During the Middle Ages, the rise of cities and monasteries encouraged students and scholars to form guilds of learning. These became the forerunners of today’s universities. At the same time, the crusades brought the Western world into contact with Islamic thought, and with some forgotten Greek writings that they had preserved. Together, these events led to the rise of a movement called scholasticism, which tried to explain the “reasonableness” of Christian faith in the midst of all these exchanging ideas.
To do this, the scholastic movement used a style of learning called disputation. Teachers and students would use a question-and-answer approach to arrive at conclusions and arrange them into logical systems of thought. This method was spread with the help of a theologian named Peter Abelard (1079–1142). In his work, Yes and No, says Noll, Abelard “posed 158 questions from Christian teaching and answered them with conflicting quotations from the Scriptures, the church fathers, and pagan classics.” Although his unconventional approach led to him being condemned as a heretic in 1140, Peter Abelard’s writings were widely read throughout the rest of the Middle Ages. He emphasized that learning had to begin with questions and doubts. Abelard serves as a reminder to us that sometimes the best way to deal with our doubts is not to ignore them, but to go through them. Questions don’t threaten our faith, but strengthen it. This starting place would influence the Middle Age’s greatest theologian: Thomas Aquinas.
Born in 1224 outside of Naples, Thomas Aquinas was “a Dominican monk of noble birth, brilliant mind, tireless industry, and gentle disposition.” He was so gentle and quiet, in fact, that his peers underestimated his brilliance and nicknamed him the “dumb ox.” Aquinas was anything but. Early on in his studies he came into contact with the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In 1274 he published a large theological volume called Summa Theologica that used Aristotle’s thinking to illuminate Christian truth. It is still widely studied today, serving as an example of how Christians can constructively engage with the wisdom of the world.
Summa Theologica tried to t the whole universe into a logically ordered body of knowledge. Some compare the book’s structure to a cathedral: every part fits together into a soaring whole. But especially significant about Aquinas’ work is that it represented a shift in Christian thinking in the West. Earlier theologians had mostly discussed the Christian story with the philosophy of Plato in the background. Plato had taught that there were two separate worlds: One was a conceptual world that was nonmaterial, perfect, and eternal. The other was the world we experience, a world that is physical, imperfect, and inferior. Aristotle, meanwhile, taught that there was less of a separation between these two realms. He advocated trying to discover how the material world was integrated with God’s design. By using Aristotle in his theological writing, Aquinas emphasized how God’s truth could be discovered within and through the natural, created world. Aquinas emphasized that the physical world wasn’t bad, but was created by God and declared good. Christ became flesh because materiality is God’s way of engaging with and redeeming us.
Many Christians have disagreed with Aquinas’ work, and some think it tries to explain too much. Not long before his death Aquinas himself said “I can write no more. All that I have written seems like straw.” But Aquinas’ basic conviction that “good thinking never leads the learner away from God’s truth” remains an inspiration for all Christians to use our minds to know and glorify God. Aquinas also serves as an encouragement to pursue God’s truth in a way that frees us to have dialogue with people who operate outside the Christian faith.
Abelard and Aquinas are both important figures in church history because they remind us that our minds are to be wholly surrendered to God. This means when you’re wrestling with doubts, go to God. He wants to hear them and help you walk through them. Or when you’re trying to reconcile heavenly promises with earthly experiences, go to God. He will reveal His truth in due time. Second Corinthians 10:5 says, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” When you go through periods of doubt, do you wrestle with God or away from God? Do you think of intellectual and spiritual pursuits as overlapping, or separate?