Chris Armstrong - "Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians"
3:30AM Jun 29, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
We're delighted today to be speaking with Dr. Chris Armstrong. Dr. Armstrong is the founding director of Opus, the art of work, an institute on faith and vocation at Wheaton College, formerly professor of church history at Bethel seminary. Dr. Armstrong, we're very, very happy to have you today.
Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.
Dr. Armstrong is also the author of the text that we'll begin by discussing and that is, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with CS Lewis. Dr. Armstrong in your book you find in CS Lewis, a faithful guide to medieval Christian theology, and thereby the great tradition.
When you introduce
your students to the thought world of CS Lewis, what strikes them as perhaps strange or foreign in comparison to the thought world of today.
What's interesting is now first, I have to say that I have not been teaching it since about 2013. However, I did introduce these themes to my students in the previous year, a couple of years at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul. Most of them actually, what I think is interesting is found very little foreign in the thought world of CS Lewis, they accept those things. They tend to accept much of what he says, on the basis of his perhaps reputation as a intellectual hero among evangelicals, and so forth. Some of them even may treat him as a bit of a genius, but what they don't know is that much of what strikes them as true and good about lewis is actually and Lewis would have said this, a passing on of a tradition that's much older than him. And so I wouldn't of course limit that to the Medieval period he was an avid reader of the classical sources previous to Christianity also of the early church fathers, and finally of medieval sources as well as he was a professional medievalist. Now there are some things that strike them as odd. When we get around to mentioning that he was interested in perhaps some Protestant version of the doctrine of purgatory, they have questions about that. Is that biblical? Where does that come from? when they find out that toward the end of his life, he went to confession that he practiced some of what we might call more high church practices,
ceremonies or certain devotions within the church, they might look at that and say, Well, now that isn't,
you know, that doesn't sound very evangelical to us.
But by and large, I think most of angelical students I've encountered have been very, I've been very receptive to Lewis. They recognize, for example, the scientific materialism that he describes that certainly still present today in our culture. They recognize Eyes, facets of secularization that he described. And so, still today, he makes a guide and a person who we recognize is facing many of the same problems that we we also face as Christians, living today as Christians have been of an orthodox nature, whether evangelical or not who, who are trying to operate in a,
in a in a secular in a post Christian world, essentially.
Thank you for that response. Dr. Armstrong, you are a historian both at Bethel seminary and then also a senior editor of Christian history magazine. Was it Lewis who interested you in history? Or was it through some earlier interest in history that you became interested in Lewis?
my father's a theologian, loved to I love to read theology and think about theology, but it becomes a little more abstract that I'm comfortable with rather quickly. At least in my mind, I lose track of arguments. I want to see how it's done. lived out as an undergraduate Religious Studies major who was not at that time a Christian, my questions had more to do with how people live than how they think or at least how they implement what they think and how they live. I think it was reading Jonathan Edwards in the in the mid 80s. In a graduate in a an undergraduate program that led me to my interest in history. I felt that at that point, I was a young, charismatic Christian, and I felt that he was speaking to people in the pews next to me, and that there was tremendous wisdom there. I also felt that in the church I was in there was not a whole lot of foundation or basis for our faith, other than some favorite Bible passages and some celebrity preachers and so forth. But I wanted to know what I believe that 2000 years worth of people had believed in Christ and had attempted to understand and live by His revelation in Scripture. But it wasn't at all clear to me what that lineage looked like. So it was really a personal need. That brought me to history. At that point. I had read the Narnia series, I'd read the space trilogy, hadn't read any of lewis's nonfiction work. And in fact, in the 80s, I've been in I've encountered people in my youth in the university setting, who wanted to use certain works of arguments of Lewis to argue me into the kingdom. I was, in fact that may have delayed my entry into the Kingdom several years. Because I really found that of noxious. And in fact, still today, I have difficulty getting all the way through Mere Christianity. I think Louis can be sometimes a bit of a bully in his argumentation. But that's not what attracted me to his nonfiction writing. It was really a previous interest in the faith that the Middle Ages that led me to Louis as I realized that he is a medievalist who shared Orthodox Christianity with me and with others who who are who I worship with, actually drew a lot of sustenance and a lot of ideas from that evil faith. And so that led me on that search. And then of course, it was natural to add him to include him in the book when I started writing about medieval faith.
