Furthest Right

Scholasticism, Protestantism, and Modernity (Paul Gottfried)

Protestantism rose on the downfall of scholasticism, and Protestantism, in turn, led to the demise of hierarchy and the rise of individualism.

A curious but significant byproduct of the Protestant Reformation was moral support for what became middle-class modernity. This connection is particularly remarkable inasmuch as reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin sought to restore a Christian community, not to build a new civilization. What they found objectionable about the medieval church was not its traditionalism but its pagan and nonbiblical character. They attacked the attempt by Catholic philosophers Albertus Magnus (1200–1280) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) to import Aristotelian philosophy into what should have been biblically based Christianity.

The reformers objected to the scholastic view that people, despite Original Sin, could improve their character through moral effort. Indeed, they insisted on the bondage of the will to man’s natural state of depravity, a condition that could only be improved through the infusion of divine grace. And this grace was given not in response to human exertion but as an outside work (opus extrinsecum) for which fallen beings could only wait and pray. Though this apparently fatalistic understanding of redemption underpinned Calvin’s theology more explicitly than Luther’s, it was nonetheless present in both. A radical conception of human sinfulness, partly derived from Saint Augustine, pervaded Reformation thinking. Total human corruptness necessitated a dramatic form of divine redemption, which each individual had to experience to know that he was saved.

Scholasticism and Modern Rationalism 

In some ways the scholastic thinking characteristic of European universities in the twelfth and thirteen centuries seems closer to modern rationalism than does Reformation theology. The schoolmen believed that the good was knowable through right reason, that knowledge about the existence of God was accessible to human understanding, and that pagan rhetoric and philosophy were appropriate for the education of Christians. Although medieval schoolmen did not deny the doctrine of Original Sin or the need for grace to move toward a Christian life, they considered the sacraments and instruction of the church sufficient for that end. The sin of Adam did not irreparably destroy human character, but once washed away with baptism, inborn sin would not prevent us from developing our moral capacities, through learning and useful habits.

Understandably, critics of scholastic thought, which reached its greatest influence in the late thirteenth century, accused its proponents of pagan, rationalist tendencies. From Franciscan mystics like Saint Bonaventure through Nominalist philosophers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries down to the great thinkers of the Reformation, the criticism was heard that the schoolmen minimized the experience of faith and ascribed excessive importance to theological reasoning. Though Thomas Aquinas, for example, argued in the Summa Theologica that belief in God might result purely from faith (credibilia), he nonetheless also provided five proofs for God’s existence, one of which derived from Aristotelian physics. Like other schoolmen, Aquinas insisted that “the philosopher” could lead Christians to some if not all theological truths.

Even more important for the history of ethics, Aquinas and other schoolmen related rules of conduct to moral reasoning. God as the source of all being, as underlined in Thomas’ Expositio super librum Boethii, provided both natural cognition (lumen naturale) and supernatural revelation (lumen supernaturale). Each was made available to clarify divine truth, and by the operation of universal reason as well as by biblical morality, humans were capable of forming proper ethical decisions, outside as well as inside a Christian society. Moreover, despite the fall of Adam, both the natural and social worlds gave evidence of an order (ordo mundi) that pointed back to a divine Author. Following Aristotle’s notion of design, Aquinas insisted that the world was intelligible to our intellects because both were products of divine Reason. Human minds trained to think could apply “right reason” to moral questions, arrive at “prudential judgment” regarding the social good, and grasp the interrelatedness of the physical world.

Despite the apparent entry point that some have found here into a modern, scientific rationalist culture, there are qualifications to be made before assuming such links exist. As the German social thinker Ernst Troeltsch explains in Protestantism and Progress (English translation 1912), the scholastic worldview most fully articulated by Aquinas was inextricably linked to medieval society. It assumed ranks and an order of authority characterized by ecclesiastical and temporal hierarchies, both of which were seen as necessary for human well-being. The Thomistic ordo was not a collection of individuals in search of divine and rational truths. It was held together by organic social relationships based on statuses. The temporal served the ecclesiastical, the physical laborer the contemplative, and the knight his lord.

Economic transactions, like other social transactions, were fixed in terms of hierarchical design perceived to be present throughout creation. Commerce was to be regulated by its assigned purpose, satisfying specific material needs: It was to be practiced in accordance with a “just price” that could be calculated with regard to cost factors but that prohibited the taking of interest (prodesse faenore).

