Scholasticism is the term used for theology as pursued in the context of the medieval and early modern university and shaped by the centrality of the disputed question to its form and structure.


Scholasticism developed in the Middle Ages in tandem with the rise of the medieval university. The Reformation drew on the anti-scholastic rhetoric of the Renaissance but, as it established itself within the university, adopted the scholastic method as an appropriate form of pedagogy. This broke down under the impact of the Enlightenment and the fragmentation of the theological discipline but has enjoyed a resurgence in both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism over recent decades.

Historical Background

While there is a long tradition of using “scholasticism” and its cognates in a pejorative sense to mean theology which is rationalist, abstract, trivial, pedantic, or obscure, the rhetorical use of the term should not be confused with its technical meaning or used to imply theological or philosophical commitments since it actually refers to form rather than content.

In its strict technical sense, scholasticism means “of the schools” and refers to the way of teaching and presenting theology which arose in the medieval university classroom and which persisted until the impact of Enlightenment patterns of thought reshaped pedagogy and the university curriculum.

There is evidence of the emergence of schools attached to cathedrals to teach the clergy in the sixth century. This focus on education was intensified under Charlemagne in the eighth century and subsequent centuries saw theology taught in the context of cathedral school and monasteries, to which a third type, that of the independent charismatic teacher can be added (of whom Peter Abelard is perhaps the greatest example). From this broad educational context emerged the medieval university system, the fruit to a large extent of the cathedral schools.

The medieval curriculum was divided into the seven liberal arts, after which the three higher disciplines of law, medicine, and theology could be studied. Two things are notable here: first, theology was studied against the background of a prior foundation of the liberal arts; and theology was a unified discipline and not a fragmented set of subdisciplines as it is in the modern university. It thus possessed a twofold unity, both extrinsically as the capstone of all human knowledge and intrinsically as a coherent statement of belief rooted in biblical exegesis and capable of systematic statement. The latter, an assumption since at least the time of Origen in the third century, whose On First Principles was arguably the first systematic theology, was an important assumption in the rise of medieval theology as expressed in scholastic systems.

These general assumptions about the nature of knowledge and truth lent themselves to a particular form of pedagogy. Peter Abelard’s (ca. 1079-1142) controversial work, Sic et Non (lit. “Yes and No”) had sought to present theology in a dialectical fashion, juxtaposing apparently contradictory views on a series of theological topics. While Abelard’s own intention was no doubt typically mischievous, the fact that theological authorities did disagree meant that there was need for a method which allowed for resolution of such. This was to form a key element in the classroom approach of the scholastics.

A further factor in the development of scholasticism was the nature of book production. Until the advent of the movable type printing press in the fifteenth century, books were impossible to mass produce and very expensive. Thus, in education the production of compendia of authorities, containing key quotations from important thinkers, was basic. Of these, Peter Lombard’s (ca. 1096-1160) Four Books of Sentences, a thematically arranged collection of Bible passages and quotations from earlier fathers, was by far the most important. Although the work was not itself dialectical in structure, it was to become the most important textbook in theology in the medieval classroom. To be a teacher of theology in the medieval university, one had to have both lectured through books of the Bible and through Lombard’s Sentences.

Scholasticism in the Middle Ages

As noted above, scholasticism refers to the pedagogical method applied in the medieval university classroom. There, discussion on any given topic would be guided by the teacher and proceed by means of the disputed question which lay at the heart of scholastic method.

The disputed question was a question upon which authorities appeared to disagree. For example, does God exist? Arguments would then be made for and against the existence of God, and the teacher would ultimately offer a definitive answer and then demonstrate where the various arguments or authorities which had been deployed on the question were right or wrong or had been misunderstood or misapplied. Often (as with Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae) the argument for one side would be rooted in logic and elaborated while the argument on the other side would simply be a quotation taken from a particular authority. There would also be connections between questions and an overall structure to the way they were approached, whereby a cumulative case was being made for a coherent Christian theology, rather than simply isolated statements on individual doctrines.

It should also be noted that classical pagan philosophers, particularly Aristotle, but also Plato, Cicero and others, were frequently used by scholastic thinkers. However, this should not be interpreted as implying that pagan philosophy drove the scholastic enterprise or required that all scholastics were committed to a single metaphysical approach. First, medieval theologians were not simply teaching disputed questions, their training required them to teach classes in biblical exposition. Second, disagreement over metaphysics was a hallmark of the medieval theological context which witnessed differences over the questions of nominalism and realism, as well as the metaphysics of being which underlay predication, specifically with the way language could be applied both to God and to creatures. Third, despite frequent generalizations by later generations (from Luther onwards) about the unfortunate impact of a boogey man “Aristotelianism” on scholastic theology, there was no single form of “Aristotelian” metaphysics in the Middle Ages, only a broad collection of commentary traditions on the Aristotelian corpus and an eclectic approach to the appropriation of this for Christian theology. The idea that scholasticism equals Aristotelianism equals rationalism is unsustainable, both historically and materially. What the scholastics were committed to was the idea that the truth is ultimately a coherent, metaphysical unity – something which was foundational to the university project which sought to connect a multiplicity of disciplines together as part of one whole.