Dr. Armstrong is It's simpler for many of us evangelicalism to approach the church fathers are reformation heroes, Lutheran, Mullainathan, Calvin were tremendous scholars of the early church, the medieval heritage is much more difficult for us to appropriate. What is it about Louis is appropriate appropriation of the medieval thought world and medieval theology as a whole that fits into our current paradigms as evangelicalism?
Well, first of all, he, I'm not terribly worried about fitting things into the current paradigms, I'm more concerned about finding out where the historical faith pursued the good, the true and the beautiful and the faithful. And there are indeed many places where that's true. What I think keeps many evangelicals today from appropriating anything from the medieval period is a set of stereotypes essentially, the belief that, for example, medieval Christians were all about works righteousness that they believed in working their way to heaven. This is a natural misunderstanding based on the fact that there were indeed some people in late medieval, medieval Catholicism, who Luther rightly was objecting to who had left the Augustinian heritage of salvation, by grace through fade and had moved to a kind of, well, you do the best that's within you, and then God will honor that and he will save you. However, through almost the entire Medieval period, which I take to be as many historians do about 500 to 1500 ad, you have a strong sense of the Augustinian teaching brace, in fact, probably stronger than a lot of evangelical circles today. What I think of angelical is object to in Roman Catholicism is the following of Augustus ecclesiology, which makes it much stronger role for the church and indeed, the priesthood. then most of angelical 's are coming to an end that I'm comfortable with but to say that All medievals believed in a kind of work your way to heaven. Religion is a is simply false. It's a small even in losers time. It was a small movement of although a significant movement called the Theologian or damnit cordana, within late medieval Christianity, things that we would recognize in medieval Christianity, I think there is a deep and long tradition of their religion at the heart, which in the early church, an excellent source on this is Robert Lewis Wilkins book, The Spirit of early Christian thought. Wilkin points out, which is true that among the early church fathers, you have a Yes, a strong and robust and intellectual approach to theology. That was always for the purpose of talking about that love that love relationship between God and his human beings who he's created and the great lengths to which you goes to save those human beings. And therefore also in the early church, there's a strong tradition of very passionate emotional devotion, perhaps more emotional than many moderns would be comfortable with. And this continues an example there would be origin, the great, early expositor of the Bible, probably the first systematic thinker about the Bible, who Trent who interprets the entire Song of Songs as a kind of allegory of the individual believers or the church's relationship with God. That's pretty steamy language. There's, you know, and it's interesting, and I think there are certainly parts of the evangelical landscape. Even my more reformed of angelical friends will say, Yes, we believe there is there is a place for a direct encounter with God and His Holy Spirit with a devotion to Jesus Christ. That is very, I mean, you know, praise and worship music is no longer just a charismatic thing as it was maybe in the 60s or 70s. This has really been adjusted into the mainstream of ev angelical worship. And in this we can cross over to medieval figures such as Francis or Bernard of clairvaux, or de Julian Norwich, we'll find some things in there that will seem odd to us. But some things that seem very familiar. By the way. Also, Carl Truman at Westminster seminary points out that those mystics, who many millions of people read in the penguin additions, for instance, did indeed, not simply believe that religion was all about some sort of Sufi mystical experience. They, in fact, had those experiences within the very strong doctrinal, orthodox framework of the historical faith. But because of the stereotypes that we still carry about what medieval Christianity is about, we may very easily for all, Truman argues, and he's as reformed as they come, that evangelicalism really do need to be resourcing themselves back from those medieval mystics. It's actually kind of surprised me when I saw that article and familias, which your your viewers or your listeners Nurse can can look up. But that's one of the reasons is that there's a robust connection between the experience of encounter with God and a truly orthodox framework of doctrine that we often have lost today in our own churches.
