When last chapter began, the Sophists were in charge of our culture. When it ended, Plato and Aristotle had laid the foundations for everything we think today. Now we'll watch Christians and non-Christians build structures that still dominate our world.
Cynics have us over a barrel
The first practical reaction to speculative philosophy came with Antisthenes, a companion of Socrates. His followers began to advocate a way of life more than a philosophy. Their chief doctrine was virtue, which they defined as life according to nature. Because they were willing to go to any extreme to make their point in public, they became known as the "Cynics" (meaning "dog" in Greek). Not a popular group, these.
And for more reasons than just their name. The Cynics want you to cut all necessities to bare minimums. Many lived their lives as wandering beggars, going barefoot and wearing a single rough garment. The staff and beggar's wallet became their symbol. Their food was lentils, and their beverage cold water. One of their leaders chose to live inside a barrel, which he carried around himself as his clothing. Their goal was to achieve utter tranquility against all changes of fortune.
They attacked all forms of convention and the lax moral standards of their day, and were sure they were on a divine mission to reform their culture. And so they have given their name to anyone who criticizes the establishment. Whether they live in a barrel or not.
A dog's life is your fate
A second ethical response to speculative philosophy was the movement known as Stoicism. Founded by Zeno, this is first and foremost a rule of life. Stoicism is named for the columns ("stoa") where its followers met, but it has given its name to an attitude of resignation to the fates. And appropriately so.
The Stoics believed that Divine Reason or Fate rules the universe, and that we are all forced to obey its dictates. You can choose to go along, like a dog running beside the cart to which he is tied; or you can be dragged along by the cart; but you're going with the cart.
Our duty consists in joyful assent to the decrees of Fate. And so apathy--freedom from all passion and emotion--is the highest emotional goal. Utter indifference to external things is the key to a life lived well, if you're a Stoic. Epictetus (A.D. 50) had it down: "If you caress your wife or child, say to yourself that it is not different than if you were caressing any person. Then, if he dies, you will be unaffected." A lovely way of life, isn't it?
The Stoics believed that the universe is perfectly rational. The active principle is fire. God, or Divine Providence, is a universal, cosmic principle who forms, orders, and rules the universe. His highest manifestation is Reason, the ruling principle in mankind. The Stoics saw the universe as eternally cycling from destruction to rebirth (cf. 2 Peter 3:7, a passage often cited erroneously as having Stoic influence). All is ordered in the Stoic world.
And so logic becomes especially important for the Stoics. It is not just a tool, as with Aristotle, but a significant part of philosophy itself. Grammar and learning occur only through the bodily senses; they are tested by reason, and if stable and ordered, they are valuable.
The Stoics strongly influenced later politics and thought, especially the doctrine of natural law as expressing the universal decrees of Divine Reason. Universal and classical Roman Law was based more on Stoicism than any other single source.
Be happy, but not too much
A third ethical response to the speculations of Plato and Aristotle was led by Epicurus (341-270 B.C.). No ancient philosophy has been as generally and completely misunderstood as his Epicureanism. The common view is that Epicureans want a comfortable, sensual hedonism, combined with a crude atheism. This reputation arose largely because so many prostitutes came to join the Epicurean movement.
The actual situation was quite different: a small, exclusive group of refined quietists, of the highest moral character, with an extraordinary devotion to their founder, a most attractive theory and practice, and strong and loyal friendship. Epicurus himself was an amicable and cheerful man of extreme modestly ("Send me a cheese," he once wrote to a friend, "that I may fare sumptuously"). But his movement was extremely unpopular in the ancient world, since its teachings countered the Stoics, Platonists, and Aristotelians. It's tough to swim upstream, especially when the big fish are moving the other way.
The Epicurean aim of life was simple: happiness as the absence of pain and the presence of tranquility. They denied the Stoic approach to fatalism, since it was disturbing to the mind and prevented tranquility. They rejected Cynicism for its similar denials of tranquil pleasures. And they had little interest in the speculations of Plato and Aristotle, since they could bring few pleasures to life.
