2006-03-09

Just what was the philosophical justification of splitting the Church in the Reformation?

In response to my last post, Matt asks a great question:

I have one question: You mentioned that if the Catholic Church would have listened to Aquinas, Augustine and others the Reformation may have been avoided. However, many Protestants believe that a major part of what sparked the Reformation was the scholastic synthesis of faith and reason achieved by Aquinas and exaggerated by Averroes and Ockam. Some believe that the problem of the Reformation was caused by Aquinas's "secularization" of faith. What would you say about that? Just curious.

In response to Matt:

Actually, my friend, I strongly disagree with the analysis that Aquinas' scholastic theology as a cause of the Reformation.  Here's the reasons:

Averroës (d. 1198) was the Islamic philosopher who sought to combine Aristotle with Islamic theology, and thus forge a route between theology, science, and politics in the golden age of Islamic civilization.  In the west, we like to think of Averroës as doing something totally new, but he really wasn't.  The Eastern Church NEVER lost the Greek philosophical tradition like the West did.  The East was doing theology in light of the contributions of both Plato, the various Neo-Platonic schools, and Aristotle the entire time.  Averroës got his information about Aristotle from the Islamic conquest of Alexandria and other centers of Eastern learning.

When Aquinas (d. 1274) reclaimed Aristotle (via Islamic sources, coming mainly through Moorish Spain and ports in Italy) for use in Christian theology, it was radically new to the largely Platonic West, but nothing new in the East.  His synthesis of faith and reason, using Aristotle as a tool was nothing new to the Eastern Church, who had been reading Aristotle in Greek the entire time that the West was bogged down in barbarians and had forgotten all about their classical heritage (all except the Irish, but that is another story). The use of Aristotle in the West eventually led to the twin developments of the experimental / scientific method on one hand, and nominalism on the other hand.  This then provided the philosophical underpinnings of the reformation.  yet, none of these developed in the East, which, ironically, had been using Aristotle for centuries. Why?

It all starts with Plato.  Plato had created a thought system where everything was reasoned from the top-down, by deduction from universal principles to specific applications.  In an over-simplification of Plato's system, it is not necessary to consult empirical data to draw conclusions.  Reasoning from universals is all that is needed to gain valid conclusions.  Aristotle represented a mediating position, that still had room for universals, but also required inducing universal principals by examining specific data.  Yet, universals were still a real entity toward which specific data pointed to in Aristotles scheme. The clear weakness in Plato's system was that it had no real use for the specific, concrete facts of daily existence, except as mirrors of universals.  Plotinus and other Neo-Platonists took this to its logical extreme and declared that matter is bad and is to be discounted altogether.  We should strive for pure spiritual existence in the world of the forms.  This got transmuted into the manifold forms of Gnosticism, which all had the central theme that humans were trapped spiritual essences that had to flee evil matter by understanding esoteric spiritual knowledge.

Aristotle was an attempt to mediate between the importance of matter and spirit, universal and particular.  Yet, the West's greatest early theologian, Augustine, was not Aristotelian.  He was a convert to Christianity from Manichean dualism, which was basically a variety of Neo-Platonic thought.  Augustine's default metaphysics then was a Christianized version of Platonism. As a believer in the Incarnation and the goodness of creation, Augustine rejects those aspects of Platonism that demean material existence.  Yet, there is still a great tendency in Augustine and all other Western theology up to the modern era to rank "spirit" above "matter", put "faith" above "reason", and have a somewhat negative view of embodied life, including sexuality.

Aristotle, seeing the advances of Islamic society, and the opportunities offered by Aristotle's philosophical framework, chose to exploit it.  And, he put the role of philosophy in a very wise place: as handmaiden, or servant, to theology.  Not an equal partnership.  This is wise, because it does not let the philosophy dominate the theology (as in later folks like Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Bultmann, and such).  Neither does it deny philosophy altogether and pretend it doesn't exist, only to have it silently infiltrate the Christian worldview (like how American individualism and pluralism has infected so many of our church bodies in the USA). Aquinas chose to use a philosophy which allowed for full value to be given to both spirit and matter, both universal and particular.

