An Accidental Reformation?

Note: This is the online version of an essay from the Hanover Review 3.1 on the Reformation as Renewal Symposium. Print copies are available here and full digital copies of the issue are available here. Full details about the symposium can be found here. More information about the Hanover Review is found here.

1.  Introduction

It is hard not to be impressed by this vast and ambitious book. Its sheer scale alone is a cause for wonder. The work’s fundamental theses are that there is a marked continuity between high medieval scholasticism (as evinced by Thomas Aquinas) and Reformation theology (in almost all its guises); and that this continuity is itself a function of the earlier tradition shared by pre-fourteenth-century Catholic and early modern Protestant theologians. Both theses, stated thus generally, strike me as highly plausible, and I thus find myself greatly in sympathy with Barrett’s project. And all the more so because the two claims just outlined have not been—and still are not—fashionable in most historical and ecclesial circles.

A brave book then, and one to be welcomed on many levels. The basic methodology in the parts of the book that I feel competent to judge is two-fold: to find points of similarity between the first- and second-generation Reformers (principally Luther and Calvin) and Aquinas—similarities of which these later authors were probably not aware; and, secondly, to find places in which the later Reformers cited Aquinas with approval. I shall return to both of these features in a moment.

2.  The Myth of a Thomistic Atmosphere

A guiding presupposition is that the intellectual life of the second half of the thirteenth century was “characterized by a Thomistic atmosphere” and that the later medieval theologians progressively fell away from the classical positions affirmed by Aquinas.1Matthew Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2023), 246. Indeed, according to Barrett it was this degeneration away from Thomism in the later middle ages that was a significant catalyst for the Reformation.

As soon as this presupposition is outlined, however, it is possible to see that Barrett’s account has, at the very best, an outdated view of later medieval thought. This kind of “decline” narrative has not been maintained by experts in the thought of the period for many years, despite its persistence among historians whose direct acquaintance with scholastic texts ends with the death of Aquinas. The reason is that, outside the Dominican order (and, for that matter, inside it too at least until the middle of the fifteenth century), there never was a “Thomistic atmosphere.” Why it was ever believed that there was one is not clear to me. But it is true to say that we do not pervasively find the kind of narrative Barrett reproduces until after Leo XIII’s Aeterni patris of 1879, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this encyclical itself had something to do with bringing about the anachronistic centering of Aquinas in our medieval intellectual history. This was no doubt an unintended consequence of Leo’s action, since it is clear enough that Leo’s motivation had to do with an appraisal of Aquinas’s intellectual weight, not of his influence on later medieval theology and philosophy.

3.  Universals and Nominalism

Aquinas, in Barrett’s narrative, is a representative of what Barrett calls the “Great Tradition” (always capitalized), classically expressed in Augustine. According to this tradition, a robust notion of participation is grounded both on a real ontological analogy between creatures and God (an analogy that is in turn grounded on a strong doctrine of divine simplicity), and on a realist theory of universals, according to which particulars really participate in shared natures (human beings, for example, really sharing in humanity; or, to use the classical medieval example from Avicenna, horses, really sharing in “horseness”).

This “Great Tradition”—to borrow Barrett’s summary from the first half of chapter 5—begins from Plato, with a strong theory of universals, as items in which particulars participate. In Barrett’s telling, these universals metamorphose, under the influence of later Platonists, into divine ideas, and this ultimately Christianized version allows for a robust account of participation in God: the participation of the complex and creaturely in the simple and divine. This participation is, apparently, only expressible in the language of analogy, such that creaturely perfections are wholly dependent on their divine exemplars.

Parallel to this, we have the transmogrification of Plato’s ideas into universals immanent in created particulars: a metaphysical realism, such that “reality is made up not just of individuals, each uniquely situated in time and space, but that two individual objects can be the same in essence (e.g., both being canine) while still being unique individuals.”2Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 226. In short, “universals are indeed real, not mere names.”3Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 227. This shift was initiated, in Barrett’s telling, by Aristotle, and culminated in Aquinas:

Thomas [Aquinas] sympathized more with the realism of Aristotle than Plato, agreeing with the former who said that Forms/Ideas do not exist in an independent domain but subsist in concrete particulars, which enabled Thomas to develop an epistemological theory of abstraction. In another sense, Thomas was more sympathetic to Plato’s realism because the philosopher’s motive to affirm participation and ground it in a transcendent reality was an instinct most compatible with Christianity’s transcendentalism.4Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 221.

