In Defence–Really Praise–of Scholasticism

In a recent comment on my page Think Before You Convert “KYCath” (I assume that means Kentucky Catholic) there was the following:

In short, Wills exposes how the original infrastructures of the Catholic Church morphed and transformed over the ages, so that original dogmas–and the understanding of their meaning thereof–changed to the point where the interpretations of dogma today DO NOT match the interpretations of dogma expressed in the Church centuries ago. Eastern Orthodoxy deliberately avoided “engineering” theology the way the Catholic Church did for precisely this reason. Scholasticism, as an approach to theology, necessarily involves the formation of intellectual constructs to “explain away” what simply should just be accepted upon faith.

There’s a mouthful here, some of which is good but much of which needs to be challenged.

The good part concerns her statement that “the Catholic Church morphed and transformed over the ages”.  That’s certainly true.  It’s interesting to note that, in the years leading up to Vatican II, many Roman Catholic thinkers (especially the French) attempted to revive Patristic studies and tug the Church away from some of its mediaeval and post-mediaeval accretions and get it back to a construct closer to the source.  The main practical impact of those studies resulted in the Novus Ordo Missae which, although re-translated with confusion following, is still the approved liturgy in Roman Catholicism.  But a lot of other stuff got lost in the confusion following Vatican II, and there’s little indication that the current management is interested in retracing these steps now.

I would dispute her assertion re Eastern Orthodoxy.  The Orthodox (irrespective of what side of Chalcedon they sit) assert that their idea and way comes straight from the Apostles.  But they too have some baggage, and occasionally that baggage gets called out, even by their own people.  They may not be intellectually adventurous, but you don’t need that to drift.

But intellectual adventures bring me to my main point: I think some defence of Scholasticism is in order here.  I’m not an uninterested party to this discussion either: absorbing Scholasticism (esp. Thomas Aquinas) was a major preoccupation for about two years plus of my Christian life, and I can say without fear of contradiction that, without it, I probably wouldn’t be a Christian today.  Scholasticism, for all of its weaknesses (and they are certainly present) is a lot stronger framework than its opponents would admit.

Let me begin by outlining the basic structure of St. Thomas Aquinas’ method.  He worked with what is generally called the “disputed question” method.  This doesn’t mean that what’s under discussion is being heatedly argued about, like we would do these days, but that there were two sides (and sometimes nuances) of these positions. First he would set forth positions against the one he was planning to take.  Those positions could be argued with Scripture, philosophy, the teaching of the Church, etc.  Then he would offer at least one (in some works more) arguments against these first positions (the “sed contra”).  Then he would explain his own position, and refute the objections already stated.  Sometimes he would even make objections or qualifications to position(s) in the “sed contra” if they were in error or misleading.  Some of his works are simply written in the disputed question style, others (like the Disputed Questions on Truth)  were actually disputed with real people offering objections and points to the “sed contra”.  His most famous disputed question is one about the existence of God that is at the beginning of the Summa Theologiae, but they’re all pretty much structured the same.

This is a rigorous technique, sometimes hard to follow and very Spartan in prose.  It is not the only way Scholastics operated; a more accessible Scholastic is Moses Maimonides, whose command of the original Hebrew Scriptures and his élan make him easier to understand.  Maimonides finds his way into St. Thomas’ disputes often, as do the Fathers of the Church such as Augustine and Origen, Muslim scholars such as Avicenna and Averroes, and of course the Greeks such as Plato and Aristotle, the last of which Aquinas is generally associated with.

Having laid that groundwork, let me state the reasons why I think the Scholastics, particularly Aquinas, have not been equalled in Christian theology.

The first is that they are logical.   St. Thomas, in conjunction with my engineering studies going on at the same time, taught me how to think, resulting in observations such as this.  In an age when Christianity is constantly bombarded with accusations of being irrational, it’s a strong comeback.

The second is that they have an objective.  That’s not a given in any philosophical or theological goal.  It’s all too easy for either of these to go into the fray assuming that a) there is no solution or b) the solution is unknowable or c) both.  Aquinas’ method forces him to come to a conclusion, even if that solution seems to be difficult or excessively nuanced.  As G.K. Chesterton noted in his excellent book St. Thomas Aquinas: ‘The Dumb Ox’, his philosophy is the philosophy of common sense.  (I highly recommend Chesterton’s treatment of this subject).  That girded me to respond to people like this and others in an age which is duplicitously relative.

