Karl Barth (essay date 1922)
SOURCE: "Reformation and Middle Ages," in The Theology of John Calvin, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995, pp. 13-68.
[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in German in 1922, Barth surveys the intellectual history of the Protestant Reformation, particularly in relation to the historical period which preceded it.]
Loofs, Leitfaden, 4th ed., 601-62; Tschackert, Entstehung der lutherischen und der reformierten Kirchenlehre, 6-33; Seeberg, Dogmengeschichte, 2nd ed., IV, 1-55; Troeltsch, "Protestantisches Christentum und Kirche in der Neuzeit," in Kultur der Gegenwart, I/4, section 1; and on this Loofs, Luthers Stellung zum Mittelalter und zur Neuzeit (Halle, 1907); Troeltsch, Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen, 427-512; Hermelink (in Krüger's Handbuch der Kirchengeschichte), 1-58.1 No matter what our evaluation of them, it will be seen that the works of Troeltsch had the greatest influence on early 20th-century discussion.
In the first instance Calvin's theology naturally interests us in its historical context as an outstanding record of Reformation theology that historically and at times even legally has served as a basis of proclamation in modern Protestant churches. If it is of concern to us as Protestant theologians to be clear where we come from and where we are going as such, then we have every reason to turn again and again to the question how far what we are and think and say does truly, and not merely according to the claim made or displayed on Reformation Days or similar occasions, correspond to what the founders of Protestant theology were and to what they thought and said about God and the world and humanity. And if beyond that perhaps it is also necessary that we should consider the justification of ourselves from a deeper angle, namely, as a question of truth, then we really have cause to be concerned why it was that Protestant theology came into existence as a newborn child, and how in that early period it put to itself and answered the question of truth.
Before we turn to Calvin in particular, we would do well to take our bearings in a brief survey of the relation of the complex of events that we usually call the Reformation to the age which preceded it and also more generally of what this complex meant, as a symptom, for the human situation as a whole. Naturally in this compass I cannot unfold the problem of the Middle Ages and the Reformation in all its breadth. Use the literature on the subject, but with caution. For nowhere is it so obvious how much the historical position of the historian affects the picture given, as we see in the controversies regarding this problem over the last fifteen years.2 Finally, even though our knowledge of the sources be modest, it is better to try to see with our own eyes than to follow one of the grandiose hypotheses now current, stimulating though these might be in detail. Since Calvin's theology is our theme, I will limit myself to showing how to get a basic grasp of the relation between Reformation theology and that of the Middle Ages which preceded it. When I compare the thinking of the reformers to that of medieval theologians so far as I know them both, the following picture emerges.
The first and most direct impression that the comparison gives us is of something strikingly new and different, especially in Luther. We find this man and his thinking moving in the reflection of a great and strange light that falls lightly upon him. We see him faced with an incomparable, unheard-of question and then at once, in and with the question, in possession of an equally incomparable, unheard-of answer. The thoughts in which he tried to give an account of what he saw both to himself and to others are disturbingly and wildly contradictory. Only with difficulty could he put them together, and even then they largely exclude one another. No specific, or, at any rate, no systematic or planned deeper meaning rules in these thoughts; he would clearly have liked to say everything much more simply, but with great embarrassment he constantly ventured paradoxes that in their significance may be placed alongside the boldest insights of philosophical thinking and that in their immediate force put far in the shade the formulations of most philosophers. Even where he does not speak in paradoxes a light like that of the morning sun shines constantly over his trains of thought. They breathe like fresh air after a storm. Was he offering edification? Was he preaching? Was he thinking academically? Who would be so pedantic as to make a distinction? What do categories3 mean here? In these thoughts something takes place, a decision, a breakthrough, an event. We have the feeling regarding them that the words are not just words. We witness a process of knowledge that we cannot distinguish from an act. And this act, the longer and more radically we let it speak to us in its own true sense, does it not significantly, but also with a claim, and erasing all the borders between here and there, thrust itself into our own existence? Can we escape this word, this act, or do we not feel, like those who heard Zwingli, that we are taken by the hair4 when we really hear this voice? That is Reformation theology, not just in Luther but also in Zwingli and Calvin and the lesser lights around them, for what counts here is not the genius or originality of the individual thinker but the quality of what all of them were thinking with more or less force and depth.
But precisely when we take seriously our direct impression of this theology, precisely when we believe we have to do here with something new and wholly different, precisely when we are inclined to ascribe to the event that unfolds before our eyes a dignity and significance that a word like "experience"5 does not really cover even though we do experience something also, precisely then we must be careful in describing this as a new theology compared to the old. If we take the word "different" seriously, what does it mean to confront something totally different?6 If we are not finally to be guilty of mere bombast, can the totally different be one thing in contrast to this or that other different thing? What do "new" and "old" mean when it is a matter of this new thing, when it is a matter of the knowledge of God in this theology? Who gives us the courage at once to divest the terms of their meaning again by excluding the poor Middle Ages, the old, from this new thing? Precisely when we sense somewhat the superiority of this theology, we must maintain its newness and difference on the plane of historical things only with reservation, only in a relative sense. On the plane of time one thing always and everywhere stands alongside another, certainly with significant differences, but in such a way that great differences often mean very little and little differences mean a great deal.
In assessing what we can see here, those who can only reckon, count, and measure run the risk of hardly being able to avoid serious confusion and mistakes. For the absolute is not directly visible on this world's stage. The great light in the reflection of which we see the reformers and their thoughts move is not itself a phenomenon; it does not become one thing among others. And what we see in the reformers, the reflection in which they stand, is only relatively and not absolutely different from what we see around them, in their predecessors and successors. It is a new and different thing, but not the new thing, different thing. It is at every point in continuity with what came before and what came after. The new thing is not something that we can establish in the reformers, and the old thing is not something that we can postulate of the scholastics and mystics preceding them. On both sides the old and the new confront one another on two fronts, first invisibly, never a perceptible phenomenon, as the distance and fellowship between God and us, eternity and time, infinity and finitude that is the point of the term "sacred history" which we discussed briefly at the outset—and then visibly, in a historically perceptible way, as the historical dialectic of different human possibilities, higher and lower, better and worse, here stronger and there weaker, that point to the original hidden antithesis of old and new, yet never in such a way that a human possibility coincides directly with that which all human possibilities can only indicate, and never in such a way that a human possibility is totally meaningless relative to that hidden antithesis—and we have in mind here the whole range of what is usually called secular history. Always and everywhere that which we see as historical occurrence on the second front stands only in relation to its origin in the primal antithesis, but always and everywhere historical events do to some extent stand in relation to this their origin. Historical events that do so to a higher degree than others can do no more than make us aware that fundamentally even events that do so to a lesser degree do stand in the same relation.
