To Eusebius, the reign of Constantine meant victory—victory for the Church, victory for the Roman Empire, and victory for the truth. There final pages of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History are about as optimistic in outlook as anything ever written in human history. And no wonder! With Constantine, Rome seemed to be on track to peace and prosperity. The persecutions were at an end, and Christianity was now a favored religion. And the combination of scriptural truth with the aid of all that human reason could add made it seem like mankind had at last awakened from an era of great darkness: and, in a certain sense, it had. Romans were freed from the superstitious beliefs and practices of the old pagan tradition: a dramatic and unquestionably positive change.<>But the victory of truth was marred by, oddly enough, what seemed to be the pursuit of truth. Christian thinkers and writers tried to get their theology exactly right. What was the relationship between God the Father and God the Son? What was the relationship between the human and divine natures of Christ? Is it right or not to call Mary the Mother of God? And what about images: useful aids to worship, or the equivalent of idolatry? > <>
Not long after the death of Jerome (420) and Augustine (430), the western portion of the Roman Empire fell apart pretty much completely. For centuries, the West had to struggle just to hang on to what it could of the great Christian/classical legacy. There were few original contributions to philosophy, theology, or literature. Books were expensive and rare, and literacy rates were quite low. Benedictine monks spent hour upon hour copying manuscripts, salvaging what could be salvages of the achievements of the past. But around 1000 AD, Europe enters a much brighter period, the beginnings of what we call the High Middle Ages (1000-1300).
[Notice that I have just skipped six centuries here, and I have left out some fascinating stories, and some potentially important apologetic themes. St. Patrick’s account of his endeavors among the Irish, and the Venerable Bede’s story of the growth of the church in England have important apologetic themes. In the east, the scholars of the Byzantine Empire continued to employ the classical/Christian synthesis in their theological writings, and the confrontation with the Moslem led to the exploration of new apologetic themes.]<>As Europe prospered once again, literacy and learning took off, and the great thinkers of this era were able to do more than preserve the great works of the past. The High Middle Ages added much to poetry, history, theater, philosophy, theology—and to apologetics.
Anselm is most famous today for his ontological proof of the existence of God. Anselm starts with a definition of God: God is the greatest being you can think of. What is the greatest being you can think of? Well this being should have every good attribute imaginable. The being should be omnipotent and omniscient, loving and merciful, just and eternal.
suppose we think of two beings,
one with all those characteristics that exists, and one with all those
wonderful characteristics that does not exist. Obviously, the
does not exist is hardly the greatest we can think of! So that
God. God must be the being with all those wonderful
exists--by definition--since the greatest being we can think of must
it's not the greatest being we can think of!!! Not only that, God
have all those other wonderful characteristics too, because a being
one of them would not be the greatest being we can think of and hence
[See this site for more on Anselm and the ontological proof for the existence of God]
Anselm’s proof is completely valid--at least, if one allows the correctness of Plato’s assumption that the real world is the world of ideas.
But there is a lot more to Anselm than intellectual proof: the ontological argument is only a very small part of Monologium and Proslogium. Both books read as devotional texts—meditations on the greatness of God. Throughout, Anselm is constantly asking for God’s guidance in exploring philosophical/theological question. Anselm begins by speculating on text, “The fool hath said in his heart there is no God.” What he is looking at is the relationship of head to heart. If our heart isn’t in the right place, we will use our reason in the wrong way. And if what’s in our heads is fuzzy, our heads will mislead our hearts. Anselm gets heart and head working together, and the result is beautiful.
[Note that “humility” didn’t turn Anselm into a wimp. He stood up forcefully to the misdeeds of William II, and suffered exile twice. L. Russ Bush elaborates a bit on these themes in his introductory comments in your “Classical Readings” book.]
Quite a few subsequent thinkers reject Anselm’s approach to apologetics as a dead end: but equally important philosophers and theologians use Anselm’s ideas as there starting point. His Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man) offers an exceptionally convincing explanation of the incarnation—though an explanation somewhat at odds with that of other Christian thinkers.
