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Giants in those days

26 February 2016

Andrew Davison continues his chronological survey of important theological figures


Paradise? Dante and Beatrice (top left) meet Thomas Aquinas and Albert le Grand; seated, second from right: Richard of St Victor. From a 15th-century miniature

Paradise? Dante and Beatrice (top left) meet Thomas Aquinas and Albert le Grand; seated, second from right: Richard of St Victor. From a 15th-century ...

THE third instalment of our survey of theological history brings us well into a broad period of history whose very names — the “Dark Ages”, the “Middle Ages” — suggest intellectual stagnation. Encounter the writings of this period first hand, however, and you see that these terms could not be further from the truth: this was an era of staggering intellectual achievement, not least in theology, which at the time was all-pervasive.

That said, we should admit that theology written between the mid-eighth century (where we concluded the previous supplement, with John of Damascus) and the 11th century does not often feature in a theology curriculum.

We should not skip over those three hundred years, however, without noting, in the East, Gregory the New Theologian (949-1022) whose writings are full of insights about prayer, and, in the West, John Scotus Eriugena (c.810–c.877), who was a theologian of great expansiveness. His Division of Nature touches on all of reality, and is unafraid to step up to, and indeed peer over, the boundaries of orthodoxy.

The first figure still widely read today, however, would probably be Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), formerly Abbot of Bec. Unfortunately, he is often associated only with “the ontological argument” for the existence of God in his Proslogion (a work that actually contains twoallied proofs — if they are proofs — and a great deal more besides).

Since these supplements are surveying theology in a fairly systematic mode, the work of Anselm to recommend would be the Monologion, which provides a thorough and attractive survey of the subject. His Cur Deus Homo (”Why did God become Man?”) was influential for its substitutionary account of salvation, although for Anselm this is a substitution of honour, paid to God, and not of punishment, poured out on humanity.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), another abbot, wrote some academic works, but in order to appreciate how he epitomises the period’s deep desire to explore and foster love, one should read his treatise On Loving God, and his sermons, especially those on the Song of Songs.

Anselm and Bernard speak from the world of the monastery. A group known as the Victorines (after their Augustinian abbey of St Victor near Paris) represents a form of religious life more closely integrated with the fledgling university. They include Hugh of St Victor, whose work On the Sacraments is in fact a wide-ranging treatment of theology, and Richard of St Victor, whose On the Trinity is among his most creative theological works.

With two theological giants, Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) and Bonaventure (c.1221-74), we reach the flowering of what is sometimes known as the “High” Middle Ages. Both were friars, members of (still relatively recently founded) itinerant preaching orders: Thomas was a Dominican, and Bonaventure a Franciscan. We sometimes still read that Aquinas is an Aristotelian, while Bonaventure is Platonic in outlook. That neglects the degree to which we now appreciate how heavily Aquinas drew on insights from Christianised Platonism, at the heart of this thinking.

The character of Dominic’s Order is rarely far from Aquinas’s writing, whether with regard to the doctrine of creation — mirroring Dominic’s concern to refute the Albigensian heresy, with its disdain for the material world — or the way in which so much of Aquinas’s work was written with the training of preachers in mind (the Dominicans are known as the Order of Preachers).

Aquinas’s masterpiece, comparable to any other theological output in Christian history, is his Summa Theologiae, a survey of Christian belief and practice left unfinished at his death.

The first part of his Compendium Theologiae offers a much shorter survey of Christian doctrine, but it lacks the force and charm of the scholastic “objection and response” method that Aquinas did so much to perfect. His scriptural commentaries remain of considerable value today, and any preacher might be grateful for his Catena Aurea (”Chain of Gold”),which brings together the best of the patristic commentators he had to hand for each passage in the Gospels.

Bonaventure is less widely read than Aquinas, and far fewer theologians would identify him as articulating the foundations of an entire vision of theology (as many do with Aquinas); that would apply to Catholics as much as to Protestants. All the same, he is a magnificent Christian thinker.

The obvious place to begin, from a theological angle, is his Breviloquium, a short summary of Christian belief. The contemporary reader cannot but be struck by his lyrical, rhapsodic style, his Trinitarian focus, and his love for lists — sometimes even for lists of lists. Another place to start would be the Itinerarium (“The Journey of the Soul to God”), as an example of how far his theology is concerned with the spiritual life, and of just how theological are his treatises on the subject.

Dante Alighieri (c.1265–1321), usually known simply as Dante, provides the supreme poetic expression of the sort of theology that reached its apogee in the late-13th century. His Divine Comedy, a three-part journey through Hell and Purgatory to Heaven, is unrivalled as a literary expression of Christian belief. As a rough approximation, Inferno deals with ethics, Purgatorio with salvation, and Paradiso with justice; but their scope could not be contained in 3000 words, never mind those three.



The OUP World’s Classics collection of works by Anselm contains everything by him discussed above, and much more. For an anthology of Bernard, see Honey and Salt: Selected spiritual writings of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (Vintage, 2007). Hugh of Saint Victor’s On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith was translated by Roy Deferrari (reprinted by Wipf & Stock, 2007).

The 1920s translation of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae is available online and in various reprints, including an excellent edition with facing Latin by the Aquinas Institute (2012). Timothy McDermott’s Concise Translation captures the spirit of the whole work (Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1989). The Compendium of Theology has been translated a few times, for instance by Cyril Vollert (available online) and by Richard J. Regan (OUP, 2009).

Josef Pieper’s essays on Aquinas on the seven virtues are excellent: The Four Cardinal Virtues (University of Notre Dame Press, 1966) and Faith, Hope, Love (Ignatius, 1997). Among the many anthologies of Aquinas’s work, the best starting place is Pieper’s tiny, magnificent Human Wisdom of St Thomas (Ignatius, 2002).

The US Franciscan Institute has translated many of Bonaventure’s shorter works, including the Itinerarium (2002) and the Breviloquium (2005), although there are other, older translations of both.

Distinguished translations of Dante’s Comedia abound. One excellent, vigorous recent translation, with extensive notes, is by Robin Kirkpatrick (Penguin, 2006-7, three vols, with more extensive commentary, to be preferred over the single volume edition, 2012).

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