The Theologian - The internet journal for integrated theology

Church History

Were the Humanists Right to Dismiss so much of Medieval Theology?

by James Hughes

The aim of this essay is to assess what the Humanist attack on Medieval Theology was, and then to examine some key examples of that Theology in order to see whether the Humanists were correct to dismiss it.

In order to do this it is first necessary to define the two groups concerned; who were 'the Humanists', and what were they attacking? The Humanists with which this essay is concerned are Northern European Humanists, represented most notably by Erasmus, writing in the first two decades of the sixteenth century. Their alternative approach to learning led them to attack the theology of the preceding centuries on methodological grounds. The caricature which Erasmus (1) draws of these theologians shows that it was 'Scholastic' Theology which was being attacked. Erasmus highlights the 'definitions, conclusions and corollaries' and the 'distinctions' (2) which the theologians draw, a clear reference to the dialectic method which reappeared in Europe during the eleventh century, the method of question, argument and conclusion which can be seen in the writings of the theologians who are commonly termed Scholastics. This method, and the philosophical assumptions associated with it, was still the basis for university education in the early sixteenth century across Europe, and thus Erasmus was attacking a system which was dominant from the eleventh to the sixteenth century.

The reason the discussion should be confined to these dates is because Scholastic Theology flourished within certain environments, firstly monastic and Cathedral schools and later universities. Therefore, although it drew heavily on Platonic, Aristotelian and Augustinian thought, and the authority of other Church Fathers, it grew out of the particular educational environment of the medieval period, which had received certain elements of Greek philosophy but was also concerned to pass on what had already been received.

The Humanist attack on Scholastic Theology can be seen in Erasmus' writings, but before examining how the Humanists were dismissing Scholastic theology, it is worth examining why they were concerned with it. Nauert (3) argues that the Humanists attacked the philosophical and analytical methods of Scholasticism, the dependence on Aristotelian philosophy and use of dialectic, because the humanists were concerned with moral rather than metaphysical certainties, and with rhetoric to explain truth, rather than dialectic which, in their view, spread confusion. In addition, the philological and linguistic concerns of the Humanists, witnessed by Erasmus' Greek New Testament moved away from Scholastic reliance on previous authorities, most notably Lombard's Book of Sentences and his quotation of earlier authorities. Therefore, it is not necessarily the conclusions of the Scholastic theologians that are attacked, but their methodology.

This distinction can be seen in the way in which Erasmus attacks Scholastic theology. He attacks the methods of scholasticism which lead to the 'tortuous obscurities of realists, nominalists, Thomists, Albertists, Ockhamists and Scotists' (4), the accusation is that Scholasticism had become unreadable and irrelevant. Later, he attacks the theologians who 'stretch the heavens, that is the scriptures, like tanners with a hide' (5), again, it is their methodology which is under attack, a methodology which, in the opinion of Erasmus, leads them to mistreat Scripture. He brings these criticisms together in his attack on Mendicant preaching (6), where he accuses the Mendicants of putting on a performance, with little attention to the passage and much on difficult theological questions:

Then they let fly at the ignorant crowd their syllogisms, major and minor, conclusions, corollaries, idiotic hypotheses and further scholastic rubbish (7).

In Erasmus' attack, four criteria for assessing the Scholastics can be discerned: their attitude to Scripture, the relevance of their work, the perpiscuity of their writings and the purpose of their work, whether for enlightenment or for performance. These four criteria can equally be applied to the question from a Twentieth Century perspective, for the 'Science treating of God ... and His relation to man' (8) remains concerned with Biblical study and determining what the Bible means, and with how the teaching of the Bible are to be applied, whatever the Confessional background of the Theologian.

There are therefore four criteria with which to examine Scholasticism. However, as has already been indicated, these four criteria focus on the basic philosophical and methodological assumptions behind Scholastic theology, which determined how Scholastics approached the Bible and therefore how the concerns of Scholastic theologians developed. At the heart of Erasmus' attack, and at the heart of Scholastic Theology, was a certain approach to the Bible. Therefore, of the four criteria, the attitude to scripture is the defining one, as from it the others develop.

