Systematic Theology’s broad-stroke categories, taught in many seminaries and churches around the world, are:
- Theology (proper) – The study of God
- Biblical theology – The study of the bible
- Christology – The study of Christ
- Pneumatology – The study of the Holy Spirit
- Soteriology – The study of salvation
- Theological anthropology – The study of the nature of humanity
- Hamartiology – The study of sin
- Angelology – The study of angels
- Ecclesiology – The study of the church
- Eschatology – The study of the end times
The linear, trinitarian and binary thought embedded in these categories are helpful to the extent they are understood as emanating from certain locations and histories, particular retellings of the Christian and Biblical tradition, (his)story and meaning, of revelation, of God’s self. Since John of Damascus’ 8th century Exposition of the Orthodox Faith and Peter Lombard’s 12th century Sentences, Christians along the Eastern and Western patriarchies of the two exclusive Churches, Orthodox and Roman, saw the benefit in collecting the writings of the earliest Christian theologians they knew of. They collected those writings into main themes, noticing the recurring bigger picture motifs in the story of God in the world: God (him)self, Jesus, Salvation, Sin, Judgment, Justice, etc.. to be studied in topical, thematic groupings. Building on Lombard’s Sentences, the medieval scholastic tradition resulted in Thomas Aquinas’s masterpiece Summa Theologica (1274), a compendium of Roman Catholic historical thought with commentary, used for teaching first year students at the Santa Sabina, where Aquinas was regent master.
Interestingly, the work references not only Christian fathers and Greek philosophers but the Muslim theologian-jurist Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) and philosopher-logician Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), as well as Jewish philosopher-rabbi Maimonides (1135-1204); three polymaths of the properly Islamic world stretching from Spain and across northern Africa into the middle and far-east. It was through translations of Ibn Rushd (called Averroes) and later, direct Greek-to-Latin translations (particularly for Aquinas, through Willem van Moerbeke’s translating work) that Aristotelian and Platonist logic became known and circulated in Western Christendom. Teachers like Thomas Aquinas taught across the disciplines of moral, natural and metaphysical philosophy with wide-ranging scope. Perhaps it was the upheaval in this period, the ever changing borders, and tensions between papal and imperial control, plus the still-strong presence of Islamic caliphates in Southern Europe that made possible the intellectual horizons at the time. Nevertheless, Aquinas relied fairly heavily, as had John of Damascus, on the pseudonymous work of a 5th/6th century author, claiming to be the Dionysius from biblical Acts of the Apostles (17:34), a polemic of Orthodox neoplatonism against pagan neoplatonism that was influential in Western theological thought since the donation of a Greek copy by Byzantine Emperor Michael II to Carolingian King Louis the Pious in 827.
The translation and transculturation of various modes of philosophy, as well as science, medicine and spirituality, has seeped through the porous borders of Western and Eastern empires and peoples, even amidst religious and political terror, divisions, monopolies and the policing of official doctrine and social structure. This was the age of Marco Polo, and of Crusades, as well as the near constant restructuring of European principalities. It would not be until 1567, however, that Thomas Aquinas’s theological enterprise would become recognised as authoritative by the Roman Church. In 1270 and 1277, Aquinas was condemned by the Bishop of Paris for the idea that the laws of nature, following Aristotle’s logic, were as permanent or decisive as the Supreme God behind them. Like Al-Ghazali refuted the Greek philosophies in favour of Allah’s omnipotence, so too was Aquinas judged to be putting the cart before the horse, verging on blasphemy.
Work based on Eastern (Greek or Islamic) principles was eyed with suspicion even as it was appropriated, an ambivalence that would motivate and characterise much of the relationship between the Roman Catholic, Byzantine Orthodox and Islamic political spheres during the era (and still today) as they competed and collaborated for control of hearts and minds, land and power, and identity in their realms. By the time the acceptance of Thomistic thought became official, and Aquinas named Doctor of the Church (and St. Thomas Aquinas), the armies of Catholic monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand (and their Visigoth mercenary armies) had erased the last stronghold of Islamic presence in Hispania, had financed Columbus to the ‘New World’ in intention of the ‘Indies’, Portuguese fleets had rounded the southern cape of Africa and were travelling up the East Coast, and fifty years had passed since Luther nailed his revolutionary Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints Church in the Roman Empire’s Saxon city of Wittenberg, beginning the Protestant Reformation.
