An Overview The Intellectuals Origins of the Reformation - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahonThe Magisterial Reformation - Post Tenebras Lux - Out of Darkness Light
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An Overview of The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation, written by Alister McGrath.
An overview of McGrath’s book that is a study on the various “little reformations” that took place throughout Europe that under girded the larger Reformation that continued on. What were the Reformation’s influences? Did Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin have the same underlying ideas? What were the intellectual origins of the Reformation besides the “Sovereignty of God?” This article is technical and will be hard for introductory readers of the Reformation. There are a number of Latin concepts and philosophical ideas that are needed to be understood before you tackle this work, and others like it.
McGrath asks a series of important questions in the Introduction concerning how we may envisage the origins of the European Reformation. Can the intellectual origins of the Reformation be considered in terms of a single, unifying, common theme? Or would it more proper to think about it in terms of a number of “little” Reformations due to specific providences in economic, social, political and theological Germany and Switzerland? Is it right to believe that the Reformation was pre-established by forerunners that had a common unified goal, or was it the result of varied humanistic and scholastic circumstances? Certainly the Reformation was concerned about religious ideas and religious goals, but the underlying motivation behind those religious ideas was not the result of one common thrust in the humanism, or scholasticism of the day. To understand, then, the intellectual origins of the Reformation, the student must make an effort to understand the various complexities of ideas that lie behind its impetus. McGrath’s thesis lies in the “assumption” that there are intellectual, institutional, social and political ramifications for the intellectual origins of the Reformation. It is not possible, then, to reduce the Reformation to one underlying theme (except of course, the sovereignty of God). Instead, the Reformation becomes a process of ideas from within a framework set by providential circumstances of the time. Thus, the student of the Reformation cannot simply boil down one main idea, but must grapple with the intellectual “origins” of the Reformation, not the intellectual “origin” of the Reformation.
In the context of a scholastic church and of religious piety, the distribution of books throughout Europe increased the propagation of new religious ideas for both the laymen and the scholar. In this distribution various schools of thought demonstrate the diversity of the time. With so many new ideas pressing upon the medieval period, it is impossible to pinpoint one overarching thesis that wholly affected Europe. Various schools of intellectual thought emerged (Dominican and Franciscan influences, Ockham, Scotus, the resurgence of Augustinian doctrine and debate, and the stepping stone of ideas surrounding the justification controversy which would epitomize in Luther’s Theses), the contrast of the via antiqua and via moderna of theological method was debated, the lack of theological authority given at the time was in question, and a clear and precise locus of accepted theological studies did not focus around any one person of history (though Aquinas and Augustine may be mentioned in light of their voluminous influences). It is even difficult to disclose a single individual, or a few individuals, as forerunners of the Reformation. In this way, the religious pluralism of ideas in the Middle Ages (or the doctrinal instability of the time), the dissemination of those ideas, and the methodologies that shaped those ideas, give the Reformation its underlying strata.
By the time the Reformation began to take shape, the scholastic humanism of the day was already set within a comfortable framework. It advanced secularism, individualism, and moral relativity (especially seen in the diverse opinions and writings of men like Jacob Burckhardt, Giuseppe Tofannin, Hans Baron, and Paul Osakr Kristeller). In its seed form, humanism (at this time) can be described as the educational eloquence of which any religious, political or philosophical persuasion may adhere without compromising their own system’s values. One of the most well-known and popular humanists of the day was Erasmus of Rotterdam. Here, Erasmus lead the way to an ad fontes reform of the church – returning to the text as authoritative, rather than to the church fathers. Humanism, then, placed a great emphasis on a return to the New Testament documents as authoritative, giving way for both Luther and Zwingli, based on different agendas, to come to the same conclusion of Sola Scriptura.
Humanism affected both the Reformed Church and the Lutheran church to different degrees and in different ways. Zwingli seemed to be most affected by humanism in terms of the inner workings of spiritual discipline by the influence of Erasmus. Martin Bucer was also profoundly affected by humanism in following Erasmus’ moralism. (For both Bucer and Erasmus, the Scriptures led one into a more intimate knowledge of the Law of Christ, overthrowing, to some extent the emphasis Luther would place on justification by faith alone.) John Calvin’s influence by humanism can be seem in his theories of accommodation – that divine revelation must adjust to the human fragility of being finite or limited in their capacity to understand that truth. McGrath points out that even in the doctrine of justification Calvin does not place an unusual significance on it as Luther will. The Lutherans did not have the diversity of theologically active men in shaping the country as the Swiss did. The theological influence of Martin Luther alone shaped Germany. Luther continued the methodology forged by Valla in the modus operandi of sacred study of disciplines relevant to literature. Luther, continuing the momentum begun by Karlstadt, overcame the authoritative scholasticism to engage in the “new learning” of which he would be hailed as champion. Though humanism affected these men, it cannot be said that it started the Reformation. Therefore it is vital to remember that both the Reformation and humanism had dissimilar or diverse constituents to either of their intellectual origins, though their convergence influenced the thinkers in both Switzerland and Germany.
