Three cheers for the synthesis of medieval scholastics

Two motivations are behind my ongoing inquiry into the Middle Ages: first, I teach a class on Medieval & Renaissance Literature, which obliges me to become acquainted with the zeitgeist of that period; second, I am an Anglican, which disposes me to sympathize with the expression of Christianity before the Protestant Reformation. Chris R. Armstrong is the founding director of Opus: The Art of Work, an institute on faith and vocation at Wheaton College. His new book, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis, is proving a fine guide. Modern people are beholden to a “caricature of medieval scholastics as hairsplitters who used atrocious Latin to argue obscure and irrelevant theological minutiae.” In the second chapter of his book, “Getting Thoughtful: The Medieval Passion for Theological Knowledge,” Armstrong seeks to correct this caricature, which originated with renaissance humanists:

Good theology could not be done with reason alone, in the realm of pure abstraction and logic-chopping. Put in positive terms, this meant that reason and faith, logic and love, must be held together. To separate them was to court heresy, as the church fathers had insisted.

There are four polar pairs that Christians today often separate but that the medievals tried valiantly (if not always successfully) to keep together. To get faith and reason out of balance is to veer into either obscurantist fideism (“faith-ism”) or some intellectual substitute for Christian faith. To get logic and love out of balance is to focus on either self-righteous argumentation or fuzzy-headed sentimentalism. To get religion and science out of balance is to descend into anti-intellectualism or a modernist “demythologized” faith. And to get Word and world out of balance courts cultural irrelevance or cultural captivity. The synthesis of the medieval scholastics represents the most breathtaking – and fruitful – attempt in history to keep each of these complementary pairs together. 


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