“Two things … laid the foundation for what was now to follow: first, the gradually awakened cultural thought and awakened piety of the Middle Ages: and second, an increasing distortion of the teaching of the Bible and the early church.”Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Volume 5, A Christian View of the West. (Crossway Books: Wheaton Illinois, 1982), p. 105.
One year after Francis of Assisi died, Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274), another great of the Middle Ages, was born. Both Francis and Thomas came from wealthy Italian families. Both displeased their parents by choosing a church life instead of following their fathers into the family business. Both would profoundly challenge the church and their contemporaries to do better as Christians in building the Family of Christ on earth. Both were humble, self-abnegating and self-effacing examples of piety and devotion to God. They sought wholeheartedly to further the coming of his Kingdom as their lights directed them. Both became great saints in the Roman Catholic tradition soon after their deaths.
But they were also vastly different. They represented two very contrasting ways of seeking “the Third Way”. Yet both sought a road back to direct experience and relationship with the Creator, a way past the stultified, stifling, hierarchical, rigidly controlled legalism and forms of an increasingly oppressive and imperial Church version of Christendom.
As he matured, Thomas knew the tales and legends of the towering figure of St. Francis. He was certainly very aware of Francis’ extremism, his disturbing, flamboyant radicalism, and his enormous legacy and impact, as was everyone in Italy and much farther afield. But this was not for him. He chose to become a more conventional monk, taking a semi-isolated and inconspicuous path towards the Creator. Nevertheless, his impact would be remarkable in its own right during and after a life just slightly longer than Francis’.
Devoted to study and prayer, Aquinas became a scholar among scholars. After his death, he would be proclaimed a ‘Doctor of the Church’—an honour conferred very rarely and only upon those considered theologians of the very first rank, just beneath the Apostle Paul, a sans pareil.
At first, he seemed the most unlikely candidate possible to reach such a pinnacle. He was extremely taciturn; he was not eloquent when he chose to offer his views. He was mocked as ‘the [dumb] Ox’. But, maturing under the mentoring of Albertus Magnus, the most prestigious scholar of the generation prior to Thomas’, he flourished. The brilliance and depth of his mind and deep spirituality of his spirit emerged. In the end, even the Pope would turn to Thomas for insight.
On the other hand, in practice if not in theory, Francis had largely abandoned the institutional forms of Christianity (except Mass and the sacraments) and even refused ordination to the priesthood, whereas Thomas strove to purify and strengthen the institution in order to conform it more closely to what he conceived as God’s design for it. He believed that truth is truth, wherever you find it.
When the works of Aristotle, perhaps the greatest and most systematic philosopher of antiquity, and certainly the most prolific in written output, became available via migrant scholars bringing treasures of forgotten documents of antiquity from Constantinople and Muslim Cordoba in Spain, Thomas eagerly delved into them seeking new revelation about the nature of Creation and humanity. His reading and profound study brought him to conclude that human reason is a means of knowing God almost on a par with Biblical revelation and Church tradition.
This contrast in approach between radically pure simplicity (Francis) and seeking to reform from within via reasoned persuasion (Thomas) is not new. It recalls Jesus facing the institutional forms and scholarship of the ‘Judaisms’ of the First Century. Back then, the Essenes were the extremists rejecting the whole establishment as corrupt and beyond redemption. The Sadducees were the thorough conformists, seeking this-worldly power and position to preserve and maintain the system and their own privileged position as the elite. Another party within Judaism were the Pharisees, who, like Thomas, represented a sort of reasoned midway position between the extremes of Essene and Sadducee. Finally, the Zealots, like the Medieval Crusaders, sought violent purification of the land in order to ready it for the coming of the Messiah-King who would make Israel (Catholic Europe under Rome) supreme.
