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Medieval madness

In a way of a summary of what we have recently learned, here is a good way of understanding what the Greeks, whether Plato or Aristotle or others, gave to the development of Christianity. Let us pick the most representative expression of the first three key periods of God's dealing with mankind; Old Testament times, New Testament times and the Early Church. The Old Testament is represented by the Ten Commandments, the New Testament (for sake of argument) is represented by the Sermon on the Mount and the Early Church gave us the Nicene Creed, the longest lasting expression of Christian faith.

Two of these are connected, the other one stands out like a sore thumb. The first two concern themselves with conduct, how we should live our lives. Belief in the giver of these commandments and declarations is a given, it's not an issue.

Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)

And here is the start of the Nicene Creed, formulated in AD 325 by the first ecumenical council meeting in Nicea, in Turkey.

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.

What a difference in language, content and delivery. How would John the apostle and gospel writer have reacted to this? Even though he understood Greek and basic philosophy, these words would have brought him a deep sadness. What has happened to our simple belief in Almighty God and His son, Jesus the Messiah of mankind?

The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount were expressions of Hebraic thought and were concerned with conduct, how God's people ought to act. By contrast, the Nicene Creed was mostly a result of  Greek thought, concerned so much with definitions and legalities, because so much that had been taken on faith by the earliest Christians was now immersed in doubt thanks to the wave of rationalism that had swept into the Church from the Greek philosophers. As a result the simple faith of Jesus Christ had taken backward steps, constantly having to redefine itself to a sceptical public, unable to move forwards. You can imagine God's heartfelt cry, hey I'm here, I've always been here, how can we move on into a real relationship if you keep doubting me?

The reason why many Christians were now able to get away with appalling conduct was because they considered correct belief (as determined by "Christian philosophers") more important than correct behaviour. Hence the persecutions, massacres, "holy wars" and anti-semitism, followed by the bloody Crusades and the nasty Inquisition that were the legacy of the Christian Middle Ages.

Christianity was starting to become a philosophical system, fuelled by rational argument rather than the supernatural acts of God. Greek rationalism had won over Hebraic faith.

Now we move forward, nine centuries after Nicea, and arrive back at Thomas Aquinas, our Christian philosopher. He is writing his master-work, his attempt at creating a systematic Christianity, integrating Greek reason with Hebraic faith. His book is called the Summa Theologica.

The Summa starts with God, then considers man and his purpose, then explains the need for Christ and finishes with the sacraments. In building his arguments Thomas quotes from an exalted panel of historical experts, the vast majority of them non-Christian and some are familiar to us. There was Aristotle ("The Philosopher"), Averroes ("The Commentator"), Augustine ("The Theologian") and Maimonides ("Rabbi Moses"). Others include Dionysius (Greek), Ulpian (Roman) and Avicenna (Muslim). In other words, a most inclusive list of experts to create a book that was to become the most influential source book for Catholic doctrine for centuries to come.

But there's a twist to this. It appears that Thomas never finished the book; the Summa Theologica is an unfinished work. While writing the final section on the sacraments it was said that he had a mystical experience. When asked about it, he replied, "all that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me." He died three months later. It is fanciful to wonder about the nature of his experience. What had been revealed to him to cause him to make such a statement? Was he having second thoughts about his writings? It mattered little as he died soon later and the Church took this unfinished work and it became a hugely influential work of theology, right up to modern times.

A movement, scholasticism, flourished as a result of his teachings. It marked the beginning of the great European Universities and was a school system acting as a practical expression of Thomas's ideas, that of marrying together philosophy and theology. As a result of this, Aristotle was able to gain a strong foothold on the medieval mind.

Steve Maltz
October 2013

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book How the Church Lost the Truth)

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