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Volume 9, Issue 5: Non Est

Medieval Antithises

Douglas Jones

Triumphalism gives modern Christians a bad taste in their mouths, but this didn't hinder Athanasius. In his classic On the Incarnation, he rejoiced, "since the Savior's advent in our midst, not only does idolatry no longer increase, but it is getting less and gradually ceasing to be. Similarly, not only does the wisdom of the Greeks no longer make any progress, but that which used to be is disappearing. . . . On the other hand, while idolatry and everything else that opposes the faith of Christ is daily dwindling and weakening and falling, the Savior's teaching is increasing everywhere!"

Athanasius's image here is the antithetical struggle between opposing rivers, between light and darkness, Christ and Hellenism. One river is dwindling, drying, and the other is beginning to overflow. Though Athanasius (c. A.D. 298_373) lived too early to be properly counted medieval, both he and Augustine are correctly counted as founders of the middle ages. The thought of both of these fathers and many others helped mold the coming triumph of Christendom.
Athanasius's zeal against Greek philosophy continues as a strong medieval concern, though medieval theologians and philosophers often get bad press on this point from Protestant corners. Medieval thinkers are portrayed as compromisers with paganism, synthesizers of Hellenism and Christianity. This they surely were. But there is a large difference between being a synthesizer intentionally and being one accidentally. We are all synthesizers accidentally, even those who condemn medieval thinkers too quickly. But most medievals were far better, far more antithetical in their thinking, than we are. Christians who fault Aquinas for his Aristotelian categories are often those most entangled with Quine and Wittgenstein and Kuhn. A thousand years from now (if our century is remembered at all--which I doubt), better Christians will see our blind compromises with unbelief. And they'll be right. It would be nice to escape modernism wholly, but no one can see his blind spots.
My plea here, then, is to extend some courtesy to the medievals, for they did much better than we do in understanding the divide between Christian and non-Christian thought. In the high and late medieval battle (and a battle it surely was) between Christianity and Greek thought, the Christians were unashamedly and self-consciously using Christian metaphysics to drive out Hellenism. The best part of the story is that it was Christian philosophers who pulled off one of the most wonderful and unique philosophical coups in the history of philosophy. No other group has played such a pivotal part in philosophy. The history of philosophy forms a watershed at the high and late middle ages, and the division between these two periods is all the fault of Christians. That's good.
Before the medieval triumph, Hellenism dominated Western thinking. After the medievals, nominalism took over and rules to this day. In broad strokes, the dominant Greek tradition (Plato and Aristotle) are most concerned with oneness and unity, whereas nominalists are more concerned with multiplicity and plurality. Neither option is Christian, but the shift between the two was. Starting that silenced dialogue again is one of the interests of Medieval Protestantism.
How did the Christian shift between the two come about? Medieval thinkers took Christian doctrines like the Incarnation very seriously and knew that it had an affect on epistemology. Many modern Christian philosophers get the shivers at even the suggestion of such a link.
Plato was the chief philosophical enemy of medieval Christian philosophers, especially Thomas Aquinas. Plato was viewed as a respectable enemy but an enemy of the faith nonetheless whose chief deficiency was his denigration of matter. Christian philosophers rightly rejoiced in matter and body and skin and toes, since God the Son Himself took them on, and the Triune God had declared the material world good. This produced a head-on collision between Christianity and Hellenism, and this was the first time these two worldviews had really met at this level--"the first decisive philosophical encounter between Hellenism and Christianity" as one contemporary Thomist notes. Aquinas's mistake was to dip into Aristotle's toolbox for help, since Aristotle appeared much more friendly to matter. But other Christian philosophers, such as William of Auvergne, recognized Aristotle's failures as well as Plato's. Those who rejected both Plato and Aristotle would later be lumped together and tagged "nominalists." What motivated the more consistently Christian thinkers of this time was a second failing of Hellenism: it ruled out knowledge of particular things, like this toad, this fingernail, this God. Aristotelian knowledge, just like Platonic, was obsessed with unity and could never truly get to knowledge of individual things, as much as Aquinas and Scotus would try to tweak it.
This hostility to knowledge of individuals was simply incompatible with a Christian worldview. After all, God knows us, and we know God, and humans must know each other, and we're all individuals. All of Hellenism must go, said the more consistent Christian philosophers. If that discussion would have continued, I think we would have found a more balanced Trinitarianism between the twin extremes of Hellenism and nominalism. But it didn't. Various social pressures took over, and the distinctively Christian concern with knowing concrete things was secularized into an exaggerated nominalistic concern with particulars, and the myths of modernity undid the wonderful medieval Christian triumph.

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