Brief survey of the history of hermeneutics – 10. Middle Ages (III)

by | May 20, 2011 | Hermeneutics, Historical Theology

Scholasticism. One of the ways that Medieval Scholasticism influenced the Reformation was through the universities attended by the Reformers. Our modern university system evolved during the late Middle Ages. Luther was well-schooled in the scholastic method and philosophy. His utter contempt for Aristotle was no doubt an over-reaction to his university training and the element of superstition in much of late medieval scholasticism.[1] McGrath comments: 

Scholasticism is probably one of the most despised intellectual movements in human history. Thus the English word ‘dunce’ derives from the name of one of the greatest scholastic writers, Duns Scotus. Scholasticism is best regarded as the medieval movement, flourishing in the period 1200-1500, which placed great emphasis upon the rational justification of religious beliefs. It is the demonstration of the inherent rationality of Christian theology by an appeal to philosophy, and the demonstration of the complete harmony of that theology by the minute examination of the relationship of its various elements. Scholastic writings tended to be long and argumentative, frequently relying upon closely argued distinctions.[2]

Jaroslav Pelikan says, “The theological discussions of the period sometimes dealt with issues that did not directly involve the belief, teaching, and confession of the church.”[3] He goes on to list some of those theological discussions: whether a monk who died and then was resurrected would be obliged to return to the same religious order; whether or not the body of Christ after His resurrection had been able to digest food; whether or not Christ was alive when the lance pierced His side; the color of the Virgin Mary’s hair; the fact that Mary was conversant in the seven liberal arts, including astronomy, as well as with theology, as summarized in the Sentences of Peter Lombard.[4] Looking at it from this vantage-point, one can hardly blame Luther for his attitude toward Aristotelian scholastic theology, if in fact it can be said to be the catalyst of such speculation.

Though late medieval scholasticism had its faults, Calvin, for example, took the positive scholastic element of systemization and applied it in producing his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

[1] See David C. Steinmetz, Luther in Context (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995), 56, where Steinmetz says, “No historian would seriously dispute the proposition that Luther’s break with scholastic theology was primarily a break with the theology of his own Occamist teachers.”

[2] McGrath, A Life of John Calvin (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995 reprint), 40.

[3] Pelikan, Reformation, 13, 14.

[4] See Pelikan, Reformation, 38-50 for a synopsis of the development of late Medieval Mariology.

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