Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms- A Review (Chapter 2)

The second chapter of William Wright’s book is really fine stuff. He explains the philosophical movements of the early Italian Renaissance, particularly focusing on the role of skepticism in humanism. Wright briefly explains the role of William of Ockham in leading up to these intellectual movements and then goes on to investigate in more detail the works of Petrarch, Lorenzo Valla, and the Neo-Platonists: Ficino, Pico, and Giles of Viterbo. Brief mention is also made of other critics. The most significant figure for Luther, according to Wright, is clearly that of Lorenzo Valla and his brand of humanism.

Wright begins with Ockham, an important precursor to the Renaissance and humanist thinkers. Ockham critiqued the Realists, particularly taking issue with abstractions and the multiplication of terms. Wright points out that Ockham “reduced the number of Aristotelian categories from ten to two, retaining only substance and quality” (47). Yet Ockham was not a skeptic. Even though his emphasis on will seemed to undermine the intellectual status quo, Ockham still intended on resolving problems.

The intellectual skepticism which characterized the Renaissance humanists owed its inspiration to a more global picture. According to Wright, the larger academic culture was quite capable of producing new doubt:

One may point to several other sources of the general threat to certainty at the onset of the sixteenth century. Increasing trade and continuing warfare with the Moslems introduced competitive religious and cultural ideas. The Portuguese beginnings of European exploration and expansion along the coast of Africa during the mid-to late fifteenth century raised doubts about the authority of Aristotle and other ancient authorities with regard to the nature of humankind and what constituted human society. Accounts of the Spanish explorations in the New World fed a growing curiosity in Europe. Astronomical observations and theorizing raised questions about the accuracy of the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic understanding of the universe (Weltbild) and cosmology. The recovery and translation of early manuscripts brought forgotten ideas back to the forefront and sharpened the differences between ancient authorities. All of this information, both new and old, was widely disseminated by the newly developed printing press.

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Skepticism was thus perfectly understandable, as the vast amount of that which we did not know became apparent. The humanists would use this in their critiques against traditional human knowledge, but as Wright repeatedly points out, they did not use this skepticism against religion. To the contrary, religion was many times the great antidote to this situation. Continue reading