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date: 22 September 2017

Nominalism and the Via Moderna in Luther’s Theological Work

Summary and Keywords

Luther’s adoption of the theology of the via moderna (also called the Nominalists) varied during the late medieval period. This school of thought had developed during the 15th century mainly as a method for interpreting Aristotle and relied on certain 14th-century authorities, such as William of Ockham, John Buridan, Gregory of Rimini, and Peter of Ailly among others. Luther studied philosophy according to the via moderna in Erfurt, where his teachers Jodocus Trutfetter and Bartholomaeus Arnoldi of Usingen represented a position that tolerated the Thomist and Scotist views. The school also featured a specific kind of theology based on its interpretation of Aristotle. Among the most influential theologians in the German via moderna was Gabriel Biel in Tübingen, whose theology was crucial for Luther’s understanding of the school’s positions. Besides Ockham, whom Biel mentioned as his main authority in his Sentences commentary, Biel adopted the positions of several other authors, even outside the common authorities of the via moderna. Other influential theologians and philosophers affiliated with the via moderna were John Mair in Paris and John Eck in Ingolstadt. Later both became adversaries of Luther and the Lutherans, as did Luther’s former teacher Usingen. The University of Wittenberg did not support the via moderna at all. Thomist and Scotist forms of the via antiqua were predominant among its academics, including the later Reformer Andreas Bodenstein of Karlstadt. During his early years as a student in Erfurt, Luther remained largely among the camp of the via moderna. Soon after moving to Wittenberg, Luther developed his criticism of Aristotle and late medieval theology, where his main target was Biel’s theology, especially his doctrine of grace. However, during those years Luther retained much of his early education, including an interpretation of Aristotle in which he adopted several of Ockham’s ideas. During his later years, Luther made use of terminological tools of the via moderna, even when opposing some of its theological positions.

Keywords: via moderna, Nominalism, scholasticism, Gabriel Biel, William Ockham, grace

Via Moderna as a School of Thought

Luther developed his theology within the scholastic school of the via moderna. Despite being educated according to this school, Luther launched his attack on scholastic theology with a deliberate criticism of the main proponent of the school, Gabriel Biel (c. 1410–1495). During Luther’s lifetime this school of thought, whose adherents have also been called the Nominalists (nominales), was thought to preserve the new critical insights developed by William Ockham in the early 14th century. This understanding led to a third designation of this school as “Ockhamism.” This last title appears to be misleading, however, when applied to early-16th-century thinkers, because there is no clear doctrinal continuity between them and the 15th-century via moderna and its 14th-century authorities, including Ockham.1

In contemporary research the view of the via moderna has changed considerably. Through historical studies it has become evident that the earlier conception of the via moderna has inherited elements, in which 15th- and 16th-century ideas were anachronistically projected onto 14th-century thinking. Apart from its relationship to the Lutheran Reformation, the traditional understanding of the via moderna as a uniform school of thought continuing from the 14th to the 16th century has largely been rejected. Instead, it turns out to be a phenomenon predominantly developed in the 15th and 16th centuries, although heavily dependent on certain 14th-century authorities. This applies especially to the position of Ockham as the founder of the school, whose adherents have often also been referred to as “Ockhamists.” The idea of considering Ockham as the leading authority of the school derives from 15th-century academic disputes, which took place mainly in Paris. During these disputes Ockham, who was accused of heresy, was used as an indication of the doctrinal heterodoxy of theologians who adopted his views. Considering a group of theologians as followers of Ockham was part of the argument of a group’s adversaries, which eventually resulted in the exclusion of Ockham’s alleged followers from teaching positions at the University of Paris. Such a strategy was used for example by Thomists, who could boast of their main authority as a canonized saint. In their response to such accusations, the gradually developing group of the via moderna could reciprocate in kind. That is, they could point to the condemned John Wycliffe (an adherent of the via antiqua) as an example of the direction in which the Thomist and Scotist metaphysical positions led, and could accordingly accuse them of heretical teaching.2

Several scholars of 14th-century philosophy and theology have plausibly argued that it is not possible to formulate such doctrinal uniformity between Ockham and his contemporaries and later writers who have been identified with the via moderna.3 Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to completely deny the connection between the via moderna of the 15th and 16th centuries and its 14th-century authorities. From the perspective of the via moderna as it had developed by Luther’s time, certain 14th-century writers had gained a special authoritative status. The case was similar with the followers of the via antiqua. The term “way” (via) indicated a method used among the adherents of a school. It concerned mainly the interpretation of Aristotle, and with it the main authorities drawn upon in commentaries were indicated. Accordingly, among the via antiqua, Thomists followed Aquinas, Scotists followed John Duns Scotus, and Albertists followed Albert the Great. For the philosophers in the via moderna the case was more complicated. Their main authorities consisted of a number of more recent authorities than those of the via antiqua. The most common of these were William of Ockham, John Buridan, Marsilius of Inghen, Gregory of Rimini, and Peter of Ailly. Using particular authorities tended toward doctrinal commitments on certain issues, but a general uniformity of doctrine inside the individual schools is impossible to identify.4

