The Middle Ages

Charlemagne’s reign mark the beginning of the high middle ages.  Education and commerce began to flourish, often with monks leading the way.  All citizens of Europe considered themselves part of the unified civilization of Christendom.  Even when they went to war among themselves they had that in common.

At first, the rise of a prophet in the Arabian desert escaped the notice of Christians in Europe.  But eventually two great civilization, Christian and Islamic, came to see each other as rivals.

The first crusade began at the end of the eleventh century.  The goal was to liberate the Holy Land from Muslim domination.  The Christian knights were often stupid and brutal and committed many atrocities against Jews, Muslims, and other Christians along the way.

Otherwise the high middle ages were booming.  Construction began on the great cathedrals and great universities were born in Paris and in Great Britain near a ford for oxen.  Theology was the queen of sciences in the universities, and distinguished theologians debated theories of the atonement and other issues.

Meanwhile, through a long convoluted process of transmission and translation, Aristotle was discovered by Arab scholars.  His works had been translated from Greek into Syriac centuries earlier, and then into Arabic, and some of the Arabic texts were eventually translated into Latin.  This led to a rediscovery of Aristotle in the West.  (While the old Romans studied and mastered Greek, the Latin-speaking medieval Christians had long-since abandoned Greek.)


Meanwhile, there was a great schism between the church in the West and in the East.  The word “catholic” originally mean “world-wide” or “universal.”  It comes from two Greek words meaning “throughout the whole” and was part of a phrase “throughout the whole inhabited earth,” as a way of referring to the faith and the church.  The word “catholic” then came to describe Christians who recognized the “whole church” throughout the “whole world” and all time–as opposed to heretics who split themselves off from the whole church.

But in 1054 the Great Schism split the church between East and West.  So now there were “Roman” catholics and “Greek” catholics.  Culturally and linguistically, Greeks and Romans had long gone separate ways.  So much so, that it was easier for scholars in the holy Roman empire to learn Aristotle from the Arabs (and in Arabic) than from the Greeks.

When Aristotle was eventually re-introduced into the west through Latin translations, the church was at first suspicious, and some of the philosopher’s writings were banned.

But Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) believed Christians need not fear the truth and did not want to abdicate intellectual achievement to the Muslims.  Aquinas studied Aristotle and the commentaries on him written by the Islamic scholars Averroes and Avicenna.

Aristotle had been Plato’s student.  Plato emphasized reason and the truths that can be grasped by the mind.  Aristotle emphasized the truths that can be discovered by observation.  In other words, Plato provided the foundation for an other-worldly theology that looks for a heavenly home, while Aristotle provided the foundation for an appreciation of creation and nature, and finding the grace of God in this world and this life.

So theology at the beginning of  the middle ages begins with a turn away from this world and looking to the heavenly city, while theology at the end of the middle ages turns back to life in this earth.  This all is very important for theology and ultimately, for Bible study.

One thing Aquinas accomplished was providing a relative independence for human reason, science, activity, and exploration.  We our created with such dignity and capacity that we can discover the truths needed for ordinary success and happiness in this life.  However, we can never reach God on our own.  We need the revealed truths of theology to do that.

To put it an other way.  Platonic-inspired theology emphasizes “seeing” unseen spiritual realities with the eyes of faith.  Aristotle-inspired theology emphasizes “seeing” what is right before our eyes.

As soon as people started using their eyes to see what was in the Bible, they started seeing things that other generations had not noticed.

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