Archive Book Reviews Peter Escalante Philosophy

The Unintended Concession: Carl Trueman’s Response to THE UNINTENDED REFORMATION

We had it in mind to review Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, but Carl Trueman has already done an excellent job of it here. This was preceded by a post where he considers in a more technical fashion the history of the ideas in metaphysics, namely analogy and univocity of being, which Dr Gregory seems to think are historically determinative. A few things might be mentioned by way of corroboration and further elucidation.[1]

The biggest problem with Dr Gregory’s book is the dependence on simplistic genealogical explanations. Historical causation is infamously difficult to divine and prove. That a respected historian would be so cavalier in connecting the dots is startling, but unsurprising perhaps in the ecclesial context. But whatever the polemical motivation might or might not be, there seems to be another reason why Dr Gregory can tell such a simple story: he thinks that ideas drive history. He seems to think that the Thomistic analogia entis, precisely as a formulation, drew a whole continent into choreographical order; and that the shattering of this beautiful theme by the discordant notes of “nominalism” and “univocity of being”, like Melkor’s marring of the primal music in Tolkien’s poetic cosmology, threw the Christian cosmos into ruin.[2]

Dr Trueman is right to point out that notional syntheses in general don’t of themselves hold peoples together, and that the Thomistic one, adequate to reality or not, certainly didn’t. But formulations such as Thomas’, when expressive of truth and part of a broader complex of commonplaces and practices harmonious with the vision behind the formulation, are certainly important. They stand to the knowable world somewhat as creeds stand to Scripture- that is, they are, at their best, developed discursive articulations of the basic truths. While Dr Gregory’s very imperfect representation of what the Reformation was made of and what it made is not be easily excused, a big part of the problem here is the modern evangelical disinterest in our own tradition (partly motivated, I think, by the “anxiety of influence” in the minds of those eager to be innovators), wherein one might find evidence to the contrary of theses such as Dr Gregory’s. This disinterest is not in fact the logical result of any demonstrated irrelevance of the historical Protestants, but rather follows from the demonstrable irreverence of the modern ones. This situation allows Roman Catholic writers in these ecumenical comparisons to focus on Barth or whichever modern as representative of evangelical doctrine, to RC advantage.[3]

While Dr Trueman does cite older Protestant doctors who held to some version of the analogia entis, and thus falsifies Dr Gregory’s historical account on this score, he does seem to exercise peculiar care to select his examples from the narrow field of a certain wing of the Reformed. Of course the format of his reply imposes certain constraints on length, but are Twisse and Owen really all we can come up with in reply? Why not mention Zanchius, one of the greatest Thomists of the 16th century? And surely room could be made for mention of the acute Peter Browne, Bishop of Cork and Ross?[4]

Too, although Dr Trueman certainly points out the oversimplifications of Dr Gregory’s account and, at least indirectly, his gross overestimation of the power of academic ideas, he handles this confusion perhaps a bit too gently; going too far perhaps with the argumentative tack of merely vindicating early modernity against Dr Gregory’s aspersions. In this he is right about the facts; but he concedes too much I think to Dr Gregory’s Hegel-style historicizing when he says

Some – many! – elements of the modern world are to be welcomed; and yet these only became conceptually possible as the kind of metaphysical shifts which Gregory laments took place.

But the rational isn’t quite as real as all that. It’s not at all clear that the welcome developments of early modernity were made conceptually possible by either nominalism or voluntarism as such. Modern natural science owes it beginnings in large part to the engineers of the Middle Ages and their Renaissance successors, and thus to princely patronage of useful research. Certain aspects of the reform of religion, having almost nothing to do with “nominalism,” did of course make for a sunnier intellectual climate in which natural research could come into its own; but even these, the Biblically inspired revalorization of creation and the interest in the world as God’s lawful acts (this second element might have owed something to voluntarism- might), were an influence whose workings were complicated and lend themselves to no simple tellings.

But in the end Dr Trueman shows himself perfectly well aware of this. Soon enough in his argument, he leaves the false question of whether nominalism was a great force for bad or good, and, playing Marx a little to Dr Gregory’s Hegel, he much more commonsensically indicates the immense importance of the printing press in the foundation of modernity.

But going even deeper than the question of material vs notional factors of history, Dr Trueman finally gets to the heart of it when he says in this golden paragraph:

This brings us to the real culprits for the problems of the modern world (though, as the reader may have guessed, I myself would rather live now than at any earlier point in history, given our access to, among other things, non-Aristotelian medicine).  The culprits are human beings.  If you want to know why the world has problems, do not look at the Canons of Trent, testimony to failure though they be.  Do not look at the Protestant confessions, responses to failure though they be.  Do not even look at Dawkins and all the other dull apostles of shrill-voiced secularism, symptoms of failure though they be.  Just look in the mirror.

