Sunday, 31 December 2006

The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation bookcover; Blackwell PublishingReview: The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation, Alister E. McGrath (2004)

This book in parts assumes significant knowledge of the medieval scholastic tradition. Many people will already have knowledge of the basic ideas surrounding humanism, which is a part of the Renaissance trajectory arising initially in Italy but spreading out to the rest of Europe. Erasmus of Rotterdam was a major, and often-mentioned, exponent of this movement. He is well-known to those interested in English history, especially that of the sixteenth century.

But in McGrath’s book there is a significant set of cognates without which you will struggle to understand some parts of the narrative.

It helps, for example, to understand the difference between ‘nominalism’ and ‘realism’ as historical constructs. Knowing about the Pelagian and Augustinian attitudes toward justification will also help. In fact, what does ‘justification’ mean?

Further important cognates are the via moderna and via antiqua. Doing Google searches on these terms may result in finding some clarifying texts, but I believe that to really understand this book it is necessary to have already read about the medieval scholastic tradition, and particularly about William of Ockham, an English theologian of the fourteenth century.

The discussion that McGrath puts forward frequently is as to how Luther developed his idea of “faith alone”. Whence did this strongly-held belief arise? McGrath postulates that Luther was intially a follower of the via moderna, which meant that he held to ‘nominalism’. But the pessimistic notion of human nature that his idea suggests can be seen to derive from the thought of Augustine of Hippo.

Nevertheless, McGrath makes specific pronouncements about the role of humanism in the emergence of both the Lutheran and Reformed churches, which he says arose independently, in two separate geographical loci.

Zwingli clearly follows Erasmus’s lead in several important areas, particularly in relation to biblical exegesis, the “spiritual” (in other words, internalized) understanding of religion, and the concept of imitatio Christi. Indeed, Zwingli frequently emphasized the importance of Erasmus’s philological techniques to his expository work. The evidence certainly suggests that the Zwingli who began his ministry in Zurich on January 1, 1519 was an Erasmian, albeit with political convictions reflecting those of a narrower Swiss humanism, rather than the cosmopolitan humanist espoused by Erasmus.

This covers the Reformed church. As for the Lutheran movement:

It is clear that Luther regarded the humanist movement as having placed at his disposal the textual and philological techniques necessary for his program of theological reform.

So, therefore:

Without humanism, there would have been no Reformation — because the Reformers needed the scholarly and political support of humanism until the movement had developed sufficiently to take care of itself.

This all seems quite straight-forward. It is when McGrath turns to the influence of medieval scholasticism — as how could he not — that the general reader will struggle. Nevertheless, as for myself, the book opens up a number of identifiable channels of further study. For example, who was William of Ockham, and what was he really saying? What did the papal schism of the fourteenth century entail, and what were the historical outcomes of it?

The best online summary that I found resulted from the search term ‘what is the “via moderna”’, and is located here. This summary manifests the basic thrust of the book, but without exposing the theological complexities it contains.

Other avenues that the curious might pursue are elucidated in the following:

One of the most enduring stereotypes of the relation between the Reformation and the late medieval period is that the latter is characterized by an appeal to both Scripture and tradition as theological sources, whereas the former appealed to Scripture alone (sola scriptura). … The Reformation, therefore, may be regarded as marking a break with the medieval period in this important respect, so that Wycliffe and Huss may therefore be regarded as “Forerunners of the Reformation.”

But McGrath does not take this assertion at face value, and so attempts to clarify exactly what is meant by ‘tradition’ in terms of late medieval scholasticism, noting that medieval scholars also relied absolutely on Scripture as the basis for salvation. McGrath is to a certain degree very interested in historical commonplaces, and is thus keen to use his immense scholarship to debunk the most obviously erroneous ones. In this respect, the book is a tonic for the benefit of the jaded enthusiast. We can only take so much bunkum, after all.

McGrath concludes by restating his belief that the movements that occurred in Wittenburg and Zurich were distinct, and that the German one relied more on a development of late medieval scholastic methodology, and was a more academic movement, while the Zurich one depended more on humanism and was more social and political in nature.

He also points again to the fact that the Great Schism (the Western Schism) had caused, for a hundred years, doubt about what was catholic dogma and what was merely theological opinion. In this context, he suggests, the Reformation, rather than being essentially revolutionary in nature, was actually an intrinsic development of Christian organisation that was some time coming. It combined with the vigorous inroads made by Renaissance humanism, and managed to find fertile ground in two separate loci in northern Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

Was the Reformation an inevitability? This survey of the intellectual currents on the eve of the Reformation indicates that some form of upheaval within contemporary catholicism was highly probable. The factors that have been documented in the present study suggest that a significant degree of doctrinal instability had developed within catholicism by the end of the first decade of the sixteenth century.

He then goes on to suggest that social developments had an impact as well.

The rise of nationalism, the growing political power of both the south German and Swiss cities and the German princes, the rise of lay piety and theological awareness — all these coincided with this crisis within the world of religious ideas, turning an essentially intellectual movement into a political upheaval.

1 comment:

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