The new thing that in Reformation theology makes on us the impression of something new and totally different is obviously the hidden new thing of the first front. We need not be surprised, then, that as we seriously follow up that direct impression, as we translate it from more or less contingent experience to knowledge, we come to see the relative degree of the distinction between the Reformation and the Middle Ages on the historical plane. Those who let themselves be taught by a study of the reformers what is in truth old and what is in truth new can hardly set up a fixed and more mythological antithesis between two ages and historical groups. They will appreciate the distinction, but they will really appreciate it, that is, value it, see its worth. That is, they will see its worth and meaning and point, and also its context, the deeper problematic of which all historical problematic is only a likeness. It will be impossible for them to point to this or that saying in Luther or Calvin, to this or that day in their lives, and to say that here the new and totally different thing was present or was spoken, as though those men could, for example, experience and express the new and totally different thing as others can experience and express what is beautiful. No, even what was there experienced and said is as such relative. It stands in continuity with the old that is so sharply different from it. Calvin and Sadolet were pieces on the same chessboard. Only when we see what they experienced and said in this relation of earthly continuity can it take on significance for us in its difference within the relation. And it is then impossible for us to focus too tenaciously on this or that dubious feature of medieval theology and church life, as though that were really the old thing in contrast to the reformers and their position. No, no pope or scholastic was so diabolical as to be able to do or say the old thing absolutely, just as no reformer was so heavenly as to be able even for a moment to embody the new. Let us leave it to the Roman Catholic philosophy of history to place Protestantism under the category of apostasy, which is so freighted with meaning and for that reason, in the judgment of history, so empty of meaning. Let us not in any circumstances play the same game. What was experienced, thought, and said in the Catholic Middle Ages was also relative, relative, we may say, to the origin that things on the historical plane, be they ever so different, have in common. It stands with the Reformation counterposition in the one basic nexus of the first front where the antithesis is not that of Protestant and Roman Catholic but of God and humanity. Apart from that antithesis, which also means unity, the confessional antithesis was a tragedy in the 16th century and has now become a comedy.7 If we are aware of the seriousness of the profound problematic of that antithesis, then we have to see the nonseriousness of the confessional antithesis on the second front between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism as historical forces. But one could also put it differently, namely, that the confessional antithesis on the second front can be really serious, important, and full of promise only when we are aware how nonserious it is in the last analysis.
You can check the truth of what I have just said if you reflect again on the direct impression of something new that we get from Luther's commentary on the Psalms or Zwingli's theses8 so long as we have eyes in our heads. Must we not honestly admit that in these cases the new and wholly different thing that speaks forcefully to us confronts not only medieval and modern Catholicism but no less diametrically what we ourselves think and feel? Can we fail to hear, then, the strong accusation that the writings of Luther and Calvin constantly bring against our so-called Lutheran and Reformed Christianity, church life, and theology, not simply because there has been declension from the Reformation, true though that is, but because the new and wholly different thing in the writings of Luther and Zwingli accusingly confronts all Christianity, church, life, and theology even when at their conceivable best? If we accept this judgment, if we recognize the antithesis that runs through the whole four hundred years of Protestant history, how then can the new and wholly other thing four hundred years ago simply be one thing among other historical entities, and how can it have been passed on to Protestant theologians to do with it as they like and with the possibility of handing it down to their successors? Is it not obvious that this new thing critically confronts the theology of the reformers themselves, being absolutely other than the old thing that in its relativity here also is part of the historical plane? And if that is so, must we not conclude that the antithesis between the true new and the true old runs also backward to the time before the Reformation, that what is old in time (i.e., medieval thinking) has its own share, as I see it, in what is eternally old, which is the situation and problem of all history, but that it also has, of course, its share in what is eternally new, the solution to the problem?9
So far as I can see, the reformers themselves had a much more restrained view of the epoch-making nature of their work than one might expect and than is often stated in later accounts in church history. It is clear that they had a strong sense of the unique importance of the historical moment in which they stood. Luther spoke again and again about the fact that, in contrast to the past, they were now once more in an age when God was sending forth his Word among us as the most precious of all his gifts. He liked to portray the Reformation under the image of a light that was now kindled and shining for a while.10 He knew well—perhaps too well—his own personal significance for the process. Calvin, too, in his work against Pighius on the Liberum Arbitrium (6, 237) called the Reformation a miracle of supreme divine power, and in sermon 162 on Deuteronomy (28, 466) he could even call it a resurrection from the dead.11 In his work On the Need to Reform the Church he expressly ascribed the same sending to the reformers as to the OT prophets who had to stir people out of the blindness of idolatry (6, 477).12 In keeping was the eclecticism and the freedom that the reformers allowed themselves vis-à-vis the great theological authority of the early church. "Oh, the fathers were men as we are; we should consider this well and lay what they say on the scales, watching what they say," said Luther in his Table Talk ([M. Luther, Samtliche Werke (Erlangen, 1826-57); hereafter EA] 62, 109) of the fathers, and of the scholastics he said that they had good heads but did not live in a time like ours (EA 62, 114).13 As we know, apart from the Bible, the only strong authority for the whole Reformation was Augustine, but if I am right it was Augustine almost exclusively as the opponent of Pelagius and in such a way that Luther at least in his later years moved increasingly apart from this decisive teacher of his theological youth. It is also striking to me that Calvin in his relation to Scholasticism made no use of Anselm's doctrine of the atonement or proof of God as he might well have done in his own system, and that he had no links to Thomas Aquinas, so that there is no connection between the greatest Catholic and the greatest Protestant systematician, and how sparse in him are the references to the late Scholasticism of Duns Scotus, with whom we have the impression today that there would have been many positive points of contact.14
From all this we learn that the reformers were aware of standing at a decisive turning point in theological thinking when much that was old was perishing even if much was also at least quietly remaining. At all events, however, the reformers did not share the philosophy of history that we find in a saying of Schwenckfeld that Seeberg quotes and that he calls "monumental": "A new world is coming and the old dies away" (Lehrbuch, IV. 2). The Radicals and Humanists talked that way, that is, those specifically who had little awareness of the deeper antithesis that was being played out before them; but for all the zeal with which they, too, took part in the movement in their own way, they were interested for the most part only in what was taking place on the surface. Those who took part genuinely and radically, who saw what it was all about, felt differently, although they too, as we have seen, experienced powerfully enough the historical antithesis between the old and the new.