Scholasticism did not develop in an historical vacuum, and therefore the fact that Scholasticism developed in a university environment, where teachers met, discussed and drew pupils to them according to their abilities and where, during the thirteenth century, controversies and condemnations led to the formation of rival Scholastic groupings meant that the pushing of conclusions to their absolute limits was both dangerous and attractive. In addition, Scholastic Theology developed without the printing press, and therefore Humanist accusations that Scholastics relied too heavily on Lombard's Books of Sentences and other similar works are in part explicable by the difficulty of producing and reproducing books before 1450. However, this does not make the analysis of the Humanist critique invalid.

The general historical concessus on Scholasticism is that Neoplatonic philosophy with Aristotelian dialectic, kept alive by Augustine and Boethius, was revived in eleventh century Europe, most notably France, flowered with Anselm and Abelard, and was then superseded by Aristotelian philosophy which formed the backbone to the systems of the thirteenth century, most notably that of Aquinas. This system was then attacked from within by Duns Scotus and William Of Ockham. Pieper (9) focuses this more closely: development before Aquinas, Aquinas' system and then disintegration thereafter. The three periods of Scholastic thought are helpful in that each does have distinctive features and a nuanced methodology. This would seem to suggest that the Humanist attack was most relevant to the later Scholastics, the nominalists who followed Ockham, but Erasmus also attacks realists and Thomists, thus embracing the whole of Scholasticism.

The first period could be characterised as 'Faith seeking to Understand' (10). Lanfranc was prepared to use dialectic to confirm the mysteries of God (11), and his pupil Anselm, widely recognised as a Scholastic high point, followed this motto. Anselm is credited with developing a significant ontological argument for God, the 'Being than which no greater can exist', and also tackled the question of why God became Man. In this work (12), Anselm begins by outlining his purpose: he uses a question and answer form so that his work would be easier to understand (13), and desires 'to aim to understand what we believe' (14). He acknowledges the limits of human reason: 'whatever a man can say on this subject, the deeper reasons for so great a thing remain hidden' (15). However, the rest of the work belies this introduction. The question and answer form, whilst in theory aiding understanding, leads to a focus on point scoring whilst Scripture quotations, which are used to back both sides of the argument when discussing Christ's willingness to die (16) are increasingly left behind. The Humanists might also object to the way in which the Bible is used; isolated quotations are produced to back arguments which are the product of dialectic reasoning. Anselm's method is summarised by his own conclusion:

   if what we think we have discovered by reason is confirmed by the testimony of the truth, we should ascribe this, not to ourselves, but to God, who is blessed forever. Amen. (17)

Anselm's view is that reason should be applied to the mysteries of the faith, bolstered and corrected by Scriptural quotations. Whilst Humanists may have had no problems with Anselm's conclusions, they may have wished to point out that the mysteries of the faith should be examined as they are revealed in the Bible, rather than as human reason using dialectic methods understands them.

Anselm's methodology in treating Scripture fails the Humanist criteria. In addition, despite the apparent relevance of his subject material, treating of God's existence and of the Incarnation, his methodology means that his work is not necessarily relevant, clear or for enlightenment on the issue of why God became man, because there is no necessity for it to produce an answer which is related to Scripture, the means of discernment accepted by the Humanists.

Abelard represents a further high point in early Scholasticism, not least because of his apparent 'modernism', and his use of reason. Knowles states that he 'undoubtedly extended the province of reason too far' (18) in his 'critical analysis of thought on the basis of linguistic expression' (19). However, his use of the dialectic method is not far removed from that pursued by Anselm, the difference being that Abelard, much less respectful of tradition, was willing to push his ideas further, thus illustrating the problems of early Scholastic methodology; Abelard is not an aberration.

Two aspects of Abelard's work highlight his methodology. He is attributed with popularising the 'Sic et Non' method of examining the Fathers and the Scriptures (20), the method of placing apparently contradictory sources side by side in order to doubt, question and reach the truth. This method is dialectic, treating the 'mysteries of faith' as propositions, to be solved using logic and grammar. In his commentary on Romans (21), Abelard appears to adopt a different method, for example he examines Romans 3:17-26 clause by clause in order to explain its meaning, but this is then used as a starting point for a discussion of a problem over the necessity of Christ's suffering, which, when reconciled to Abelard's satisfaction reaches the conclusion that Christ's death binds us more fully to Him by love. Whatever the merits of this conclusion, it has developed not out of the examination of Romans 3, but out of dialectic reasoning applied to the problem with which Romans 3:17-26 presented Abelard.

