310 Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians

Throughout the past century a number of discerning thinkers have lamented the immanent demise of Western Civilization.  Thus when Jesse Jackson led Stanford University students in chanting “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western Civ has got to go,” he merely described a fait accompli long in the making.  One of the clairvoyant critics discerning this cultural trajectory was C.S. Lewis, who in 1954 (after long being denied promotion at Oxford) accepted an appointment to a chair created for him at Cambridge University as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature.  Many of us know Lewis as a Christian apologist, penning such classics as Mere Christianity, or as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia.  But he devoted much of his life to research, writing, and teaching, and one cannot understand his popular works and worldview without appreciating his deep immersion in the Medieval world.  Nor can one understand the Christian Faith he embraced without seeing its Medieval background.  Thus, concluding his inaugural lecture—“De Descriptione Temporum”—he acknowledged he was “becoming, in such halting fashion as I can, the spokesman of Old Western Culture,” and he would treasure his historian’s role, for doing so “does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market-place.  But I think it liberates us from the past too.  I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians.  The unhistorical are usually, without knowing it, enslaved to a fairly recent past.”

Lewis then pointed out the great gap separating Cambridge undergrads from the Old Western Culture he represented.  “Wide as the chasm is,” however, “those who are native to different sides of it can still meet, are meeting in this room.”  He confessed to belonging “far more to that Old Western Order than to yours.”  Indeed, he rather resembled a dinosaur or a Neanderthaler!  Yet if one were interested in either species—and if one of them would mysteriously appear and could be tested or even talk—then, “should we not almost certainly learn from him some things about him which the best modem anthropologist could never have told us?  He would tell us without knowing he was telling.  One thing I know:  I would give a great deal to hear any ancient Athenian, even a stupid one, talking about Greek tragedy.  He would know in his bones so much that we seek in vain.  At any moment some chance phrase might, unknown to him, show us where modern scholarship had been on the wrong track for years.  Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you somewhat as that Athenian might stand.  I read as a native texts what you must read as foreigners.”  Yet  because he could speak as a native, he might “yet be useful as a specimen.  I would even dare to go further.  Speaking not only for myself but for all other Old Western men whom you may meet, I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.”   Speaking thusly, C.S. Lewis clearly found much worth heeding in the Medieval World.

That position Lewis made clear in is first scholarly treatise, The Allegory of Love:  A Study in Medieval Tradition (published in 1936)—demonstrating, his biographer George Sayer says, that he “was a great literary critic” who was “without exception, highly praised by reviewers.”  He was subsequently asked to write a volume for The Oxford History of English Literature.  It took him a dozen years to research and write, but he had completed his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama when he moved to Cambridge.  This is a dense work of scholarship, of interest mainly to literary scholars, revealing Lewis’s amazing mastery of primary sources he discussed.  But his lengthy Introduction, “New Learning and New Ignorance,” detailed some of the reasons he found the Medieval World proffering perspectives worth recovering.  Certainly there was a “New Learning” evident in the 16th Century—preeminently the oft-celebrated turn to natural science.  But it was not a “new” turn to actually studying Nature, which had been widely done in the Middle Ages by men such as Roger Bacon and Albert the Great.  The “New Learning” was a philosophical turn from wondering at the majesty of Nature to controlling her!  Lewis especially stressed the “dreams of power which then haunted the European mind,” markedly evident in the work of Francis Bacon, who referred to her as “a spouse for fruit” rather than a “courtesan for pleasure.”   The “New Learning” was also distinguished by its humanistic, rather than scholastic, approach to learning.  Thus men such as Erasmus did not much concern themselves with propositional logic as with literary style, making “eloquence the sole test of learning” (p. 30).  Indeed, at Oxford in 1550 “the works of the [Medieval] scholastics were ‘cast of of college libraries’” and “publicly burned, along with mathematical books, which were suspected of being ‘Popish or diabolical’” (pp. 30-31). 