At least in Luther, however, a more powerful feeling than that of experiencing the dawn of a new age and being its strongest agents and heralds was that of the continuity of the divine work, his reverence for all that had come into being and was now there—a reverence that rested, of course, not merely on insight but also on nature and setting. It was as a monk and in the context of medieval theology that Luther came to his reforming thoughts that snatched him finally out of that context. We know how unwillingly, in obedience to the need,15 he resolved to build a new church. As long as he lived, his heart still clung to the concept of the one holy catholic church in a way that for reasons deeply rooted in his specific situation was not the case with Calvin.
The fervor of the new age and world, of the new spirit and work, was something that we know again to some extent in our own postwar present. We perhaps find it best among the reformers in Zwingli, it being typically alien to Calvin, although, as I have said, with less sentimental emphasis than Luther, Calvin agreed with the latter that the concept of antiquity was most important for Protestant theology. In the epistle in which he dedicated the Institutes to Francis I he could not protest too strongly that what he and those like-minded with him in France were advocating was not something new.16 He adduced a long list of witnesses from the church's past in which he thought he saw what he called the gospel, and in the Institutes itself he was at great pains to prove his agreement with the authorities of the early church. We have said already how eclectic his procedure was, but that does not alter the intention. For him as for Luther, if with an essential difference of mood, the break with the Christianity of the past was not felt to be one of principle. In Luther an example of this is the relatively friendly way in which Bonaventura is treated among the medieval fathers, and in Calvin we note the warmth even with which he speaks of Bernard of Clairvaux.17 Both were in their different ways typical representatives of what the reformers zealously combated as papism.
An even more striking example is the way in which both Luther and Calvin avoided the man in whom they must have recognized, even if he was not then the most widely read author, and whom they ought to have fought as their most dangerous opponent, the true genius of the Catholic Middle Ages. I refer to Thomas Aquinas. We have in his case a demonstration how often even the greatest among us, precisely in fulfilling their deepest intentions, often do not know what they are doing. The reformers engaged in close combat with late scholastics of the age of decline, about whom we say nothing today, when all the time behind these, and biding his time, stood their main adversary Thomas, in whom all modern Roman Catholicism has come to see more and more definitely its true classic; and apart from a few inconsequential complaints by Luther,18 they left him in peace, apparently not realizing that their real attack was not on those straw figures but on the spirit of the Summa, on the Gothic cathedral and the world of Dante. How could it be possible that in the first half of the 17th century a Lutheran theologian from Strassburg could write a book entitled Thomas Aquinas, veritatis evangelicae confessor! (Loofs, 690).19 All this shows strikingly, however, that the reformers did not see their work in the context of a great philosophy of history but in a fairly relative pragmatic context. Perhaps it is precisely the manner of truly creative people to take this view.
If we ask positively in what they saw the importance of their work, Luther's reply, so far as I can see, would be a sober reference to the fact that the Word of God was again being preached loudly and purely. Thus in a Coburg letter to the elector on May 20, 1530, he described the grace that God gives each of us as follows: "For, of course, your Grace's lands have the most and the very best of good pastors and preachers, more than any other land in all the world, and they teach so faithfully and purely, and help to keep the peace so well. There are thus growing up among us tender young people, boys and girls, who are taught the catechism and scripture so well that it does my heart good as I see how young boys and girls can pray and believe and talk about God and Christ more than all the foundations and monasteries and schools could do or still can" (EA 54, 148).20 In face of these happy descriptions, no matter what we think of the catechetical success, we cannot possibly say that Luther made great claims for the breadth of his reformation.
There is a similar passage in Calvin. In his work on the need for church reform he described as follows what the reformers had done and achieved: "They aroused the world out of the profound darkness of ignorance to a reading of scripture; they worked hard at a purer understanding and were able successfully to expound certain important concepts of Christian doctrine, whereas formerly foolish fables and no less unnecessary definitions were heard in sermons, the universities echoed with the strife of words, scripture was hardly mentioned, and the clergy had an eye only to money" (6, 473).21 Calvin did add, of course, that these were improvements that their foes ought to have acknowledged as made, but it is typical that he was content with this rather dry academic description of the significance of the new epoch.
We may note in addition that Luther used the expression "Word of God" both in the absolute and eternal sense that was naturally primary for him and in a relative sense as the Word that takes its course, that comes and goes, that falls like a shower, now here and now there, that can also be chased away and extinguished.22 It is plain that the latter is the Word of God whose blessings he can extol so eloquently to the elector. For him it is to this category that his own reforming work belongs. It is part of the new thing in the second and relative sense. It is not for him the new thing. It is not even as new as appears in most of our historical accounts today, the theological at least. Nevertheless, it is something new, something very new, of course, even if he has to recognize its limits and end: "I am concerned that the light will not last and shine very long, for God's Word has always had its specific course" (57, 19).23 This looking ahead to the end of the new time, often stated in a bitter and threatening way, is not uncommon in Luther.
