Friday, June 12, 2020

Medieval scholars and the worth of a book

Medieval commentators were often unable to consider any idea they found in a book to be incorrect.  Rather than judge sources the medieval scholars tried to harmonize otherwise disparate sources. 1

For a medieval commentator books were few and hand copied.  There were really manuscripts, not books. 

Books were very expensive in the middle ages.  They had to be copied by hand. It was a labor intensive process.  Obviously there was no printing press.

Even after the invention of the first printing press, books were still expensive.  Each page of the book had to be engraved or cold type had to be designed, carved in lead and then cases of cold type fonts created.  Each page was type set, letter by letter using cold type, and each page was pressed page by page.  It was still a very labor intensive process.

With the invention of offset lithography, printing from light sensitized, chemically treated plates on a more modern printing press with drums and ink rollers, books became cheaper.  The worth of a book fell.

In our times books are almost free.  Many books can be bought for a third of the price of a printed copy, if one buys an electronic copy, an .epub or a .mobi or an .acsm file.  Many books can be found for free as one of these file forms or as .pdfs or .djvu files.  Books are almost worthless, literally free.

The explosion of online sources, besides books, means that information is also nearly free.  If you cannot afford your own computer, you can use one in a local public library and store your files on the Cloud.

For instance, the commentary on Plato's Timeaus by Chalcidius, a medieval scholar were, let’s say, imaginative.  He could not conceive of a book, which was worthless or which lied.  It was so hard to come by a book, he felt that he must harmonize any information he found in any book.  Perhaps the idea of propaganda or panegyric had not occurred to him.

We now face two dilemmas.  Either like Chalcidius we strive to harmonize disparate sources, being unable to believe that something is false or is merely propaganda and so end up hopelessly confused or misled.  Or since we face so many choices for sources, we decide only to read sources which agree with our pre-established ideas.  Everyone else is a liar, but my favorite pundit tells the truth.

There should, though, be a third alternative.  We should judge whatever we read by what we already believe, but remain open to reassess and change beliefs which we hold, but which we discover are false.

For many years I have taught this idea to students in my “Foundations for Theology” course.  I draw upon a book by David K. Clark called To know and love God. 2

Clark puts forward an idea taken from Alvin Plantinga, a Reformed Christian philosopher.  Plantinga’s version of Reformed Epistemology says that everyone begins with presuppositions which are unproven and assumed.  Christians have as much right as anyone to hold their presuppositions without having to prove them.  Atheists do the same.

But Clark is not content with Plantinga’s view (nor am I), which would be what philosophers call fideism.  A fideist believes “just because.”  Since Plantinga believes that there can be no certain principles or presuppositions, he believes that he has the right to choose those he likes.

Clark rightly is nervous about this conclusion.  What if what I choose to believe is false?  If I hold those beliefs in such a way as to be unfalsifiable, how could I know whether they were true or false?

Clark opts for what he calls “Soft Foundationalism.” He agrees with Plantinga that we must begin with some presuppositions when we think. We cannot do otherwise.  This in itself is not wrong.  What would be wrong, however, would be not to consider attacks against what we believe.  If we are wrong, we need to be open to seeing that we are wrong and how we are wrong and then to see how to reestablish what we believe on sure grounds. 3

Say that in my Christian theology I assume as true several principles or presuppositions: God is a theistic, creator God, Jesus is the Son of God and the Bible is God’s word.  Clark says that I am permitted to start with these presuppositions.  This is what I know.  My Christian, Evangelical theology is built on these presuppositions.

But what should I do when an atheist denies that God exists?  Clark would say that now comes the time to engage in a kind apologetics.  I must demonstrate or prove that God exists.  This can be done and has been done by many Christian apologists through the ages.  I could draw on Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways or I could draw on Norman Geisler’s Christian Apologetics book.  In any case what I may not do is simply say, “God exists.  It’s what I believe. We’re done.”  That  would be fideism. 4

When a Muslim tells me that the Qu’ran is God’s word, not the Bible. I must demonstrate why I believe the Bible to be God’s word.  I must demonstrate that the Bible is trustworthy. I could use a bibliographic test to show that it is the most carefully copied of all ancient books and the one with the most manuscript copies.  I can use an external test and show how many times archeology has proven the biblical account to be true.  What I may not do is simply assert again, more loudly and more forcefully: “The Bible is true. I believe it. That settles it.” 5

The mistake here is to think that the intensity of my belief or depth of my commitment to a presupposition or “truth,” makes that presupposition true.  We confuse our trust in a source with whether the thing we trust in is true. The sincerity of intensity of our trust does not make something true.  Jesus is LORD not because we believe it intensely, but because, well, Jesus is LORD! Jesus would not be any less “LORD” if I ceased to believe in him.  The intensity of my belief in this fact doesn’t make it true.  It shows rather that I am committed to that truth which is true apart from me and my commitment.

