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Medieval Philosophy - History of Philosophy and Christian Thought

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Medieval Philosophy

I. Christian Neoplatonism

1. PseudoDionysius (4th or 5th century)

a. Thought by many (including Thomas Aquinas) to be "Dionysius the Areopagite" converted through Paul's ministry (Acts 17:34).

b. Actually a Syrian writer, in all probability, who applies Christian terminology to neoPlatonic concepts.

2. John Scotus Erigena (810-877)

a. Translated pseudoDionysius, other Greek works.

b. Chief theologian of the Carolingian renaissance.


  1. Ambiguous mix of biblical and neoPlatonic motifs.

II. Anselm of Canterbury (10331109)

1. Background: Much influenced by Plato and Augustine. Sometimes called "the second Augustine."

2. Credo ut Intelligam: Anselm adopts Augustine's slogan, "I believe in order that I might understand."

a. Suggests that faith precedes reasoning in divine matters. Anselm contrasts this with believing in order to understand. Good; but perhaps it would be getter to say that both faith and reason ought to be subject to God's Word.

b. Suggests also that reason is the goal of faith, that reason goes beyond faith or builds upon it in some way. This can be taken in good or bad senses.

3. Cur Deus Homo? ("Why the Godman?")

a. Extremely influential treatise on why Jesus became incarnate and died: as satisfaction for sin.

b. Somewhat rationalistic in plan: "...leaving Christ out of view (as if nothing had ever been known of him), it (the book) proves, by absolute reasons, the impossibility that any man should be saved without him." The book does, however, smuggle in many biblical assumptions.

4. Monologium: rational arguments on the existence, unity and nature of God, similar to those of Aquinas (below). Note again the plan: "that nothing in Scripture should be urged upon the authority of Scripture itself, but that whatever the conclusion of independent investigation should declare to be true, should...be briefly enforced by the cogency of reason..."

5. Proslogium: "The Ontological Argument for God's Existence"

a. Roots in Parmenides, Plato, Augustine. Rejected by Aquinas and Rant; accepted in various revised forms by the continental rationalists, the idealists, some recent apologists, some language analysis philosophers (N. Malcolm, A. Plantinga), process philosophers and theologians.

b. Seems like a game with words, but very difficult to refute. Has captivated philosophers of every generation since.

c. Formulations

(1) God is "that than which no greater can be conceived."

(2) A God who exists outside the mind is greater than one who exists only in the mind.

(3) Thus, if God existed only in the mind, a greater than he could be conceived, namely one existing outside the mind. That cannot be.

(4) Therefore, God exists outside the mind.

(5) Simplified form: God is perfect; perfection entails existence; therefore God exists.

d. This argument can be interpreted in terms of the Platonism of the early Augustine (q.v.): That being which corresponds to imperishable truth must exist. So interpreted, Anselm's argument proves only a formal, contentless being, not the God of Scripture.

(1) It is true that the ontological argument can be used, and has been used, to prove almost any kind of ultimate. Compare the different "gods" proved by Spinoza, Descartes, Hegel, Malcolm, Hartshorne.

(2) One reason for this is that the argument depends on the concept of "perfection," a valuejudgment which differs greatly from thinker to thinker.

(3) Such an analysis ties in well with the Platonicrationalistic emphasis in Anselm's other writings.

e. But there are some indications that Anselm's formulation of this argument (as opposed to the formulations or Descartes, Spinoza, etc.) tends toward a distinctively Christian presuppositionalism.

(1) The document is written as a prayer, as reasoning in the presence of God. It is clear, then, that the author has no real doubts as to God's existence.

(2) He asks God to clarify his understanding, recognizing the weakness and sinfulness of his own nature.

(3) "...I long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe,  that unless I believed, I should not understand."

(4) The title "that than which no greater can be conceived" is taken as a datum given by revelation  a presupposition.

(5) When Gaunilo replies "on behalf of the fool" (who says there is no God), Anselm refuses to reply to the fool; he replies only to the "Catholic;" and in replying, he appeals to Gaunilo's "faith and conscience".

(6) From these considerations, it is clear that Anselm has a particular "God" in mind, and a concept of "perfection" derived from the Scriptures. One could, then, accept this "proof" as a genuine presuppositional argument, setting forth the role of divine existence within the system of Christian faith.

(7) Even as such it could hardly be persuasive without more epistemological prolegomena.

f. All in all, the nature of the argument is difficult to ascertain. There are elements here both of Platonic rationalism and of genuine Christian insight.

g. Reconstruction


  1. The proof may be seen as an appeal to one's "presupposition," his "basic commitment," his paradigm of perfection.

  2. For Christians: the God of Scripture, our paradigm of perfection, must exist; else, all evaluations, predications are meaningless.