Epicurus developed an epistemology, theology, and psychology. His theory of learning was quite creative: the physical world is made of atoms (agreeing with the Atomists); the atoms on the outer layer of things are given off as the "images" of their material subjects. These "images" float through the air until they contact a perceiving subject. Then they make an actual physical impression on the sense-organ, penetrating through the pore directly to the mind and producing mind-pictures. Since images are sometimes mixed (as with a centaur, combining the images of a man and a horse), concepts come from the images as they are creatively assimilated and understood. Not a bad guess, and closer to modern theory than any other in ancient Greek speculation.
His theology was less creative. The gods must exist, he said, or else we could not have their image in our minds. Yet they form no part of the physical universe, living in perfect tranquility and representing the ideal of human life. Epicurean religion was simply the contemplation of the divine life.
And his psychology was similar to his epistemology. The soul is composed of atoms, themselves material in nature. Soul-atoms are diffused all over the body, causing every sensation we feel. The directing, rational part of the soul is located in the breast. And the soul is mortal, dissolving into its material elements when the body dies. Death ends all consciousness. And so we should have no fear of death and the beyond, leaving us free for present happiness.
I'm sure I'm not sure
The last of these ethical responses to Plato and Aristotle was the movement known as the Skeptics. Pyrrho of Elea, a contemporary of Zeo and Epicurus (ca. 365-275 B.C.) was the first leader of the Skeptics. He sought imperturbable tranquility, but not in the dogmatic theories of his day. Rather, he found happiness in absolute agnosticism and suspension of judgment.
Since we cannot know whether our sense perceptions agree with reality, we can never get beyond our senses. And so when our thoughts and our senses conflict, we have no criteria for distinguishing the true from the false. The result: when we suspend all judgment, tranquility will follow. We cannot grasp God or the eternals, and so we should give up our attempts to know them. And peace will come.
A second group of Skeptics descended from some of Plato's students at the Academy. Following Socrates' motto, "I know only that I do not know," they decided that we do not know even that we do not know. We know nothing, and we're sure of it.
Skepticism leads eventually to Eclecticism, a philosophy which combines truths from various sources without seeking a unified system of absolute knowledge. And nothing is more popular today than that.
There's no truth but mine
It's fascinating to see the ways these four movements have helped mold the Western worldview as it is typically practiced today. With the Cynics, some have chosen to retreat from our rampant materialism and seek truth and life in nature or asceticism. This approach is especially popular with some of so-called Generation X, young people soured on the materialism of their parents.
Others are more Stoic in their fatalistic approach to life--many in my parents' generation demonstrate enormous resignation to hard times and resilience in the midst of them. Still others are Epicurean in their pursuit of pleasure and happiness, often to extremes which Epicurus condemned--I think of some of my contemporaries and their definitions of success and purpose. And the post-modern relativism and rejection of absolutes can be traced to the ancient Skeptics. Truth is only what I say it is. And you should believe me.
As we watch the early Christians deal with these competitors for the soul, we find ways to take Christ to our culture today. For no generation since the post-Socratics is more like them than we are. We'll see how, next.
The philosopher God
As you may have noticed, this "ethical" response to Plato and Aristotle left some ethics to be desired. Specifically, any reference to a personal God. And so religious mystics attempted to build a bridge between the mind and the soul. The result--no surprise here--was a philosopher God. These thinkers wanted a theosophy--a religious world view. Let's see what that view looked like.
Bring a Stoic to church
In the last two centuries before Christ, Stoicism underwent a significant process of modification. They dropped their doctrine of "conflagration" (the end of the world by fire), and accepted the eternity of the cosmos (I'm sure the cosmos was grateful). And they began using their Divine Providence doctrine to supply order in that eternal cosmos, making Stoicism more suitable for the Romans who adopted their philosophy.
Three men would be upset if we didn't mention them here. Posidorus of Apamea (130-46 B.C.) developed important doctrines about God and mankind. He saw man as the "bridge-being" or intermediate between higher and lower life, and viewed the cosmos as a single organism ruled by a divine or "higher" power. Sounds a bit like Shirley MacLaine.
Epictetus was one of the greatest later Stoics. The son of a woman slave, he was born between 50 and 60 A.D. at Hieropolis in Phrygia. He came to Rome as a slave of one of Nero's men, became a secretary, and took courses with Musonius Rufus, the fashionable Stoic philosopher. After obtaining his freedom, he taught philosophy on street corners, and later established a school in Nicopolis. He was mainly a moral and religious teacher, and his philosophy can be summed up in two words: "bear" and "forebear." Joyful resignation to the Divine Will is the highest good for Epictetus.
