What is Theology?

Theology is the study of God. Medieval scholastic theology meant the study of the God of Catholic Christianity and of the word of God understood as revealed in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, which were commonly called the Old and New Testament.

Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) formulated the goal of theology as faith seeking understanding in his pithy slogan, “I believe in order that I may understand (Credo ut intelligam)”. But the basic idea is found as early as Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430), who said in On Free Choice (De libero arbitrio) 2.2.5, “But we desire to know and understand what we believe.” Anselm and Augustine wanted to understand the content of the Christian faith, to the extent that they were able.

Preambles of Faith, Articles of Faith

By the time of Saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225 –1274), one of the greatest medieval theologians, there was a distinction between the articles of faith and the preambles of faith. The preambles of faith were truths that were revealed by God but that could be known without revelation and faith, although only with difficulty and only by a few, such as the existence of God as the source of all things apart from himself. The articles of faith were truths that were revealed by God but that could only be known through faith and revelation and that, even with revelation, could at best be understood only negatively, that is, known not to be impossible, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation.

Incarnation: the Son's taking a human body to become the human savior or Christ

Some theologians, such as Anselm of Canterbury and William of Auvergne, emphasized the extent to which the articles of faith or mysteries were accessible to reason. Others limited the role of reason and emphasized the need for faith.

Whether they gave reason a larger or smaller role to play, however, practically all medieval theologians agreed that theology was a partnership between the exercise of faith in revealed truth and the exercise of human reason in trying to comprehend that truth. At the very least, reason was involved in understanding its own limits.

Medieval Theology in the Thirteenth Century

A number of factors gave the theology of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries its special character. First of all, the translation of works of:

  • ancient Greek scientists and philosophers, especially Aristotle (384–322)
  • Islamic philosophers, such as Ibn Sina, known in Latin as Avicenna (980–1037), and Ibn Rushd, known in Latin as Averroes (1126–1198)
  • the Jewish philosopher, Moses Ben Maimon, or Maimonides (c. 1135–1204).

These translations marked a major turning point in Western philosophical and theological thought. Until that time the Latin West knew very little Plato and only the logical works of Aristotle, which had been translated into Latin by Boethius (480–524 or 525). Many more Greek philosophical texts were translated by James of Venice and others around 1150, but they had minimal impact before the Aristotelian commentary tradition reached Europe as the result of translators working from Arabic texts in Spain from about 1160.

Not long after the translation and introduction of the Arabic works of Averroes in about 1225, Scholastic authors began commenting on the whole Aristotelian corpus, working primarily with Greek-based translations.

For the first time the Latin West was confronted with a philosophical understanding of God and the world that was independent of the Christian faith and often contrary to parts of the faith. As a result medieval theologians of the thirteenth century drew a sharper distinction between reason and faith, between nature and grace, and between philosophy and theology. Augustine had said that true philosophy has no other task than understanding the Christian mysteries.1 He used the term “theology” only for the pagan accounts of the gods.2 But for thinkers of the thirteenth century, philosophy meant what human reason could come to know without the aid of faith and revelation, while theology or divine “science” was an attempt to understand the content of faith.

The Role of the Universities

Another major change in Western learning stemmed from the founding of the universities, such as Paris and Oxford, which replaced earlier monastic and cathedral schools as the most prestigious centers for theological study. Many features of our modern universities stem from the medieval universities, such as the degrees of bachelor, master, and doctor, and the division of the university into faculties, such as arts, medicine, law, and theology.

Students now took courses in philosophy during their undergraduate years while studying with the faculty of arts. The study of theology presupposed a bachelor’s degree in arts, had its own faculty, and marked the highest level of university study. While Aristotle and the Islamic philosophers were the principal authors studied in philosophy, the Sentences of Peter Lombard (c. 1100–1160) provided the standard textbook in theology. A student of theology was required to spend 1-2 years lecturing and commenting on Lombard’s Sentences prior to getting a doctoral degree.

The many surviving books of such commentaries are one of the most important sources for understanding medieval theology. The Sentences were a series of questions organized into four books on the topics of:

  • the one and triune God
  • creation and the fall of man
  • redemption
  • the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

The pattern in the Sentences of movement from God to creation, the fall, redemption, and the return to God is found in the great theological summations or Summae of the thirteenth century, such as Aquinas’s Summa theologiae and William of Auvergne’s Teaching on God in the Mode of Wisdom (Magisterium divinale et sapientiale).