III. Thomas Aquinas (12251274)

1. Significance: Aquinas is the most important of the medieval thinkers, and until Vatican II his philosophy dominated the thought of the Roman Catholic Church. In response to the challenge of newly discovered writings of Aristotle which were being used against Christianity, Aquinas produced a massive, ingenious synthesis (cf. Origen) between Christianity and Aristotle. Aquinas is also deeply influenced by neoPlatonism, particularly by way of PseudoDionysius.

2. Faith and Reason

a. "Natural reason," operating apart from revelation, is able to discover many things, not only about the natural world, but even about God (his existence and major attributes).

b. Other things are known only by revelation and are received only by faith (the trinity, creation ex nihilo, etc.)

c. Some things provable by natural reason are also revealed, so that those unable to prove them may nevertheless know them.

d. Comment: This distinction makes reason autonomous within its own sphere, although faith has a "veto power" when reason contradicts something revealed. Thus, Thomas develops his basic metaphysical scheme out of Aristotle and fits the data of Scripture into that scheme as best he can.

3. Epistemology

a. Thomas holds, with Aristotle and against Plato, that in general forms are found in things, together with matter, not in some separate world.

b. Knowledge, then, is a matter of abstracting the forms from the things in which those forms are found.

c. All knowledge, then, begins in sense experience; but it is not genuine knowledge until the "active intellect" determines the essential or universal properties (forms) of the things it investigates.

d. Since we have no sense experience of God (or angels), we can know of them only by revelation or through their effects. Cf. the "three ways" of Origen.

(1) "Way of causality"  attributing to God the ability to cause all things known in experience.

(2) "Way of remotion" (via negativa)  since God far surpasses our intellect, we cannot say what God is (his essence); but we can learn what he is not, by distinguishing him from all that is merely finite, creature.

(3) "Way of eminence"  ascribing to God in utmost degree every perfection known in our experience.

(4) Comment: At no point in these discussions of method does Thomas demand that the process be subject to God's revelation of himself. There is thus nothing to prevent these reasonings from being caught up in the rationalist/irrationalist dialectic. God will become a larger version of creaturely properties, or an indefinite opposite (remotion) to those properties.

e. Language about God

(1) No language applies to God and to creatures univocally (in the same sense), as "man" to Socrates and Plato, for univocal predication would place God and creatures on the same level.

(2) Nor does this language apply to God and to creatures in essentially different ways (equivocally), as "man" to Socrates and to a chesspiece. For between God and creation there are some likenesses and some relations (especially causal).

(3) Language about God is best characterized as analogical neither purely univocal nor purely equivocal. Cf. "healthy," applied to medicine as cause of health, to urine as sign of health. So the same properties apply to God as to creatures, but in different degrees and different ways.

(4) Comment:

(a) Scholars nave debated long over the nature of analogical predication in Thomas. E.g., when we say that God is "holy," are we saying merely that God is the cause or holiness in. creatures, or are we saying more? Thomas is highly agnostic about "what God is" ("in himself"). On the other hand, he claims to know, even to demonstrate, definite information about God. And even to say that God is cause of holiness is to say something definite.

(b) In any case, the distinctions here show the rationalism and irrationalism in Thomas' approach. Building the whole structure on Aristotle's "natural reason," Thomas must either be wholly agnostic about God (equivocism), reduce him to the creaturely level (univocism), or adopt some unstable compromise between these (analogism).

(c) Biblical alternative: God tells us in Scripture how to speak of him. He gives us a language which refers naturally to him while distinguishing him from creatures. Thomas' problem comes in trying to develop the knowledge of God purely out of extrapolation from "natural knowledge," not developing his basic structure from God's self revelation.

(5) "The analogy or being": Corresponding to this analogous language is an analogous reality. Not only does "holy" apply both to God and to creatures, but there is a property of holiness which is found in God and in creatures in different ways. Hence the "scale of being."

4. Proofs of God's Existence

a. Cosmological (God as adequate cause)

(1) From motion

(a) Every moving thing must be moved by something else.

(b) No infinite regress of movers, for without a first mover there would be no second or third mover.

(c) Thus there is a first mover, itself unmoved and unmoving.

(2) From efficient cause (steps same as above: Every effect must be caused by something else, etc.)

(3) From the contingency of the world

(a) If the whole world is contingent (i.e., if it is possible for everything in the world not to be), then at one time the world did not exist.

(b) If at one time it did not exist, then it would not exist now, for there would at that time have been nothing to cause its existence.

(c) Therefore everything in the world is not contingent. There must be something which exists necessarily, God.

b. Criteriological (Sometimes this one is called cosmological, sometimes teleological, sometimes a Platonic reversion to something like the ontological which Thomas had rejected earlier. It doesn't much matter what you call it.)

(1) Things are more or less good, true, noble etc. as they approximate a standard which is the maximum in these qualities.

(2) This maximum is the cause of all lesser manifestations of the quality.