The greatest of the later Stoics was Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.). He succeeded Antonius Pius to the Roman throne in 161 A.D., and was a brilliant ruler and even more brilliant philosopher. He based much of his teachings on Epicurus, but also derived much from Plato. Marcus' Meditations is a masterpiece of Stoic thought.
Marcus' son Commodus began the decline of the Empire. With Aurelius the end of an epoch was reached--he was the last great Stoic, and the last great product of classical culture as well.
Making a good mind
The next movement of significance before Christian philosophy is known as Neo-Platonism. Philo of Parissa returned Plato's Academy to positive, dogmatic teaching, and away from the skepticism of the day. Most of all, his school taught a theological and religious way of life.
The primary object of the Neo-Platonics was knowledge of truth about the divine world, leading to the "greatest possible likeness to God." They placed a supreme Mind or God at the head of a hierarchy of being, as the first principle of reality. This Supreme Mind is too far above the material world to be accessible to us except through occasional flashes of illumination. Intermediary beings such as lesser gods, stars, and demons rule and order the visible universe. Evil comes from matter itself, which is opposed to the intentions of the Good.
In this system, God is known primarily through the "via negative" (the "way of negation"). By stating what God is not, we get a better understanding of what he is. Religion is remote intellectual devotion to the remote Supreme Mind, whose vision we can only hope to attain fully in the next life. Pagan piety towards the inferior gods, the star-gods and other deities of mythology or popular religion is combined with ascetic philosophical reflection. By harmonizing Plato's Good and Aristotle's Mind, this school created a view of God which was followed by many for hundreds of years.
Making Plato a Jew
One last philosopher before Christianity must be mentioned: Philo Judaeus of Alexandrinus (30 B.C. to A.D. 50). This Alexandrian Jew of a priestly family wrote historical, philosophical, political, and ethical works. He was the leading figure of his intellectual community. And his efforts to combine Neo-Platonism and the Old Testament would influence theologians for centuries to come.
Philo's great ambition is to bring Plato and the Hebrew Bible together, as a means of encouraging philosophers to worship the Jewish God. His method is known as "allegory," a hermeneutical approach whereby the literal or intended meaning of the text is obliterated in favor of a more "spiritual" reading.
By this approach, Genesis is not a record of historical fact but a kind of Platonic myth. Adam symbolizes "spirit" or "mind," Eve sensuality, and Jacob asceticism. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob stand for the learned, natural, and exercised virtues. When the three wanderers ask about Sarah's whereabouts and Abraham answers, "She is in the hut" (Genesis 18.9), he is really saying that virtue is in the soul. Who needs seminary when you can interpret the Bible like this!
Philo's theology was quite interesting and influential. He saw God as the absolute, transcendent Being who is the ground of all existence. The "logos" is the instrument by which God works to make the world of visible things. The "pneuma" is the Divine Substance which God breathes into humans, and becomes our intelligence and the "image of God" in us. Salvation comes as we deliver ourselves from our bodies (our evil principle), eradicate our passions by asceticism, and seek God through mysticism.
Philo matters to us not because of his theological results, but because of his method. He was among the first to attempt to bring Platonic thought and biblical revelation together. And his allegorical method is still (unfortunately) in common use today.
Don't apologize, but be apologetic
Now we step over the bridge from the pre-Christian world to the Christian era. Remarkably, both banks of the river look very much alike, especially at first.
Alexandria (founded by its namesake Alexander the Great in 333 B.C.) had become the leading commercial and intellectual city of the world by this time. Its library of 700,000 volumes attracted scholars from all over the world. The Septuagint (the Hebrew Bible into Greek) was translated here. And "Christian Wisdom" got its start here as well.
The first Christian philosophers wanted to do three important things: (1) explain their faith to the Greek world; (2) bring pagans to Christ; and (3) encourage Christians to think well about their beliefs. They are known to us as "apologists," from the Greek word for "defense" (see 1 Peter 3:15: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have"). The first apologists defended Christianity against philosophical attacks, and made their faith systematic for the sake of the Church. They did us all an enormous service.