The Via Moderna and Luther’s Studies in Erfurt

In the University of Erfurt, where Luther studied, the via moderna formed the basis of teaching in philosophy and also in theology among the secular masters. Unlike many other universities in Germany, Erfurt had never accepted the co-existence of different schools and was therefore considered a stronghold of the via moderna. The situation did not prevent the religious orders from teaching according to their own authorities, even by those who were formally considered as professors of the university. Most of the professors in Luther’s own order, the Augustinian Hermits, had, by the early 16th century, been teaching theology following the traditional authority of the order, Giles of Rome. Within the school of theology, Giles would have been classified as one of the authorities of the via antiqua rather than the via moderna. Similarly, the Erfurt Franciscans relied in their teaching mostly on John Duns Scotus, whose adherents, the Scotists, were among the academic schools considered a part of the via antiqua.5

In practice the university’s identification with the via moderna meant that the teaching of philosophy in the Faculty of Arts and the teaching of theology by the secular masters was carried out according to that school. There are no direct sources of the theology of the via moderna in early-16th-century Erfurt, but the philosophical contents of the via moderna can be traced from the works of Jodocus Trutfetter of Eisenach (c. 1460–1519) and Bartholomaeus Arnoldi of Usingen (c. 1465–1532). Luther mentions both of these as his teachers, and Usingen even became his fellow friar among the Augustinians. They were leading authorities in the Faculty of Arts during Luther’s studies, and during Luther’s theological studies they had similar positions in the Faculty of Theology. From their works it is possible to delineate Erfurt’s via moderna as Luther knew it, that is, in terms of authoritative sources and doctrinal commitments.6

The Erfurtians identified the via moderna with certain philosophical doctrines and authorities. This was typical of the via moderna and the varieties of via antiqua, which may even be considered as essentially philosophical in nature. However, due to the intimate relationship between philosophy and theology, the decisions concerning philosophical doctrines had a profound impact on theological doctrines, and, in reverse, the plausibility of philosophical doctrines depended on the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of their theological implications. In practice, however, the authorities who were used as a basis for teaching had a greater influence on the actual differences between the schools.7

A comment by Luther implies that, in his time, philosophical tradition at his alma mater originated in the 15th-century author Johannes Rucherat of Wesel, who “earlier ruled in the University of Erfurt through his books.”8 If Wesel’s writings had such authority in the university until Luther’s time, his understanding of the via moderna as a school will serve as a suitable starting point in the description of Luther’s philosophical milieu.

Even before Wesel, the rejection of two philosophical positions was central in defining the philosophical tradition in the University of Erfurt. In the early 15th century, when Amplonius Rating of Bercka founded the influential college of Porta Coeli, two extreme positions were rejected: (1) a “Platonist” realism concerning universals, and (2) the plurality of substantial forms in the same subject, like many souls in one individual human being. Regarding the authoritative writers, “modern” philosophers like William Ockham and John Buridan were followed, but older authorities such as Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Alexander of Hales, and Giles of Rome were recommended as well.9

Wesel followed these guidelines. According to him, there is no entity that is by its nature universal (res universale); therefore, all entities are by nature singular. Universals are concepts of the created minds, which represent many singular things. They do not exist in God, even if God has in some sense ideas of all created things in his essence. Because God is conceived as radically simple, the distinctions between kinds of entities arises first in human minds and not in the essence of God. Wesel’s position of universals as concepts is not strictly speaking nominalist, given that he also rejected the version of fictum-theory, where universals are conceived as terms created by the mind without any correspondence to the things they signify. Wesel also rejected the plurality of forms in one individual subject.10

Jodocus Trutfetter followed a similar conceptualist position as Wesel, and explicitly identified himself among the “Nominalists” (nominales). Nevertheless, he showed further understanding regarding positions that differed from his own. Trutfetter clearly rejects such a realist view, which affirms the idea of a real unity of universal natures between singular entities. He relates such a realist view to the Hussite heresy condemned by the Council of Constance. In contrast, a plausible realist position, according to him, considers universal natures as being only potentially present in the things themselves, and becoming actual only in the process of understanding. In his reading among the via antiqua the Thomist position follows this line, and even the Scotist position with certain reservations. A similar attitude toward rival schools can be found in Usingen’s writings.11

Trutfetter’s position may reflect his openness to rival philosophical schools, as well as his reverence for older authorities like Thomas Aquinas. As noted, this was not unusual in the Erfurtian via moderna. It appears that Trutfetter even wrote a commentary on Aquinas’s Summa theologiae, although nothing besides his own occasional reference to the work has survived of it.12 In the introduction to his major book on logic, Trutfetter reveals his attitude to different authorities. Without questioning the validity of older authorities—after all, Aristotle himself was the greatest of the school bearing his name—he defends the merits of the most recent (moderni) authors as authorities who have gathered the most comprehensive experience in their respective fields. At the same time he rebukes those writers who rely on the holiness or antiquity (vetustas) of their authors, calling them more “lovers of the author than lovers of the truth.”13 Trutfetter refers to a considerable number of sources in his works. Like Usingen, he mostly follows the principal authorities of the via moderna: John Buridan, William of Ockham, Gregory of Rimini, Peter of Ailly, and, especially in the later works, Gabriel Biel. In addition to these, he cites favorably, for example, the medical treatises of Peter of Abano, Augustinian theologian Alphonso Vargas, and a contemporary compendium of philosophy by a Carthusian, Gregor Reisch.14

