying to see folks picking this book up and engaging with it.

I also look forward to my visits to MacLaurinCSF at the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis-St Paul) and Tyndale House College & University (Toronto) this fall, and to Upper House at the University of Wisconsin, Madison next spring, to explore these themes with students. I guess I’m a real author now, what with “book tours” and all . . .

The book is out! So here’s a link to a whole website about it, and an interview clip introducing it . . .


So, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age, with C. S. Lewis is out, as of May 17th!

Check out www.medieval-wisdom.com (description, blurbs, first-chapter download, links to bookstores carrying it). Here’s the first of five clips from a video interview my publisher produced:

Incarnation and the theological task


Medieval_ThinkerAnother in the series of “mini-posts” that wraps up my series from the draft of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis:

Theology

Renewed attention to the Incarnation can also renew our passion for theology. Focusing devotionally on the world-changing entry of God into his own creation in human form also focuses our minds on how amazing God’s interactions with the world and humanity are. Bringing alive our reason, which is part of the precious image of God in us, we will begin to thirst again for knowledge of this active, present God. Theology, after all, is not the study of God in isolation from the world or humanity in isolation from God – it is the study of the interactions between God and humanity. And the Incarnation is the flabbergasting fact in the middle of that.

Word and World together – the lost synthesis of the medieval scholastics (from which science, capitalism, and Western culture were born)


Michelangelo-creationMoving to the Creation chapter, I find the themes of the nascent theology chapter “leaking over” into this topic. I am thus moving the “science and religion” and “Word and world” material from the latter to the former. Here is the bucket where I have currently put evidence from Lewis, Dante, Aquinas, Abelard, and others for the ways medieval thinkers brought together Word and World, Faith and Science. It still needs reorganizing and revising, but I like how this is shaping up:

Word and world

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 observed, “Marcus Aurelius wished that men would love the universe as a man can love his own city. I believe that something like this was really possible in the [Middle Ages].”[1a]

Before Lewis (and influencing him), 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 (a constant theme in his “Father Brown” stories, for instance). Lewis’s friend Dorothy Sayers carried this onward, explaining the medieval (Thomist) synthesis of knowledge through essays and her brilliant notes on Dante’s Comedy describing the ruling “images” operative in every book and canto of that poem.

As we have seen, scholasticism was clearly a response to a new, naturalistic worldview that was becoming dominant in their culture. “Recognizing as we must the imperfections and the unfinished business of the medieval achievement, we should also acknowledge that it [Scholasticism] was the most daring constructive attempt in the Church’s history to think of grace and nature, faith and reason, Christianity and culture, God and his creation, in terms that would neither separate nor confuse them [note the direct parallel to the language of the Chalcedonian Definition!], neither strip God of his sovereignty nor do violence to the integrity of his creatures. In other words, scholastic theology and philosophy are, at the very least, a noble effort to face the abiding problems raised by the correlation of Christian faith in God, Creator and Redeemer, with man’s knowledge of himself and his world.”[1b] Continue reading

Faith VS. reason: A too-convenient modern story about medieval monks vs. scholars


council at sens at which Bernard accused Abelard

Council of Sens, 1140, at which Bernard of Clairvaux had Peter Abelard’s doctrine condemned

One more snippet on theology from  my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Here’s a cardinal truth about reading history: just because you hear a story again and again doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact, it may indicate that a legend has taken on the aura of truth and is no longer being examined. That’s something like what I think has happened in the common “monasticism vs scholasticism” narrative you will often see in textbooks and hear in classrooms:

The “warfare thesis” projected backward

Now there is a modern scholarly narrative about scholasticism that you may have run across – it still seems quite popular. That narrative takes the politicized struggle between two strong personalities—Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard—and derives from it a thesis about the relationship between monastic and scholastic thinking: that the world of medieval theology was divided into obscurantist, fideist monastics who were afraid of using reason and dialectic and wanted to protect mystery, and intelligent, rational scholastics who didn’t care which sacred cows they slaughtered en route to a more “systematic” theology. In this story, Bernard of Clairvaux leads the charge against logic as the arch-monastic, and Abelard stands as the champion of logic and systematization. Continue reading

What even Protestants can learn from transubstantiation and medieval atonement theory – you may be surprised!


In my previous post, I showed how the essence of heresy is to resolve a biblical paradox in one direction or the other in order to satisfy the human need for a consistent rational explanation of things; and how the early church, on the contrary, used reason not to resolve or dismiss paradox and mystery, but rather to protect it. Examples included the writings of Irenaeus, Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa against heresy (protecting the essentially paradoxical nature of the whole Gospel message), and the “four fences” of the Chalcedonian Definition (protecting the paradox that Jesus was both fully God and fully human).

Now we move to the medieval period for two more examples of this use of reason to protect, rather than resolve or dismiss, the paradox and mystery at the heart of Christian theology – that is, the Incarnation.

The first example is the doctrine of transubstantiation, promulgated at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. This explanation of how the Eucharist “works” extends the Chalcedonian explanation that one person (Christ) can indeed be both 100% God and 100% human, to a nuanced piece of (Aristotelian) scientific reasoning on how the same sort of “this and also that” reality can be true of the Eucharistic elements. In other words, transubstantiation tried to explain, in terms accessible to scientific reason, how Jesus’ words “This is my body, this is my blood” can possibly be true.

The second example comes from the teachings of Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard, both of whom we’ve already met, and looks at their reasoned explanations of the bloody scandal that was the Crucifixion. Why on earth would God have to redeem his human creatures in such a bizarre and painful way? If you’re a thoughtful Christian or a thoughtful non-Christian considering the claims of the Christian faith, then you’ve likely wondered this yourself. Again, Anselm and Abelard used forms of reasoned explanation that made good sense in their cultural contexts to explain this paradox: God died.

In other words, the divine Being who “has His own being in Himself” ceased, as all creatures do, to be! Anselm and Abelard, both brilliant dialecticians, both refused to use reason (in the mode of the early heretics) to flatten this paradox in one direction (Jesus was not really human and thus God did not really die–the docetist heresy) or the other (Jesus was not really God, and thus God did not really die–the Arian heresy). Instead, each used cultural materials to protect that central mystery while offering reasonable explanations for why the God the Second Person of the Trinity found it necessary to die on the cross–the ultimate Being submitting, however temporarily, to death, just like a sinful human.

Here’s how I work all of this out in the “theology chapter” of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis: Continue reading