The third is that they encouraged me to read the Scriptures.  As an Episcopalian, it was beneath us to read the Scriptures through like the “Bible thumpers” did, but the endless references to the Word in Aquinas and other theologians forced me to do just that in the middle of my undergraduate experience.  But while doing that, I also discovered the importance of the proper context of same scriptures.  That inspired my statement in this piece that Evangelicals had painted themselves into a corner with their hermeneutic.  At the risk of making a few people mad, I think this deserves an explanation.

Evangelicals like to compare, conflate or however they make the analogy between the living Word (Jesus Christ) and the written Word (the Bible), although the latter is no less living than the former (cf. Hebrews 4:12).  What they overlook is that both are incarnational, i.e., the divine becoming flesh and dwelling among us.  Both are an accommodation to our human, material state, an accommodation that many religions and philosophies current in New Testament times (and still today) believe is impossible. They are perfection brought to our level, and it is as difficult to quantify and qualify now as in earlier times.

People don’t live in an abstract construct, but ultimately one is necessary if one is to make sense of the world around us and to put it into an orderly, understandable framework.  That’s true in the physical sciences and it’s true in other contexts as well.  That was the role that Greek philosophy played in the Patristic Era and in the Scholastic one, although the mix of Greeks varied in time.  There’s nothing wrong with that construct not being in the exact structure of the Scriptures as long as the results are in conformance with its truth.  Doing otherwise leads to the imposition of a structure that was never intended to be used for the purpose, which is a serious shortcoming of “Protestant theology”.  On the other hand we have the example of Islam, whose view of the Qur’an as the image of the  “mother of the Book” is a deficient attempt to replicate an incarnational theology in a religion that basically doesn’t have one.  That separation is one reason, I think, why Islam more emphatically rejected the thinking of its own Scholastics than Christianity has, with the results they have to show for it.

The fourth is that the Scholastics have helped me to avoid some of the sillier/more dangerous trends in the church.  The most significant of those are the Manichean tendencies we see too often.  Evil, far from being an active force, is simply the lack of good.  On a practical level that helped me to avoid the “devil under every rock” mentality we see in Charismatic circles.

The Manichean issue brings up the people within Christianity who have been Scholasticism’s most persistent opponents.  On one side are the Augustianians, both ones within Catholicism (such as those in Aquinas’ day and the Jansenists) and those who branched out (the Reformed theology fans).  The latter especially have never liked Aquinas’ attempt to wrestle with predestination vs. free will and the Fall (as books like Francis Schaeffer’s Escape from Reason are evidence of) or his (or anyone else’s) use of Greek philosophy.

On the other side are the liberals, who dislike any theology that comes to a firm conclusion, even when they are dogmatic about their own idea.  One of the priests who advised our Newman Association expressed his view that too many Thomists ran the Church and made it the rigid, dogmatic institution it was (which it wasn’t in the 1970’s).

Bringing up the Reformation brings up two points that need to be made.  The first is that Scholasticism, after Aquinas, went into something of a decline and lost its edge.  The long-term result was stuff like the opinions probables of the Jesuits, justifiably attacked by Pascal and the Jansenists.  The second is its over-reliance on Aristotle as an authority.  Because of that the Church was caught flat-footed when the Copernican model of the universe began to be accepted (although, as John Dillenberger pointed in Protestant Thought and Natural Science, many of their Protestant counterparts didn’t respond much more gracefully).

Many people point out that, in his last years, St. Thomas Aquinas had a mystical vision and stopped most of his writing after that.  But we need to answer the question: was that vision a departure from what he was doing before or just the end product?  People these days like to debate about whether an activity is more about the journey or the destination.  Ultimately, as Dante (an Aquinan par excellence) put it poetically, our union with God is the destination, but the journey can be a combination of mystical, intellectual or other types of experiences and encounters with our heavenly Father so long as we get where we’re going.  The journey of Scholasticism, for both the Church and me personally, was a rewarding one, because it was good in an of itself and because it has led me to the Destination.

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