Student Question

Characterize the three kinds of medieval theology: monastic theology, scholastic thinking, and a third position that tried to integrate the assets of the first two positions.

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Monastic theology is largely defined by its emphasis on inner spirituality. It emphasizes spiritual withdrawal from the material world and ecstasy in the divine presence. In the medieval world, the monastics were monks who immersed themselves in the Scriptures under the spiritual tutelage of an abbot. Theirs was a life of contemplation and self-denial; they eschewed worldly distractions as a matter of practice. Additionally, the monks preached and practiced the doctrine of spiritual warfare and self-purification. Thus, a monastic life consisted of confession, prayer, meditation, and copious self-examination on a daily basis.

On the other hand, the scholastic theologians were learned magistri or masters who favored logic over unconditional faith in matters of theology. Unlike their monastic peers, scholastic theologians preferred to focus on a scientific approach to faith; they championed dialectical and syllogistic reasoning, which involved seeking truth through the process of debate. Scholastic theologians reveled in questions raised by authoritative texts in the religious realm and welcomed the fusion of scholarship and reason in the quest to understand God (using what is called the quaestio method). The masters claimed that the marriage of doctrine and reason produced a sounder faith.

In the meantime, a third position involved combining elements of monastic theology with that of scholastic theology. Peter Abelard, a 12th Century theologian and philosopher, attempted to do this. Abelard did not discount reason in matters of theology, but he maintained that logic had its limits. On the other hand, Abelard also argued vehemently against the anti-dialectic faith in semantic realism. Semantic realists believed that all Scripture is plain, explicit, and invites no profound interpretation of its words.

Abelard preferred to admit that, while logic had its limits, it could prove useful as a frame of reference. For example, Abelard held that the three persons in the Trinity were numerically different but theologically similar. He argued that logic explained this phenomenon to a certain degree, at which point faith carried the day. Essentially, Abelard tried to marry faith and reason in his theology. For more, please refer to the links below.

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