ScriptureTheology & Spirituality

Keep Scholasticism in the Schools

He was in Logick a great Critick

Profoundly skill’d in Analytick.

He could distinguish, and divide

A Hair ’twixt South and South-west side:

On either which he would dispute,

Confute, change hands, and still confute.

– Samuel Butler

The title of this post is purposefully ambiguous. I could mean by it that contemporary academic theology—theology done in universities, seminaries, divinity schools—suffers from a neglect of scholastic theology, as it was developed and practiced in the medieval and early Modern periods. It cannot be doubted that as a matter of historical fact, scholastic theology has by and large fallen out of academic theological courses of study in the Protestant world. (Here I must speak to my own tradition within Protestantism. While there are some parallels in Roman Catholic theological education over the last couple of centuries, that development is also different in important respects.) Whether this constitutes a loss or gain has been a matter of dispute. An argument for the former can be persuasively made, in my estimation, as can an argument for the benefit of a scholastic approach to contemporary theology. Thus, ‘keep scholasticism in the schools’ could mean, scholasticism has been a beneficial part of theological academic training, is not so much now, and needs to be again.

The title of this post could also mean that scholastic theology, precisely because it developed as a school theology, in and for the academy, ought to remain in the schools as a technical discipline and not be paraded about among those of God’s faithful who do not have the requisite training to benefit from it. This sense of the title is difficult to state without sounding patronizing or condescending. But it need not be. The point has to do with scholasticism and its proper place in theological discourse and training, not with faithful Christians, the level and mode of their own theological education.

Scholasticism

There has been over the last half century, or so, a recovery of what scholastic theology is (that is, what it was understood to be and practiced in the medieval and early Modern periods). Prior to this, Modern disparagement of scholasticism was pretty typical. Take the remarks of David Friedrich Strauss:

It would really seem as if the more ignorant those old Christians were of all the facts of nature, the more brain-force they possessed for such like transcendental subtleties; for the kinds of claims of their reasoning faculties, which it simply paralyzes ours to recognize, such as conceiving three as one and one as three, were a trifle to them, nay, a favourite pursuit, in which they lived and had their being, about which they could fight for centuries with all the weapons of acumen and sophistry…” (The Old Faith and the New, 14-15)

In contrast to this very Modern assessment, the general consensus that has emerged in more recent revisionist historiography of the medieval and early modern period is that scholasticism (as it was understood and practiced in the medieval and early modern periods) refers primarily to a method of doing theology. That is, though intimately related to the theological content, scholasticism functioned as a means of exploring, analyzing, disputing and explicating the content of the Christian faith rather than a means of determining or creating that content.[1] As Richard Muller concisely puts it, applied to academic theology, scholasticism is “designed to develop system on a highly technical level and in an extremely precise manner by means of the careful identification of topics, division of these topics into their basic parts, definition of the parts, and doctrinal or logical argumentation concerning the divisions and definitions,” and so is “characterized by a thorough use and technical mastery of the tools of linguistic, philosophical, logical, and traditional thought.”[2]

Over time, the use of this method applied to perennial philosophical and theological issues tended to produce a technical language and mode of discourse in order the more efficiently and precisely to discuss and debate those issues, and it tended to produce varying schools of thought around those issues. Scholasticism, then, is a technical method that enables efficient theological analysis and exposition and fosters theological dialogue that aims at understanding of God and all things in relation to him.

Scholasticism and Theological Education

Others have offered good reasons for the study and appropriation of scholastic theology.[3] Without simply repeating what has already been said, let me here add a note and a caution. First, the note: The scholastic approach greatly promotes a systematic exploration of the Christian faith. I don’t want to be misunderstood on this point. The current practice of systematic theology in the Protestant world varies widely. Further, in evangelical circles, the relation of systematic theology (as a sub-discipline) to the other sub-disciplines of theology—historical, biblical, philosophical, etc.—is debated. By use of the term systematic here, I do not intend to enter into any of that disputed territory. What I intend by the term is not so much a theological sub-discipline but rather the orderly, patient, careful, and studious searching into that which God has taught us to confess concerning himself and the world he created and governs. Because scholasticism has a long tradition of exegesis, fitted with sophisticated epistemological, philological, hermeneutical, and logical tools, encompasses a wide ranging set of interrelated inquiries, ranging over the natural and supernatural orders, and employs a prayerful mode of operation, seeking divine help both to know and to love, scholasticism is arguably uniquely suited for such systematic exploration.

