Monthly Archives: August 2014

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. Sacramentality Diminished

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.