Scholasticism, Prostestantism, and Modernity

By Gottfried, Paul | The World and I, February 1999 | Go to article overview

Scholasticism, Prostestantism, and Modernity


Gottfried, Paul, The World and I


Protestantism rose on the downfall of scholasticism, and Protestantism, in turn, led to the demise of hierarchy and the rise of individualism.

A curious but significant byproduct of the Protestant Reformation was moral support for what became middle-class modernity. This connection is particularly remarkable inasmuch as reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin sought to restore a Christian community, not to build a new civilization. What they found objectionable about the medieval church was not its traditionalism but its pagan and nonbiblical character. They attacked the attempt by Catholic philosophers Albertus Magnus (1200--1280) and Thomas Aquinas (1225--1274) to import Aristotelian philosophy into what should have been biblically based Christianity.

The reformers objected to the scholastic view that people, despite Original Sin, could improve their character through moral effort. Indeed, they insisted on the bondage of the will to man's natural state of depravity, a condition that could only be improved through the infusion of divine grace. And this grace was given not in response to human exertion but as an outside work (opus extrinsecum) for which fallen beings could only wait and pray. Though this apparently fatalistic understanding of redemption underpinned Calvin's theology more explicitly than Luther's, it was nonetheless present in both. A radical conception of human sinfulness, partly derived from Saint Augustine, pervaded Reformation thinking. Total human corruptness necessitated a dramatic form of divine redemption, which each individual had to experience to know that he was saved.

Scholasticism and Modern Rationalism

In some ways the scholastic thinking characteristic of European universities in the twelfth and thirteen centuries seems closer to modern rationalism than does Reformation theology. The schoolmen believed that the good was knowable through right reason, that knowledge about the existence of God was accessible to human understanding, and that pagan rhetoric and philosophy were appropriate for the education of Christians. Although medieval schoolmen did not deny the doctrine of Original Sin or the need for grace to move toward a Christian life, they considered the sacraments and instruction of the church sufficient for that end. The sin of Adam did not irreparably destroy human character, but once washed away with baptism, inborn sin would not prevent us from developing our moral capacities, through learning and useful habits.

Understandably, critics of scholastic thought, which reached its greatest influence in the late thirteenth century, accused its proponents of pagan, rationalist tendencies. From Franciscan mystics like Saint Bonaventure through Nominalist philosophers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries down to the great thinkers of the Reformation, the criticism was heard that the schoolmen minimized the experience of faith and ascribed excessive importance to theological reasoning. Though Thomas Aquinas, for example, argued in the Summa Theologica that belief in God might result purely from faith (credibilia), he nonetheless also provided five proofs for God's existence, one of which derived from Aristotelian physics. Like other schoolmen, Aquinas insisted that "the philosopher" could lead Christians to some if not all theological truths.

Even more important for the history of ethics, Aquinas and other schoolmen related rules of conduct to moral reasoning. God as the source of all being, as underlined in Thomas' Expositio super librum Boethii, provided both natural cognition (lumen naturale) and supernatural revelation (lumen supernaturale). Each was made available to clarify divine truth, and by the operation of universal reason as well as by biblical morality, humans were capable of forming proper ethical decisions, outside as well as inside a Christian society. Moreover, despite the fall of Adam, both the natural and social worlds gave evidence of an order (ordo mundi) that pointed back to a divine Author. …

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