The Fourteenth-Century Metaphysical Shift

June 11, 2010


Dr. Matthew Levering, associate professor of theology at Ave Maria University (Florida)

In his book Participatory Biblical Exegesis, author Matthew Levering explores the question why one form of biblical exegesis lost its appeal and another form became appealing. He develops strong reasons for considering a connection between biblical exegesis and metaphysical presuppositions regarding historical reality. First he explores the metaphysical shift that came about in the 14th century:

The Catholic exegete and theologian Francis Martin has shown that biblical interpretation requires an account of historical reality informed by a scriptural metaphysics rooted in the relation of “participation” that is creation. This is so because exegesis (including much contemporary exegesis) that participates doctrinally and spiritually in the realities depicted by Scripture, and thus reads Scripture not merely as a record of something strictly in the past, requires the sense that all human time participates metaphysically (order of creation) and Christologically-pneumatologically (order of grace) in God’s eternal Providence and therefore that no historical text or event can be studied strictly “on its own terms.” Conversely, certain metaphysical presuppositions are inadequate to Christian biblical interpretation. It seems to me that Catherine Pickstock describes just such a set of presuppositions in recounting the impact of Duns Scotus’ thought:

As a “proto-modern” thinker, Scotus’ contributions had implications for the alliance between theology and the metaphysical (in the broad sense of pre-Scotist Platonic-Aristotelian philosophical realism, not in the sense of onto-theology). For within the prevailing theologico-metaphysical discourse of participated-in perfections, there was a ready continuity between reason and revelation: reason itself was drawn upwards by divine light, while, inversely, revelation involved the conjunction of radiant being and further illuminated mind. Here, as we have seen, to rise to the Good, before as well as within faith, was to rise to God. But once the perceived relationship to the transcendentals has undergone the shift described above, to abstract to the Good tells us nothing concerning the divine nature. To know the latter, we wait far more upon a positive revelation of something that has for us the impact of a contingent fact rather than a metaphysical necessity. One can interpret the latter outcome as modern misfortune: the loss of an integrally conceptual and mystical path.

Although the positions of the theological movement in which Pickstock is a prime mover have been criticized for historical sloppiness, her central claims here — that the fourteenth century marks a shift away from the patristic –medieval understanding of “participated-in perfections,” and that Scotus, although not a nominalist in the twelfth-century sense, plays a crucial role in this development — find broad scholarly agreement among experts on late-medieval thought.

Olivier Boulnois, the preeminent contemporary interpreter of Scotus’ work, refers to “the Scotist rupture.” The human will for Scotus mirrors the freedom of the divine will,” and Scotus denies that the will is an appetite that seeks its fulfillment or perfection. Scotus also rejects the teleological framework of “final causality” as “a flight into fantasy”(fitgiendo finguntur viae mirabiles). The patristic-medieval tradition prior to Scotus interpreted reality in terms of participation (Platonic) and teleological nature (Aristotelian). In contrast to Aquinas, who unites these two approaches through a metaphysics of creation, Scotus brings about “a strange fragmentation” in which goodness no longer has its Platonic participatory characters. For Scotus, too, God does not know creatures in knowing himself (the strong sense of participation), but rather knows creatures as a conceptual object of the divine mind. While participation remains in Scotus, it does so in a deracinated form: representation rather than exemplarity. Lacking a rich account of participation and analogy reality is “de-symbolized”: human time is no longer understood as caught up in a participatory relationship with God, and history becomes a strictly linear, horizontal, intra-temporal series of moments.

After Scotus, human freedom may submit to the divine will, but thereafter on the grounds of God’s obligating power rather than on participatory-teleological grounds Does the shift toward understanding human freedom and history as a non-participatory reality — the “rupture” identified by Boulnois — begin, therefore, with Duns Scotus? That question must be left to medievalists, but it does seem that we can identify in his work certain metaphysical patterns that remain influential today. The question for us is how to assess the theological effects of these patterns. Evaluating the fourteenth-century shift positively, the historian Anthony Levi describes the autonomous humanism that emerges once participation theories are displaced:

Renaissance and reformation were connected because they were each forms taken by the restatements of the view that human perfection, even religious perfection, is intrinsic to human moral elevation as judged against norms based on rational human nature itself. However surprising it may sound to say so today, the history of the renaissance and the reformation seems not only to have a moral, but a moral that gives grounds for optimism, although not for complacency. However far it may still have to go, however patchy and sporadic success may so far have been, and however compromised by the modern technology of repression, in the end it looks as if; in the best possible environmental circumstances which Rabelais, borrowing from Erasmus, envisaged for Théleme, human nature tends in the long term to construct human societies according to increasingly humanitarian ethical norms.

