The current First Things unfurls Ephraim Radner’s hard-hitting critique of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation , titled The Reformation Wrongly Blamed (subscription required).  A different Protestant response to Gregory’s book comes by way of the evangelical historian Mark Noll. Noll disagrees with Gregory’s distribution of blame for secularism on the Reformation. However, Noll agrees with Gregory’s point of historical departure:  The suggestion that the univocal metaphysics of John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham’s nominalism were profoundly harmful, and did much to put the young Luther in the unenviable state that precipitated (thanks in part to Luther’s disruption of episcopal income streams) the tragedy of the Reformation.  The details of Noll’s compelling read can be enjoyed, along with vindicating remarks of the esteemed medievalist Rachel Fulton Brown, thanks to the video generously provided here by the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago.

Noll is well aware that this reading of Luther is not new.  In The Harvest of Medieval Theology (1963), Heiko Oberman made a compelling case that Ockham’s disciple Gabriel Biel decisively shaped Luther’s perspective; in The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (1956), Louis Bouyer similarly claimed that “what the Reformation took over from the Middle Ages was just what it should have criticized;” and in The Age of Reform (1981) Steven Ozment reasserted that it is not farfetched to view the legacy of Scotus and Ockham as driving Protestantism’s particular concerns.  Because of this suspect inheritance, Gregory’s book, according to Noll, should be titled The Inconsistent Middle Ages and the Unintended Reformation, for it is only this “one-two punch” that explains the harmful aspects of modernity that Gregory rightfully laments.  “When Luther asked for bread,” remarks Noll, “formal Catholic theology gave him a stone.”  The Unintended Reformation , therefore, may be as much an (unintended) criticism of Catholicism as of Protestantism, for Duns Scotus and Ockham were (correct me if I’m wrong here) not quite Lutherans.


Readers of Mark Noll’s most recent book, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind will not be surprised by his remarkable concession to Gregory’s narrative.  According to Noll, univocal metaphysics, bequeathed to us by the later Middle Ages, remains the rickety stage upon which the fatuous debates between creationists, some ID proponents, and the new atheists take place.  Protestant sources, however, such as B.B. Warfield and Jonathan Edwards, can be just as helpful in combating univocity as pre-modern Catholic and Orthodox theology can be.  One need not be Catholic to fathom (non-univocally) that God is outside of but still present to creation.  Perhaps this helps explain why, in his review of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible, Noll describes himself as “someone whose respect for the strengths of Catholicism has grown steadily over the last four decades, and yet whose intention to live out his days as a Protestant also has grown stronger over those same decades.” Interestingly enough, Noll’s conversation with Gregory, ensconced in an evident friendship, is just the kind of charitable disputation that Radner (whose next book is highly anticipated) rightfully demands.

Articles by Matthew Milliner

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