The teaching of theology in the ordinary course of the year was done mainly through lectures (lecturae), which literally meant “readings.” In a period before printed books, a master read texts to students and commented on them, and the students in turn took down what the master read along with his comments, thus producing a text of their own.

Disputations were another method of teaching in a series of questions on a specific topic, such as Aquinas’ Disputed questions on truth (Quaestiones disputatae de veritate). Twice a year in Advent and in Lent masters of theology also held public disputations at which a master entertained questions proposed by anyone in the university on any subject in philosophy, theology, or ecclesiastical doctrine (Quaestiones quodlibetales). Henry of Ghent produced fifteen sets of Quodlibetal Questions during his long teaching career. Here are a few of the 42 questions Henry of Ghent considered in his first Quodlibet, dated 1276.

Hide the questions

  • Whether there is personal goodness in God
  • Whether God could have assumed a human form from eternity
  • Whether Christ may see himself in the sacrament with his corporeal eyes
  • Whether matter could exist without form
  • Whether if the reason errs, the will sins more by following it or acting against it
  • Whether a baby [born to Christians but] dying before baptism would be as much punished for original sin as a baby Saracen
  • Whether a teacher who principally intends by teaching to achieve his own glory sins mortally.

The Scope of Medieval Theology

The task of medieval theology was twofold: to understand the content of the faith and to defend it against the perceived errors of philosophers or heretics. Understanding of the Christian faith focused on theological topics such as

  • the oneness of God in the three divine persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  • the Incarnation
  • the redemption of mankind through Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection
  • the Church and its sacraments.
sacraments: 7 rituals that mark the liturgical life of the church and convey the gift of grace to participants: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Last Rites (Anointing of the Sick), Ordination, Matrimony

Theologians also confronted various views incompatible with Christian teachings stemming from the works of Greek and Islamic philosophers. They defended established doctrines of the faith not merely in matters concerned with God, but also in those concerning human beings and their world. For example, Aristotle and Avicenna had taught and claimed to have proved demonstratively that the world always existed.

Avicenna held that the world proceeded from the First Principle by a necessary emanation rather than by a free act of creation, as the Christian faith taught. He also held that from the First Principle there could come only one effect, from which once again only one effect could come, and so on. As Avicenna saw it, there was a series of immaterial intelligences called separated substances, the last of which was the source of everything in the sublunar world.

Aristotle and others also taught that God knew nothing of what happens in the world and does not have any providential care for human affairs. Averroes taught that there was only one intellect for the whole human race, a doctrine that implicitly denied personal immortality.

Besides the challenges that Greek and Arabic philosophy posed, theologians of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries had to deal with another major challenge coming from the medieval Cathars of Southern France. Like the Manichees of Augustine’s day, the Cathars taught that two eternal principles, one good and one evil, were responsible for creation. They rejected the material world as a product of the evil God who used it to take the good spiritual order captive.

Hence, Christian theologians dealt not merely with the one and triune God and redemption by God in his Church, but attempted to prove the reasonableness of the Christian faith in a free creation in time of a good world by a good God, who gave to rational creatures not merely an intellect that could come to know him, but a will that could freely love him or freely sin in turning away from him. Thus the scope of medieval theology extended beyond God in himself to the whole of creation in its relation to God.

Mendicant and Secular Theologians

mendicant theologians: members of a religious order committed to poverty who supported themselves in part by begging
secular theologians: theologians who are not members of a religious order

Another important factor in furthering the development of medieval theology was the emergence of the Mendicant Orders, namely, the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), and the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans). Members of these Orders taught philosophy and theology in their own houses of study, but soon attained chairs in theology at the universities where they became the leading theologians of the thirteenth century. Among these the most prominent were the Franciscans Alexander of Hales and Saint Bonaventure and the Domincans Saints Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas.

There were also great secular masters, such as William of Auvergne, bishop of Paris from 1228 until his death in 1249, and Henry of Ghent, archdeacon of Tournai, who was a master of theology at the University of Paris from 1276 until shortly before his death in 1293. The secular masters, however, never had quite the same intellectual impact on future generations, at least partially due to the lack of a religious order that adopted many of their teachings.

