Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Brad Gregory's "Unintended Reformation": Part 1

Brad Gregory, professor of history at Notre Dame, has written a history of what he considers to be the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0674045637/ref=s9_simh_gw_p14_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-4&pf_rd_r=0597AA3A2CBXCEE9QY93&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=470939031&pf_rd_i=507846  I am at present writing a book on Scripture and tradition as a means of responding to his (and Christian Smith's) attacks on Sola Scriptura.  After having read a number of chapters, I have some preliminary critiques of his position.  I will share them in this blog post and in future ones.

1. Gregory's method has much to be desired.  He claims that he is looking at the entire flow of the historical process, and not just motive of individual actors.  For this reason, he believes he can largely ignore what individuals intended or said, and rather subsume them in the consequences of their behavior and teachings.  Hence, the Magisterial Refomers' may have had some pretty good and reasonable intentions, but everything they did eventually degenerated into the Richard Dawkins and Walmart, and so, we can judge them by these fruits.  This is a particularly odd argument coming from a person who is a Catholic apologist (as we will see, this book is largely a work of Catholic apologetics that tells us not much about the real Reformation, but the current mood of North American Catholic intellectuals!).  One could certainly claim that the architects of the Papal monarchy had some good intentions, but that their ultimate result was the abuses of the Renaissance Papacy- which used ideological and theological resources of the earlier Papal theologians and Canon Lawyers to shore up their corruptions.  If one group can be held responsible for the unintended consequences of their ideas, then certainly another can as well!

2. Gregory's book is an extremely sophisticated and learned work of Catholic apologetics (This is not Patrick Madrid!).  In terms of its content, it isn't that original.  It is a synthesis of several Catholic and Anglo-Catholic theologians and philosophers (Charles Taylor, John Milbank, and Alasdair Macintyre in particular) attacks on modernity and postmodernity.  What's original about is treatment is that he is able to synthesize them into one big narrative that attacks the Reformation and then the modern world from a number of different angles.  He also gives lots and lots of footnotes (140 pages worth!) creating the impression of extreme erudition- something which he certainly does possess.  As we will see though, there are a couple of problems that this appearance of erudition conceals.  First, is the fact that the narratives feed to us by Taylor, Milbank, and Macintyre have a fragment of truth in them, but are largely false, and in many cases are based on a misunderstanding of late Medieval theology, and a rank ignorance of Reformation theology.  Secondly, although Gregory uses lots and lots of sources, he frequently makes major assertions without any citation to back them up.  He also ignores the work of major scholars in the fields that he studies and massive amounts of data that contradict his thesis.  In the end, the result is less than satisfactory.

3. In this present blog post I'd like focus on the issue of the univocity of being, present in Gregory's first chapter.  According to Gregory, prior to Duns Scotus, Christian theologian were generally followers of the idea of the analogy of being, i.e., the idea that God is supremely and really being itself, whereas creatures are analogically or derivatively beings.  As we've discussed in previous blog posts, this way of speaking about God grows out of Augustine's appropriation of the idea of divine simplicity, and although it was not shared by Eastern theologians (who distinguished between essence and energies as a means of accomplishing the same task) it basically did form for western theology a way of relating God and his creatures, and to account for the possibility of critically-realistic propositional statement about God.

According to Gregory, Duns Scotus wrecked everything with the doctrine of the univocity of being, whereby he claimed that "being" was a reality that encompassed both God and creatures and therefore statements about God and creatures ("God is good" "creatures are good") meant exactly the same thing. 

This book seems to largely assume that De Lubac, Milbank, and (indirectly) Gilson's understanding of how the evolution Christian thought occurred in the later Middle Ages is historically accurate. In my humble opinion, this is not correct. As Heiko Oberman and Steven Ozment have pointed out, part of the difficulty with this narrative is that the claim of a fall from the purity of Thomistic analogy to Nominalist nihilism and univocity is largely fictional, and something of an outgrowth of the ideological concerns of the Neo-Thomistic revival. Since for the Manual Theologians and their compatriots Thomism was the cream of western Christian thought, anything that came after it (including the Nominalists and Reformers) was a falling away from its perfection. This of course one of the reasons that Oberman called his book The Harvest of Medieval Theology since he wanted to emphasize that the thought of the later Middle Ages was not a falling away from the primal glory of Thomism, but in many respects a fulfillment of the trajectory of earlier trends.

