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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Concerning Authority

We do not often reflect extensively on the nature of authority in the modern world; at least, we do not entertain public discourse about it. We cede authority to people all the time, however, and with alarming frequency in consumer environments or business settings. In most cases, we cede it to individuals who, or institutions which, are expert in a subject or topic; we also cede it to corporations which specialize in a certain kind of product, and who have a reputation for excellence in it.

We might leave matters on that meritocratic note, and banish further questions about authority from our mind. More than this could be quite disruptive. After all, there cannot be any institutional life without order, and there is no order without some kind of authority — but that should not stop us from seeking authority’s proper grounds, especially in a liberal environment where we are expected to be sufficiently cultured to have mature consciences which can responsibly dissent, on the basis of a higher principle, from the authorities who govern, or from the proposals of our fellow citizens. Finally, this should also extend into religious life and institutions.

While the following cannot claim comprehensiveness, it certainly aims at addressing universal concerns. Continue reading