Aquinas, Luther, and the Nominalists

As today is the Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, I thought it would be a good way to show how important his thought is for the Church, by contrasting him with another highly influential Christian thinker – Martin Luther (whose thought I shall consider prior to that of Saint Thomas). What Luther achieved with his revolt during the Reformation was not only a rupturing of the Church, but a sowing of seeds that would eventually lead to the modern debacle we witness today, where faith is set against reason, and nature against grace. As G. K. Chesterton pointed out in his slim but illuminating book on Saint Thomas:

The Protestant theology of Martin Luther was a thing that no modern Protestant would be seen dead in a field with; or if the phrase be too flippant, would be specially anxious to touch with a barge-pole. That Protestantism was pessimism; it was nothing but bare insistence on the hopelessness of all human virtue, as an attempt to escape hell. That Lutheranism is now quite unreal; more modern phases of Lutheranism are rather more unreal; but Luther was not unreal. He was one of those great elemental barbarians, to whom it is given too change the world…

…On a great map like the mind of Aquinas, the mind of Luther would be almost invisible. But it is not altogether untrue to say, as so many journalists have said without caring whether it was true or untrue, that Luther opened an epoch; and began the modern world.

St. Thomas Aquinas (2009), pp.128, Dover Publications.

            In promulgating his thesis of sola fide, Luther not only set faith against works, but faith against natural theology, which is to say that he laid the ground for the division between science and religion that we see now. He drew a bold line between nature and grace, with faith alone being our sole means to know and be ‘saved’ by God. Knowledge gained from natural theology and philosophy (i.e.; through reason) is condemned under the burden of the Law – our natures our depraved, and we cannot trust anything but revelation, which is revealed by a grace set in antithesis to nature. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI saw, Luther viewed our redemption as a liberation from all things ‘purely’ natural:

For Luther, the cosmos, or, more correctly, being as such, is an expression of everything that is proper to human beings, the burden of their past, their shackles and chains, their damnation: Law. Redemption can take place only when humankind is liberated from the chains of the past, from the shackles of being. Redemption sets humans free from the curse of the existing creation, which Luther feels is the characteristic burden of humankind…

…Grace is seen here in radical opposition to creation, which is marked through and through by sin; it implies an attempt to get behind creation.

‘In the Beginning…’: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and The Fall (1995), pp.87-88, Eerdmans.

            It is common to attribute this aspect of Luther’s thought simply to his idiosyncratic reading of Saint Augustine, but it seems clear that just as Luther’s legacy took time to unfold, he was also operating under the influence of a legacy that had its roots in an earlier period – that of the Nominalists of the 13th Century. The Nominalists contended that only particulars exist, and that consideration of particulars does not give access to any such thing as universal truth. This, of course, drives a very subtle wedge between nature and metaphysics, and leads to the view that the only things we can know as true are by empirical means. Thus, only special revelation can give us knowledge of God, and faith and reason are separated in principle. It seems clear that this school of thought affected Luther deeply, and his reading of Saint Augustine.

Contrary to this position, which stood over and against an absolute realist epistemology founded on Platonic idealism, Saint Thomas Aquinas recognised the reality of the particular, and the importance of the concrete, but also insisted just as firmly on the common character of things, which makes abstraction and the elucidation of universals possible – i.e.; he insisted on the possibility of doing natural theology. In his Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas stated his position thus:

…That which is introduced into the soul of the student by the teacher is contained in the knowledge of the teacher—unless his teaching is fictitious, which it is improper to say of God. Now, the knowledge of the principles that are known to us naturally has been implanted in us by God; for God is the Author of our nature. These principles, therefore, are also contained by the divine Wisdom. Hence, whatever is opposed to them is opposed to the divine Wisdom, and, therefore, cannot come from God. That which we hold by faith as divinely revealed, therefore, cannot be contrary to our natural knowledge.

Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, Chapter VII, Section II.

            Against Luther and the Nominalists, Saint Thomas asserts that we can (and do) have knowledge of universal principles, some of which are discoverable from nature, and some of which are accessible to plain reason, and so can be used as a lens to investigate nature. This is a strong argument against the later empiricism of those such as Francis Bacon, who would claim that facts precede principles (or, if you like, particulars precede universals) and the bare facts of nature simply impress themselves upon our minds. A sober assessment of the scientific method would seem to agree with Aquinas that nobody approaches experiment with a blank canvas – we do science with a particular hypothesis in mind, and with a particular set of principles, such as the (initially unprovable) axiom that the universe is an ordered and coherent system that can yield truths about itself via investigation.

The above quotation also makes clear that there can be no conflict between the truths revealed by science and the truths of revelation, as God is the author of all Truth – He wrote the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. If there appears to be a contradiction between the two, then further examination of both sets of data is necessary. Aquinas also saw the lights given to us by grace through faith as not set up against the discoveries of our reason. Contrary to Luther, he saw grace as perfecting nature

 ‘…it must be said that gifts of grace are added to those of nature in such a way that they do not destroy the latter, but rather perfect them; wherefore also the light of faith, which is gratuitously infused into our minds, does not destroy the natural light of cognition, which is in us by nature. For although the natural light of the human mind is insufficient to reveal those truths revealed by faith, yet it is impossible that those things which God has manifested to us by faith should be contrary to those which are evident to us by natural knowledge.

Super Boethium De Trinitate, Question II, Article III.

            I think it clear from the above comparison that the legacies of Luther and Aquinas are qualitatively different, in fact almost exact opposites. What is contestable, though I think hard to argue against, is that Luther’s legacy has been by far the more influential in shaping the modern world, and has done so in a negative sense. If we are to establish a reconciliation between faith and reason, between nature and grace, I can think of no better guide to lead us back into a harmonic synthesis than Saint Thomas Aquinas. This does not mean ignoring the important work of the ressourcement movement, which validly saw an overly dry and rigid Scholasticism as preventing deeper engagement with Scripture and Tradition, but to go back to Saint Thomas himself. Thomism does not equal Scholasticism, and besides, I think the modern world is no longer in danger of veering into overly rational Scholastic analysis. Despite what we may think, we in the West live in a deeply anti-intellectual climate, and we need Saint Thomas more than ever.


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