The most important of these early apologists was Justin Martyr. Justin (his last name derives from his death for Christ) based his doctrine on divine revelation, and denied that we can know God apart from that revelation. However, he also believed that God has planted "seeds" of knowledge of himself in all people. This is the "seminal Logos," a Stoic term used by Justin in a very un-Stoic sense.
In this view the great philosophers have all lived and taught to some degree according to the Logos, and everything true in their teaching comes from God. But Christians have not merely seeds or fragmentary portions of the truth, but the Logos himself, the Lord Jesus. Therefore, the Christian revelation transcends the teaching of the philosophical schools.
This was a brilliant attempt to bring Christianity and Greek philosophy together, and has much to commend itself to us. However, Justin's own use of his method sometimes went astray. For instance, he developed a subordinationist theology regarding the Trinity (ranking the Father above the Son, who is above the Spirit), so as to make his theology more consistent with Neo-Platonism. But while we can fault some of his method, we cannot question the piety of his faith or the passion of his love for Jesus.
We will meet with those who undertake this apologetic task across the rest of our survey.
The faith of our fathers
Finally we come to the Patristic era (from the Latin for "fathers"). This is a subject worthy of an entire course of study. We'll do great violence to it by wresting from its treasures only a few people, and just a few of their insights. May they forgive us.
Tertullian (AD 160-230) radically rejected philosophy, but used philosophy to do so. He was Stoic in his view that God as "spirit" is fine and subtle matter, that souls must be physical in nature, and that the Father is the "God of the philosophers." And yet he thought he rejected philosophy with his method. His famous cry was, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" A great deal, apparently.
Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-225) combined Christian orthodoxy with a much greater respect for Greek philosophy. He insisted on the transcendent unity of God, the divinity of Christ, the unity of the Church, and the superiority of revealed doctrine. But he also believed that Greek philosophy is a valuable preparation and assistant in attaining the final truth of the Christian revelation.
Origen (A.D. 185-254) was the first great Christian Platonist. Born in Egypt, he succeeded Clement as head of the Catechetical School at Alexandria when he was eighteen years of age. He was imprisoned and tortured for his faith, and died as a result of his persecutions. His was a passionate commitment to the Christian faith.
His was a very original attempt to adapt Platonism to the requirements of Christian theology, beginning as a teacher with the data of revelation. However, he soon yields far too much ground to Plato. He is an extreme subordinationist, believing that God's power extends to all created things, the Son's only to rational beings, and the Spirit's only to a limited number of rational beings whom he sanctifies.
Origen believed that God's first creation was a community of rationally disembodied spirits, all equal and possessed of free will. These spirits sinned and fell in various degrees, according to the severity of their sin. Come became angels, others men, others demons. The material universe was created after this fall to provide penitential dwellings for these fallen spirits. Even the sun and other heavenly bodies are purgatorial vehicles in which are embodied spirits which have sinned.
Salvation for Origen comes through reincarnation, as fallen spirits move through a long series of lives, up and down the scale towards God according to their merits in the preceding stage. At last would come the apokatastasis, the restoration of all things. All spirits would be returned to their first purity and equality, even the devil included.
To achieve such a radical synthesis, Origen had to make full use of Philo's allegorical method. He shows us how far off track a brilliant person can go, unless the Bible guides both our method and our conclusions. If it could happen to Origen, it can happen to us.
Ideas to avoid
We'll close this section with some of the more interesting heresies of the period (as though Origen's ideas weren't heretical enough). The Gnostics were the first and most serious intellectual threat to early Christianity. They believed that knowledge (gnosis) rather than faith (pistis) is the means to God and salvation. We know much more about them than we once did, thanks to the 1945 discovery of the Nag-Hammadi Library in upper Egypt. This large jar contained a fifth-century Gnostic library with thirteen books, forty-eight writings, and 700 pages of material.
Gnostics saw matter as essentially evil, and the realm of the spirit as good. They were strongly anti-Semitic, though they believed in the supreme being of the Jews. They posited a female deity named "Sophia" (from "wisdom") as the mother goddess, and believed that "eons" separate good from evil. Their system proceeds downward from Depth/Silence to Mind/Truth, thirty "eons" (of whom Christ is the last), Word/Life, Men/Church, and twelve more "eons" (Sophia is the last). Sophia had a miscarriage, resulting in the Demiurgos, and the Demiurgos made the universe. Why hasn't some science fiction writer picked up on this stuff?
