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Higher Scholasticism

1.The thirteenth century was an age of great intellectual ferment and remarkable creativity, and is distinguished by a series of brilliant thinkers, including several of uncontested genius, who produced comprehensive surveys (summae) of theology that made free and full use of philosophy and the dialectical method to establish their conclusions. Though the logic employed was invariably Aristotelian, the philosophy was usually an eclectic mix of Aristotle and Neoplatonism. Virtually all the great theologians between 1250 and 1350 were members of the mendicant orders, and most were natives of either Italy or England, even though Paris continued to be the intellectual capital of Europe. Undoubtedly the most well known of these theologians, at least in the West is Thomas Aquinas (1224/5 - 1274). Of his writings, which number about one hundred, the most important are his two great theological syntheses: The "Summa contra gentiles", written between 1259 and 1264 for use by Dominican missionaries preaching against Muslims, Jews, and heretical Christians in Spain; and the "Summa theologia", the crown of his genius, begun in 1265 as a textbook for beginners in theology and left unfinished at his death. The aim of all theological investigation, according to Thomas, is to give true knowledge of God and of humanity's supernatural origin and destiny. Such knowledge comes in part by natural human reason, which can apprehend the rational "preambles of faith", namely, the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient God and the immortality of the soul. Thomas' insistence that these truths can be attained apart from the divine illumination of the mind, solely through inferential reasoning from the observed character of the world, was a revolutionary break with the Augustinian-Franciscan (Platonic) tradition. Thomas also defended the root Aristotelian premise that all true knowledge, including knowledge of God, begins with sense experience. The existence of God, therefore, is not self-evident: it is known mediately through reflection on the data of experience, not immediately through the soul's probing of its own depths (Augustine-Bonaventure) or through the mind's possession of the very idea of God (Anselm).

2. Natural reason knows nothing of those "mysteries of faith" which are necessary to eternal blessing, such truths, namely, as the existence of God as a Holy trinity, the incarnation of God the Son in Jesus Christ and the world's redemption through him, the resurrection of the body and the Last Judgment, etc. Reason, therefore, must be perfected by the divine revelation (sacra doctrina) contained in the canonical Scriptures. The Scriptures are the only final authority (regula fidei), though they are always to be understood in light of the interpretations of the church fathers, the decrees of the church councils, and the papal definitions of the faith; in short, as comprehended by the teaching authority of the church. While these revealed truths lie beyond the capacity of reason, they are not opposed to reason, and reason, illumined by faith, can show the inadequacy of objections to them. Thomas did, however, carefully distinguish between philosophy and theology, without separating them. They are two independent "sciences" he argued, two distinct modes of knowing, but they are congruent inasmuch as the knowledge of God, natural theology, is common to both disciplines. Here then is the famous Thomistic synthesis of faith and reason, in which reason, specifically Aristotelian philosophy, is granted its own integrity and authority. Yet Thomas also yoked them together as unequals, insofar as natural reason must be completed by divine revelation, in keeping with the fundamental Thomistic axiom the "grace does not destroy but perfects nature". Thus synthesis did not preclude subordination and Thomas remained throughout a committed Christian theologian who viewed the function of philosophy in the light of humanity's supernatural destiny to "see" and "enjoy" God in heaven.

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

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