Monday, June 22, 2009

The Meaning and Effect of Late Medieval Nominalism

Here is a quote from Gillespie's The Theological Origins of Modernity, p. 29. His writing is excellent and at times lyrical.

"Nominalism sought to tear the rationalistic veil from the face of God in order to found a true Christianity, but in doing so it revealed a capricious God, fearsome in his power, unknowable, unpredictable, unconstrained by nature and reason, and indifferent to good and evil. This vision of God turned the order of nature into a chaos of individual beings and the order of logic into a mere concatenation of names. Man himself was dethroned from his exalted place in the natural order of things and cast adrift in an infinite universe with no natural law to guide him and no certain path to salvation. It is thus not surprising that for all but the most extreme ascetics and mystics, this dark God of nominalism proved to be a profound source of anxiety and insecurity.

While the influence of this new vision of God derived much of its force from the power of the idea itself and from its scriptural foundation, the concrete conditions of life in the second half of the fourteenth century and early fifteenth centuries played an essential role in its success. During this period, three momentous events, the Black Death, the Great Schism, and the Hundred Years Wawr, shook the foundations of medieval civilization that had already been weakened by the failure of the Crusades, the invention of gunpowder, and the severe blow that the Little Ice Age dealt to the agrarian economy that was the foundation of feudal life. While such a vision of God might have been regarded as an absurdity in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the catastrophes of the succeeding period helped make such a God believable."

It can be argued (as I do in my new book) that the doctrine of God arising out of nominalism is an heretical understanding of God and so the new anthropology that arises out of this view of God is also heretical. During the modern period, the view of God gradually withers away but the anthropology of man as essentially a willing creature remains. The primacy of the human will becomes the central unifying element in what has come to be known as "modernity" and, of course, in its current iteration it manifests itself in the ideology of "freedom of choice."

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