Important issues in scholasticism

Four issues may be discerned as being of particular importance to scholasticism during the late medieval period, as follows:

(a) The debate between realism and terminism.

(b) The debate over logico-critical and historico-critical approaches to theology.

(c) The tension between intellectualism and voluntarism.

(d) Tensions relating to the doctrine of justification.

(a) The debate between realism and terminism

Writers of the earlier medieval period (including Aquinas and Scotus) were committed to a position which has come to be known as 'realism'. This position, which is clearly influenced by Platonism, acknowledged the existence of 'universal qualities' (such as a universal human nature, which is instantiated in individual human beings). The fourteenth century witnessed the development of a rival position, initially through the influence of William of Ockham, which is generally referred to as 'terminism' or 'nominalism'. This approach, which became of major importance during the fifteenth century, entailed the rejection of such 'universal qualities'. There is no such thing as a 'universal human nature'; the term 'humanity' designates individual humans, not a universal quality which lies behind such individuals. (It should be stressed that the term 'nominalism' should only be used to refer to this terminist position. Its use in earlier secondary sources to designate the allegedly Pelagian theological views of writers such as William of Ockham or Gabriel Biel is seriously misleading.) By the time of the Reformation, terminism had gained considerable influence, and can be seen echoed in the writings of Luther and others.

(b) The debate over logico-critical and historico-critical approaches to theology

In its earlier period, scholasticism tended to assume that theology proceeded by the rational analysis of foundational texts—such as the writings of Augustine. By increased precision of definition of central terms (such as gratia), order could be brought to what at first sight seemed an occasionally inconsistent set of beliefs. In the later medieval period, especially due to the influence of Ockham, increased use came to be made of the logical tool of the 'dialectic between the two powers of God' to clarify such points of interpretation. This approach involved a distinction between the potentia absoluta Dei, the 'absolute power of God', whereby God was able to do anything subject to the limitation of non-contradiction; and the potentia ordinata Dei, the 'ordained power of God', designating a self-imposed limitation upon the power of God as a consequence of the divine decision to act in certain stipulated manners. This decision, by its very nature, eliminated other hypothetical possibilities which, although remaining logically possible, were nonetheless excluded by the divine decision to act in other manners.

However, this approach came to be regarded with suspicion by some, who argued that the only appropriate way of dealing with these difficulties was by gaining access to the full text of writers such as Augustine (instead of the isolated extracts of the Sentences), and interpreting them within their historical context. This latter consideration was one of the factors which fuelled the production of critical editions of the works of Augustine and others, and may be regarded as having made a major contribution both to the origins of the Reformation and to the development of source-critical methods in theology subsequently.

(c) The tension between intellectualism and voluntarism

Earlier scholastic writers, such as Aquinas and Bonaventure, had stressed the priority of the divine intellect over the will. Thus, in the case of human merit, the divine intellect recognizes the morality of a human act, and informs the divine will to reward it accordingly. In other words, the intrinsic moral value of the human act is the foundation of its meritorious value. From Scotus onwards, the emphasis came to be placed upon the divine will. In the case of merit, the divine will determines the value to be placed upon the human moral action, and rewards it accordingly. In other words, the meritorious value of a human action is determined by the will of God, which imposes a value upon it which need not bear any relation to the intrinsic moral value of that act. The intellectualist position is rejected, as making God dependent upon created entities.

This new emphasis upon the priority of the divine will can also be discerned in the increasing sympathy evident for more predestinarian modes of thought, such as those associated with Augustinian writers such as Gregory of Rimini or Hugolino of Orvieto, on the eve of the Reformation. Calvin is an excellent example of a sixteenth-century theologian who appears to have been deeply influenced by this new trend towards voluntarism, evident in his discussion of the grounds of the merit of Christ and his doctrine of predestination.

(d) Tensions relating to the doctrine of justification

Perhaps the most important debate within scholasticism to relate to the Reformation concerns the manner in which human beings find acceptance in the sight of God (McGrath 1986). Two radically different approaches may be discerned. Writers of the via moderna, such as Gabriel Biel, developed many of the ideas of the later Franciscan school, laying emphasis upon the positive human contribution to justification (Oberman 1963). Human beings were able to make the foundational response to the divine offer of grace, by which they were accepted into the divine favour. This view, which finds its expression in the early writings of Martin Luther, is diametrically opposed to the view of writers such as Gregory of Rimini; this view stresses the total priority and absolute necessity of grace at every stage in justification.

Luther eventually came to regard the views of the via moderna as Pelagian. His Disputatio contra scholasticam theologiam of 1517 is actually a sustained diatribe against the views, not of scholastic theology in general, but against the teachings of one scholastic theologian in particular (Gabriel Biel), chiefly as they concern the doctrine of justification. However, it is not clear whether Luther's new respect for Augustinianism reflects an acquaintance with writings of scholastic authors sympathetic to this viewpoint, or whether it emerged from a direct engagement with the anti-Pelagian writings of Augustine, which became readily available in the closing years of the first decade of the sixteenth century (Oberman 1981).

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