Modern Ontology – How Did We Get Here? Pt. 3

Parts 1 and 2.

In my last post, I described in the briefest possible terms the intellectual underpinnings of the shift from a pre-modern to a modern ontology. In this installment, I will examine the complex way that the inheritors of this new mode of thinking worked it out in their theological work. We will look at the Radical Reformer Balthasar Hubmaier and magisterial reformers Luther and Calvin. What is evident is that while their thought would not have been possible within the ontology described in part one, they do not embody a purely modern ontology either, and move toward it in complex and at times contradictory ways.

III. Inheritors of a diminished sacramentality

Balthasar Hubmaier (c. 1480 – 1528) occupies a fascinating and instructive place within Reformation thought. He embodied a libertarian anthropology we could anachronistically label hyper-Arminian.[1] He derived this anthropology from Bernard of Clairvaux (Hubmaier’s Von der Freiheit is virtually a paraphrase of Bernard’s De gratia[2]), and maintained or even intensified it long after rejecting Bernard’s Cistercian monastic theological grounding. Despite being the first Radical Reformer to undergo adult baptism, Bernard perceived himself as a faithful Lutheran (indeed, preached Lutheranism from Catholic pulpits before leaving his position at Nikolsberg), and stood the rest of his career as the only Anabaptist who nonetheless held to the ex opere operato effectiveness of the sacraments.[3] Both these differences are instructive for discerning the underlying ontology still in flux in Hubmaier and Luther’s day.

We may well ask how any Anabaptist could believe he was following Lutheran doctrine. Hubmaier was never uninformed as to Luther’s positions, and began by arguing from the pulpit a point-by-point refutation of the 95 Theses.[4] Hubmaier continued reading Luther’s publications, however, and by 1519 became enamored of the reformer’s critiques and hermeneutical strategy. It was in this year Luther wrote that “Baptism and the Supper mean nothing without previous faith—they are like a sign outside a pub that serves no alcohol,”[5] a phrase that Hubmaier would go on to quote verbatim in his speaking and writing the rest of his life.  On this basis, Hubmaier reasoned that infants, who could not have a previous faith, could not be baptized.[6] Luther entertained this idea, but concluded against it. Why? On the basis of the distinction between glaub, personal faith, and fides, the faith of the community who baptizes, “which may or may not immediately manifest itself in outward belief.”[7] Both Luther and Hubmaier embrace sacramental views of baptism. Both regard it as effective, not symbolic, and for both the effectiveness proceeds from faith. At the same time, we can see Hubmaier occupying the more intuitively modern position, as he directly links the faith to the one being baptized. Luther’s conception of faith on behalf of another is more sympathetic, more “magical” than modern ontology can easily account for. Both Luther and Hubmaier are products of shifting ontology, but Hubmaier “[carries] to logical extremes the most philosophically ‘realist’ versions of baptismal and Eucharistic doctrine available in the sixteenth century.”[8] Over against this “philosophically realist” version of the sacraments stands Hubmaier’s continued dependence on Bernard, “who recognized glimpses of the imago Dei throughout the created order and accordingly held that events in the tangible realm could participate in the divinity of the superior immaterial realm.”[9] In other words, Bernard held to a sacramental ontology. Hubmaier followed Bernard’s anthropology, unhooking it from ontology, and ended up in the unique position of the only sacramental Anabaptist. He thus highlights the complexities of Reformation-era Christian philosophy: still sacramental in some ways (as Luther attests), already wholly disenchanted in others (as the Anabaptists more generally demonstrate).

John Calvin is different still.  In some ways, Calvin can be seen as a strong reaction against the developments of late Medieval Catholicism, a resistance against the diminution of sacramental metaphysics. The doctrine of justification in particular “ceased in this period to do with a sharing in the divine nature and became more a matter of bare divine decree, without ontological infusion.”[10] It is clear to see how this kind of view became possible only in the aftermath of the kinds of philosophical moves made by Scotus and Ockham. Calvin’s emphasis on the “unified divine glory” cannot stand these kinds of moves. “Like Aquinas and unlike Scotus, Calvin allows that creaturely freedom in its very freedom is fully and absolutely determined by God—since the two do not compete with each other in a zero-sum game.”[11] Calvin’s account of predestination, in other words, is predicated on a sacramental metaphysics of participation, which may account for how incomprehensible it appears to modern Christians.[12]