Moreover, Richard Cross (who is probably the foremost English speaking scholar of Scotus- and a colleague of Gregory's at Notre Dame!!!) has pointed out that Milbank and the Radical Orthodox (and Balthasar in the fourth volume of The Glory of the Lord before them) have essentially misread Scotus on the issue of univocity (See his very help article directed against Milbank here: http://books.google.com/books?id=eFDtL8PpkHcC&pg=PA65&dq=Richard+Cross,+John+Milbank,+Duns+Scotus&hl=en&sa=X&ei=fg4BUuDGF47OyAHuu4GoDg&ved=0CDQQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=Richard%20Cross%2C%20John%20Milbank%2C%20Duns%20Scotus&f=false. Scotus' point was not that God and creatures were all in the same ontological category (he knew better!- he agreed with Aquinas that God was "Goodness" and "Wisdom" itself and creatures were only so derivatively). Though the whole reasoning process is complex, basically Scotus's point was about language. Scotus thought that analogy made language about God merely equivocal. If a word is "like" God, but also somehow infinitely distinct from God, then it isn't really saying much of anything other than a sort of "yes and no."  Hence, for Scotus, univocity is about language and isn't really about ontology at all. Scotus wanted clear, unequivocal propositional language about God (incidentally this is also why Carl F. Henry favored univocity!)- he didn't believe that God and creatures were in the same ontological category. Milbank has tried to resist Cross on this point, but he's really not the expert that Cross is on Scotus. Occam also knew that there was an infinite distinction between divine reality and created reality. He said that there was "no proportion" between divinity and the created being.

The person many intellectual historians consider the real creator of the idea of the univocity of being in its proper sense of the term (that is, God and creatures being in the same general category of being) would be Francisco Suarez, who quite unashamedly states that there are two sorts of being, infinite and finite (interestingly enough, he did so under the guise of trying to interpret Thomas' analogy!). That being said, Suarez is not the only ontological game in town in the early modern period. Also, in spite of the assumption of Milbank, almost no one bought into the univocity of being. In the later Middle Ages and the early modern period, there were all sorts of different theological traditions (Thomism obvious still being a live option). Moreover, although the Reformers didn't really talk much about the analogy of being (Luther does actually use the idea in the Heidelberg Disputation and in the Genesis commentary as part of a natural theology argument for God's existence) the Protestant Scholastics overwhelming did accepted it. I was recently speaking with Richard Muller, and he has a article coming out in Renaissance Review where he surveys 20 different Reformed Protestant scholastic authors, 18 of which reject the univocity of being in favor of the analogy of being. The Lutheran scholastics (within my own tradition) are the same way. Quenstedt thoroughly rejects univocity, as does Hollaz, in favor of analogy. Gerhard rejects both univocity and analogy, and then in practice thinks in terms of analogy. The theological text book of my denomination (LCMS), Francis Pieper's Christian Dogmatics, endorses analogy, and (again!) rejects univocity.

Gregory accounts for none of this data, and pretty much just assumes that Milbank is right about the horrible effects of univocity, even though it's demonstrable that Scotus' univocity wasn't really an ontological claim (which is the only way that Milbank's argument could work) and in any case it was believed in by almost no one .  In spite of these facts, Gregory claims that most of the new university created in the later Middle Ages taught univocity.  This is an odd claim insofar as he simply asserts this and gives no data to support it (statistical or otherwise).  It also incongruous with the fact that late Medieval thought was extremely diverse, with different university possessing several different faculties in many cases (Wittenberg had three different traditions represented!).

So, what does this have to do with the Reformation?  According to Gregory, a couple of things.  First, the Reformers accepted univocity and spread the poison.  Of course this is utterly false, and in fact Gregory is hard pressed to quote any of the Reformers teaching univocity (which is why he never does!).  The best he can come up with is a tortured argument about how Zwingli's rejection of the real presence was based on univocity (I find it hard to follow the argument, frankly).  Of course, there is no real examination of Zwingli own arguments here.  Moreover, if rejection of the real presence is based on univocity, why then did Ratramus, Gottschalk, and Berengar reject it (hundreds of years earlier!), when they lack Duns Scotus as an intellect resource?  Mysterious indeed!

