The Goodness of Stuff

The fine folks over at Credenda Agenda have a published a short article of mine entitled “The Goodness of Stuff.”

This entry was posted in from glory to glory by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

9 thoughts on “The Goodness of Stuff

  1. Dear Mr. Wedgeworth,

    I like the direction you are going in with this article, though I must say I find your view of history, especially your characterizations of “Rome” as bizzare. For example, you say “the city, it was argued by Rome, was formed because of man’s need to protect himself from evil.” The problem with this statement is that it is simply false. As anyone with a basic knowledge of the history of philosophy can tell you, St. Thomas (following Aristotle) clearly taught that man is a “political animal” and that the political association is natural to man. In fact, St. Thomas explicitly held that there would still have been need for government, even if there had been no Fall. How then can you say that “Rome” taught that the state was for protection from evil? You suggest, here as elsewhere in your article, that the Catholic Church did not recognize the natural goodness of God’s creation (despite its unfailing defense against various Manichean heresies over the years). Isn’t the opposite true, that the Catholic Church was continually accused by Protestants of ascribing too much goodness to nature and, indeed for maintaining the integrity of nature in general? Isn’t this why the reformers, starting with Luther, hated Aristotle, whose philosophy had been elevated and transformed from its pagan limitations by St. Thomas?
    Again, while I like the point you are making about “The Goodness of Stuff,” it amazing that you argue that this was a development of Protestantism. The routinely convoluted positions in your article lead me to think you are undertaking impossible mental gymnastics to couch traditionally Catholic veiws as somehow arising from Protestantism!
    Another example: your assertion that Catholics “insisted that all human institutions owed their livelihood to the visible church and particularly its magisterium in Rome.” Livelihood? What can this possibly mean? Presumably it means that because marriage, for example, is a sacrament, that the Catholic Church maintains that marriage is not natural? This is of course absurd. But perhaps a dislike for the idea of a preisthood is the real motivation? If so, you should just come out and say it. This is the disingenuous, soft logic that is, unfortunatley, typical of your piece.
    Just another ironic example: you cite philosopher Charles Taylor as somehow supporting your view on the history of thought. A quick refernce to Wikipedia will suffice to show that Dr. Taylor is a “practising Roman Catholic.”

  2. Hi Michael,

    I think that your view of history is itself characterized more by our modern commentators than the original sources. This is understandable. I once shared the view that the original Reformers were down on Aristotle and nature, whereas the Roman Catholics held the opposite pole. But that’s not really the case. It gets tossed around a lot these days, to be sure, but the older Reformed doctors were quite different than even their defenders perceive.

    In a similar vein, very many of the Reformers were themselves Thomists. As I said in another post on another blog (

    We would claim Aquinas as an important bridge for the Reformation in many ways, and so he was not the object of my statement.

    The view that the state is a product of the fall is actually one interpretation of Augustine, though von Heyking argues against that reading. Nevertheless, that view exists within Augustinianism at large.

    You can read in Gregory VII’s letter to Hermann of Metz, Letter 8.21, that Gregory believed kingship to be “invented by men of this world who were ignorant of God” (quoted in O’Donovan’s From Irenaeus to Grotius p 245). Gregory goes on to say:

    Who does not know that kings and princes derive their origin from men ignorant of God who raised themselves above their fellows by pride, plunder, treachery, murder– in short, by every king of crime– at the instigation of the Devil… Does anyone doubt that the priests of Christ are to be considered as fathers and masters of kings and princes and of all believers.

    Similarly, Honorius Augustodunenesis says that civil government began with Cain (Summa Gloria 1).

    Giles of Rome is another writer worth mentioning. In his On Ecclesiastical Power, Giles says that the priesthood precedes kingship and that any civil power not mediated by the priesthood is “not rightful,” but rather “more robbery than power” (1.5/ also quoted in O’Donovan p 366).

    Also, see Pope Innocent III:

    [God] instituted two great dignities, a greater one to preside over souls as if over day, and a lesser one to preside over bodies as if over night. These are the pontifical authority and the royal power. Now just as the moon derives its light from the sun and is indeed lower than it in quantity and quality, in position and power, so too the royal authority derives the splendour of its dignity from the pontifical authority.

    quoted in Frederick II by David Abulafia, pg. 94

    The Reformers were happy to use Thomas to critique these papalist writers (which is really who they were after). It is too bad that the papalists seemed to win out, particularly with the ultramontanists later down the road.

  3. As to Taylor’s being a practicing Catholic, that doesn’t bother me too much. Remi Brague is another RC who espouses a classical Protestant view of law.

    A lot has changed over the last 200 years. There aren’t a lot of Unam Sanctam advocates anymore. Not a lot of Syllabus of Errors supporters either.

