Merit & Grace in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period, Part 1

1) There are a number of helpful topics by which one might examine some of the differences and similarities across the centuries from the Medieval period up through the Reformation, and each allows a set of concerns to come into focus. The related questions of the nature of grace and whether a person might merit salvation is one such helpful pair of topics. These questions, conjoined from the Middle Ages through the beginning of the Reformation, begin at a point where they are very much tied up with ontological questions about the relationship between beings and God, and about the character of knowledge, in general, and the nature of theological knowledge, in particular. Do beings naturally participate in God to some degree (i.e., in a manner according to the nature of a being), or are they wholly separate, radically contingent and entirely superfluous ephemera of the divine will, thoroughly alien in their being to divinity, without a native point of contact? Is knowledge –even secular knowledge– a participation in divine knowledge, or is it a navigation of singularly unique particulars through signs? Is grace participation in God, likeness to God, favor from God, divine acception, or else some or even all of these? Is this grace something which people are able to know they are partaking of? The Nominalists’ and Reformers’ answers to these questions illumine some of the crucial elements that come to characterize the Modern period, our secular cultural condition. We will begin with Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), briefly noting the Ockhamist/Nominalist tradition which follows shortly after him, then we will move through these questions in Martin Luther (1483–1546).

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An Example of Historical Distance & Difference: Χάρις, Linguistic Singularity, and Confessional Projection

Translators are confronted with numerous choices when rendering ancient Greek words into English, and one of these is how to bridge the distance between the world of the text and the world of the reader.  This historical distance can be notoriously difficult to see when one engages with a text that has already been translated, and which arrives in the world of the innocent reader as pre-chewed food. (A recent post on the shift in words we translate as “happy” reminded me of the need to write something on this more specifically.) This highlights a central feature of the secularity of our modern world: historical distance, the autonomy of historical epochs and local worlds, and the seeming worldliness of every bridge or road we might build to traverse them. Continue reading

Reinhard Hütter: The Subject is the End of the Church

Having now finished what seems to be the last of several bookshelves for our (rather small) place, I look to selling or boxing-up books.

I’ve already cited the volume by the formerly-Lutheran writer Reinhard Hütter (he converted to Catholicism sometime after the writing of this book, if my timeline is correct) titled “Bound to Be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism.” I had originally thought that I’d keep this volume. It’s stimulating, but I’m not sure how helpful it is, for as I scan through it, it seems to largely provide the stimulation that foils provide when they are riddled with mistakes.

The passage cited below is no exception. Hütter here writes about the alleged transition from an older way of conceiving “theology” to an allegedly more rationalistic way which sought surer ground in metaphysics. As the story goes, the aftermath of the Reformation and the ensuing religious wars of Europe put into question the idea that knowledge of God can be had through church practices, as there then obtained an incompatible and irreconcilable plurality of practices.

First I’ll cite the passage, then discuss it.
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Reinhard Hütter: The Church as Public (& not as Voluntary Association)

Several weeks ago I posted a summary of Steve Bruce and Roy Wallace on the “orthodox model” of secularization. In that work, Bruce & Wallis argue that the defining mark of secularization is the diminution of religion’s public influence, and, we might quickly conclude, the loss of its public character (they distinguish the process of secularization from the trends of modernization, such as inclusion into a national center, &c.). Regarding this loss of public character, there is a section from Reinhard Hütter’s book, Bound to be Free, where he asks some very pointed questions about the Church as public: he thinks the Church is essentially public, and ponders what it means for her to lose this characteristic feature. Continue reading

Roy Wallis & Steve Bruce, “Secularization: the Orthodox Model”

Religion and Modernization: Sociologists and Historians Debate the Secularization Thesis (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992) ed. by Steve Bruce (photo above), is a collection of nine essays written by nine authors on the exact topic suggested by the volume’s title. After a short introduction by Bruce, the first full essay by Roy Wallis and Steve Bruce “outlin[es] the main elements” of “the ‘secularization’ thesis” (3) mentioned in the book’s title, which thesis is “one of sociology’s most enduring research programmes” (8). In the introduction, Bruce had mentioned that secularization is descriptive, rather than prescriptive, so that it

primarily refers to the beliefs of people. The core of what we mean when we talk about this society being more ‘secular’ than that is that the lives of fewer people in the former than in the latter are influenced by religious beliefs. […] (6)

If this phrase about “the beliefs of people” make it sound as though Wallis & Bruce are interested in individuals, the authors are quick to clarify that the theory they are advancing is really about “the diminishing social significance of religion”. This is not the same as “the decline of religion”, only of its “public role” (10). It is also certainly not an “even and irreversible decline” (27). Wallis & Bruce together reiterate that the “explanatory model” attached to this secularization thesis predicts that

the social significance of religion diminishes in response to the operation of three salient features of modernization
[…] (1) social differentiation, (2) societalization, and (3) rationalization. (8-9)

So that, in sum,

modernization […] brings in its wake (and may itself be accelerated by) ‘the diminution of the social significance of religion’. What features of modernization are involved? There seem to be three that are particularly salient: social differentiation, societalization and rationalization. (11)

Before examining these three features (social differentiation, &c.), we should ask: what is “religion”, such that secularization is the loss or diminution of the large-scale social influence of it? Continue reading