In contrast to an Arminius or a Wesley, therefore, Calvin is a bulwark against disenchantment. Likewise, in contrast to Luther’s account of consubstantiation, Calvin’s eucharistic theology is strikingly participationist: “If God is not in the elements by local spatial presence, as in Luther’s doctrine of consubstantiation, but nonetheless the Eucharist conveys a spiritual sharing in Christ’s body in heven, then is not this also a kind of participation of the finite in the infinite?”[13] Yet Calvin can also be read as an “immense energy behind the denial of the sacred.”[14] Calvin is seldom explicit about his metaphysical underpinnings and, moreover, led strong attacks on the rituals of the Catholic Church, as they were based not in personal faith but in “magic.” “This fight is not carried on because enchantment is totally untrue [for Calvin], but rather because it is necessarily ungodly.”[15]

[1] Kirk R. MacGregor, A Central European Synthesis of Radical and Magisterial Reform: The Sacramental Theology of Balthasar Hubmaier (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2006), vi.

[2] Ibid., 39-89.

[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] Ibid, 98.

[5] My translation. “Tauf und das Nachmal nichts sollen on vorgeenden glauben: Sy seyend… wie ainn rayff vor dem wirtshauβ on wein.” Martin Luther, “Ein Sermon von dem neuen Testament, das ist von fer heiligen Messe,” in Luthers Werke, 6:363.

[6] MacGregor, 26.

[7] Ibid., 256.

[8] MacGregor, 255.

[9] Ibid.

[10] John Milbank, “Alternative Protestantism” in Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition, ed. James K. A. Smith and James Olthuis (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2005), 27.

[11] Milbank, Alternative Protestantism, 29.

[12] It must be noted, of course, that Calvinists after Calvin often make recourse to modern rather than sacramental modes of explanation, such as distinctions between God’s absolute and ordained will.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Taylor, 77.

[15] Ibid., 80.

Modern Ontology – How Did We Get Here? Pt. 2

In my last entry, I examined Charles Taylor’s explanation of what a pre-modern ontology consisted in. I value Taylor’s work extremely, in large part because instead of focusing simply on the articulation of the beliefs of significant individuals, he focuses on reconstructing an entire habitus: “the lifestyle, values, dispositions and expectations of particular social groups that are acquired through the activities and experiences of everyday life.” 

I, however, will not be able to do that, and must instead work with significant thinkers. In today’s post, I will examine the philosophical groundwork that was laid during the high medieval period (the same period Taylor was discussing on the level of habitus), which in turn permitted the development of a modernist epistemology and ontology. Subsequent posts will look at the thinking of key Reformation thinkers as they work out this new construal in various ways. 


II. Foundations of Ontological Change

The world described in my last post is a sacramental world, where elements are thought to cohere with one another in ways moderns regard as magical, because it rested on a sacramental ontology. This ontology understood reality (or being) as participating in God in a neo-platonic sense (we can trace this from early times through Athanasius and into Aquinas). Knowledge concomitantly was understood as functioning by sacramental analogy, in a schema in which

both faith and reason are included within the more generic framework of participation in the mind of God: to reason truly one must be already illumined by God, while revelation itself is but a higher measure of such illumination, conjoined intrinsically and inseparably with a created event which symbolically discloses that transcendent reality, to which all created events to a lesser degree also point.[1]

 This is what is meant by a sacramental ontology.

Duns Scotus (1266 – 1308), however, “argued that the idea of analogous being simply does not make sense.”[2] James K.A. Smith describes Scotus’s perspective: “Both the Creator and the creature exist in the same way or in the same sense. Being, now, becomes a category that is unhooked from participation in God and is a more neutral or abstract qualifier that is applied to God and creatures in the same way.”[3] Hans Boersma explains that this concept of Scotus’s, the univocity of being as opposed to participation, “serves as one of the blades of modernity’s scissors that cut the real, sacramental presence of God in the natural world.”[4] Scotus’s univocity of being flattens the ontological horizon. This by no means demanded the diminution of sacramentality, but it was a necessary and even sufficient condition for thinkers to do so. With this framework in place, it became possible to “understand being in an unambiguous, sheerly  ‘existential’ sense, as the object of a proposition, without reference to God, who is later claimed ‘to be’ in the same univocal manner.”[5]

A second philosophical move that allowed of the reconfiguring of sacramentality was the move of William of Ockham (1287 – 1347) toward nominalism.[6] In a debate that can be traced in virtually identical terms to Plato and Aristotle, Ockham favored the Aristotelian assertion that universal forms have no existence independent of the minds that perceive (rightly or wrongly) the commonality between disparate objects. Hence, Ockham’s main point was that “there is no need to postulate any factors other than the mind and individual things in order to explain the universal. The universal concept arises simply because there are varying degrees of similarity between things.”[7]