Luther could also say once (57, 17) that God's Word comes down always on the same time. I would comment that in its sober but very profound sense this statement is much more monumental than the dictum of Schwenckfeld that a new world was dawning. The context is as follows: "The world now faces God's Word exactly as it did two thousand years ago. God's Word comes down always on the same time. The world is still the world, the devil's bride."24 The meaning, then, is primarily negative and pessimistic, as was befitting the mood of the older Luther. But be that as it may, the saying embodies the thesis that there are no different times in relation to God, or, as I would put it, that there is no progress in world history. The Word of God, when it makes itself heard, confronts the same world reality in the same tension even when the situation in world reality is supremely critical and significant and God's Word makes itself heard with great power. Indeed, Luther could go so far as to say that at all times from the beginning of the world, when God's Word is purely taught and preached, people are most offended and sins are at their worst and most horrible (57, 22).25
Finally, this highly relevant situation had for Luther a positive reverse side. If the world is always the world and even God's Word in history is transitory in its presence and limited in its effects, it is also true that God is always God even when his Word would seem to be lost in history. "God has preserved his Word," Luther can say most unexpectedly, and it is plain that he is not now speaking of a relative and transitory Word: "God has preserved his Word and Christ's kingdom has remained in the world under the papacy" (57, 53). Naturally the fact that this is so, he adds, "is the greatest miracle of our Lord God," but he does count on this miracle.26 That was the radicalism of Luther's philosophy of history, and it was much greater than that of people of the stamp of Schwenckfeld with their jubilant shouting about the dawn of a new era. The threads of the kingdom of Christ and of God on the one side snap no more than do those of the world on the other, no matter what may be the specific course of God's Word. If it is true that in the so-called new age the old is truly present for the first time, it is also true, and even more true, that the new was also present in the so-called old age. If any had the right to see the old and the new not merely in the light of the kingdom of God but also historically in harsh antithesis, it was the reformers themselves who were engaged in a violent battle in which everything was at stake, life or death. Yet they did not see it that way. They paradoxically left it to those who were further from the fray to view absolutely and mythologically the historical processes of which they were the heroes.
They themselves confirmed the insight that we gained last time by more basic discussion, namely, that nothing really new came into history with the Reformation, that its significance is to be sought instead in a survey of the connection. We must now pursue this insight both negatively and positively.
Let us look first at the relation between the Reformation and the Middle Ages as that of opposites, realizing that while the antithesis is great, important, and significant, it cannot in any case be clear-cut or absolute. The spirit of the Middle Ages is hard to grasp and especially to judge. Incredibly often and easily on the Protestant side (even the learned Protestant side; cf. Loofs, 498-99!),1 efforts are made to characterize the essence of Scholasticism. Terms, highly critical terms, such as "formalism," "pedantry," "credulity," "artificial reconciliation of reason and revelation," and the like,2 come almost automatically into our minds and on our lips when we hear the word "scholastic." Though there is naturally some truth in them, they are polemically crude, reminding us with some aptness of the foxes who could not get at the grapes.3 We can hardly complain of formalism if we ourselves have no form at all, nor of pedantry if we want to establish our supposedly better truth no less perspicaciously or simply than the scholastics could do, nor of credulous submission to authority if we are not to ignore the serious problem of authority but be willing to think it out to the end, nor of the way of combining reason and revelation unless we have better counsel to offer on the relation. We have here presuppositions that in general are missing among modern Protestants. Semler was right when he once observed that the poor scholastics have laid themselves open to too much derision, often on the part of those who cannot use them (Hagenbach, 297).4 Those older theologians had the ability to think and they took pleasure in thinking. They had dialectical courage and consistency. Their academic tradition has had four hundred years of vitality. Once the reformers were no longer present, Protestant theology could do no better than adopt that tradition, and yet comparatively quickly it came to grief, while the older branch from Trent to our own time entered upon a second period of remarkable fruitfulness. All these are things that ought above all to give us respect for medieval theology if we do not already have it. The situation is the same with Scholasticism as with the Roman Catholic church in general. Those who do not admire them, those who are not in danger of becoming scholastics themselves, simply have no inner right to pass judgment on them. We cannot dismiss historical entities of this power by simply tossing around catchwords.
If we are to catch the essence of Scholasticism I would like to propose that we first pursue the direct impression one gets of it when speaking about it unconfused by modern preconceptions. If you ask me how and where to get this direct impression, I would suggest the following indirect way. Go to Cologne cathedral and study it well. Then from a good compendium of the history of philosophy acquaint yourselves with what Aristotle had in mind. Then by means of Dante's Divine Comedy learn to know poetically the path of the medievals, as taught by Thomas Aquinas, from hell through purgatory to paradise. You may then take up a dogmatic presentation such as that of Seeberg or Loofs, though I would advise you that in so doing you should check the sources of all the quotations—a history of dogma that consists almost entirely of quotations is that of Hagenbach, 1888.5 Then perhaps you may try to read a work from the great age of Scholasticism like Bonaventura's Breviloquium (ed. Hefele, 1845), supplementing this on the right hand with an ascetic work like the Analecta on the history of Francis of Assisi (ed. Boehmer, 1904), and on the left hand with a mystical work like the sermons of Meister Eckhardt (Diederichs, 1911).6
The impression that I have gained of medieval theology may be summed up in a phrase coined, I believe, by Luther at the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation: it is a theology of glory.7 It attempts and achieves a knowledge of God in his glory, purity, and majesty. In the word of the Bible and the theology of the church it does not simply find denoted and described the mystery as such but signposts marking a dialectical path to the heart of the mystery, so that for those who take this path there is no longer any mystery. It recognizes no barrier, no command that it should stop at the object intended in the word of the Bible or in dogma. In the difficulty and obscurity that first conceal the object it simply hears a challenge in some way, notwithstanding the problems, to lay hold of the object. It is venturesome in the way in which it sets its goals and tries to reach them. It is youthfully fresh and healthy and robust and sparkling in all that it does. As readers we feel that we are in the hands of guides who with absolute certainty and confidence know what they want.
