Scholasticism Explained: Definition, Origins & History

When we use the term Scholasticism in church history, we are referring to a sudden development or a paradigm shift in educational theory and method among the top schools and scholars in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries. Before the eleventh century, the primary purpose of schools in the west was to educate monks. Monastic education, especially north of the Alps, consisted of reading a passage of Scripture out loud and then contemplating the deep theological ramifications of it. It was biblically based and involved practicing one’s faith in a wise manner in ministry contexts like singing, prayer, daily routines of monks, and acts of service to the community. Monastic education was firmly rooted in the theology of Augustine and the Early Church Fathers and continued in this focus, using this set of methods, for many centuries. Bernard of Clairvaux is an example of a prototypical monastic scholar.

Saint Bernard was born in northern France in the year 1090. He established a monastery in Clarirvaux, which became one of the most important centers of learning in the Cistercian Order. One of his students eventually became pope and took the title of Pope Eugenius III in 1145. Bernard was known for his ascetic lifestyle, forsaking the luxuries due someone in his position. His leadership in the monastery and contributions to monastic scholarship resulted in his becoming one of the most influential monks in all Europe. Bernard died in 1153, but his legacy includes revitalizing monastic education and preaching the Second Crusade, which we investigate in a separate video.

A renewed emphasis on education came with the eleventh century when there were fewer invasions and more funds for advanced education offered to a greater variety of students. In the era of Scholasticism, urban cathedrals replaced the rural monasteries as the location of education. Monasteries still trained their monks, but now secular schoolmasters ran cathedral schools in urban locations north of the Alps like Orléans, Chartres, Paris, Reims, Laon, Liége, and Tournai. Northern Italy, which is south of the Alps, was another fertile location of cathedral schools. In the monastic era of education, expert scholars were anchored to individual monasteries, but in the Scholastic era, the scholasticus vagans, or “wandering master” would move from school to school, drawing in students with his expertise and energy. Anselm of Canterbury, Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas are examples of prototypical scholastics or wanderers.

Anselm was born in Aosta northern Italy in the year 1033. He took up monastic vows in 1060, and three years later became the leader of the monastery in Bec. Thirty years after that, Anselm was appointed as the Bishop of Canterbury. His integrity and scholarly abilities became the main two legacies of his career. He wrote broadly and deeply about many theological topics in his books, Proslogium and Cur Deus Homo. His views on God, humanity, sin, and salvation became standards of future scholastic conversations. Anselm typifies Scholasticism by searching for a rational argument for every matter of the Christian faith.

Peter Abelard was born in Brittany France, in the year 1079. He became a well-known theological scholar, debater, and lecturer in Paris. He began tutoring a younger woman named Héloise, and as their relationship evolved into a private marriage, it drew the ire of her uncle. In those days, men in educational ministry (as was the case with all clergy) were not supposed to marry, so Héloise agreed to enter a convent, at which she herself became a well-respected teacher. Abelard came under attack for his views on the Trinity at the Council of Soissons in 1121 and the Council of Sens in 1141. By the end of his life in 1142, Abelard had challenged the traditional thinking of many scholars. His book, Sic et Non (“Yes or No”) became a standard theological textbook for centuries to come. It addressed potential contradictions in the Bible and the writings of the Early Church Fathers, arguing from one side, then the other, which provided readers with an unbiased examination of both sides of arguments. This gave rise to teachers providing students with theses they could either argue for and against. Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, the 1517 document that led the Protestant Reformation was a collection of such theses for discussion.

Peter Lombard, as his name suggests, was born in Lombardy, Italy, in about the year 1100. His education took him from Italy to Reims to Paris, where he taught at the Cathedral. He was appointed Bishop of Paris in 1159 and died a year later. Lombard was best known for his Four Books of Sentences, which respectively dealt with the subjects of the Trinity, creation and sin, the incarnation and the virtues, and the sacraments and last things. Lombard’s Sentences became the standard Roman Catholic theology textbook for European Cathedral schools throughout the rest of the Middle Ages. It was only exceeded by Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica in the thirteenth century.