In the West, the positive development of this was the rise of modern science. Those who followed him led by stages to a group of thinkers who studied the natural world to understand the universal physical laws that governed the interaction of matter.  But, negatively, folks like Occam (d. 1349) took this emphasis on particular, specific evidence and ran it into the ground. In Occam's philosophy of nominalism, universals became merely "names" (Latin nominus) granted to groups or categories of individual things.  Also, nominalism likewise streamlined the concept of "cause".  For Aquinas and others, causality was multifaceted.  There was a material cause (the physical stuff involved), the formal cause (that form or pattern which makes the matter what it is), the efficient cause (the agent that acts), and the final cause (the purpose or goal of the activity). For nominalists the cause is whatever could be reduced to the simplest answer, without "multiplying causes". Usually this meant only acknowledging a material cause, and possibly an efficient cause.

Thus, for Platonists, a chair is a chair because it participates in the universal form of "chairness" that exists in the world of forms. The specific chair is not near as "real" as the spiritual form of "chair". For Aristotle and Aquinas, a chair is a chair because it participates in universal laws (formal cause) that govern the interaction of matter and energy (material cause), formed by an intelligent designer (efficient cause), who makes it for the goal of handling the human posterior (final cause).  For nominalism, a chair is merely a name assigned to a bunch of things that are similar in being able to hold human butts. It is a helpful fiction to make sense of the world (like all language). Its only real cause is the interaction of matter and energy.  Attempts to reach for a cause greater than that is either borrowing (wrongly) from Aristotle, or can be (rightly) reduced to matter and energy interacting.

In my estimation, Aristotle is the rightful mediating position between over-emphasizing the spiritual world of universal forms on one hand, and the material world of bare particulars on the other:

--------------------------
Universal - Spiritual
|
- - Plato - Neo-Platonism - Plotinus
|
- - Aristotle - Aquinas
|
- - Occam - Nominalism
|
Particular - Material
--------------------------

Early nominalists had a place for minds and spiritual particulars in their scheme of things.  But it was only time until the nominalist questioning of causes and universals turned on itself, and decided that invisible minds and invisible spirits were both un-needed hypotheses to explain the causality of the natural world (hence the famous Enlightenment statement: "God? I have no need of that hypothesis."). In my way-too-simplified schema of Western Intellectual history, Medieval Nominalism leads to Reformation Memorialism. For instance, Eucharist becomes a memorial meal rather than a participation in the Universal essence of Christ. Justification becomes a legal name pronounced on sinners as "not guilty", instead of an actual ontological transformation from sinner into new creation. The Church is no longer an ontological unity as "the Body of Christ", but merely a Name to denote a collection of like-minded individuals with the same faith. Thus, it becomes easy to split the Church because the Church is nothing but a helpful name to call things.

Reformation Memorialism becomes Enlightenment Rationalism. All natural phenomena can be understood as cause and effect by rational minds. Reason is exalted over all, and is supposedly universally available to all people who will objectively look at the evidence.  Furthermore, the mass destruction caused by the wars of Religion between Christian and Christian lead to the practical conclusions that: (a) If there is a spiritual reality, it has little power to stop human suffering at the least, and at the most it is positively dangerous; (b) Spirituality must be confined to the private sphere, because in the public sphere it wreaks havoc.

Enlightenment Rationalism becomes Modern Empiricism. Cause and effect are no longer so much understood by reason, as by our bare senses and technical skill, replicating experiments on sensible matter over and over until we master natural processes. The other difference between Enlightenment Rationalism and Modern Empiricism is that in the Enlightenment, the hypothesis of the human soul as some type of entity distinct from the matter of the body was still generally accepted. But, in modern empiricism the nominalist tendency even negates the need for the soul, and the rational self itself becomes just a part of the process of cause and effect.

Modern Empiricism leads the hyper-modern deconstruction.  Minds don’t mean anything.  Words don't mean anything. Everything is just a bunch of particulars, with no overarching reason, purpose, metanarrative, or mind governing it.  All that is left is power and manipulation of the particulars. Words are just games and legal fiction to manipulate people and gain power over situations.  In the words of Valdomort in the Sorcerer's Stone: "There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it". The philosophy of hell, the abolition of man.

All this means is that it was not Aquinas' use of Aristotle that led to the Reformation, because the use of Aristotle in the East never led to anything like Nominalism, nor to a Church-splitting reformation.  Granted, the East never went through the type of scientific revolution that the West went through (although Islamic society had a small scientific revolution). But, apparently it is possible to use Aristotle as a metaphysical mediating position without falling into the errors of Nominalism and her children.

