Monday, November 20, 2023

The Provocation


This chapter is one of the most important chapters in this book because it is one hinge on which its argument turns. … This chapter is so important because it identifies the provocation of Luther’s Reformation.

The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, by Matthew Barrett

In this chapter, Barrett will begin to examine, in detail, the change in medieval Scholastic thinking, from that of Anselm and Lombard to the changes that began with Duns Scotus: the departure from the realism of Thomas toward the nominalism of the via moderna.

This transition opened the door to Semi-Pelagianism and even Pelagianism.  Certainly, the Reformed view of sola gratia and imputation was beyond the views of Thomas, but in neither camp did the idea of human perfection achieved by free will have traction. Barrett sees this transition in the Scholasticism after Thomas.

Further, it is the Reformers that have been tainted with the charge of cultivating the nominalism of Ockham, hence abandoning the realist conception of participation and opening the divide between the sacred and the secular:

However, this chapter, as well as parts 2 and 3, will lay a foundation that demonstrates such a thesis could not be more mistaken.

This will take patience on all of our parts, as part three ends about 550 pages from now!

This charge can be laid against Ockham and those that followed his path.  The Reformers reacted against this nominalist soteriology, with a doctrine that made room for the double grace of justification and sanctification.  Yes, in some Reformers, there was a nominalist influence in epistemology and metaphysics, yet these still reacted against its soteriology. 

In short, the Reformation’s reaction against the nominalist soteriology of the via moderna (see chapter 8) is proof that in the minds of the Reformers they remained catholic while the via moderna was radically uncatholic.

For reference, this post begins chapter 5.

To begin this examination, Barrett walks through the influence that Plato and Aristotle had in early Christianity, through “The Great Tradition” that encompassed Christians both east and west.  By Great Tradition, think of C.S. Lewis’s great hall in Mere Christianity:

When [Lewis] then proceeded to write Mere Christianity, Lewis did not just write any old—or new—theology.  He aimed with great success “to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”  … In other words, he was trying to articulate the Great Tradition—those bedrock beliefs of the Bible, the early church, the creeds, the Reformers, and orthodox Christians throughout the ages.

Platonism offered a perspective that explained transcendent reality.  Unlike nominalism, Plato understood that universals were real (hence, realism).  In this way, goodness was not left to chance, to material or mechanical processes.  The world participates in the Good; room was made for a transcendent divinity. 

Not any philosophy would do – one looks in vain for Christian Epicureans.

All truth is God’s truth, a view that runs from Augustine through Aquinas through Calvin – even the truth from “profane authors.”  Per Calvin:

“All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God.”

Further, many search for God.  As the apostle Paul noted, on Mars’ hill, the Greeks were looking for the unknown God, and Paul would introduce them to Him via teaching from earlier Greek philosophers.  There is nothing inherently problematic about using pagan philosophy to better understand God; I am not sure our Christianity would be as well-understood today without it – not that it’s necessary, but certainly explanatory.

In any case…Plato’s cave.  The shadows are seen, without an understanding that there are puppets causing the shadows.  One cave dweller walks outside to discover the truth.  In other words, we see shadows of that which is the perfect, unchanging, transcendent reality. The shadows are copies that imitate the reality.  It is the reality that is perfect: the Good. 

This is the world of Being, known only by the mind’s eye.  It is not weighed down by the lusts and frailties of the flesh.  What we experience is the world of becoming, incomplete and understood only through opinion and speculation. 

Hence, the significance of philosophy; the soul must utilize reason to contemplate the Good in all its beauty.  Illuminated by the Good, the result is true knowledge.

Plato understood the beatific vision, in which the person ascends the ladder of truth, goodness, and beauty until he at last sees God.  For Plato, unique in his time, he saw a Creator God – the origin of all things.  Man was not the measure of all things; God was.  And the Greek gods weren’t good enough – susceptible to change and passions.  The Good must be immutable and impassible. 

This conception worked for Christianity, unlike the monistic materialism of the Stoics and the distant corporal deities of the Epicureans.  These cut the cord of participation between the Creator and His creation. 

From here to Plato’s student, Aristotle.  While in wide agreement, Aristotle would map his teacher’s outlook onto a more systematic framework.  Everything exists in a state of potentiality – a state of becoming complete in actuality, toward perfection.  But not everything could be moving, hence the Unmoved Mover, the Creator God – the first cause, Who was uncaused.

However, while Plato understood the Ideas as independent of the natural order, Aristotle posited that these ideas must exist in particulars.  These Ideas are seen in Forms, in the material world. 

To summarize the difference, if Plato believed in a “transcendental universal,” then Aristotle believed in a “concrete universal.”

Some historians see a decline in these views in the centuries after Plato and Aristotle, followed by a revival in the century or so before Christ through the century or two after Him.  we call those philosophers of this time “Middle Platonists,” but they understood themselves merely as Platonists. 

These would influence Philo of Alexandria, who would identify commonality between Platonism and the Hebrew canon.  Eventually, Philo would become a bridge to the Neoplatonism (a derogatory term that disguised the closeness of these philosophers to the tradition of Plato and Aristotle) which would flourish in third century.


I am beginning to understand Barrett’s contention that this issue he is presenting here is the crux of the issue for the Reformation.  This may be so, but I, for now, will still hold to the view that without Luther’s insistence regarding indulgences, he (Luther) would likely have gone almost unnoticed.  Then again, Luther wasn’t the first and he likely wouldn’t have been the last. 

We see it even in our day – the strong pushback that has come against nominalism and materialism.  Unfortunately, many who are talking about this as one of the fundamental causes of the destruction of the west are looking in all the wrong places for a solution.

To this last point, the only talk I watched from the recent Alliance for Responsible Citizenship conference organized by Jordan Peterson was the one given by Jonathan Pageau.  I think no one else in this conversation comes close to getting it the way he does.  Spend 17 minutes and watch his talk.


  1. Interesting that Ockham might be the man demarcating the good scholastics from the nominalists. A new use of Occam's Razor?

    I watched Pageau's ARC speech. Thanks for reminding me about this. It did not disappoint.

    "That which is our highest good is indistinguishable from a God" Pageau, ARC speech

    It was clear that the ultimate good animating the Covid regime was always centralized state power. The means were the ends they sought. The point wasn't to make you safe; it was to control you.

    "The supreme good is not money, energy, freedom, family, knowledge, safety, diversity, and it's not inclusion. Though all of these things are good, they should never be treated as the supreme good lest they become idols and gods that will tyrannize us." Pageau, ARC speech

    Well said. A proper hierarchy of goods is in dire need of being re-established, but is that even possible in today's culturally fractured world? It sure isn't going to come from the head of the Catholic Church, and that is very sad.

  2. I was drawn to Plato's philosophy of Forms back in the 90s. I don't think I knew why but now I think it is because Plato bolstered belief in objective reality and the reality of the immaterial. It is easy to superimpose the idea of the realm of Forms onto the Biblical heaven. It is another dimension where the perfect existed. What is more perfect than God.

    I read very little of Aristotle and didn't understand his core points until I started reading this blog. But I think it is also appropriate to think of the Forms as something existing in material objects on earth. If not that they at least should comport with and approximate the Forms in Plato's heaven. There is a connection at the very least, and those Forms tell us what everything should be and what WE should be, male and female humans.