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The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 3: The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300) Paperback – August 15, 1980
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This book is based on a most meticulous examination of medieval authorities and the growth of medieval theology is essentially told in their own words. What is more important, however, than the astounding number of primary sources the author has consulted or his sovereign familiarity with modern studies on his subject, is his ability to discern form and direction in the bewildering growth of medieval Christian doctrine and, by thoughtful emphasis and selection, to show the pattern of that development in a lucid and persuasive narrative.
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Christianity is an exciting religion, and understanding the faith can be greatly enhanced through reading any of these wonderful texts. This volume in particular enhances understanding of what preceded the Reformation, and increases the comprehension of that vast but largely unknown period of Medieval Church. One can only benefit by understanding doctrine from this period, and greater benefit might be felt by Orthodox Christians or those considering converting to this branch of Christianity.
In this volume, Pelian explores the development of doctrine in Western Christendom from the close of the patristic era to the height of medieval scholasticism. In this period, the Western Church, beginning with the theological synthesis of St. Augustine of Hippo, developed an outlook on the Christian faith that differed in fundamental ways with theological currents in the Christian East. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the use of Latin instead of Greek, and the increasing claims of the papacy all were hallmarks on this era where the Christian West began to assert its own unique theology.
Pelikan begins with the book with an historical exposition of the Augustinian synthesis and its understanding of the Catholic tradition. The Western Church no less than the East claimed loyalty to the tradition of the Fathers but saw it though an Augustinian prism. So pervasive was the influence of the great Bishop of Hippo, that it seemed natural to add the clause "and the Son" to the Creed when speaking of the Holy Spirit simply based on St. Augustine's own writings on the Trinity. Not just on the Trinity, but on every key aspect of the faith, St. Augustine of Hippo was a towering figure. His ideas on salvation, the nature of the Church, and the Sacraments would dominate Western thinking for centuries to come and the earlier Fathers would be interpreted through the synthesis he created.
Then turning to the period at the end of the patristic era, Pelikan explores how Western theologians began to extend the Augustinian synthesis in the face of new challenges. Among the theological challenges facing Western Christendom were semi-adoptionst views, the blurring of the line between the doctrine of the Trinity and tritheism, the role of faith and works in salvation, the nature of the Sacraments, and the position of Mary in the divine economy.
Some of these issues, as Pelikan skillfully details, would continue to occupy the theological concerns of the Western Church for centuries to come. One of the areas where such concerns would meld to form a more comprehensive view occurred as the Western Church began to develop its theology of the divine economy. Within Western theology, salvation had since St. Augustine emphasized tended towards a transactional theory of atonement which differed from the idea of theosis that was holding sway in the East. However, the exact nature of the transaction involved was left nebulous in the writings of the great bishop of Hippo.
An idea that had begun to hold sway in the Western Church was the ransom theory whereby Jesus gave His life as a ransom paid to Satan who was then unable to hold him in the bondage of death. New speculation began in the eleventh century with St. Anselm who asserted instead that no ranson is owed to Satan but instead satisfaction to God's honor. Although St. Anselm's theories met some opposition (notably Peter Abelard who backed a theory of Jesus redeeming us by His moral example), the idea would eventually begin to dominate Western thinking and be held as the logical consequence of Augustinian theology.
Pelikan focuses in on St. Anselm's satisfaction theory of the atonement as setting the stage for all discussion on the matter in the Western Church for centuries to come. The theory would continue to be developed in various ways but Western ideas on salvation became uniformly cross-centered. The cross was the turning point in human history and the fact that the crucifixion had been for the salvation of mankind demonstrated that Christ was the Lord of history and His sovereignty was absolute.
Pelikan then turns to the matter of how the grace won by Christ was made efficacious for men. Here special attention is focused on two developments within Western Christianity: the role of the Communion of Saints - especially the Virgin Mary - in the divine economy and the role of the Sacraments in communicating grace to us. Although the core was something imported from the Church's earlier Catholic tradition, the Western Church would further develop the particulars into a distinctive theological consensus.
In examining the issue of devotion to Mary and the Saints, Pelikan notes that such practices had long been established, but the West began to develop them in new directions. What began to set apart the Western understanding of Mary's role in the divine economy was the emphasis placed on her as mediatrix. This was not to be understood as mediating in the sense of Christ who mediates between God and man through His sacrifice on the cross, but in the sense that she brought Christ to us through the Incarnation and can bring us to Christ through her intercession. Still, it was subject to excesses and this new attention paid to Mary would lead to the elevation of devotion to saints in general as the excesses of popular piety became a seriously debated issue in the Church.