In their hatred of the Middle Ages the Humanists found allies in some English Puritans who adhered to the theology of John Calvin.  They also rejected both the Natural Law and the political philosophy espoused by Aristotle and Aquinas, preparing the soil for the Divine Right of Kings position so evident by the end of the century.  For Aquinas, kingly power “is never free and never originates.  Its business is to enforce something that is already there, something given in the divine reason or in the existing custom” (p. 48).  That view was rejected by William Tyndale, who insisted (in 1528) “that ‘The King is in this world without law and may at his own lust do right and wrong and shall give accounts to God only’” (p. 49).  Basic to the English Reformation, of course, was the autocratic exercise of power by Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I.  In the next century Thomas Hobbes rationalized such autocracy in his Leviathan, a book totally at odds with the Ancient and Medieval Natural Law tradition, making “political power something inventive, creative.  Its seat is transferred from the reason which humbly and patiently discerns what is right to the will which decrees what shall be right.  And this means that we are already heading, via Rousseau, Hegel” and others to “the view that each society is totally free to create its own ‘ideology’ and that its members, receiving all their moral standards from it, can of course assert no moral claim against it” (p. 50).  It will be the deranged world powerfully depicted in Lewis’s dystopia, That Hideous Strength. 

Shortly before he died, Lewis collected his lectures on Medieval and Renaissance literature in a (posthumously published) text titled The Discarded Image (Cambridge:  Cambridge university Press, c. 1964).  In his lectures he tried to portray the Medieval Model of the Universe as a “supreme work of art,” rather like the soaring gothic cathedrals at Chartres or Cologne.  He admitted  to making “no serious effort to hide the fact that the old Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors.  Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree” (p. 216).   Obviously it had serious deficiencies, and there is no going back to that world.  But we may, if we rightly study, find in it wisdom for today.

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Recently Chris R. Armstrong, in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids:  Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, c. 2016), takes seriously Lewis’s invitation to study the Medieval World.  Still more:  he shares G. K. Chesterton’s conviction that you could not “be a proper medievalist until you cared deeply enough about today to apply medieval insights to your own life and thinking.” We moderns actually live in a “tiny windowless universe,” brilliantly described by “G. K. Chesterton’s definition of insanity:  ‘The clean and well-lit prison of one idea.’  Our modern room is well lit by the bare bulb of science.  But of what lies beyond, we see nothing” (p. 66).  To go beyond modernity’s prison requires recovering pre-modernity! 

Providing some personal information, Armstrong (a church historian with a Ph.D. from Duke who edited Christian History for several years and now teaches at Wheaton College) tells of coming to Christ in a “wonderful” charismatic church in Nova Scotia 30 years ago.  It “was one of those modern suburban megachurches with an auditorium-like sanctuary,” and on “Sunday mornings, I would walk in and feel the palpable presence of the all-powerful and all-loving Lord.”  Yet his faith seemed a bit “precarious,” resting “on a foundation made up of the words of our favorite Bible passages (our ‘canon within the canon’), the sermons of our pastors, and a roster of approved visiting evangelists.  There was no sense at all of the whole mystical, historical massiveness of a church that had been around for two thousand years, no sense that our foundation actually stretched down and back through time, resting on such giants in the faith as John Wesley, Martin Luther, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Ignatius of Antioch . . . .   I now see that my early sense of the insecurity of the church stemmed from what J. I. Packer identifies as evangelicalism’s ‘stunted ecclesiology,’ rooted in our alienation from our own past.  Without a healthy engagement with our past, including historical definitions of ‘church,’ we are being true neither to Scripture nor to our theological identity as church!” (p. 46). 

In truth, Armstrong was discovering how the Protestant Reformation had effectively discarded much of “Medieval Wisdom.”  This was, in part, due to the “super-spiritualizing tendency” early evident in “the thought of Ulrich Zwingli,” who tended to denigrate “the ‘outer,’ physical life.  Only the inner and spiritual was to be trusted, not only in worship and devotion but also in the ethic of daily life:  ‘The outer, whether it meant Church-as-institution, the sacrament or ascetic practices was automatically reduced to the role of being no more than an expression (always suspect and dangerous at that) of the inner, or else was condemned outright as materialistic and idolatrous.’”  To refute Zwingli et al. Armstrong wrote this treatise!  For he wants to lead us to “what I have found to be the wisest piece of medieval wisdom:  creation and incarnation are not rote doctrines to be learned, committed to memory, and ignored in our daily practice, but rather are practical linchpins of what it means to lead a good human life in the light of the gospel” (p. 28).   He further believes, in accord with Lewis, that “the scientific revolution and its sequels—such as the Enlightenment—began to sap the material world of its spiritual and moral significance, and that this diminishment has only continued and intensified through today” p. 22).  

