Post Tenebras Lux?: Nominalism and Luther’s ReformationJan 7th, 2014 | By Joshua Lim | Category: Blog Posts
From the earliest period of Luther’s Reformation, there was an overt antipathy towards what was deemed to be the undue philosophical speculation of the medieval scholastics. According to Luther (as well as subsequent Reformers, though often with less vitriol), the influence of Aristotle had caused theologians to turn from the God of revelation to a foreign God of philosophers, whether under the appellation of the ‘First Cause’ or ‘First Mover.’ As Luther wrote in his early Disputations Against Scholastic Theology, “no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle.”1 Or again, “the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light.”2 This philosophical attempt at knowledge of God could not be deemed true theology, but rather a ‘theologia gloriae,‘ a theology of glory which, not unlike the Tower of Babel, constituted an illicit and prideful attempt to reach God through human strength rather than by humble acceptance God’s gift of grace.
Luther and the theologia crucis
In contrast to such a theology, Luther proposed a different way, namely, the way of the Cross. In his Heidelberg Disputation he set about differentiating two theologies which, in many ways, provided the fundamental basis of his own understanding of God: one could go the above mentioned route, that is, according to the theologia gloriae, or one could seek God, not by climbing a ladder to see the ‘Deus nudus,‘ but to seek God by faith alone in Christ alone, that is, according to the theologia crucis, theology of the Cross.3 “That person,” Luther wrote, “does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened;” on the contrary, only the one who “comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through the suffering and the cross,” can be called a theologian.4
With the contrast posed and assumed between a theologia gloriae and a theologia crucis in such stark fashion, Protestant theologians subsequent to Luther have rarely asked the deeper question of the validity of such a contrast to begin with. To put it differently: Is it necessary to conceive of philosophy (theologia gloriae) as that ‘whore’ that Luther thought it to be or is there perhaps a different way to understand philosophy’s relation to theology, namely, as St. Thomas understood it, as ancilla theologiae, a handmaid of theology?
Nominalism, quid est?
To take a step back and question Luther’s very way of framing things, put forward early on and most clearly in his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology and his Heidelberg Disputation, raises the question of Luther’s often overlooked philosophical heritage, namely, that of Nominalism.
The nominalist roots of Luther’s theology are undeniable. Historian and theologian, Heiko Oberman says quite forthrightly, “Martin Luther was a nominalist, there is no doubt about that.”5 Even a cursory glance through Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation and his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology reveals that his primary interlocutors were precisely the nominalist magistri, William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel. One might attempt to distance Luther from Nominalism, arguing that by criticizing Ockham and Biel in his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology he was moving away from philosophy as a whole and towards Scripture alone. Yet, a closer look at the Disputation reveals Luther’s continuing debt to the movement. Luther contests certain views held by his magistri but nowhere does he challenge the fundamentally Nominalist orientation that he shared with them). In 1520, in good Nominalist fashion, Luther would write, “I demand arguments not authorities. That is why I contradict even my own school of Occamists, which I have absorbed completely.”6 We turn, therefore, to the question ‘quid est?’ What is this philosophy which prepared the fertile soil for Luther’s Reformation?
Nominalism, as it is commonly understood, is the philosophical view in which universals are regarded as having no objective weight, and no intrinsic correspondence to individual, concrete things. For instance, according to Nominalism, to say that Peter has a human nature and that John has a human nature is simply to say that both have extrinsically predicated of them a common name (nomen), which happens to be “human nature.” To predicate the same ‘human nature’ to both John and Peter is not to say that they share any metaphysical reality or nature in common; it is simply to say that we predicate something common to both on the basis of observation. The common features that are shared by John and Peter (e.g., intellect, will, arms, legs, nose, etc.) do not and cannot, from a Nominalist point of view, be understood to be based upon a common shared ‘human nature’ except in name. There is no ‘human nature’ that transcends or norms what it means to be human in anything more than an extrinsic sense; in other words, human flourishing is not based on an objective human nature that exists apart from the collection of individual beings called human, but can be only something imposed onto this group of individuals without any inherent reason that corresponds to their given nature (e.g., for vegetative beings, flourishing would be to grow physically and to do it well, while for rational beings, flourishing would pertain not only to physical growth, but also growth in knowledge and love of truth and goodness—this based on the objective nature of the being in question).
A common illustration used to explain Nominalism is found in the use of paper currency. Unlike coins that may be made out of silver or gold, carrying a value that corresponds to its ‘nature,’ paper currency, has a value imputed to it extrinsically. On this basis, a $100 bill would be identical to a $10 bill in nearly everything except for the fact that one is deemed to be worth several times more than the other—solely on the basis of what some authority judges. There is nothing intrinsic to the paper bill that gives it its value. The problem arises when this mode of understanding of the nature of things is applied across the board to human nature and other universals.7 According to Nominalism, observations are made, a name is given from said observations, but this name has nothing to do with a shared nature or ‘essence’ of the thing, as such.8 Such a process of exclusively extrinsic denomination stems from a radical emphasis on the reality of the particular accompanied by an explicit denial of an objective universal shared reality inherent to things.9
According to classical philosophy, by contrast, given the link between particular, concrete things and corresponding ideas or universals (whether these ideas or universals were thought to exist independently of the concrete individual or in conjunction with it), the ideal was seen to be something objective, rather than a result of extrinsic imposition. From a Nominalist perspective, focusing as it did solely on concrete and individual realities to the exclusion of the immaterial aspects of material things, and a fortiori anything purely immaterial, metaphysics as the study of being qua being (i.e., not necessarily material and therefore distinguishable from the empirical or sensible reality) could only appear as the height of speculative arrogance.10 Such a view of metaphysics in the traditional sense remains today, not only within Protestantism, but also pervades our post-Enlightenment setting.11
Philosophia: ancilla theologiae or theologia gloriae?