For Ockham, any two things were similar not because they shared or participated in some “form” or “nature,” but simply because God (who, thanks to Scotus’s univocity of being, is no longer necessarily tied to the conditions of creation) willed them to be similar.[8] This willing on God’s part is arbitrary as regards creation: God could have willed otherwise. With these two pieces in place, it was inevitable that nature would come to be seen as “fully equipped to act without special divine assistance.”[9]  Moreover, “if the actual order of nature functioned as an independent entity directed only by its own teleology, the elevation to grace had to be regarded as a divine addition to the realm of nature.”[10] Nature had become, in principle, disenchanted: whereas all things had been understood to participate in the being of God and find their coherence therein, now two distinct orders could be perceived, and places such as churches and graveyards as well as acts such as the Eucharist or baptism could be seen as belonging in one or the other. This is the first step, both logically and chronologically, in the modern diminution of sacramentality.

A similar move occurred along moral grounds, and we see in a successive series of attempts at reform a critique of the established church’s handling of the power that it possessed in the form of blessed bread, blessed candles, holy water, saints’ relics and the like. The church had always had to “police the boundary between the licit and the illicit” uses of such power, as “there were always dubious uses of causal power, like employing the Host as a love charm; and frankly evil ones, like a Mass for the dead said for a living person, in order to hasten his demise.”[11] But beginning with Wycliffe (1320–1384) and the Lollards, then the Hussites, and eventually taking root in the Protestant Reformation was a critique of the whole concept that these things had power in themselves irrespective of the merit or intentions of the one invoking the power.[12] This came to a head particularly in Northern European debates over indulgences, a central issue to the Reformation. Yet for the moral and social critique to enter into the realm of arguments that could be leveled in the first place, the kinds of philosophical moves Scotus and Ockham had put in play were required. The Reformers, then, were not the initiators of modernity, as might appear on a surface–level reading, but were the first inheritors of modernity come of age.

This inheritance is what we will be examining next. 

[1] John Milbank, “The Theological Critique of Philosophy,” Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (London, Routledge: 1999), 24.

[2] Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 74.

[3] James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology (Grand Rapids,

MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 97.

[4] Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 74.

[5] John Milbank, “Only Theology Overcomes Metaphysics,” New Blackfriars 76 (1995): 334.

[6] “Toward” as Ockham affirmed the existence of universals as concepts in our minds, therefore remaining, technically, a conceptualist rather than a nominalist himself. Nevertheless, it was doubtless Ockham who pushed the

[7] Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 3 vols. (New York, NY: Image/Doubleday, 1963), III:69.

[8] Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 81.

[9] Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1993), 177.

[10] Ibid., emphasis mine.

[11] Taylor, 72.

[12] Taylor, 72.


Modern Ontology – How Did We Get Here? Pt. 1

The basis of modernity is its rationalist ontology, which in a secular society is held by believer and skeptic alike. To call our age secular is not merely to say that unbelief has become an option, or even the default. Rather, even our forms of belief have become secular. In a coming series of posts, I will examine the rise of the rationalist – or “disenchanted” – ontology from the high middle ages through the Reformation. 

Today’s post will look at Charles’ Taylor’s account of the worldview we’ve left behind and largely forgotten. (Interestingly, J.R.R. Tolkien managed to enter imaginatively into this worldview, and it would be a profitable study to work out the implicit ontology of his work and compare it with Taylor’s account. A task for another time, I’m afraid.)

Charles Taylor’s Account of The Enchanted World

In the opening pages of his magisterial A Secular Age, Charles Taylor (b. 1931) states that the defining characteristic the secular age in which we find ourselves—modernity—is a sense of “disenchantment.”[1] This is actually a double observation, an explanation about a point in history that is itself fraught with history. Taylor himself realizes this, explaining that “our use of this word bespeaks our sense that [the world] was once enchanted.”[2] We know this, moreover, because it is an understanding that we are trained into as we grow up—it is a hidden part of our education process. We are told not to indulge in “magical” thinking, or in “myth”; we are told that visionaries are “ahead of their time”; we are told that to be “medieval” is akin to being “barbaric.” In Taylor’s terms, these subtle cues are part of the “disciplines of disenchantment,” at once making it clear that we come from an intellectually dangerous past and that we must work to maintain the achievements of secularity: “our past is sedimented in our present.”[3]

In what did this “enchanted” past consist? At the most obvious level, a cosmos inhabited by spirits and other extra-human agents, both benevolent and malevolent: demons, angels, spirits of forest and wilderness, as well as the cult of the saints.[4] These extra-human agents were not simply conceived of as disembodied minds, as some may hold in our post-Cartesian age, but “were often linked to centres [sic] where their relics resided.”[5] These relics, as well as other powerful objects (e.g. candles blessed at Candlemas), were “loci of spiritual power; which is why they had to be treated with care, and if abused could wreak terrible damage.”[6] And what must be stressed is that in the enchanted world, these sorts of objects and locales have power and meaning ex opere operato: their power in no way proceeds from meaning imbued to them in a person’s mind. The object/agent distinction, in other words, is a modern achievement.

