Saturday, August 13, 2005

McGrath's Intellectual Origins, Part I

From here

Part I: The Intellectual Context

1. The Shape of Late Medieval Religious Thought

1.a. The Rise of Lay Religion. Layfolk were more, not less, religious than before in the late Middle Ages, but the parish clergy was very inadequate, so the lay folk began to resent the low level of Christian life in the institutional church.

1.b. The Crisis of Authority in the Church. Rapid change in philosophy occurred just as the "Babylonian captivity" of the Papacy in Avignon, followed by the Schism, and the Conciliar Movement, meant that doctrinal diversity went unpunished and church teaching unclarified.

1.c. The Development of Doctrinal Diversity. Diversity was not primarily a matter of religious orders (Dominican theology vs. Franciscan vs. Augustinian, etc.). But universities did develop their own theological positions. The new via moderna [modern way] challenged the via antiqua [old way], particularly in the question of God’s freedom in salvation. The old way said, in the nature of things, justification must involve "created habits of grace" infused within the sinner; God would not be free to justify in any other way (presumably, although McGrath doesn’t elaborate, because it would be dishonestly declaring righteous what was not in fact righteous). The via moderna thought of this as erroneously limiting God’s freedom. Instead they argued this way: God created the world entirely freely, and was free to set up in the world whatever conditions of salvation He desired. Once He creates the world in a particular with particular conditions of salvation, however, He is bound by them, but only because He freely chose to be bound by such a covenant with His creation. Thus, even though He might work through "created habits of grace," it was divine acceptation itself, rather than than those "habits," which were the ultimate cause of justification. Hence in the via moderna the present order of salvation (whatever it was, and thinkers disagreed on the particular means) was radically contingent, depending only on the sovereign will of God. Ockham, for example, was famous for speculating that God might have become incarnate as a stone, a block of wood, or even a donkey. Another source of diversity was in the writings of Augustine. Augustine had massive authority, but pseudonymous writings (writings falsely ascribed to him) were rampant. Writings ascribed to him, for example, argued for semi-Pelagian views. Also, theologians largely worked from edited collections of "sentences" that ripped the patristic writings out of context. Another fourteenth century controversy was over the maculist (Mary was subject to original sin) and the immaculist (she was not) positions. Representatives of the via moderna proposed virtually Pelagian views of salvation, while representatives of the schola Augustiniana moderna ("modern Augustinian school") argued ferociously against all Pelagianism. In all of these controversies, the hierarchy had not spoken, leaving people like Luther free to assume the teachings they rejected had official support. Here McGrath touches on his famous view of "Luther’s mistake," that Luther was simply ignorant of the fact that the church had never officially supported Pelagianism, and hence his attack on Pelagianism was erroneously projected onto the church as a whole.

1.d. Forerunners of the Reformation. The search for "forerunners" in medieval heretics is pointless. The Reformation was influenced by the mainstream of late medieval Catholicism, not the outliers.

2. Humanism and the Reformation

2.a. Humanism: The Problem of Definition. Humanism is not an early outburst of Enlightenment paganism, not a genuinely Christian movement in response to heresy, nor a movement dedicated to reviving republicanism. Instead it was a cosmpolitan educational movement, concerned with reviving written and spoken eloquence by going back to the ancient exemplars of beautiful style. Humanists were all over the block as far as religious, political, or philosophical views, but were a lot more Christian than usually thought.

2.b. Characteristic features of Northern European Humanism. Northern Humanists weren’t any different from Italian humanists. They despised the barbarous style of the scholastics, preferred the patristic writers because of their beautiful style, and in general adopted a "the older, the better" attitude to Christian writings.