The Reformation was influenced by a number of philosophical and theological writers in late medieval scholasticism. First, nominalist thinkers influenced the Reformation. Among these nominalists is William Ockham, the most influential thinker in terms of probing the relationship between the epistemological and ontological realties of thought at the time. Interestingly enough, though Ockham was influential, no nominalist “school” of thought ever rose upon the scene, which demonstrates the segmented character of the “movement.” Rather, two influential late scholastic “nominalist” movements are the via moderna (the modern way) of Pierre d’Ailly and Gabriel Biel, and the schola Augustiniana of Gregory of Rimini and Hugolino of Orvieto. The via moderna housed the central aspect of “pact” or “covenant” (as in the central soteriological concepts of Biel) and the schola Augustiniana as the resurgence of Augustinian theology. The importance here, stems from the association of the doctrine of justification with the influences of the via moderna where later, when Reformed Theology shapes its covenantal structure to a greater degree, the single idea of covenant will give way to the double, or two sided covenant concept. Second, the Reformation was influenced by the rise of voluntarianism that can be traced back to Ockham and Scotus, but also formulated in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Here the relationship between a meritorious value of an act and its relation to moral value is considered. Early Reformed thought seemed to take up the idea that the divine will, and it alone, determines the relationship between a meritorious act and the moral value since the divine character establishes that which is moral. In terms of the Luther’s association with the schola Augustiniana moderna McGrath believes that he came into contact it with it later, rather than earlier based on a lack of textural evidence. Luther seems to have gone to Wittenberg as a possible representative of the via moderna where the ideas were newly accepted. Zwingli did not seem to be affected by nominal scholasticism but rather by Erastian humanism. With Calvin, though, first sourcing how such influences may have affected him intellectually are not available, and leads one to speculate rather than stand upon documented facts (where Reuter seems to think that Calvin may have followed Gregory of Rimini listing a synthesis of points that seem to reflect Calvin’s continuation of Gregory’s theology).
In embracing the Gospel of the Bible, the Reformation emphasized a return to the original text of the Holy Scripture and the ability to exercise skill in sacred philology. The question of “authority” was central and the humanists pressed for a return ad fontes to the sources of antiquity that could place them in contact with the original intent of the writers. This placed an importance on Greek and Hebrew rather than relying on the inaccurate Latin Vulgate. Unless one is able to understand the heart of the Scripture without the use of commentaries of “filters” to confuse the actual text, the vera theologia could never be obtained. In this way, then, the idea of Sola Scriptura takes an interesting turn. Since the ploughboy would not be able to exegete the text based on Hebrew or Greek, it seems that the interpretation of Scripture was really limited to a certain group who had the skills to do this. Here, it seems, the Reformation followed Erasmus and medieval scholasticism given the inability of the lay congregation to interpret the Bible for themselves. The question of “tradition” (or “Theologian Traditionalism”) opposes “private interpretation” to a certain extent, though it is often misunderstood practically. Though Scripture alone is sufficient for the vera theologia, how would one know that they have a correct interpretation except by an ecclesiastical and historical orthodox consensus affirming their finds? The Roman Catholic Church had the decreetals of the papacy. The Reformers held to the exposition of the Scriptures based on the reality that Scripture interprets Scripture, but is affirmed intellectually within the “sphere of the church.” This is a delicate balance.
The Reformation was built upon a proper understanding of hermeneutics, though in different methodologies, which gave way to a solid doctrinal stance on Sola Scriptura. In the beginning, young Luther embraced the scholastic fourfold sense of hermeneutical interpretation of a given passage (literal, allegorical, anagogical and tropological). This Quadriga was later replaced by sound exegesis, though at the time, men like Calvin were ridiculed for handling the text in a literal fashion. Zwingli first utilized this literal interpretation in following after Erasmus’ insistence on obtaining knowledge of Hebrew and Greek. As a result, the Quadriga influence on Luther (and later his “eight senses”) would not be influential upon the Reformed church. Instead, Luther more positively influenced interpretation by applying the lex and evangelium in balance. Later, in his theology surrounding justification, Luther more readily abandons the Quadriga (or rather his heightened eight sense theory) and adheres to a literal sense as the Reformed church exemplified. The hermeneutics, though, of both the Lutheran Church and the Reformed church seem to have little in common at the outset. Rather, the commonality of their views of Scripture emerge from the their mutual attachment to the patristic fathers.
It is impossible to deny the extensive use of Augustine throughout the literature of the Reformers in general, and their adherence to patristic testimony surrounding Scripture. His works were largely circulated during this era of scholasticism, and with the reception and study of his works this helped spark the schola Augustiniana moderna. This circulation and study of Augustine’s works centered around his Anti-Pelagian writings which would aid the Reformation in continuing the thoughts of Augustine up and through the Reformation (and into English Puritanism). Later, this study of Augustinianism moved sideways to allow the valuable patristic texts to emerge from the early church up to Augustine through the printing press and the distribution of material that would have been difficult to obtain in any other way. Zwingli is said to have studied Augustine as early as 1506, and Calvin’s conversion is even “said” to have resulted from the direct influence of Augustine’s writings.
Note must be made of the divergence of Luther’s ideas surrounding justification, and Augustine’s. Luther differs from Augustine in two respects, 1) the righteousness of God is revealed in the cross of Christ, and 2) “this righteousness contradicts human expectations and preconceptions of the form it should take.” Luther then, utilized an Augustinian skeleton to add his own interpretation concerning the actual mode of iustitia Dei. It is a righteousness given by God, not belonging to God, respectively.
In probing the intellectual origins of the European Reformation, according to McGrath, it is impossible to find a single unifying theme that is the overarching reasons why the Reformation advanced as it did. Rather, there is far more evidence to assume that it was the result of a combination of many “little reformations” surrounding scholasticism and the Renaissance to determine how theological methods should be accomplished, as well as the practical outworking of that theology in the life of the church. Rather than having one paradigm that stretched across Europe to “trigger” the Reformation in their respective countries, there is a diverse web of interpretive and theological opinions that contributed to the development of reforming the church within varied social, as well as academic, structures. This gives rise to the complexity of the Reformation, rather than its simplicity. This, then, demonstrates the character of Reformation occurring within these structures to “reform them” by the interpretation of the Scriptures, rather than a “separation” from them. The Reformation, then, becomes a complexity of sovereign, but precise movements of providence, rather than a single reforming voice standing upon the Sola fide that has been commonly set forth.