“Whereas in Thomas’ metaphysical ontology the natural and supernatural realms are organically joined by the Being of God in whom we participate by reason and faith, the metahistorical alternative retraces nature and supernature, creation and redemption, to the Person of God, and points to God’s will as – to use air traffic terminology – the ‘ceiling’ of theology. His eternal decree of self-commitment has established the limits of theology which to surpass is to trespass, yielding sheer speculation.”
Oberman, The Dawn of the Reformation, 6-7
Aristotelian definitions yield a great deal, and they are therefore prized. One may question whether in this case too much is yielded. The alternative, however, is radically to limit what can be said. My sense is that a third, a Platonic alternative, more concerned with gestures, with identifying symbols in their place, is harder to understand and to use but may yield both language and possibility. I am not, however, a theologian.
I am also struck with the contrast that Oberman’s own emphasis makes between being and person. Does that use of the word person not sound an awful lot like Van Til? I hate to introduce that name to a discussion of anything, but I only do it in hopes of finding munitions.
“The warning against vana curiositas and academic speculation gave weight and new authority to experiential – the experience of man and nature, of history and society, of daily life – which would soon put the validity of the tradition to the test.”
Oberman is more interested in the development of the scientific method (38) than he is in the late 16th century puritan (and beyond) development that leads to experimental Calvinism. Still, his answer will serve for a beginning answer to the question, how is it that practical rather than speculative theology is often and still preferred? It seems that the answer has to do with what we conceive reality to be.
Politics and polity were also affected.
“Nominalism did call traditional truths and answers into question in order to replace them with a new vision of the relationship between the sacred and the secular by presenting coordination as an alternative to subordination and partnership of persons instead of the hierarchy of being.”
In theology, a new distaste was introduced.
“In other words, the transcendence of God is what really concerned the nominalist here. The distinction – and this we have not seen before – works itself out in two different ways: in theology and physics, which includes, of course, astronomy. In theology . . . the irrelevance and irreverence of speculative theology and man’s absolute dependence on God’s own revelation.”
So that, “In both theology and physics the distinction between possibility and reality helped to free man from the smothering embrace of metaphysics.”
The “smothering embrace of metaphysics” is all the vast realm of possibility. Once it has been eliminated, a reduced reality can be explored. Highly unsatisfactory, I think.
Oberman also makes a comparison between theology and physics, and you can see it clearly in the realm of astronomy. Without speculation, you get rigorous observation: practical, sensible, useful astronomy. With speculation, on the other hand, you get astrology. That he should insinuate a parallel between theology and physics is unfortunate, though I am sure it is intentional. Obviously Oberman, great historian though he is, finds both the comparison and the distinction useful. And the distinction is useful, when we can usefully distinguish possibility and this limited notion of reality as that which we perceive, we get applied science. We get, as I am not tired of observing, a whole set of goods of lesser value. But do we not also lose a whole set of goods of a higher value? We get a theology that is anti-speculative, and on the move. Could we expect that it will be metaphysically ill-informed?
* * *
I proceed now more specifically to Calvin. Why did Calvin, Steinmetz asks, reject the medieval distinction between absolute and ordained power of God? There, if anywhere, was some kind of remaining metaphysical distinction!
“Calvin rejects the distinction in part because he fears that it encourages the natural human tendency to speculate about the being and nature of God apart from revelation.”
Steinmetz, Calvin in Context, 48
So far, so continuous.
“Calvin is unwilling to entertain even a hypothetical separation of God’s power from his justice. Of course, Scotus and Ockham do not seriously intent to separate God’s power from God’s justice, except as an experiment in thought. But Calvin refuses to do even that. God’s power and justice are so tightly bound together that they cannot be separated. What the scholastics regard as a useful experiment in thought, Calvin regards as shocking blasphemy.”
Have we come a step further, or is this a step back? Is this Calvin making an intellectualist point? Can it be he is giving them some of their own medicine?
“Calvin reads the distinction between the potentia absoluta and the potentia ordinata, not as a distinction between the absolute and the ordained power of God, but as a distinction between potentia ordinata and inordinata, between ‘ordered’ and ‘disordered’ power. What the scholastics call the absolute power of God is a disordered power because it disjoins God’s power from his justice. In that sense all power of God, realized and unrealized, actual and potential, is potentia ordinata, power ordered by God’s justice.”
It is always useful to note that Calvin never received formal theological training. One of the things Steinmetz demonstrates is that Calvin was aware of the theological conversations of his day, but his approach may not have been guided. This, of course, does not mean his thinking is to be despised. It must be understood, and he must be sorted out. We do see, however, that he appropriates late medieval developments in his own way. It turns out it is his own zeal for order that accounts for his rejection of that distinction.
For Calvin “Reformation is the re-ordering of the lives of the faithful. Confusion and dispersal is the undermining of the God-intended order by Satan and his evil instruments.”
One can only wish Calvin had been more interested in metaphysical order. Clearly, he is not behaving as a voluntarist at this point, though he seems to be operating on unacknowledged nominalist assumptions. It is as if the framework of nominalism cannot be questioned, though the conclusions it requires can. I am no theologian. I do think, however, that inferior theology is what results.