Merit & Grace in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period

Earlier, I posted, in several sections, a larger work on the changing notions of merit and grace in the later medieval period, with minor attention to the changing economic background that affected the metaphors used for these. In some ways, these were stimulated by a post on the sense of the Greek word (“χάρις”) that gets translated into English as “grace” or “favor”. Continue reading

Merit & Grace in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period, Part 3

Continued from part one, which was followed by part two: this is the third and final post (for now, until I get to Calvin at some future date.)  Continue reading

Merit & Grace in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period, Part 2


Continued from the previous post Continue reading

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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Stars Down to Earth

I

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2, Cassius says to Brutus concerning Caesar:

Why, man, he [Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
 .

“The fault […] is not in our stars”, which stars are here connected to the “fates” of “men”. James Dunn notes, commenting on this passage, that

[…] the fear that the stars may indeed be involved has been a recurring suspicion or nightmare in all ages. And if not the stars, then supra-mundane forces of some sort or kind.
[James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 102]
.

These “supra-mundane forces” are typically the gods, or some sort of divine/angelic (or demonic) powers. The notion of fate that accompanies the above passage from Shakespeare is, arguably, even more intense, and sounds rather Homeric, as though:

[…] No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you —
it’s born with us the day that we are born.
[Iliad, VI.488-489 (lines 582-584 of Fagles’ transl., p.212)]
.

This fate is inescapable; yet it is not always, as is often thought, inflexible. It can be steered, and even in some cases escaped temporarily, though this fate will always catch up with the individual in the end. The Greek word for “fate” (“moira”, “moros” or even “aisa”) means portion or allotment: it is the lot that is assigned to one, as C3PO whines in Star Wars: A New Hope: “We seem to be made to suffer; it’s our lot in life.” This lot is what is simply “laid on us“, and includes what are the very ambiguous “gifts” (δωρα) of the gods —e.g., the loveliness of Helen of Troy; double edged gifts, if ever there were– that would not and cannot be chosen (“no one can have them by choosing” Iliad III.66); this lot includes, at its climax, death.

I suggested that the cup of this portion is, to some degree, flexible: Achilles in the Iliad has two fates he might fill up his allotment with [IX.410 ff., Fagles, 265], though some things are not flexible, because they are beyond one’s lot or portion, and pursuing them would bring about calamity for all. The fates are, it seems, above the Olympian gods such as Zeus, though he is the one who seems to distribute the portions, the limits of men — and as we see in the Iliad VIII.70 ff., where Zeus apportions different fates to the two different armies of the war in his “golden scale”, and in the Iliad XVI.400-550. [Fagles, 427], he can override the fates or portions of men, though the cost could be great, and would bring great turmoil and chaos even among the gods.

The historical-natural-cosmic and the theological are here one and the same. Here, there are no elemental powers that are not in some sense divine, and the difference between magic and religion, or between divination and naturalistic predictions, is unrecognized, moot. Continue reading