Friday, January 16, 2015

Some notes on late nominalist theology

Yeah, it's a sexy title. I am almost finished with Heiko Oberman's The Harvest of Medieval Theology. Magnificent doesn't even begin to describe it. In politics and American culture if you call someone a "racist" you have effectively won the debate and destroyed his or her career. In theology if you call someone a nominalist it has the same effect.

Oberman's thesis is to say "not so fast" to that project. Not all nominalisms are alike, and you can't simply tag the Reformation with nominalism.

Narrowly speaking, this is a work on the theology of Gabriel Biel. As it is, one must be careful extrapolating Biel’s thought onto the canvas of late medieval theology. On the other hand, Oberman conclusively argues that Biel’s nominalism is not the stark break from an earlier Pristine Thomism that one often thinks.

Biel’s theology can be structured around a dialectic: ordained power and absolute power.

The potentia ordinata and absoluta should not be seen as two different ways of divine acting, since all of God's works ad extra are united (Oberman 37). God does things according to the laws he has established, potentia ordinata. However, he can do everything that does not imply a contradiction, potentia absoluta.

de potentia ordinata: necessity of the consequence; relates to the contingent order. Since this is not a logical absolute, this means humans cannot predict what predestination per the contingent order will do, since it is contingent (this is a huge point in later Reformed Scholastics).

de potentia absoluta: this does not mean that God can do anything he wants. It means he can do anything that doesn't imply a logical contradiction. This distinction allowed scholastics to speak of miracles in the created order without the later Humean charge of a violation of natural law.

These categories allow Oberman to move from prolegomena (natural knowledge of God) to epistemology proper to man’s created state to justification and beyond. What makes this book so exciting is that everything is interconnected.

Facere quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam

Do what is in you--this line summarizes Biel’s thought. It forces him to rework sacramental theology, justification, anthropology and even Mariology around it. And Biel knows all of this. Per creation and the Fall, original sin is simply an “outgrowth of natural difficulties” already present (129). Grace, therefore, “means the infusion by which man is made a friend of God and acceptable for final beatification” (136). This leads Oberman to conclude: “grace is not the root but the fruit of the preparatory good work” (141).  (Incidentally, this is identical to Eastern Orthodox soteriology).

Biel’s conclusions are not surprising. If his maxim holds, then whenever he comes across something that seems to imply divine power “closing the gap,” so to speak, then it needs to be refocused.

Habitus and Justification
The pre-act of Justification: “the dignitas of an act is its bonitas with respect to its heavenly reward...The habit of grace is the necessary bridge between bonitas and dignitas which gives the viator a de condigno claim on his eternal salvation” (161). And consistent with Biel’s de potentia ordinata God must grant the reward to once the conditions have been met (168).

habitus: disposition necessary before man is beatified. Parenthetically, Oberman notes Biel’s concern over a problem--another area where Biel paints himself into a corner: how can one talk about free will if one has a habit of grace? Aren’t people enslaved to their habits, whether good or bad?

Three stages of Justification

Acquire the habit of grace. “The sinner can reach the demarcation line” between the state of sin and the state of grace; he does what he is able to do (175).

meritum de congruo: semi-merit that is a spontaneous act and worthy of its reward. This creates an initial problem, since no human act is worthy of heaven. That’s okay, though, if we remember the above dialectic (absoluta/ordinata). God has committed himself de potentia ordinata to reward meritum de congruo.

Are There Reformed Antecedents?

It is commonly charged that the Reformation nominalized the pristine beauty of earlier theology. But can we really say that Reformed theology is nominalistic? Not really, or not without heavy argumentation. Oberman notes concerning justification, “Biel explicitly rejects the position which later was to be characterized as Protestant” (183).

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