In addition to the questions on universals and the plurality of forms, Usingen’s writings reveal further points that were considered by the Erfurtian authors consciously as the position of the via moderna. One of them is the principle of parsimony, sometimes also called “Ockham’s razor.” According to this principle, one should not presume multiplicity, if it is not necessary or without reason. For Usingen this was a metaphysical or ontological principle, in the sense of not presupposing more entities than necessary without reason. The ontological reading of the principle dates back to Gregory of Rimini, and like him, Usingen applied it to the rejection of the Thomist real distinction between the faculties of the soul. Furthermore, he considered that the doctrines of the philosophers of the via antiqua violated this principle, which he considered to be genuinely Aristotelian.15 Usingen also adopts the position of the via moderna against the via antiqua on the question concerning real versus rational distinctions.16 Concerning epistemological issues, Usingen does not always contradict the via antiqua, but sometimes he supports the common position of the via moderna (opinio communis viae modernae) against its own authorities like Ockham and Gregory of Rimini. This is a further indication that philosophers of the via moderna did not identify themselves as representatives of a school on the basis of a strict adherence to certain authorities, but rather by way of a shared commitment to certain basic doctrines, which they all considered important.17

No printed theological sources of the via moderna from either Erfurt or Wittenberg during Luther’s days have survived; the closest reference on the theology of the school is from the University of Tübingen. Among the theologians of the via moderna, Gabriel Biel (c. 1410–1495) was the one whose writings became for Luther the most relevant. Biel was one of Trutfetter’s and Usingen’s main authorities, so Luther was familiar with Biel’s position in several matters through his studies in the Faculty of Arts. During the preparation of his first Mass in Erfurt, Luther carefully studied Biel’s commentary on the Canon of Mass. Later, Biel’s commentary on the Sentences seems to have been the most frequent source for Luther’s own comments on Lombard’s Sentences, even if explicit references to Biel are not many. However, Luther did not depend on Biel regarding the authorities of the via moderna such as Ockham or Peter of Ailly. There are even traces of textual criticism of certain of Ockham’s texts from Luther’s hand.18

As a professor of theology “according to the via moderna” in Tübingen, Biel was one of the most influential representatives of this school during his lifetime and later through his works. Nevertheless, one should not forget that Biel was not only an academic theologian, but also a highly respected figure among the Brethren of the Common Life. Accordingly, his theology was not merely targeted toward academic discussion, but considered the pastoral viewpoint as well. Detlef Metz has scrutinized in his study the multiple connections of Biel’s theology to the mystical tradition.19

Biel addressed a wide array of theological topics in his writings. From the viewpoint of Luther’s theology, two areas appear particularly relevant: the theology of grace and the theology of the sacraments. The consideration of these doctrines elucidates well Biel’s relationship to his authorities: although Ockham features as the main authority in the introduction of his commentary on the Sentences, several other writers supersede him in the discussion of individual topics.20

In his discussion of original sin, Biel consciously rejects the position shared by Ockham and Scotus, favoring the position followed by Bonaventure and Aquinas instead in which original sin consists of both the absence of original righteousness as well as the presence of evil concupiscence. Unlike Scotus, Biel stresses that through original sin the human being is—in addition to being deprived of the original gifts of grace—regarding the very human nature of man corrupted by the Fall.21

In the discussion about the capabilities of a human being in preparing himself or herself for the reception of grace, Biel’s position is ultimately based on the early Franciscan theological tradition, presented by Alexander of Hales, who insisted that all people have at all times known God in some manner, and therefore asked God for knowledge of faith and what is good. With Scotus Biel comes to the conclusion that it is possible for the human being to love God above all things with pure love and without the assistance of grace. This transitory act of loving God above all is for Biel the merit required from a human for the reception of grace, although its meritoriousness is based exclusively on God’s divine generosity, and nothing else.22 Unlike Scotus, but in agreement with Alexander of Hales and many others, Biel states that a penitent person needs to have an act of repentance caused by love of God, and not one based only on fear of God, in order to regain the grace one had lost on account of serious sin.23 Furthermore, according to Biel a person is not worthy of receiving eternal life without an infused habit of created grace or love, which unites the person with God.24

Among Luther’s two Nominalist teachers previously mentioned, only Usingen published theological treatises. In addition to his later published pamphlets against the Lutherans, Usingen also wrote an extensive work as a response to Melanchthon’s Apology of the Augsburg Confession, which has survived in manuscript form.25 Usingen’s theological writings date from a rather late period of his life, when he was actively involved in criticism of the Lutherans and was influenced by Humanist reforms, so these writings only indirectly witness the theology of the via moderna of Luther’s study years. Even so, Usingen’s theological positions followed in the footsteps of Biel, and even at such a late stage reveal some adherence to the tradition of the via moderna. These include the notion of merit, human activity in penitence, and generally the relationship between nature and grace in salvation.26