Some kind of unequivocal and direct communication of the depths of deity, and perhaps a well-arranged system of such depths, is in any case the goal of our journey if we entrust ourselves to them. In these theologians there is no place for banalities, generalities, or obscurities. Nor is there any place for the basic uncertainty, which oppresses many other theologies, whether theology itself is necessary or useful, nor for the related teeth-chattering question whether and how far theology is a science. Thomas teaches us that esse is intellegere (to be is to know), that God's essence is his knowledge, that the universal and absolute epitome of all that is known, of all being, is actuality, the first cause in all things.8 To a lesser degree angels, and to an even lesser degree humans, have a share in this eternal knowledge of God.9 That is theology. How can it not be a science when it is participation in the knowledge of God,10 in the a priori of all science? And how can it not be necessary? It is the one thing necessary; it is our blessedness.11 We have to read the descriptions of heaven that this theology gives12 if we are to understand what it meant for the people of the Middle Ages.
At this point the academic theology of all the schools is at one with both orthodox mystics and heretical, pantheistic sects. "To have life is to see life," said Peter Lombard.13 Two hundred years later Tauler, whom Luther greatly honored, said the same thing even more clearly: "Those who see the glory of God, that is paradise" (Hagenbach, 445).14 According to the Elucidarium, an eschatological work of the 12th century, there is a triple heaven: the visible, which is the firmament; the spiritual, where saints and angels dwell; and the intellectual, where the blessed enjoy the vision of the triune God, drink from the fount of God's wisdom, and have knowledge of all things, simply all things and all relations (Hagenbach, 444, 447).15 Listen to the way Heinrich Seuse, a contemporary of Tauler, puts it: "Look up to the ninth heaven, which is much more than a hundred thousand times bigger than the whole earth, and there is another heaven above, the Coelum empyreum, the fiery heaven, not called this because of fire, but because of the immeasurably sparkling clarity that it has by nature, unmovable and unchangeable, the glorious court where the heavenly Lord dwells and the stars praise God together and all God's children rejoice. See around you the countless throng, how they drink from the living, murmuring fountain to their hearts' desire; see how they fix their gaze on the pure and clear reflection of naked deity, on the mirror in which all things are open and manifest" (Hagenbach, 447ff.).16 Or read the classic description in the final song of Dante's Paradise:
That is what Thomas calls the fruition of God and Eckhardt the supraforming of the soul with God, or even the birth of God in the soul.18 That is the theology of glory, the fiery living heart, the essence of medieval theology. On this vision of God from face to face [1 Cor. 13:12]—and think of the ecstatic portrayal of the faces of the blessed as you surely know it from pre-Renaissance art—that theology counted as on an unheard-of possibility to which it had access by a steep but direct path. Here is the essence of celestial bliss, and for that reason all the medievals, or at least all the more free and profound among them, never spoke of it except with a certain awe and restraint. But it was also part of our human essence, the supreme possibility of the human soul, which in exact parallel to the idea of a triple heaven is depicted in three divisions, as sensuality with the capacity for cogitation, as reason with a capacity for meditation, and finally and supremely as simple intelligence with the capacity for contemplation. This is how Gerson saw it at the beginning of the 15th century and Hugh of St. Victor three hundred years before him.19
This basic view of the fundamental accessibility of the mystery and glory (doxa) of God is what stamps medieval theology. It changes, of course, in keeping with the teaching of the later schools of Duns Scotus and William of Occam, and especially that of Eckhardt and his followers. Access became extraordinarily difficult,20" but all the difficulties with which it was seen to be surrounded simply made it higher and more precious and caused it to be lauded more fervently. In a disturbing parallel the cathedral pillars became improbably more lofty and the naked eye had reason to fear they might not ever meet. Yet with unerring certainty they converge in the Gothic arch, even if only in the semi-darkness of the vault. The basic concept of the theology remains intact. It is the serious and final thing in all medieval thoughts about God and the world. It does not rule out sharp antitheses. On the contrary, it evokes them. Triunity as the solution of all puzzles, how can that not be the source of all theses and antitheses? But it also embraces the antitheses. It is always also a synthesis. It stands on both this side and the far side of the tensions of intuitive and dialectical thinking, of world denial and world affirmation, of Aristotelianism and Augustinian Neoplatonism, of devotion and skepticism. It contains all these within itself, ejects them all, and takes back again that which is developed into a unity. For Thomas evil was a lack of good, a corruption of the good, which in the long run could only increase perfection.21
The theology includes various individual thinkers and groups of thinkers, an Anselm and an Abelard, and later the Dominican and Franciscan schools, and later still the via antiqua and via moderna, but all in an invisible discipline and fellowship that only seldom needed the corrective hand of church authority and in relation to which one had to be an outsider like Amalrich of Bena (d. 1205)22 to be really a heretic, that is, not to be able finally to think the most extreme thoughts under the protection of the same vault along with less radical investigators. Most of the 15th- and 16th-century Humanists saw no good reason to leave that shelter. What nonsense to assume that only the outward, rigid concept of the authority of church dogma had the power to set in motion this host of youthfully fresh seekers and thinkers in its defense, and for half a millennium to keep it in step. It was the basic thought of open and direct access to the final mystery, the conviction as to the necessity and possibility of immediate knowledge of God, that made that possible, and the concept of church authority was simply an outgrowth of the basic perception, and for that reason was not felt to be an alien body that fettered thought.
That this theology was a theology of glory, a bold and confident theology sensing victory, is what we have to remember when we look at the decisions it reached on the individual problems that gave it its characteristic features and over against which the basic contradiction of the Reformation revolted (but only revolted!). If we adopt the same approach as that with which the scholastics tackled these problems, seeing and feeling them in all their unequivocal seriousness and beauty, then we cannot really be surprised that their decisions were so Catholic, but we can also see that the transition from the Middle Ages to the Reformation was not in truth as simple and self-evident as it might often seem if we look only at the polemical positions and counter-positions of individual thinkers and their adversaries.