This diminishment was evident when 19th century American Evangelicals embraced the “immediatism” popularized by Phoebe Palmer’s The Way of Holiness.  “In it, she said about the traditional Methodist teaching of sanctification:  ‘Yes, brother, THERE IS A SHORTER WAY!’” (p. 7).  Subsequently, various preachers embraced her “optimistic creed,” declaring:  “No more would Christians have to pursue a fraught and painstaking path to holiness.”  Rather:  “By simply gathering their resolve, making a single act of consecration, and ‘standing on the promises’—certain Scripture texts that seem to hold out entire sanctification as an attainable reality—they can enjoy total freedom from sin.  This message galvanized a generation and set a tone for evangelicalism that continues to ring out today.  It may be fair to say that the teaching of a ‘shorter way to holiness,’ whether in Palmer’s more Wesleyan formulation or in the Reformed-influenced ‘higher life’ variations introduced later in the century, fueled the single most prominent and widespread movement among postbellum and Gilded Age evangelicals.  It swept across the nation’s West and South like a sanctified brushfire, birthed new denominations such as the Nazarenes and Christian & Missionary Alliance, fed the all-consuming fervor of temperance activism, and laid the groundwork for the Pentecostal movement of the following century” (p. 7).  

The roots of this message extended back to the emphasis on “heart religion” promoted by Puritan writers and illustrated in John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, wherein he felt his “heart strangely warmed.”   It was celebrated in 19th century camp meetings.  Indeed, Palmer’s prescription of immediatism ties into the “syndrome of pressurized pragmatism, which Alasdair MacIntyre has identified as the chief cause of many American ills, militating as it does against careful reflection on accumulated wisdom.”  To Armstrong, Palmer’s formulation truncated the fullness of the Christian faith and fell short of the more demanding and authentic spirituality evident in the Medieval World.  Though a Methodist, Palmer unfortunately neglected some of Wesley’s repeated emphases, for he insisted “that those powerful moments of repentance and coming to faith are just the ‘porch’ or the ‘door’ into the Christian life.  The substance of the Christian life, which lasts as long as we live, is holiness.  Wesley has a favorite phrase to explain holiness.  He says it is ‘having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.’  Achieving that steady character in ourselves requires, in the motto Eugene Peterson borrows from Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), ‘a long obedience in the same direction’” (p. 222). 

To correct serious deficits in this tradition, Armstrong urges us to return to “the Middle Ages with Lewis’s guidance” and recover the fullness of the Christian Faith.  To do so we must challenge “‘immediatism’ in two ways.  First, we must return the authoritative interpretation of Scripture to the Church, removing it from purely individual reason and experience.  To desire to learn from the cloud of witnesses or ‘church triumphant’—those on whose shoulders we stand—is to shift authority back to the older style, weighting Scripture-read-through-tradition more heavily than the dictates of our own freely exercised reason and experience” (p. 11).  Second, we must return to liturgical worship services conducted by a priestly clergy.   As Lewis aged, he increasingly “turned to the early and medieval catholic traditions revived and preserved in high-church Anglicanism.”  He began going to confession and found “the experience was like a tonic to his soul.”  He came to love the “liturgy, the 1662 Prayer Book, the Daily Office, and praying through the Psalter each month.”  He came to believe the Eucharist is more than a mere memorial and “‘found himself able to ‘experience Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament’” (p. 39).

