The Emergence of Theological Instruction in the West

By Fr. Glenn Spencer


Bultmann and Heidegger Puzzled, from "Rudolf Bultmann/Martin Heidegger: Briefwechsel 1925-1975"

Rudolph Bultmann, whose considerable influence in biblical studies spanned at least 70 or 80 years, famously wrote, “It is impossible to use electric lights and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.” Bultmann was extravagantly wrong and today the quote sounds more like the punch line of a joke than a serious assessment of a serious scholar. And happily, the brightest and best biblical scholars today got over Bultmann’s worldview-shattering confidence in electric light bulbs. (I am only happy that the old boy died before he had to face the Internet, Skype and texting.) But there is a lingering assumption in our culture that the theologians of antiquity were not critical thinkers like us. That is not true, and in fact, as you will see, what we call “critical thinking,” or even “disinterested scholarship,” was alive and well at the very beginning of systematic theology.



Theological instruction in the medieval university developed from lectures that focused on reading and learning texts. The most important texts were the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, and so the discipline came to be called sacra doctrina. At first the lectures were verbal glosses of narratives and precepts as well as explanations of the syntax, grammar, and the vocabulary of St. Jerome’s Vulgate. Western universities all started out as Bible colleges.


In addition to explaining the meaning of the words and the sense of the text, lecturers paid special attention to points where the Scriptures, Church Fathers, and recognized teachers held different and apparently contradictory positions. But there was no text as such that dealt with these issues. These were literally marginal notations, sentences on the tops and bottoms of the page and in between the sentences of the text that the lecturer would use as his notes. These disputed points and contradictions came to be call “the sentences” (sententiae).


Peter Abelard’s (1079 - 1142) Yes and No (Sic et Non) is a compilation of contradictory positions as well as disputed questions, and it served as a textbook on both doctrine and method for the young Peter Lombard. In his introduction to Yes and No, Abelard gives the student a set of rules to be used in overcoming the conflicts and contradictions of sacred doctrine:

  1. Examine the text or passage for authenticity.

  2. Look for later revisions, redactions, retractions or corrections.

  3. Attend to the diversity of intention (for example: the distinction between a precept and a counsel).

  4. Pay attention to the historic times and circumstances.

  5. Pay attention to the differences in the meaning of the same terms.

  6. If you cannot resolve the diversity give greater weight to the stronger witness and the greater authority.


It was Peter Lombard (1096 - 1164) who took theological education to a higher viewpoint with his Four Books of Sentences (Libri Quattuor Sententiarum), another collection of contradictory positions and disputed questions on sacred doctrine. Lombard’s Sentences would be well over 1,000 pages in today’s book-world. The most significant difference between Abelard’s Sic et Non and Lombard’s Sentences is Lombard’s categorical ordering of the sentences. Before Lombard there was no attempt to order the questions under subjects areas. The Sentences became the textbook for theology in the fledgling medieval University of Paris (around 1160) and later Oxford (1167) and way later Cambridge (1209), and it continued to be used as the primary textbook in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. The Sentences organized the conflicting theological positions and disputed questions held by Church authorities in four Books. Books I — III dealt with what he called Reality: Book I treats the Trinity, Book II treats Creation, Book III treats Christ and Virtues. Book IV he called Signs, and it treats of the Sacraments. It was Peter Lombard and his teachers — including Hugh of St. Victor (1096 - 1141) but especially Peter Abelard — who grounded the method of disputation (dialect) in theological studies.


If you have read any Aquinas you are familiar with this method, which begins not from an authoritative text like the New Testament or Augustine, but from groups of questions that lead to propositions that contradict one another and thus introducing doubt. Starting with the question, the sic et non, the yes and no, the pro and con are brought forward through the activity of formal doubt (dubitatio), and thus more questions are generated with the intention to uncover all that may be doubted. In other words, all relevant questions have to be brought forward and answered till there are no more relevant questions to be answered. Keep in mind when reading Thomas that the ubiquitous phrase, “On the Contrary,” does not signal the position of the author, but rather it heralds a contrary, that is opposing, position. Once all the positions and contrary positions are presented the master then begins to resolve both position and contradictory positions by finding solutions to the contradictions and resolving doubt.


Theological students were required to produce a commentary on Lombard’s Sentences as part of the examination process. At the end of the lectures on The Sentences, which could take several years, the student could apply to the theological faculty for bachelor status once they had written their commentary on Lombard. You can purchase Thomas Aquinas’s Commentary on the Sentences from Amazon.


As you can see, serious, critical-realist thinking and research did not begin somewhere around the time Benjamin Franklin flew his kite into a thunderclap in hopes of capturing what he called “electrical spirits.” In fact it was the Church Fathers, plundering the Egyptians and the Greeks who bequeathed to us the foundations of critical realism and sound thinking. All truths, as well as Truth itself, belong to the Blessed Trinity, and we have nothing to fear from truth. If you wish to explore the origins of the University and Theological education, I would recommend Francis Schussler Fiorenza’s Systematic Theology, from which this article drew.


Fr. Glenn Spencer is Rector at All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.