Home > Calvinism, Christian Authors, church history > The Doctrines of Grace through the Middle Ages: Steve Lawson’s Pillars of Grace

The Doctrines of Grace through the Middle Ages: Steve Lawson’s Pillars of Grace


Continuing through Steve Lawson’s Pillars of Grace, vol. 2,  I’m now reading through the chapters that highlight a few key Christian leaders of the Medieval period:

  • Early Monastics: Isidore of Seville (early 7th century) and Gottschalk of Orbais (9th century)
  • English Scholastics:  Anselm of Canterbury (11th century) and Thomas Bradwardine (early 14th century)
  • Late Monastic: Bernard of Clairvaux (12th century)

I had heard these names in previous Christian history lessons (such as here), though with very little information about a few, such as Gottschalk and Bradwardine.  Here again, Lawson adds good biographical and historical information on these key figures who, in spite of the spiritual darkness of the Roman Catholic age, understood and believed the truth concerning God’s sovereignty, the doctrines of Grace.

Among the highlights, some interesting details:

Gottschalk had been assigned to a monastery life by his father, and took the monastic vow at his father’s insistence while still young.  Upon reaching adulthood, Gottschalk sought to be free of his vows, appealing his case through several levels of church hierarchy, finally losing and being consigned to be a lifelong monk.  The one reprieve granted him was a transfer to a different monastery, at Orbais in northeast France.  While in the monastery at Orbais, Gottschalk came in contact with Augustine’s writings, and became convinced and excited about the truth of God’s sovereignty over all things including man’s salvation.  The man who had so desired to keep Gottschalk a monk for life (yet allowed him to transfer to Orbais), semi-Pelagian Maurus, later strongly opposed Gottschalk and was instrumental in the subsequent persecution. Gottschalk spent his last twelve years in prison, “imprisoned for life in a monastery and repeatedly tortured him with floggings.”  As Lawson observes, “It is amazing that Gottschalk endured twelve years of this treatment before he died insane, still convinced that an omniscient God cannot logically choose some for salvation without at the same time choosing to reject others, even though they are no more sinful.”

Anselm is best known for his improvement on the atonement theory, rejecting the prevailing view of the atonement as a ransom paid to Satan.  In modern times I have seen this idea portrayed in C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” in which the Christ figure Aslan pays the penalty for young Edward’s sin that is owed to the evil one (the White Witch).  Anselm’s answer to such a ransom idea puts the focus on God’s sovereignty:

he unequivocally stated that the Devil has no rights over the human race, but is a robber who has taken sinners unlawfully. It is therefore illogical, he argued, to claim that Christ’s atoning work is a means of rescuing us from the Devil. Anselm writes: “I cannot see what force this argument has. If the devil or man belonged to himself or to anyone but God, or remained in some power other than God’s, perhaps it would be a sound argument. But the devil and man belong to God alone, and neither one stands outside God’s power; what case, then, did God have to plead with His own creature?”  Man, he asserted, is God’s own creation and therefore God’s possession, not Satan’s.

Anselm’s theory was still not fully developed, focused on “the idea that God’s honor has been injured by man’s sin. Therefore, God could vindicate His honor either by punishing the sinner or by accepting a suitable payment for man’s egregious sin.”  His view relied on medieval justice theory, with emphasis on God’s honor rather than God’s justice, and no mention of any penalty for man’s sin.  “Although Anselm emphasized sin’s infinite debt rather than God’s justice, and though he said nothing of the lifelong obedience of Christ as an aspect of vicarious satisfaction, the Reformers did not reject his thoughts on the subject, but complemented them.”

Bernard of Clairvaux was a well-known, influential church leader in the 12th century, and a “watchdog of orthodoxy” looking out for false teachers, such as heretic Peter Abelard.  He also was a “mystic” in the original meaning of that word (not its later connotations): the spiritual experience of contemplation.  In this pursuit, the supreme object of contemplation was the triune God in the beauty of His holiness. The mystics sought to know and love Him with their entire being.  This did not include things we often associate with the term — emotional excess and ecstatic experiences — but true meditating on the word of God, a scripture-based focus with expository teaching.  Much of his literary output came from Bernard’s sermons to the monks at Clairvaux. We also note here that Bernard interpreted scripture allegorically, as with his most famous work, 86 sermons on the “Song of Solomon.”  Still, Bernard of Clairvaux was one of a few outstanding medieval thinkers who affirmed the doctrines of grace, God’s sovereignty in election. The Reformers referenced Bernard of Clairvaux and Anselm as teachers before them, who had continued belief in the doctrines of grace, that belief traced back especially to Augustine and (in some measure) to the earliest church fathers.

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  1. January 26, 2013 at 1:40 am

    Wow thanks for sharing. Isidore of Seville going crazy for his faith after 12 years of imprisonment really moved me.

    • January 26, 2013 at 6:10 pm

      Yes, this book has some very interesting history of these men, Gottschalk and so many others, some even imprisoned and tortured for their belief in God’s sovereignty in predestination/election.

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