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Creative fissures

04 March 2016

Theologians: Andrew Davison continues his historical survey with a look at the theologians whose work helped to lay the foundations for the Reformation


John Duns Scotus

John Duns Scotus

ALL thought relies on distinctions. Our sense of history, in particular, is shaped by how we divide it up.

The Reformation looms large as a turning point in the history of theology, and of much else besides. There is no denying the significance of events 500 years ago, but historians of thought are more and more likely today to suggest that those events need to be understood in terms of shifts in thought that began centuries before.

John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) was born a decade or so before Thomas Aquinas died, but the outlook of these two friar theologians is markedly different. In particular, Scotus’s work is suffused by a new focus on the power and freedom of God, as the all-important attributes of divinity. This “voluntarism” (from the Latin word for “the will”) would be an influence right down to the Reformation.

Like Scotus, William of Ockham (1285-1347) is another theologian from the British Isles (Scotus was from the Scottish-English border, Ockham probably from Surrey), and like Scotus, he was a Franciscan friar. He took voluntarism even further. Few thinkers have done more to unravel the philosophical system of their time than Ockham.

In ethics, an emphasis on the will rather than on the objective qualities and characters of things brought a new focus on intention, and therefore on interiority, which was soon mirrored in devotional writing. The idea of a gap between what we can understand about the order of the world and what God might choose to do next also led to a widening gap between reason and revelation.

An emphasis on divine will opened up the possibility of a shift from (say) the position of Aquinas — that God’s grace is always and intrinsically transformative — to a Reformation “forensic” approach to justification. In this, the emphasis was not (at least in the pivotal moment) on making the redeemed person holy, but rather on God’s treating the person as if he or she were holy — on God being reconciled to us rather than on us being reconciled to God.

Meister Eckhart (Eckhart von Hochheim, c.1260–c.1328) is the pre-eminent example of a figure who interwove theology, philosophy, and intense mystical practice and experience. He was part of, and an influence on, an unfolding trajectory of mystical writing that is often known (because of its geographical centre of gravity) as “Rhineland Mysticism”. Other figures include Mechthild of Magdeburg (1207–c.1282, but possibly as late as 1294), Gertrude of Helfta (1256–c.1302), Henry Suso (1295-66), and Johannes Tauler (c.1300-61).

Women theologians have been few and far between in these theological histories so far. Alongside the first two names just given, the late Middle Ages gave us Catherine of Siena (1347-80), a tertiary of the Dominican order, known for her mystical writing and the high-level diplomacy of her letter-writing.

Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) stands out among a flowering of English devotional writing (other examples, from roughly the same period, include Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton,and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing). As a theologian, she is both faithful to the tradition and boldly creative within it.

Moving on to the beginning of “the Renaissance” (actually not the first renaissance by any reasonable estimation), we have Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64), who was both a leading church statesman and a thinker of enormous fertility — the last great flowering of medieval thought. His work represents relatively little known treasure.

If such a long view prevents us from saying that the Reformation starts with Martin Luther (1483-1546), he was nevertheless the catalyst for reforming sensibilities in a way that would convulse Europe. Luther is one of the most human and affecting of all theologians, a thinker who is for ever reminding us that the subject matter of true theology is good news for him and for us. He is also one of the most earthy of theologians: a man of bowels and loins.

Jean Calvin (1509-64) is a theologian’s theologian (although his appeal is not limited to theologians). His synthetic, ordered presentation of theology in Institutes of the Christian Religion is systematic in a way in which Luther’s thought is not. It is the supreme expression of Protestant theology as an attempt at repristinating Patristic thought. It sets a high bar as a standard for Protestant theology today.



SURVEYS that place the Protestant Reformation within a bigger intellectual picture include Larry Siedentop’s upbeat Inventing the Individual: The origins of Western liberalism (Allen Lane, 2014), and Brad S. Gregory’s pessimistic The Unintended Reformation: How a religious revolution secularized society (Harvard, 2012).

For an introduction to Duns Scotus written by an enthusiast, see Richard Cross, Duns Scotus (Oxford, 1999). Allan Wolter edited several collections of Scotus’s works (which are almost universally difficult to read). The two most obvious places to start would be with Philosophical Writings (Hackett, 1987) and Duns Scotus on Will and Morality (Catholic University of America, 1997).

Philotheus Boehner collected and translated a basic selection from Ockham’s writings, Philosophical Writings (Hackett, 1990). An anthology made by a follower of Ockham close to his own time is another good place to start: the Tractatus de Principiis Theologiae, translated as A Compendium of Ockham’s Teachings by Julian Davies (Franciscan Institute, 1998).

Oliver Davies has translated a collection from Meister Eckhart (Penguin, 1994), and he places Eckhart within his context in God Within: The mystical tradition of Northern Europe (DLT, 1988). For a taste of some of the other German mystics around his time, see his The Rhineland Mystics: An anthology (SPCK, 1989).

Suzanne Noffke translated The Dialogue of Catherine of Siena (Paulist, 1980). Elizabeth Spearing offers one of many renderings of Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love into modern English (Penguin, 1998).

Jasper Hopkins has translated the complete works of Cusa and put them online. The most obvious place to start is On Learned Ignorance, also translated by H. Lawrence Bond (Paulist, 1997).

Luther is well served by anthologies, including Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, edited by William R. Russell and Timothy F. Lull (Fortress Press, third edition, 2012). Good places to begin are with his early polemical works such as The Freedom of a Christian, the Catechisms (1529), and his Commentary on Galatians (translated by Jaroslav Pelikan, Concordia, 1963-4, with earlier translations available more cheaply).

John Beveridge’s translation of Calvin’s Institutes is available in many inexpensive editions. The more recent translation by Ford Lewis Battles is widely admired (Westminster, 1960, for a translation of the 1559 version), and there is an accompanying Analysis of the Institutes of the Christian Religion of John Calvin (with John Walchenbach, Baker, 1980).

The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology, edited by David Bagchi and David C. Steinmetz (CUP, 2006), provides an excellent selection of essays, and it helpfully reminds us of the parallel story of reform and renewal within the Roman Catholic Church, leading up to the Council of Trent (1545-63), of which the magnificent decrees and canons on justification are particularly worth reading (translated by Tanner and Alberigo, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Georgetown UP, 1990).

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