2.c. Humanism and the Origins of the Reformed Church. Swiss humanism was a nationalist version of it, concerned with Swiss revival. Zwingli was heavily influenced by them and Erasmian humanism: his agenda for Christian revival was, like Erasmus’s "philosophy of Christ", based on moral reform and an emphasis on the "interior" or purely spiritual character of religion. Justification was not an important issue to him. Later though he became more dominated by the Stoic idea of predestination and human depravity (yes, Stoic - - he quoted Seneca, not Paul to prove these points.) Bucer was even more Erasmian, and mistook Luther’s teaching for Erasmianism. Calvin was also influenced by humanism, but was un-humanist in taking justification as a central issue.

2.d. Humanism and the Origins of the Lutheran Church. The vera theologia ("true theology") which Luther, Karlstadt, and their allies promoted was little influenced by humanism, but downgraded the scholastics and exalted the New Testament and Augustine, thus making them look like humanists. Humanists helped propagate Luther’s views without understanding that his fundamental theological preoccupations were different.

3. Late Medieval Theology and the Reformation

3.a. Nominalism: The Problem of Definition. Nominalism, like humanism, did not have a single theological program. Yes, there was a new method represented by William of Ockham and others who did differ from Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus, in arguing that universal concepts (such as "whiteness" or "beauty") are "names" or "terms" not "realities" existing outside the mind. But there was vast disagreement between "nominalists" even on philosophical issues, let alone theological.

3.b. Via Moderna [The Modern Way]: This was the term used in the fifteenth century for the non-Albertist/Aquinist/Scotist schools. As described in section I.c., the via moderna’s first big idea was distinguishing hypothetical and actual means of salvation. This meant God is reliable in the world he actually created, although he would have been free to create a wholly different plan of salvation. God’s freedom vis a vis hypothetical possibilities is his "absolute power"; that in relation to the actual world is his "ordained power." Ockham thus argues that infused "created habits of grace" while used by God in justification in his ordained power were not necessary in his absolute power. This opened the possibility for thinking of justification as being purely by divine decree, not infusion of righteousness. But major via moderna thinkers like Gabriel Biel argued that God had freely chosen to make a covenant in which he bound himself to justify all those who did quod in se est (roughly "did their best"). This transition from an ontological (justification comes from a real change in one’s being) to a covenantal understanding (justification comes by fulfilling the covenant with God) of justification undercut the Old Testament/New Testament distinction, removed any essential role for Christ, and cast Christ as a legislator giving the terms of a covenant, not as a savior. The second big idea of the via moderna was voluntarism, that is, the idea that things in this world are good or bad solely by God’s arbitrary will or decree, not by any inherent quality in them that made them intrinsically good or bad apart from God’s will. This will is reliable and ordained in this world ("ordained power") but could have been different in some other world ("absolute power").

3.c. Schola Augustiniana Moderna [The Modern Augustinian School]. Within the Augustinian order there were both old-style realists and new-style nominalists. The latter were the schola Augustiniana moderna, which was nominalist and voluntarist (like the via moderna) but ferociously anti-Pelagian (and hence opposed to the via moderna thinkers like Gabriel Biel) and non-covenantal.

3.d. Late Medieval Theology and the Origins of Reformed Theology. Zwingli had interest in Duns Scotus, but soon moved out of that circle into Erasmian humanism. Calvin (and Peter Vermigli, a.k.a. Peter Martyr) probably did pick up the nominalist, voluntarist, and anti-Pelagian views of the schola Augustiniana moderna, but explicit biographical proof is lacking.

3.e. Late Medieval Theology and the Origins of Lutheran Theology. Although an Augustinian monk, Luther's early education was based on the via moderna (esp. Gabriel Biel) and not the schola Augustiniana moderna. When he came to Wittenberg in 1508 it was part of an academic shift there from a curriculum based on the via antiqua to the via moderna. The schola Augustiniana moderna remained unknown. His theological breakthrough of 1515-16 was a rejection of his youthful Gabriel Biel-style, "God will not deny his grace to those who do their best," thinking. He and Karlstadt both read Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings as early as 1515, but did not come in contact with the schola Augustiniana moderna writers until 1519. Luther’s reformation thus began as a new academic theological school within nominalism opposed to the via moderna.

Continued . . .

Originally posted at Here We Stand