Lewis was, obviously, immersed in and enamored by Tradition!  He loved the “old books” and urged people to read and re-read them.  He “wanted to stand in the gap of cataclysmic cultural loss, to bring “the tradition” back to the people” (p. 56).   He particularly treasured the Medieval emphasis on the Natural Law, as is evident to any reading Mere Christianity or The Abolition of Man, saying:  “‘Aristotle had assumed it, and Plato.  Cicero had spoken of it when he called it the law that is not written down.  When St. Paul wrote that even the Gentiles knew that certain kinds of behavior were wrong, he was appealing to natural law.  This same idea informed the thought of St. Augustine in the fourth century and St. Thomas in the thirteenth, and influenced Anglicanism at its origin through Richard Hooker’s [scholastically framed] Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity’” (p. 51).   Indeed, in the last essay he wrote for publication (“We Have No ‘Right to Happiness’”) Lewis declared the Natural Law “to be basic to civilization.” 

One of the things Lewis loved about Medieval Christian Culture was its celebration of Reason and the life of the mind and “‘could not [said his friend Owen Barfield] help trying to live by what he thought’” (p. 73).   As Lewis noted in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, his “conversion” was almost “purely philosophical” in nature.  Deeply read in Medieval theology, he understood its grandeur and drank deeply from masters such as Thomas Aquinas.  Armstrong argues “that in everything he wrote, whether nonfiction or fiction, Lewis wrote first of all as a Christian moral philosopher.  And I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to add that he was a medieval Christian moral philosopher” (p. 98).  As he began his Christian journey, Armstrong learned that Luther and many Reformers had severed moral behavior and spiritual discipline from justification by faith alone.  “Luther taught ‘imputed righteousness’:  being covered by the blood of Christ, making up for our complete inability to be good.”  Subsequently “critics said this teaching led to ‘antinomianism,’ a fifty-dollar word for moral lawlessness.”  Four hundred years later Dietrich Bonhoeffer “identified in his Lutheran church this same suspicion of any Christian effort toward righteousness—he called it ‘cheap grace’” (p. 95)   Consequently a “conundrum” persists:  “how to train believers in moral good while also teaching a radical message of grace still plagues evangelical Protestantism.  Protestants have fallen so in love with the message of grace and have so spiritualized their faith that questions of morality—at least the morality of public, communal life—have receded from view.  As the late Dallas Willard described many modern believers, we are ‘not only saved by grace [but] paralyzed by it’” (p. 96).  Or, as Richard Lovelace says, there is a “sanctification gap” in evangelical ranks.  

Armstrong argues we need to recover the “sacramental spirituality” evident in 13th luminaries such as Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, who all saw the world as theomorphic, or God-shaped.  “Sacramentalism is the concept that the outward and visible can convey the inward and spiritual.  Physical matters and actions can become transparent vehicles of divine activity and presence.  In short, material things can be God’s love made visible” (p. 143).  Sacramentalists think “all creation is in some sense a reflection of the Creator,” for He is everywhere, always present in His world.  Still more, in beholding the beauty of creation, Lewis said:  “‘We do not want merely to see beauty . . . .  We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it’” (p. 145).  

On the basis of his examination of Medieval Wisdom in C.S. Lewis, Armstrong concludes there is a tall wall separating “modern Protestants” from Medieval sacramentalism.  We have, he thinks lost much of our rightful heritage—the “incarnational faith” intrinsic to it.  “I’ve suggested,” he says, “one quite formidable aspect of that wall for evangelicals—our immediatism.  But the barrier stretches back much farther in history.  In a crucial (quite literally) sixteenth-century moment, a central symbol of the incarnation was removed forcibly from the church.  This was the point at which some zealous Reformers went beyond tearing down paintings and smashing statues to take the very body of Christ off of the crucifix—thus (they thought) defending the church against idolatrous images and defending the resurrection.  Left behind was (arguably) only an abstract symbol of a judicial transaction.  The difference between worshiping in a space where there is no body of Christ on the cross and worshiping in a space where there is a body of Christ on the cross is that in the latter space worshipers cannot ignore the humanity of Christ—nor, thus, of themselves.  In that space, our humanity—bodiliness, affectivity, rationality, community, society, culture—always stands (no, hangs) before us in the person of, the body of, the humanity of Jesus Christ the Lord. In a sense, this entire book tells the story of what happens when we lose our hold on the incarnation” (pp. 208-209). 

