The Birth Of Medieval Christian Theology

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The early medieval Christian theological world, in discussions over problems related to the Trinity, divine omnipotence, predestination, and the Eucharist, was characterized by efforts to retrieve the Patristic teachings. The difficulties and contentions that arose often grew out of grammatical concerns and logical consistencies, demanding precisions relating to the principal liberal arts of grammar and dialectic. A significant change came with St. Anselm in the 11th century and Peter Abelard in the 12th century.

Anselm searched for a deeper understanding of the mysteries of the faith, such as the Trinity and the redemptive Incarnation, often going beyond the issues of grammar and dialectic. He treaded ground that was new in his era, though he believed it was well justified in the Patristic tradition. This appeal to a Patristic tradition is clear from the preface to his Monologion:

Having gone back over it many times, I have not been able to find anything I said in it that is not in agreement with what the Catholic Fathers say, and especially with what is said in the writings of Saint Augustine. For this reason, if it seems to anyone that what I have said in this work is startlingly new or not in accord with the truth, I ask him not to denounce me right away as a rash proclaimer of novelties or as a bold defender of falsehood. First, let him diligently examine the books On the Trinity written by the aforementioned Saint Augustine. Then let him judge my work, measuring it by his teaching. (Deane, 1962, 36-37)

Anselm's Cur Deus Homo likewise is prefaced with a letter to Pope Urban II that begins with a justification for his different approach to the study of man's Redemption:

Even though after the time of the Apostles many of our holy Fathers and Doctors say a great number of things, and indeed things of great weight, concerning our faith, they do this so that they might refute the foolishness of unbelievers and soften the hardness of their hearts. They also do so to nourish those who, with their hearts already cleansed with faith, take delight in understanding what they believe—an understanding that we should pursue once we have accepted our faith as certain. And even though we cannot hope either in our time or in the future to equal them in the contemplation of the truth, still I do not judge it objectionable if, established in the faith, we propose to apply ourselves to an investigation of its nature. (Anselm of Canterbury, 1969, 59-60)

Shortly thereafter, objections were raised against Abelard's manner of approaching theological issues. Abelard was well-known for his dialectical method, presented most explicitly in his Sic et Non [Yes and No]. This work was a training text for students, teaching them different ways of reconciling apparently conflicting Scriptural and Patristic authorities. The preface to this work suggests various possible ways of harmonizing the discordant citations. The difficulties may be due to scribal errors in transcription, a translator's mistake, or a failure to realize the nature of the audience to whom the text was addressed, since authors often chose not to express themselves with technical precision but opted for simpler explanations that might help people who could not grasp exact language to come to some understanding. One must also be aware when reading conflicting statements that the meaning of a word may vary or that an author has changed his mind in a later work. After presenting these and other principles for solving conflicting statements, Abelard, in the principal body of the work, posed actual yes and no, or pro and contra, statements on various issues as practice cases. He did not provide the answers but left the students to work them out for themselves.

In other works of Abelard, we find actual doctrinal positions that were challenged by some of his contemporaries, especially William of Saint-Thierry and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, as heretical. Some other positions he held—for example, regarding the necessity of God creating the best possible world—while not viewed as heretical, were challenged by contemporaries and hotly debated, even up to the time of Thomas Aquinas.

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