In any case, the Reformation created endless theological debates between Catholics and Protestants through the latter's doctrine of Sola Scriptura.  This had two effects: First, since Protestants attacked Aristotle, the Catholic Church was forced to double down on his philosophy (actually, only the younger Luther really attacked Aristotle, along with Humanists and some other early Reformers.  Melanchthon later made Aristotle the basis of teaching at Wittenberg and the Lutheran scholastics followed him.  Also, the Reformed scholastics followed a similar trajectory).  Because of this, the Catholic Church placed itself in the position where it would have to condemn Galileo (for deviating from Aristotle) and therefore look anti-Scientific to secular folk (hence, even the Galileo trial is Martin Luther's fault!).  This drove away secular intellectuals.  Secondly, since Catholics and Protestant were fighting with each other, intellectuals had to look for other means of finding knowledge apart from theology- that is, stuff that they could all agree on as either Protestant or Catholic (math works even when you don't believe in Transubstantiation).  They therefore in the 17th century increasingly turned to math and science (all very true!).  Since in the new scientific rationalism, thinkers assumed univocity, wherein God became a being among beings, and a cause among causes, they quickly either identified God with being in general and became either Atheists or Pantheists (Spinoza, as I have pointed out in the past could be read either way!), or Deists (God is the one, original cause- but still a cause among causes!).  This explains the silliness of the contemporary "New Atheists" who merrily believe that they've destroyed God by making naturalistic explanation of phenomenon.  If one assumes the classical Christian understanding of God's transcendence and active presence in and through his creation hidden under every cause, this makes little sense.  It only makes sense if one has a crude univocal understanding of God as a cause like every other!  Having delineated an explanation of every cause in the created order, one no longer finds a place for God.  He therefore becomes unnecessary as a casual agent, and therefore Atheism is the only logical option (Dawkins frequently follows this silly line of reasoning, showing he knows nothing about classical Christian theism).

This latter critique is quite good and it's very similar to many of the arguments that I've made in the past on this blog.  Gregory has other thoughts on science and religion which I generally agree with and have argued myself in the past (he makes very good points about miracles in particular!).  Of course, this provokes the question: Why not just say that the rot started with the idea of univocity of being created by Suarez in the 17th century, and then appropriated by scientific rationalism?  Why bring the Reformation or poor Duns Scotus into it, when the evidence for this so bad?

The answer is clear if one doesn't forget what sort of book they're reading.  One is not actually reading a history book (perhaps in a very tendentious sense one is!  But that's it).  One is reading a Catholic apologetics book and so, this history needs to prove that the Catholic Church is the savior of a western civilization that has destroyed itself through rationalism and moral decadence.  So, hence, the Reformation cannot be blameless because it would call back western civilization back to Christianity in general, and not specifically Roman Catholic-Thomistic Christianity.  Hence, Suarez can't be to blame (as if one could even responsibly pin such blame in a mono-causal manner on any individual!!!).  After all, he was a Catholic and a Thomist at that!  It needs to be a located between Thomas (the Catholic ideal) and before the rise of scientific rationalism so as to implicate the Reformers.  Since they don't conform the to the Thomistic ideal, they're part of the problem and not part of the solution.  If they are not implicated, then they and their theology much serve as an equally good civilization ideal which could alongside Catholicism serve as a bulwark against the degeneracy of contemporary western culture.  But that cannot be.  The Catholic Church alone and Thomism as a theology can serve that purpose.  And so Gregory gives us this fanciful narrative, built up by the Neo-Thomism in the late 19th century, and repeated robotically by the Nouvelle Theologie and Radical Orthodoxy, without verifying it, or making much of a believable argument for it.  Insofar as he notes that modern thinkers work from a crude univocal notion of God and being (Heiddegger's onto-theology), he has a good point.  But the stuff about late Medieval theology and the Reformation is wrong.  It's not only wrong, it's simplistic, and very easy to disprove.


  1. A lot of Romanists like to blame the Enlightenment on the Reformation, but the Enlightenment would have happened anyway, even if the Reformation hadn't.

  2. Thanks for this post. I agree with the vast majority of what you've written here, but I'm curious about whether even Suarez should find himself in these narratives about the origins of modernity. (So forgive my attending to a very small part of what you have said above.) Many scholars have certainly argued that Suarez's metaphysics tends towards Wolffian rationalism, etc., etc., etc., but I remain in need of persuasion. In Disputation 28 on the division of being into the absolutely infinite and the finite, he says the following sorts of things (forgive the excessive number of quotations that follow):

    "Because we cannot conveive--with positive concepts, which are simple and proper to God--things of God as they exist in themselves, we use negative concepts, in order to separate and distinguish that most excellent being, which is most distant from the rest and less agrees with them than they do among themselves."

    "Nothing is common between the first being and all others, although all those others have much in common among themselves. For the first being does not have a cause, but all the others do have a cause."

    "Neither is 'being' said more principally about a creature rather than about God, but just the opposite."

    In reference to the Platonist discussion of God beyond being (supra ens): "Because that mode of signifying does not in fact flow back upon the reality signified and does not attribute any imperfection to it, therefore being (ens) simply signifies 'that which is' and in this way is said more properly and principally of God without any relation to a creature," [quoting Dionysius], "God exists not in any particular way, but absolutely and freely without any limitation, comprehending and holding in himself all that is being."

