Monday, August 17, 2015

Ockham versus the Scholastics

Friedman’s book, Medieval Trinitarian Thought, is an exceptionally accessible work discussing the complex issue of the Christian concept of the Trinity. Many of the early heresies in the Christian Church dealt with what was interpreted as false views on what the Trinity was. The complexity of the Trinity is driven by the acceptance of Jesus as God but also man and the incorporation of the Holy Spirit as a separate manifestation of God. The former was a result of the acceptance of the four Gospels, especially that of John and the latter the acceptance of the Acts of Paul. The complexity was further complicated by the inclusion of Greek philosophical thought and terms of philosophical understanding that became the tools to make this interpretation.

It was left to Augustine to lay for the Western Church a foundation that lasted almost a millennium until Aquinas delved into the process again in the 13th Century. To some degree the development ends as so many of these pursuits with Ockham. Ockham rejects the Academics and states that one can accept the Trinity sola fide, on faith alone. It is Ockham who introduces the concepts of Nominalism, the importance and criticality of the individual, the ability to rely on faith, and of course his accusation of heresy to the Pope in Avignon.

The Aquinas versus Ockham debate is first framed as the Dominican versus Franciscan debate. In Chapter 1 the author in the clearest of terms describes the debate. Here we have the Dominicans trying to rely on Aristotelean constructs and speak of the Trinity as a familiar set of relationships. The Franciscans take a more ethereal approach and lay out the emanation approach. It is Ockham, a Franciscan, who takes the ultimate extreme of rejecting both and stating that faith alone carries the day. This is a brilliantly written Chapter, one of the best I have seen addressing this debate. It may have been improved if it has a preface discussing Augustine a bit more and also the early Church debates, but that in no way detracts from the presentation.

Chapter 2 discusses the Psychological Model, or as the author states on pp 50-51 that the Son is literally the Concept of the Father and the Holy Spirit is the Love produced by the will shared by the Father and the Son. The author clearly explains the evolution of this approach via John’s Gospel and the use of the term logos. In Latin the term is verbum and yet there may be a slight but material difference between the two terms. There is a brief integration of the Augustine thought on this approach.

Chapter 3 discusses the Trinity and Metaphysical thought. Chapter 4 is a key chapter; it introduces Ockham and sola fide. This is an especially clear and well written presentation. The author examines Gilson, the French Neo-Scholastic, and presents a well-structured Gilsonian analysis and contrasts it to Ockham. Whereas Gilson is a Thomist, and Thomism has persevered in classic Catholicism, the Ockham school does lend itself to a bifurcation of Scholastic approach into one that faith exists and can play a vital role to that attempt to use reason to explain all the nuances introduced in the New Testament.

Overall I would highly recommend this exceptional book. Although it deals with a highly complex and specialized issued, it does so fairly and in a quite readable manner. It is not a classic heavy tome of Scholastic formalism but a clearly articulated discussion of a core principle of Christin belief.