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Luther on Aristotle: Sola Scriptura, Metaphysics, and Nominalism

Last month I stumbled upon this:

Such were the various educational institutions in operation at the opening of the sixteenth century. Naturally sharing in the prevailing rudeness of the time, they were exceedingly defective in studies, methods, and discipline. The pupils were passive under instruction. The teachers lectured, dictated, interpreted, and the learners listened and memorized. The principle of authority prevailed. It was decided, for example, that there were no spots in the sun, because Aristotle had nowhere made mention of the fact. What seemed to be spots were therefore regarded as defects in the observer’s glasses. There was but little intellectual freedom; the teachers were bound by the authority of Aristotle and the Church, and the pupils by the authority of the teacher. Education did not aim at a development of all the faculties, but at a storing of the memory with certain facts of more or less importance in relation to the Church or practical life. In the universities, obscure and often trifling questions in philosophy and theology engaged the attention.

F.V.N. Painter, “Luther on Education.” St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1889. 83.

Yikes. This is the state of education that Martin Luther addresses with his belief in compulsory schooling of all children. More than that, the bit about Aristotle is fascinating.

Aristotle had been mostly forgotten between 500 and 1000 AD. At some point, and I would have to do some historical digging to find out when, various schools of medieval thought began to resurrect Aristotle and ground Christian theology in his metaphysics. This led to the doctrine of transubstantiation and the soul/spirit divide, among others. Most notably of all such theologians is Thomas Aquinas whose project was to baptize Aristotle by synthesizing his philosophy with New Testament theology. After St. Thomas, medieval theology would remain distinctly Aristotelian until roughly the late renaissance/Reformation.

Luther hated this. From the same book as above:

[Luther speaking] “The universities also require a good, sound reformation. The fact is that whatever the Papacy has ordered or instituted is only designed for the propagation of sin and error. What are the universities, as at present ordered, but as the Book of Maccabees says, ‘schools of Greek fashion and heathenish manners,’ full of dissolute living, where very little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and of the Christian faith, and the blind heathen teacher, Aristotle, rules even further than Christ. Now my advice would be that the books of Aristotle, the ‘Physics,’ the ‘Metaphysics,’ ‘Of the Soul,’ and ‘Ethics,’ which have hitherto been considered the best, be altogether abolished, with all others that profess to treat of nature, though nothing can be learned from them, either of natural or spiritual things. Besides, no one has been able to understand his meaning, and much time has been wasted, and many vexed with much useless labor, study, and expense.” (144).


His [Luther’s] mind was not metaphysical, but practical; he has no taste for fine-spun and fruitless theories. At the university, like Lord Bacon a century later, he acquired a strong dislike for Aristotle and the schoolmen. He could not endure their fallacious subtleties. He was made, not for speculation, but for action; he constantly deals with the concrete — not with theories, but with conditions and facts. His style abounds in particular rather than in general terms. (102).

This, by the way, is why Luther rejected the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation but then still believed that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. In his analysis, the Catholic teaching could only be maintained if you accept Aristotle’s distinction between substance and essence; the substance stays bread, but the ghostly essence becomes the body, so you are eating the essence of Christ’s body. Luther rejects this and claims instead that you are eating the essence and the substance of Christ’s body, which is just to say, the substance, because they are one.

A critical takeaway from Luther is his insistence on the Bible as the complete content of the faith. He rejected any metaphysical system that could not be proved by scripture (so, any metaphysical system) and instead sought to terminate his systematic theology just before entering into metaphysical groundwork claims. In his commitment to the Word, he rejected even the slightest hint of eisegesis by philosophy external to the text. I wonder if he would balk at the natural theology of 20th century fundamentalist apologists, if alive today.

But that is not entirely true, because, try as he did, it is really difficult to escape using any philosophy external to the text of the scriptures. Carl Trueman points this out in his recent biography of Luther (which I recommend):

Does the word dog mean something because it refers to something real, a universal “dogginess” in which all dogs participate such that the word legitimately applies to them? Does each dog have something objectively in common with all other dogs that makes the application of the word dog to each of them appropriate? Or does the word simply refer to lots and lots of individual things we choose to bracket together — Fido, Rover, Tico, Butch — under the term dog, with no ideal “dogginess” out there in which they all participate? Taken to its extreme, this latter view became what philosophers call an antiessentialist ontology, which effectively made words, and not underlying essences or substances, the determiners of reality. We might put the matter this way: is dogginess something real and independent of any individual example of a dog, or is it merely a linguistic construct, created by the person or the community that uses the word? Those who denied the existence of universal forms such as “dogginess” represented what is known as late medieval nominalism. This was the linguistic school in which Luther was trained and whose basic assumptions remained with him throughout his career. (83).

Carl Trueman, “Luther on the Christian Life.” Wheaton: Crossway, 2015.

This matters for Luther because if words are what define reality, and if God uses words to communicate, then God’s words literally define all reality. We also happen to have a big book called the Word of God which contains God’s words. So then, the preacher has ultimate creation-ary authority if and only if he preaches from the words of God — the text of scripture. Anything else included in a sermon is fluff, and “created” nothing unless by accident or coincidence. This is why Luther was so insistent on Sola Scriptura. It was not because he needed a norma normans nata normana, a Norming Norm that can Not be Normed, although that certainly was helpful.

The nominalism of Luther came originally from William of Ockham, who wanted to “shave off” any excess bit of metaphysical existence from language. This antiessentialism is where the term “Ockham’s razor” originates. As in, Luther took Ockham’s razor to the communion elements.

So then, in great irony, his insistence on removing Aristotelian metaphysics and other philosophy from theology was under the auspices of an equally metaphysical scheme.

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