The Gnostics were just getting started as the New Testament era was drawing to its close. Their separation of spirit from material and God from mankind was manifested by some in the argument that the earthly Jesus took on the divine Christ spirit at his baptism, and lost him at his crucifixion. Paul apparently is fighting Gnosticism in Colossians 1.15-23, and John in 1 John 1.1-4.
Arianism was a second opponent of early Christianity. Arius, a presbyter of the church in Alexandria, denied that the Christian shares God's nature. He taught that Christ is the logos of God, but denied that divinity was incarnate in the body of Jesus of Nazareth. This attempt to preserve biblical monotheism at the expense of biblical Christology was rejected by the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325.
Pelagianism (from Pelagius, a monk of British birth who lived in Rome, early 5th century A.D.) insisted on our total freedom of choice. This argument against total depravity was counted effectively by Augustine, as we'll see in the next chapter.
Manichaeanism (from the sect of Mani) argued for a metaphysical dualism with God as good but finite, limited by the power of Satan. Satan created the material world, captured man's free spirit, and imprisoned it in the body, there to suffer for sins committed in a previous existence. We can be redeemed only by severely ascetic discipline.
Augustine was right--there is a "God-shaped emptiness" in each of us. The religious philosophers we've surveyed in this chapter have each attempted to fill it. But any jigsaw puzzle solver knows that the wrong piece won't fit into the right hole. Next we'll find some pieces that still work for our souls today.
Evil exists only if you think it does (in which case, it does)
We continue with Patristic philosophy (named for the "fathers" of the church through Augustine) by looking at the person who most influenced the person who most influenced us. Plotinus (AD 204-269) was the greatest Platonic philosopher after Plato. Born in Lycopolis, Egypt, he studied philosophy in Alexandria for eleven years, then established his own school in Room in 243. In 269 he died of a painful illness, probably leprosy.
His final words summarize his thought: "the divine spirit within me is departing to be united with the universal divine spirit." After his death, his disciple Porphyry revised and published his works in six Enneads (series of nine writings each).
Plotinus wanted to bring the uncharted religious ideas of his age under one unified system. He saw God as the source of all being and existence, and believed that the universe emanates from him. Thought produces soul, which produces matter. The soul "fell" into its physical state when it turned from God toward the material. Somewhere Orpheus is cheering.
Only by mystically purging ourselves from all bodily sensations and contemplating the eternal can we know God. Then our souls transcend their own thought, lose themselves in the soul of God, and become one with God.
We've heard all this before. Now comes the new (and highly significant) part. Plotinus believed that evil has no independent status or identity. Evil is the result of wrong thoughts, and only comes into material reality when we think them. And so evil is nothing of itself, literally "non-being." For reasons which make no sense just yet, this is crucial. Trust me.
The greatest mind since Paul
Now we come to my hero among the Patristics: Augustine. He was the greatest constructive thinker and most influential teacher of the early Christian church, and a dominant force in theology and philosophy even today. His was a formative influence on Descartes and the whole development of modern philosophy. And the Protestant reformers, especially Luther and Calvin, were guided in their theological views to a great extent by his published works. Other than that, his life didn't accomplish much.
Augustine (AD 354-430) was born at Thagaste in North Africa, to a Christian mother named Monica and a pagan father named Patricius. He became a brilliant and successful rhetorician (think lawyer), practicing at Rome and Milan. In Milan he was converted to Christ in 386, and soon ordained. He became Bishop of Hippo in North Africa in 396 and remained there to his death.
The writings of this man fill 16 volumes of Migne's Patrologia Latina, in very small print--I had to translate some of them in my doctoral work and remember the experience painfully. The main bulk were very detailed explanations of the Scriptures, either as sermons he preached at Hippo or commentaries on various books of the Bible. His homilies on John's Gospel, Explanations of the Psalms, and commentaries on Genesis are of special importance. And his two most widely read works, Confessions and City of God, are the most significant and influential Christian books of all time outside of Scripture.
Let's take a brief tour of his thought. At every turn you'll say, "But that's what everyone believes." That's the point. Let's use Augustine's Latin phrases to make it.