With the Reformation came new takes on systematic theology, the big themes of the Christian faith, which had clearly been lost in Roman Catholicism according to Luther and the Reformers who, having translated the New Testament into their own languages and disseminated its true teachings through the new technology of the printing press, discovered a biblical testimony at odds with Roman tradition. Gutenberg’s Bible was produced in the 1450s in Mainz, in the Latin Vulgate put to impressive Gothic textualis type in lacquered oil ink on Italian handmade paper, each page in double folio columns justified from right and left with spacious margins. 1,286 pages leaving the press and bound in two volumes with detail added afterwards by hand; the titles rubricated in ruby red, capital letters marking new chapters emblazoned with golden detailing. Most were sold to wealthy purchasers, or found their way to major monasteries and churches, while some copies were bought without the handmade flourishes still well beyond the possible reach of most seminary students or priests. Translations into Latin had been made as early as 382-420CE by Jerome, although there were the incomplete and various Vetus Latina texts, lamented by early theologian Augustine of Hippo for their inconsistencies.
Jerome’s regulated Vulgate production would outlast and outmode the disjunctive Old Latin (still in some use up to the 13th century), though only finally by the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1545-1563) held in response to the growing Protestant ferment in the Saxon provinces. As the Vulgate became fully adopted and authoritative within the Roman Catholics, the Council reaffirmed also: the church hierarchy, its interpretative principles (over the Protestant sola scriptura, Scripture alone), and the link of good works and righteousness (opposing Luther’s sola fide, by faith alone), and condemning not indulgences, saints, relics or Marian spirituality but the abuse of those things by certain charlatan preachers. This was the Council to mark the Counter-Reformation, and its prescriptions on sacred music and artwork gave license to the Renaissance that was blooming on the horizon.
The battle over Bible translations, and the doctrines found therein, was, of course, not over. Neither had it just begun. Already under a Ban of the Empire in 1521, Luther in the solitude of Wartburg Castle translated into German from the Koine Greek of rival Erasmus’s 1519 Textus Receptus. We should mention here that this was by no means the first colloquial version made from Greek or Latin texts. Already in the 4th and 5th centuries were Armenian, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic (Ge’ez), Old Nubian, and the Peshitta versions of Biblical texts, reflecting the geography of early Christianity outside of Western Christendom and at the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire, in today’s Middle East and North Africa, as well as translations from today’s Europe, in Gothic and Georgian languages, from the same time. In the Middle Ages, preceding Luther, came the Old English translation by the Venerable Bede circa 730CE, a circa 735CE Old High German Gospel of Matthew, Cyril the Methodius’ Old Church Slavonic from a revised Vulgate begun in 863CE, and Alfred the Great, defender against the Vikings, had affixed vernacular texts from the Torah (such as the 10 Commandment) to his own laws in Wessex, later resulting in West Saxon Old English presentation of the four biblical Gospels, the Wessex Gospels of 990.
Pope Innocent III selectively banned all unauthorised version in 1199 in response to the Waldensian and Carthar rebellions, with a popular translation in Old French appearing in the 1200s and a full Bible translation in Czech circa 1360. Finally, the Middle English translation of Wycliffe (1383) was produced from the Vulgate and banned by the Oxford synod, while a Hungarian Hussite translation arrived somewhere in the middle 1400s (its Catalan-Valencian translation appearing in 1478). John Wycliffe and Jan Hus are seen today, along with the Waldensians, as precursors to the Protestantism of the 1500s. Until Erasmus and Luther went directly to the Greek, however, most of these translations germinated from the Latin prototypes. Importantly, as translations proliferated, biblical literacy increased and alternative readings impressed themselves on the Christian consciousness of the people. Latin was not the language of the people but of the intelligentsia class in Western Christendom. Vernacular version made the Bible for the first time available to a wide audience of literate locals, and, for the illiterate masses, at least through the reading-out-loud of the priest.
These irruptions into the European intellectual consciousness, through translations of religious and philosophical ideas, during the turmoil of competing European Empires and emerging nation-states, also occurred in sync with a decisive moment for the foundation of modern Europe and the configuration of the modern world system, the year 1492. In January, 1492, the fall of Granada, bastion of Al-Andalus, the Muslim presence that had survived as Empire-Caliphate-Emirate in the Iberian Peninsular since 711CE. In October, 1492, the first of Columbus’s three journeys Westward to meet the East, instead finding Bahama and the indigenous Carib and Taíno people of the Caribbean. Both financed by the Catholic monarchs, the spouses Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, reconquista in Hispania and conquistadors in the New World (beginning in ‘Hispaniola’, today’s Haiti/Dominican Republic). The influence, reach and resources available to a Western European kingdom for the first time comparative to the kingdom and empires that blocked European expansion from the major economies of the East, Marco Polo’s Silk Road connection, decentralised in capitals of India, Syria, Egypt, Persia, China, Japan and elsewhere.
