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Reason and Faith: Medieval Scholasticism

Stuart Lange

How reasonable is Christian faith? How reasonable is what the Bible reveals about God? Does reason undermine faith, or assist it? Does faith build on reason, or transcend it?

Questions about the varying place of reason, divine revelation and faith have always been asked, from the New Testament onwards. Such questions were addressed by many of the early church thinkers, not least Augustine. Then, in medieval times, in the movements of philosophical and theological thought collectively known as ‘scholasticism’, issues of faith and reason again became prominent.

Scholasticism reflected the flowering of medieval western thought during the three centuries from about 1200 to 1500, a period in which the first western universities were being established. Christian scholars — most of them monks — were eager to reconcile philosophy and revelation, reason and faith. Many medieval ‘schoolmen’ were eager to demonstrate the reasonableness of Christian faith, and to articulate in detail the relationship of reason and revelation. There were attempts to construct systematic, comprehensive accounts of Christian truth: to build what one historian called ‘cathedrals of the mind’.

A key stimulus was the rediscovery (in the 13th century) of the classical Greek philosopher Aristotle, with his insistence on logic and classification. In imitation of Aristotle, medieval scholastics were almost obsessive in their attempts to describe, explain and classify every aspect of Christian truth — Duns Scotus, for instance, claimed that there are fifteen distinct senses of the word ‘reason’.

The complexity and abstruseness of scholastic definitions was a long way away from a simple Gospel, and was ridiculed by later critics such as the sixteenth century scholar, Erasmus. It is from this period that theologians acquired (mostly unjustly) a reputation for being the sort of people who would argue — uselessly — about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

The first theological giant of the scholastic period was the monk Anselm of Canterbury (c1033-1109). Originally from Italy, Anselm became Archbishop of Canterbury. For Anselm, revelation and reason are in harmony: both come from God, both point to God. He took a very positive view of the role of reason in understanding and formulating the faith.

Echoing Augustine, Anselm insisted that faith should precede reason: “I believe so that I may understand.” But he also asserted that God’s revelation — which gives us the content of Christian faith — is rational and coherent, and that faith is “perfected and completed by a rational study of the contents of revelation”.

He wrote: “I am not trying, Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for my understanding is not up to that. But I long in some measure to understand your truth, which my heart believes and understands. For I am not seeking to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order that I may understand. For this too I believe: that unless I believe, I shall not understand.”

Similarly, Anselm wrote: “the correct order is to believe the deep things of the Christian faith before undertaking to discuss them by reason. But we are negligent if, having come to a firm faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe.”

Like other scholastics, Anselm attempted logical proofs for the existence of God. He devised his famous ontological argument, which argued that since God is “that than which no greater can be thought” (the greatest conceivable being), God must exist, as to exist in mind only would be less perfect than to exist both in mind and reality. Anselm felt that his reasoning would be sufficient to persuade the ‘fool’ of Psalm 14:1 — but someone at once wrote a response titled “On Behalf of the Fool”!

Anselm also made a significant contribution to western thinking about the incarnation and atonement. In terms drawn not only from Scripture but also from his own feudal society, Anselm argued that God needed to make ‘satisfaction’ to pay the debt for sin. “And this debt was so great that, while it was man alone who owed it, none but God was able to pay it. So he who paid had to be both God and man. Thus it was necessary that God should unite humanity with his own person, so that man, who in his own nature owed the debt but could not pay it, might be able to do so in the person of God.”

Another key scholastic thinker was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). A Dominican friar, he lived most of his life as a scholar, teaching in the universities of Paris and Rome, and writing massive theological and apologetic works.

Aquinas was eager to show that reason and faith are not in opposition, and that human reason and philosophy (especially Aristotelian philosophy) can greatly help theology. Aquinas believed that much of our knowledge of God — including God’s existence, his love, wisdom and omnipotence, and also the immortality of the soul — can be derived from reason and the world. Out of such a ‘natural theology’, Aquinas offered no less than five proofs for the existence of God.

Some have argued that Aquinas ended up giving pride of place to the human mind rather than to the transcendent glory of God. Others have argued that Aquinas claimed far too much for the role of nature and reason, and that he seriously underplayed the indispensable role of both Christ and the Scriptures in revealing God.

But the heaviest criticism of Aquinas may be made in relation to his theology of salvation. Like other medieval scholastics, he seemed to hold too positive a view of humanity’s natural abilities to do good and to earn merit with God. There is no sense of humanity’s desperate plight — and correspondingly, Aquinas had what appears to be a weak doctrine of grace. For Aquinas, divine grace simply ‘perfects’ nature. He also saw grace as primarily what we receive through the sacraments of the church.

Other scholastic theologians expounded a similar understanding of human goodness and divine grace. William of Okham argued that we can merit God’s grace by doing our very best. His view developed into what was called the Via Moderna, which taught that if we do the good that is in us naturally, God will not deny us.

The Via Moderna was opposed by a minority of Augustinians, but it became the dominant medieval theology of salvation. Martin Luther (1483-1546) was to be brought up on it, and then react against it.

Scholastic theologians such as Anselm and Aquinas helpfully stressed the continuities between nature, reason and faith, and the reasonableness of revelation. But they may not have given sufficient attention to the discontinuities: the ways in which faith goes beyond reason, and the Scriptures cannot be fully explained. The scholastics may have underemphasised the unique importance of special revelation through Jesus Christ and the word of God. They appeared to have laid little emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing conviction and faith.

Anselm and Aquinas did not have it all their own way. Other scholastics attempted to drive a wedge between reason and faith. Duns Scotus and William of Okham, for instance, claimed revealed doctrines must be accepted by faith alone, rather than established by reason. They reflected the beginnings of a separation between philosophy and theology: a separation that was to be helpful to the 17th Century emergence of modern science, but also ultimately erosive of faith.

The medieval scholastics addressed perennial issues of reason and faith, in response to the challenges of their own context. As in our own age, they had mixed success. They helpfully emphasised the role of reason, but underemphasised faith.