Realism, Nominalism, Reform, and Heresy

R.R. Betts makes the interesting argument that the great heresies which plagued the fifteenth century (chiefly Wycliffism and the Hussites) were an unintended, but quite natural, offshoot of the prevailing Realist philosophical-theological paradigm:

…The realist faith in the reality of universals and human knowledge as a participation in universal reality implied a faith in the rationality of the whole universe; therefore any effective reformation could not be concerned with externals only, but must concern itself with what underlies phenomena. Inevitably Matěj of Janov’s criticisms of the behaviour of churchmen, his condemnation of the abuse of images and pictures, of clerical avarice, and of the abuses of prelatical and papal power led Hus to adopt the thesis of Wyclif’s De Ecclesia and De Potestate Papae, that the very basis of a Church founded on the Donation of Constantine and the assumptions of the canon law was unsound.:”(“The Great Debate About Universals in the Universities of the Fourteenth Century,” in Prague Essays: Presented By A Group of British Historians to the Caroline University of Prague on the Occasion of Its Six-Hundredth Anniversary, ed., R.W. Seton-Watson [Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1969], pp. 72-73.)”:

Matěj of Janov himself always remained open to being corrected by his ecclesiastical superiors, but the basic Realist paradigm which he held enabled the Hussites in particular to justify their more radical attacks on the Church of their day:

…the Bohemian realists had discovered that the corruption of morals was but a particular manifestation of what they regarded as an error in first principles, the error that saw supreme authority in the Church as it was then, and not in its head.:”(Ibid., pg. 74.)”:

Betts then provides a quote from Huss treatise “Appeal of Master John Huss From the Sentence of the Roman Pontiff to Christ Jesus the Supreme Judge,” written in 1412, which illustrates how Realism can be used to justify serious dissent from an existing state of affairs. The relevant portion of this quote is as follows:

Lo, I rely on this most holy and fruitful example of the Redeemer and, from the heavy oppression, wrongful sentence, and pretended excommunication of the pontiffs, scribes, pharisees and judges sitting in Moses’ seat I appeal to God, committing my cause to Him. I follow in the footsteps of my Saviour Jesus Christ as did the great and holy patriarch of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, from the crafty Council of bishops and clerics; as Andrew, blessed in hope, bishop of Prague and Robert of Lincoln, when they were harmfully oppressed, humbly and healthfully appealed from the Pope to the supreme and most just Judge, who is never moved by fear, nor turned aside by love, nor seduced by gifts, nor deceived by false witnesses….:”(Ibid.)”:

In other words, from Realism’s insistence that there is a real metaphysical distinction between the essence of a thing and its accidents, it follows that the accidents might not properly express the essence. Therefore, if the Pope is not the essence of the Church, in cases wherein his judgment is moved by fear, turned away by love, seduced by gifts, or deceived by false witnesses he might very well make an error. The error must then be corrected by an appeal to the Universal Rational principles which he is supposed to embody, but has failed to embody. Thus does the traditional Catholic fixation on moral reform of externals (as also seen in the reformation of the 11th century) actually pave the way for a much deeper reform, one that goes beyond the externals and tries to re-pattern them on obscured First Principles.

Also intriguingly, Betts suggests that it was the fundamental Nominalism of the major fathers (D’Ailly, Gerson) at the Council of Constance which allowed them to think that reforming the Church required the execution of men such as John Huss and Jerome of Prague. For unlike Realism, Nominalism does not first appeal to Universal Abstractions but to Particular Concretes. This intellectual move allows a Nominalist to be unmoved by Rational attacks upon Faith:

The nominalists were not constrained to make any such fatal advance from moral criticism to ecclesiastical revolution. Matthew of Cracow could damn the ‘squalor of the court of Rome’ with an eloquence of detail no less thorough than that of Wyclif and much more scurrilous than that of Hus. But Matthew of Cracow was in the nominalist tradition: his judgements were based on what he knew by the evidence of his senses; he had learned from the Scotists and Occamists to leave the truths of faith unquestioned; to him reason was no weapon to use against revelation. Therefore while Hus went to Constance and the stake, Matthew of Cracow went to his fat bishopric at Worms, where he could attack as heretics those whom he had once joined in the clamorous chorus of moral indignation.:”(Ibid., pg. 75.)”:

Betts argues that “It was this willingness of the nominalists to be content with the observation and criticism of externals and appearances which made the effort to reform the Church which they sponsored abortive.”:”(Ibid.)”: Indeed, “no small part of this failure [of the Council of Constance] must be ascribed to the philosophical position of the nominalists: their refusal to examine first principles and their scepticism about general notions made them unwilling to look for the root causes of which these ecclesiastical abuses were the consequences.”:”(Ibid., pg. 76.)”: By contrast, because Huss and his colleague Jerome of Prague fully believed in the priority of Universals, that “reality is [ontologically] prior to a thing” (realia ante rem), they could see past the external complaints against the popes and prelates and could penetrate to the underlying causes. Gerson and D’Ailly, both Nominalists, were fully aware of the philosophical divide between themselves and Huss, for as Betts notes, D’Ailly expressed the Council’s inability to judge Huss in any way other than based on a Nominalist conception of externals: “We cannot judge in accordance with your conscience, but only in accordance with what has been proved against you and what you have confessed.”:”(Ibid., pg. 77.)”: The execution of Huss, then, became merely a function of maintaining external justice and preserving the external health of the whole body–which, during the tumults of the Western Schism, certainly could not handle the virus of militant revolutionaries.

All this raises intriguing questions about the nature of reform and how it was propagated during several critical reformations in the West, particularly during the 11th, 15th, and 16th centuries. The 11th century reforms seem largely based on mere externals (lay investiture, clerical marriage, papal supremacy), which might seem Nominalist in outlook. Yet Pope Gregory VII’s zealotry for reform was fully focused on recovering an earlier pure state of First Principles as over against the merely external corruptions of his present–a seemingly Realist motivation. The externals needed to be reformed because they failed to conform to the Universal Rational pattern of antiquity. Likewise, the Protestant reformers are often slurred as pure Nominalists, but though they were influenced by Nominalism their attempts to get past merely external reforms and penetrate to underlying causes seems, like Wycliffe’s and Huss’ attempts, more Realist in orientation.:”(Betts implies exactly this on pg. 80 when he states that “it is only in Prague that the connexion between the realism of the fourteenth century and the Reformation of the sixteenth century unbroken.”)”: It’s also interesting that many who today claim to be followers of the Reformation seem to be radical Nominalists concerning the doctrine of the Church, yet radical Realists concerning the method of approaching Scripture.

I’m not sure I’ve expressed these questions well. Perhaps with more thought I can rephrase them better.

This entry was posted in 11th Century, 15th Century, Nominalism and Realism, Theology of Reform. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Realism, Nominalism, Reform, and Heresy

  1. mem says:


    Pointed here awhile back by another reader. Your writings on philosophy intrigue me, and I wanted to say thanks for writing them.



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