Dr. Armstrong if I can ask this question, one of the most difficult things for modern Christians of an evangelical type as they look back to the medieval tradition, tradition is the sacrum mentality of this evil tradition. Can Lewis help us get into the mind of sacrament? tality?
Yes, I think he can I first of all, an easy misunderstanding again a soccer mentality is that it must entail that if we were to talk in terms of soccer mentality today It must entail a an acceptance of a Catholic definition of seven sacraments so that things like marriage or the or confession would be included among those along with of course baptism and communion or the Eucharist as the earlier Christians would have called it. That's not necessarily what I'm talking about in the book. And I'm not making an argument that Protestants should accept this that the traditional seven sacraments, the Roman Catholic communion, Allah, perhaps give some of them a second look and ask Why were these considered to be sacrifice? What I'm talking about is more an understanding of the world as a whole. And where Lewis helps us, I think, is he has a helpful, sort of mere Christian as he calls it, robust, everyday theology, a theology of ordinary life. So for him, his Christianity impacts not just how he thinks or how he worships on Sunday, but how he lives and how he counsels other to others to live in the house work that they do in their everyday relationships. If you've read screwtape letters, you know how deeply this penetrates it's the ordinary life where there's really a battleground and where our discipleship takes place. One of the reasons that he gets there, I think the strongest reason that he gets there is that he follows the medievals in understanding that our material lives are a place. And for for many, often the primary place where we meet God not infallibly as in communion or as in baptism, but a place where God very often reaches out in our experiences of nature, in our experiences of community. I run an institute on vocation at Wheaton College and we say, look, one of the number one ways people is going to be God's going to talk to you about your vocation about what maybe job you need to take is through your friends, right? I mean, there is a reason why Body of Christ is an imagery for from Paul, for our experience as Christians, God saves us not as individuals but in the community. And if the word sacrament means that God comes to us that the spiritual comes to us through the material lives, we need to include In that the social life and that is, of course throughout Scripture, scripture is much more communalist than our individualist American eyes can often read, and for the medievals, and for Louis, there is a much more earthy, as I say in the book and a much more human understanding via a robust understanding of the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of incarnation of how it is that God interacts with us and what it is that He requires of us. It is not just a Sunday faith, it is not just a leisure time, Christianity that you do on a weekend when you have time. And then you go back into haven some other way, in your family life or your especially your work life, we spend much of your time. And so really, we're getting close now to the center of what I found when I wrote this book, that because of their attention to the creation, their attention to the Incarnation and Louis's following the medievals in those attentions, which one term is sacramental ism or soccer mentality for those understandings, we can Find both in the medieval faith and in Lewis, a tremendous resource for an evangelical Christianity that today often divides the sacred from the secular and the spiritual from the material.
Dr. Armstrong, one of the very most when some portions of your book is chapter six, in which you deal with the question why it was that the medievals invented the hospital. Sometimes one of the stereotypes that we hold today about the medieval age is that they're very backwards concerning all things scientific. And chapter six tells a very different story. Can you take us into that moment? How is it that the hospital is birthed in the medieval imagination?
Sure, I'll distinguish a couple of things first.
