Church History Study Helps:
     Early Scholasticism

Early Scholasticism

1. The medieval schools differed widely in their character and influence. Beginning in the eleventh century a new class of professional teacher had made its appearance, the peripatetic or wandering master, who moved from place to place and attracted students by his personal magnetism or dialectical acumen. The outstanding representative of this class of scholar was Peter Abelard. The Peripatetics played a leading role in the intellectual life of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Their very mobility, a new phenomenon, contrasting with the "stability" of the traditional monastic theologians, mirrored the intellectual restlessness and vitality of the first great age of Scholasticism.

2. Scholastic theology, on the other hand, was taught chiefly in the urban cathedral schools, where clerics who had already been trained in the liberal arts were prepared for an active pastoral life in the world, under the direction of a schoolmaster (scholasticus). Such study was largely speculative or "theoretical" and had as its purpose the attainment of "knowledge" (scientia), or logically defensible truth. One studied the bible and approved authorities by the use of the dialectical or "questioning" method. Peter Abelard and Peter Lombard were eminent Scholastic theologians in the twelfth century.

3. The distinguishing mark of Scholasticism, in the last analysis, was its adoption of a common method of inquiry: the method of discovering and defending philosophical or theological truth by means of Aristotelian logic or dialectic. The dialectic method involved three basic steps: the posing of a question, followed by argument for and against answers proposed by earlier authorities, ending in a conclusion that is logically warranted. In the domain of Christian theology, where the biblical revelation was understood as something given once for all to sin-darkened minds, the dialectic method did not presume to generate new truths. Its avowed purpose was to analyze, explain, and defend the Christian faith as a body of divinely revealed truths (corpus doctrinae) deposited in Holy Scripture and handed down by the church's authorized teachers. Scholastic theology, therefore, moved within the framework of revelation and the church's traditions of interpretation. In this respect Scholasticism may be defined as the rational attempt to penetrate the revealed data of faith through a logical apparatus.

4. The development of Scholasticism was accompanied by a discussion about the nature of "universals", that is, about the existence of genera and species, a debate occasioned by Porphyry's Isagogue. Three main positions were taken. The extreme "realists" following Platonic influences asserted that universals exist apart from and antecedent to the individual objects, ante rem. That is, the genus "man" is anterior to and determinative of the individual man. The moderate "realists" under the guidance of Aristotle taught that universals exist only in connection with individual objects, in re. The "nominalists", holding that only individual things exist, maintained that universals are mere words or abstract names (nomina) for the similarities of individuals and have no existence other than in thought, post rem.

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

  • home quodlibet journal theo blog sermons theology e-texts church history forum home