Scholasticism is the term given to a medieval philosophical movement that combined Catholic theology with the philosophies of more ancient writers such as Augustine and Aristotle. During what is called the Carolingian Renaissance, Charlemagne set up schools in every church throughout the Holy Roman Empire. The monks began to study and learn in these schools, and the schools attracted learners from all over Europe. The word scholasticism comes from the word for “school” because the movement began in Charlemagne’s schools.
Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas and traditional Catholic dogma were influences on Scholasticism. Scholars sought to apply logic and reason to theology and to create a “web” of distinct truths that, when compared to one another, show truth to be an internally consistent whole. The same process can be seen in many academic systematic theologies today.
The age of Scholasticism lasted from about AD 1100 to about 1600. Scholastic universities awarded degrees in philosophy, theology, Roman law, ecclesiastical law, and medicine. Two prominent Scholastic theologians were Peter Abelard and Peter Lombard. The crowning achievement of Scholasticism was the work of Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–1274) and his masterful attempt to reconcile faith and reason.
Scholasticism’s strength is that it ordered and systematized previous learning and established an efficient teaching method to preserve that knowledge through the centuries. It also used word study and comparative logic to elucidate passages of Scripture. When we read the Bible’s statement “God is love,” we can ask ourselves other questions like “what is love?” and “what does it mean that God is?” and come up with a more comprehensive understanding of the statement “God is love” (1 John 4:8). We can also do a word study on love to figure out exactly what kind of love God is. Since every culture and language has a slightly different way of expressing love, it is good to know that, in the Greek, the word for “love” in this passage is agape (unconditional love that seeks to benefit the recipient) rather than eros (romantic love) or phileo (friendship). All of this is very helpful and proper.
Western culture is based upon the Greek way of thinking, upon the ideas of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and others. Scholastisicm is, in large part, responsible for preserving direct access to those ideas for today’s scholars. Scholasticism did more than preserve ancient philosophies, however; it interpreted them, systematically discussed the problems and conflicts they presented, and attempted to form a comprehensive, consistent view of truth. It is hard to calculate the impact this has had on the church as a whole, but it has certainly helped shape the identity of the Western church and European thinking. Modern philosophers such as René Descartes, John Locke, and Benedict de Spinoza were strongly influenced by the methods of Scholasticism. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the rise of neo-Scholasticism, which focused on the contributions of Aquinas.
Scholasticism, with its emphasis on a logical defense of truth, was a natural precursor to modern apologetics. The Scholastic thinkers were committed to analyzing, explaining, and defending their faith as a body of divinely revealed truths. They were not discovering “new” truth but seeking to understand the truth already revealed by God (as interpreted by the Catholic Church). Scholasticism was, in many ways, the exact opposite of Christian mysticism.