Friday, August 6, 2021

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?


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.


  1. I think the Bible should be understood using reason. Otherwise, how can you really trust it? Using reason helps understand what is objectively true.

    Once you trust it and have an objective justification for doing so, it makes sense to approach the Bible subjectively, personally, devotionally, applicationally.

    I like you don't see what all the fuss is about. Now you have to make sure you don't follow reason to places that contradict scripture. That is where the Enlightenment was wrong and destructive. In throwing off the intellectual and moral constraints of the Bible, they lost an objective reason for believing anything. At least eventually. They tried to find objective truth through reason alone, failed, and then pursued irrationality usually in the form of emotion or fleshly desire.

    Where I think the scholastics were most correct was not in applying reason to faith claims in the Bible, but in using logic to explore what is true about the totality of existence. Use the Bible and its principles as a foundation and guard rail, and then take logical steps outward trying to understand things the Bible doesn't explicitly state, like how to maximize liberty in society for example.

    1. Where the scholastics went wrong was using Augustine as scripture, which led to convoluted theories to prove his false doctrines and later false doctrines built on his false doctrines. So original ingwrited sin, transubstantiation, Mary worship, etc. etc.

    2. Yeah. That would be a mistake. Only the Bible is infallible and a reliable basis for thought. Augustine says some good things but he was just a human like all of us.

  2. I can see how someone primarily concerned with the salvation of souls might think that looking beyond the beaten path, using reason or some other perspective, might be a waste of time at best and a danger at worst. It is the popular caricature of religion taught at the indoctrination camps after all.

    Putting all your philosophical/theological (and political) eggs in one basket, though, as appears to be the Orthodox way according to Strickland from what I'm getting from this commentary, seems like a sure recipe for failure, considering institutional decadence.

    It's easy to beat on the failing secular West today, but let's not forget that the Orthodox East failed earlier. And a good part of the reason why the West is in shambles today is the monomaniac religion of the State, which many nominal Christians subscribe to.

  3. First of all, sorry for disappearing from the other post; I had some health issues.

    But - and here I am arguing against what could be called "my side" - the Orientals have a point there. St. Thomas is wonderful (and yet he had a divine revelation before dying, which led him to say all his writings were mere "straw"!), but what was done to his work later was awful. Complex positions and great insights were transmogrified into dry and hyper-rationalistic versions, in the name of apologetics, in the notorious "manuals" for the formation of the clergy (which I collect, BTW). It got to a point wherein Faith seemed to become a kind of Haynes-manual cerebral thing instead of what Grace leads us to live. It was so far away from a proper mystical theology that it has easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater, with people almost-completely abandoning Thomist theology in the second half of the last Century, to the benefit of of the convoluted absurdities proferred by Teilhard de Chardin.

    I believe, BTW, that Pope Francis - with his emphasis on living the Faith, praying, avoiding the Devil's many traps, feeding the hungry, and so on - is the first Pontiff to avoid the trap of centering the life of Faith onto hair-splitting doctrinal studying, apologetics, etc. The Catechism is there for everybody to read, but Our Lord is naked and needs clothing, thirsty and need water, hungry and needs food. And the Devil is around like a lion looking for prey.

    So, in a very real way, the Council of Trent's "canonization" of Thomist theology was right and necessary, but it indeed led to the full rupture between the Western and the Eastern "lungs" of the Church. And it happenned just as (in "Church time: one century) things were starting to look like full reconciliation was tantalizingly close, with Laetentur Caeli and so on.

    1. "...but what was done to his work later was awful."

      From many different aspects and based on my reading, I agree.

      "... it has easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater..."

      I like the way you have put this - I have long thought that the good in Thomas was ignored by many for what they saw as bad (whether in him or in those that followed). Only one Teacher in history was perfect....

      Whatever can be said of Pope Francis, he has been divisive to the Church and he has been supportive of (and even an advocate for) the worst of the culture and life destroying policies of the elite.

      The Church's work should be done by the Church, and not through advocacy for the state to act and not via accepting state funding to do the Church's work. It is difficult enough for the Church to remain good, given fallen man; it is impossible when the Church walks arm in arm with the state. This is an issue not merely for the Catholic Church.

  4. Paul was willing to proclaim the Gospel appealing to general revelation, first, then to specific factual event that some of the "men of Athens" were not aware ... the resurrection. In the text, Jesus' name was not mentioned at the Areopagus.

    Acts 17
    16 Now while Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he observed that the city was full of idols. 17 So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be present. 18 And some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers as well were [o]conversing with him. Some were saying, “What could this [p]scavenger of tidbits want to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him [q]to the [r]Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is [s]which you are proclaiming? 20 For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean.” 21 (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)

    Sermon on Mars Hill
    22 So Paul stood in the midst of the [t]Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I see that you are very religious in all respects. 23 For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything that is in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made by hands; 25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; 26 and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might feel around for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and [u]exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His descendants.’ 29 Therefore, since we are the descendants of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by human skill and thought. 30 So having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now proclaiming to mankind that all people everywhere are to repent, 31 because He has set a day on which He will judge [v]the world in righteousness [w]through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all people [x]by raising Him from the dead.”

    32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We shall hear from you [y]again concerning this.” 33 So Paul went out from among them. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

  5. Bio, this series has been and is very engaging. Thanks for the good work.

    1. Thank you, John.

      I plan to continue at least through the current volume, which will go up to the Reformation. After that, I will look into the subsequent two volumes and decide if that is where I want to continue this exploration.