But we need to be careful here. The question of participation in the divine is one thing, and the question of participation in universals is quite another, and it is important not to confuse them. (So note that Barrett’s presentation of the two distinct notions in the passage just quoted rests on conflating a Platonic form [an eidos or species] with an Aristotelian form [a morphe or shape].) Indeed, the notions of participation operative here seem at best merely analogically related. After all, it would be quite possible to separate them, maintaining, for instance, that creatures participate in God even though particulars do not participate in universals; or, conversely, that particulars participate in universals even though creatures do not participate in God. The notion of participation in a universal typically requires the thought that the participated universal is divisible into its individuals (i.e., indivisibles); the notion of participation in God typically requires no such divisibility, on pain of incoherence.

What Barrett says about Platonism seems well taken. But what about the alleged Aristotelianism of Aquinas? The issue is complex, because it is a brave commentator who would find decisive support for either realism or nominalism in Aristotle himself, who is notoriously vague and unclear on the matter. Still, the passage just quoted gives the impression that Aquinas is a realist on the question of universals—or, as Aquinas would say, natures “considered absolutely,” since for him universals are indeed just concepts, as he makes plain on numerous occasions.5For a classical statement, see Aquinas, De ente et essentia, 3. But this is not so. Against Barrett’s claim, quoted above, that the realist’s universe “is made up not just of individuals,” Aquinas is crystal clear: “There is nothing common in Socrates; everything in him is individuated.”6Aquinas, De Ente, 3; translation: Thomas Aquinas, On Being and Essence, trans. Armand Maurer (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1968).

Of course, the issue is not quite this straightforward, because as just noted Aquinas does nevertheless talk about the nature “considered absolutely,” antecedent to existence in reality or in the mind, even if it is not in any sense a constituent of a particular. But according to Aquinas, the nature thus understood lacks existence or reality. That is the whole point of Aquinas’s famous distinction between essence and existence. (We can find more genuinely realist views in Henry of Ghent or Duns Scotus, both of whom in their different ways allow that an essence in itself, prior to actual existence, has some kind of esse: esse essentiae, the esse proper to an essence that is supposed to explain kind-membership. But Aquinas expressly denies this.) On this showing, Aquinas denies any reality to common natures or universals. Given Barrett’s analysis of realism given above (not one I would endorse), this seems enough to make Aquinas himself a nominalist.

Still, we might set the historical points aside and contemplate with Barrett the theoretical desirability (or otherwise) of accepting, with Henry and Scotus, some theory of real common natures. What is it that we would be accepting? Here, again, Barrett is not clear. He takes as a paradigm case the attribute of holiness, and the target of his critique is William of Ockham:

If universals do not exist, then what universal reference point—like an eternal, simple, and infinite God—can substantiate all the temporal, compositional, and finite instances of holiness perceived by the senses in this world? The priest may be holy, the sanctuary may be holy, and the tree may be holy, but none of these share with another the same identical universal called holiness. Each is holy in itself and for itself, independent of anything outside itself.7Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 254.

There is a lot to unpack here. First of all, we see the clear confusion between talk of participation in the divine and participation in a universal. On the one hand, “the mind itself must make a connection to that which is beyond sensations. If not, then the participatory connection between human knowledge and universal objectivity in the essence of God is severed.”8Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 254. On the other hand, according to Ockham’s nominalism, in Barrett’s telling, “one’s encounter with sensible things does not result in an image in one’s mind, as Thomas supposed,” and “abstraction, on the basis of universals, is a moot point.”9Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 253. The first of these observations relates to participation in the divine, the second to the relation between particulars and immanent universals. And, as just noted, these are two quite distinct issues.

Secondly, and to my mind rather damningly, I do not think anyone would seriously hold that the holiness of priest, sanctuary, and tree are univocally instances of one real common nature, as they would need to be were holiness such a nature. They seem like paradigm cases of the analogical ascription of an attribute to things that are variously causes and signs of the holy. According to Aquinas, after all, holiness is a “disposition of the will”, and this cannot be had by sanctuary or tree.10See e.g. In sent. I, d. 10, q. 1, a. 4 ad 4. Holiness, then, as exhibited by these various items, cannot be a common nature.