Conflicts with Philosophy

In the second quarter of the thirteenth century William of Auvergne was one of the first theologians to encounter the new philosophical texts translated into Latin. He did not, however, have the full Aristotelian corpus and knew, for example, only the two books of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that were in the oldest translation (versio antiquissima). He read and knew Avicenna better than he knew Aristotle and frequently confused teachings of the great Islamic thinker with those of Aristotle. William, however, was open to the thought of Aristotle and his followers and accepted it, wherever it was not in conflict with Christian doctrine.

By the third quarter of the century theologians knew Aristotle quite well, although some continued to regard Aristotle as a source of more error than insight and to hold to the more traditional Platonic and Augustinian heritage. Bonaventure and his immediate Franciscan confreres, for example, regarded the Aristotelian rejection of the Platonic ideas as a monstrous conflict with the Catholic tradition.

Others, such as the Dominicans, Albertus Magnus and Thomas, interpreted Aristotle in a more benign fashion and incorporated much more of Aristotle’s thought into their theology. Some philosophers in the arts faculty at Paris adopted an Averroist interpretation of Aristotle contrary to the Christian faith, such as the eternity of the world or the oneness of the human intellect for all human beings. Siger of Brabant is regarded as the leading representative of Latin Averroism.

Even scholastics most influenced by the new Aristotelian works rejected some of its teachings. Though they were distinguished interpreters of Avicenna, both William of Auvergne and Albertus Magnus rejected Avicenna's characteristic teachings about the agent intelligence. Though Richard Rufus esteemed Averroes greatly, he attacked Averroes' claim that God knows nothing of the world and does not care for creatures. Thomas Aquinas wrote a treatise attacking Averroists called On the Unity of the Intellect against the Averroists (De unitate intellectus contra Averroistas).

By the year 1277 the danger of some Aristotelian thought was perceived as sufficiently great to merit ecclesiastical condemnation. The bishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier, condemned 219 propositions as erroneous. Some scholars have viewed the condemnations as a turning point in medieval theology away from a confidence in the power of human reason and a move toward a greater emphasis on God’s absolute power and freedom. Henry of Ghent, one of the authors of the condemnations, though deeply influenced by Aquinas, clearly believed that Aristotelian thought must be corrected and Augustinian theology reemphasized. The extent to which the condemned propositions touched the doctrine of Saint Thomas is debated, but the condemnations clearly indicated a determination to restrict Aristotelian speculation.

The Fourteenth Century

The implications of Aristotelian natural philosophy for Christian belief preoccupied thirteenth-century theologians. After the condemnations of 1277, theologians of the fourteenth century moved beyond the question of how to integrate Aristotle with Christian faith to the question of what theology should look like after the limits of such integration were drawn. It was a time of theological innovation.

The Franciscan John Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308), who studied and taught at Oxford, Paris and Bologna, framed the issues for those who succeeded him. The most significant of his contributions revolutionized the way scholars envisioned necessity and contingency. Necessary causes produce necessary effects. Contingent causes, or causes whose effects could be other than they are, produce contingent effects. In the thirteenth century, God’s causal act in creating the world was often viewed as an instance of necessary causality. However, we experience ourselves and the world as in many ways contingent. Contingency was thought to arise at the level of immediate “proximate” causes, which sometimes bring about their effects and sometimes do not.Scotus argued that such a shift from necessary to contingent causality made no sense. Contingency must begin in God’s first creative act and descend through all the chains of causality in the world. God acts in complete freedom.

Developing a theology in which things could and even can be other than they are preoccupied many fourteenth-century theologians. Their debates now focused in particular on:

  • God’s foreknowledge of future contingents
  • the necessity of divine revelation and whether God could reveal something false,
  • human free will, the role of conscience and ethics more generally.

