That the Reformation caused tremendous changes in the spiritual and ecclesiastical conditions of Europe needs no emphasis. Its impact on politics is also indisputable. But its effect on philosophy and ethics no doubt requires some explanation.
During the early Middle Ages, philosophy (what there was of it) followed in general the principles of a Platonic Augustinianism. The spiritual realm was considered to be directly accessible to reason, while the sensible world neither provided the basis of knowledge nor contributed any great amount to its sum total. Philosophy in effect coalesced with theology.
In the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas replaced Augustinian thought with that of Aristotle. Sensation became the basis of knowledge, and God’s existence was proved by a tortuous argument from physical motion to an Unmoved Mover. Here is not the place to discuss the theological results of abandoning Augustine, but the philosophical result was an intricate scholasticism that led Jerome Zanchius to remark that “Thomas Aquinas [was] a man of some genius and much application, who, though in very many things a laborious trifler, was yet on some subjects a clear reasoner and judicious writer” (Absolute Predestination, chap, iv, pos. 8, par. 4, footnote).
Although there is no evidence that the scholastics ever seriously debated how many angels could dance on the point of a needle, Aquinas did indeed discuss whether an angel is in a place, whether an angel can be in several places at once, and whether several angels can be at the same time in the same place. These things, along with arguments on the passive and active intellect, prime matter, and whether only boys and no girls would have been born if Adam had not sinned, can easily produce the impression that Aquinas was sometimes a “laborious trifler.”
Later scholastics, particularly Duns Scotus, increased the number of subtleties. Contrary to Augustinianism, the area common to philosophy and theology became less and less. William of Occam made the break complete: nothing theological could be proved by philosophy—Christianity is based on revelation alone. If now Occam’s philosophy can be shown to the skeptical, then there is a peculiar return to Augustinianism in which no knowledge is possible apart from revelation. Luther’s philosophy was in effect this type of Occamism.
In a very real sense the Protestant Reformation may be said to have had no effect whatever on the subsequent history of philosophy. The main line—Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, the British empiricists, Kant, and Hegel—would presumably have developed essentially as it did, Reformation or none. Leibniz was a Lutheran and Berkeley a zealous Anglican, but the few necessary adjustments to Protestant or even Catholic thought do not seem to have had any really basic influence at all. Modern philosophy stems from the Renaissance, not from the Reformation.
Protestant thought on philosophic themes, on the other hand, was a complete reversal of scholasticism. Not only was the point of view of a spectator in an ivory tower condemned as useless, as trifling, and indeed as impious, but also the existence of God, instead of being a conclusion to an intricate Aristotelian argument, became the basis of all truth.
In the first chapter of the Institutes, Calvin, disdaining even to mention physical motion and an Unmoved Mover, begins with a question of greater Augustinian flavor: Does a man first know himself and then learn of God, or does he know God first and later learn about himself? Briefly Calvin’s answer is: “No man can arrive at the true knowledge of himself, without having first contemplated the divine character, and then descended to the consideration of his own.… Though the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves be intimately connected, the proper order of instruction requires us first to treat of the former, and then proceed to the discussion of the latter.”
In opposition to Aristotelian empiricism, Calvin, far from basing this knowledge on experience, refers it to natural instinct. “Some sense of the Divinity,” he says, “is inscribed on every hear.… All have by nature an innate persuasion of the divine existence, a persuasion inseparable from their very constitution.… We infer that this is a doctrine, not first to be learned in the schools, but which every man from his birth is self-taught” (I, iii, 1 and 3).
This Reformation theory of innate or a priori knowledge was not uniformly maintained in later centuries. Both deism and its Christian opponents introduced more and more natural theology. This should be regarded as a deterioration from the original position of Luther and Calvin.
Rejecting the ideal of one universal corrupt church, the Protestants were neither willing nor able to enforce philosophic uniformity. Jonathan Edwards was staunchly orthodox in theology, but he was peculiarly influenced by the British empiricists. Rudolf Bultmann thinks the New Testament anticipated Heidegger and existentialism; but since Bultmann is not staunchly orthodox, he may be a poor example. At any rate, Protestant theologians have oscillated between Scottish common sense and Hegelian personalism. Today the Free University of Amsterdam is the center of a serious attempt to produce a comprehensive Christian philosophy. With Calvin’s rejection of natural theology these men have brilliantly criticized non-Christian systems. Whether their constructive work will long endure remains to be seen.
The effect of the Reformation on ethics may be separated into theoretical and practical aspects. Consonant with the rejection of natural theology, the Reformation based its ethics on revelation and discarded natural law. This is pure theoretical gain. The theory of natural law commits a major logical blunder when it tries to deduce a normative conclusion from descriptive premises. No matter how carefully or how intricately one describes what men do, or what the provisions of nature are, or how natural inclinations function, it is a logical impossibility to conclude that this is or is not what men ought to do. The is never implies the ought. This criticism applies to all empirical theories. Both Thomism and utilitarianism insist that man is morally obligated to seek, not just his own good, but the common good. This principle, however, cannot be justified empirically.
When the Thomists argue that it is a natural law to seek what is good, because as a matter of fact everybody seeks what is good, they reduce the term good to the several objects of human desire. When they further state, “No one calls in doubt the need for doing good, avoiding evil, acquiring knowledge, dispelling ignorance …” (Gilson, The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, p. 329), they simply shut their eyes to beatniks, the Mafia, the tribes of the Congo, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Tautology or falsity is their fate.
The Reformation’s ethical principles were the explicit commands in the Word of Cod. Of course this presupposes the existence of God—discussed above—and the possibility and truth of revelation. If revelation is false, then its ethical theory is false, too; but no one can accuse it of tautology.
The practical effect of the Reformation on ethics is more easily observed by the general public, and Jesuitical casuistry and Tetzel’s scheme to raise money for St. Peter’s provide the sharpest possible contrast with Puritan conscientiousness. The massacre of the Huguenots and the massacre of the Covenanters by the Catholic Stuarts are highlighted by the Presbyterians’ refusal to take revenge when they came to power. Even in the days of John Knox, after the martyrdoms of the early Reformation, the Presbyterians in power in Scotland did not execute a single person for religious beliefs. Contrast this with the Spanish Inquisition and the Jesuit intrigues.
On a less gruesome plane, but not less an important point of ethics, the Jesuitical disregard and the Reformation regard for truth gives content to the discussion. It was no doubt the violation of oaths that led the Westminster divines to include in their summary of Reformation and biblical doctrines the following paragraph:
“An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation or mental reservation. It cannot oblige to sin: but in anything not sinful, being taken, it binds to performance, although to a man’s own hurt; nor is it to be violated, although made to heretics or infidels” (XXII, 4).
We live today (so it is said, and, I regret, said with truth) in the post-Protestant era. The spiritual interests of the Reformation are no longer interesting. A materialistic attitude and a humanistic philosophy characterize our civilization. As Nietzsche said, “God is dead.” It is an age of increased war and crime. Murder and rape occur in public, on the streets, in the subways, and New Yorkers refuse to get involved. Legislatures abolish capital punishment; and instead of punishing the criminal, the state rehabilitates him so that in seven years the murderer is paroled, sometimes to kill again.
Such are the results of liberalism, of banishing God and Christian ethics from the public schools, of denying the Bible, its miracles, and its salvation. Under these conditions a return to Luther and Calvin, a return to Protestantism, a return to the Bible would not be the worst fate imaginable.
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