The Middle Ages is rightly labeled the Age of Faith, but it was definitely not of age of blind faith. Socrates said an unexamined life was not worth living. The theologians of the High Middle Ages seemed to think tan unexamined faith is not worth having. A great example of a thoroughly examined faith: Peter Abelard.
Abelard was a teacher in Paris, and absolutely loved by his students—in one case, too much loved. The student who loved him too much was a young woman named Heloise.
In addition to his usual teaching assignments, Abelard was paid to be Heloise’s private tutor. She was 19, he 20 years older: and they developed the kind of close relationship that the precocious student and the brilliant teacher often have. But then the relationship got too close. They ended up having an affair, and Heloise got pregnant. They then got married, but this was not enough for Heloise furious guardian. He sent thugs to beat up Abelard, and they ended up castrating him as well.
Still in love, but not with no future in married life, Abelard became an abbot while Heloise became the abbess of a sister convent. Astrolabe, their son, was raised by Abelard’s sister.
Abelard and Heloise carry on a long and fascinating correspondence, and they never lose their love for one another. In his last letter, Abelard wrote, “I hope you are willing, when you have finished this mortal life, to be buried near me.”
Well, they were buried together, and on their tombstone was this epitaph:
Here under the same stone, repose, of this monastery the founder, Peter Abelard, and the first abbess, Heloise, heretofore in study, genius, love, inauspicious marriage, repentance, now, as we hope, in eternal happiness united.
How romantic! But even this wasn't enough for 19th century admirers of the couple. In the 19th century, their remains were dug up and burned. Their ashes were mingled together, and they were reburied.
Well, back to Abelard's teaching. Abelard is most famous for his book Sic et Non (Yes and No), a book that deals with 156 questions on which church authorities seemed to disagree. Here are some of these questions:
Was exploring such questions a problem, a source of doubt? Some of his contemporaries thought so, and Abelard had to defend himself against charges of heresy. But Abelard himself believed that exploring such questions leads to more solid faith, and I am inclined to agree. But even better, when one finds satisfactory answers for one's questions, and that's something medieval theologians did exceedingly well. As an example: St. Thomas Aquinas.
this site for more on Peter
St. Thomas Aquinas came from a privileged background. He was closely related to the Emperor, and his parents wanted him to be (perhaps) bishop or even pope. He chose instead to join the Dominican order as an ordinary monk. As a Dominican, he was free to study and travel. He was a student at the University of Paris, and later a teacher there. He ended up writing lots and lots of important things, the two most important of which are the Summa Contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologica. The first is a great defense of the Christian faith, one of the best ever written. Aquinas systematically explains why Christianity is more likely to be true than any alternative religion or philosophy. The other, the Summa Theologica, is a great work of systematic theology, an attempt to bring all the teachings of scripture into a coherent whole and to show us how we ought to apply those teachings.
Unlike most important theological and philosophical works, the works of Aquinas are very easy to understand and follow. He uses the method of Aristotle, stating a proposition, stating possible objections, and then answering the objections. It's nice and clear and systematic: no wonder so many great minds ever since read these works and adopt the philosophy of Aquinas for their own.
Clear, systematic—and exhaustive. Once again, the Table of Contents is essential to seeing where the writer is going. Here’s a very edited selection of topics from Book III:
[More here on St. Thomas Aquinas and his Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles]
all this is enormously
impressive, and Aquinas would have had reason to be proud of all he had
accomplished. But, like Anselm, Aquinas
stands out for his humility. He was so quiet and humble that his
classmates called him the "dumb ox," not realizing that he was
probably the most brilliant man tey would ever meet. Eventually,
people saw his brilliance. Kings, emperors, and high church
officials asked his advice. But Aquinas view of all this?
straw," he said, all just things that would be burned up. What
counts? At the end of his life, Aquinas was writing on the Song
Solomon which—among other things--is an allegory of God’s love for his
and the way they should return that love. And that's what counts,
Aquinas. Loving God, and resting in His love.
I wish I had a brain like Aquinas. Even more, I wish I had a heart like his.