Narrowly speaking, this is a work on the theology of Gabriel Biel. As it is, one must be careful extrapolating Biel’s thought onto the canvas of late medieval theology. On the other hand, Oberman conclusively argues that Biel’s nominalism is not the stark break from an earlier Pristine Thomism that one often thinks.
Indeed, as one narrative has it (Pickstock, After Writing) in the beginning there was Thomism. Instead of a serpent, we have Duns Scotus. Instead of Cain, the Reformation. While this narrative has been refuted, it holds sway among certain circles. Oberman’s thesis has the merit (no pun intended) that “nominalism” had many varieties, and rather than ruining a pure medievalism, faithfully developed many points and anticipated Trent on others. Now, on to Gabriel Biel.
Biel’s theology can be structured around a dialectic: ordained power and absolute power.
The potentia ordinata and absoluta should not be seen as two different ways of divine acting, since all of God’s works ad extra are united (Oberman 37). God does things according to the laws he has established, potentia ordinata. However, he can do everything that does not imply a contradiction, potentia absoluta.
de potentia ordinata: necessity of the consequence; relates to the contingent order. Since this is not a logical absolute, this means humans cannot predict what predestination per the contingent order will do, since it is contingent (this is a huge point in later Reformed Scholastics).
de potentia absoluta: this does not mean that God can do anything he wants. It means he can do anything that doesn’t imply a logical contradiction. This distinction allowed scholastics to speak of miracles in the created order without the later Humean charge of a violation of natural law.
These categories allow Oberman to move from prolegomena (natural knowledge of God) to epistemology proper to man’s created state to justification and beyond. What makes this book so exciting is that everything is interconnected.
Facere quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam
Do what is in you–this line summarizes Biel’s thought. It forces him to rework sacramental theology, justification, anthropology and even Mariology around it. And Biel knows all of this. Per creation and the Fall, original sin is simply an “outgrowth of natural difficulties” already present (129). Grace, therefore, “means the infusion by which man is made a friend of God and acceptable for final beatification” (136). This leads Oberman to conclude: “grace is not the root but the fruit of the preparatory good work” (141).
Biel’s conclusions are not surprising. If his maxim holds, then whenever he comes across something that seems to imply divine power “closing the gap,” so to speak, then it needs to be refocused.
Habitus and Justification
The pre-act of Justification: “the dignitas of an act is its bonitas with respect to its heavenly reward…The habit of grace is the necessary bridge between bonitas and dignitas which gives the viator a de condigno claim on his eternal salvation” (161). And consistent with Biel’s de potentia ordinata God must grant the reward to once the conditions have been met (168).
habitus: disposition necessary before man is beatified. Parenthetically, Oberman notes Biel’s concern over a problem–another area where Biel paints himself into a corner: how can one talk about free will if one has a habit of grace? Aren’t people enslaved to their habits, whether good or bad?
Three stages of Justification
Acquire the habit of grace. “The sinner can reach the demarcation line” between the state of sin and the state of grace; he does what he is able to do (175).
meritum de congruo: semi-merit that is a spontaneous act and worthy of its reward. This creates an initial problem, since no human act is worthy of heaven. That’s okay, though, if we remember the above dialectic (absoluta/ordinata). God has committed himself de potentia ordinata to reward meritum de congruo.
Are There Reformed Antecedents?
It is commonly charged that the Reformation nominalized the pristine beauty of earlier theology. But can we really say that Reformed theology is nominalistic? Not really, or not without heavy argumentation. Oberman notes concerning justification, “Biel explicitly rejects the position which later was to be characterized as Protestant” (183).
Again, Biel’s dialectic appears and governs his thought. The potentia absoluta is God’s mercy. What causes predestination? We must first ask what is meant by cause. Biel will eventually define cause as order of priority (189). Not surprisingly, Biel will soften predestination for the most part (and this is certainly a move away from Anselm and Aquinas).
SCRIPTURE AND THE CHURCH
Keith Mathison took a lot of heat because Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox for his categories Tradition I and Tradition II, except that Mathison didn’t invent these categories; Oberman did. Oberman points out that the church has long differed over whether “Tradition” is an independent stream alongside Scripture. What is important for Oberman’s argument is that the nominalists who opposed the Pope for the Council all agreed that Tradition (II) was an independent stream. Thus, any charge that nominalism is the antecedent to the Reformation is clearl false.
This book deserves highest possible praise and widest possible dissemination.