Covenantal Theology

What scholars have termed “covenantal” theology emerged as one response. In covenantal theology, God is understood as having established through history a series of covenants or agreements with human beings. After the Incarnation, under the covenant God established under the New Law of Christ, God has promised that if people do their best to adhere to what they understand God has asked of them, he will not deny them salvation. The things God asks are not intrinsically good in themselves in a way that would require God to grant salvation in exchange. But God has, of his free mercy and goodness, promised that he will reward a commitment to obey and to do what he asks. The keys to the kingdom lie in good human intentions and in striving to do one's best with the help of the church and its sacraments.

Given the contingency of the world, studying the nature of the created order and the patterns of history could not produce certain knowledge about the future. The best that we can get are probabilities. Under those circumstances, knowing the truth with certainty could not be the criterion for salvation. Doing one’s best with the the intention of obeying God and with faith in God’s promises was considered enough.

The role of reason in theology shifted and the necessity of revelation was emphasized more. But paradoxically, theologians brought much more sophisticated logical tools to bear on the theological problems that they addressed. Developments in logic that extended the Aristotelian foundations provided the means for untying difficult theological knots and also new grounds for puzzlement. Students at the universities studied logic as a major part of the undergraduate curriculum. Franciscans and Dominicans undertook a similar course of study in the schools of their orders.

Theological texts used logical methods throughout the medieval period, but their level of difficulty and the technical skill required for understanding them, particularly in England, increased appreciably. Logical sophistication culminated in the British Franciscan William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347), who wrote a highly innovative, exhaustive and influential book on logic, the Summa logicae. He developed a theory of terms, propositions and logical errors that informed his extensive theological work. Ockham used logic to explore the limits of reason. For instance, he rejected the idea that reason could prove the existence of a creator God. It could not even prove there was a single God. At best it could prove the need for gods who conserved the world in being. That did not mean reason had no place in theology. Instead, it meant that reason needed to be very precise about just what it could and could not do.

A few theologians reacted strongly against the covenantal theologians. Thomas Bradwardine (c. 1290-1349), a highly skilled Master of Arts, secular theologian and at the end of his life Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a massive work On Behalf of God (De causa Dei) in which he attacked those whom he called “Pelagiansafter the ancient opponent of Augustine. He argued in favor of God’s necessitating providential power, operative in every aspect of human life. According to Bradwardine, human freedom was limited to the will’s choice of the good under the influence of grace.

Gregory of Rimini (c. 1300-1358), a Parisian theologian whom Bradwardine influenced, also reacted against the idea of human beings operating in any sense freely without the special help of God. Bradwardine and Rimini would in turn influence Martin Luther . Rimini’s commentary on the Sentences was particularly encyclopedic. It introduced his fellow Parisians to many of the most sophisticated English theologians. Even though in his own theology he often took his cue from Augustine (the namesake of his order: the Augustinian Hermits or Austin Friars), Rimini understood and appreciated the complex positions of Ockham and his followers. Although some hostile Parisians called these “English subtleties,” a number of Parisian and other theologians on the European continent also came to appreciate them.

A Very Brief History of Medieval Theology

To summarize, medieval theology begins with the exploration of scripture by monks in the monasteries but starts to shift to the use of extended argument (dialectic) and the application of logic with men like Anselm at the end of the eleventh century. In the twelfth century, Peter Lombard brought system and order to the theological program when he wrote the basic theology textbook that all theologians would study for the next several centuries. In the thirteenth century, Lombard's text was introduced at medieval universities.

During the thirteenth century, the introduction of Aristotelian and Arabic thought challenged Christian theologians. William of Auvergne appreciated the problems posed by Avicenna's views. Robert Grosseteste called attention to the incompatibility of Aristotle's views with Christian doctrine, but at the same time helped introduce the study of Aristotelian ethics. Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas synthesized the major insights of the Aristotelian tradition with Christian doctrine.The Condemnations of 1277 set limits on how far such synthetic projects might proceed.

The fourteenth century was a period of innovation, logical sophistication, and greater skepticism about the ability of reason to prove basic Christian beliefs. One of its innovations was the development of covenantal theology. The theological views of Bradwardine and Rimini about the limits of human freedom also influenced the theologians who rejected the authority of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth-century. From the eleventh to the fourteenth century, the Middle Ages were marked by a remarkable number of brilliant theologians.

1. See Augustine, On Order (De ordine) 2.5.16.

2. See Augustine, The City of God (De civitate Dei) 6.5-6.