In the Preface to this masterly work Professor D’Onofrio’s states his intention to provide a synthetic tool for the ordinary reader, an introductory work without footnotes for persons beginning studies in medieval theology (xiii). The book is an invaluable tool for his intended readers and an example of the fine craftsmanship of its scholarly author.
There is an Introduction in which he describes the principles of medieval theology which underlie the book followed by seven chapters. The Introduction sets out the general tenor and concerns of theological discussions in the period with special attention to the role of faith and reason, as well as the need to attend to the theological characteristics found at the demise of the Roman Empire, characteristics which influenced theological discussions in the medieval period and beyond. The Introduction provides the key to understanding the method used in the study.
Chapter one treats of theological circumstances at the fall of the Empire and also illuminates the beginnings of the Carolingian Renaissance with its growth in arts and letters which led to renewed interest in Patristic writings and the study of the grammatical elements in the language of the Bible. Grammar became a source for Biblical study. Chapter two, described as a “transitional period,” presents an exposition of the tenth and eleventh centuries’ circumstances in the West and in Byzantium. The author contends that the arguments and subsequent calamitous break in communion which occurred in these centuries flowed from an immobilization of traditions and not from real theoretical foundations. East and West subsequently emphasized the untenable positions of opponents, not justification for them (124,125). The work of Anselm of Aosta in the West set the stage for the emphasis on Faith as a cognitive experience, according to the author. The third chapter synthesizes with great clarity the rise of the Schools with an emerging new definition of theology, influenced especially though not exclusively by Abelard’s work.
“Between Two Worlds,” the title of the fourth chapter presents a detailed yet highly readable synthesis of the relationship between Arabic scholarship and the Christian West, the implications of which are clear in the following two chapters. The author demonstrates both the positive and negative dimensions of Arabic influence for Christian theology. In the fifth and sixth chapters the author presents the sometimes acrimonious discussions of the use of the Arabic scholars’ works in his exposition of Albert of Cologne, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Siger of Brabant and many others. The presentation of John Duns Scotus is particularly notable for the quality of the synthesis and its even-handed treatment.
The seventh and final chapter, entitled “The Autumn of Medieval Theology,” offers a picture of institutional confusion in the fourteenth-century West and, at the same time, the flowering of mysticism for which Meister Eckhart is an example along with several other mystics of the time. The chapter, thus the book, ends with the author’s contention that theology, like prayer, is an unfolding of faith.
There is a very helpful index of biblical quotes and an extensive index of names and subjects. The fine translation by Matthew J. O’Connell is lucid with theological knowledge evident in his choice of words and phrases. A fine translator has rendered the work into English which assists the author in achieving his purpose, a book without footnotes which can be read by many. Should someone desire careful sourcing the author refers the reader to his previous detailed work on the topic.
Although some scholars may disagree with the author’s designation of centuries which comprise the Middle Ages, D’Onofrio indicates that his choice was based on “the ideal of identification of religious unity and civil society [which] runs through the whole of medieval civilization,” losing this ideal of unity only with the Protestant reform in the fifteenth century(21).There is one difficulty when attempting a first reading: often one idea with its chronology completes while, as the reader continues, he or she is unexpectedly brought back a few years as the author takes up material but from a different principle or perspective. This resolves easily with careful attention to the Introduction where the author presents the underlying principles of his study.
This is an excellent book which no library and no serious student of the Middle Ages should be without. The book’s price may be off-putting to some but Professor D’Onofrio’s scholarship and information are invaluable to a beginning scholar of the period or a person interested in the period. The book is excellent and truly an investment in advancing one’s theological/philosophical knowledge of the Middle Ages.