Theological Schools in Other Universities

Another contemporary philosopher and theologian worth mentioning is John Mair (c. 1466–1550). Originally from Scotland, he spent most of his academic life in Paris. He, along with other Parisian scholars, wrote against Luther and the Lutherans; in at least one case, Luther objected to a Christological position in Mair’s writings. Among other Lutheran Reformers, Melanchthon mentions Mair and affirms familiarity with his writings.27

Mair has often been identified with the via moderna, but because of his affinities with the theologies of Aquinas and Scotus, this identification has been challenged, and he has even been characterized as eclectic. Eclecticism appears to be a label too easily assigned to Mair; for example, it does not take into account his deliberate efforts to bridge the obvious divide between the schools.28 Mair’s early philosophical works attest to a strong affiliation with the via moderna.29 In his theological works, he openly advocates the method of the Nominalists against the accusations of the Realists in his Sentences commentary from 1516.30 However, like Trutfetter in philosophy, as a theologian Mair was tolerant toward other schools. As long as their positions did not contradict Catholic doctrine, theologians were not to be blamed for choosing a particular doctrinal position. Mair even states that it is more desirable to choose an established traditional position than try to formulate one’s own. To this he added the proviso that an academic theologian should not claim the truth of one’s position, but only consider it as probable.31

However, in individual theological questions Mair ended up criticizing the Realist views, although his criticism did not so much meet their actual views as meet their conclusions, which could be drawn from their view of universals and other logical doctrines.32 At the same time, he was ready to contradict positions of the via moderna as well, like those held by Gabriel Biel. Such criticism did not bring him any closer to Thomist or Scotist positions, however, but was rather an indication of a desire to reduce the complexities of scholastic analysis, an ideal he shared with theologians such as Jean Gerson, contemporary humanists, and the Protestant Reformers.33 A tendency to adapt was even more evident in the later editions of Mair’s logical works. By the late 1520s, he gradually dropped some specifically Nominalist tracts from his works, but also the Summulae by Peter of Spain, which was used by all schools. Instead, he devised the textbooks as commentaries on Aristotle. Furthermore, he replaced references to scholastic authors with ancient sources and simplified the course of argumentation, still without giving up his reliance on the positions of the via moderna. Nevertheless, through these stylistic renewals his positions became more acceptable to Thomists and Scotists so that, in a way, through humanist influences, he eventually converged on the positions of the rival schools.34

A similar development can be traced in the philosophical career of another representative of the via moderna: John Eck. Known as one of Luther’s major opponents, Eck was far more involved than Mair in the humanism of his time. Eck honored Mair as a theologian, and was familiar with his Sentences commentary. Eck considered Trutfetter the most esteemed authority in philosophical matters, although he also criticized him on several occasions.35 Eck took seriously the challenge of a humanist critique toward a barbarian style and language, especially in books of logic. Like Mair, he tried to gather the tradition of late medieval via moderna into his textbooks, embedding such discussions in the commentaries on a renewed humanist translation of Aristotle.36 His references to earlier literature reveal an admiration for Aquinas and Scotus similar to what one finds in Trutfetter, as well as a similar reliance on the common authorities of the via moderna.37 Eck was, however, more critical than Trutfetter toward the late medieval Thomist and Scotist authors.38

The University of Wittenberg was not particularly receptive to the via moderna. The university statutes from 1508 mention, besides Thomism and Scotism, a via Gregorii as one of the three schools taught at the university. This has been interpreted to mean the via moderna with reference to Gregory of Rimini, but in practice, Trutfetter is the only person who has been recorded as having taught according to the via moderna at Wittenberg. Even his activity was confined to the years 1506 to 1510, after which he returned to Erfurt.39 The teaching of philosophy was dominated exclusively by Thomists and Scotists. Following the model of Tübingen, the Scotist teaching relied on the textbooks of the Parisian Scotist Pierre Tartaret, whose works were printed in Leipzig by 1503 on behalf of the first dean of the arts faculty. Thomist teaching was advanced by Martin Pollich of Mellerichstadt, the first rector of the university, who came from Leipzig. Mellerichstadt had close contacts with the Thomists in Leipzig, but was educated by the leading German Thomists in Cologne. He also recruited Thomists with a similar background in Cologne Thomism, including Kilian Reuter, the poet Georg Sibutus, and the theologian Andreas Bodenstein of Karlstadt. 40

No severe tensions between Thomists and Scotists seem to have arisen, but nuances in the relationships between the schools can be traced from Karlstadt’s early work. As a Thomist, Karlstadt adopted Aquinas’s and some later Thomist views, especially that of the 14th-century Armandus de Bellovisu, but he rejected other views held by some Thomist authors. In his earliest work, De intentionibus, Karlstadt comments on Ockham’s view in order to refute it, but at the same time adopts some terminology used by Ockham.41 He also criticizes the Scotist view, directing his criticism particularly toward Pierre Tartaret, whose textbooks were used in Wittenberg. However, his criticism is not as harsh as that directed toward Ockham, and in some cases he considers the differences between the Thomist and Scotist positions as merely terminological, highlighting the commonalities concerning epistemological issues.42 Similar tendencies show up even more strongly in Karlstadt’s other publication from the same year, the Distinctiones Thomistarum. There he adopts a position that provides a Thomist reading of the Scotist doctrine of formal distinction, which was based on the 15th-century Thomist John Capreolus. Nonetheless, the summary at the end of the works reveals that he largely fails in harmonizing the two positions in several respects.43