Jesus fitted nowhere comfortably in any of these ‘parties’, although theologically he most closely resembled a Pharisee. He was a threat to all of them, as well as Rome over the long haul, and paid with his life. He had called his disciples to “take up your cross daily” and challenge the supreme authorities with the declaration that God’s Kingdom is “not of this age.” Kosmos is the Greek word often translated as “age”, and in its New Testament context it connotes the whole way we relate to God’s creation by force and manipulation rather than by seeking to work in true harmony with God’s purposes for it and us.
The early Church, still keeping close to Jesus’ first impulse, emerged as a real threat to establishment Judaism and Rome. For its first two and a half centuries the primitive Church weathered the assaults of the ‘powers that be’ rather well, although it had begun to absorb the marks of institutionalization from early times.[i] With Constantine’s coup in recruiting the Catholic (Universal) Church to serve as an imperial adjunct in the early Fourth Century CE, ‘official’ Christianity passed from its age of innocence into the murky realm of political, moral, social, and economic compromise and manipulation for the purposes of furthering its own agenda as conceived from on high (at the Patriarchal level). In effect, it became imperialist—Roman!
A great irony awaited the Imperial Roman Universal (Catholic means universal) Church as the Middle Ages drew to its dénouement. Having become quite Roman in system, form, and ambition, blessing it all with elaborate ceremony and invocation of God and Christ, who had preached both “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are the poor,” the Church would re-import the seeds of its former great enemy, pagan wisdom and its worship of human reason. A new hunger for more ancient wisdom would arise from the rediscovery and dissemination of Aristotle’s amazing works. The Crusades had opened the doors to a trickle, which then became a steady flow, of Byzantine and Muslim scholarship based on many ‘lost’ works from the glory days of Rome and Greece. Italy was the first area of the West impacted, but the new Italian scholarship began to expand into the Holy Roman Empire, France, the Low Countries (now called The Netherlands and Belgium), and England. The New Testament in Greek was ‘rediscovered’ as part of this package.
From this influx of new-old wisdom written in beautiful, classic Latin and Greek came admiration of that ancient literature and poetry and drama and science, and, as absorption grew, so did the desire to emulate it. Next came the imbibing of the spirit of these ancient sages, the spirit of ‘humanism’. It seemed to the ‘humanists’, as the new generations of scholars began to identify themselves, that the essence of the ancient civilization of Rome had been rooted in a delicate and noble recognition of human beauty, form, and dignity not dependent on a slavish servitude to gods (including, by implication, the God of the Bible). The philosophies of the lost Golden Age had been noble efforts to formulate the perfect balance in life and a reasoned-out approach to the Creator or whatever really existed in a spiritual sense.
It is beyond our scope here to go into detail on the progression of this recovery of ancient humanism in the West. The movement it sparked has been called the “Renaissance”—a French term meaning rebirth. It took form under the guidance and direction of a group of 14th Century Italian scholastics. They won support and admiration from their peers, and the movement spread into art, sculpture, and architecture. The results reverberated across the culture and challenged some very basic Medieval notions, including the inviolability of Papal authority and Church dogma. The rediscovery of the Greek New Testament opened up a profound re-examination of the established paradigm of the Gospel and the formation and history of the Church itself.
When all of this is married to the growing dissatisfaction with the imperial, established Church system and the increasingly obvious distortion of holiness into formal sacramentalism and the suppression or cooption of all attempts to return to a spirit of simplicity in seeking God, the makings of a great upheaval were at hand.
Ironically, the Renaissance of ancient humanism rooted in pagan Imperial Rome would play a significant role in fracturing the unity and supremacy of the imperialist Roman Church. The 13th Century saintly giants, Francis and Thomas, stood as precocious signposts to the roads that would diverge from the main highway in the 14th and 15th Centuries and generate revolutionary events in the 16th Century.
[i] Institutionalization seems inevitable this side of the Second Coming of Christ. The struggle is to keep the institutions we are compelled to form and use to make life livable from becoming tools in the hands of the ambitious and unscrupulous. Those who propose anarchy as a realistic solution are completely naive or misled about human nature and live in a dream. But that is another topic for another time.