In a previous post a commentator asked me to share an opinion on a preface to Paul’s Letter to the Romans that he found in his Christian Community Bible. It had argued that Romans was read by Luther through a nominalist lens, which argues that “nothing is good or bad in itself but only if God declares it so”. 

I began by pointing out that as I see it, the preface to books in the Bible is not the best place to start a conversation about Luther’s intellectual influences. Surely the point is to give you a handle on Paul’s thought, not Luthers’?

But what is nominalism? Like Santa Claus and Boy George, it is largely a myth. In the middle 20th Century (mostly Catholic) scholars understood Luther’s Reformation movement as being deeply influenced by the writings of giants of the medieval era like William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel. Historians of this era called these men “nominalists”. These men were meant to have doubted that human beings could discern much by natural reason.

But when scholars actually went back to read Ockham (the proto-scientist who gave us Occam’s Razor) and Biel they discovered that this depiction was a caricature. These men were (obviously in the case of Ockham) quite optimistic about human reason and human abilities.

Other thinkers like Gregory of Rimini may have come closer to the portrait painted by this anti-nominalist school but the discovery had blown a huge hole in the theory. So folk started to talk about “diversity” between nominalists until eventually and increasingly in the last decade, the whole idea has been discarded.

The only thing that the so-called Nominalists shared in common was, according to Alister McGrath, a scepticism about how much our senses can be trusted. Nominalism is a philosophy and as such has no inherent theological content. To quote McGrath:

Thus, both schools rejected the necessity of universals- but thereafter could agree on virtually nothing.

To address the problems with this earlier narrative of the Reformation’s birth, the actual school that took hold of many of the European universities, including Erfurt where Luther studied, is now referred to as the via Moderna, not Nominalism.

Alongside its scepticism of universals, this school was often branded as Pelagian, after an early Christian heretic (Pelagius) who said that salvation was to be earned by obedience to moral law, not Grace. This is stuff I am touching on in my degree at the moment but this school believed that answering your conscience was an essential aspect of salvation. Literally, they wrote that “God will not deny grace to anyone who does what lies within them”.

Rather than embrace these ideas, Luther strongly and consistently attacked them. He sides exclusively with the historical foe of Pelagius- Augustine.

So while the preface to a letter in the New Testament is not the place to leave an un-argued attack on Luther, I think a strong argument that the editors of the Christian Community Bible, if only in this case, are talking out of their arses and are in the Latin, dorkai malorkai.

Your Correspondent, Can find no logical reason why planes can fly