The denial of the dominant Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian view of reality was not, however, a movement away from philosophy per se, but rather a movement away from a particular philosophy, towards another. As is often the case, it is easy to confuse what is commonly accepted for what is incontestably true; in the face of many compelling arguments in favor of various forms of Platonism and Aristotelianism, the triumph of Nominalism was not so much due to a more compelling explanation of universals but a denial of it all together. Because of the nature of Nominalism, with its exclusive emphasis on the particular, it was much easier for the children of Nominalism to understand themselves as simply sticking with ‘concrete’ reality without the accretions or additions of that ‘abstract’ realm that would very soon come to be associated with a certain disconnectedness from the real, tout court. In other words, Nominalism was an attempt to attain Truth while denying the possibility of its objective existence as a universal—having one’s cake and eating it, too, as it were.
While Nominalism provided an easy answer to certain philosophical questions regarding multiplicity (e.g., how to explain the individual characteristics of John as different from Peter), it nevertheless failed to address sufficiently the deeper philosophical question of unity, that is, whether and how John and Peter could be said to participate in the same human nature despite their differences. Such a question is vitally important for Christians who affirm the human nature of Christ. For if humanity is simply a name without any intrinsic correspondence to a universal nature, the dogma of Nicaea and Chalcedon no longer carry any weight. What would it mean for Christ to redeem human nature, if human nature is not something real? Far from confronting the question of universals, Nominalism simply eschewed the matter, with the result that philosophical speculation involving abstractions that were not immediately linked to a concrete individual were thrown out a priori as ‘vain speculations.’ But this was not because classical metaphysics had proved to be an unnecessary imposition on reality, but rather because of a novel way of understanding reality that simply avoided the difficult question. Just as the denial of Tradition is not to return to a Tradition-less time, but to invent a new one, so the denial of classical metaphysics, rather than being a return to the real, was nothing other than another metaphysics, far removed from the worldview of Scripture, the Apostles, and the Early Church—at least in terms of time, if not in terms of its content.12
Returning to the question of the relationship between philosophy (Luther’s theologia gloriae) and theology (theologia crucis), it appears that Luther’s pitting one against the other is not actually the result of a move away from philosophy, but results from the assumption of a thoroughly Nominalist denial of universal realities. In other words, Luther’s theologia crucis is not simply about revelation and the Cross, but is deeply rooted in the philosophical school of his predecessors. Far from proceeding from Scripture, the reverse is actually the case, Luther’s philosophy provides the groundwork for his theology. The most dangerous philosophy is the one held without acknowledgement, in this case living in the contradiction of holding a theology-determining philosophy while denouncing philosophy. Luther’s view of philosophy as starkly opposed to theology is part and parcel with his understanding of the inability of philosophy to gain any real insight into the immaterial realm. Due to the denial of the objective reality of universals by Nominalism, the project of Plato and Aristotle along with their subsequent Christian disciples could only appear highly suspect.13
One might ask: so what? What if Luther was influenced by Nominalism? Does it really make that much of a difference, as long as his philosophy conforms to Scripture? But this is to beg the question: such a response betrays an unconcern for the reality of metaphysical truths, an attitude that arises from a distinctly Nominalist view of the non-existence and therefore irrelevance of universals. The question at hand challenges precisely such a way of understanding reality as well as interpreting Scripture.
The denial of universals raises a question that is highly pertinent to Luther’s Reformation, namely, if ideas or universals, which were thought to be known through abstraction from concrete realities are not objectively real, but only extrinsically applied names, how do we know what real ‘goodness’ or real ‘justice’ is? Luther would discover that absent any real connection between the human experience of reality and universals or ultimate reality, knowledge of such reality could be had only by direct revelation from God. An understanding of the true meaning of goodness, justice, etc. could not be had through a philosophical or dialectical analysis as seen, for example, in Plato’s inquiry into the nature of justice in his Republic, but could be attained only through divine revelation, particularly the revelation of Christ at the Cross, theologia crucis.
Commenting on Thesis 19 of the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther described the philosopher’s recognition of “the invisible things of God are virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth,” as opposed to what is revealed by God, “namely, his human nature, weakness, foolishness.” Nevertheless, as Luther would later discover, even in his own theology, he would have to account for his understanding of justice. Far from avoiding philosophy, this was merely to replace one philosophy for another. Readers will recognize here the basis for Luther’s doctrine of sola scriptura, Scripture alone. Since knowledge of reality could not be attained apart from revelation from God, any other source (especially scholastic theology, based as it was on Aristotelian philosophy) had to be rejected. But given that such an approach was itself dependent on a novel philosophy that arose independently of Scripture, the rejection of all philosophy in the realm of theology, if possible at all, would entail the rejection of much of the theology based upon Luther’s Nominalist philosophy as well.