So, what accounts for the rise of Nominalism, which formed the philosophy that metaphysically validated the Reformation?  

It think it is the Western lust for power and control.  The West has been pre-occupied with power for 1500 years, largely as a hangover from the early middle ages.  In the early middle ages (the fall of Rome- 400-600 AD), the Church of Rome had a unique position in Western civilization, namely that the Western Church, her Pope, and her monasteries basically held the West together during the conquests of the Barbarian tribes. For centuries, the Pope and his bishops had to function as political kings to protect citizens, negotiate treaties, and even wage wars, to keep civilization intact.  The Western Church came to own and govern huge tracts of land, and the citizens who lived in it. After this, the Western Church went into the King-making business, acting as the divine guarantor of secular power, reaching a high point when the Pope crowned (and validated) Charlemagne as the new Holy Roman Emperor around 800 AD. The political power of the Western Church reached its zenith in the Crusades, when the Pope was able to unite all Europe in open warfare.

The Eastern Church, while not immune to intense struggles over political power, never was able to gain the same type of power the Roman Church did.  For one thing, until the 1400's there was always an effective governmental structure to protect the people, so that the Eastern Church never had the opportunity nor ability to get into the ruling business.  Even when Islam took over much of the Eastern sphere, the Eastern Church was still largely able to function as a tolerated, yet politically powerless, minority group.  Thus, the Eastern Church became either the "religious arm" of the governmental complex of Christendom (as in the Byzantine Empire), or it became a tolerated minority (as in Islamic societies).  The power grabs of the Eastern Church were mainly religious in nature, except for the occasional plot to overthrow an emperor here and there.  Contrast this with the Papacy, who actually had several Popes make the claim that ALL religious and secular power on Earth flows from the throne of Peter.

All of this is to say that what started out as something good became something very, very bad.  Power corrupted the deep DNA of the Western Church.  Near 1054 this led the Pope to try and add the phrase "and the Son" (filioque) to the ecumenical Nicene Creed on his own authority.  In this move, theological rationale for such a change was second to the political move, which was basically to say that if the Pope could successfully change the Creed itself on his own power, then he effectively proved his right to rule as monarch over the entire Church.  This led to the mutual excommunication of Eastern and Western Churches in 1054. Later, in the fourth crusade, the Pope added insult to injury by allowing Western Christians to pillage and burn the Byzantine Empire, and the seat of the Eastern Church in Constantinople.

The spiritual DNA of power and control flowed down for centuries from the Popes into the bishops and hierarchy of the Church, and into the early universities.  On the university level, theology started to cease being a tool for spiritual formation (as it always was in the East), and started to be a kind of game or contest of one-upmanship.  The debate format became institutionalized in the forms of Western scholastic theology.  Theology became a way of asserting one group's dominance over the other, one mind's dominance over many.  Faith seeking understanding began to yield way to understanding seeking power.

The western desire for power, control, and rebellion was a movement looking for a theology / philosophy to back it up.  As long as one truly holds the metaphysical underpinnings of a Platonic or Aristotelian system, then one cannot break up the Church and/or leave Her without doing damage to a real universal entity.  In those systems, if one departs from the visible Church, one ontologically breaks themselves off from the Body of Christ.  Furthermore, such a thought system makes it harder to break up any corporate entity, because any corporate entity (such as a marriage, a family, or a nation) is a real ontological entity.  But, if one ascribes to nominalism (or any of its progeny), one does not actually break up an entity if one leaves the Church, or breaks up a corporate entity.  All one has done is re-group a set of particulars into a new group and given them a name.

To bring it all back to the initial question: I view the synthesis of Aristotle by Aquinas as one of the wisest mediating positions between the extremes of Platonism (and its progeny) and Nominalism (and its progeny).  Aquinas in many ways (but not all) represents a good way to get the West back on track.  What caused the Reformation was, in my opinion:

1. The drive for power, control, and rebellion by the Western Church (final cause)
2. Nominalist metaphysics (formal cause)
3. A Church badly abused by excesses of clericalism, lack of catechesis and formation, and an insane theology of salvation (material cause)
4. A series of Church leaders bold enough to speak out, and a bunch of local barons and kings willing to use the reformation for a land grab (efficient cause)

So, thanks for listening... and sorry, this was supposed to be 500 words.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.