The Deconstruction of Scholasticism 

What happened in the postscholastic West culminating in the Reformation was the progressive deconstruction of this scholastic outlook. Particularly in the Nominalist tracts of the Oxfordian Franciscan monk William of Ockham (1280–1349), whose thinking marked Luther and other Protestant reformers, the scholastic ordo is subjected to relentless criticism. For Nominalists like Ockham, there is no harmonious synthesis of reason and faith, nor necessary correspondence between God’s mind and the social order. If religious propositions or ethical precepts were held to be true, one had to accept them finally on faith. For critical reason, maintained Ockham, was there to challenge and discredit received truths, and the unconditional reality that the schoolmen had attached to justice, goodness, and other ideals to which they appealed were merely names (nomina) awarded to the objects of our perception.

God Himself, as conceptualized by the Nominalists, was essentially absolute will. Those laws or regularities through which He controlled creation were the products of divine volition. What was perceived as rational or moral truths, according to Ockham, flowed from this will. But here, too, one had to accept the possibility that what was thought to be certain would turn out to be a figment of our minds upon further examination. Nominalist thinking encouraged both skepticism and faith to the extent that it presupposed a yawning gulf between divine truth and human reasoning.

The Reformation added to this deconstructed scholasticism two critical elements, a positive theology and implied social teachings that were incompatible with the Thomastic-Aristotelian order. Drawing on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Luther and Calvin both proclaimed that Christians are justified by faith, independently of any work or sacrament. Nor was reason essential to this process inasmuch as the believer is saved from damnation by faith alone, as the inner certainty of divine election. This Reformation view of the Christian life, as an attempt to find evidence of divine favor from within, was conducive to modernization in ways that could not have been fully grasped in the sixteenth century.

Protestantism’s Attack on Hierarchy 

Looking at Protestantism’s modernizing effect over a period of centuries, Presbyterian theologian and political thinker James Kurth observes (Orbis, Spring 1998): “All religions are unique, but Protestantism is more unique than all others. No other is so critical of hierarchy and community, or of the traditions and customs that go with them.”

Already in Luther’s germinal writings as a reformer in 1520–21 were stated Protestant ideas that would bring forth cataclysmic social consequences. The “priesthood of all believers,” the repudiation of a spiritual difference between clergy and laity, the need for each individual to develop a personal relationship with Christ, the irrelevance of the sacramental and legal structure of the church in gaining salvation, the equal sanctity of all honorable vocations, and the demand that all Christians have access to the Bible as God’s proffered word were more than religious stands. They were points of departure for a social and cultural transformation. However much Luther opposed social disobedience and denounced a peasant’s revolt in Germany that cited his work, the Reformation was, as later Catholic counterrevolutionaries described it, an invitation to level down. Or, as James I of England responded to a suggestion that the Presbyterians be allowed to form the state church in England, “no bishop no king.”

But the revolution advanced by Protestant thought did not lead to perpetual revolution. Rather, Protestantism contributed to the bourgeois civilization out of which constitutional republics, limited monarchies, and free-market economies all came, directly or indirectly. Numerous scholars have explored this relationship, and one distinction to be made among them is between those who argue from unintended consequences and those who do not. Clearly in the first category is the great German sociologist Max Weber, who in 1893 examined the connection between Calvinist moral theology and the “capitalist spirit.” According to Weber, Calvinists did not set out to accumulate wealth or to reinvest it for profit. They moved in this direction because their search for signs of divine grace, together with their belief in the equal dignity of all vocations, predisposed them toward commercial and banking activities. By serving God selflessly in their work and prospering, they were able to convince themselves of their predestined grace. And instead of practicing monastic discipline, as in Catholic cultures, Calvinists carried ascetic habits into middle-class roles, living abstemiously and cultivating the Protestant work ethic.

Protestantism and Subjectivism

Against this view of unintended consequence, others have contended that Protestants laid the foundations of modern society more deliberately. Thus Hegel argued that Protestants created a modern consciousness by stressing the “subjectivity” found in the New Testament. Although individual self-awareness was always present as a value in that text, historical conditions did not favor its emergence as a dominant religious value until the sixteenth century.