Pelikan then explores how debates over the exact nature of the Eucharist led to the evolution of the theory of transubstantiation within the Western Church. Theological arguments over the nature of Christ's presence, whether the presence was objective or subject to the believer's faith, and other related issues all led to the adoption of the language of substance and accidents in the presentation of the emerging doctrine. The concerns over the Eucharist opened up the discussion for the nature of the Sacraments in general. These disputes included the definition of what constituted a Sacrament and the numbering of the Sacraments. As time went on, a general agreement of a Sacrament as an outward sign conferring an inward grace and the numbering of seven (Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Penance, Ordination, Matrimony, Exreme Unction) would be the consensus.
Pelikan then describes how the Western Church, with its development of doctrine and ecclesial polity, would more and more see itself as upholding the one true faith of Christ in a fallen world. The patristic consensus of earlier centuries was viewed entirely through the prism of Augustinian theology and even this Augustinian view was interpreted through the later developments of St. Anselm and others. Thus later developments within the Western Church (known as the Catholic Church) were projected onto the patristic writers and the interpretations of the Eastern Church (known as the Orthodox Church) were viewed as deviations even though the latter were often closer to the original intent of the Church fathers themselves. The truth of the developed Catholic consensus was challenged not only by the Eastern Church but by various spliter groups that developed in the West to protest the corruption of power and worldliness within the Catholic Church and also the rise of the dualist Cathari. Responses to such challenges often were to deem them as heretical on the basis of their challenging the papal authority. Even the Eastern Churches, which stayed faithful to the original version of the Creed delivered by the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople, were deemed as at fault for not changing the Creed to include the fillioque added centuries later by the Western Church.
Pelikan also delves into the relationship between Catholicism and non-Christian religions. There was renewed contact with Judaism in this period that reached far beyond the triumphalism of earlier centuries. Much of this contact was frequently between Jews and Jewish converts to Catholicism. There were still, however, limits to how far this dialogue could proceed and some in the Church were always wary of a "Judaizing" tendency among Catholic so engaged. The rise of Islam as a world power also necessitated a response and here Western theologians joined their Eastern counterparts in seeing it as a Christian heresy that mixed truths of the Catholic faith with errors accumulated elsewhere.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the Catholic Church was the recovery of the works of Aristotle. The East had long been familiar with the philosopher and even Islam had its take on his work, but the recovery of his philosophy shook the intellectual community within the Catholic Church to its foundations. Here was a perfectly integrated worldview - perhaps the most sophisticated yet devised - that was completely without Catholic influence. Pelikan explores how theologians grappled with this new synthesis while trying to maintain the brand of Augustinian theology that had become the standard for Catholic theological discussion.
The greatest example of this was the new synthesis achieved by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica. Aquinas' towering achievement left in tact the Catholic docrine by stripping it of much of the platonic influence in the Augustinian synthesis and expressing it in terms of the Aristotelian view. The essential Augustiniansim of the system was maintained but its new outlook more clearly integrated it with the study of nature. The new syntheses led to further theolgical development as new areas of intellectual investigation opened up but the new approach was not without its critics. The often slavish reliance on Aristotle by less talented interpreters than the great scholastics of the thirteenth century would eventuall ossify much of Catholic theology and lead to the undoing of much of its achievements.
The development of Catholic doctrine in the medieval period is remarkable as it was derived from the Catholic tradition of earlier centuries but in many ways is totally different. Unlike the East, the Western Church was not hesitant about taking theology in new directions in response to internal and external influences. Jaroslav Pelikan's account in The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300) makes clear how the Western Church could change elements of its faith and practice in sometimes significant ways while, in its eyes, truthfully claim to maintain the tradition as had been handed on to them. For anyone interested in how the patristic Catholic consensus developed into the medieval Catholic consensus, there is no more detailed explanation than in this book.
This book is a superb reference for students of theology and history, and definitely "fills in the blanks" for anyone with a limited view of medieval theology. Pelikan's writing is surprisingly readable, though it is sometimes cumbersome to have to keep checking the "marginalia" and separate listing of sources to ascertain who wrote what. It is purely a scholarly work, and not likely to please those looking for engaging narratives, but is invaluable for those with a serious interest in the subjects.