Definition of scholasticism

'Scholasticism' is an elusive term, which is resistant to precise definition. The polemical origins of the term are partly to blame for this imprecision; however, the intellectual diversity within the movement is also a contributing cause of importance. Despite these difficulties, the following general characteristics are sufficient to define a general 'family resemblance' of the various components of the movement, as it is encountered in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Scholasticism was concerned with the rational justification of Christian belief, particularly in relation to the demonstration of the inherent rationality of theology. It is generally thought that this aspect of the movement is seen at its best in the later writings of Thomas Aquinas, especially the Summa Theologica. Even William of Ockham, concerned to emphasize the distinction between ratio (reason) and fides (faith), made extensive use of reason in matters of theology (Gilson 1978).

In its earlier phase, the movement made extensive use of Aristotelianism. This trend can be seen especially clearly in the writings of Dominican theologians of the late thirteenth century. However, Aristotelianism was treated in this manner on account of a belief that it represented a mature and universally valid set of rational assumptions, to which any intellectual discipline (scientia) should conform. During the fifteenth century, a significant internal debate developed within scholasticism concerning the intellectual credentials of Aristotelianism, as growing evidence of intra- and extra-systemic inconsistency emerged, not least on account of the development of the still nascent natural sciences. By the early sixteenth century, there was a growing recognition of the shortcomings of Aristotle.

Scholasticism was also concerned with the systematization of Christian theology. Earlier works of theology were often occasional, written in response to controversies or debates, and hence limited by the specific shape of the polemical stimulus. The anti-Pelagian writings of Augustine, upon which the Reformation drew with such enthusiasm, are an excellent example of this form of limitation. Scholasticism was concerned to develop a proactive, rather than reactive, approach to theology, by anticipating possible questions or objections to existing doctrines.

This systematic approach to theology was encouraged by the publication of Peter Lombard's Sententiarum libri quattuor during the twelfth century, which offered a comprehensive framework for the discussion of the central questions of theology. These 'four books of the sentences' (that is, quotations from the writings of the patristic era, especially from the writings of Augustine) were systematically arranged, thus bringing an order to the material which was generally lacking in their original contexts. The proliferation of commentaries upon these Sentences, not to mention the formal importance of such a commentary as a qualification for the advanced teaching of theology, ensured that the scholastic mind-set was characterized by a conviction of the propriety and necessity of such systematization.

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