This, then, represents something of a misunderstanding of one of the central topics that Barrett aims to write about. It is not alone and there are many smaller instances in which the positions of late medieval authors are misdescribed. At one point, for example, Barrett claims that, according to Ockham, “when a person thinks about God, he thinks of mere concepts. In other words, cognitive constructions and representations are in view, not God.”11Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 253. Barrett offers the following quotation in support of this reading: “What we know immediately are concepts, which are not really God but which we use in propositions to stand for God.”12Ockham, Ord. 3, q. 2, Opera theologica, II, 413.10–12. Barrett, however, misunderstands the issue, since he has ignored the dialectical context of Ockham’s discussion (I suspect that here and elsewhere he relies mainly on secondary sources: something I will return to below). According to an opponent of Ockham’s, the kind of abstractive knowledge that we have of God in this life is sufficient to get us knowledge of God independent of our knowledge of anything else. Ockham disagrees, not because we cannot have knowledge of God in this life, but because this knowledge cannot be had independently of the creaturely way in which we conceptualize God—a claim that would be quite at home in Aquinas’s Summa. Scarcely a controversial conclusion, then, and quite different from the position Barrett apparently ascribes to Ockham. 

Another dubious connection that Barrett makes, despite being aware of, and stating, sufficient counterevidence to the claim he defends, is that between nominalism and Pelagianism. Nominalism is the denial that there are real universals or common natures; Pelagianism is the denial that any kind of prevenient grace is necessary for justification. The latter was often found in the later middle ages under the slogan “God will not deny grace to the person who does the best they can.” The motivation for this slogan, originally found in Robert Holcot, was a worry about the possibility of salvation for non-Christians. Holcot himself was a nominalist; so too was Ockham, who affirmed a similar position to that of Holcot, though in rather different words. But the most rigid anti-Pelagian in the entire middle ages, Gregory of Rimini, was also a nominalist, of a more extreme and ontologically reductionist kind even than Ockham. That this array of options is possible should not surprise, because there is clearly no intrinsic link between these different philosophical and theological opinions. Using “via Augustiniana moderna” anachronistically to refer to those who agreed with Gregory of Rimini, Barrett wonders, “were those in the via Augustiniana moderna consistent to hold nominalism in their metaphysical and epistemological hand while holding Augustinianism in their soteriological hand? This is a question theologians and philosophers must determine.”13Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 258. But two pages later the matter seems to have been decided: “By means of his voluntarist, nominalist outlook, he [viz. Ockham] conditioned divine election on man’s merits.”14Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 260. But what could a philosophical debate about the semantics of common nouns possibly have to do with the theological question of predestination? The fact that these two positions are found together in one thinker (Holcot, for example) only gives grounds for thinking that they might be thus associated in another (Gregory, for example) if there is some conceptual linkage between the two positions. But none is evident in this case, and it is no surprise that theological outlooks as different as those of Holcot and Gregory can be found associated with the same unrelated philosophical position.

4.  The Pluralism of the “Great Tradition”

I mentioned above Barrett’s emphasis on something labelled the “Great Tradition,” “from the Cappadocians to John of Damascus, from Augustine to Boethius, from Anselm to Thomas.”15Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 259. But this very list of names shows the extent to which a unitary Great Tradition is a figment of the modern imagination. Consider the question of divine simplicity, which Barrett takes to be central to his narrative. It seems to me fairly clear that Augustine has a strong account of divine simplicity, such that God and God’s attributes are all identical with each other. We find this strand of thinking reproduced and refined in Aquinas. But what about the Cappadocians and John of Damascus, also mentioned as representatives of the “Great Tradition”? All of these thinkers make a distinction between God’s essence and the “things around the essence”—a distinction that ultimately issues in Gregory Palamas’s strong distinction between the divine essence and the divine activities or energies. Palamas is usually taken to be the polar opposite to Aquinas here. But arguably he is a more faithful successor of the earlier Greek theologians than the latter is. And where, in this complex of great theological variety, should we fit Duns Scotus, who expressly appeals to the Greek theologians against Augustine in spelling out his more attenuated account of divine simplicity—an account that Barrett criticizes as simply theologically deviant? There is a conceptual flattening here that does little justice to the parties in the debate.

