Protestantism, Liberal Learning, and Scholasticism: Part 1

by Matthew T. Gaetano

In certain circles, I think that ecumenical dialogue may be hampered by mutual mischaracterizations related to liberal learning. Some Reformed thinkers criticize Roman Catholics for being excessively optimistic about human reason. Catholic thinkers, it is said, fail to recognize the damage done to human reason by original sin–in other words, the noetic effects of the Fall.

Catholics then might wear such descriptions of their own confession as a badge of honor. They might go on to celebrate their own tradition’s defense of “humanism” or of the integrity of human nature.  They may employ what is often a straw man of “total depravity” to suggest that the Reformed tradition does not have sufficient openness to natural law, natural reason, liberal learning, and so on.

I want to challenge these Roman Catholic perspectives on the Reformed tradition. But I will note, in passing, that Aquinas does believe that ignorance is one of the four wounds of nature consequent upon original sin.

The high view of liberal learning in the Reformed tradition is evident in John Calvin’s remarks from the Institutes 2.2.15:

Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. How, then, can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much equity? Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skillful description of nature, were blind? Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Shall we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art, expended their industry in our behalf were only raving? What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. But shall we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God? Far from us be such ingratitude; an ingratitude not chargeable even on heathen poets, who acknowledged that philosophy and laws, and all useful arts were the inventions of the gods. Therefore, since it is manifest that men whom the Scriptures term carnal, are so acute and clear-sighted in the investigation of inferior things, their example should teach us how many gifts the Lord has left in possession of human nature, notwithstanding of its having been despoiled of the true good.

I would be happy to be corrected by other participants in the conversation on this site, but I don’t think that a Thomist would have any trouble affirming what Calvin says here about pre-Christian learning.

Consider the Lutheran, Philipp Melanchthon, the Praeceptor Germaniae (Teacher of Germany) and one of Martin Luther’s closest allies. Of course, Luther had some harsh words for Aristotle during his life, especially early on. But Melanchthon offers high praise to Aristotle and liberal learning in general (as I quote from the following edition) in his 1537 Oration on the Life of Aristotle:

Indeed, I consider that no one can become a master of method of any kind without [Aristotelian reasoning and method]. Those who are ignorant of that path of teaching that Aristotle indicates cannot but mix together many things in a sophistic manner. Again, how many errors and upheavals does this sophistry give rise to in the Church and in the state? It is written in the stories that, when Ixion approached Juno, a cloud in Juno’s shape was cast in his way, from which it is said that the Centaurs were born. In the same way the uneducated, by their false and sophistic beliefs, produce rifts that are pernicious for the Church …

Even though some splendid books of his have perished, I nevertheless reckon that those that are left — which at any rate are most fitting for schools –were preserved by divine providence in order that succeeding generations could e taught more correctly. For afterwards in Greece, as it happens, more recent philosophers, namely the Stoics, Epicureans and Academicians, began to be held in admiration, although they were certainly full of absurdities and sophistry; the old and more erudite teaching was neglected, Aristotle’s writings were discarded from the hands of scholars and his books in the libraries of a few men were consumed by age and dry rot. This great treasure would have perished utterly had not Sulla’s foresight left behind for us those that we have. …

Plato’s eloquence is such that without doubt he surpasses all those whose writings are extant….The greatest part of his works, [though,] is ironical, a form which is more appropriate for mocking than for teaching….Aristotle, on the other hand, wanted to be mindful of the benefit of those who study, and assist schools. Even in a philosopher this wish deserves great praise. He has explained in their entirety the arts of dialectic, physics, and ethics, and employs two things that bring light to teaching, namely method and accuracy of speech. Therefore it is useful for the young to become accustomed to Aristotelian usage.

Many historians, especially Richard Muller and his students, have shown the ways in which Reformed thinkers developed the currents of learning that they inherited from the medieval and Renaissance periods. So, this is nothing new. But it should be even more widely known among Catholics that a high view of pagan learning and an affection for Aristotelian philosophy are characteristic of early-modern Protestantism. Calvin even suggests that harsh criticism of the truths found in Greek learning would imply ingratitude towards God Himself. So, for him, a deep suspicion of pagan learning would appear to have serious theological consequences; indeed, I suspect that Calvin would regard hostility to pagan learning as sinful.

In my next post, I’ll turn to the Protestant appreciation of medieval thought.

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