Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Perspectives of Luther:The Influence of Occam on Luther and Sola Scriptura:


This will be the second installment of a response to a man who calls himself “St. Thomas More” over on the CARM board. His comments came in the thread, Perspectives of Luther which I began responding to here and also on CARM.


Let’s take a look at More’s second charge: The influence of Occam on Luther and sola scriptura:

This is also very evident in Luther’s philosophy. He was an Ockhamist. That is to say, he was an adherent to the philosophy of William of Ockham. William of Ockham advanced the philosophy of the self, that there are no universals, that Man does not exist, only individuals. This could be said to have lead Luther to his conclusions regarding his heretical doctrine of Sola Scriptura, there being no need for a religious authority if it is the individual that reigns supreme. And because he was a pervert, he needed some sense of security regarding his own salvation. Hence, Sola Fida.”

Let’s begin with the ridiculous and work backwards: Luther was not a pervert- not sure exactly where Sir Thomas pulled this tidbit of silliness from, though many earlier Catholic critiques of Luther used to wrongly put forth this negative rhetoric. Good Catholic historians do not put forth this type of fiction anymore.

It is true that it is possible Luther first came to acknowledge the sole authority of the canonical books as the basis of the Christian faith from the Occamist perspective- But as Lutheran scholar Willem Kooiman points out, “…for Occam’s followers the church still stands above the Scriptures, since she alone decided their interpretation” [Kooiman, Luther and the Bible (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961), 14]. Therefore, the Occamists that influenced Luther were very devoted to the authority of the Papacy, as was Luther until the indulgence controversy, and also during the beginning of the indulgence controversy. Luther gradually came to see the folly of Sola Ecclesia as he studied the Bible and compared it to the teachings of the RCC. It was the response, or rather non-response of the Roman Catholic Church to Luther that was a factor which provoked sola scriptura.

But Occamism did play a crucial role in Luther’s understanding of the Gospel. The following is from my notes based on Luther lectures given by Robert Kolb.

There were two distinct groups of medieval theologians, Realists and Nominalists. The Realists held that reality lies in the universals (ideas, abstract concepts) in the mind of God (a Platonic idea). The Nominalists held that reality exists in particulars. Hence for the nominalists, an idea has no reality of its own. The Realists thus tended to glorify “reason”- reason would be an abstract universal (Aquinas was a Realist that emphasized the primacy of reason). But the Nominalists did not- Scotus and Occam emphasized rather the primacy of the human will. It was the particular will that “reasoned.”

These two distinct groups also differed also on the relationship between God and the law. The Realist view encompassed the Greek (Aristotelian) view of an eternal existing law coexistent with God. For the Realists, the will of God and the law of God correspond necessarily, because the law is good and God is good. On the other hand, the Nominalist view held that that God created the law and human creatures. God determines what is acceptable to him. It is not a universal abstract outside of Him. Hence, there is no eternal prescription outside of God which human performance can carry out to make themselves acceptable to God.

These differences were important to the Reformation in that a number of theological systems developed from the Nominalist perspective. Luther was trained in a Nominalist type of system Luther received his scholastic orientation through the Occamist Gabriel Biel.

Biel’s doctrine was a mixture of grace and works, and this mixture confused Luther. Biel is said to have believed that salvation was by grace alone because God was under no compulsion to save anyone. By grace alone, Biel meant that God had set up a system by which we might be saved from our sinfulness. It was god’s “gracious” decision to make salvation available. In this system for salvation, works provide the key to access to God. Biel held that God would grant his grace to those who did their best. Those who did their best were given God’s grace to help them continue to do their best in a God pleasing way, and if they continued in this, they would be saved.

Biel had four stages in this salvation schema. First, the sinner does ‘good” out of “purely natural powers.” When he has done this, the sinner has done what is “in him,” he has responded to the conscience that God has planted in the human creature. This is summarized in Biel’s statement, “To do what is in one” (to do our best). One can never be sure that one has done their best. We know what God demands, and we know what we have done, but we can never know for sure if our best has been done to make one eligible for God’s grace. The works in this first stage are of congruent merit; they are unworthy works that do not merit Heaven. Secondly, stage two is God’s gift of his grace (or the power to be able to perform those same works in a worthy manner). Grace comes through our doing of the sacraments, and thus our works are enough to merit heaven. Stage three focuses on human works are that are combined with God’s grace that earn condign merit. In stage four God gives salvation.

This theology of Biel’s impacted Luther because he was never sure if he had done his best, or if the sacraments were working in his life.

Luther wrestled with this type of Occamist theology, particularly Biel’s concept that “God would give His grace to those who do their best,” and also Biel’s “what is in them by natural powers.” Luther knew the best of his works were filthy rags. He was sure he did not have initial grace necessary to do the good works needed for the assurance of God’s favor. In 1515 – 1516, Luther finally rejected Biel’s theological concept of “doing the best that one can.” Luther had placed his whole weight on the scholastic Occamist concept of salvation. That weight forced the system to collapse under him. In other words, it was by abandoning Occamist theology that was a factor in Luther’s evangelical breakthrough.

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