Louis Bouyer’s description of the matter in his Spirit and Forms of Protestantism is worth quoting in full:
If the Reformers unintentionally became heretics, the fault does not consist in the radical nature of their reform but in its hesitation, its timidity, its imperfect vision. The structure they raised on their own principles is unacceptable only because they used uncritically material drawn from that decaying Catholicism they desired to elude but whose prisoners they remained to a degree they never suspected. No phrase reveals so clearly the hidden evil that was to spoil the fruit of the Reformation than Luther’s saying that Occam was the only scholastic who was any good. The truth is that Luther, brought up on his system, was never able to think outside the framework it imposed, while this, it is only too evident, makes the mystery that lies at the root of Christian teaching either inconceivable or absurd.14
St. Raymond of Penyaford, 2014
- Thesis 44. [↩]
- Thesis 50. [↩]
- In Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Thomas F. Lull (Minneapolis, MA: Fortress Press, 1989), 30–49. [↩]
- Heidelberg Disputation, 19, 20. Luther’s view of the relationship between philosophy and theology is the predominant view in Protestant theology since the Reformation until the present. Cf., for instance, Horton’s criticism of medieval scholasticism:
In order to display the harmony of theology (faith) and other sciences (reason), medieval scholasticism frequently offered various philosophical arguments for the existence of a supreme being and then deduced, ‘And this being we call God, don’t we?’ But this approach is exactly what Luther meant by a theology of glory: ascending to heaven in order to measure the immeasurable God rather than allowing him to condescend to us in humility and suffering. This means that theological science can begin not with speculation, morality, or religious experience but with God’s revelation.
In Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 109. Cf., also Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997). [↩]
- Heiko A. Oberman, Man between God and the Devil (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 122. In fact, for Oberman, nominalism is seen to be the link by which the Reformation can claim ‘catholic’ roots. Cf., Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000). [↩]
- D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Abteilung Werke, vols. I– (Weimar, 1883–), 6.195, 4f. Quoted in Oberman, Man between God and the Devil, 120 emphasis added. [↩]
- And even in the case of paper currency, problems arise if there is no real corresponding value; the absence of an objective correspondence leads to problems like inflation. So this example is also imperfect as the extrinsic denomination is not based on pure will, but on some objective value. [↩]
- This is not to say, however, that realists, such as Thomas, for example, believe that there is a separate form existing somewhere that is human nature (a view typically associated with Plato). Rather, it is simply to say that the shared nature between John and Peter corresponds to something inherent to both, and this shared nature is objective. Its existence is not the result of merely an extrinsic recognition followed by an arbitrary naming process; on the contrary, the name follows from a reality discovered to be present in both Peter and John. [↩]
- Cf. with Aquinas’s treatment of man’s knowledge in ST I, q. 94, a. 3, s.c., where he asks whether the first man knew all things. Aquinas argues from the fact that Adam named the animals that he had to know the very natures of the animals, “Nomina autem debent naturis rerum congruere.” That is, the names should be congruent with the nature of the thing. This is a way of thinking about creation that is absolutely foreign to the view of Nominalism. [↩]
- And the logical outgrowth of this is evidenced in later thinkers such as Hume and Kant, who have influenced all of subsequent philosophy, for better or for worse. Cf., Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York, NY: 1995), 166-79. As Bainton recounts: “The Occamists had wrecked the synthesis of Thomas Aquinas whereby nature and reason lead through unbroken stages to grace and revelation. Instead, between nature and grace, between reason and revelation, these theologies introduced a great gulf. So much so indeed that philosophy and theology were compelled to resort to two different kinds of logic and even two different varieties of arithmetic” (169). [↩]
- For varied accounts of the relationship between Nominalism, the Reformation, and secularization cf., Bradley Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2012), Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2007), Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007), and Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 2009). [↩]
- An additional post in the future will explore Nominalism’s profound effect on Luther’s view of God, the law, and human freedom. Following Servais Pinckaers’ work, The Sources of Christian Ethics (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 1995), I will examine the deep caesura found between the theology of Luther, as it was influenced by Ockham’s Nominalism, and that found in the Fathers and Scholastics—primarily Augustine and Thomas. In nuce, there is a reason that the existential angst as found in Luther could not be thematized as it was apart from a distinctly Nominalist view of God’s freedom. [↩]
- For an overview of how Christians before the Reformation interacted with philosophy before the Reformation cf., Etienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (Random House, 1955). To be sure, there were Church Fathers who were much more wary of intermingling Christianity with the philosophy of the Greeks, but despite such wariness, there is a general acknowledgement of what might be called metaphysical realism as opposed to the radical nature of Ockham’s Nominalism. [↩]
- Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (London: The Harvill Press Ltd, 1956), 184. [↩]