History is the stage of neither notions nor tools. It is the stage of men.

He goes on to say at the end of that passage just quoted: Interestingly enough, it was Augustine who pointed that out long ago. And he was a Roman Catholic.  Or was he?

And that is an excellent point, in the form of a provocative question. I just wish he had pushed that point a little harder- because its answer is crucial to the kind of argument Dr Trueman is making in his reply.

While the vindication of the good of the Reformation and the new world it opened up is urgently needed in the present state of ecumenical conversation, this can be argued even better from the understanding that the new goods of the Reformation were the fruit of a pious return to two old ones: the Word of God, the oldest old in the world, and the continuum of Christian truth and order. The question of the good of the Reformation has a genuine answer, which legitimates the modernity which came from it. This answer was essayed in part by Hans Blumenberg, though his account of the Reformation’s discontinuity with passive relation to stultifying custom glosses over evangelical modernity’s active, conscious continuity with the true and the useful in the Christian sapiential and legal tradition. Modernity is legitimate, the legitimate child of the Reformation; as Dr Trueman says, we wouldn’t want to live in a world without modern medicine or right of free speech. But was the Reformation itself the legitimate heir of something prior? This is the matter hinted at by Dr Trueman’s question about Augustine.

The answer is yes. The whole history, good and bad, is as much ours as anyone’s, though what we regard as good and bad differ in some crucial points. It is our history even though, unlike the unreformed communions, we regard much of its good as informative rather than normative; the prudence of every generation is bound only by the law of love, and all received patterns in matters indifferent can be reshaped or left aside altogether, which is of course the principle whereby what was good in those traditions got made in the first place. The history we share in common with the unreformed communions is not made any the less common by this principled difference in how we respectively relate to that history, and of course the Reformers and their successors claimed to be more legitimately continuous with the orthodox and catholic generations of antiquity than their opponents were- not only in doctrine, but in political and legal order, this latter being the reason why historians call the central Reformation “magisterial.” Reformation means reformation- it does not mean absolute, de novo revolution. Dr Gregory, as so many others do, misses this completely; Dr Trueman might have done a bit more to assert it. We ought not ever allow our defense of the Reformation to be, however unintendedly, a sort of consequentialist defense of absolute revolution, thereby conceding to our opponents a field which is actually ours by rights.

But these are minor qualifications. The principles of Dr Trueman’s informed and irenic but resolute rebuttal of Dr Gregory’s version of the past, and his exposure of the polemical and historicistic assumptions behind it, can apply to many more instances than just The Unintended Reformation. The resolve and clarity of Dr Trueman’s response is exemplary, and here’s hoping that more evangelical teachers take that example.

[1]I will consider the posts as a single text; he himself says they constitute a two-part response.

[2]Even the great Eric Voegelin lapsed into this kind of genealogizing, suggesting that the medieval church’s idea of amicitia between God and man was destroyed by the Reformers, though the collapse according to Voegelin had begun in the late Middle Ages with nominalism, the usual villain in these sorts of stories. Of course, without undoing any of Voegelin’s sound principles, the history is much more plausibly readable the other way: the recovery of the Biblical doctrine of justification actually increased Christians’ sense of being friends of God, and greatly. But the problem isn’t primarily one of judgment of historical particulars as good or bad, it is rather one of historical method.

[3]Thus Mondin in his Principle of Analogy in Protestant and Catholic Theology (Martinus Nijhoff, 1968): “The title of our work is somewhat misleading; it may lead one to think that it deals with all Catholic and Protestant theologians of past and present. Actually it does not. It concentrates especially on Aquinas’ analogy of intrinsic attribution, on Barth’s analogy of faith, and on Tillich’s symbolic analogy.” It’s easy to guess who will win the Most Balanced Theologian prize in that competition. At least Mondin is honest and indirectly admits there might be a Protestant tradition back there somewhere of which Barth might not be representative; but honest or not, taking Barth at his least representative of the tradition as representative or even definitive of it is a move many Roman theologians find irresistibly convenient. Similarly, almost none of the classical evangelical doctors are summoned to represent Protestantism in the recent The Analogy of Being: Invention of the Antichrist, or the Wisdom of God? (Eerdmans, 2011). One commonly sees similar maneuvers from the RC side in ecumenical discussions of natural law, and so on.

[4]See Winnett, Peter Browne: Provost, Metaphysician, Bishop. Alec Allenson, 1974.

By Peter Escalante

Peter Escalante is a founder and editor of The Calvinist International. He holds a MA in Philosophy.

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