More recently, American social historian Benjamin Nelson has linked the beginnings of sustained banking capitalism to the rejection of the Hebraic ban on taking interest. Nelson finds this view emphatically stated in Calvin’s Institutes and presents Calvin as the first biblical exegete to distinguish commercial investment from loans made to the destitute. It was only the latter, Calvin properly observed, that is forbidden in Deuteronomy. On a similar note, Troeltsch had ready commented on the opening of society to commercial activity caused by the Protestant assault on medieval Christendom. Not the result of any single theological reinterpretation, this change occurred because of a general attack on the Christian-Aristotelian worldview and on the sacramental hierarchy it undergirded.

In a detailed study of Protestantism’s unintended consequences, Weber noted the changed view of nature and work produced by the Reformation, particularly by the Calvinist teachings of, among others, Weber’s own French Protestant ancestors. The Calvinist search for signs of divine election, maintained Weber, not only nurtured the psychology and practice of capitalism but enforced the belief that the world existed for the sake of the elect, who could both comprehend and exploit nature and society. Weber saw rationalism and secularism as two consequences of Calvinist moral theology. Confronting a divinely created world that, according to Genesis, was placed at the disposal of mankind, and hoping to relate that world to one’s personal spiritual experience, Weber’s Calvinist tried to make the outside world fit his own needs as one of the elect. The Calvinist observer felt no sense of mystery in the presence of nature but rather viewed it as something to be mastered in glorifying God and enhancing his own certainty of salvation.

Moreover, the Protestant stress on reading and discussing the Bible did not lead to the contempt for intellectual analysis shown by Luther when he referred to Reason as the “Devil’s whore.” On the contrary, Protestant biblicism contributed to mass literacy and democratically organized churches that would define their own doctrines. A frequently heard opinion among historians is that the Russians never underwent political modernization, because they neither experienced nor were significantly influenced by the Protestant Reformation. This opinion seems highly plausible if one looks at the unintended as well as intended results of that development.


A Momentum for Change 

On the other hand, it may be argued that Protestantism has included a momentum of change that by now may be hard to stop. In The Sociology of Religion, Weber explored this problem almost a century ago. The forces created or intensified by the Reformation that had resulted in a bourgeois commercial society would continue to promote change, not all of it congenial to the middle-class beneficiaries of an older Protestant culture. The exploration of a demystified nature, the shift of religious life from the community to the individual, and a general suspicion of hierarchy eventually led in a direction hostile to bourgeois institutions.

All of this, it might be concluded, has indeed come to pass in Protestant societies, as can be inferred from family disintegration, the cult of technology, and the rise of modern bureaucracies and states as family planners and providers. Such observations must be qualified by pointing out that the Protestant reformers would have been as horrified by this situation as the medieval schoolmen. Until recently Protestants stressed moral rigor and family virtue at least as strongly as did Catholics. But Protestant societies were less organic, while Protestant morality centered more on individuals than on families and inherited community. And the believer’s view of his life as the “pilgrim’s progress,” to borrow the title of the most important Protestant classic, helped give birth to a specifically modern doctrine of progress, associated with the subduing of nature and the spread of moral and technical knowledge. The Protestant’s world went from being a test of the elect to a material object that one feels free to tamper with.

In the face of these unintended Protestant consequences, Catholic philosophers Nicholas Capaldi and Nino Lingiulli have made the ironic observation that American ethnic Catholics may be closer to bourgeois Protestantism than anyone else. Having absorbed Protestant attitudes as a result of Americanization, Catholic peasants who came to the United States–and even more their descendants–took over distinctly Weberian values. The Calvinist work ethic, a more individual and more interior religiosity than that present among their ancestors, and uneasiness with the formalities of Catholic worship are all characteristic of these Protestantized Catholics. But unlike the members of the Protestant majority culture, such Catholics have still not completely abandoned their communal sense–nor their fascination with bourgeois virtues.

Still, one may wonder how much longer this American Catholic insulation will work. If the Latin and Slavic Catholic character of American immigrants could be modified once, by Protestant characteristics, why can’t the same process continue to work change? Why should those who have been exposed to it and absorbed part of it resist Protestant culture in its later radicalized phase? Likewise, why should millions of Asians who converted to Protestantism and often represent a stern Victorian form of it remain embedded in that particular form? Why shouldn’t Chinese and Korean Presbyterians and Methodists be overtaken by the forces that have already overwhelmed Western Protestantism? Cultural lags do get overcome–and not always for the best..

Paul Gottfried is a senior editor of the Modern Thought section of The World & I and author of The Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right.

[The World and I (New York), February, 1999]


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