For Augustine, God is absolute and majestic. He is eternal, transcendent, and absolutely free, holy and totally separate from evil. What he wills, he does without intermediaries of any kind (vs. Gnosticism and Plotinus).
All ideas and forms of things are grounded in God's intelligence (agreeing with Plato). He proceeded rationally in creating the world, and everything owes its existence to him (vs. Plato). He created the world ex nihilo (out of nothing). All that is, is good, since it was created by God.
All true theological thinking begins and ends with the Trinity. Augustine's work De Trinitate is the single most important writing ever produced on this crucial subject. God created mankind as Trinity, and we can approach him only as Trinity.
Non posse non peccare
Augustine believed that the only knowledge worth having is knowledge of God and ourselves. All other knowledge, such as logic, metaphysics, and ethics, has value only insofar as it contributes to our knowledge of God.
It is our duty to understand what we firmly believe, to see the rational basis of our faith. And so we have a famous credo from Augustine: "Understand in order that you may believe; believe in order that you may understand." The highest function of wisdom and reason is to know God.
Truth is objective and absolute. I know that I exist, and so I know the reality of existence (Descartes would get credit for this idea 1,200 years later). The center of all thought is God. Concentration on inner spiritual reality leads to all truth.
Against Plato and with the Hebrew anthropology, Augustine believed that the body is not inherently evil. We are body and soul, but each works with the other to bring us to life's purpose.
Now things get interesting. Before the Fall we were holy and wholly innocent. After the Fall our entire being was corrupted. We were plunged into ignorance and sin, and are now utterly incapable of knowing what we should do apart from God's revelation and redemption. We were free to sin or not to sin before the Fall, but after the Fall it is impossible for us not to sin (non posse non peccare, for you intellectuals).
And so Adam's sin created hereditary sin, from which only God can reform us. The ramifications of this idea for infant baptism, sexuality, and human identity are still with us today.
As a logical result of this belief in inherited sin, Augustine argued strongly for predestination regarding salvation. He believed that every person is born with a sin nature, so that God is just in condemning us all. If anyone turns to God by faith, this is only possible by God's help, since our sinful nature makes such conversion impossible. And so God must decide who is to be saved and who is to be lost. A Calvinist before Calvin, so to speak.
Omnia natura bonum est
Now we go from preaching to meddling. For Augustine, everything that is, is created by God and is therefore good (omnia natura bonum est--all nature is the best). How, then, did evil come to be?
By logical progression, if everything that exists is good, evil cannot "exist." Evil must be a privation or lack of the good: "nothing else than corruption, either of the measure, or the form, or the order, that belong to nature. Nature therefore which has been corrupted, is called evil" (Nature of the Good, 4).
God has given us freedom of will, so that we would choose the good (his worship). But we choose wrongly. And evil results from our wrong choices. It already existed in potential (evil as non-being, from Plotinus). And we make it a reality when we misuse our freedom.
The result is simple: evil is not God's fault but ours. This "free-will" theodicy (an explanation for evil in the light of God's goodness) is the most popular such approach in Christian history.
Augustine's theodicy drives his philosophy of history. There are two kinds of people ("cities" in his analogy): those who desire God and those who do not. The "City of God" is spiritual and eternal; the "City of the Devil" is material and temporal. They are in perpetual conflict throughout history (the "dialectical" philosophy of history, found in Rousseau, Hegel, Comte, Nietzsche, Marx, and Spengler). Only when Jesus returns will the City of God defeat finally and forever the City of the Devil, and heal the results of the Fall eternally.
No one except Paul has exerted as much philosophical and theological influence on the Church as St. Augustine. We still think his thoughts in so many ways. But as is true with all human minds, his was finite and fallen. We'll see how in the studiesto come.
Dark Ages or Golden Ages?
Now we move briefly to the "Medieval" period of Christian philosophy and history. I detest calling this the Middle Ages (did they know they were in them?), and especially detest calling them the Dark Ages. What Protestants call "Dark," Catholic historians call "Golden." History is truly perspective.
It is fair to say that not much original thinking occurred during the thousand years between Augustine and the Reformation, but that's for a reason. The Western world rediscovers Aristotle, and enters into a massive project of assimilating his thought into Christian theology and practice. For the most part, the intellectuals of the day confined themselves to relating the work of the ancients to their own faith. And they accomplished what they intended to. Be careful what you aim at, lest you hit it.
