Isaac Padinjarekuttu

Scholasticism was a method of scholarly inquiry which proceeds by way of questioning ancient and authoritative texts, legal, medical, philosophical and theological; first by drawing up lists of contradictory statements in these texts and then applying to them the rules of logic to reveal their underlying agreement, thus attaining what the scholastics saw as the one inner truth of things to which in the end all these texts bore witness. Originally the scholastic method was a teaching device developed in the schools and universities of western Europe from the end of the 11th century. It flourished up to the 16th century when it came under severe criticism from various quarters, who favoured a more literary and historical approach to ancient literature. Its use then became increasingly restricted to theology and continued to remain quite powerful in the Catholic Church till 1960. There is a mistaken assumption that scholasticism and medieval theology are synonymous. Originally the method was applied to all branches of knowledge and not all medieval theology was scholastic.

The man who provided the tools which medieval scholars later used to develop this method of logical argument was Boethius, particularly through his translations of Aristotle’s logical works. The first attempt to apply logic to the realm of faith was made by John Scottus Erigena. With the growth of literacy and education, a more rational approach to life and its problems became evident by the 11th century. Anselm of Canterbury who is considered the father of scholasticism even thought that he could prove the necessity of God’s existence and of the incarnation without appealing to biblical authority, but through the use of reason and logic. The method came to be increasingly used in the schools and universities for the study of the Bible and Fathers of the Church. The method was perfected by great scholars like Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard, etc. Abelard formulated the two key doctrines of scholasticism that questioning is the key to the perception of truth and that difficulties which arise in questioning can usually be resolved by determining the meaning of terms used by different authors in varying ways. Thus he gave logic and semantics pride of place in theology. This was vehemently opposed by his opponents, especially Bernard of Clairvaux who accused Abelard of arguing about that which could only be accepted in faith. With the coming of age of the universities, the teaching methods became more developed. The University of Paris, for example, separated speculative questioning from lectures on the Bible. That seemed to some as sidelining the Bible and drew criticism, for example, from Roger Bacon who complained that modern scholars no longer had any knowledge of Scripture.

The final stage in the development of the scholastic method was reached with the friar scholars, Bonaventure, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas who tried to cope with the new emerging knowledge and prove that there could be no fundamental contradiction between secular learning and theology. But the optimism about human knowledge was shattered by the social situation in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, particularly the famines and plagues like the Black Death. Human reason seemed incapable of answering fundamental questions about human life and destiny. Duns Scotus, perhaps the most subtle mind scholasticism produced, said that one should not worry too much about ancient texts as the present situation and he also tried to limit the universal validity of logic by stating that the structure of this world and all human endeavours were limited by God’s absolute power which was bound by nothing but His will and the law of contradiction. William of Ockham went even further and severed the link between logic and reality maintaining that logic is not about reality as represented by words but just about words and found it of little use to theology. It obscured the fundamental truth of Gods’ absolute power and loving care for mankind with pseudo explanations. Ockham is often considered the destroyer of scholasticism but he was apparently expressing a central concern of his age and the problem with the scholastic method in theology. The Renaissance, Humanism and the Reformation constantly attacked Scholasticism as abstract and superficial. But the scholastic method, especially Thomism, continued to be popular in the Catholic Church, till the Second Vatican Council.

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