I do also argue in the chapter on creation that medievals attitude again, their sacramental understanding that we can encounter God and kind of think his thoughts after him by looking at the created world does at least lay the foundation foundations for modern In science in the scientific revolution,
however, for much of the medieval period,
it took them the entire period even to catch up with work, classical medical science had been in the person that people like Galen. So what I don't mean when I talk about the medieval invention of the hospital is a very advanced technological
or scientific understanding of science. However,
what is medical science, however, what I do mean is that, that there was a respect for
and an understanding of God's care for
the human body and human health. This again, strikes people with some modern stereotypes about the medieval period, as perhaps suspicious or simply wrong. The stereotype might be that medieval thought that physical illness came from demons or came from some mystical spiritual source. And although there's a little bit of that in the literature, it is very clear that from the early through the medieval period, there was again, a robust under Standing up the doctrine of creation that God has made our human bodies that God cares about our health, when one simply needs as Lewis did in a little piece to some nuns who are running a hospital that drove to Ireland, to see Jesus's response to the death of Lazarus, and his his weeping in his compassion for that the grief of the surrounding community and, of course, as many physical healings that he cared about people in their bodily health as well as in their spiritual health. So very briefly, Basil did great in the fourth century, create something that might be called a proto hospital. in some senses, it was in some sense, it wasn't. It was an organized attempt in what we might call medical philanthropy. The poor sick are the people who the medievals will want to serve in increasingly institutional settings that become what is the modern hospital. Another stereotype that's busted here is that often this service to the surrounding community Excuse me. Another another stereotype that's busted here is that often in the service of the surrounding community, these kinds of medical, philanthropic services for the sake of the sake for are rendered through the monastery. That's where the hospital grows up? Well, of course, we don't think that that's possible because we assume that what the monastery was was a little private place where people crawled in and snuggled up with Jesus and had no impact or benefit to the world. That is not the case. If you read the history of Benedictine monasticism, the Benedictine teaching of hospitality, and again, this long tradition of attention to bodily health, not only amongst themselves, but if you know, travelers who come to forsake who come. That's the incubator in which the hospital grows. It's it's a rather surprising story. It's a story that Lewis knew well, but we have forgotten today.
Dr. Armstrong if I can turn our attention to an earlier piece that you wrote and that is the 2008 In Christianity Today with the title the future lies in the past. Why have angelical czar connecting with the early church as they move into the 21st century? You've been following evangelical resource Montt for a long time. In your recent book medieval resource Montt in your earlier work patristic resource Mont. If you could write a new article today on Evan jellicle resource Montt in a broad sense, what's happened in this last decade?
That's interesting because I have I was just had a talk of mine. I just gave a couple of weeks ago at the Evan jellicle theological society meeting in San Antonio this year on a response to a book which I do take to be a new movement or represent a new turn in evangelicalism resource ma this this article is going to be published in the Journal of spiritual formation and soul care out of Talbot in at Biola in California. What I was responding to A book from my friend Greg Peters at Biola called the story of monasticism. Greg is a very fine scholar of the medieval period and of monasticism who knows the languages he knows the background and the story of monasticism on Baker I recommend highly as I gesture in the last chapter of my book towards water resource Mauer retrieval from monastic and ascetic traditions within Christianity would look like. And and I would say that, in some measure, you have the new monastic movement that's grasping parts of that, although I don't think it really looks much like medieval monasticism, but Greg's book goes chapter by chapter through the entire history of monasticism and actually excavates retrievals resource, small kinds of suggestions in a every section at the end of each chapter, and then it's remarkable work. It's I think, very strong. It's based on excellent scholarship and my paper in response to that was unfortunately about all the reasons why evangelicalism wouldn't bother to listen to that or would have a problem with that. I not to say that it's completely intractable. But I think the other thing that's happened, perhaps since 2008, is that it's become clearer to many who have an interest in resource mom, that that on the spiritual side of resource mom, and I would take that to be the Richard foster Dallas Willard Eugene Peterson, Jim boostin. The kind of spiritual disciplines movement started in 1978 with Richard Foster's book, the celebration of the disciplines that has kind of plateaued or stalled out, and Dallas Willard, the late Dallas village I interviewed a few years ago for another essay for that same journal. I asked him why is it stalled out what's the problem here? And he said, one of the reasons is that it's this this particular part of reserves are small today and evangelical circles. While it has been, it has developed in spiritual formation programs within similar Eric has not in those same seminaries been well integrated with the biblical studies and theological program. So what I think the cutting edge of resource money is for evangelicalism today is to bring those two sides of retrieval together. And as Carl Truman did in the essay that I mentioned earlier to understand how the experiential kinds of resorts about the understanding of a sacramental view of the world of an aspect of devotion, a more robust human kind of retrieval of the doctrine of the Incarnation can be integrated and can play nicely with a really a robust theological and doctrinal attention to the ways in which even the medieval church preserves Orthodox Christianity. Again, we do have to get beyond some stereotypes to get there. And of course, there are elements of medieval theology, and purgatory is one of them. And I happen to disagree with Lewis on this. I think that's a very problematic doctrine. I don't think you can Protestant ties it, but I do think We can learn even today from reading Dante predatorial from reflecting on what the medievals were trying to do with their understanding of sanctification when they talked about purgatory. So I'm drifting a little bit here probably off course of your question, feel free to follow up and give me
very good. Dr. Armstrong, you've been following Evan jld of angelical movement for some decades. In your view, what are the real obstacles to ecumenical progress that we face now?