Luther and the Via Moderna

A specific, positive contribution of Biel and the via moderna in Luther’s theology has not been easy to identify. In Luther’s earliest surviving works, which date from the time of his theological studies in Erfurt, he stayed within the camp of the via moderna, which was not typical for the theologians of the Augustinian order. He expresses harsh criticism of ancient philosophers and philosophy more generally, but even that was not uncommon among the contemporary theologians of the via moderna. His specific criticisms of late medieval authors are directed toward writers like Scotus, and in them Luther does not hesitate to quote Ockham and Peter of Ailly, among the main authorities of the via moderna.44

During his career in Wittenberg, Luther seems to have adopted some of Ockham’s readings of Aristotle, shared by Biel, as a part of his criticism of Aristotelian philosophy.45 In the later Eucharistic disputes against Zwingli, Luther argued against Scotist metaphysical doctrines with arguments found among the via moderna.46 Similarly, regarding the terminology used in Trinitarian and Christological discussions, Luther used the language of Biel and the authorities of the via moderna throughout his career, even if he also criticized certain positions of the via moderna.47

Some continuities between Luther and his scholastic teachers can be traced on certain specific themes in mostly philosophical discussions. Yet it would be inappropriate to consider Trutfetter or Arnoldi as sources of Luther’s criticism against scholastic theology, as has sometimes been suggested.48 However, for the formation of Luther’s criticism against Aristotle’s psychological views, the position of the via moderna in delineating the border between philosophy and theology is not irrelevant. Trutfetter seems to suggest the incompatibility of certain basic doctrines of Aristotle with the immortality of the soul; in other words, he does not clearly affirm that the philosophical arguments presented for the doctrine are convincing. Despite this, he emphatically teaches the doctrine of immortality in his work on natural philosophy, and considers explicitly such a procedure as an implementation of the decrees of the Fifth Lateran Council issued during the previous year of 1513. Regarding this question, Arnoldi follows a more common tradition of the via moderna in Erfurt: affirming the validity of philosophical proofs for the immortality of the soul, even if not in the strictest sense of philosophical demonstration.49

The novelty in Luther’s remarks on this theme is not found in his distinction between theology and philosophy nor in the affirmation of the doctrine of immortality as a central Christian belief, in which he was in fundamental agreement with his scholastic teachers. In refusing to call human intellectual soul a substantial form of the body, Luther disagreed with the formulations of his teachers. Nevertheless, this may be taken merely as an indication of a more substantial methodological divergence. While Luther’s teachers scrupulously followed the decrees of the Western councils and adapted their philosophical positions to them as best as they could, Luther took the liberty of contradicting the councils. This allowed him to develop his criticism beyond the reluctance to accept the full-scale philosophical demonstrations of the truths of faith in the via moderna and the faint skeptical tones against Aristotle found in Trutfetter. For Luther the consideration of the human intellectual soul as a substantial form was an unholy concession to Aristotle’s overly materialist philosophy. Equally, the later decree on the immortality of the soul was an indication of the depravity of the Church, even if the doctrine itself was acceptable to Luther. Luther’s reasoning was that given that the Church was compelled to decree the truths that should have been elementary for every Christian to believe, this clearly showed the poor state of Christian faith in the Church.50

Luther’s Criticism of the Via Moderna

In contrast to more positive influences, Luther’s disagreements with Biel and the via moderna have been amply documented. Luther’s colleague Karlstadt published a set of theses against his former Thomist authorities, and Luther came out with a similar set of his own, which was later labeled “Disputation against Scholastic Theology” (Disputatio contra scholasticam theologiam). As Leif Grane has shown in his seminal study, the theses grew out of Luther’s earlier marginal glosses on Biel’s commentary on Sentences, and because Luther’s criticism of Biel outnumbered all other individual authors, the disputation could therefore also be called a “Disputation against Gabriel Biel.”51

Luther’s criticism concerns especially Biel’s view of the capability of a natural human person to know good or do good deeds without grace. The majority of Luther’s theses in the disputation are directed to one question in Biel’s Sentences commentary, which asks whether the human will is able to love God above all by its natural capacities and thus fulfil the commandment of love. Biel answers the question affirmatively, and Luther’s attack consists of criticism of Biel’s detailed arguments for his position.52

At the core of Luther’s response to Biel is his conviction that loving God above all things, as required by the divine commandment, involves a commitment of the whole human person. For Biel, such love is specifically an act of the will, but Luther presupposes the lower human passions and corporal actions as being in accord with loving God as well. In particular, for Luther, love of God above all would presuppose freedom from all evil concupiscence, which would mean never becoming angry and never experiencing carnal lust. On this basis Luther rejects Biel’s main thesis, namely that loving God above all things would be possible by natural capacities.53