In the light of that basic concept it was natural that the relation of God, the world, and humanity should be seen at every point as a graded structure of possibilities that are clearly different yet no less clearly in continuity, all leading up to the final possibility of a pure vision of God, and all experiencing their relative consecration and dignity from that supreme pinnacle and in virtue of their continuous connection with it. It was thus that the relation between reason and revelation was fundamentally regulated. They could not really contradict one another. They flowed from the same source, namely, the wisdom of God. So said John Scotus Erigena in the 9th century.23 On the eve of the Reformation age, as though time had stood still, the Humanist Pico della Mirandola could say similarly: "Philosophy seeks the truth, theology finds it."24 Between them, of course, lay a whole ocean of possibilities stretching the bow to the very limit. In any case one has to see two sides, not just one, even though one might be called William of Occam, who went as far as is humanly possible in exploring the problems of theology.25 There was no serious or sharp opposing of reason to revelation or revelation to reason. All along the line the result was a kind of pyramid, the possibility, no matter how paradoxical, of striding across from the one to the other, the supplementing of reason by revelation, the understanding of revelation by means of reason.
Nor could there be any real antithesis between the authority of the Bible and that of the church, problematic though their unity might often appear to be. The authority of the church embodied the idea of the theology of glory, the unbroken possibility of a path to God. No medieval teacher contested the truth that the church's authority rests on that of the biblical revelation, but in the scales against this they all set the dictum of Augustine: "I would not believe the gospel if the authority of the church did not move me to do so,"26 a saying that caused endless difficulties for his faithful followers, the reformers. Unlike the reformers, the medievals really saw no antithesis between a greater and lesser or a more distant and more immediate authority. Reconciliation was always possible.
In the knowledge of God, too, we have the bold ascent from the demonstrable existence of God to his essence, which is accessible to us humans only by revelation, though in the very same movement from us to God. In mystical terms we have here the movement from the finite to rest in the infinitude of the ground of the soul that is one and the same as God. Either way the step that can be taught and taken is bold but also one that can be envisioned methodically. Thus in the doctrine of God and the world we find the brave thesis that God as first cause is present in second causes, a thesis that leaves the possibility of miracle open but also makes it basically superfluous.
Similarly we have the ingenious and meaningful doctrinal structure of the first estate, the fall, original sin, freedom, grace, and justification, a structure which I cannot in this context depict in detail but relative to which, before we dismiss it with the catchword semi-Pelagianism,27 we need to consider its basic and helpful and consistently observed practical aim of showing there really is a path from earth to heaven, of giving visibility to eternal paradoxical truth, expounded in time and basically divested of its paradoxical character. Those who want this—and where are the Protestant theologians who are sure they can really do without it?—must at least examine closely the minute scholastic distinctions to see whether they contain just what they seek, or whether, if they despise them, they can truly do without a new and probably much worse semi-Pelagianism. For the Catholic doctrine of the appropriation of grace is truly remarkable in the way it considers all the elements, neglecting none and exaggerating none: nature and grace, humanity and God, freedom and dependence, a justifiable sense of self and humility before God, doing and receiving, meriting and being given, time and eternity. The later Reformation doctrine of salvation hardly contains anything that does not somewhere find a place in scholastic teaching in a heavily emphasized and underlined way.
At the same time there is nowhere any one-sidedness, any ultimate either/or. We always find the way, the possibility, the method, the theology of glory, which knows no final difficulty and is never at a loss vis-àvis the object before which it stands. Human innocence before the fall consists of a sure combination, free of all friction, between sensuality, understanding, and reason with its vision. Original sin is the absence of righteousness; we have been dealt a wound that is in need of healing. But we can become healthy—that is the famous freedom of the will (liberum arbitrium) we can be redeemed if we are diligently concerned, and when love from above, gratia gratis data, as Goethe said wholly in the spirit of the Middle Ages, plays its part in us.28 For grace can make what we do meritorious, or, according to Duns Scotus, God in his grace can accept what we humans do as meritorious.29 If this happens, then the prior grace that aids and disposes us becomes gratia gratum faciens or infusa, which is wholly God's work in us but is even so a wholly real and objective event, for grace does not abolish nature but perfects it (Scotus).30 By it human nature becomes capable of faith, which is infusa in terms of its origin and implicita in terms of its scope: it orients itself wittingly or unwittingly to what the authority of the church commands us to believe, being formed by love (caritate formata) in order that there should be no question as to its efficacy or merit. For the justification of sinners is real factio iustitiae (Thomas).31 It coincides with the infusion of grace.32 From the work of Christ on the cross that procures forgiveness of sins an unbroken chain of equations leads to the love that is the work of the Spirit of grace. Or, as Eckhardt put it, the conceiving of God in the soul, that triumph of the theology of glory, is the blossom that contains within itself, and will never fail to do so, the action of Martha, the desire and love of virtue, producing them out of itself.33 I ask again where in Protestant theology we find all this described in a way that is better or more illuminating or credible?
For this reason, too, the church in the Middle Ages was a real saving institution in which something was set up and achieved. As we have seen, the knowledge of God that marked the community of the elect was as such a possessing of God. This community not only had something to show but something to give. In virtue of the infinite merit of Christ's sacrificial death which was its basis, it was the place where grace is present and is dispensed, and outside it was no salvation.34 We cannot contest this concept by urging against it the usual slogans. It was a bold and titanic concept, significant in its titanism. To overcome it we have to understand it. It explains the dominant position of the sacraments in that church. The sacraments were the visible form of invisible grace,35 but as Scholasticism laid down with increasing decisiveness and consistency, they were not just signs. As signs they were the thing signified. They were not just signs of power but direct, real, sanctifying power. That is the difference between OT circumcision and NT baptism, taught Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas. The one merely signifies and takes its course with faith on the part of the recipient. The other, in the new covenant, has sacramental force (virtus sacramenti) by which the recipients are irresistibly given (ex opere operato) a sacramental character.36
We can see precisely from a study of the doctrine of the Lord's Supper how the principle of a theology of glory gradually established itself in this field that is so important in practice, first in the ideas of Gregory the Great, then in the debates focused on Radbert in the 9th century and Berengar in the 11th, then in the as yet uncertain definitions of Anselm, Hugh of St. Victor, and Peter Lombard, and finally in the full and unequivocal doctrine of transubstantiation proclaimed by Lateran IV in 1215. Later thinkers like Durandus of St. Pourçain, William of Occam, or Peter d'Ailly might express the victorious principle, in this case the equation of bread and wine with Christ's body and blood, in new forms, but in no instance did they question the principle itself.37 The principle is that of our immediacy to God. That is what triumphed no less in the scholastic doctrine of the Lord's Supper than in Dominican mysticism, and any who are concerned about this principle should ask whether it does not really find justice done to it in the best and most appropriate way in the Roman Catholic church.
