Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Light from the Dark Ages

Lord, I acknowledge and I thank you that you has created me in this your image, in order that I may be mindful of you, may conceive of you, and love you; but that image has been so consumed and wasted away by vices, and obscured by the smoke of wrong-doing, that it cannot achieve that for which it was made, except you renew it, and create it anew. I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, --that unless I believed, I should not understand. (Anselm, Proslogion).
In an interview with Carl Trueman I asked him a couple of questions on the value of church history:
GD: So, you're a church historian. What's the point of knowing all that old stuff?

CT: Christianity is an historical religion. It is only as we understand the past, how the Bible's teaching has been transmitted to us through history, that we can truly understand the significance of our position in the present. To be clueless about history is to absolutise the present. I think Karl Marx put it nicely: men make history, but they do not make the history that they choose. We are, individually and corporately, determined to an extent by the past; learning about that past liberates us.

GD: Well, I can see that the Early Church Fathers with their creeds and that are important, and the Reformation just rocks. But who cares about the Medievals, weren't they all just monks and popes or something?

CT: I used to think that; but study of post-Reformation Protestantism (that of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) has convinced me that much of what is basic to our Christian doctrine in the Reformed tradition (e.g., the nature of God, necessity, predestination etc) was self-consciously appropriated by the Reformed from medieval theology. After all, why reinvent the wheel? If good arguments on these points were made in the Middle Ages, it would be foolish not to use them.
The questions were a little 'tongue in cheek', but I think the second one fairly represents the attitude of many Evangelicals  to the medieval period of church history. Trueman's answer hints at why we should give more respectful attention to the theologians of the Middle Ages.

In his book Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a former Catholic (Zondervan, 2009), Chris Castaldo discusses the "ditch" theory of church history as illustrated in the diagram below. Once again the suggestion (with which Castaldo disagrees) is that not much is to be learned from the "ditch" of compromise and heresy which into which the medieval Church had fallen.

However, as Trueman points out, the Reformers and those who followed in their wake were willing to learn from medieval theologians and utilise their best insights in the service of the Reformed faith. In his 2000 Years of Christ's Power, Part Two: The Middle Ages, (2000, Grace Publications), Nick Needham includes a preface "For Evangelicals who find the Catholic Middle Ages hard to understand". He acknowledges that Evangelicals will have problems with some aspects of the medieval Church, but he sees the Reformation not so much as a rejection of what went before but,
As an heir of the Reformation and a Church historian, I often find myself telling people that the great spiritual and theological movement set rolling by Luther and Zwingli was in fact the best elements of Western medieval Christianity trying to correct the worst elements. (p. 10).
With that in mind the other day I  purchased Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, Oxford World's Classics, Reissued 2008. Only £6.37 from Amazon.co.uk It includes Monologion, Proslogion, and probably his most famous work, Why God Became Man. With Anselm helping my faith seeking understanding, I look forward to receiving light from the 'Dark Ages'. Also along these lines, have a look at Paul Helm's recent post on Aquinas on Predestination and his thougths on Anselm's Perfect Being Theology.


David Shedden said...

Great stuff. I bought that same volume recently too... but unlikely to read it any time soon.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

I also posted something on Anselm recently (shameless plug!). The "ditch theory" doesn't add up if you read the Reformers and the first generation who followed them. It may apply to modern Evangelicals, but not to confessional churches of either the Reformed or Lutheran variety.