DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B078-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 21, 2019, from

5. Philosophical theology

Christianity is not in itself a philosophical doctrine, but it profoundly influences the medieval philosophical world-view both from within philosophy and from outside it. On the one hand, Christian texts and doctrine provided rich subject matter for philosophical reflection, and the nature and central claims of Christianity forced medieval intellectuals to work out a comprehensive account of reality and to deal explicitly with deep issues about the aims and methods of the philosophical enterprise. In these ways, Christianity was taken up into philosophy, adding to its content and altering its structure and methods. On the other hand, Christianity imposed external constraints on medieval philosophy. At various times these constraints took institutional form in the official proscription of texts, the condemnation of philosophical positions and the censure of individuals.

Augustine laid the foundation for medieval Christian philosophical theology in two respects. First, he provided a theoretical rationale both for Christian intellectuals engaging in philosophical activity generally and for their taking Christian doctrine in particular as a subject of philosophical investigation. According to Augustine, Christian belief is not opposed to philosophy’s pursuit of truth but is an invaluable supplement and aid to philosophy. With revealed truth in hand, Christian philosophers are able to salvage what is true and useful in pagan philosophy while repudiating what is false. Moreover, Augustine argued that Christianity can be strengthened and enriched by philosophy. Christian philosophers should begin by believing (on the authority of the Bible and the church) what Christianity professes and seek (by the use of reason) to acquire understanding of what they initially believed on authority. In seeking understanding, philosophers rely on that aspect of themselves – namely, reason – in virtue of which they most resemble God; and in gaining understanding, they strengthen the basis for Christian belief. The Augustinian method of belief seeking understanding is taken for granted by the vast majority of philosophers in the Middle Ages.

Second, Augustine’s writings provide a wealth of rich and compelling examples of philosophical reflection on topics ranging from the nature of evil and sin to the nature of the Trinity. Boethius stands with Augustine in this respect as an important model for later thinkers. He composed several short theological treatises that consciously attempt to bring the tools of Aristotelian logic to bear on issues associated with doctrines of the Christian creed. Inspired by the philosophical analysis and argumentation prominent in these writings, medieval philosophers enthusiastically took up, developed and extended the enterprise of philosophical theology.

With the emergence of academic structure in the new European schools and universities of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, theology became the paramount academic discipline in a formal curriculum of higher education. However, the fact that great thinkers of the later Middle Ages typically studied philosophy as preparatory for the higher calling of theology should not be taken to imply that in becoming theologians they left philosophy behind. As a simple matter of fact, later medieval theologians continued throughout their careers to address fundamental philosophical issues in fundamentally philosophical ways. And it is clear why this should be so: those who took up the study of theology were among the most gifted and highly trained philosophical minds of their day, and they brought to theology acute philosophical sensitivities, interests and skills. Moreover, insofar as they viewed Christianity as offering the basic framework for a comprehensive account of the world, they were naturally attracted to the broadly philosophical task of building on that framework, understanding its ramifications and resolving its difficulties.

Despite the dominance of the Augustinian view of the relation between Christianity and philosophy, religiously motivated resistance to philosophy in general and to the use of philosophical methods for understanding Christianity in particular emerges in different forms throughout the Middle Ages. In the twelfth century, some influential clerics saw the flourishing study of logic at Paris as a dangerous influence on theology and used ecclesiastical means to attack Peter Abelard and Gilbert of Poitiers. In the thirteenth century the new Aristotelian natural philosophy prompted another period of sustained ecclesiastical reaction. In 1210 and 1215 ecclesiastical authorities proscribed the teaching of Aristotle’s natural philosophy at Paris, and in 1277 the Bishop of Paris issued a condemnation of 219 articles covering a wide range of theological and philosophical topics. The condemnation seems largely to have been a reaction to the work of radical Averroistic interpreters of Aristotle. It is unclear how effective these actions were in suppressing the movements and doctrines they targeted.

(See Aristotelianism, medieval; Augustinianism; Averroism; Illumination; Natural theology.)

Citing this article:
MacDonald, Scott and Norman Kretzmann. Philosophical theology. Medieval philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-B078-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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