Three unusually creative people deserve our applause, however: Anselm, Abelard, and Thomas Aquinas. Let's start with Anselm of Canterbury, since he was born before the others.
The fastest way to a philosophical headache
Anselm (1033-1109) was Archbishop of Canterbury in England (though they forced the office on him). He was the first truly significant Medieval philosopher. for three reasons.
First, he argued for the right relationship of reason and faith: "I believe that I might understand" (Credo ut intelligam). I agree, so he must be right.
Second, he articulated a very influential theory of the atonement: the satisfaction view. In Cur Deus Homo (Why the God Man?) he suggested that Christ satisfied God at the cross, enabling a reconciliation between God and man. This theology came from the feudal society in which it was born, but that doesn't make it right.
Third, he constructed the most complicated defense of God's existence ever devised: the ontological argument. Take two aspirin and proceed:
Major premise: I can conceive of a perfect being ("that than which nothing greater can be conceived").
Minor premise: to be perfect, something must exist.
Conclusion: God exists.
Philosophers are still debating. And in heaven, Anselm laughs at them all.
No way to treat a philosopher
Anselm's philosophical sparring partner was Abelard (1079-1142). But the latter had far greater problems than the former.
Abelard wanted to follow the art of disputation, so he became the student of William of Champeaux in Paris (around 1100). But he argued against William and was invited to leave. Later he met Heloise, a niece of a high official at Notre Dame, and fell in love with her. They had a child, and wanted to be married. Heloise's father found out, and had Abelard beaten and emasculated. Abelard went to a monastery, and Heloise to a nunnery. Abelard was accused of heresy, and expelled from the monastery. He entered another monastery, but was expelled again for heresy. He died soon after. And you thought you had a tough week.
Abelard disagreed with Anselm's view of the atonement, putting forth his own "moral influence" theory. In his view, Christ's death was an expression of God's love designed to invoke a response of devotion, love, and obedience. In other words, the Father loves us because he loves us, not because his Son made him. I agree (though I think the atonement was more than an example or influence for us, being a substitutionary atonement man myself).
And Abelard disagreed with Anselm's view of reason and faith. In fact, his credo was precisely the opposite: "I understand, that I might believe." Rationalists every since have agreed. A tough life, but a good thinker.
The dumb ox on which we still ride
Now we come to the highest expression of Medieval philosophy and theology: Thomas Aquinas (1225?-1274). Remarkably, the greatest thinker of the Medieval era was known as the "dumb ox" as a child, and graduated last in his class (must have been some class!). He wanted to establish the Christian faith in a world where Aristotle was influential. And so, in essence, he applied Aristotle's ideas about purpose and materialism to Christian thought. With monumental results.
Thomas used Aristotle's theories about cause and effect to promote the cosmological argument for God: if there is a creation, there must be a Creator. This is still the most popular defense of God's existence.
He made enormous advances in our understanding of language as well. He showed us that "univocal" language occurs when the words mean the same thing in every context; "equivocal" language results from words which have nothing in common in different contexts; and "analogical" language happens when words have some relationship with each other in different contexts. The theological significance here is that our language about God has some truth, by analogy, even though it describes the One who is above all description. Thomas' approach to analogical language is still the foundational understanding of theological speech today.
Thomas, following Aristotle, was also a big proponent of natural theology. He believed that God can be seen in his creation, and that faith and biblical revelation are only needed to complete what God has already revealed in nature. "Natural" revelation and "special" revelation are theological categories we get from Thomas and still use.
His view of reason and faith: "I will observe, that I might know, and when my observation reaches its limits, then I will believe." From Thomas to today, most Roman Catholic thinkers agree. And many Protestants as well.
What does it all mean for Christians seeking to serve Jesus today? Let's review:
Augustine taught the church to see God as Trinity, mankind as fallen from inherited original sin, salvation as predestined, evil as the result of misused free will, and history as a war between God and Satan.
Anselm gave us a reasonable approach to God's existence, to Jesus' death, and to faith itself.
Abelard made reason into rationalism.
And Thomas made rationalism into faith.
They were right about many things, wrong about some things, but influential about everything, as we'll see next.