Scholasticism and the Church: Did They Fight Forever?


By Philip Daileader, Ph.D., College of William & Mary

The Church always found scholasticism and its debate-based teaching controversial. Questioning, which was prohibited in monastic teaching, was valued in scholastic teaching. As the Church was trying to stop scholastics, they realized the method could be used as a weapon against a common enemy—heresy. Did this interest unite scholasticism and the Church?

Photograph shows a lonely monk standing at a pillar in a dark medieval church.
The Church did not approve of scholasticism, but the monks eventually decided that they could use the debating skills to defeat heresy. (Image: Anneka/Shutterstock)

When scholasticism gained popularity in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Church was trying to take education back to the monastic teaching, where the lecturer spoke, and the learners just listened. However, the Church began to see scholastic teaching as a way to defeat heresy in debates. They wanted skilled monks who could engage actively in discussions with the heretics and win.

At the same time, influential figures like Bernard of Clairvaux—who was at the core of the Cistercian reform movement—were accusing scholastics of serious flaws.

Scholastic Flaws

The first accusation against scholastics was that they relied heavily on their own logic, and consequently, downplayed biblical texts and the Church fathers. Peter Abelard was one of the most active scholastics and even posed questions on the Holy Trinity. Bernard accused Abelard of questioning things beyond human understanding.

Photograph shows Toulouse Cathedral (Cathedrale Saint-Etienne), a Roman Catholic church located in city of Toulouse, Haute-Garonne, France.
The Church wanted to engage skilled monks in discussions with the heretics, but many monastic scholars were highly critical of scholasticism.
(Image: BestPhotoStudio/Shutterstock)

Next, he believed that nothing needed to be added to the Bible or to the Church fathers, as they had everything needed for salvation. Scholastics read these texts, found contradictions, and argued for finding one right answer. People like Bernard implied that scholastics claimed they had something to add to these ancient texts.

The other accusation was that scholastics relied on non-Christian intellectual authorities as well. Where did this one come from?

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Aristotle and Averroes

Aristotle was a pagan Greek philosopher, and Averroes—Ibn Rushd—was a Muslim philosopher who lived in Spain much of his life. Scholastics relied very much on the commentaries and texts from these two philosophers.

Christian scholars always had to deal with writings from pagan philosophers such as Cicero and Plato. They wanted to practice Latin and learn from the pagan texts, but they also felt bad about the non-Christian beliefs and feared that the texts could lead them astray. St. Augustine tried to address the issue in his book.

Learn more about the first universities.

Christian Intellectuals and Pagan Texts

St. Augustine’s book, written in the early first century, was called The City of God. The book had over 1,000 pages and attacked the classical past. Nevertheless, Augustine himself was a fan of Plato and Platonic writings.

Through time, until the year 1000, monks got along with reading pagan texts. They still did not value the content, but they wanted to practice Latin, and the classical writers were masters of Latin.

Still, monks were afraid and did not want anyone to read too much of pagan texts. For the person who read too many pagan books, there was always the risk of slowly moving away from Christianity, .

Aristotle and the Monks

Even though the monks wanted better Latin skills, they did not read Aristotle that much. He had a dry and systematic approach, regardless of the subject, and the monks found it annoyingly contrary to what they knew.

Photograph shows a quill pen and a rolled papyrus sheet on a wooden table next to old books.
Monks read pagan works to improve their Latin, but Aristotle was too dry and maybe too pagan for them. (Image: Marco Ossino/Shutterstock)

Besides, only a few of Aristotle’s works had been translated into Latin before 1150. There was very little demand for it, and the ones that had been translated were around basic logic. The topic was too dry and straightforward, the writing was too dry and direct, and the writer was a pagan. Monks had reasons not to like Aristotle, but scholastics loved him.

Learn more about the people’s crusade.

Aristotle and the Scholastics

The same reasons that made monks run away from Aristotle attracted scholastics to him. Aristotle’s dry and systematic approach and his logic fascinated the scholastics. Thus, between about 1150 and 1200, almost all his works were translated into Latin, and throughout the 13th century, they kept revising and polishing the translations.

Even though monks read pagan texts and used scholastic debating skills against heretics, scholasticism and the Church never came to a full agreement.

Common Questions about Scholasticism and the Church

Q: How did scholasticism affect the Church?

Scholasticism and the Church had opposing values. The Church strongly forbade questioning and wanted passive learners. Scholasticism, on the other hand, encouraged debates and questions. After a while, the Church decided that monks and monastic scholars also needed to learn how to debate, or they would lose in all discussions with the heretics.

Q: What was the purpose of scholasticism?

Scholasticism was the urban answer to the monastic teaching where questions were forbidden. In cities, debating and discussing were necessities of success, and the teaching methods needed to meet the urban requirements. The Church and scholasticism did not get along until monastics also felt the need to learn debate.

Q: What was the Church’s problem with scholasticism?

Scholasticism and the Church had one significant difference: questioning. The Church did not allow questions at all, even if it was as simple as “can you repeat what you said?” Scholasticism made questioning a value, and the Church saw this as a threat.

Q: Why did the Church accept scholasticism?

After a while, the Church realized they needed debate skills as well, or they would lose in all discussions. Scholasticism and the Church never developed a friendship, but the Church saw a potential weapon against heresy in scholasticism.

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