Bernard of Clairvaux, opponent of many of Abelard's conclusions, presents an interesting contrast to the dialectic method, arguing both against the way it was used and questioning some of the motives of those who sought knowledge. In questioning the use of dialectic, he stood outside the mainstream of twelfth century Scholasticism, but he provides a useful reminder that medieval thought was not monolithic or wholly dialectic.

However, Peter the Lombard's Books of Sentences, a standard textbook until the Sixteenth Century after approval in 1215 (22), show that the dialectic method remained dominant. He proposes questions, brought authorities for or against and then gave judgement. It was the method of the 'Sic et Non', but as well as demonstrating the continuing importance of dialectic, it is also noticeable that Scriptural quotations within Lombard, for example in his discussion of the Sacrament of Confirmation (23), are contained within quotations from the Fathers. Erasmus' concern with the original Greek Text clearly runs counter to this methodology.

Moving into the thirteenth century, two developments encourage the development of the thought of Scholars such as Aquinas and Bonaventure, the increasing awareness of Aristotelian thought, albeit transmitted through Arab and Jewish editors, and the development of the idea of the Summa. Aquinas is almost universally recognised as the greatest of the medieval Scholastics, but it is also worth examining Bonaventure as his concern with the journey of the mind to God has been suggested to indicate a more theological then philosophical concern, which might suggest an alternative stream of medieval thought.

Aquinas' Summa, whilst very influential since the sixteenth century, is only one of the 'systems' which Erasmus attacks. In addition, in 1277 in Paris and Oxford, and then more explicitly in 1284 and 1286 in Oxford, some of Aquinas' doctrines were condemned. However, Aquinas' thought is still critical, in that he integrates Aristotelian philosophy into what Knowles (24) argues was a new and original Christian philosophy.

In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas begins by outlining the necessity for 'a doctrine founded on revelation, as well as the philosophical sciences discovered by human reason' (25), and expands this dual view of theology, when he explains that theology dependant on philosophy is different from that dependant on revelation (26). He is prepared, then, to approach theology from a philosophical point of view, and when in Question Two of the first part of his Summa Theologica Aquinas examines the existence of God, his philosophical presuppositions can be clearly seen. Aquinas has five ways of proving the existence of God. Firstly, he argues that the fact of motion leads ultimately to the first mover, which Aquinas understands, and presumes others understand as God. (27) Philosophically, there is no need to assume that what Aquinas meant by God is the same as what Aristotle meant by first mover. Thus, Aquinas was dependant on acceptance of the Aristotelian framework in order to understand his thought. In a similar way, the second way (28), the necessity of a first efficient cause, depends on the same philosophical system. This philosophical system becomes more explicit in the fourth way (29), where the philosophical idea that the physical properties of, in this case heat, can be applied to a concept such as goodness is necessary to the argument. These arguments do not then depend upon interpretation of the Bible, rather they depend on the acceptance of a largely Aristotelian philosophical system. In addition, these are arguments, resolved by the familiar method of objection, solution and argument, showing that Aquinas stands within the dialectic tradition. Aquinas is concerned to use Scripture as part of his argument elsewhere in the Summa, but this is Scriptural quotation understood within his philosophical and dialectic framework, not a framework developed from Scripture.

Bonaventure, as has already been stated, has been seen as more of a mystical theologian than a philosopher. However, an examination of 'The Soul's journey into God' (30) demonstrates the fact that Bonaventure inhabits the same thought world as Aquinas. He is exceedingly concerned with divisions and definition, for example the six steps of illumination (31) or the three parts of the mind (32), or seven ways of examining creatures (33) or the three parts of philosophy which each have three parts (34). However, what is most striking about Bonaventure's thought is his tendency to use grammatical distinctions to prove theological points. For example, the three parts of natural philosophy, metaphysics, mathematics and physics relate to God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Spirit, in effect proving the Trinity. In addition, Bonaventure's conception of God the Father is as the 'first principle', again showing his debt to Greek Philosophy, whilst the son, 'The wisdom of the Word' appears as a philosophical concept rather than the incarnate Christ of the Bible, who the Humanists were concerned to 'recover'. Although Erasmus does not mention Bonaventure by name, much of what he and other humanists attacked can be seen in his work, which is philosophically and methodologically Scholastic.