Barrett, as I indicated earlier, is keen to highlight ways in which theologians such as Luther would have found themselves in continuity with the thought of Aquinas, albeit unaware of the fact. Barrett draws attention to a useful bit of analysis found in John L. Farthing’s influential book, Thomas Aquinas and Gabriel Biel: Interpretations of St. Thomas Aquinas in German Nominalism on the Eve of the Reformation. Farthing rightly highlights ways in which Biel—who was apparently a major source of Luther’s understanding of Aquinas—misunderstood or misrepresented Aquinas’s teachings. Barrett’s underlying idea is that, had Luther had access to the ipsissima verba of Aquinas, he would not have held this latter theologian in such low esteem. But the analysis might go a quite different way, too: the fact that Biel knew only garbled accounts of Aquinas, and the fact that Luther apparently knew Aquinas only through these accounts found in Biel, makes it clear how unimportant Aquinas was in the late middle ages. There is a vast continuity between Luther and late scholasticism, but by his own testimony and the evidence of his own practice, this continuity is with late medieval nominalism, not Thomism. On many theological and philosophical matters (not all, of course), Luther agrees with Ockham and Biel, whom he frequently discusses at length, on the basis of a deep knowledge of their writings. And as Luther himself tells us in a passage highlighted by Barrett, he explicitly follows the nominalist Gregory of Rimini on matters of grace and predestination.16Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 263. What disturbed him in the late medieval Church was not nominalism; it was that Gregory’s account of predestination seemed not to have prevailed.

One interesting gap in Barrett’s account is a careful analysis of the meaning of the phrase “sounder scholastic” as used by the Reformers with reference to Aquinas and others. Does it serve to draw attention to the continuity of a “Great Tradition” in which the Reformers, like Aquinas, explicitly find themselves, as Barrett’s narrative frequently implies? Or does it, rather, merely serve to highlight those medieval theologians who accepted a strongly Augustinian account of predestination? I suspect that the latter is the case, and thus that less can be made of it as a marker of continuity than Barrett would like. But this would repay further investigation, and the kind of deeper analysis that is not forthcoming here.

5.  Conclusion

My discussion thus far should have made it clear that, despite my sympathy for the overall project, I find some defects in its execution. One underlying difficulty is that the discussions of medieval material—in sharp contrast to the treatments of some of the Reformers—seem to rely wholly on secondary sources; and not only that: many of these sources are old and dated. Indeed, much of the secondary material cited has itself been the object of criticism in more recent literature (or is based on such material), and cannot be used unproblematically as evidence against the scholarship that has superseded it. References to the medieval texts themselves appear in a variety of formats (even within one author and one work). Many of them are to older and outdated editions of these texts. These references, and presumably those to modern editions of the same authors too, have simply been taken from secondary sources, and it is clear at the very least that Barrett has not always looked at the primary sources in a way sufficient to allow him to come to a careful judgment about their contents. There are not infrequent mistakes in Latin phrases (errors of declension and conjugation). The unsympathetic reader would perhaps come to the conclusion that Barrett has only infrequently deigned to use his knowledge of the relevant languages in serious original research.

I have focused on some of the medieval material, because this is what I am most familiar with. But my criticisms are not mere quibbles. They undermine the assessment of medieval theology, and thus of the more basic narrative that Barrett’s evidence is supposed to ground. (I say nothing here about the interpretation of the Protestant theologians, though a great deal could be added, particularly on the readings of Luther, as I have already hinted.) And this is a pity, because, as I have said, I find myself deeply sympathetic to the overall thesis of this book, and fully agree with its author that there are vast continuities between medieval and early modern theology. I agree too that something like this work should be written; but this book is ultimately not quite what is needed.


  • Richard Cross

    Richard Cross (DPhil University of Oxford) is John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame. He came to Notre Dame in 2007, having been a Fellow of Oriel College in the University of Oxford from 1993 to 2007. He specializes in medieval philosophy and theology, with a particular focus on Duns Scotus. He is currently at work on a multi-volume history of the metaphysics of Christology. A preliminary volume on Aquinas to Scotus appeared in 2002. Recently, he has published volumes include Communicatio Idiomatum: Reformation Christological Debates (Oxford University Press, 2019), Christology and Metaphysics in the Seventeenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2022), and The Metaphysics of Christology: William of Ockham to Gabriel Biel (Oxford University Press, forthcoming). Under review or in progress are two more volumes, one on Early Scholastic Christology 1050 to 1250, and one on Latin Christology in late antiquity and the early middle ages.

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