For Levi, denial that the human path toward perfection involves teleological participation in God (and thus participation in God’s wise and loving Trinitarian ordo allows human beings to reason out their own paths and thereby to achieve greater success in finding truly “humanitarian” ethical norms. Levi is joined in his positive evaluation by ethicists who find in the autonomous agent’s blind leap of obedience a noble and exalted “charity” that does not dare to “know” and thereby does not onto-theologically lay claim to the radically free “God,” as well as by ethicists who do not believe in God.

A very different assessment is offered by Matthew Lamb, among others. Lamb argues that the nominalist shift produces an inability to conceive of the self or of history as marked by either divine presence or human judgments that participate in transcendental truth and goodness. Instead, what remains, as Lamb shows by means of a comparison between Augustine’s and Rousseau’s Confessions, are the brute facts of dates and places, which reveal nothing but the ego confined within a strictly linear (horizontal) space-time horizon. In the logistic matrix described by Lamb, human beings stand over against the “God” (presuming his existence) whose agency is now seen as imposing limits on human agency, rather than as a participatory framework that establishes freedom. Lamb elsewhere recounts this relationship of opposition between time and divine eternity:

Nominalism paved the way for the Enlightenment to set eternal life in opposition to history, so that those seeking eternal life were despising the good life on earth. … From this loss of a grasp of the simultaneous totality of time in God’s presence, there was a dissolution of time itself into a continuum of isolated moments. The present was set in opposition to the past. Memory and tradition were disparaged; the apocalyptic expectation that awaited the advent of the kingdom of God was emptied into what Metz calls “a softened evolutionary eschatology”.

By the seventeenth century, the participatory understanding of historical reality was on its last legs among intellectuals, although the overall unity of the onward-marching linear-historical moments was still presumed.

Hans Frei finds a similar logistic conceptualism in Enlightenment biblical hermeneutics, although unlike Lamb he does not, so far as I know, draw the connection to late-medieval thought. Discussing the “super-naturalist” position on the Bible offered — within the context of the emergence of historical criticism — by the eighteenth-century Lutheran theologian Sigmund Jakob Baumgarten, Frei notes that for Baumgarten the accuracy of biblical history “can be brought to the highest degree of probability or the greatest possible moral certainty in accordance with all the logical rules of a historical proof” By the eighteenth century, logical rules of historiography took priority over the Bible’s narrative as the ground on which Christians could understand themselves. These rules envisioned God’s action as radically “external” to human action, and thus extrinsic to historical accounts of Scripture’s genesis and meaning. In patristic and medieval hermeneutics, by contrast, not logical rules of historiography, but faith in a providential God grounded the assumption that the books of the Bible displayed the divine pattern of salvation. This faith nourishes and is nourished by the Church’s biblical reading, understood as a set of embodied and liturgical practices constituting the Church’s conversatio Dei.

As Frei no doubt knew, he could have traced his insight into the ascendancy of historiography further back than the eighteenth century. Joseph Levine remarks:

By the end of the eighteenth century, theology had become dependent on history, and religion was justified by an appeal to “matter of fact.” Even such mysteries as the doctrine of the Trinity, which had eluded the reason of St. Thomas and the schoolmen and had remained dependent on the dictates of church councils from Chalcedon to Trent, had come now to depend in some fashion on the evidence of Scripture considered as history. At the same time, the removal of final causes from the narrative of human events threatened to leave it — with every other Christian doctrine and event — to the arbitrament (The judgment of an arbitrator) of ordinary scholarship.

We have already encountered in Scotus this “removal of final causes,” which Levine finds so crucial to modern understanding of history Levine traces the shift, embodied in the eighteenth century by the historian Edward Gibbon, to Desiderius Erasmus and John Colet. Levine argues that Erasmus “began to think of the Bible principally as a record of history, rather than as an arsenal of theological texts, above all as the story of Christ on earth — Christ as the supreme exemplar to be followed and imitated. Behind Erasmus, Levine finds the mid-fifteenth century humanist Lorenzo Valla: “For Valla, “grammar was the supreme science, or at least the indispensable preliminary that was required for understanding any writing, and hence any doctrine…In these crucial matters, the philologist was above the theologian.