In the history of the sacrament of penance again the valleys were filled in and the hills laid low [cf. Isa. 40:4] as obligatory confession developed out of a pious monastic practice, as priestly absolution, which was originally intended to recognize and crown preceding works of satisfaction, became a means of liberation from guilt and of reconciliation to God, to be followed by imposed duties that would make satisfaction and free from sin's penalties, whether in this life or under purgatorial stress in the next life. Irritation at the well-known indulgence system that was meant to soften and regulate the later penitential exercises should not blind us to the intention underlying the whole doctrine. Here again we have something that is often regarded as specifically evangelical, namely, the making of a simple and direct way to God, the principle of immediacy. What Scotus would finally proclaim as the essence of this sacrament was precisely the exclusion of preceding works of merit, even a meritorious heart's attrition, and the immediate relation of the soul to God by grace, the only point being that we have to be aliqualiter attriti, that we must not put anything in the way of grace, that we have to receive it. For that reason it could be said of this sacrament—the most personal and incisive, we have to say—that no other way is as simple or as sure.38 It would not be too hard to express this concept of penance in the language of a modern philosophy of immediacy, the only point being that the scholastics had at the outset the foresight to link the counterweight of works to be done after penance to the boldness of laying hold of what is immediate with such assurance of salvation.
If we try to listen to the whole of medieval theology from which I have selected a few typical details, we are surprised again and again by the great harmony, the mixture of boldness and sagacity, of profundity and common sense, that we find there. It is the harmony of the monastery garden with its rows of cherry trees and its splashing fountains and its surrounding walls that remind us of the world with its joy and grief39 but also shut it out. Or again, this is the harmony of the Gothic cathedral with its high altar, its soaring pillars, its roomy transepts, its hidden penitential stools, its eternal light, the dark glow of the windows of the choir—the cathedral where sinners and saints, worldlings and penitents, may all join together in common reconciling worship, where the last and deepest things may take place, where the donkey of Palm Sunday and the laughter of Easter are not out of place, where earth and heaven do indeed seem to touch. A "complex of opposites" is what Harnack called this church,40 and that is also true of its theology.
Let us come back with a few general characteristics to the direct impression that it makes. We are astonished at the certainty about life that the authors display and spread abroad in spite of opposing symptoms. They stand with both feet on the earth precisely because they stride on up to the world above, for that world is also for them a wonderful but attainable possibility. It is only a step between the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God, between the trivial and the ecstatic, and good care is taken to see that balance is constantly achieved between the two extremes. Even the most broken of these people seem to be able to take the step from below to above and to put the two worlds together. We are astonished at the completeness and subtlety with which this theology handles all its problems no less carefully than radically. What a waltz it dances in its investigations out from the center to every side! Everything is important, everything has to be elucidated and discussed, everything has to be at least prepared for further treatment by means of meaningful divisions and subdivisions in which the numbers three, four, and seven are particular favorites. The question of the hierarchical ranking of angels and the question what happens to Christ's body if the host is accidentally eaten by a mouse come under discussion with equal seriousness.41
We come away with the happy impression that we have really heard everything that we might want. We are also astonished at the definite way in which we are told about things regarding which we might at first ask with surprise how the authors can possibly know about them, but then have to admit shamefacedly that they have simply expounded to us in a meaningful and often very poetic way a dialectical possibility that is by no means obvious. Thomas, for example, assures us that the blessed ones in heaven are adorned with a golden crown (corona aurea), which, being both golden and circular, signifies the perfection of the fruitio Dei in the contemplation and love of which they share. Superadded for martyrs and saints, however, and especially for monks and nuns, is an aureola (diminutive of aurea) because that essential thing cannot be transcended by anything greater but only by something less.42 Or listen to what Heinrich Seuse has the damned in hell say about their punishment being eternal: "Woe on us, we did not want anything but this: if a millstone were so broad that it covered the whole earth, and if in the beginning it were so big that it even touched heaven, and if a little bird came every 100,000 years and bit out of it as much as the tenth part of a little millet seed, we wretches would wish nothing more than that when the stone was gone our eternal torment would have an end, and that cannot be."43
We are surely barren thinkers if we cannot see what insight is everywhere concealed in the imagery, yet we are no less astounded by the confidence with which these authors translate their insights into imagery that may often be striking. We must also be astounded at the remarkable peace that breathes over their discussions. It is true that here and there, for example, in Abelard or in scholastics of the age of the gathering 14th- and 15th-century storm, we detect highly existential inner conflicts and a hard struggle for composure before things can be as certain and unequivocal on paper as they now are. No doubt Scholasticism is renowned for its controversies and even conflicts. But what distinguishes it is the obvious rule that people spoke only when they were clear about things, only when what they had to say was ripe, so that there was no need to air abroad inner problems or unsolved questions or doubts, only at most to give an account of conflicts that had been ended. Hence, bitter though the quarrels between school and school might be, they took place within the same fellowship and on the same basic premises. The anger and tone of voice that we find in Reformation battles were alien to the Middle Ages. As we have to admit, Reformation contests were like peasant brawls compared to the elegant fencing of the scholastics…. One could then make very radical assertions unhindered without going over the line or really getting out of step. When getting out of step finally began to happen, when a Bradwardine or Wycliffe or Huss began to say really bad things to others, the Middle Ages were at an end. In the best classical age, that was not done, and the stake did not come into action as a theological argument.
