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Friday, June 1, 2012

Scotus and the Reformation

My son Stephen brought to my attention a brief review at First Things: The Late Middle Ages Rightly Blamed.  This is a review of Brad Gregory's new book, The Unintended Reformation.  The subtitle accurately reflects the overall theme, "How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society," but in telling this tragic story Gregory lays a major portion of the blame on what Etienne Gilson long ago described as the Breakdown of Medieval Philosophy--thus the title of the First Things review, which directs our attention to the philosophical shortcomings of Scotus and Occam in particular.  The review is written by a Protestant, Matthew Milliner, a professor of Art History at Wheaton College.  In his review he observes:
there have been other Protestant responses to Gregory’s book, namely that of the evangelical historian Mark Noll. Noll disagrees with Gregory’s distribution of blame for secularism on the Reformation. However, Noll agrees with Gregory’s point of historical departure:  The suggestion that the univocal metaphysics of John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham’s nominalism were profoundly harmful, and did much to put the young Luther in the unenviable state that precipitated (thanks in part to Luther’s disruption of episcopal income streams) the tragedy of the Reformation.
...
According to Noll, univocal metaphysics, bequeathed to us by the later Middle Ages, remains the rickety stage upon which the fatuous debates between creationists, some ID proponents, and the new atheists take place.
None of this is news in the scholarly world, but it bears repeating--frequent repeating.  There is simply no way of understanding the modern Western crisis without absorbing this lesson, and Milliner provides useful references to the relevant historiography.

Michael Sean Winters also provides an enthusiastic review of the book, stating in part:
Gregory, who teaches history at Notre Dame, seeks to show how the changes wrought by the Reformation unintentionally led to the ideological, social, political, intellectual and economic consequences that still shape the world in which we live today, and, especially, how the internal contradictions of our current world appear incapable of resolving themselves unless we reacquaint ourselves with the historical context, and the historical choices, from which those contradictions emerged.
...
Gregory looks at six different issues in examining how we went from late medieval Christendom to the world we inhabit today. He repeats many times that these issues are examined discretely to organize the argument, but they all affected one another in various ways and were part of one, complex, historical story. The first chapter is the most philosophically challenging, looking at how the “rejection of the long-standing Christian view of God’s relationship to creation beginning in the later Middle Ages,” led to what he terms a “metaphysical univocity.” Here, the first culprits predate the Reformation: Duns Scotus and Occam with his razor. Their thought resulted in the laying aside of the traditional Jewish and Christian insistence on the radical transcendence of God, replacing it with a God who, in some sense, shares “being” the way creatures do, albeit in a more exalted fashion. Gregory leads this insight through Newton and Spinoza, we visit with Descartes and Kant and Hume and Hegel. It is quite a tour de force and this first chapter requires careful attention and the occasional dusting off of college philosophy books. Do not be deterred. Gregory is right to put the heavy philosophic lifting first, as metaphysics remains the ground from which other intellectual pursuits start, even if those who engage in such pursuits scarcely take the time to consider the metaphysical assumptions they make. Before heading on to other topics, Gregory does not want the reader to make the same mistake. It is important to refresh our memories about these first principles, to be reminded about Heidegger’s Sein and Dasein, although I always thought Heidegger was Insane. (Couldn’t resist!)

5 comments:

Leo said...

"Their thought resulted in the laying aside of the traditional Jewish and Christian insistence on the radical transcendence of God, replacing it with a God who, in some sense, shares “being” the way creatures do, albeit in a more exalted fashion."

Except that, as actual Scotus scholars never tire of pointing out, the Blessed Doctor never says there is some "metaphysical univocity" between God and creatures. He is quite insistent that "being" is not a highest genus, and that his univocity theses are intended to be semantic, not metaphysical. The rubbish about God being a "merely exalted being," or whatever, is not news to the scholarly world because it's been decisively refuted.

mark wauck said...

The major point is that Scotus views existing not as an act but as an idea. A consideration of his notions of infinity as well as of univocity makes this clear. This is in line with his Avicennian background, and is taken over by those he influenced, such as Suarez.

Daniel A. Duran said...

“rejection of the long-standing Christian view of God’s relationship to creation beginning in the later Middle Ages,” led to what he terms a “metaphysical univocity.” Here, the first culprits predate the Reformation: Duns Scotus and Occam with his razor. Their thought resulted in the laying aside of the traditional Jewish and Christian insistence on the radical transcendence of God, replacing it with a God who, in some sense, shares “being” the way creatures do, albeit in a more exalted fashion.”

Scotus explicitly defended the transcendence of God. What he did was to posit a univocal *concept* of being because he felt it was necessary to make sense of the idea of God. Spinoza’s modal monism is quite different from Scotus’ doctrine. I doubt that any of the authors mentioned read or had any inkling of what univocity of being was.

What does Ockham’s razor have to do with nominalism? He rejected universals because he found the idea of universals incoherent. But why single out Ockham? Peter Auriol preceded Ockham’s nominalism and was far more influential than Ockham in his lifetime. And there’s Durandus who preceded Auriol’s nominalism and has a strong claim for starting the via moderna. It sounds Ockham takes center stage as the villain due the knee-jerk reaction he causes among many Catholics and not for serious scholarly reasons.

God’s timelessness and simplicity were pagan innovations. These “traditional” ideas of “radical transcendence” among Jews would have been alien to them prior to Platonism and even then it was not popular until the middle ages.
If you described the contents of the book accurately it sounds very confused. You might want to avoid books written by someone clearly out of his depth. Take care.

mark wauck said...

Daniel, I tend to agree with your observation re radical transcendence as applied to Jewish views of God. However, in fairness, it is the reviewer who is responsible for the conflation of Christian and Jewish views in that regard. There is no indication that the author, Brad Gregory, himself holds that view. I'll have to check on that.

Before I write anything re Ockham I'll look further into the roots of nominalism. However, in terms of brand identification, there can be no question of Ockham's influence.

Re timelessness and simplicity, while these attributes of God may have their origins in pagan thought, there can be no question that they had been assimilated to Christian thought for many centuries before the period in question here. I think that qualifies them as "traditional" ideas for Christians.

mark wauck said...

Once again, re Israelite thought, I think my views re the development of the Israelite conception of God are documented at considerable length.