William of Ockham:
Herald of a New Age
During the latter part of the Middle Ages (the fourteenth century), when the dominant position of the church in culture began to erode on all sides, a movement arose within scholasticism that broke radically with the ecclesiastical synthesis. This turn of events announced the beginning of the "modern period." The leader of this movement was the British Franciscan William of Ockham [c. 1280-1349]. Ockham, a brilliant monk, mercilessly laid bare the inner dualism of the Roman Catholic ground-motive, denying that any point of contact existed between the realm of nature and the realm of grace [see note]. He was keenly aware that the Greek view of nature flagrantly contradicted the Scriptural motive of creation.
Thomas Aquinas had maintained that the natural ordinances were grounded in divine "reason." For him they were eternal "forms" in the mind of God, in accordance with which God had shaped "matter." Ockham, however, rejected this entire position. Intuitively he knew that Thomas's essentially Greek picture could not be reconciled with the confession of a sovereign Creator. However, in order to break with the Greek deification of reason he ended up in another extreme. He interpreted the will of the divine creator as despotic arbitrariness, or potestas absoluta (absolute, free power).
In Greek fashion Thomas had identified the decalogue with a natural, moral law rooted immutably in the rational nature of man and in divine reason. For this reason Thomas held that the decalogue could be known apart from revelation by means of the natural light of reason. But for Ockham, the decalogue did not have a rational basis. It was the gift of an arbitrary God, a God who was bound to nothing. God could easily have ordered the opposite. Ockham believed that the Christian must obey the laws of God for the simple reason that God established these laws and not others. The Christian could not "calculate" God's sovereign will, for the law was merely the result of God's unlimited arbitrariness. In the realm of "nature" the Christian must blindly obey; in the realm of the supranatural truths of grace he must, without question, accept the dogma of the Church.
Ockham abandoned every thought of a "natural preparation" for ecclesiastical faith through "natural knowledge." Likewise, he rejected the idea that the Church is competent to give supranatural guidance in natural life. He did not acknowledge, for instance, [the view of Aquinas] that science is subordinate to ecclesiastical belief. Neither did he believe that the temporal authorities are subordinate to the Pope with respect to the explication of natural morality. In principle he rejected the Roman Catholic view of a "Christian society"; standing entirely independent of the Church, secular government in his view was indeed "sovereign."
In short, we may say that Ockham deprived the law of its intrinsic value. Founded in an incalculable, arbitrary God who is bound to nothing, the law only held for the sinful realm of nature. For Ockham, humankind is never certain that God's will would not change under different circumstances. Radically denying that any point of contact between nature and grace existed, he rejected the official Roman Catholic view of human society, together with its subordination of the natural to the supranatural and of the State to the Church.
The attempts of Pope John XXII to stifle the spiritual movement led by Ockham were in vain. The Pope's position was very weak; having been forced to flee from Rome, he depended greatly on the King of France during his exile at Avignon. But above all, a new period in history announced itself at this time — a period that signified the end of medieval, ecclesiastical culture. Ockham's critique convinced many that the Roman Catholic synthesis between the Greek view of nature and the Christian religion had been permanently destroyed.
The future presented only two options: one could either return to the Scriptural ground-motive of the Christian religion or, in line with the new motive of nature severed from the faith of the Church, establish a modern view of life concentrated on the religion of human personality. The first path led to the Reformation; the second path led to modern humanism. In both movements, after-effects of the Roman Catholic motive of nature and grace continued to be felt for a long time.
In order to gain a proper insight into the spiritual situation of contemporary Protestantism, it is extremely important to trace the after-effects of the Roman Catholic ground-motive. In doing this, we will focus our attention especially on the various conceptions concerning the relation between "church" and "world" in Protestant circles. We will be especially interested in "Barthianism," so widely influential today.
(Extract from "Roots of Western Culture: Pagan, Secular, and Christian Options" pp 136-138, by Herman Dooyeweerd).
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