Once again the expansion and transgression of borders and boundaries would be marked by ambivalence and hostility toward the knowledge systems beyond them. In the case of the Moorish Spain and the Indigenous Americas the process entailed extreme ‘epistemicide’ (the killing of ideas; see B. de Sousa Santos, E. Dussel and R. Grosfoguel) and actual genocide (the killing of a people) as well as the appropriating of local knowledge and native bodies for what was deemed useful. Likewise, European knowledge was protected from contaminations while also imported into and imposed upon subjugated people. Both zones were to be Christianised according to the Western Christendom model and in subservience to the imperial power of the conquering monarchs. In Al-Andalus that meant the burning of 500,000 volumes at the library Cordoba, excepting certain medicinal and scientific texts deemed useful and safe for Western society, and the edict against Jews and Muslims, their religion, and the utilisation of their bodies on the encomiendas, southern lands given to the Visigothic soldiers and their families. In the Americas it meant the the destruction of Aztec, Mayan and Incan codices, the looting of their cities and town, and the use of their bodies on the encomiendas given to the conquistadors, and in pits of waste deep water searching for gold to return to the King and Queen of conquered Spain.
The knowledge killed in the burning of Cordoba’s grand library was significant. The largest library in Medieval Europe was at best 10,000 volumes. Andalusia had cultivated much of the philosophical, mathematical and scientific thought of the era, including the Greek, Islamic and Jewish thought referenced by St. Thomas in his Summa Theologica (1274), the work that ironically gained full currency in after the 1492 erasure of those sources, in 1567. Ramón Grosfoegel places two other epistemicides along the assaults on Andalusian and Native American knowledge in the “Long Sixteenth Century”; the complete silencing of women’s knowledge within Western Christendom, mostly oral, erased through the burning alive of supposed “witches” who were the intelligentsia of “pagan” (non-Roman, indigenous) cultures in Europe, and the treatment of African knowledge systems as essentially non-existent because of the commercial use of African bodies as livestock, only good for slavery in the Americas, where they were to replace the decimated natives. The thread continues, in that European powers were both creating and destroying, appropriating and rejecting knowledge and identity within the same moment. And the destruction of others meant the enrichment and creation of a new modernising Europe. It is not only one-sided, either. The thinkers and thought-life of Northern and Western societies were influenced and interrogated by Eastern and Southern ideas, and the cultures imposed upon by Europe would reinterpret and appropriate elements of the conquering culture.
Meanwhile the Protestant Reformation(s) were taking off in full swing within Western Christendom, its papal dominions and monarchial provinces. The Lutheran Philipp Melanchton published his Loci Communes in 1521, the Protestant equivalent of St. Thomas’s systematic (or topical) theology but based on St. Paul’s biblical Letter to the Romans. A copy of Loci Communes was dedicated by Melanchton to England’s Henry VIII who, still a Roman Catholic, had already appealed in 1527 to the Pope for an annulment to his marriage, the famous cause of the Church of England’s split from the Church of Rome. In the same year as Henry’s Dissolution of the Monasteries order, 1536, the Frenchman Jean Calvin wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion while in Basel, Switzerland. Its 1541 French translation (written originally in Latin) was a landmark for French as a national language. In 1526, the Swiss Huldrych Zwingli produced the tract On the True and False Religion, while in the same year Anabaptism was born from the teachings of the Zwickau Prophets (Jan Matthys, John of Leiden, and Thomas Müntzer) in Wittenberg. 1525 had seen their radical ideas culminate in the southern German anti-feudal Peasant’s Revolt, not without influence from forerunners (the Bohemian Petr Chelčicky, the Hussites, and the Waldensians). Protestantism in its early forms had broken out all over Christendom.
Son of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) and Habsburg royal, Philip the Handsome (1478-1506) married Juana la Loca (Joan the Mad), daughter of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II and Isabella I who had taken Al-Andalus from the Moors. Their son Charles I, Duke of Burgundy and Ruler of the Netherlands, gained control of Aragon and Castile simultaneously in 1516 and ascended to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1519, skipping Philip who died (in 1506) before his child. This was the closest Europe would come to a universal monarchy, with Charles V as heir to three major dynasties across a vast European terrain (in France, Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Italy and Spain) and colonies in the Americas. 1526 saw the Ottoman forces of Suleiman the Magnificent take Mohács in the Kingdom of Hungary from Louis II, causing a crisis in the heart of already-crisis ridden Europe. The Ottoman advance was stopped at Vienna but they dominated the Eastern Mediterranean seas along with the Barbary Corsairs, forcing the Treaty of Adrianopole that reduced Charles V to King of Spain and leaving Emperor status for Suleiman (1547).
