Root Problems of Western Scholasticism

By: Jay Dyer

A friend asked a good question, and it was something I began to wonder a few years ago. What exactly constitutes “scholasticism.” Varying dates, personages, movements and scholarly opinions could be listed. The Orthodox person usually thinks (wrongly – as I did 4 years ago) that the Eastern criticism is that the west was using logic and philosophy and this is what the issue was/is. That’s not exactly right and any Roman Catholic would be right in pointing out a hypocritical double standard on the Orthodox part.

But it’s really simpler than that once you get the system down. It’s a system trying to be consistent. It isn’t, but many of it’s doctrines are inter-connected and fit together. Thomas doesn’t posit something in his eschatology, say, that doesn’t line up with his doctrine of absolute divine simplicity. So what really is scholasticism? I replied as follows:

Good questions. The problems with scholasticism aren’t so much the use of philosophy and logic, since ALL the Eastern Doctors do this, as well as the ecumenical councils, but rather certain assumptions and beliefs.

It really begins with Augustine, who imports a very Neo-Platonic doctrine of God (very candidly), and Augustine then tries to mold this into Christianity. In the West, he became the dominate force and authority even into Aquinas’ works. The works of Aristotle were discovered in the 13th century and brought to the west. Aquinas attempted a great synthesis of neo-platonic, Augustinian and Aristotelian ideas. The Summa makes this clear throughout.

The problems are these:

1. That religious knowledge is divided into two categories – “natural” theology and revealed theology.
2. That God’s essence bears a resemblance to creatures.
3. That we reason up from creatures via “analogia entis” to know something of God’s essence.
4. God created things in the world after archetypes of things pre-existing in His essence.
5. That nature and Person are identical in God.
6. That essence and energy/action are the same in God, as well as all attributes being the same. This “god” is actus purus – pure act.
7. That the meaning of theosis or salvation is being raised to a higher level of created grace.
8. That the eschaton is an intellectual vision of the essence of God, as well as being a bizarre lake of lava where demons throw you in and out and evil and sin continue in eternal opposition to God (dualism).

These are the awful ideas of scholasticism. It’s NOT bad because it uses philosophy and logic. If that were true, then Nyssa, Maximus, Basil, Theodore, Athanasius, the two Cyrils, John of Damascus, and all Eastern Fathers are all “scholastics.” And I’ve read every one of them at length. They were classically educated. But that’s not what the criticism is. That’s what unknowing Orthodox think the criticism is (as I thought for a long time and it partly kept me out of Orthodoxy, since it was hypocritical).

Scholasticism is the train of schoolmen who follow in the footsteps of Augustine and his philosophical assumptions – it’s the three “As” – Anselm, Aquinas and Augustine. It’s Duns Scotus and Peter Lombard – all of whom are in varying degrees using the above assumptions.

2 thoughts on “Root Problems of Western Scholasticism

  1. Great post. I’ve just discovered your site and I’m very much enjoying it. Christos Yannaras’ _Orthodoxy and the West_ was very helpful in forming my understanding of the relationship and conflict between Western and Eastern Christianity. I highly recommend it, along with the work of Fr. John Romanides and James L. Kelley.

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