    The point of my critique of RCism is its understanding of “supernature” and the donum supperadditum. A similar discussion is currently going on at this site:

  4. What “original sources” are you referring to exactly? I agree that Augustine arguably held that view. Don’t you think it’s interesting that Protestants love him? You’ve given me a bit of a letter from a Pope and another writer that are, in my estimation, neither particularly illuminating or remotely authoritative. Maybe you could draw out some of your conclusions for me rationally, rather than cutting and pasting more half-quotes. I don’t think the Pope Innocent III quote is even relevant, in that it discusses authority generally. For Catholics there is no opposition between God’s authority and nature, for God establishes nature and its moral imperatives.

    Truly, you seem to be strangely trying to graft onto Catholicism the doctrine of the Social Contract State of Nature (you know, where life is solitary, nasty, brutish and short). It is worth remarking that this was a development by Protestant political philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke, who were riding the intellectual wave of the time- that is to say, the atmosphere and ideas of the Reformation (that great ‘uprising of the rich against the poor’).

    Don’t you think there is a connection between the Faith & Works debate and the philosophical debate about nature? Specifically between nominalism and realism? How do you think that plays out?

    Protestant Thomists indeed! I would love to know more about those guys….

    E.g. Luther wrote:

    “Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, On the Soul, Ethics, which have hitherto been thought his best books, should be altogether discarded, together with all the rest of his books which boast of treating the things of nature, although nothing can be learned from the either of the things of nature or the things of the Spirit. Moreover no one has so far understood his meaning, and many souls have been burdened with profitless labor and study, at the cost of much precious time. I venture to say that any potter has more knowledge of nature than is written in these books. It grieves me to the heart that this damned, conceited, rascally heathen has with his false words deluded and made fools of so many of the best Christians. God has sent him as a plague upon us for our sins.”

  5. Michael,

    I am referring to the breadth of what Richard Muller calls “Reformed Orthodoxy.” Most people cite Luther and Calvin, but you have to remember that there was also Zwingli, Melanchthon, Ursinus, Zanchi, Richard Hooker, James Ussher, and many more. Also, with Luther you will see a bit of criticism of Aristotle, to be sure (due to his renaissance humanism), but when you get Luther into the issue of reason qua reason, that is, in its proper “kingdom,” he is actually quite happy to use it. He prefers, as it turns out, Plato to Aristotle, but this is not because of an anti-nature outlook. He just thinks Plato’s a theist while Aristotle seems not to be (to Luther).

    You try to dismiss my cantata of papalist writers, but O’Donovan doesn’t think they are so peripheral (I pulled them from his section of the papal supremacy in the middle ages). You can see that their views became the view of the magisterium when you examine Dictatus Papae and Unam Sanctam. The political sphere had to be mediated by the ecclesiastical. This can also be seen by the so-called “freedom of the Church” espoused by Thomas Beckett and others.

    For the RC system, this was definitely connected with their view of original creation as “supernature” and donum supperadditum, with the subsequent need of hierocratic mediation after the fall to restore/advance nature. It was also quite common for medieval catholics to argue that natural law was no longer accessible after the fall. Aquinas was actually a progression, and the Reformers continued much of his project.

    The Reformers’ response to this certainly drew from the earlier Conciliarist tradition, but it was all tied in to their high view of nature. I believe the issues are all of one piece.

    This is all before Hobbes and co. More attractive to the broader Reformed community would be Althusius:

  6. Mr. Wedgeworth,

    Please let us try to stay focused here. You argue in your article that a sense of the inherent goodness of nature and creation is characteristic of the Reformers an NOT Catholics. To do this you seem to be using two primary arguments:

    1) That “many” Reformers were Thomists or at least sympathetic to classical Greek thought on natural philosophy

    2) That some Catholic political philosophy has asserted something like a “State of Nature” view of government, which proves that Catholics thought that nature was intriniscally evil or negative in some way

    Wow. That is some thin gruel to build a case on. Not only are there mountains of evidence, theologians, philosophers and historians that assert the contrary, the two points you are trying to prove are either not true, or at best true with grave qualifications.

    For example: can you refer me to any significant Protestant theologians or philosophers who held to a Thomisitc or Aristotelian natural philosophy? (and I dont mean they just said nice noble things about nature) Do YOU hold to the Thomistic natural philosophy i.e. of substance and essence etc?

    Next, granting for the sake of argument that your logic holds on point number two, you must show me something authoratative on this. By authoritative I mean something that has been taught officially or infallibly by the Church. If you cared to actually understand the Catholic Church, you would find that there are certain conditions that must be fulfilled in this regard. First of all, the doctrine must be on matters of Faith or morals. The type of politcal regime, aside from broad general principles that bear on man’s eternal salvation, is not a considered a part of this area of authority. It is true that the spiritual authority is higher than the temporal authority and that state-enacted human laws that contrvene clear teaching on Faith and morals (e.g. abortion “rights”) are not true laws. This was true in 1000 A.D. and is also true now.
    Characteristically, your strategy is to assert some tangential document to try to distort the Church’s teaching. For example: the document you keep referring to, Dictatus Papae.