If this is so, then the recovery of scholastic theology in theological training institutions will not be at the expense of exegetical, biblical, systematic, or philosophical theology, but will enable their greater unity in the theological curriculum itself. Scholasticism, then, ought to be put back in the schools.

And now a note of caution. There is currently something of a rediscovery of scholastic theology occurring at least in some parts of the Protestant and evangelical world. As you might expect from the above, I applaud this (and hope to be some small part of it). And as the rediscovery works its way from scholars to pastors and clergy, to theological students, to those who like to stay abreast of intellectual trends, it can create a buzz.

The astonishment at how great an aid scholasticism can be to the study of theology often spurs its pupils to greater mastery of scholasticism’s technical discourse. But anytime there is growth in knowledge, pride is surely not far behind. It rears its ugly head especially (not only, but especially) outside of the academic context. Rather than putting scholasticism to its purpose—to know and love God—we deform it in order to cut down our neighbor. “Oh no, bless you, we don’t use that term…” “Only those ignorant or heretical say it that way …” “Well, actually Thomas Aquinas says…”

In this sense, then, scholasticism ought to be left in the schools and not bandied about in the church or public square by the immature who play know-it-all (and are often deluded into thinking they are not playing).

Would that our theological training institutions could produce those skilled in logic and analytics; and produce the kind of disputants that know the other side so well as to be able to take it up and still confute; and produce those that also heed Paul’s warning that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Would that our theological institutions could produce those that know not only the purpose of their education, but its method and place. To that end, let’s keep scholasticism in the schools.

 

 

[1] The Lutheran Cyclopedia entry “Scholasticism in the Lutheran Church”, rightly states that as a method scholasticism “is the application of the most rigorous appliances of logic to the formulation and analysis of theological definitions.” Infelicitously, though, this entry also maintains that scholasticism can be considered “a theology,” though it does not expound on that point. Better stated is The New Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry, where scholasticism is said to designate not a method and a theology but “a method and a system.” As a method, it designates the use of reason “in the elucidation of spiritual truth and in defense of the dogmas of Faith” and a particular “manner of treatment by which thesis, objections, and solutions of objections stand out distinctly in the discussion of each problem.” As a system, it designates the gathering together of the various disciplines of the liberal arts in their wide-ranging discussions of the Christian faith. The medieval historian L. M. de Rijk very nicely captures the essence of scholasticism when he says it denotes “all academic, especially philosophical and theological, activity that is carried out according to a certain method, which involves both in research and education the use of a recurring system of concepts, distinctions, proposition-analyses, argumentative strategies, and methods of disputation.” L. M. de Rijk, Middeleeuwse wijsbegeerte: Traditie en vernieuwing (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1977), 25; cited in Martin Bac and Theo Pleizier, “Reentering Sites of Truth: Teaching Reformed Scholasticism in the Contemporary Classroom,” in Scholasticism Reformed: Essays in Honour of Willem J. Van Asselt, ed. Maarten Wisse, Marcel Sarot, and Willemian Otten (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 36.

[2] Muller, PRRD, 1st ed., 1.34 and 18 respectively. Cf. Reformed Thought on Freedom: The Concept of Free Choice in Early Modern Reformed Theology, eds. Willem J. van Asselt, J. Martin Bac, and Roelf T. te Velde (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2010), 22-29.

[3] As noted above, see Muller, “Giving Direction to Theology: The Scholastic Dimension” and Michael Allen, “Disputation for Scholastic Theology: Engaging Luther’s 97 Theses;” see as well Ryan M. McGraw, Reformed Scholasticism: Recovering the Tools of Reformed Theology, 4-7.

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is the executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine. He holds a PhD from St. Louis University, a MAHT from Westminster Seminary California. He, his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids live in Southern California.

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