Tag Archives: Tradition

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


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.

. . .


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 . . .

How was C. S. Lewis influenced by the medieval era?

C S Lewis described himself as a “dinosaur” – a relic of the ancient and medieval past, stomping around in the modern world. In this last clip of an interview about my new book (which takes C S Lewis as its “docent” into the medieval world), I look at how this “medieval perspective” led Lewis to think differently – sacramentally, incarnationally – about the world around him.

Medieval wisdom and the case for tradition

It’s not easy to make the case for tradition among modern Christians – especially, perhaps, evangelicals. Why did modern Christians leave tradition behind? And why might we need it again?

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:

The Incarnation as the medieval “theory of everything”

Henry Ford, preparing to say "History is bunk!" Ah, if only he'd taken the Incarnation into account . . .

Henry Ford, preparing to say “History is bunk!” Ah, if only he’d taken the Incarnation into account . . .

Well, tomorrow morning I head, early in the morning, to Baltimore for the Evangelical Theological Society meeting and then to England to attend the dedication of the “C S Lewis stone” in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey. So today is the last “live” post from my book Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis. 

From here on in, it’ll be one final series of pre-programmed, pre-scheduled mini-posts for a week that run through all the themes of the book and show how they were underwritten by the medievals’ focus on the Incarnation.

Thanks for reading – and in a year(ish) from now, roughly Winter 2015, keep your eyes peeled for the actual published book from Baker Academic.

The Incarnation underwrites every facet of the medievals’ faith we have studied in this book: their high valuation of tradition, their passion for theology, their detailed and intentional morality, their compassionate ministry to bodies as well as souls, their understanding of the sacramental quality of the created world, their investment of emotion into their devotion to the Lord, and their willingness to discipline their bodies in service of that same devotion.

What would happen if we recaptured these medieval values?


By putting the “body” back into our understanding of Christ and his church, we would again see how fitting it is for us to study and value our own traditions. We would recapture the wisdom and truth in those traditions, while never separating this truth from the primary revelation of Scripture – as most medievals understood for most of the Middle Ages!

Tradition is nothing less than wisdom and truth passed down from generation to generation through history. How apt is this? Christianity is at its core not a list of timeless principles or abstract teachings. It is a uniquely a historical religion, based on a historical person and the words of two “Testaments” full of historical accounts.

Nineteenth-century liberal theologians liked to talk about the “essence of Christianity”—usually little more than “the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man”—that needed to be extricated from the centuries of errant doctrines and practices of a church that never seemed to get it right. (The problem with this approach, as a wit once observed, is that those nineteenth-century liberals, when they read Christian history, looked down the well of 19 centuries and saw their own faces at the bottom.) But there is no “essence” that is not clothed in history. Christianity is all about the Incarnation of God’s second person as a first-century Jew from Nazareth.

And naturally, then, the New Testament is, again, no philosophical book of abstract teachings, but rather a narrative of a life, a sacrifice, a resurrection—played out on the stage of history. And the Book of Acts and the Letters, following the model of the Old Testament’s “historic” books, just picks up the story from Easter. Tradition is the extension of the story beyond Acts – the continued faithful, often flawed attempt of the church to wrestle with its identity in Christ. When we in effect shout Henry Ford’s foolish jibe—“History is bunk!”—and throw aside the lessons of that history, we are cutting ourselves off at the knees spiritually, intellectually, practically.

Passion, tradition, and discipline: Medieval monks had all the tools necessary for spiritual mastery

girl playing violin_fullWe wonder today why we are spiritually anemic. We (Protestants in particular) acknowledge that the Catholic legacy of spiritual teaching is a strong and useful one (at least, setting aside all that flagellation stuff, anyhow. That’s a joke. See the footnote in this post). In this post from the monasticism chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, I begin to look at where that strength and usefulness came from:

Spiritual mastery requires passion, tradition, and discipline

It may help us to answer the question “Why monasticism?” if we consider ascetic self-denial as one species of a larger phenomenon: the drive to achieve mastery in any human enterprise. How do you master any skill? First, you need to have passionate commitment to the goal of mastery. Second, you need to study and learn practical knowledge handed down in a tradition. Third, you need to practice discipline—both in the sense of dedicating hours and hours to repetitive practice, and in the sense of implementing an often extended list of discrete “disciplines”—the particular repeated actions required by the craft.

Think of the progress of a young girl toward becoming a skilled violinist. First comes the passion: one day she hears a piece of music, and it pierces her heart with pure joy. At the beginning, she just wants to hear it again and again; then, to know how to make those beautiful sounds herself. And so she begins years of lessons and practice, giving herself to those two complementary means to mastery: studying a tradition (here, of musical knowledge) and practicing an askesis—a training or discipline. Continue reading