Introduction to Scholastic Theology
by Ulrich G. Leinsle
trans. Michael J. Miller
Catholic University of America, 392 pages, $29.95
The standard narratives of twentieth-century Catholic theology written in the past forty years typically depict the ways in which modern Catholic theologians managed to throw off the shackles and constraints of neo-Scholasticism, a necessary step in finally allowing the Church to embrace the historical study of Scripture, incorporate patristic theology, and engage in a creative encounter with modern ideas. It’s an inspiring story, and one that has taken firm hold over our theological imaginations. Several generations of theologians (young and now not so young) hear the word “Scholasticism” and feel a surging desire to storm the Bastille, even long after the gardens of decay have grown over the ruins of the old Scholastic fortresses.
But what is this supposedly dry and dusty thing called Scholasticism? Ulrich Leinsle, who teaches at the University of Regensburg, seeks to provide an answer through an extensive and impressive study of the historical forms of Scholastic theology, beginning from the time of Augustine of Hippo down to the eighteenth century. He documents—with textual analysis and conceptual clarity—the rise of Scholastic methods in the Carolingian age to the development of high Scholasticism in the medieval university with thinkers like Albert, Bonaventure, and Aquinas. He continues the story with the development of nominalism and the Via Moderna, humanistic and Reformation reactions against Scholasticism, and the modern elaboration of Scholastic theologies among both Catholics and Protestants, on to the age of the Enlightenment.
In this detailed study, Leinsle shows that many truisms that animate the standard narratives of Catholic theology are false. For example, he refutes the notion that Scholastic methods were introduced into theology as an alternative to scriptural reading and biblical commentary. On the contrary, from the sixth century onward, collections of theological sentences were gathered within glosses on Scripture precisely to help readers interpret the sacred text. Patristic citations were assembled by monastic communities in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in order to facilitate understanding of the discrete senses of Scripture (the literal sense, the typological, the moral, and the analogical). The first concordances of terms and Bible verses were created by twelfth-century Scholastics in order to compare terms and analyze the meaning of Scripture as a coherent whole.
More decisively, Leinsle shows that our presumption that Scholasticism encourages an insular and isolated mentality is exactly the opposite of the truth. The theology of the high Middle Ages was focused on a central question: In light of the discovery of Aristotelian philosophy, what is the scientific status of Christian theology? In other words, in what sense is Christian theology the queen of the sciences, the most complete view of the world available to human beings? How does it relate then to philosophical or scientific knowledge that derives from natural experience as such—in a respectful and critical way? These are not easy questions to contend with. But they are also unavoidable for an intellectually serious Christian culture.
Leinsle documents the competing answers, ranging from Alexander of Hales through Aquinas, to Henry of Ghent and Duns Scotus. He clearly admires how the early Franciscans and Dominicans were able to underscore both the speculative and the practical dimensions of theology. The theologian aspires toward the vision of God, and he does so by cultivating the virtues of piety and worship as well as through the struggle to love one’s fellow man. The Scholasticism of the high Middle Ages, as Leinsle shows, was not only a body of knowledge concerning the ultimate truth about God but also a science of divine love that aspired to union with God. So much for the false notion that Scholasticism lacks spiritual depth.
The most fascinating and original dimension of the book is found in its portrait of the interior tensions within both Protestant and Catholic theology from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Leinsle provides important analysis of this understudied subject. We learn, for instance, how Gregory of Rimini’s theories of extrinsic justification (faith without works or any required consent of the will) and radical depravity (all human acts without grace are inherently morally corrupt) came to influence Luther. Melanchthon, meanwhile, initially embraced a Lutheran critique of Scholasticism but eventually sought to rehabilitate the study of Aristotle and metaphysical categories. His efforts prefigured the rise of a sophisticated seventeenth-century Lutheran Scholasticism. Leinsle documents parallel developments in the Reformed tradition in the seventeenth century, when Calvinists made use of the work of Thomas Aquinas to articulate a “biblical” Reformed ¬theology.
Leinsle charts the ways in which Dominicans and Jesuits played key roles in the development of modern Catholic thought. The great Dominican Thomas de Vio (Cajetan) renewed Thomism by way of a Renaissance concern for textual study, returning to the genre of commentary on the works of Aristotle and Scripture as well as of Aquinas himself. From its initial Constitutions of 1540 until its suppression in 1773, the Society of Jesus gave pride of place to Scholastic study (principally Aquinas) and in so doing brought a wealth of analytical argumentation in favor of Christianity to the universities of Europe, which were increasingly influenced by new forms of natural science. The Jesuits were also famous as controversialists. Robert Bellarmine’s De Controversiis (written principally in response to Luther’s theology) exemplifies the success of this endeavor. The treatise went through twenty editions. Widely disseminated throughout the universities, Bellarmine’s Scholasticism brought an admirable clarity to the great theological debates of the Reformation, and the patient, methodical character of his approach encouraged an irenic tone.
In the modern age, from the controversies concerning Copernican astronomy to debates about grace and free will, Scholastic thinkers have repeatedly sought to harmonize and coordinate revealed truths with philosophical and scientific understandings of reality—always seeking the greater Catholic universality of thought and perspective. Looking back, one cannot help but be overawed by the intellectual achievement, one that combined a remarkable scope of synthesis with depth of spiritual conviction.
What is the importance of all of this in the end? We are accustomed to thinking of Scholasticism as simply “another perspective,” a tradition to be placed alongside other modes of theology. This is a mistaken assumption about theological history. In a certain sense, the rich and varied tradition of Scholasticism plays a central, inevitable role in the trajectory of Christian faith in the West, for it was an inevitable upshot of the desire to take the truths of Christ seriously in a thoroughly intellectual way. Scholasticism expressed the great genius of Western Christianity: its willingness to confront problems internal to the faith and to place this ongoing quest for understanding in continual dialogue with other forms of knowledge. It sought (to paraphrase George Lindbeck) to “untie intellectual knots by intellectual means” and in so doing to see the whole of things in relation to God. In other words, Scholasticism, or more precisely Scholasticisms of various sorts, sought to discern and convey—within the unique light of Christ—the truth that was truly universal, truly “catholic.”
In the first volume of his Church Dogmatics (1932), Karl Barth provocatively wrote: “Fear of Scholasticism is the mark of a false prophet.” As a well-known critic of modern Catholic theology, Barth was not commending specific Scholastic arguments or conclusions. Instead, he was making a broader point about the intellectual project of Scholasticism, which he thought indispensable. Authentic biblical speculation requires a search for the internal coherence of Christian thought, which, in turn, calls for us to take up the characteristic methods of Scholasticism: rigorous examination of terms and definitions, confrontation, engagement, correction, and assimilation of legitimate secular and philosophical ideas—all in the service of Christian ¬revelation.
It was to be an irony of history that post–Vatican II Catholicism came to manifest the fear of Scholasticism that Karl Barth regarded as the sign of false prophecy. False or not, it certainly has been a sign of doctrinal confusion and theological disorientation. Moreover, this fear has been misguided. One of the central goals of Vatican II was a renewed and confident engagement with the fullness of truth—both revealed and natural, both within the Church and as part of the wider culture. It is precisely this confident engagement that has long defined Scholasticism, the theological tradition that affirms both the universality of truth and its full and definitive expression in Christ. This simultaneous commitment has long been one of the key strengths of Scholasticism, which is why it has played a formative role in the life of the Church. For the same reason, Scholastic thinking, however varied in its particulars, must surely play a central role in the future of Catholic theology.
Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., teaches at the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.