(3) Thus (by causal argument) the maximum must actually exist.

c. Teleological (Actually a certain kind of cosmological argument which asks a sufficient cause for the phenomenon of purposefulness.)

(1) Unintelligent beings including natural objects act for an end, a purpose.

(2) This cannot be unless they are directed by an intelligent being, i.e., God.

d. Comment

(1) The proofs presuppose univocal knowledge of God, particularly in the predicates "mover," "cause," "necessity," and "intelligence." The criteriological argument suggests that God has creaturely properties in maximum degree. This univocism conflicts with Thomas' emphasis on analogy.

(2) For Aristotle, God is "cause" of the world, not as its creator ex nihilo, but merely as its underlying principle. The world s eternal, for Aristotle. Thomas does not adequately distinguish his concept of cause from that of Aristotle, and thus proves only a god correlative with the world. (Later, he affirms creation ex nihilo on the basis of revelation.)

(3) Hume and Kant: on an empirical basis, one cannot generalize from observed causal and teleological relations within the world to a cause or purpose for the world. None of us has any experience of the world as a totality sufficient to justify such inference.

(4) Kant: The cosmological and teleological prods reduce to the ontological, because both proceed from a mere idea of which no experience is possible ("cause of all") to the reality corresponding to the idea.

(5) The proofs nevertheless have some usefulness:

(a) Taken as they are, they are useful ad hominem devices. If people act on certain assumptions (cause, criterion, purpose) in everyday life, why should they not make the same assumptions at the ultimate level? The only unbelieving response to this consideration is reversion to an irrationalism (as in Hume and Kant), and that is also vulnerable. "Opposing nonChristian irrationalism by nonChristian rationalism."

(b) Revised, they set forth a Christian basis for belief in God.

i) Insist vs. Aristotle that a cause is required not only for the motion of the world, but even for its very existence, even for its matter.

ii) Insist vs. Aristotle, Hume and Kant that an empiricist epistemology is inadequate; that all argument must presuppose God's self revelation.

iii) Within a Christian framework, then, we can point out that the concepts of cause, motion, contingency, criterion and purpose presuppose God for their intelligibility. Unless God exists, it makes no sense to speak of anything as cause of anything else, etc. Without God all is an empty blank (rationalism) or unrelated chance happenings (irrationalism).

iv) So understood, the proofs are remarkably biblical! For they set forth areas in which Scripture stresses the clear revelation of

God's presence:

a) Cosmological: creation (situational perspective)

b) Criteriological: God as standard, criterion, law (normative perspective)

c) Teleological: God as constantly involved with creation, directing it in providence (situational, existential).

5. Other Teachings

a. Trinity. Some Sabellian leanings, though subtle. Thomas' doctrine here is not strong enough, I would think, to make the "one and many equally ultimate" in epistemology. God is "being", and there is some tendency toward subpersonal characterizations of him and hence toward "chain of being" conceptions.

b. Predestination: Thomas is a strong predestinarian, but his view of divine sovereignty is weakened by his Aristotelianism and by his somewhat mechanistic concept of the divine operations, particularly in saving grace.

c. Evil: Thomas shares some of the problems of Augustine in this area: evil as privation of being. Confusion of ethical and metaphysical.


IV. Later Medieval Developments

1. Mysticism (Eckhardt)  NeoPlatonic influence.

2. Irrationalist tendencies:

a. John Duns Scotus (12741308)

(1) More voluntarist emphasis

(a) Will is not determined by knowledge of the good; it chooses to do good or evil in the face of its knowledge.

(b) The will is free of all determination.

(c) God's decisions, similarly, are not determined by divine reason. God could revoke any of his own laws (except the first four commandments).

(2) So less confidence in natural theology, less role for rational demonstration in theology.

b. William of Occam (12801367)

(1) "Occam's razor": Always choose the simplest possible explanation, the one which makes the fewest suppositions, which assumes the fewest entities.

(2) "Nominalism": Only particulars exist. There are no universals (redness, truth, goodness) existing independently of particular things and situations.

(3) The existence of God cannot be demonstrated, though it can be shown probable by reason. Articles of faith (trinity, etc.) cannot even be rendered intelligible to reason. There is no particular experience of God, or the soul.

(4) The authority of the church is no help.

(a) The church is nothing more than a collection of believers.

(b) Papal claims groundless.

(5) Thus we believe on Scripture authority alone. (What is implicit or explicit in Scripture.)

  1. Comment: Occam's rejection of papal and conciliar authority, his espousal of Scriptural sufficiency and his rejection of speculation had great influence on the reformers. (Luther: "I am from Occam's school.") Yet the irrationalism of Occam's epistemology is not warranted by Scripture. The freewill notion correlative with this irrationalism wrought havoc with the doctrine of sin and salvation. Cf. tendencies in Lutheran anthropology and epistemology  Van Til, Christian Theory of Knowledge, 197209.


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