An Orthodox Take on Scholasticism

The most distinctive mark of the new academic theology, however, was its method.  Known as scholasticism, this approach to understanding departed significantly from the theology of the old Christendom.

The Age of Division: Christendom from the Great Schism to the Protestant Reformation, by John Strickland

In this post, we will get a consideration of the scholastics from the viewpoint of at least one Christian Orthodox scholar.  It might also help shed some light on how Orthodox Christians consider natural law, although this is not directly discussed by the author.

The West in the twelfth century would see the rise of the university system, with learning entrusted to a professional intellectual class.  This was a change from earlier practice, where learning was in the hands of bishops and monks.

Taking a lead would be the Dominicans and the Franciscans.  The Dominicans especially were charged with teaching against heresy.  Papal charters were the prerequisites for the universities, and great examples were to be found in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford.

Unlike the stereotype where the Church was said to stand in the way of science and learning, Pope Gregory IX issued a bull in 1231 in defense of scholarly autonomy, granting the University of Paris the right to establish its curricula free from interference by the bishops.

And here we come to scholasticism: instead of accepted tradition – that which is handed down – it subjected tradition to rigorous logical tests; it was assumed a higher understanding of faith would result.  It also risked a departure from tradition.

Strickland would point to Anselm of Canterbury as perhaps the first Latin doctor to turn on its head the idea that reason follows faith when it comes to the mystery of knowing God.  It came about during a controversy regarding the Eucharist.  Lanfanc, Anselm’s predecessor, would defend against the notion, offered by Berenger, that the consecrated bread could not also be the deified body of Christ in heaven.

Lanfanc would defend this using Aristotelian logic.  For the first time, two theologians would argue about a mystery purely in terms of grammar and dialectic.  Berenger would be forced to retract his views, and the document offered in conclusion had the effect of endorsing Aristotelian rationalism.

Strickland would comment on Anslem’s work, Proslogian:

…Anselm’s famous treaties was an effort at demonstrating the existence of God on purely rational grounds.  Not on a single page, not in a single sentence does the name of Jesus Christ ever appear.

A further example is given of Abelard and his work Yes and No, “a dialectical reflection on the Christian faith.”  Intended as an Aristotelian-styled intellectual exercise for his students, it encouraged a cerebral approach to theology.

Should this be as troubling to me as it appears to be for Strickland?  It is not.  No, I don’t think it is possible to climb to God from the bottom – completely through natural theology.  But there is and can be no disagreement between faith and reason, as God is the author of both.  God has given man the faculty of reason; is it not appropriate for man to use reason to explore and understand God?

Also, this verse comes to mind:

1 Peter 3: 15 But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.

The Greek word is apologian.  An apologia: a reason, a justification.  Perhaps, from the viewpoint of the Eastern Church, any attempt to intellectualize the Christian life and calling leads one away from the Christian life and calling.  For the purposes of this post and blog, this issue is secondary; I am focused on tracing the history, and in this specific post, perhaps getting a glimpse, indirectly, into the Orthodox view of Thomistic natural law.

Scholasticism was brought to the summit of its influence during the thirteenth century in the work of Thomas Aquinas.

At play was Thomas’s leaning on Aristotelian logic and reason.  Per Strickland, Thomas felt that “the Philosopher” (Aristotle), though pagan, gave “Christians a system of reasoning that illuminated and clarified the faith.”  Given the many factions that have developed in Christianity, certainly before Thomas’s time and especially since, any project that might clarify the faith should not, perhaps, be dismissed.

In one sense the work [Summa Theologica] represents a struggle against the divisive effects of scholasticism, which since the time of Anselm had pitted reason against faith.

Thomas recognized that there were some things revealed that were beyond the scope of reason – the Trinity and Incarnation, as two examples.  He did claim that the existence of God, as one example, could be discovered by reason.

It is suggested that scholasticism represented a step toward secularization, by relying on man’s reason.  Perhaps it is a step toward secularization, but what is man supposed to do with one of the two gifts (his soul, his reason…which may be the same gift) that make him different from all other creatures on earth?

Scholasticism was…a departure from the paradisiacal culture of the old Christendom.  In the West, mystical knowledge of God was being exchanged for a rationalistic knowledge about God.

I have written before: I find real value in both.  There are things I take from an Orthodox liturgy that are not available to me in a Protestant service, and vice versa.  I believe it is valuable that God has offered multiple ways to reach people who – due to temperament, character, etc. – favor different paths.

There follows a discussion of hesychasm, “an approach to the knowledge of God centered on prayer rather than reasoning,” thereby contrasting the East from the new, scholastic West.  Yet, despite earlier acknowledging that Thomas recognized that there was much about faith that could not be derived from man’s reason alone, Strickland continues to offer further statements as if this distinction is black and white.

Further, Strickland offers that living this hesychastic way of life incorporated the whole man – mind and body.  Citing Meyendorff:

The whole man, body and soul was created in the image of God and the whole man is called to divine glory.

The whole man includes the mind, does it not?  But what is the mind to be used for, if it is to be stripped of reason?

Conclusion

Throughout this section of the book (as in others), Strickland offers that Augustine’s two cities have taken Christendom away from where it should be – in Eusebius’s symphony.  Yet, even now, there is inconsistency in Strickland’s reasoning.  Citing Markarios:

Christians live in a different world.  They have a table that belongs to them alone, a delight, a communion, a way of thinking uniquely theirs.  That is why they are the strongest of men.

Isn’t this Augustine’s two cities, just in different words?

Look, I get that this understanding and parsing of Christianity is hard – and on some topics, impossible for the human mind.  But this is why I don’t get it when, other than at the extremes (Jesus is not divine, being one example), some Christians take issue with how other Christians come to the faith, grow in faith, practice the faith, understand the faith, etc.

It is a growing difficulty for me with this book.  But I am still finding value in the historical examination offered by the author.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.

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