chapter 5 Nominalism and Casuistry in Scotus, Ockham and Mair
1 The Rise of Nominalism
By the end of the thirteenth century Aquinas’ analysis of a moral act had be- come dominant and accepted as definitive in moral theology. But his balance between subjectivity and objectivity was challenged. Did things have natures? Aquinas had argued that they did, but Augustine himself had denied that na- tures could be defined by the necessary law of essences. Natures were what God wanted things to be, or the objects of God’s good pleasure. The dominance of Thomist scholasticism, associated with the Dominican order, would not last long. By the start of the fourteenth century a new era had begun: under the influence of philosophical nominalism, or the via moderna, only individual problems were there to be investigated. Almost immediately after the death of Aquinas, Duns Scotus, as a Franciscan, challenged Aquinas’ objectivity. Aquinas died in 1274, Scotus in 1308. The world of moral theology was chang- ing, and the new emphasis on the will—voluntarism—was pronounced. This is an echo of Abelard’s nominalism, which we have encountered before in his commentary on Romans, but now Scotus offered a degree of philosophical and theological rigour not seen in Abelard. The clash between Dominicans and Franciscans went deep.1 The development of moral theology after Aquinas is the story of the rise of nominalism. Before we examine the specific contribution of the Franciscan theologians, in particular Duns Scotus and Ockham, it is important also to hear the criticism of nominalism. We come to the primarily French debate known as nouvelle théologie from the 1930s onwards about medieval theology and what they saw as its corruption. This group of scholars led to the major re- newal of the Roman Catholic Church known as the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. In the 1930s a series of Roman Catholic theologians, especially in France, delineated the fissures in the medieval synthesis which led to the Reformation. These theologians saw the Reformation as merely the inexorable culmination of the breakdown of theology in the medieval and early modern
1 Siedentop, Larry, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, describes the tension between the two orders, especially on pp. 299–300.
© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2019 | doi:10.1163/9789004384927_006 Nominalism and Casuistry in Scotus, Ockham and Mair 121 period. Their argument was that the medieval synthesis (itself a contested term) had been severely weakened by the beginning of the sixteenth century to the point where some dramatic changes were bound to happen: the change that we now know as the Reformation was, in one sense, bound to take place in one form or another. These mainly French scholars were primarily concerned to criticize nominalism, although nominalism also gave rise to casuistry, which was of great importance in the Reformation and early moral reasoning in the Church of England. The nouvelle théologie theologians nevertheless saw nomi- nalism as responsible for breaking up the sacramental world of the patristic and early medieval period.2 Hans Boersma gives a helpful account of this school. He describes the un- derstanding of these theologians, not always agreeing with one another, on the breakdown of what he calls ‘sacramental ontology’, which is the key to medi- eval theology. The nouvelle théologie school felt that the late Middle Ages saw the end of the Platonic–Christian synthesis. The theologians did not entirely agree with one another, but there was a broad consistency to their thought. In particular they challenged the dominant school of Neo-Thomism, which en- trenched Thomist philosophy in a very formal and intellectual manner. Henri de Lubac and his student Jean Daniélou published extensively from the late 1930s a series of studies of the Eucharist, nature and grace, and the exegesis of Scripture. A second group of Dominicans, including Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar, wrote on the tradition, and especially on Thomas Aquinas. This school sought to bring a unity of contemplative prayer, action and study by renewing the great patristic and medieval tradition which had declined so much in the late Middle Ages. Nouvelle théologie was an effort to reintegrate faith and theology; it was an effort to go back to Scripture itself; and it was an endeavour to allow theology to speak to people’s everyday lives. In particular the ressourcement movement tried to reweave the sacramental tapestry of the Great Tradition by reinte- grating nature and the supernatural, the two realms that the Neo-Thomist scholastics, with their much-debated appeal to Thomas Aquinas, had kept her- metically sealed and separated from one another.3 Five decisive changes led to the school of theology known as nominalism which was prevalent on the eve of the Reformation. We have seen earlier that
2 Boersma, Hans, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, pp. 15–16. There is also his much more detailed account in Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery. He describes the breakdown of the medieval synthesis in the latter work on p. 29. 3 Boersma, Heavenly Participation, p. 16.