Theology Viewed as an Organized Collection of Questions

Peter Abelard's teacher, Anselm of Laon (d. 1117), made one of the first medieval attempts at gathering questions that moved the study of the Scriptures from textual exegesis into a systematic whole. His organizational plan was based on the model of John Scottus Eriugena, a translator and commentator on Dionysius the Areopagyte's works: Creation, the Fall of angels and men, the necessity of Redemption, Redemption, and the Sacraments. His collection of questions followed this order. Later collectors of questions arising from the Scriptures might organize them according to different models: Peter Lombard (d. 1160) took as his model the division presented by St. Augustine in De doctrina Christiana: the study of Scripture is about things and signs. Robert Grosseteste's (d. 1253), in Hexaemeron, unified his theology through Christ, whose divine nature united Him with the divine persons and whose human nature made Him one with all creatures. Grosseteste's goal was thus a Christocentric approach to the unification of the Scripture message.

The most well-organized and influential Augustinian collection of such questions must be attributed to Peter Lombard's Sentences. Many of those whose works have come down to us as summae (i.e. summae quaestionum, or collections of questions) in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries are in fact following the lead of Lombard's work. It is easy, then, to understand why Alexander of Hales chose the Sentences of Lombard as an official textbook to supplement the study of the Scriptures themselves in the third decade of the thirteenth century. In effect, Lombard's work was already functioning in that way.

However, Lombard's Sentences was not the sole supplement to studying Scripture itself. Peter Comestor (d. 1180) had written a Historia scholastica (1169-73) that brought an historical, rather than a logical, order to the Scripture message. He realized that the Bible itself was a complicated collection of works: "a forest" through which Christians had to find their way. His Historia, a Bible history that provided, with the help of the Fathers of the Church and profane historians, a map through the forest, was also an alternate way of studying the Scripture message.

As the universities developed in the thirteenth century, then, there were three alternatives for studying the Scriptural message: the Bible itself, the Historia scholastica, and the Sentences, or Summae quaestionum, that followed more or less the Sentences of Lombard.

The study of the Bible always held the primary place in the curriculum. It could, however, take place in any of the three aforementioned ways. Even when they studied the Bible itself, some medievals preferred to get an over-view of the whole of both the Old and New Testaments; others preferred to look at a specific work of the Old Testament and then contrast it with the enhancing viewpoint of a New Testament work. As they stepped somewhat beyond the biblical text itself, some favored the unified historical view provided by Peter Comestor's Historia scholastica. As the university developed its alternative to Aristotle's philosophical wisdom, the Sentences of Lombard, or collection of questions according to a logical ordering principle, became the more dominant way of studying the revelation found in the Scriptures. Yet, it is important to realize that each of these different approaches was in reality a different manner of studying the biblical message. God's revelation, as understood by the Christian Church, not as presented by heretical exponents, remained central to all forms of medieval theological study.

The tensions concerning different ways of studying Scripture are well illustrated in the Summa aurea of William of Auxerre. There, William raises the question of whether the Fathers of the Church, especially Augustine and Gregory the Great, were not weakening the authority of Scripture when they sought arguments to support the faith. Doesn't faith stand on its own terms? Why does it need rational arguments? In the 1220s William gives the answer that justifies and has justified "theology" since the time of the Fathers of the Church. He quotes St. Augustine's On the Trinity: I do not approve of all knowledge, since some of it is pursued out of pure vanity or without purpose, but I do approve "of that knowledge by which our most wholesome faith, which leads to true fulfillment, is begotten, nourished, defended and strengthened." This citation from St. Augustine summarizes the justification for medieval developments in theology: rational argument is needed for begetting, nourishing, defending, and strengthening the faith. And, as we have already seen, in the case of Abelard, Gregory the Great's warning that "faith loses its merit when it has evidence supporting it" is only applicable when a person resists belief unless there is evidence that is the sole justifying ground for acceptance. Faith is the primary motive or ground for assenting to the indubitable truth of revelation. By faith, our minds are expanded to a fuller capacity. We submit, through faith, to a mind higher than our own, who reveals a reality beyond any produced by our own will or reason.

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