{11}     Scholasticism & Renaissance

ERA 4 << Medieval Church (2): Growth & Decline of Papacy (AD 1000–1500) >> SESSION 2

Reference: Gonzalez, volume 1, chapters 33-36

        11.1.1  Background

·         Scholastic Method: Scholasticism was an attempt to rationalize theology in order to build up faith by reason. It sought to prove existing truth by rational processes rather than seeking new truth. The data of revelation were to be organized systematically by the use of Aristotelian deductive logic and philosophy.

·         Emphasis on reason: From the early church, most Christian theologians were accustomed to a Platonic or Neoplatonic philosophy. After the discovery of Aristotle’s philosophy in Paris, the emphasis was the independence of reason and philosophy from any constraint imposed by faith and theology.

        11.1.2  Schools of scholasticism

·         [1] Realism—universals exist before created things [dominant in early scholasticism]; [2] Moderate realism—universals exist in created things [dominant in high scholasticism]; [3] Nominalism—universals exist after created things [dominant in late scholasticism]

        11.1.3  Early scholasticism [10001100]

·         Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109)—founder of scholasticism, Italian monk, archbishop of Canterbury

o        On reason helping faith: He applied reason to questions of faith, such as the existence of God and the motive for the incarnation. It was not to prove things he did not believe without such proof, but to understand more deeply a truth already known by faith. “I believe in order that I may know.”

        11.1.4  High scholasticism [11001300]

·         Peter Abelard (1079–1142)—French teacher in Paris, later condemned as a heretic

o        On reason and truth: He emphasized the position of reason in the development of truth. “I know in order that I may believe.” “By doubting we come to enquire and by enquiring we reach truth.”

o        On universals: Realists held that universals are more real than the individuals and exist independently of them. Nominalists, in contrast, held that universals have no reality of their own. Abelard took a middle position, seeing universals as mental concepts. He believed that reality existed first in the mind of God, then later in man’s mind.

·         Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)—greatest theologian of the Middle Ages, Italian monk

o        Summa Theologica (The Sum of Theology)—It was the greatest theological work in the Middle Ages. It is an imposing intellectual construction trying to synthesize faith and reason into a totality of truth.

o        On faith & reason: Some truths are within the reach of reason, and others are beyond it. Philosophy deals with the former. There are truths that reason cannot prove, but which are necessary for salvation. Like a two-storey house, philosophy provides the first storey on which theology can be made perfect by adding the second storey.

        11.1.5  Late scholasticism [13001500]

·         Characteristics: They searched for ever subtler questions to pose, and for fine distinctions with which to answer them. They developed a style and vocabulary that were far beyond the reach of the uninitiated. There was an increasing rift between philosophy (known through reason) and theology (known through revelation.

·         William of Ockham (1288–1349)—English Franciscan

o        On faith & reason: All true knowledge is acquired through the senses. Theological dogmas were not rationally demonstrable, and that they must be accepted on the authority of the Bible. This view separated faith and reason.

o        On universals: Universals are only names for mental concepts that men develop in their minds. Only the individual is real. Universals have no reality or existence outside of the mind of the person thinking them.

o        Occam’s Razor or Law of Economy: It is the law of simplicity—“the simplest explanation is the best” or “it is futile to multiply hypotheses when a few will suffice.”

        11.1.6  Results of scholasticism

·         Papal power: Aquinas’s emphasis on the sacraments as channels of grace strengthened papal power.

·         Secular vs sacred: Aquinas’s view that reason precedes revelation as a means of knowledge but is completed by revelation led to a danger that people might separate truth into two spheres, the secular and the sacred.

·         Academic advances: Nominalism led to the use of the experimental method as the main avenue to truth. Scholasticism furnished an authoritative integrated synthesis that harmonized philosophy and religion.

·         Reaction: Late scholasticism provoked the reaction of many who deplored the contrast between the complexity of academic theology and the simplicity of the gospel, such as Thomas à Kempis.

        11.1.7  Growth of universities

·         Reasons for the rise: [1] monastery schools, [2] scholasticism, [3] arguments between France and England.

        11.2.1  Revival of classical learning

·         Definition of Renaissance: Renaissance points to a revival of the classical Greco-Roman culture, with the emphasis on literature, arts (painting, sculpture, and architecture), and on man.

        11.2.2  Architecture

·         Gothic architecture: Critics thought it was barbaric, worthy only of the Goths. Yet the design of Gothic churches was entirely done to obtain an effect that draws the congregation to fully worship God.

        11.2.3  Popes of the Renaissance

·         Corruption: Most of the popes in the Renaissance were corrupt. Many had illegitimate children. Some chased after sensual pleasure. Some used wars to increase their power. Some bought the papacy. Leo X [1513–1521] wanted to complete the great basilica of St Peter in Rome so he initiated the sale of indulgences.

        11.3.1  Lay reforming movements

·         Many movements: There were many movements seeking reforms, including Albigensians, Waldensians, Joachimites, and Böhm rebellion. But the church opted to suppress them, sometimes brutally.

        11.3.2  John Wycliffe (1320–1384)—English theologian, Morning star of Reformation

·         Bible as authority: Wycliffe taught that the true church of Christ is not the pope and his hierarchy, but rather the invisible body of all believers. He upheld the sole authority of the Bible. He was forced to retire [1380].

        11.3.3  John Huss (1369–1415)—Czech preacher

·         Disobedience: Huss taught that an unworthy pope can be disobeyed and the Bible is the final authority. He was promised safe-conduct by the emperor before the Council of Constance but was burnt as a heretic [1415].

        11.3.4  Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498)—Italian monk in Florence

·         Against luxury: Savonarola preached against the love of luxury and the evil life of the pope. The pope censured him; people rose against him and he was killed as a heretic [1498].

        11.3.5  Mysticism

·         Contact with God: The mystic desired direct contact with God by contemplation, leading to the experience of being in union with God and a feeling of ecstasy.

·         John of Ruysbroeck (1293–1381): He stressed a life of disciplined devotion centred on the contemplation of the life of Christ, and on its imitation. The objective was to lead to inner peace. It leads to modern devotion.

·         Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471): His book Imitation of Christ [1418] teaches a positive love for Christ and service for Him in practical ways, applying the methods of self-examination and humility; self-denial and discipline; acceptance of one’s lot, and trust in and love for God.


[1] treasure our heritage

Universities were established to train Christian workers.

[2] appreciate God’s providence

The extreme corruption of the papacy did not destroy the church.

[3] avoid past errors

Scholasticism lost its influence when it got too academic.

[4] apply our knowledge

Christianity is compatible with human reasoning.

[5] follow past saints

John Wycliffe and John Huss were precursors of the Reformation.