But we must stop and ask what all this meant compared to Reformation theology. In relation to Scholasticism, as we have generally described it, that theology was obviously something "wholly other," if we may again put it thus, though we are agreed that there was no real breach of historical continuity. Within the continuity, however, we find first the emergence of a totally new style, the outbreak of a total restlessness, we must say, for along with the intellectual habitus that medieval theology had developed, and in contrast with it, the theological attitude of the Reformation, so long as it was in flux as a true countermovement, was so as a deliberate and angry rejection of that habitus, as a wild and elemental event at the heart of a cultivated land. The harmony of the monastery garden was broken and instead we seem to be in the virgin wilderness of mountain forests, if not in the terrors of the Wolfsschlucht.44 The harmony of the Gothic cathedral was at an end. The parallel lines to which we referred yesterday no longer intersected in the finite sphere no matter how high they might reach. No, they now relentlessly strove upward to a point of unity and rest in the infinite, the result being that the vault was broken open and heaven's daylight shone in from above. All was sober, nondevout, secular. The glory of God itself brought disaster to the theology of glory.
In saying this we have already disclosed the secret of the new theology. It made the discovery that theology has to do with God. It made the great and shattering discovery of the real theme of all theology. The secret was simply this, that it took this theme seriously in all its distinctiveness, that it names God God, that it lets God be God, the one object that by no bold human grasping or inquiry or approach can be simply one object among many others. God is. He lives. He judges and blesses. He slays and makes alive [cf. 1 Sam. 2:6]. He is the Creator and Redeemer and Lord. The Reformation did not really engender any new thoughts about God. It did the simple thing of underlining the He. And that put an end to the Middle Ages. For all the building stone by stone, all the mounting up step by step, all the moving from conclusion to co]nclusion, all this action in which the Middle Ages found its answers, had to become a question when it was underlined and understood that He, God, is the point of the whole enterprise. The basic Reformation view is God himself and God alone, He the way, He possibility; and therefore all our action, even though oriented to God, is vain even in the very best life;45 all humanity, the whole world, even in its supreme possibilities, is guilty, lost, but still justified, yet saved only by sheer mercy. The Reformation, too, knew of the glory of God and could speak about it. But it said: To God alone be the glory! That put an end to the theology of glory.
Let us find out first, however, what the emergence of this insight had to involve externally relative to our final survey of the Middle Ages. What are we to say in this regard precisely when we have taken pains to do justice impartially to Scholasticism, precisely when we have learned to like the medieval thinkers, precisely when we have perhaps recognized in them our own deepest longings and desires? May it not be that much of what we have thus far regarded as our supremely modern striving, our whole modern style of religion even with its Christian coloring, is at its deepest level medieval? Who is Goethe closer to, Dante or Luther? That is a question we may at least raise. Where do we belong with our Romanticism, with our drive for immediacy, with our urgent concern to be shown a path that we can tread? Can we stay on those heights on which the reformers ventured, no, on which they were set against their own wishes or expectations, and where an immovable barrier arrests all striving for immediacy, where steps are possible but no path opens up before us, where we can live but only as the dying [cf. 2 Cor. 6:9]? Would we not do better to turn back? Instead of Calvin might we not take Thomas as the one we can really understand better.46
If we want the security that we find in the scholastics, then it might be as well for us not to turn to the reformers. Certainty about God, indeed, we may expect that here, but a certainty that entails a supreme lack of security, that makes of life a problem, a question, a task, a need, that makes of the Christian life an unceasing battle: a battle for existence itself in which we constantly confront the impossible and the intolerable that Scholasticism, at least in its teaching, could always adroitly sidestep; a battle in which in truth God wills to be and can be the only helper.
We may well ask whether we are wise to leave the solid Catholic ground of balance and to launch out on the wild sea of Reformation thinking. Even the symmetrical completeness of subtle responses to all that we might want to know is something we cannot seek in Reformation theology. That theology is an emergency structure, not a well-appointed house. It offers no answers at all, or only incidental answers, to many interesting questions. The symmetry of the numbers three, four, and seven, the ladder to heaven that gives us confidence, the theological interplay, the highly intellectual feast—we find none of these things. The only concern in thinking here is to be serious and to keep the real theme in view. What a pile of ruins we have in Melanchthon's Loci, what a dark and threatening forest in Calvin's Institutes! Not everyone surely can have to tread these desolate places.
Nor may we seek in the reformers what is at least in part such reassuring and profound information about invisible things of which I gave you a couple of examples. The reformers were astonishingly eloquent on those relations between God and us about which one can speak, but astonishingly silent when it came to matters about which one can only be imaginative. They did not deny the possibility of speaking about such things but used the possibility sparingly.
And as for the peacefulness and decorum and good manners that might allow for disagreement but not quarreling, I have told you already that we cannot see these in the reformers. In them we do find quarreling. All the evil spirits of discord seem to have come to life. All the possibilities of quiet academic discussion between one view and another seem to have been excluded. Everything is so much a matter of principle, everything is in such deadly earnest, everything is so angry. Last things are always at issue. Innermost feelings are always exposed. Attacks on opponents are always pressed to the uttermost. For this reason the more delicate like Erasmus who found this hard stayed clear of the tumult so far as possible. Even Calvin would rather have passed his days as a private scholar than as a reformer, and he knew why. As a reformer, he found his life filled with conflicts on every hand concerning which we today can only with difficulty, if at all, convince ourselves that they had to be fought, or had to be fought in the way they were. Lovers of peace cannot possibly approve of this kind of life and this kind of theology in which there was constant hewing and stabbing on all sides. Is that really what the Reformation age involves? we might ask. But we do better to ask why it was that it had to be so and could not be otherwise in this new age.
The slogan that Luther used in the theses of the Heidelberg Disputation to distinguish his own theology from that of the scholastics was "theology of the cross." In what he said then, and in a similar situation and on the same front in his Disputation against Scholastic Theology a year ea
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