Book Review: An Introduction to Medieval Theology

Rik Van Nieuwenhove, An Introduction to Medieval Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). 296pp. Paperback. $25.00.
Why review a book on medieval theology on a site devoted to Puritan and Reformed theology? At least two reasons are prominent. One good reason for doing so is that Reformed theology did not arise out of a theological vacuum. Puritans, such as William Perkins, went to great lengths to argue that Reformed theologians were really “Reformed Catholics.” Becoming familiar with the medieval (and Early Church) background of Reformed thought is an eye-opening exercise that illustrates the discerning genius of Reformed authors, including the Puritans. Another reason for reviewing a book like this is that medieval theology can seem to be both strange and complicated to modern readers. Most of us need a guide to help us wade through what are often deep theological waters.
Rik Van Nieuwenhove’s Introduction meets both of these needs admirably. Readers familiar with classic Reformed thought will see many points of convergence with medieval developments. Those who feel perplexed by medieval thought will find a clear treatment that focuses ultimately on trinitarian spirituality throughout. In short, this book indirectly adds a significant piece of the puzzle to understanding the catholicity, divergences, and developments of Reformed and Puritan theology.
Van Nieuwenhove’s book is clear and comprehensive, yet focused. The author begins with the premise that medieval theology was radically theocentric and trinitarian, with the Trinity shaping every aspect of the theology and spirituality of the figures treated in this volume (2). He divides his material into periods encompassing the fifth through tenth centuries, the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the systemization of theology in the thirteenth century, and the radical changes in theology and spirituality in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The figures he treats at length include Augustine, John Cassian, Boethius, Gregory the Great, John Scotus Eriugena, Anselm, Abelard, Bernard of Claireaux, William St. Thierry, Hugh and Richard St. Victor, Lombard, Aquinas, Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Meister Eckhart, the trinitarian spirituality of Jan van Ruusbroec, and others. He argues that medieval theology as a whole is a “footnote to Augustine” (3), who looms large throughout the book. The author briefly, yet effectively, sets the shifting historical contexts of his subjects throughout and he illustrates the influences of politics, war, famine, pestilence, philosophical shifts, and many other factors on the authors treated. This feature helps readers understand why various theologians went in the directions that they did, for better or for worse, leading up to the eve of the Renaissance and Reformation periods. His focus on the Trinity and spirituality, along with a few other key emphases (284), unifies the book in a way that will interest many readers in light of the modern renaissance in trinitarian theology.
This book, indirectly, illustrates many points of convergence with later Reformed thought. A few examples can highlight this fact. Two of them relate to John Owen. First, Van Nieuwenhove shows that Hugh St. Victor described faith as giving subsistence to the things that we believe in our souls (131). In this respect, faith rises above opinion, since it involves certainty, yet it falls short of the full knowledge of God that we will receive in the beatific vision alone (132). In the opening chapters of his Reason of Faith, this was precisely how Owen defined the nature of that faith by which we believe the Bible to be the Word of God. Second, Aquinas treated the goal of charity as friendship with God, which is based on “some kind of communication” between God and us in Christ, by virtue of which God shares his blessedness with us (194-196). In the introductory chapters of Owen’s Communion with God, he defined communion as the sharing of good things among two parties, grounded on some union between them. He added that this ground was union with Christ in the covenant of grace. This illustrates both the reception and transformation of a medieval idea to meet the needs of Reformed theology. Third, Bonaventure taught that one of the personal names of the Holy Spirit was “Gift.” This was true, both in relation to the eternal processions within the Godhead and in his works in time, with the result that the Spirit is the archetype of all created gifts (220-221). This illustrates why, in Patrick Gillespie’s Ark of the Covenant, treating the Spirit as gift in the covenant of redemption did not violate classic trinitarian principles. Again, this example highlights the appropriation of a medieval idea in the context of a developing Reformed covenant theology. These examples, and many others, show how medieval theology can help make sense of where Reformed authors developed their ideas. Such instances are valuable for those of us who spend most of our time in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The author’s conclusion to his book illustrates its primary value: “Medieval theology offers an extraordinarily pluralist view on some of the most important theological issues… Yet this pluralism is supported by an overarching vision, which all major medieval theologians share, namely, that it is only in the fruition of God that our hearts can find ultimate fulfillment and peace” (284). Even though we, like our Reformed forefathers, will reject many points of medieval thought, we should resonate with the goals of the authors treated in this volume. Biblical Christianity has always aimed to press people to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent (John 17:3). The Spirit has faithfully helped believers do this in every age and this book gives us a glimpse of how he has done so.
Ryan McGraw