Further, while extra-human agents can at first be easily understood on the analogy of human intention (many modern Christians believe quite strongly in disembodied angels, demons and spirits of loved ones), not all cosmic forces in the enchanted world can function on this kind of intelligible analogy:  “There is a whole gamut of them, which progressively depart from the personal, until we need a quite different model; that of cosmic realities which nevertheless incorporate certain meanings; and hence can affect us.”[7] For instance, moderns may feel depressed and be assured that their depression is a result of a chemical imbalance, or a repressed memory. They do not, except in poetic terms, tend to identify with their depression (in any case, the wisdom of our age urges them not to). But a medieval European will not be helped by learning from his physician “that his mood comes from black bile. Because this doesn’t permit a distancing. Black bile is melancholy. Now he just knows he’s in the grips of the real thing.”[8]

In the same way that bile is identified with melancholia in a sense that eludes cause and effect, a graveyard is identified with sacred ground, a saint’s bones with both healing- and moral power, the calendar year with sacred history, and the social order with sacred order.[9] Most importantly, all of this functioned at the level of naïve belief. It was held by common people and the elite alike. Not only was modern secularism not held to, its concepts were not even within the lexicon, so to speak, of either the intellectuals or “common people” of the age. The alternative to this enchanted, sacramental world had to be constructed, and precisely because of the identification of the way things are and their participation in a divine order, this was a difficult alternative to achieve, and it took root among the philosophers long before its influence was felt more broadly.


[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 28.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4] Ibid., 32.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Taylor, 32.

[7] Ibid., 37.

[8] Ibid., emphasis original.

[9] Ibid., 61. 

Too often the eucharist is a way of taking God for granted by accepting too easily the formula that sacrifices are necessary for the common good. Jesus had to die, unfortunately, but thank God that he did! Likewise, animals have to die, unfortunately, but they taste so good! In both cases, the sacrificial victim is objectified as a necessary means to some extrinsic end. The victims are appropriate because they were meant to be delivered unto human hands… To eat a meal of sacrifice, it is almost impossible not to think that the inevitable has occurred, thus relieving one of responsibility and obligation. The eucharist that repeats Christ’s sacrifice (and puts the liturgist in the role of the sacrificer) confirms us in our belief that sacrifices of innocent lives for our own good are good in themselves. 


-Stephen H Webb, On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals


The Church’s Influence on Society

Thus if our model of the apostolic life is monks living in a monastery off in the wilderness, we wouldn’t think think that even the highest degree of sanctity would necessarily put an end to violence and disorder in the world. The situation is, of course, very different if we think of the Christian life not in terms of minority communities, but as embracing everyone. But even this doesn’t mean that social order must accrue to sanctity; we have to remember that all parties during the Reformation, but especially the Protestants, held to a hyper-Augustinian position, according to which only a small minority were saved. The way in which Christian living could bring about order in society was thus not, in all consistency, that every member was a saint. That was the path of the separatist sects, firmly refused by both Luther and Calvin. Rather it would have to be that the Godly minority control things and keep them on the right track.

From Charles Taylor’s magisterial work, A Secular Age (p 105).

We can see the way Calvinist and Lutheran societies “kept things on the right track” in Luther’s Germany, Calvin’s Geneva and Puritan New England, among other places.  But is this model workable in our post-Christendom age? And if not, does that necessitate even the Reformed faiths falling back into the Anabaptist social posture that Taylor here has them “firmly refusing”?

A Triple Portraiture of Faith

Let us imagine three individuals.  All three grew up in the same conservative evangelical church with the same conservative evangelical views.  All three self-designated as Christians before leaving for university.

At university, the first found his views about the nature of the universe, science, the world and scripture challenged.  He began to wonder if the faith of his childhood was simply myths and superstitions.  He disliked this idea, and began to read as much Christian apologetic literature as he could find.  He became conversant with the arguments, and concluded that though theism in general and Christianity in particular could not be proved to a skeptic—It is, after all, with the heart one believes, he often said—it could not be disproved either.  It could stand up to scrutiny and one could continue believing without committing intellectual suicide.  He had moments of doubt—moments, indeed, of near crisis—late at night sometimes, but he held on to his faith, including his belief that even where he himself could not defend it or reconcile it, scripture was inerrant and the image painted of God was good, true and beautiful.