Luther also diverges from Biel’s and Ockham’s concept of grace. For Luther, the grace of God is an “operative Spirit,” which by its very nature cannot be present in a person without being active at the same time. For any meritorious act, such as the fulfilment of the commandment of loving God above all, the presence of grace is a necessary and sufficient condition. Conversely, without the presence of divine grace, there can be no meritorious act like any act of loving God. On this basis Luther rejects the possible cases presented by Ockham and Biel that God could, by his absolute power, produce in a person an act of friendship toward God without grace or that he could accept the person without justifying grace. For Luther, the presence of grace is not an attribute added to certain human acts but rather is indispensable for the emergence of such acts in the first place.54

Luther also objects to Biel’s manner of distinguishing between the natural and spiritual fulfillment of the precept. According to Luther, law demands a spiritual fulfillment of the Decalogue, and external acts of not killing, and so on, remain sinful if they are performed without the grace of God. The presence of grace is therefore essential to any fulfillment of the divine law, including the commandment to love God above all things.55

In rejecting the possibility of loving God above all things without grace, Luther also dismisses all possibilities of a human preparation for receiving grace. The only possible “preparation,” according to Luther, is God’s eternal predestination. This includes dismissing different ways of removing the obstacles for the work of grace, such as ignorance of true good. Luther clarifies the impossibility of knowing true good naturally by stating that, without grace, humans are always in the state of invincible ignorance concerning their salvation, which does not excuse them of their guilt before God.56 For this reason, Luther judges Aristotle’s Ethics as harmful for theology, because it is committed to a project of knowing good without grace. This leads Luther to further consider Aristotle’s philosophy in general as being harmful for theology, including some applications of Aristotelian logic to theological matters.57

While Luther’s criticism of the via moderna was based on ideas already present in his earlier Lectures on Romans, he extended it in his Heidelberg Disputation and on many later occasions as well.58 Nonetheless, he never again explicated it in the same breadth and thoroughness in reference to Biel and his authorities as he had in the Disputation against the Scholastic Theology. This is partly due to the evolution of his doctrines on merit, promise, grace, faith, and justification, which developed an even more pointedly with regard to medieval theological traditions, not only to the via moderna.59

Among the theologians affiliated with the via moderna, John Eck notoriously became one of Luther’s main opponents. After the first major confrontation between Luther and Karlstadt in the Leipzig disputation, Eck became involved in several polemical publications against Lutheran authors. The polemic culminated during the Diet of Augsburg, where Eck was leading the commission of papal theologians, who produced the Confutation of the Augsburg Confession.

John Mair remained equally unconvinced by the new ideas of the Protestant Reformation. He referred to these in a dedicatory letter for one of his theological treatises from 1528. Unlike Eck, Mair was not actively involved in countering these ideas, but in the letter he clearly considered them heretical. Curiously enough, he gave the movement some indirect credit for forcing theologians to focus their argumentation on Scriptural proofs. Mair himself did not radically alter the traditional forms of theological discourse but published new editions of his Sentences commentary as late as 1530.60

In 1518 Luther tried to convince his teachers Usingen and Trutfetter of his new insights, with no success. Luther concluded that: “My theology is like rotten food to the people from Erfurt.”61 Trutfetter passed away in 1519, and Usingen became an active opponent of the Lutherans and was nominated in the papal commission during the Diet of Augsburg; as mentioned previously, he later wrote a treatise against Melanchthon’s Apology.62

Review of the Literature

The structure and institutional framework of Luther’s studies on the philosophy of the via moderna have been present in the literature since Otto Scheel’s63 biography from the early 20th century, with later updates by Martin Brecht64 and Erich Kleineidam.65 On the theology of the via moderna Heiko A. Oberman’s seminal study The Harvest of Medieval Theology66 from the early 1960s is so far the most detailed account. While earlier studies had been influenced by outdated views on Ockham and the late medieval thought, Oberman introduced a more balanced view of late medieval theology into studies of the reformation era, together with a roughly contemporary study by Leif Grane entitled Contra Gabrielem.67 The latter serves as a reliable account of Luther’s criticism of Biel’s theological position, which is also independently described in detail. In the 1990s Graham White published a remarkable update to the discussion about Luther and his heritage in via moderna with his study Luther as Nominalist,68 with a focus on logic and methods of disputation rather than natural philosophy and philosophical anthropology, which had been the frame of reference in earlier contributions. Based on recent studies on medieval logic, White provides a lengthy criticism of the way earlier studies of Luther view medieval philosophical theories. In contrast, Theodor Dieter’s study Der Junge Luther und Aristoteles69 from 2001 follows the main line of Luther research in focusing on the problem of the relationship between philosophy and theology in early Luther. Nonetheless, it takes seriously the current scholarship on medieval theology and philosophy and posits Luther’s insights carefully within its intellectual context. In 2003 Sebastian Lalla70 published a volume devoted to the philosophy of Luther’s via moderna teacher, Bartholomaeus Arnoldi of Usingen, which Dieter also discusses extensively in his study. Through this publication the general context of Luther’s theology regarding both the philosophy and the theology of the via moderna can be considered to be covered appropriately, and research will continue to focus on more specific themes. As White and Dieter have shown through their work, this line of study has not yet been exhausted.