Could we regain our hold in the incarnation and put “the ‘body’ back into our understanding of Christ and his church,” we could “recapture the wisdom and truth” in both Tradition and Scripture.  “Tradition is nothing less than wisdom and truth passed down from generation to generation throughout history.  How apt is this?  Christianity is at its core not a list of timeless principles or abstract teachings.  It is uniquely a historical religion, based on a historical person and the words of two “testaments” that are full of historical accounts. Nineteenth-century liberal theologians liked to talk about the ‘essence of Christianity’—usually little more than a set of ethical teachings summarized under the rubric ‘the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man’—that needed to be extricated from the centuries of errant doctrines and practices of a church that never seemed to get it right.  . . . .  But there is no ‘essence’ that is not clothed in history, lived out bodily by God incarnate, and then lived out by ‘his body,’ the human beings whom he has constituted ever since as his church.  Christianity is all about the incarnation of God’s Second Person as a first-century Jew from Nazareth, and then the incarnation of his truth in his living, embodied disciples in all ages and places” (pp. 210-211). 

Armstrong’s treatise bears the stamp of a zealous convert, overemphasizing truths he finds crucial.  But in stating his case he helps us become more mindful of great treasures too often neglected by our tradition-less contemporary church culture.  And as always, works focused on Lewis are quite worthwhile! 

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In 1978, conference instigator Robert Webber began his groundbreaking Common Roots: A Call to Evangelical Maturity by throwing down the gauntlet: “My argument is that the era of the early church (AD 100–500), and particularly the second century, contains insights which evangelicals need to recover.”

Armstrong, Chris R.. Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis (p. 44). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

He cited Aquinas repeatedly in The Allegory of Love and The Discarded Image and concludes his Letters to Malcolm by saying observes that the “most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking,” in accord with Aquinas, who said of all his own theology, ‘It reminds me of straw.’” (p. 40).  Yet we who read Aquinas—or Lewis—remain forever indebted to the rigor and clarity of their thought.

Lewis repeatedly critiqued distinctive Reformed positions regarding holiness and the freedom of the will, “a crucial part of Lewis’s anthropology and his case for hewing to the morality of the Western (Christian) tradition. . . .  The choices we make on earth have transcendent, cosmic, and divine (or infernal) consequences” (p. 195), a message wondrously illustrated in The Great Divorce.  “In his early spiritual autobiography, The Pilgrims Regress (1933), Lewis shows a ‘Landlord’ (God) who makes rules not just for a particular religious tribe but for all people.  Christianity innovated morally only by teaching that the redemption purchased for us by Christ brings the Writer of the rules into our hearts, thus helping us to keep them”—  important “assumptions [that] thoroughly suffused ancient and medieval culture:  ‘Aristotle had assumed it, and Plato.  Cicero had spoken of it when he called it the law that is not written down. When St. Paul wrote that even the Gentiles knew that certain kinds of behavior were wrong, he was appealing to natural law.  This same idea informed the thought of St. Augustine in the fourth century and St. Thomas in the thirteenth’” (pp. 99-100).   His friend, Dorothy Sayers, translating Dante, endorsed the Medieval Wisdom Lewis promoted, “saying:  ‘We must also be prepared, while we are reading Dante, to abandon any idea that we are the slaves of chance, or environment, or our subconscious; any vague notion that good and evil are merely relative terms, or that conduct and opinion do not really matter; any comfortable persuasion that, however shiftlessly we muddle through life, it will somehow or other all come right.’  We must, in other words, truly believe in God’s gift to us of free will, for ‘The Divine Comedy is precisely the drama of the soul’s choice’” (p. 116). 

 Lewis “clearly recognized that the Christian warrant for traveling the Affirmative Way, encountering the material world as a place rich with sacramental meaning,” and “he very famously taught that our natural desires—our yearning, which is triggered by our experiences of what is good and beautiful in the world—can lead us toward God.  Indeed, he insisted that he came to God in this way, so that he called himself an ‘empirical theist’” (p. 163).  In his sermon “Transposition” he stressed that as physical beings we “finally have no other conduit to the divine besides our bodies and our senses” (p. 203).