With the rise of scholasticism, people of faith began for the first time to use their rational minds as a way of more deeply understanding those things which they already accepted on the basis of faith. Moreover, in an attempt to find harmony between scripture, traditional authorities (e.g., early Church fathers), philosophy and the observable world, the scholastics attempted to address identified contradictions between (or within) authorities and to work out solutions that would allow each authority to be understood as in agreement.
Anselm of Canterbury provides our first example in his Cur Deus Homo. By applying rational thought to the question of atonement, Anselm conceived of a satisfaction transaction by which God in the human form of Jesus Christ made a sacrifice of infinite value which restored the God’s honor, which had been tainted by human sin. Reasoning that created beings owed absolute obedience to God, Anselm deduced that there is no payment a human could make for his or her own sin that was not already due to God (Anselm 343). Thus, trapped in an irreconcilable debt, humanity was incapable of saving itself. Anselm’s solution was the perfect God-Man who owed nothing and yet could restore balance by offering his sacrifice from the human side of the honor equation through his incarnate being (Anselm 346).
Other examples from our readings are provided by Thomas Aquinas, who tackled such questions as the existence of God and whether humanity can rise from sin without the help of grace. For each case a theological answer (accepted on faith) already existed; however, Aquinas uses logical arguments and illustrations based on perceptions of the senses to arrive at the same conclusions. For example, Aquinas suggests that motion can be used to illustrate the existence of God by stating that anything that moves was set in motion by a mover. Tracing movement back, one logically comes to a first mover who he indicates is God (Aquinas, On the Existence of God 361). In similar arguments he attempts to illustrate cause (God) by observation of effects in the created order.
A second example from Aquinas attempts to prove that grace is necessary for humanity to rise from its sinful condition. While observers have likened the recovery from sin to healing from sickness or the metaphor of heated water that returns to its original temperature, Aquinas responds that through sin human nature is corrupted and humans are consequently worthy of eternal damnation. Repeating similar themes to those found in Anselm, Aquinas claims that only God is capable of remitting the guilt of eternal punishment and then identifies a "habitual gift" of grace as the solution to the quandary of sin (Aquinas, Summa).
Next in our reading from Thomas Bradwardine we see the scholastic method at work in building a case against works-based justification (labeled as Pelagianism) and an attempt to make the case for predestination. In constructing his argument, Bradwardine appeals to the authority of Church fathers such as Augustine and John Chrysostom, later Church authorities such as Bede and Aristotelian categories of active and passive power (39-41). As his argument comes to an end he discusses the various purposes for punishment and concludes that the reprobate are predestined for punishment to serve as a warning to the elect, and to provide praise, honor and glory to God (Bradwardine 45).
Finally, in a reading from Gabriel Biel, we find a reasoned argument for the agency of humanity in the process of justification. While Biel also appeals to authorities of the early Church (Origen, Augustine), his argument takes a different turn. Though he concedes that grace cannot come from a human, who would then be capable of saving him- or herself, he further argues that through meritorious acts, humans continue to be infused with still greater rewards of grace (Biel 47-48). Biel illustrates his sermon with the story of a king who graciously receives his enemies into his favor if they will change their ways. This king provides his newly justified friends with a ring to show his favor, adorned with jewels to spur on further acts of righteousness and then continues to reward every act of goodness performed by the friends (Biel 51). Through his metaphor couched in human understandings, Biel attempts to reason out both how sinners are reconciled to God and also how good works are further rewarded by ever increasing grace.
While reading these arguments I was struck by the interaction between faith in theological principles and worldview as shaped by experience. For example, Anselm’s views of atonement take their arguments for logical cause and effect from the feudal system’s tenets of honor for nobility and the requirement of satisfaction at perceived slight. Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God which he formulated through appeal to each of the five senses was also interesting in this regard. I wonder how each would have been affected in his reasoning if he had attempted to apply these methods while living in a twenty-first century democratic state with knowledge of quantum mechanics
The traditions of scholasticism remain relevant to us today in both positive and negative ways. Young earth theorists attempt to use science and reason to reconcile their theories of an earth created 7,000-10,000 years ago with a literal interpretation of the biblical text. At the other end of the spectrum, theorists such as John Polkinghorne also attempt a dance in which reason helps us to more deeply understand our faith. While the pre-established articles of faith are different at these two extremes, they nonetheless share in the legacy of scholasticism, attempting to find ways to harmonize what we believe by faith with what we perceive about the world in which we live.
Anselm, of Canterbury. "Cur Deus Homo." Readings in World Christian History. Ed. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. Vol. 1. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2004. 339-346.
Aquinas, Thomas. "On the Existence of God." Readings in World Christian History. Ed. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. Vol. 1. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2004. 359-362.
—. "SUMMA THEOLOGICA: The necessity of grace (Prima Secundae Partis, Q. 109)." 2008. New Advent. 9 February 2009 <http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2109.htm#article7>.
Biel, Gabriel. "The Circumcision of the Lord." A Reformation Reader: primary texts with introductions. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999. 45-51.
Bradwardine, Thomas. "The Cause of God against the Pelagians." A Reformation Reader: primary texts with introductions. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999. 38-45.