We have a right to our presuppositions whether theological or literary, political or sociological.  What we don’t have the right to do is simply to rule some source out of court, beyond the bounds of our discussion, because we don’t like it.  We can’t just decide we won’t listen to someone because they are from a different political party or a different religious group.  We must demonstrate the truth of our presuppositions and not retreat into fideism.

We are unlikely to be like Chalcidius and and other medieval scholars. We won't try to harmonize all the sources we have.  There are too many.

Just two days ago a graduating student from our seminary asked me whether I had read all the books on (only) two sets of bookshelves in my office in the seminary.  (I have eight more sets of bookshelves in my office at home, not to forget the couple hundred books on Kindle or iBooks or Adobe Digital Editions or BlueFire Reader or CBD Reader or Nook or Kobo reader or OverDrive or Libby or...) I said, “I have read something from most of them and some of them completely.”

Our struggle now is to know what to read, what to believe.  Overwhelmed with such a huge number of sources we can’t hope to harmonize disparate sources as Chalcidius and other medievals tried.  More likely we tend to stop reading many or most sources and rely only on a few or one source we agree with.

Postmoderns will say there is no truth only interpretation. Chalcidius and Platonic scholars were on the opposite end of the spectrum.  There was only truth (very Platonic) and any book must contain some truth or simply be true. Why else would anyone spend the time to copy it by hand.

I disagree with both views: either that no interpretation is true or that all books are true.  Postmoderns have their own truths: racial equality, equality of the sexes, democracy, etc.  They use skeptical, literary techniques to try to show that there is no objective truth.  They may be right that our current interpretation may be false, but have they really excised the idea of truth? How else do they mean to convince us to agree with their views?

We must hold our presuppositions in one sense both firmly and loosely.  We should not give them up lightly, but we must also be willing to be shown to be wrong.  If I am wrong, then I need to regroup and reground my views.

Falling back on a form of fideism: “My view is right!” is not sufficient.  The only thing such a strategy does is to show that one is either too weak to defend one’s view or to afraid to try.

So, here are two very different ages: Chalcidius and the Platonic medieval scholars with too few sources and our PostPostModern, internet age with too many sources. The problem, however, remains the same: discretion. We must remain committed to our Christian worldview, but we must also consider attacks on our world-views and presuppositions and answer them.


1. I thought the comment came about medieval scholars being unable to throw a book away and therefore having to harmonize disparate sources from CS Lewis and was about Chalcidius.  Lewis was a scholar of medieval literature.  He wrote a book called the Discarded Image in which he lays out Chalcidius’ interpretation of the Timaeus and his very free commentary.  However, I couldn't find this comment in the Discarded Image. CS Lewis, the Discarded Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964. Perhaps now Lewis is better known to be a Christian apologist.

I am grateful to Marjorie Mead from the Wade Center at Wheaton College for enlisting the help of scholar, Jerry Root, to help me to clarify that it was a comment from Lewis, but it wasn't Chalcidius per se of whom he spoke. I appreciate Jerry's kindness to search and find two sources in Lewis.

Jerry Root wrote in response: “I found the very idea but it is not in connection with Chalcidius per se. If you look at the essay “Imagination and Thought” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, you will find the concept that those in the Middle Ages, with limited, and often contradictory sources, sought to reconcile all the sources trusting that the authorities that produced the books spoke truth. Consequently, the medieval scholar’s task—believing that no truth contradicts another—required the craft of reconciling. In the first edition of the book it can be found on pp. 44-45 (or paragraphs 7-9). You will also find some similar ideas in the essay “The Genesis of a Medieval Book” Also in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, pp. 37-38). So, the concept is: 1. to be found in these references; 2. It is not associated with Chalcidius per se; 3. Lewis, certainly did not endorse the practice. He writes of it as an indicative (what was done for the particular reasons noted) but makes of it no imperative (because it was done, therefore the practice ought to be emulated).”

There is a chapter about Chalcidius in CS Lewis. The Discarded Image. Cambridge: University Press, 1964, 49-60.

2. David K. Clark, To know and love God. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003.

3. For another critique of Plantinga’s epistemology see the video series by William Lane Craig Belief in God as Properly Basic - Part I (and more) or see his lecture on Religious Epistemology 

4. For Aquinas’ Five ways see Summa Theologica Pt I Article 3 Whether God exists? or Norman Geisler. Christian apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013 chapter 15 Theism.

5. See Craig Bloomberg’s article “The reliability of the New Testament” 

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