Thomas Aquinas was largely regarded as the brightest Scholastic mind produced in the Middle Ages. As his name suggests, Thomas was born in Aquino, a town in central Italy in the year 1225. He was raised in an abbey in Monte Cassino, began his studies at age 14 at the University of Naples, became a Dominican monk, then finished his studies in Paris. He spent the rest of his life teaching there and in Italy. He died in Naples in 1274, after establishing a Dominican school there. Although his list of literary achievements is too long to mention, he was most known for his Summa Theologica, which became the hallmark of Catholic theology in the Middle Ages. His Scholastic method, much like that of Peter Abelard, was to ask key questions and examine answers from all conceivable angles. Thomas thought of faith and reason as being in harmony with one another, and although he chided students who gave too much of their time to some of the newly discovered and translated works of Aristotle, Thomas became the master of all things Aristotle. Thomas’s works were considered foundational to the theological expression of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century, and in 1879, the Catholic Church declared Thomas’s theology to be eternally valid for all Catholics.  

There were two main questions the Scholastics attempted to answer in their studies of the Bible, theology, and philosophy. First, what is the relationship between faith and reason? Does faith precede reason, as Anselm of Canterbury claimed? In other words, does one believe in something first and then give rationale for the thing believed? Peter Abelard suggested, alternatively, that nothing should be believed until it is first understood. Peter Lombard maintained that dilemmas of faith should be settled by reason. Thomas Aquinas held that natural reason leads the student to the vestibule of faith; however, Aquinas maintained that both faith and reason are vital to the Christian faith. John Duns Scotus believed that knowledge of God cannot be learned from reason but rather from the authority of the Church. While previous scholars had depended heavily on the Bible and writings of the Early Church Fathers, the Scholastics felt their newly-developed logical methods were authoritative regardless of previous writings. Scholasticism was, in a sense, a renaissance of principled logical thought applied to many aspects of life including theology and faith.

The second question was about what the Scholastics called universals. In other words, if there is a connection between individual things (like their color or shape), is that property or “universal” that connects them a real thing (as the Realists claimed), just a theory (as the Nominalists claimed), or some hybrid between the two (as the Moderate Realists claimed)? Realists, such as Anselm of Canterbury, claimed that universals exist apart from particular things, and the universals predate particular things. For example, the Realist would argue that the concept of a bird is a reality, and it predates the existence of an eagle, raven, or a seagull. Nominalists, such as William of Ockham, claimed that only particular things exist, and the idea of a universal idea connecting the particulars is just that—an idea, not a reality. It is merely a human construct to explain similarities one recognizes between different particulars. Moderate Realists such as Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas claimed that universals do not exist in their own realm, but they become real when they are shared by particular things. In other words, Moderate realists would argue that the concept of a bird did not exist until a few species came into existence with that shared commonality. 

Both of these questions—the relationship of faith and reason and the question of universals, were highly theoretical. As new sciences would soon develop in the Later Middle Ages, they prioritized practical applications of theoretical inquiry. The modern reputation of the Scholastics was positive in that it revived scrutiny in matters of theology and philosophy. However, Scholastics also earned a negative reputation for their speculations being of limited practical use. Throughout church history, one finds times of neglecting education followed by a pendulum swing in the other direction in which interest in education is revived. Scholasticism in the High Middle Ages is an important example of an educational revival. It laid the foundation for a revival of an independent liberal arts education.

  1.  Williston Walker, et al. A History of the Christian Church, fourth edition (New York: MacMillan, 1985), 322-323.
  2.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Bernard, St.,” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
  3.  Ruth Tucker, Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 161-164.
  4.  Robert Linder, “Peter Abelard,” in Introduction to the History of Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 288.
  5.  Ruth Tucker, Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 164-166.
  6.  Robert Linder, “Peter Abelard,” in Introduction to the History of Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 289.
  7.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “Peter Lombard” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
  8. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox” (New York: Doubleday, 1956), 164.
  9.  Justo González, A History of Christian Thought, vol. 1, From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon, revised edition (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987), 374.
  10.  Robert G. Clouse, “Thomas Aquinas” in Introduction to the History of Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 292.
  11.  Robert C. Walton, Chronological and Background Charts of Church History, expanded and revised edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), chart #40.
  12.  Justo González, A History of Christian Thought, vol. 1, From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon, revised edition (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987), 377.
  13.  Everett Ferguson, Church History: Volume One—From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, second edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 429.
  14.  Williston Walker, et al. A History of the Christian Church, fourth edition (New York: MacMillan, 1985), 325.