Um, well, now this gets to something I talked about in the first chapter of the book and the introductory chapter, which identifies evangelical immediate ism. evangelicalism tend to focus on a very straight line, very direct relationship and contact between God and humanity, both intellectually and we might say effectively or in their worship in spiritual lives. They believe they can pretty much we believe, as I would include myself, we can pretty much go straight to the throne of God through two ways, one in worship with plain kinds of music with direct emotional kinds of ways of entering his presence. And of course, I actually believe that and also through a very clear, easy reading of Scripture that we don't need too many traditional helps, or we don't need to refer back to wise theologians of the past, but every ordinary person can pick up their Bible for themselves and see clearly and immediately the single meaning of each text and then the single easy overall meaning of Scripture. If you're if you've ever been in a seminary classroom, you know that there's some hermeneutic issues there, and that this is a little bit this is a little bit I, frankly, I would have to say naive. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't attempt to find the truth of Scripture. It simply means that in our immediate ism our desired to do away with the mediation, of traditions of liturgy or traditions in the case of Scripture, reading of hermeneutics or theology, we, we may, we may make two simple things that are not in fact simple. And I think we've caused ourselves all kinds of problems over the years by doing that. So what is blocking us from our source mind? This was the argument I made also in response to Greg Peters book on the story of monasticism. We worry that as soon as we interpose, a study of the tradition, we are removing ourselves from the straightforward and immediate intercourse and the older sense of the word that we that we have with God through both worship and through direct reading of Scripture. we misunderstand, I think the ways again, in which God saves us into a body and the body is not just the believers who live now, but indeed, as the church used to say, the church triumphant those who have gone on before Anglican friend of mine says the teaching gifts of the church have a very long shelf life. We can still learn from. And you know, let's go to some of the of angelical heroes, we can still learn from Jonathan Edwards, we can still learn from john Calvin, Martin Luther, but also St. Francis, also, Thomas Aquinas, you know, and also, of course, those great patristic leaders that so many Christians are coming back to. I love that so many Christian students are evangelical students are wanting to come back to the to the church Father, I worry that that is on a limited and kind of intellectual level. And that it may be a very heavily filtered reading sometimes to the fathers that we're excited about the things that back up our modern ways of seeing scripture, our modern evangelical ways, and we're less likely to allow ourselves to be challenged by some of the ways in which maybe they rub rub up against us. And indeed, if the body of Christ is to have any usefulness to us, he is at least in part in the ability to challenge us that if they become the tradition as well as scripture becomes a mirror we look in, let's look deeply into that mirror and go away and be changed not walk away and forget As the scripture says, what we look like and and forget to be changed if we're doing resource Ma, that's only sort of butterfly collecting of some ideas from the past, or that is only very, very selective in the things that we're very happy about and that affirm what we already believe, then, in fact, we're not doing resource. Oh, it's not in a healthful way.
Thank you very much for that reflection.