A hundred years previous, the papal bulls entitled Dum Diversas (1452) Romanus Pontifex (1454) gave the Afonso V of Portugal (relative of Isabella I of Castile) the religious right to reduce “saracens, pagans and any other unbelievers” to hereditary slavery, which he did with enough success in North Africa to gain the name Afonso V the African (O Africano). Both bulls were issued by Pope Nicholas V who had witnessed the fall of Constantinople, capital of Byzantium, to the Ottoman armies captained by Sultan Mehmed II, after a 53-day siege. For some historians, the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire’s greatest city marks the beginning of the end of the Middle Ages, and of the Roman Empire itself, the advancing Ottomans entering Europe’s heart by 1526. By 1450 Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire were in ruins anyway, depopulated vastly during the Black Plague in the mid-1300s and by the economically calamitous Fourth Crusade by Western European forces who attacked not Jerusalem by Constantinople in 1202-4. Papal Bulls gave license for the excesses that were to come, partly from justified fear of Muslim power and, of course, from a sense ethnocentric and religious supremacy coupled with real politik strategising. For example, the Portuguese claims over African slaving were finally given papal approval by the same pope in Dum Diversas when Afonso V responded to the Vatican’s call for aid against the Turks in Constantinople: previously the Papal authority had remained neutral between Castilian and Portuguese claims. For Africans in Morocco the result was the same, as it was for those caught by the Berber slavers from the same area, pirates who made it as far as Ireland (in 1631 the whole town of Baltimore was emptied of its residents by the Barbary slavers).
By 1495, Portuguese fleets had rounded the Africa’s Southernmost tip, the Cabo de Boa Esperançia (Cape of Good Hope) and Cabo das Agulhas (meaning Cape of the Needles but still called Cape Agulhas in today’s Western Cape of South Africa). In 1526 (or earlier?), the Portuguese managed the first transatlantic slave voyage from Africa to the Americas (Brazil), the same year as the Ottoman capture of Hungarian Móhacs. The decimation of the indios (“Indians”, the indigenes of the Caribbean and mainland Americas) can be gauged in part by how quickly enslaved Africans began being transported to the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of the New World. In 1493 (Inter caetera) another Papal Bull ensured propriety to one Christian colonial power over another based on who was there first, a kind of gentleman’s agreement from Pope Alexander VI guaranteeing amicable European slaving. Pope Paul III revised the slavers’ interpretation of the anti-Saracen Bulls issued by Pope Nicholas V with a new proclamation entitled Sublimis Deus, forbidding the enslavement of the Native American population, in 1537. Charles I had already decreed against the enslavement of the indios in 1530, though this meant as little to now-primarily-African enslaved as did Dum Diversas in dividing Portuguese and Castilian rights over the slave trade. Still, Sublimis Deus would be brought up later in the famous Valladolid debate (1550-1) regarding indigenous rights, a debate that would stand in stark relief to the preceding and following centuries in that it saw religious voices rise against the secular forces of government not based on the drive for influence and power, nor even doctrine and biblical debate, but based primarily on a sense of human rights and the shared humanity of all people. The fourteen years in between saw the continued enslavement and obliteration of the native population by the conquistadors, such as Governor of the Indies, Diego Columbus, who ruled from Hispaniola over the Caribbean, enriching himself and using the land as a personal estate.
More important to the enslaved than the theological and legal justifications of differing forms of slavery were their own resources for resisting and escaping slavery. 1522 saw an uprising in Santo Domingo by men and women transported from the Wolof kingdom of West Africa (Senegal) who had already trained in independence struggle in a circa 1360 battle against the Mali Empire suzerainty in Wolof land. The rebels of the slave revolt on Diego Colon’s Dominican plantation escaped to the mountains and joined Taíno society and resistance. It had been the Dominican and Franciscan priests of the New World that pressured for the end to the encomienda system and the atrocities regularly committed by the conquistadors. They got their audience with the Pope in 1537 but the resulting Sublimis Deus was rescinded at the request of notable Spanish colonists the same year it was issued with clarity and forcefulness against the dehumanisation of the native population, even denouncing their enslavement as the work of Satan and issuing excommunication for those who disobeyed. In Western Africa there were African traders who sold slaves for manufactured European goods, the first angle of the triangular economy between Europe, Africa and the Americas, while others resisted and joined forces against collusion with the Iberian traders.
By this time, Protestant ideas had enough time and space to develop and expand, considering the emergencies and opportunities facing Roman Catholicism on its Eastern fronts. Portugal and Spain initiated the colonial Age of Discovery to the previously closed off Africa, America and Asia, but were followed closely by governments and individuals from the other European spheres, some of which were becoming thoroughly Protestant. The opening up of Africa, the Americas and Asia meant the entrepreneurial venture of a lifetime for the financial elite of Europe’s various kingdoms. Supremacy on the sea was decisive, as was gunpowder, as was rivalry in the zero-sum game of divine right politics, as was a series of (un)fortunate events that gave first Iberian and then wider-European momentum beyond the powerful empires of East and South (and West; Tenochtitlan was a marvel to the Spanish who took it in 1521, with a population of 200,000-300,000). Thus the becoming of modern Europe, or European modernity (for Mignolo, modernidad-colonialdad).
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