Jordan Ballor Nota Bene

Aquinas the Platonist, Aristotle the Nominalist

In working through the text of Luther’s disputation against scholastic theology, I ran across an intriguing series of claims. It appears in the introduction of the text as it appears in the English edition of Luther’s Works.

The introduction is attempting to set up the context for Luther’s engagement with “scholastic” theology, and proceeds to identify scholasticism with Aquinas, “whose Summa Theologica (Summary of Theology) best illustrates the scholastic form or argument with its lists of authorities, syllogisms in defense of theses, statements of contrary theses, refutations, distinctions, conciliations, and conclusions.”

If Thomas’ work represents the pinnacle of medieval scholasticism, “By Luther’s time, however, scholasticism had already run its course, having been weakened from without and within.” Humanists opposed scholasticism from without, while from within “there developed two extreme schools of thought which became mutually antagonistic: realism and nominalism.” As the introduction distinguishes these two schools:

There had always been those who, like Plato, had taught that ultimate reality lay in ideas, or universals. This realism, as it was called, triumphed in the great synthesis of St. Thomas, for by means of it one could attempt to explain logically such important Christian doctrines as that of the Trinity and transubstantiation. Another group followed Aristotle in maintaining that ideas, or universals, existed in name only. According to the nominalists, as they were called, ideas resulted only from experience with things, or particulars.

Claims like this often make me want to invoke the authority of magisterial intellectual historian Luke Skywalker
Scotus appears at this point, as one who “tended to weaken scholasticism by exposing errors in the conclusions of other scholastics, including St. Thomas; reducing the method to absurdity by writing highly involved treatises; and emphasizing the importance of a constant re-examination and investigation of knowledge.” Scotus was, evidently, the first critical scholastic!

I say this is an intriguing introduction because it introduces, in such brief fashion, a few of the most influential twentieth-century paradigms, or rather caricatures, of medieval thought. Such are the dichotomies: humanism vs. scholasticism, nominalism vs. realism, Plato vs. Aristotle, Thomas vs. Scotus. As with all such generalizations, their power derives from the fact that there is an aspect of them that rings true. But similarly, such neat dichotomies tend to mislead as much as to enlighten, even while they remain indispensable to gaining at least initial access to the sources. It is always interesting of course to see who gets placed where. Aristotle among the nominalists! One might even speak later of Aquinas among the Protestants!

The introduction is unsigned, although the eminent historian Harold J. Grimm is the volume editor and translator of this disputation. The volume dates to 1957, and reflects what at that time remained the dominant understanding. Thankfully we the scholarly approach to these questions has been more careful in the intervening half-century. But as with all things, there is much more left to learn. Or, with apologies to Master Yoda, any current state of the question is what later scholars “grow beyond.”

By Jordan Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous volumes. Jordan also serves as associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research of Calvin Theological Seminary.