Our second individual also went to university and heard the same arguments.  His faith was troubled, and though he also became conversant with many of the standard Christian explanations, he found them insufficient.  In particular, the genocides ordered in the Old Testament seemed wholly out of keeping with the tenor of Jesus in the New Testament.  That one glaring contradiction gave credence to other, very specific contradictions that appeared in the books of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others. He didn’t even notice as his assessment of Jesus gradually shifted from positive to negative, coming alongside his low view of Yahweh.  He found Christopher Hitchens’ depiction of God as a “cosmic North Korea, constantly surveilling the world looking for sin” accurate and frightening.  He read Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus and was glad to have reasons to reject every aspect of the Bible.  Sometimes, late at night, he had doubts, fears that God was actually out there somewhere, perhaps just out of his peripheral vision, beckoning him from his childhood faith to return, but he always managed to think of these as pathological childhood hangups.  He successfully resisted faith.

Our third individual met the same challenges to his faith, and read the same Christian defenses as the first, and the same New Atheist attacks as the second.  He found the Christian apologetics useless, but the atheist attacks to be aimed at the wrong target.  There was an existential fit to Christianity that he found nurturing to his soul, and the New Atheists attempts to characterize Christianity “untrue” were pointless and as “evil and vile” might describe some forms of Christianity he has experienced, but they weren’t the Christianity he understood or embraced.  A literature major, he read Julian of Norwich’s Revelations and the novels of G. K. Chesterton and recognized in them the spirit of Christ he had felt in his childhood.  And while the Bible might be full of historical inaccuracies, and ANE myths, and contradictions, and cover-ups and plays for power—after all, history is written by the victorious, he recognized—it spoke to him what he recognized as God’s truth.  And he loved the the church and its sacraments and its symbolism; he didn’t believe in objective truth and didn’t know what that meant for anyone but him.  But he didn’t feel that he needed objective truth: he had Jesus. 

These are hypothetical, of course, but I know people of all these stripes, and I imagine you do too.  I think many of us have spent time in each of these postures, or at least in a couple of them.  My question is, which of these individuals is in and which is out?  The second gentleman, of course, believes all three are out: there’s nothing to be in. The third doesn’t have objective lines to argue along, but may well hope all three are in in their own way.  The first may well doubt that he is in, but he hopes that he is. How does he feel about the others?

Where are you?  How do you feel about the others?  What do you hope for?  

The Shortcomings of Obama/Obama’s America

I don’t imagine I’ll vote this year. I have voted before, and I’m not utterly opposed to it. As I tell my non-voting friends, just think of it as a form of non-violent social protest. Still, inasmuch as I’m convinced the church is a pilgrim people suffering in and trying to save a fallen Babylon culture, I’m convinced that determining who wields Babylon’s sword is a matter of some indifference to me.

I did go see Dinesh D’Souza’s hit job (I mean, documentary) about Obama and found it disappointing, not because it tried to paint a conspiracy-theory portrait of Obama as secretly hating America and planning to bring it down from within, which I think we’re all getting used to, but because it missed the opportunity to make a number of valid criticisms of Obama’s policies. Here we have a President who has redefined “enemy combatant” and “civilian” in such a way that we regularly, robotically kill suspected enemies without trial. Here is a President who ran on opposition to indefinite detention and within his first year established a framework to make such detentions legal. Here is a man who ran against Bush’s abuse of centralized power, and then shored up that power. These are pressing concerns – bordering on terrifying – and here is an opportunity to enlighten a public eager to believe… and nothing is said.

I suspect nothing is said because D’Souza and his constituency have a vested interested in exactly the moves Obama is making, so long as their party can take control of that shored-up power and use it to further their own view of America’s aims.  And what is left for the church to do?  It’s not enough to make sure one group of oligarchs rather than another wields that sword, though we may see some specific ends worth procuring in the process, and that’s not nothing.  Yet our central task remains witnessing to the reality of God’s reign, in which enemies are destroyed not through pin-point accurate unmanned drones, but through the love of God.  Our central task remains to open our homes and  tables, to pray for our leader and troops, and for theirs.  Our task remains to be the church in a fallen world, a world that can’t even recognize its fallenness.

The shortcomings of both Obama and “Obama’s America” are made up for in the church.