Further Reading

Dieter, Theodor. “Luther as Late Medieval Theologian.” In Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology. Edited by Robert Kolb, et al., 31–48. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Grane, Lief. Contra Gabrielem: Luthers Auseinandersetzung mit Gabriel Biel in der Disputation Contra Scholasticam Theologiam 1517. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1962.Find this resource:

Hoenen, Maarten J. F. M. “Via Antiqua and Via Moderna in the Fifteenth Century: Doctrinal, Institutional, and Church Political Factors in the Wegestreit.” In The Medieval Heritage in Early Modern Metaphysics and Moral Theory. Edited by L. Nielsen and R. Friedman, 9–36. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer, 2003.Find this resource:

Kärkkäinen, Pekka. “Martin Luther.” In Mediaeval Commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Vol. 2. Edited by Philipp W. Rosemann, 471–494. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.Find this resource:

Lalla, Sebastian. Secundum Viam Modernam: Ontologischer Nominalismus bei Bartholomäus Arnoldi von Usingen. Würzburg, Germany: Königshausen & Neumann, 2003.Find this resource:

Oberman, Heiko A.The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.Find this resource:

White, Graham White. Luther as Nominalist. Helsinki: Luther-Agricola-Society, 1994.Find this resource:


(1.) Maarten J. F. M. Hoenen, “Via Antiqua and Via Moderna in the Fifteenth Century: Doctrinal, Institutional, and Church Political Factors in the Wegestreit,” in The Medieval Heritage in Early Modern Metaphysics and Moral Theory, eds. L. Nielsen and R. Friedman (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer, 2003), 12.

(2.) Hoenen, “Via Antiqua and Via Moderna,” 20–22.

(3.) Hoenen, “Via Antiqua and Via Moderna,” 11–12, 19.

(4.) Hoenen, “Via Antiqua and Via Moderna,” 11–13.

(5.) Adolar Zumkeller, Erbsünde, Gnade, Rechtfertigung und Verdienst nach der Lehre der Erfurter Augustinertheologen des Spätmittelalters (Würzburg, Germany: Augustinus-Verlag, 1984), 447–452.

(6.) Erich Kleineidam, Universitas Studii Erffordensis II (Erfurt, Germany: Benno, 1992), 153–157, 211–214.

(7.) Sebastian Lalla, Secundum Viam Modernam: Ontologischer Nominalismus bei Bartholomäus Arnoldi von Usingen (Würzburg, Germany: Königshausen & Neumann, 2003), 274–275; and Hoenen, “Via Antiqua and Via Moderna.”

(8.) LW 41:115; WA 50:600, 30–31.

(9.) Pekka Kärkkäinen, “Psychology and the Soul in Late Medieval Erfurt,” Vivarium 47 (2009): 426–427.

(10.) Kärkkäinen, “Psychology and the Soul,” 427.

(11.) Kärkkäinen, “Psychology and the Soul,” 428–430.

(12.) Gustav Plitt, Jodokus Trutfetter von Eisenach der Lehrer Luthers in seinem Wirken geschildert (Erlangen, Germany: A. Deichert, 1876), 11.

(13.) Jodocus Trutfetter, Summule totius logice (Erfurt, Germany: Wolfgang Schenk, 1501), B1r.

(14.) Kärkkäinen, “Psychology and the Soul,” 430–432.

(15.) Lalla, Secundum Viam Modernam, 277–278.

(16.) Lalla, Secundum Viam Modernam, 285–290.

(17.) Lalla, Secundum Viam Modernam, 290.

(18.) Jun Matsuura, “Einleitung,” in Erfurter Annotationen 1509–1510/11, eds. Martin Luther and Jun Matsuura (Cologne: Böhlau, 2009), CXXIII; CXXVII.

(19.) Detlef Metz, Gabriel Biel und die Mystik (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2001).

(20.) Metz, Gabriel Biel, 2–3.

(21.) Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963), 122, 130.

(22.) Oberman, Harvest, 132–134, 153, 171.

(23.) Leif Grane, Contra Gabrielem: Luthers Auseinandersetzung mit Gabriel Biel in der Disputation Contra Scholasticam Theologiam 1517 (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1962), 216; and Oberman, Harvest, 154.

(24.) Metz, Gabriel Biel, 300–301.

(25.) Bartholomaei Arnoldi de Usingen O.S.A. Responsio contra Apologiam Philippi Melanchthonis, ed. Primož Simoniti (Würzburg, Germany: Augustinus-Verlag, 1978).

(26.) Oberman, Harvest, 179–180.

(27.) Graham White, Luther as Nominalist (Helsinki: Luther-Agricola-Society, 1994), 369, 372–374.

(28.) Ueli Zahnd, “Terms, Signs, Sacraments: The Correlation between Logic and Theology and the Philosophical Context of Book IV of Mair’s Sentences Commentary,” in A Companion to the Theology of John Mair, ed. John T. Slotemaker and Jeffrey C. Witt (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015), 247–248, 287.

