Theology in the Medieval Era: W. Madison Grace II on Salvation

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

W. Madison Grace II serves as associate professor of Baptist heritage and as Director of the Oxford Study Program.

Introduction

As a Protestant I am used to engaging works on the Reformation and the modern period, and I have been encouraged by the recent renaissance of patristic historical theology. All of these periods provide a great deal of insight and thought into theology and, especially, salvation. Nevertheless, for many Protestants, the medieval period is often untouched or dealt with only as a foil against what should not be. The medieval era becomes either a place of darkness (e.g., the Dark Ages) or it becomes the locus of evil that has infiltrated the church that Martin Luther and company rightly rectified. This is not only a deficient approach to medieval historical theology but also one that is quite wrong.

In what follows, we investigate the period and especially look at the development and contributions to the doctrine of salvation. We will look solely at the European medieval tradition and will not take up the developments elsewhere, such as Byzantine Christianity. Particularly, we will present a brief engagement, with a variety of soteriological thoughts in the era ranging from predestination to the Christian life with a special emphasis on the doctrine of the atonement.

Historical Overview

This brief overview of the concepts of salvation in the medieval era is only an introduction to the variety of thoughts that existed on the doctrine of salvation. Whereas the patristic era was concerned with the nature of Christ, the theologians in the medieval era asked how God through the God-man brought about salvation to his people. Central to many medieval minds was the providence of God over creation and his work in determining for whom and how salvation would be enacted. The concepts of grace and merit were greatly important as well, especially when seen through the doctrine of purgatory as well as later developments of the means through which grace and forgiveness can be given to believers, initially through the sacraments as well as in special times and ways, such as in the Crusades and indulgences. The most enduring aspect of the doctrine of salvation is the development of the atonement and willingness to critique traditional understandings of what was actually accomplished in Christ’s passion. These beliefs in salvation set the stage for the debate over justification that would ensue in the Reformation era.

Case Studies

1. Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory

2. Peter Abelard’s Moral Influence Theory

3. Thomas Aquinas and Salvation

For the Church

Finally, we should see the medieval period not as a time of divergence from the truth but as an important period of theological development. Admittedly, we as Protestants will find teachings in this era with which we greatly disagree, but we do not let that keep us from engaging this period, for if we did we would be missing out on the works of theological grace given. In short, we as evangelicals need to have a retrieval of medieval theology for the betterment and progress of our own.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021