Dr. Armstrong, if I can ask one final question that I've been asking all of our interviewees and that is, what would it mean for the church today to be united? How would we recognize this unity and what is it that we can do to pursue unity as individual Christians today?
what it would look like to be united is a really difficult question, but I think in part, it would be simply people who have different, deeply different perspectives on the faith, being willing to recognize each other as brothers Sisters that's that's that's a very basic level. When I think about this, and then teach on it, it's very deeply informed by the book by, by Dallas, five models of church where he lays out five distinctive ways that Christians have historically thought about what the church is. And these are mystical communion institution, sacrament, Harold and servant, and he unpacks. Each of those I highly commend that book. We can't go into it in detail here. But essentially, what Douglas is arguing is that historically, the church has begun to divide along the lines of the ways that people understand even what the church is and that each of those models has its own way of talking about what it would mean for the church to be reunified for the institutional model which was really characteristic of the pre Vatican to Roman Catholic Church. The only way to reunify the church was for the airing and straying Brethren, which is I wouldn't even use the word rather and but for those who call themselves Christians who are outside of the Roman Catholic community to come back, as you know, Vatican two opens the doors from that by saying, well wait a minute, shifting maybe to the mystical communion model. Perhaps although we are institutionally separate, we are indeed and the term you'll recognize this separated brethren that we do indeed share a common faith and we'll hope to see each other in heaven, even though Roman Catholics would still perhaps argue, you're in an imperfect communion, you really do need to draw more from them what we have, the servant church would be perhaps the modern liberal Protestant church, for example, that says, Oh, look, the real entire purpose of God, you know, for founding the church through Christ, and through the Holy Spirit was to change social reality on Earth was to to bring justice was to bring shalom to the earth in the very earthy sense of justice and, and and amelioration of poverty. And so on. Whereas evangelicalism, this is the great division that happens in the early 20th century would say no, the church is a herald Jesus has come to bring a message, the Great Commission is the sum total of our commission. Let's leave the great commandment aside of how we have to love others through things like giving water to the thirsty and through to the hungry. No, no, no, that's not the central, the real. And the real identity of the church. Is that spoken message were satisfied sometimes by words. And then of course, what is unity look like? Well, it looks like everybody getting the doctrine exactly right and clear understanding of Scripture. And so again, all of these groups, and then you know, Jonas's argument is that a sacramental understanding of the church broadly understood as all of the ways in which the kingdom of God has made visible on Earth. proximate as it is not complete, we recognize that the kingdom is not complete until until the end, but those ways in which the church manifests faithfulness to Christ and, and the power of the Holy Spirit on Earth. Those are the real places where we can look to to a strong ecclesiology and a unifying ecclesiology. And that can include preaching publicly, but it can also include the things that the servant model would affirm things where we go to, you know, when a hurricane hits a city, we go as Christians, we joined together across denominational and confessional lines, and we go and we just help people put their lives back together, that can be seen as a certain church model, but it also be seen as a sacramental model, because it's the making visible of love and of the Spirit of God within within time. If I were to say, you know, where would I look to today, it might have something to do with that sacramental model again, not referring to the seven sacraments in the traditional Catholic doctrine, but referring to the many ways in which our incarnate life here on Earth, our visible life together as Christians, including both the proclamation of the gospel and the thing Things that we do with our hands and with our hearts to, to to minister to each other, and to those outside of the Christian fold. That I think is a very strong place that we should look. That is what unity might look like, to me. And I think we're already seeing it in crisis pregnancy center offices across the country, in the kind of compassionate ministry that so many across lines will join into. And indeed, in increasing
dialogues that are happening on a doctrinal level, I've been part of myself with an F angelical. Roman Catholic dialogue for years that's met in St. Paul, Minnesota. Now, not now apart, but I was apart for many years. And it's surprising when you sit down at a table and work out of your own traditions, if you know those traditions, and this is perhaps the big impediment is we don't know our own traditions, let alone other people's. That's where we may find common ground, as well as ground where we have to say we are agreeing to disagree. So I don't know if that's a complete answer to your question, but those are the things
Spin are delighted today to be speaking with Dr. Chris Armstrong, founding director of Opus, the art of work and Institute on faith and vocation at Wheaton College and also author of the texts that we've been looking at today medieval wisdom for modern Christians finding authentic faith in the forgotten a in a forgotten age with CS Lewis. Dr. Armstrong, thank you for being with us today.
Thank you so much.