Not all theologians of the Medieval period are to be praised; nevertheless, common to all was a desire to rightly orient all of life to God in Christ.


To ignore medieval theology is, however, to ignore wisdom. Indeed, how can we hold the Reformers in such high esteem on the one hand, while on the other hand ignore the fact that they relied heavily on their medieval forebears for insight, understanding and truth? The Reformers, along with the church Fathers, are profitable for teaching and training in righteousness, but so too are the works of those called by the Lord to lead the church in Europe after Augustine and before Luther. What, then, are the major contours of medieval theology that deserve attention?

The Bible and its Interpretation

It would be easy to believe that the written word was not all that significant in the Middle Ages. After all, literacy levels were fairly low, certainly in comparison to modern western standards, and Latin was the language of the educated elite. While it is certainly true that reading was not a popular pastime among the majority of the population, we should take care not to conclude that this meant the written word was unimportant. The liturgy of the church was driven by words – words read, words prayed, words preached and words spoken in response. Even if many of the people were unable to read, they still knew that words mattered. All the stained glass in all the cathedrals in Europe can’t hold a candle to the transforming power of God’s Word. And therein lies the main emphasis for the study of God’s Word during this period: transformation.

In the early middle ages, when monks were the main purveyors of biblical and theological training, an interesting shift occurred in the way they talked about teachers and preachers. In addition to referring to them by what they did, they began to refer to them as what they are – a shift from doing to being. It became common to talk about church leaders as “documents.” To our way of thinking, it is strange, and perhaps even mildly offensive, to call someone a book. But the point was not to make fun of a person for being a nerd or bookish, but to praise them for so internalizing the content of the written word, supremely the Word of God, that their lives were demonstrably different. The idea was that for those who couldn’t read, the text of Scripture should be readable in the life of the pastor. The written word, then, was not only important for guiding worship, but necessary for forming worship from within.

This process of change was certainly personal, in so far as an individual’s loves and moral compass were realigned, but it was never individualistic. Studying the Bible was a community activity. The first step began in private with lectio or reading. The point was that a preacher, for example, would spend time wrestling with a portion of Scripture. He would examine it in light of a three-fold or four-fold method of interpretation. A text was interpreted according to its literal meaning, moral meaning and an allegorical meaning. The fourth meaning was anagogical or eschatological, but this one remained rather contentious and was often left out.

It is worth noting that despite the stereotype of medieval theologians turning quickly and often to allegory as the most significant hermeneutical aspect of a given text, there is plenty of evidence that the best theologians constantly and continually emphasized the literal meaning as foundational and normative. Perhaps it was because some interpreters did get carried away that they strenuously emphasized the need to tie every aspect of interpretation and theological reflection to the literal meaning of the text.

To return to our preacher studying the Bible, once he has spent time in lectio, he should then engage with others in disputatio – discussing and debating his work. This is a vital step in the process because it requires humility on the part of the interpreter to submit his work to others, but it also sharpened and refined his understanding. After this second stage, the preacher would then return to lectio to make any necessary changes, and then, and only then, was he ready for predicatio – preaching. Intriguingly, no one was considered to have fully dealt with a portion of Scripture until they had preached it or taught it. While this may sound odd, anyone who has ever taught or preached will know the refining force of this practice.

As these two processes intertwined, the hermeneutical strand of the three-fold method and the pedagogical strand of lectio, disputatio and predicatio, they were bound together by a pervasively Christological emphasis. Medieval theologians were convinced that the plan of redemption rooted in the Son of God was the theme that tied all of Scripture together. Thus, it seems only appropriate to turn to a high point in medieval theological reflection on Jesus’ person and work.

From the Person to the Work of Christ

If the principles and practices of biblical interpretation were the foundation of medieval theology, what were some of the building blocks? A keystone doctrine during this period was the atonement. Before getting into the specifics of the atonement, it is interesting to note that this marks a shift in emphasis from the ancient church. In those first few centuries, the preponderant emphasis was on the person of Christ. Was he fully God? Was he fully human? How did these two natures relate to one another? When we move into the medieval period, however, we discover that those questions, along with the heretics who espoused contrary views, almost completely disappear until about the twelfth century.

Having said that the preponderant emphasis in the ancient church was on the person of Christ, that does not mean that the work of Christ was neglected. When theologians wrote about the atonement, what catches one’s attention is the diversity of models used to explain it. Some argued that Christ’s atonement should principally be conceived of in terms of sacrifice, others thought the dominant theme was the defeat of the Devil, still others believed the preeminent emphasis of Christ’s atoning work was the establishment of the new covenant.

Despite some diversity of scholarly opinion on the matter, there does not appear to have been a dominant model of the atonement in the ancient church, but in the late sixth and early seventh centuries, pope Gregory the Great set out a course of thinking that became the standard interpretation until the twelfth century. He taught that when humanity sinned, Satan was able to claim legitimate sovereignty over us. Because it would have been wrong for God to forcibly reclaim humanity from Satan, he had to devise a way to nullify Satan’s jurisdiction. This was accomplished by the Son of God taking on human flesh and offering himself as a ransom to the Devil in the place of humanity. Satan, not able to resist such an incredible exchange, took the bait by killing Jesus. What Satan failed to take into account, though, was that he had no true jurisdiction over Jesus because Jesus had never sinned. In the end, therefore, Satan lost his sovereignty over humanity and also lost Jesus when he rose from the grave – death having no power over, nor claim upon, his life.