    A quick glance at Wikipedia (It’s not that I think Wikipedia is somehow renowned for scholarship, but I am striving conciously here to use mainstream and specifically NOT Catholic sources) will tell you that this document, dating to the 11th century:

    “is a heading in the letter-collection that implies that the pope composed the piece himself. It does not mean a ‘papal dictate’ or any kind of a manifesto; rather it means ‘papal dictation’. It was not published, in the sense of being widely copied and made known outside the immediate circle of the papal curia. “None of the conflicts of the years 1075 and following can be directly traced to opposition to it (though several of the claims made in it were also made by Gregory and his supporters during these conflicts)”.

    By employing such examples, I can only conclude that you are wilfully distorting the evidence you find, or that your education and teachers have been tendentious in service of their denomination or particular agenda.

    Since I see from several things on your website that you are a teacher at a “classical” school, I suspect that you have a love for classical learning and want to try to appropriate that to a Protestant “tradition.” This is understandable, though misguided.

    Why not just become Catholic instead?!

    At any rate, if you wish to continue this discussion, I must ask that you focus more and answer the questions I am asking. I will do the same. Please do not simply refer to the “authorities” of your own circle or throw out a cloud vague criticisms of the Catholic Church. Otherwise I will not continue to post comments.

    P.S. I hope you come home and become a Catholic!
    P.P.S. Didn ‘t you know that Shakespeare was a Catholic?

  7. Michael,

    I have the unfortunate feeling that you are actually dismissing my comments rather than testing them and finding them wanting. Your PS and PPS aren’t exactly helping you appear open-minded or self-reflective, all the while you say that I’m the one pushing a denominational agenda. It appears to me that you are saying that my views cannot actually exist within traditional Protestantism.

    You also assume that I don’t know the conditions that current RC puts on infallibility (which is not the same thing as the more general notion of enforceable doctrine, BTW), but I do. I’ve had these discussions before. But as you say, those aren’t necessarily to the immediate point of discussion in my article.

    You keep saying that I am getting off track, but that is not the case. I am saying that the political teaching and the views of nature are connected in this debate (something that Charles Taylor explicitly says in his book as well), and I’ve pointed to the RC view of creation as supernature and the subsequent post-fall need of mediation as the doctrine here.

    The Investiture Controversy is not tangential issue in the history of RC political thought, and the qualification that Wiki gives– “though several of the claims made in it were also made by Gregory and his supporters during these conflicts”– is precisely the point. and my reason for citing the document. Unam Sanctam, which does meet ex cathedra criteria, is also not tangential. They are key turning-points in the conciliarist trajectory which will eventually develop into the Reformation. I am staying on my original point, in dialogue with the medieval narrative. If this is not what you are interested in addressing, then that is your choice, but it is what I was originally addressing in my article, and it is what I’ve continued to explain. You can’t just lecture me. Ask me to change the topic or narrow it before calling foul.

    You also told me not to refer to authorities, but I was answering your previous question, “What ‘original sources’ are you referring to exactly?” and your statement, “Protestant Thomists indeed! I would love to know more about those guys….”

    To that, I gave you some names. You can’t keep accusing me of being dismissive, for I am actually directly engaging the claims you are making here and not presuming all kinds of things in the background (faith/works, nominalism/realism, “classical’s” inability to co-exist with Protestantism).

  8. To say that the Investiture Contest is somehow tangential to the Roman Catholic claims at issue here merely reflects something a history professor of mine once said: “The eleventh century is one of the most neglected periods of Christendom.” He was talking about neglected by Protestants, but in my experience, it’s very much neglected by Catholics as well. That’s a shame, because the key issues of the Investiture debate continue throughout the later Middle Ages and all the way down to and past the Reformation (even informing some of the discussions at the Council of Trent).

    Whether Dictatus papae was actually penned by Gregory VII is immaterial; one may read the selections from his Registrum put out by Ephraim Emerton many decades ago and see that the same views are enunciated by Gregory’s own pen there with crystal clarity. And, for those who follow history’s trajectories carefully, the view of authority announced by Gregory was certainly followed by later popes, including those of the Reformation period. It can be argued that it continues to underlie the papacy’s authority claims today, and that the illusion that the pope has no aspirations to temporal power is exactly that: an illusion.

  9. Also, the bit about Luther’s harsh condemnations of Aristotle needs to be put in its proper context: the context of Renaissance humanism. “Aristotle” in that context isn’t just the actual books Luther lists, but is a kind of synecdoche for the bulk of Late Medieval Scholastic philosophy – which, because of its arid rationalism and endless, inane logic-chopping was a favorite whipping boy of the Renaissance humanists. Erasmus, a good Catholic, also mocks the Scholastics in this fashion in his Praise of Folly. Luther’s remarks belong in this category, along with his similar one that “reason is the Devil’s whore.” He’s not talking about mere rational activity; he’s talking about the abuse of it by the Late Medieval Scholastics.

    A little care with sources instead of just slinging around half-understood quotes goes a long way.

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