(29.) Zahnd, “Terms, Signs, Sacraments,” 249–250, 253, 258.

(30.) Zahnd, “Terms, Signs, Sacraments,” 259–260.

(31.) Zahnd, “Terms, Signs, Sacraments,” 267.

(32.) Zahnd, “Terms, Signs, Sacraments,” 271, 276.

(33.) Zahnd, “Terms, Signs, Sacraments,” 272–273, 279, 281; and Pekka Kärkkäinen, “Conscience and Synderesis in John Mair’s Philosophical Theology,” in A Companion to the Theology of John Mair, eds. John T. Slotemaker and Jeffrey C. Witt (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015), 185.

(34.) Zahnd, “Terms, Signs, Sacraments,” 282–285.

(35.) Arno Seifert, Logik zwischen Scholastik und Humanismus (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1978), 17, 19–21.

(36.) Seifert, Logik, 21–22.

(37.) Seifert, Logik, 34–35.

(38.) Seifert, Logik, 62.

(39.) Heinz Scheible, “Die philosophische Fakultät der Universität Wittenberg von der Gründung bis zur Vertreibung der Philippisten,” Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 98 (2007): 12.

(40.) Harald Bollbuck, “Einleitung,” in De intentionibus, Karlstadt, in Kritische Gesamtausgabe der Schriften und Briefe Andreas Bodensteins von Karlstadt, Teil I (1507–1518), ed. Thomas Kaufmann (Wolfenbüttel, Germany: Herzog August Bibliothek, 2012).

(41.) Bollbuck, “Einleitung (De intentionibus).”

(42.) Bollbuck, “Einleitung (De intentionibus).”

(43.) Harald Bollbuck, “Einleitung,” in Distinctiones Thomistarum, Karlstadt, in Kritische Gesamtausgabe der Schriften und Briefe Andreas Bodensteins von Karlstadt, Teil I (1507–1518), ed. Thomas Kaufmann (Wolfenbüttel, Germany: Herzog August Bibliothek, 2012); and Daniel BolligerInfiniti Contemplatio: Grundzüge der Scotus- und Scotismusrezeption im Werk Huldych Zwinglis (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003), 361–362.

(44.) Pekka Kärkkäinen, “Martin Luther,” in Mediaeval Commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, ed. Philipp W. Rosemann (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010), 2: 475–477, 483, 492; and “Augustinian, Humanist or What? Martin Luther’s Marginal Notes on Augustine” in Studia Patristica (forthcoming).

(45.) Theodor Dieter, Der junge Luther und Aristoteles: Eine historisch-systematische Untersuchung zum Verhältnis von Theologie und Philosophie (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2001), 343, 630.

(46.) Bolliger, Infiniti Contemplatio, 426–431.

(47.) White, Luther as Nominalist, 130, 347.

(48.) Lalla, Secundum Viam Modernam, 264–265.

(49.) Pekka Kärkkäinen, “Nominalist Psychology and the Limits of Canon Law in Late Medieval Erfurt,” in Lutheran Reformation and the Law, ed. Virpi Mäkinen (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2006), 103–107; and Pekka Kärkkäinen, “Theology, Philosophy, and Immortality of the Soul in the Late Via Moderna of Erfurt,” Vivarium 43 (2005): 352, 359.

(50.) Kärkkäinen, “Nominalist Psychology,” 107–108.

(51.) Grane, Contra Gabrielem, 42–44, 348–368.

(52.) Grane, Contra Gabrielem, 47; and Theodor Dieter, “Luther as Late Medieval Theologian,” in Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology, ed. Robert Kolb, et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 36.

(53.) Dieter, “Luther as Late Medieval Theologian,” 36–37.

(54.) Grane, Contra Gabrielem, 373.

(55.) Grane, Contra Gabrielem, 373–374.

(56.) Grane, Contra Gabrielem, 372.

(57.) Leif Grane, Modus loquendi Theologicus 1515–1518 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1975), 133–134.

(58.) Grane, Modus loquendi.

(59.) For Luther’s opposition to Thomism of Cajetan, see Grane, Modus loquendi, 161–191.

(60.) James K. Farge, “John Mair: A Historical Introduction,” in A Companion to the Theology of John Mair, eds. John T. Slotemaker and Jeffrey C. Witt (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015), 21.

(61.) LW 41:61–62; WA BR 1:173, 29).

(62.) Lalla, Secundum Viam Modernam, 20–22.

(63.) Otto Scheel, Martin Luther, vom Katholizismus zur Reformation. Erster Band. Auf der Schule und Universität (Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr, 1921), 121–234.

(64.) Martin Brecht, Martin Luther. Sein Weg zur Reformation 1483–1521 (Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 1981), 42–47.

(65.) Kleineidam, Universitas Studii Erffordensis II, 163–169. For a summary of this line of study, see Dieter, Der Junge Luther, 14–18.

(66.) Oberman, Harvest.

(67.) Grane, Contra Gabrielem.

(68.) White, Luther as Nominalist.

(69.) Dieter, Der Junge Luther.

(70.) Lalla, Secundum Viam Modernam.