This perspective on the atonement had a broad appeal because it spoke to the wisdom and power of God as well as the defeat of the Devil. Over time, however, its shortcomings became increasingly apparent until one brave monk decided it was time to challenge the prevailing view.

Writing at the end of the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) wrote the Cur Deus Homo in which he argued that the atonement was fundamentally about satisfaction, not about demonic jurisdiction. Anselm’s disagreement with the ransom model of the atonement was that it gave too much prominence to the Devil, to say nothing of ascribing to him the kind of power that reduced God to a bargaining partner. He proposed, instead, that the real issue at stake in the atonement was that humanity had failed to give God what we owed. What humanity owes is obedience, love, and our whole selves. By not giving what we owe (i.e., by our sin) we dishonor him. To what degree has God been dishonored? Anselm argues that the degree of dishonor is proportional to the nature of the one dishonored. In God’s case, this means humanity owes an infinite debt. Who could pay such a debt but God? Who could represent humanity in the payment of this debt but a man? Thus, in a relatively brief fashion, Anselm outlines a model of the atonement that takes our sin and guilt very seriously, removes Satan as a powerful opponent with whom God must struggle, and explains the rationale behind the need for a God-man to represent all people if atonement between deity and humanity is to be achieved.

That Anselm’s realignment of thinking on the atonement took root in succeeding decades is evident in a number of ways, not the least of which was in the theology of Peter Abelard (1079-1142). While there is much of interest in Abelard’s theology, and much intrigue in his life, Abelard is a good way to introduce another significant locus of medieval theology: faith and reason.

Faith and Reason

Any discussion of faith and reason in the Middle Ages should include at least a nod to Anselm’s Proslogion where he reveals that he and his monks were in search of ratione fidei. This phrase has been variously interpreted as, “rational basis of faith” or “meaning of faith” or “reason for faith” or “ground of faith.” The basic idea is that Anselm believed that the substance and content of faith was the context in which reason operated. When Abelard came along a few years later, he began to toy with the idea of the reverse: reason being the context in which faith operates.

In his own day, Abelard was seen as pushing the envelope and, most notably in the eyes of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), going too far. Quite apart from how Abelard chose to frame some of his doctrinal positions, Bernard was deeply disturbed with Abelard’s theological method. To be clear, Bernard was not against reason and Abelard for it; rather, Bernard was concerned to keep reason in its right place in relation to faith, and it is the question of what constitutes the right place that caused tensions between the two men. Bernard was far more Anselmian in his approach, whereas Abelard was not.

The question of the relationship between faith and reason intensified over the years especially as the works of Aristotle became more widely available. As we move into the fourteenth century, we meet no less an intellect than Thomas Aquinas who grew up with these debates as a commonplace. Aquinas’s most significant work as judged by history is easily his Summa Theologiae. It was written as a resource for his fellow Dominican brethren who were training to travel the continent preaching the gospel and defending the faith.

Cleary no justice can be done to the Summa in just a few sentences, but it is worth pausing over what Aquinas has to say in 1.1.10 (book.question.article). As he wrestles with the question of meaning, Aquinas argues that God is the one in whose power it is “to signify his meaning, not by words only, but even by things themselves.” This statement is noteworthy because it points us in the direction of Aquinas’s theological method. Much like Anselm, though in a far more elaborate and nuanced fashion, Aquinas believed that God is the author of both events and their meaning. Consequently, the entry point for understanding is faith because it is only by submitting to God in faith that anyone can properly comprehend what is true. Put another way, God is not only the author of creation, he is also the author of meaning. Given this, Aquinas was convinced that faith is the context in which reason operates, but reason is not thereby hampered or encumbered; on the contrary, faith gives reason its greatest freedom because faith is the means by which reason is placed in proper relation to God.

As we consider Aquinas’s position we are brought back to the ground of medieval theology: God. Not all theologians of this period are to be praised; nevertheless, common to all was a desire to rightly orient all of life to God in Christ.

Further Reading

  • For those wishing to delve further into medieval theology I would suggest beginning with Christopher Levy’s, Introducing Medieval Biblical Interpretation. This is an excellent introduction to medieval western biblical interpretation and its relationship to the development of theology not only in the estimation of the scholarly community, but also in the opinion of my students.
  • Other volumes that address the broad spectrum of medieval theology include these:
    • Giulio D’Onofrio, History of Theology: The Middle Ages
    • R. Evans, The Medieval Theologians
    • James Ginther, The Westminster Handbook to Medieval Theology
    • Rik Van Nieuwenhove, An Introduction to Medieval Theology
    • Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, the history of the development of doctrine, vol. 3, The Growth of Medieval Theology.
  • For specific works on Anselm, I would suggest Sarah Vaughn’s biography, Archbishop Anselm: 1093-1109. A deeper dive into Anselm’s theology is covered in David Hogg, Anselm of Canterbury, the Beauty of Theology.
  • Works worth consulting on Aquinas are legion, but Denys Turner’s biography, Thomas Aquinas: a Portrait is a good place to begin. As for his theology, the reader would do well to begin with Bernard McGinn’s Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae, A Biography. Also well worth consulting is Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas.
  • For the brave who desire considerably more depth and detail, Henri de Lubac’s 3 volume, Medieval Exegesis will repay the reader many times over.

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