Renaissance of Theology

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.

Weekly General Audience October 28, 2009

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today I would like to reflect on an interesting page in history, which is related to the blossoming of Latin theology in the 12th century that occurred through a providential series of coincidences.

During this time, a relative peace reigned throughout the countries of Western Europe, which ensured the economic development of society and the consolidation of its political structures, and which favored vibrant cultural activity, thanks, in part, to contact with the East.

Within the Church, the benefits of the vast movement known as the “Gregorian Reform” were felt. Vigorously promoted during the preceding century, this reform led to a greater evangelical purity within the life of the ecclesial community, above all among the clergy, and restored authentic freedom to the Church and to the papacy in its work. Moreover, a vast spiritual renewal continued to spread, which was sustained by the development of a thriving consecrated religious life. New religious orders were emerging and expanding, while existing orders were experiencing a promising revival.

Theology also flourished once again, acquiring a greater consciousness of its very nature. It refined its methods, confronted new problems, advanced in its reflection on God’s mysteries, produced some fundamental works, inspired important cultural initiatives ranging from art to literature, and paved the way for the masterpieces of the following century — the century of Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure of Bagnoregio.

This feverish theological activity took place in two places: monasteries, first of all, and then schools — known as scholae — some of which would soon give rise to universities, which were an “invention” characteristic of the Christian Middle Ages. In fact, two different models of theology — “monastic theology” and “scholastic theology” — emerged from these monasteries and scholae.

Monastic Theology

The representatives of monastic theology were monks, usually abbots, who were endowed with wisdom and evangelical fervor and who were essentially dedicated to inspiring and nourishing a loving desire for God. The representatives of scholastic theology were learned men who were passionate about research, university professors who wanted to show that the mysteries of God and men were reasonable and solid — mysteries that could be believed through faith, of course, but that could also be understood through reason.

Their differing goals explain the differences in their methods and their way of doing theology.

In the monasteries of the 12th century, the theological method was mainly associated with explaining sacred Scripture — the sacred page, to express it as the authors of that time did. Biblical theology, in particular, was practiced.

Thus, monks were all devout listeners and readers of sacred Scripture, and one of their main activities consisted of lectio divina, the meditative reading of the Bible.

According to these monks, simply reading the sacred text was not enough to perceive its profound meaning, its inner unity and its transcendent message. Therefore, it was necessary to practice a “spiritual reading” that was carried out in docile obedience to the Holy Spirit.

Following the method of the Fathers, the Bible was interpreted in an allegorical sense in order to discover on each page of both the Old Testament and the New Testament everything that was said about Christ and about his work of salvation.

During last year’s Synod of Bishops on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” the bishops reiterated the importance of this spiritual approach to sacred Scripture. In order to do so, it is useful to have recourse to the treasures of monastic theology — a biblical exegesis that remains uninterrupted — as well as the works of its representatives, which are valuable ascetic commentaries on the books of the Bible.

Thus, monastic theology combined literary formation with spiritual formation, conscious of the fact that reading Scripture from a purely theoretical and literary perspective was not sufficient.

In order to enter into the heart of sacred Scripture, it had to be read in the spirit in which it was written and created. Literary formation was necessary in order to recognize the precise meaning of its words and to facilitate an understanding of the text by refining a person’s sensitivity to its grammar and philology.

With this in mind, the 20th-century Benedictine scholar Jean Leclerq wrote an essay in which he presents the characteristics of monastic theology with the following title: L’amour des Lettres et le Désir de Dieu (Love of Literature and the Desire for God).

Indeed, the desire to know and to love God, who comes to us through his word, which we need to receive, upon which we have to meditate, and which we have to put into practice, leads to an in-depth examination of the biblical texts in all their dimensions.

There is another attitude on which those who practiced monastic theology insisted. It was an intimate and prayerful attitude, which must precede, accompany and complete any study of sacred Scripture.

Since monastic theology is, in the final analysis, listening to God’s word, we need to purify our hearts in order to receive it, and, above all, we must be full of fervor in order to encounter the Lord.

Theology, therefore, becomes meditation, prayer, a song of praise, and the impetus for sincere conversion. By following this path, many representatives of monastic theology attained the highest levels of mystical experience and offer us an invitation to find nourishment for our lives in God’s word, for example by listening more attentively to the readings and the Gospel, especially during Sunday Mass.

Moreover, it is important to set aside a certain time each day for meditation on the Bible, so that the word of God will be the lamp that illuminates our daily path on earth.

Scholastic theology, on the other hand, was, as I said, practiced in the scholae, which emerged alongside the great cathedrals of that era in order to prepare the clergy or which emerged around a teacher of theology and his disciples for the formation of professionals in the field of culture during an era when knowledge was increasingly appreciated.

In the scholastic method, the quaestio, that is, the problem posed to the reader when approaching the words of Scripture or Tradition, was central.

In the face of the problem posed by these authoritative texts, questions were raised and a debate ensued between the teacher and his students. During such a debate, arguments of authority were posed on the one hand and arguments of reason on the other.

The purpose of the debate was to ultimately find a synthesis between authority and reason, resulting in a deeper understanding of God’s word.

In this regard, St. Bonaventure says that theology is per additionem (see Commentaria in quatuor libros sententiarum, I, proem., q. 1, concl.), meaning that theology adds the dimension of reason to God’s word, thereby creating a faith that is deeper, more personal and, therefore, more concrete in man’s life.

In this sense, various solutions were found and conclusions were formed that were the beginnings for the construction of a system of theology. The organization of the quaestiones led to the compilation of evermore extensive syntheses, that is, the compilation of various quaestiones with their resulting responses, thereby creating a synthesis, the so-called summae, which were actually vast theological and dogmatic treatises that originated from this confrontation between human reason and God’s word.

Scholastic theology sought to present the unity and harmony of Christian revelation through a method — called the “scholastic” method or the method “of the school” — that affords confidence in human reason: Grammar and philology are at the service of theological knowledge, but even more so is logic since it is a discipline that studies the “functioning” of human reason so that the truth of a proposition will appear as evident.

Even today, when reading the scholastic summae, we are struck by the order, the clarity, the logical concatenation of arguments, as well as by the depth of some of its intuitions. Every word is given a precise meaning through the use of technical language and a reciprocal movement of clarification is established between belief and understanding.

Faith and Reason

Dear brothers and sisters, echoing the invitation in the First Letter of Peter, scholastic theology encourages us to be always ready to offer a response to whoever asks us to give a reason for the hope that is in us (see 1 Peter 3:15) and to consider these questions as though they were our questions so that we will be in a position to offer a response.

It reminds us that a natural friendship exists between faith and reason, based on the order of creation itself.

The Servant of God John Paul II, at the beginning of his encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), wrote the following words: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

Faith is open to reason’s effort towards understanding; reason, in turn, recognizes that faith does not degrade reason but rather propels it to greater and wider heights.

Here, monastic theology’s perennial lesson finds its place.

Faith and reason, in mutual dialogue, tremble with joy when they are both animated by a search for intimate union with God. When love imparts life to the prayerful dimension of theology, knowledge, acquired through reason, is broadened. Truth is sought with humility, welcomed with awe and gratitude. In a nutshell, knowledge only grows if a person loves truth. Love becomes intelligence, and theology becomes the authentic wisdom of the heart that guides and sustains the faith and life of believers.

Let us pray, therefore, that our path to a knowledge and deeper understanding of God’s mysteries may always be illuminated by divine love.

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