    Suarez often associates infinite and finite "being" only because God and creatures are "not nothing:

    "[Creatures' are infinitely distant from God and...God in a certain singular and excellent way is that which He is and the source of all being, from which other things are beings and are named....Insofar as [any creature] has being, it essentially depends upon God much more than an accident depends upon a substance. Therefore, in this way, being is said of a creature by relation or attribution to God. This must not be understood in such a way tha ta creature, onceived under the most abstract and most confused concept of being as such, is thought to express a relationship to God. For that is plainly impossible...since under that concept a creature is not conceived as a finite being and as it is limited, but rather it is completely abstracted and is conceived only confusedly under the character of existing outside nothing."

    "If the mentioned difference be carefully considered, as well as the manner in which the character of being is found in God and in other things, it is easily undrestood that it falls far short of a true univocity and that it constitutes as it were a first order of analogates."

    These quotations might not be sufficient for liberating Suarez from the widespread accusation, but I'd love to see more clearly what this general charge involves exactly.Do Protestant Orthodox theologians think that Suarez's metaphysics was a real rupture as far as the distinction of finite and infinite being is concerned.

    Thanks again for your patience!

  3. Dear Jack,

    I've ordered "The Self-Donation of God: A Contemporary Lutheran Approach to Christ and His Benefits" directly from Wipf and Stock! It's on the way to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia!

    Can you please do a scholarly article or even a book on Osiander - to build on this (and perhaps by extension the *metaphysics* of Christology and soteriology - something like Joar Haga's Was there a Lutheran Metaphysics?

    The Osiander debate remains as relevant today. Eduard Bohl argued that Osiandrism - though successfully warded off in Lutheranism - actually made an impact on Reformed theology. Please see Eduard Böhl's (1836-1903)Concept for a Re-emergence of Reformation Thought. I read this on Google Books. I understand that Bohl was a Reformed theologian who was profoundly influenced by Luther. Not that I am "Bohlean," but I find his critique of Calvinism as a Reformed employing the Lutheran perspective very interesting and attractive not least because of some affinity since I'm a Bondage of the Will Lutheran ;-).

    Warmly in Christ,

  4. Sorry ... to build on your blog post dated 7 August 2010 ...


  5. Am not sure from my cursory reading of The Lutheran Confessions: History and Theology of the Book of Concord
    (by Charles P. Arand, James Arne Nestingen) on Google Books that it deals adequately with the Osiander controversy or even on the metaphysical issues except the recognition that Osiander was influenced by Neo-Platonism. But there doesn't seem to be any in-depth, penetrating, insightful analysis other than the distinction between relational and the ontological.

  6. Indeed, the Osiander debate is as relevant as ever ...

    Big Sigh ... speaking as someone - who like the author above - is also ex-Reformed ...

  7. You might want to co-write with Donavon (Riley) especially if it becomes a book project with Donavon focusing on the implications for preaching/proclamation part?

    Thank you.

  8. The big sigh is in relation to this ...


  9. Isn't this just a quibble over details, important as they may be? The tradition of blaming Duns Scotus and nominalism for Luther and the Enlightenment is wrong on many details, but isn't it still approximately correct as a general view of one major enabling factor for western modernity? Scotus need not have agreed with how his ideas were later used to trace the lineage of their later interpretation back to him. It does not seem unreasonable for univocal language to be taken as implying a corresponding ontology. Isn't the alternative a sharp dichotomy between language (which is only about itself) and reality?

    One way or another, nominalism seems to have played a role in reducing the scope of acceptable intellectual discourse to particular or concrete things, thus paving the way for scientific reductionism, hard forms of materialism, a shrinking "gap" to fit God into, and an overall framework in which skepticism if not atheism best fits the data that is allowed to count.

    There are other ways to look at this that lay the "blame" rather ecumenically on theologians and other religious intellectuals. There may also be causes in the human psyche itself. Michael Buckley SJ (Santa Clara University) says modern skepticism and atheism was virtually invented by Christian apologetics that tried to defend theism from within a too rationalistic framework, or within a rationalism pre-defined to exclude things like religious experience as irrational. Justin Barrett (cognitive pyschologist at Fuller Sem.) looks at how our minds may have a built-in ways of theologizing that are at odds with each other -- on the one hand, intuitive and unreflective theologizing often construes God in anthropomorphic terms even for people whose stated beliefs prohibit anthropomorphism. It is not just theologically difficult but also cognitively onerous even for those with theological or philosophical training to reflect and not engage in anthropomorphism when talking about anything of a transcendent nature. Since the Reformation ushered in a great laicization and popularization of religion, inevitably simple, intuitive, and "incorrect" theologizing would become prevalent and prone to fundamentalist or charismatic type outbursts. Confessionalization attempted to regulate the chaos but engaged in violence of its own and did not hold up very well. James Simpson's "Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and its Reformation Opponents" might support this view of the situation as well.