The potential problems of the systems of the thirteenth century did not have to wait until the sixteenth century to be discovered, for Duns Scotus and William of Ockham pointed out the where the systems could be undermined in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. The thought of William of Ockham, nominalism, became dominant from the mid fourteenth century (35), and both figures are attacked by name by Erasmus.

Duns Scotus, in his Commentary on the sentences, examined whether 'the existence of God is known per se' (36). Using logical reasoning and some new terminology, Scotus attacks the proposition that God is known per se, finding logical reasons why it does not follow, and therefore, paradoxically, attacking the certainty of knowledge and the significance of reason which Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy and dialectic gave to medieval Scholasticism, by using the definitions and methodology of that philosophical system. Pieper indicates that Aquinas did not have accept absolute rational certainty: 'There is no rational argument for those things that belong to faith' (37), but also concedes that Scotus is far more negative. As the examination of Anselm has shown however, the overall presuppositions of the author are more clearly seen in an analysis of the whole work, and Aquinas clearly demonstrates the primary place reason holds in his system.

William of Ockham is credited with the destruction of medieval Scholasticism. According to Pieper (38), he is part of the divorce of faith and reason, whilst Knowles attributes the 'arid academic climate' of the fifteenth century to nominalism (39). By attacking the concept of universals, the idea that behind any individual, for example a man or a rose, there existed an essence or nature, a substance which could be abstracted by the mind, Ockham removed the certainty of the philosopher, because once the universal had no independent existence outside the mind of the knower, there was no metaphysical reality to abstract and therefore knowledge is only singular, individual and intuitional. (40) In a similar way to Scotus, then, Ockham used the logical tools of Aristotelian philosophy, albeit slightly modified, to attack the basic assumptions of Aristotelian philosophy, and demonstrated the limitations of philosophical reason once denied the concept of universals. However, Ockham attacked the system from within the system, and therefore did not attempt to provide an alternative system.

The humanists were however providing an alternative system, or at least demanding an alternative basis for theology. As has been shown, the Humanist dismissal of Scholastic theology was essentially correct in its own terms, in that a methodology based on Aristotelian logic and later on Aristotelian thought tended to move away from a Biblical basis for reasoning, thus easily becoming theologically irrelevant, and tended to rely on clever grammatical tricks to prove and disprove arguments, grammatical tricks which required close attention from the reader.

This would suggest that medieval Scholasticism was worthless. However, perhaps the continued importance of Scholasticism, is that it does show the importance of reasoned, logical thought and what it had the potential to achieve. It would seem possible to construct a reasoned theology, the concern of the Scholastics, based on the twin concerns of the humanists, relevance and a Biblical basis, and it is arguable that later theologians such as Luther, Calvin and Jonathan Edwards followed this model.


  1. Bonaventure in 'Bonaventure' tr.. Cousins ( London, SPCK, 1978)
  2. Erasmus, 'In praise of Folly' translated by B. Radic (Aylesbury, Penguin, 1971)
  3. Ed. A. M. Fairweather 'Nature and Grace Selections from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas' (London, SCM Press, 1954)
  4. Ed. E. R. Fairweather 'A Scholastic Miscellany' (London, SCM Press, 1956)
  5. D. Knowles 'The evolution of Medieval Thought' (London, Longmans, 1962)
  6. A. E. McGrath 'Reformation Thought' (Oxford, Blackwell, 1993) 2nd edition
  7. C.G. Nauert 'Humanism as Method: Roots of conflict with the Scholastics' in The sixteenth Century Journal 1998, 427-438
  8. J. Pieper 'Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy' (New York, McGrau-Hill, 1964)


  1. 1 Erasmus, 'In praise of Folly' translated by B. Radic (Aylesbury, Penguin, 1971) 152-1632

    The notes are incomplete….

James HughesAbout the Author

James Hughes is a graduate of Oxford University and a scholastic genius in his own right…