Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Is Luther's Christology Occamistic?

I'm in the midst of reading Luther as Nominalist, by Graham White.  A somewhat interesting book (a little dull at times).  White concludes that basically the previous generation of Luther scholarship has been wrong, and that the Christology of the Occamists was very similar to Luther's.  If this is true, then I need to revise my Masters thesis!  

White convincingly shows that both the Occamists and Luther emphasized the unity of the person of Christ over the duality.  I had always read that the Occamists had encouraged a extreme Leonine Christology, but White says that's a total misreading and gives plausible reasons why Biel, d'Ailly, and Occam have been misread on this point.

Though for the time being I am suspending judgment until I get more information, I think this might be the best explanation.  I was recently reading a piece by David Yeago where he argued a continuity between the Greek Patristic theology and Luther, which to me was fairly obvious.  I wrote my MA thesis about it and I suggested that the basis of this is indirect influence of the Patristic quotations in The Sentences- particularly from John of Damascus.  Yeago argues this way as well.  Luther (as Yeago correctly observes) very likely never read any of the Greek Patristic authors directly.  He simply didn't have access to them.  

As an aside, it's hard for us sometimes to recognize how little information people in the 16th century had access to.  When Luther read Eusebius for the first time he said "uh, where's the Pope?"  He comments in On the Council and the Church (1539), that he didn't realize it at the time, but when he debated Zwingli, Zwingli sort sounded like Nestorius.  In other words, he wasn't familiar with Nestorius until later life and therefore didn't actually connect Zwingli's heresy with him.

Anyways, having now read Lombard, I find Yeago's suggestion not particularly plausible.  For one thing, tons of people prior to Luther in the Middle Ages read Lombard (it was the standard textbook!) and they never came up with anything other than Leonine Christology.  Secondly, the quotations from the Damascene are sparse and mainly used to give information about technical Christological terminology.  In other words, if one only knew John from Lombard's citations of him, then one would never get the impression that he emphasized the unity of Christ in his theology like Cyril and Maximus the Confessor.

Hence, the Occamist connection would probably make the most sense if White has correctly read their position.  Again, a lot of people claim the opposite about them and therefore I would need to test his thesis.  Nevertheless, I find his interpretation of the passages which he has presented to be fairly plausible and am open to this suggestion.


  1. Roman Catholics when they talk about Luther and Occamism or Luther and Nominalism seem to have some very strange ideas. They believe that Luther does not believe in sanctification or mystical union or participation in the divine nature or any form of spiritual renewal. They interpret nominalism to mean that God does not sanctify those He justifies. Where do they get these ideas? Certainly a through reading of Luther's Galatians commentary or his writings against the antinomians or his sermons would lay to bed any such misunderstanding.

  2. I don't know Greg. I think that they might see that Occam held salvation came because God imputed our good works and that for Luther salvation came because God imputed us with the righteousness of Christ, and think perhaps the whole things is a legal fiction. The mystical union stuff of course does not come from Occam but from Augustine via Staupitz and probably some of the German Rhineland Mystics.

  3. that´s a cool possibility. luther really was a fond of nominalistic christology, but only in his early years in the monastery. the evidence of this one finds in his Randbemerkungen ( the commentary on Lombards book III on icnarnation). but the problem I have with your thesis Mr. professor is that Luther openly criticized to the late 30s and the Beginning of 40s the nominalistic unio suppositale and univocatio and their concept of communicatio idiomatum.

    do not forget that in his own christmas sermons luther himself claim his christology to be in accordance with athanasius. much more, he has the same idea of theosis (the divinization of human nature in christ and believers)

    to proclaim that Luther got his clearly Gregorian, Athanasian and Cyrillian christology from ockhamists is for me an unacceptable argument.

    luther in his time knew all the 3 theories or possibilites of incarnation from book III of Sentences. he knew that homo assumptus theory was condemned by pope Alexander as nesrotianism, and he knew that habitus theory was condemned by the church itself under influence of St. Thomas as nestorianism as well.

    Luther did not get his christology and understanding of communicati idiomatum from nominalists, because he taught the very opposite on the matter of incarnation