Of the medieval scholastic theologians, the most significant for their own time and for later generations were Alexander of Hales (ca. 1185-1245), Albert the Great (d. 1280), Bonaventure (1221-74), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Duns Scotus (ca. 1266-1308), William of Ockham (ca. 1287-1347) and Gabriel Biel (ca. 1420-95). Of these, Aquinas has proved the most important for later Catholicism.

Renaissance and Reformation

With the broad cultural movement of the retrieval of classical learning in the Renaissance and the rising importance of classical rhetoric rather than dialectic as representing true learning, medieval scholastic method and theology became a common object of ridicule and contempt among those men of letters later termed humanists. In addition, the rise of linguistic studies and the increase availability of complete classical and patristic texts reinforced the notion that medieval thought, particularly in its scholastic form, represented obscurantism and pedantry.

This denigration of scholasticism was intensified by the advent of the Reformation. Luther is a prime example of the tendency to reject scholasticism as overtly Aristotelian, divorced from biblical exegesis, and inextricably tied to deviant theology. On each count Luther, and the other Reformers who typically followed a similar rhetorical path, were wrong: scholasticism was a method and carried little intrinsic metaphysical or theological content beyond a basic assumption about the unity of truth; and its practitioners were all accomplished biblical exegetes by the standards of their day, even if they had no access to the textual and linguistic apparatus which the humanists and Reformers enjoyed. In fact, humanism and scholasticism, far from being mutually opposed, were different categories of discourse entirely. Humanism was a literary-cultural project while scholasticism was a classroom pedagogical method. One could easily be both a humanist and a scholastic theologian, as the case of Theodore Beza, poet and dialectician, makes clear.

Post-Reformation Protestantism

In the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Protestantism appropriated the scholastic method for its own use. Four factors played into this. First, Protestantism had established itself within the university context. This meant that it needed to develop a theological curriculum which connected to the other university disciplines. Second, the polemical sophistication of a resurgent Roman Catholicism and the challenge of the anti-metaphysical Socinians meant that Protestant theologians needed to address the same kind of metaphysical questions, and draw on the established metaphysical resources, of medieval scholasticism. Given that the Protestant Reformers operated within the same broad metaphysical parameters as the medieval, this was inevitable as Protestantism sought to elaborate and defend its theology while also integrate it into the established framework of knowledge. Third, as medieval universities became Protestant, their library holding continued to contain significant medieval theology upon which faculty drew. Fourth, the scholastic method of disputation was a remarkably effective form of pedagogy and no Reformation doctrinal development posed any challenge to it continuing to be so.

As a result, the scholastic method and much of the terminology developed in the Middle Ages reappeared in Protestant orthodoxy, both in its Lutheran and Reformed streams. Good examples among the Lutherans include Johann Gerhard (1582-1637), Abraham Calovius (1612-86), and Johannes Andreas Quenstedt (1617-88); among the Reformed, Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676), John Owen (1616-83) and Francis Turretin (1623-87).  The Protestants continued, however, on occasion to employ Renaissance anti-scholastic rhetoric even while using scholastic methods: Samule Rutherford, for example, could excoriate “needle-headed scholastics” while yet writing a work with the title Dispotatio scholastica de providentia.

Scholasticism in the Modern Era

While the scholastic method was supplanted in universities with the inroad of Enlightenment patterns of thought, it did not entirely die out. In Roman Catholicism, the Dominican order maintained its fidelity to the theology and method of Thomas Aquinas while, among Protestants, the remarkable and polymathic Reformed Baptist, John Gill (1697-1771) produced an elaborate scholastic system, A Body of Doctrinal Divinity in 1767. Yet the rise of biblical studies as a separate branch of theological studies, and of biblical theology under men such as John Philip Gabler (1753-1826) served to fragment the theological discipline and undermine the scholastic project. Even within orthodox Protestant circles, a suspicion of systematic theology and an emphasis on biblical studies served to marginalize the classical dogmatic approach for which the scholastic method was so suited.

In recent years, however, in both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, a resurgence of interest in traditional metaphysics, in appropriating the historic Christian tradition, and in integrating Christian theology into a broader understanding of the world, have all contributed to a revival in scholasticism. Historians have demonstrated the positive relationship between medieval theology and post-Refomation Protestantism, and systematicians have come to an appreciation of the comprehensive approach to theology which the medieval scholastic method embodied. Thus, among Roman Catholics the work of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (1877-1964), and contemporary theologians Thomas Weinandy and Thomas Joseph White, has served to reinvigorate interest in both scholastic method and theology. In Protestantism, the Reformed Catholicity movement, associated with men such as Scott R. Swain and Michael Allen, has pushed Protestants back to a positive reconsideration of the theological task as exemplified in the integration of theological, exegetical, and metaphysical concerns exemplified in medieval scholasticism.

Further Reading

  • Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae. Available online here.
  • Ulrich G. Leinsle, Introduction to Scholastic Theology (Catholic University of America)
  • Ryan McGraw, Reformed Scholasticism: Recovering the Tools of Reformed Theology (T&T Clark)
  • Willem J. Van Asselt, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Reformation Heritage)
  • Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Lutheran Publication Society, 1876). Available online here.

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