Church HistoryTheology & Spirituality

Thinking with the Early Middle Ages

“When the thinker thinks rightly, he follows God step by step; he does not follow his own vain fallacy.”1

Studying the Middle Ages is a complex process, not only for the plethora of information one must process in order to have a halfway-informed perspective into the period, but also for the multitude of ways in which contemporary—modern and postmodern—attitudes that illuminate Christian opinions of this important period of Christian history. One need look no further than the recent kerfuffle over President Obama’s remarks concerning the Crusades to realize that perspectives on the Middle Ages are varied and often ill-informed. Some commentators reacted along political lines,2 others out on religious grounds,3 and still others from a historical basis.4 But what everyone functionally agrees on is the fact that contemporary Western culture does not really understand medieval Western culture, at least not on their own terms or with any sort of sophistication or charity when it comes to something as verboten as the Crusades.5

The central error of this relationship, I think, revolves around the fundamental misrecognition of how Christians thought in the Middle Ages. That is, we fail to understand how our Christian ancestors thought about matters of faith and ethics. On the one hand, this should not surprise us, for we live in a vastly different world than our predecessors. Theologically, technologically, philosophically, practically, even geographically: the world we inhabit differs greatly from the world of Saint Patrick, Anselm, and Aquinas. On the other hand, however, the distance between contemporary Christian thought and that of the Christians in the Middle Ages remains perplexing, for Western Christianity—Protestant and Catholic alike—are all heirs to the legacy of medieval Christendom. Though our worldviews are different, the ways in which modern Christians understand and interpret reality have been shaped by the thinking of Occam, Bonaventure, Aquinas, and a host of other medieval Christians, whether we know it or not.6 Whatever the reasons, Christians today by-and-large fail to understand how Christians in the Middle Ages conceived of the world around them.

In order to more properly understand the mindset of the Middle Ages, then, the grammar (worldview) of the medieval period must be engaged and understood on its own terms. In so doing, we ought to return to medieval sources, a sort of modified ad fontes approach which takes us back to this formative epoch for the mind of Christianity. The duration of this article will focus on thinking in the early Middle Ages, especially the perspectives on Gregory the Great (c. 540-605 CE) and the Venerable Bede (672/3- 735 CE). Here I will focus on three features of early medieval thought: Didactic Dialectic, Pastoral Balance, and Polyvalent Interpretation.

Didactic Dialectic

By didactic dialectic, I mean teaching through apparent contradictions, or wrestling through opposites. Bede’s narratives often dialectically transpose seeming paradoxes, as he recounts victory over the invisible (demons, spiritual warfare) through the visible (abstinence from food and bodily pleasure)7 and contrasts humility (not presuming or writing haughtily) with power (the working of miracles)8 and holiness (spreading the gospel of Christ) with sinfulness (fornication).9 The monastic practice of ora et labora (prayer and work) signals the medieval dialectic of the active and contemplative life, with monastic life partaking of both.10

Although proclaimed as orthodoxy for hundreds of years, the Trinity—especially the Christological formulas proclaiming Christ as the God-Man—continued to captivate the mind and offer an opportunity for thoughtful (and careful) reflection in the Middle Ages. Continued affirmations of the mystery of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit remained a priority throughout the period, especially in settings where Christians were evangelizing European pagans or heretics (primarily Arian).11 Augustine of Canterbury, Boniface (apostle to Germany), Patrick of Ireland, and others all had to explain the Trinity and orthodox Christology to unconvinced people in an effective, accurate, and captivating way in order to win converts. This of course, had to be a manifestation of their intellectual and experiential interaction with a concept grasped only by the contrasting of apparent opposites.12

Pastoral Balance

The concept of pastoral balance comes out most clearly in Pope Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule, where he continuously reminds his readers to “know thy audience.”13 Gregory wrote this treatise as someone well aware of the need for charity in preaching Christ, as right doctrine can never penetrate a soul which has not been opened through compassion. For Gregory, preaching must be tailored to one’s audience, not as a means to tell them what they want to hear, but to speak to people as they are and tell them what they need to hear in order for the message to be received and efficacious. This means striking a balance between hard justice and compassionate mercy, truth delivered swiftly and wisdom holding back the thunder of heaven. As an example of this balance, consider the following:

“Those given to gluttony should be advised that they not pierce themselves with the sword of lust by giving themselves to the pleasures of food…. On the other hand, the abstemious should always be cautious so that when they flee the vice of gluttony, even worse vices are not produced through this one virtue…. In vain is the body reduced through fasting if reason, succumbing to emotion, is dissipated by the vices.”14

Gregory’s admonition to pastoral balance requires consideration of reality—real human beings experiencing the vicissitudes of life—and demands action that is not only right but also wise.

Polyvalent Interpretation

Christianity has long tried to reconcile the “one and the many”, a consideration testified to in didactic dialectic and pastoral balance, but also exhibited in the acceptance of polyvalent interpretation in the early Middle Ages. This practice involved the acceptance (or at least, the lack of rejection) of numerous and often divergent interpretations of scripture, often following the four senses of allegorical, moral, eschatological, and literal interpretations. This is hinted at throughout Gregory’s Pastoral Rule, where mercy trumps singular response to sin.15 No single perspective may adequately address the totality of the meaning in the scriptures, as the four senses of scriptural interpretation attest.16 Instead, scripture should be seen as a “lantern for us in the night of the present life” that allows its users to see—albeit incompletely and dimly at times—the road ahead.

This facet of medieval thought may be the most difficult for contemporary Christians to accept (especially Protestants), as it seems to border on claims that there is no inherent meaning in a scriptural text and/or that all interpretations of a particular text are equally valid. However, the medieval approach to polyvalent interpretation does not indicate that there are no faulty interpretations of scripture, but rather that differing interpretations are allowable because of the need to approach the scriptures with humility.17 Gregory was especially concerned that proper interpretations align with action, admonishing that, “their manner of speaking is consistent with the excellent of what is being said, and what they say with words is also preached by their actions.”18 This approach uses the regula fidei and Christ’s example of love as the basis for proper interpretation, thereby simultaneously allowing for multiple interpretations of a text and providing a boundary marker for accurate exegesis.

Conclusion

While not a total immersion in the life of the mind from the early medieval period, this article has sought to underline three important facets of medieval thought: didactic dialectic, pastoral balance, and polyvalent interpretation. As moderns (and postmoderns) attempting to make sense of our forbearers’ attitudes and actions, these viewpoints offer insights into the way in which early medieval Christians approached and made sense of their world. Only once we are able to understand people and ideas on their own terms may we appropriately critique or build from them (this is of course true beyond the boundaries of chronology or religion—all ideas should at least be able to be submitted to marketplace of ideas).

Here we have briefly considered the thought of Gregory and Bede, tracing their comfort with contrasting and learning from opposites, affirmation of pastoral balance, and acceptance of and navigation within polyvalent interpretations of scripture. Further, I would argue that these intellectual frameworks are all tools which, once understood, not only assist in understanding how Christians in the early Middle Ages thought (and acted on those thoughts), but also may be of benefit for contemporary theological reflection. That is, through didactic dialectic, pastoral balance, and polyvalent interpretation, we may begin to think with the Christians of the Middle Ages and not just about them.


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Jacob Prahlow

Jacob Prahlow

Christian. Husband of Hayley. Father of Bree and Judah. Co-Founder of Conciliar Post.

Pastor of Church Planting at Rooftop Church. Cubs Fan. Alumnus of various institutions.

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