Review: Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians

Chris R. Armstrong, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis (Brazos Press, 2016)

From time to time at FiSch we review books that might either help you with the task of integrating your particular work with your faith, or which themselves are the result of that integration. This book, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, falls into the second category. Written by Wheaton professor Chris R. Armstrong, it aims to counter the unhelpful assumptions and generalisations often made about medieval Christianity by evangelicals, and to open up some of the riches which this age of the Church can offer today.

As a doctoral student researching medieval religious literature, of course I’m somewhat biased when I say this book is important! Centrally, though, I think the book is a helpful (though not perfect) example of historical work done for the church, in a way which is well-grounded and researched but still accessible to the non-specialist Christian. Armstrong is explicit, even polemical, in his belief that ‘we must derive lessons for today from the study of history’, and he’s convinced that the view of the medieval Church current in modern evangelical circles, as well as being lacking in historical accuracy, is preventing us learning valuable lessons.

The book begins with a methodological chapter which is perhaps its most academic section. Armstrong discusses (from a chiefly US-based perspective) the reasons why the medieval period gets such short shrift from many modern Christians, taking us through a brief history of the developments that led to the impression, rife among evangelicals, that real Christianity essentially slept between the early church and the Reformation (or even until the eighteenth-century revivals). He also diagnoses the problems caused by the widespread ‘immediatism’ of today’s church – its desire for novelty, for simple solutions to present problems, its reliance on the ‘plain’ meaning of Scripture, and its emphasis on knowing God without mediation.

The body of the book is dedicated to exploring how aspects of medieval theology and practice can speak productively to these problems, describing key figures and institutions as well as lucidly explaining sometimes alien theological and social concepts. The topics covered are:

  • Respect for and use of tradition
  • Commitment to integrating reason with faith
  • Precision when talking about virtue and vice
  • Valuing the works of mercy
  • Honour for and interest in the physical world
  • Emotional engagement in religion
  • Emphasis on understanding humanness through the Incarnation

I haven’t got space to go into all the interesting and edifying themes included here, from the invention of the hospital to the intense emotional practices of later medieval devotion: the book covers lots of important ideas, and for me Armstrong is largely convincing in his appeal for their rehabilitation, though you can make up your own mind!

The aspect I haven’t mentioned so far is the use Armstrong makes of C. S. Lewis. The second chapter discusses Lewis as one of the author’s heroes, and as a ‘modern medieval man’ who studied and loved medieval philosophy, theology and literature. Throughout the rest of the book, the material on the medieval period itself is intermingled with examples of Lewis’s understanding and uses of it in his writing and thinking.

This is part of Armstrong’s attempt to make his topic accessible and attractive to the average Christian reader, and to some extent it works, bridging the gap to the strangeness of the medieval world with the familiarity of Lewis’s popular theology and fiction. Personally, however, I found it distracting: the description and interpretation of Lewis often falls into uncritical idealisation (so common in evangelical circles), and I usually felt that Armstrong was more engaging and discerning when talking about his medieval subjects than about Lewis. The cynical part of me says that this aspect of the book was mostly intended to get sceptical readers on board with the main topic, but it doesn’t add much to the argument and makes the mistake of taking Lewis’s self-identification as a ‘medieval’ too seriously.

On the whole, however, I would recommend Medieval Wisdom to anyone interested in how the modern church can do its history – explicit and implicit – better. The book concludes with a chapter calling for the cultivation of a more thoroughly incarnational spirituality, countering the gnosticism of modern Western culture with medieval and other resources for integration of the whole person, and perhaps more controversially for the recovery of some kind of monastic ideal for the contemporary church. These are much debated topics today and Armstrong’s book is a readable and thoughtful contribution to that discussion, as well as a good introduction to parts of church history you or your church family may have overlooked.

Comments

Many thanks, Alicia, for this generous review. I still believe - and think I demonstrated - that Lewis was an "intuitive medieval" in ways that go well beyond his self-identification in (for example) his De Descriptione Temporum talk at Cambridge. And I most certainly agree that he was not perfect (nor was, of course, the church in the Middle Ages!). But these are small matters - which maybe we can tease out and discuss at greater length over tea or beer sometime. Most of all, again, just: thank you for reading and reviewing this labor of love - and forgiving its flaws in order to recommend it.

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