Today, scholastic theology, or scholasticism, is often used as a disparaging term that means something like “speculation on obscure and trivial theological topics” or “an over-emphasis on traditional dogma.” The question most often used to sum up this view of scholastic theology is “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Medieval scholastic theologians did indeed speculate about such things, but there was usually a bigger theological or philosophical issue involved.
Scholastic theology is essentially a systematic, academic, interdisciplinary approach to theology that developed during the Middle Ages. Scholasticism came with the rise of the university, the rediscovery of classical methods of learning, and the increasing availability of printed books. In the university, students could study subjects that were in some sense separated from “real life” questions and situations that would arise in the church or village. This academic setting could lend itself to theological investigation and speculation that seemed to have no “real-world” application and did not stem from any pressing need.
Scholastic theology sought to apply logic and reason to Scripture and to present truth as an internally consistent whole. In doing so, scholasticism laid the groundwork for modern-day apologetics. Drawing from the ideas of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and others, scholasticism ordered and systematized previous learning and established an efficient teaching method to preserve that knowledge. Scholasticism is, in large part, the reason we have direct access to those ancient ideas today. The writings of the scholastic movement in the Middle Ages influenced such philosophers as René Descartes and John Locke.
In scholastic theology training, the theology professor would often pose a question and ask the students to muster evidence for and against it. Eventually, the professor would give what he believed to be the definitive answer to the question and then critique the evidence that had been offered. Additionally, the theological questions and issues were arranged systematically to form a “system” of theology (systematic theology) that interacted with other disciplines such as science and philosophy. (Modern scholastic systems would also interact with disciplines such as psychology and sociology and even more specific disciplines such as political science and criminology.) Thomas Aquinas was one of the most well-known scholastic theologians because of his methods and the system he produced.
The Reformers often ridiculed scholastic theology, but in reality what they most often rejected were the conclusions of Roman Catholic scholasticism. The Reformers themselves employed some of the same methods of theological investigation and education, producing Protestant and Reformed works of systematic theology.
In some circles, systematic theology is still disparaged or viewed with suspicion. However, if the “system” does not attempt to make the evidence fit the system but is rather developed on the basis of the biblical evidence, then it can be a helpful enterprise.