Thomas Aquinas appeared at one of the most critical times in church history. Science, secularism, and human reason battered Christian theology. Thomas reconciled apparently contradictory forces, enabling the intellectual structure of the church to survive.

The great crisis

Augustine, bishop of Hippo from 395-430, taught that all people are corrupted by original sin and can be saved only by God's grace according to his eternal, elective decree. Though scholars such as John Cassian and Gregory the Great modified his doctrines to make more room for human works, by the early twelfth century, the church accepted the essence of Augustine's theology.

After the vibrant theological thinking of the fifth century, the church turned to the task of evangelizing pagan Europe, channeling its energies into missionary activity rather than theology. By 1000 the church had reached its goal.

At the same time, the advent of the High Middle Ages brought another era of fruitful theological scholarship, beginning with Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109), who defined the doctrine of the atonement.

Then, in the late eleventh century, crusaders brought a challenge from the Middle East that rocked the theological foundations of the Western church. In Muslim libraries, they had discovered Aristotle.

Aristotle did not begin with God and move downward to the material world, as Plato did. He began with the particulars, moving upward in increasing generalizations toward God. He assumed diversity, not unity, and incorporated the whole of existence into his system.

The great Islamic scholar Averroes, born in Cordoba, Spain, in 1126, became the foremost commentator on Aristotle. When a learned young professor in Paris, Peter Abelard, picked up the Aristotelian approach ...

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