What happens, then, when Scripture is seen primarily as a linear-historical record of dates and places rather than as a providentially governed (revelatory) conversation with God in which the reader, within the doctrinal and sacramental matrix of the Church, is situated? John Webster points to the disjunction that appears between “history” and “theology” and remarks on “the complex legacy of dualism and nominalism in Western Christian theology through which the sensible and intelligible realms, history and eternity, were thrust away from each other, and creaturely forms (language, action, institutions) denied any capacity to indicate the presence and activity of the transcendent God.” Similarly, Lamb contrasts the signs or concepts that can be grasped by modern exegetical methods with the moral and intellectual virtues that are required for a true participatory knowledge and love of the realities expressed by the signs or concepts. Lacking the framework of participatory knowledge and love, biblical exegesis is reduced to what Lamb calls a “comparative textology a la Spinoza.” Only participatory knowledge and love, which both ground and flow from the reading practices of the Church, can really attain the biblical realities. As Joseph Ratzinger thus observes, the meaning of Scripture is constituted when

the human word and God’s word work together in the singularity of historical events and the eternity of the everlasting Word which is contemporary in every age. The biblical word comes from a real past. It comes not only from the past, however, but at the same time from the eternity of God and it leads us into God’s eternity but again along the way through time, to which the past, the present and the future belong.”

This Christological theology of history which depends on a metaphysics of participation inscribed in creation, provides the necessary frame for apprehending the true meaning of biblical texts.

In short, for the patristic-medieval tradition and for those attuned to it today, history (inclusive of the work of historiography) is an individual and communal conversation with the triune God who creates and redeems history — and the Bible situates us in history thus understood.”

Participatory spiritual exercises constitute the very possibility for reading Scripture with an adequate appreciation for the realities it describes, a “sapiential” history that goes far beyond the fragmentary, atomistic dates and places (instantiations of divine and human willing) possible within a non-participatory metaphysics. Webster depicts the impact of the nominalist loss of a Trinitarian understanding of creation and redemption: God’s “action comes to be understood as external, interruptive, and bearing no real relations to creaturely realities. God, in effect, becomes causal will, intervening in creaturely reality from outside but unconnected to the creation.”

The intrinsic relationship of participatory metaphysics to biblical interpretation (and thus to Christian doctrine) has perhaps been most richly articulated, among recent theologians, by the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. In a crucial passage from his exploration of evil and suffering, The Doors of the Sea, Hart argues:

Not only are the speculative concerns of developed Christian philosophy already substantially present in the Hellenistic metaphysical motifs and assumptions that permeate the New Testament (deny these though some might), but classical Christian metaphysics, as elaborated from the patristic through the high medieval periods, is a logically necessary consequence of the gospel: both insofar as it unfolds the inevitable ontological implications of Christian doctrines concerning the Trinity and creation ex-nihilo; and insofar also as Christianity’s evangelical vocation requires believers to be able to articulate the inherent rationality of their faith… “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5); and as he is the source of all things, the fountainhead of being, everything that exists partakes of his goodness and is therefore, in its essence, entirely good.

Such exegetically imperative participatory metaphysics, Hart shows, requires a rejection of Heidegger’s critique of “being” and “participation” as onto-theological attempts to grasp the ungraspable.” Similarly Hart’s “dogmatica minora,” comprising the bulk of his The Beauty of the Infinite, moves through the biblical and theological warrants of the Christian creed, from the Trinity through creation, the imago Del, salvation in Christ, the economy of “peace” (the Church), and eschatology. At each step, Hart shows how participation is carried through in a unity both philosophical and theological, thereby exhibiting how tightly participatory metaphysics is bound to the Church’s reading of Scripture.


 I wonder how much my reading of scripture is hampered by my inability to THINK in terms of a patristic and classical Christian metaphysical mindset. Do 21st century readers lack the framework of participatory knowledge and love when it comes to apprehending scripture? How do I know that the biblical exegesis I read is leading me into an individual and communal conversation with the triune God who creates and redeems history?

One way to understand will be to contrast the biblical exegesis we see in Thomas Aquinas with those who followed him. Levering gives some actual examples in the next two selections I will feature on PayingAttentiontotheSky.

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  1. [...] mentioned before the previous post concerning the origins and implications of the fourteenth-century metaphysical shift is followed in [...]

  2. [...] Attention To The Sky No one was paying attention to the sky… « The Fourteenth-Century Metaphysical Shift A Discussion On the Meaning of Suffering » Reading Selections from David. B. [...]

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