The Reformation as Ockham’s Revenge

“Another doctrinal current made its appearance in the Middle Ages, Duns Scotus being its outstanding exponent. He taught that the acts of the penitent-contrition, confession, satisfaction-though integral, are not essential parts of the sacrament of penance.  The only essential is the absolution in respect of the sins, the three acts of penitence being only the signs of it. Futhermore, he understood the efficacy of the sacrament in the sense of a remission of the fault and of the penalty. The forgiveness of sins does not result immediately from absolution; absolution provokes a certain disposition, and it is this disposition which, through God’s promise, calls forth forgivness.

Concerning contrition, he shows that there exist two ways of justification (in the scholastic sense): one, contrition (superior attrition), can dispense with the sacrament; the other, attrition, suffices for the remission of sins in the sacrament.  In connection with the discipline of confession he is less strict concerning its obligatory nature, holding that it is obligatory, by divine precept, only in the case of those in danger of death and as a preparation for certain duties requiring purity.

William of Occam (d. about 1349), many of whose ideas were taken over by Luther, carried this evolutionary process in the theology of penance to lengths that were condemned as heretical. For him, there is no question of attrition being necessary, much less of its being sufficient-to win God’s forgiveness. God pardons sins without requiring any movement of repentence. According to this view, absolution merely demonstrates that the sinner is forgiven. Absolution does not loose ; it supposes the remission of sins to be already accomplished. Absolution, then, is alone essential; contrition, confession, satisfaction are but conditions presupposed either in fact or in the desire or will.  The sacrament, however, is necessary- at least has to be desired (in voto)-for the remission of sins really to take place.  This is pure nominalism, which empties the sacrament of all objective efficacy, locating in the intention, the desire, or the will (in voto) the whole essence of the spiritual life. Thus in the Middle Ages, before the Reformation, certain questions were already being raised concerning the traditional Catholic view of the sacrament of penance as it had been formulated by St. Thomas.”

Max Thurain, Confession, SCM Press, 1958, 23-25

2 Responses to The Reformation as Ockham’s Revenge

  1. Nathan says:

    Sadly, I can’t continue the conversation for a long time, but I wonder if you would agree with Hendrix’s contention here:

    “Although the controversy over Unigenitus clarified the already existing disagreement between Cajetan and Luther over papal authority and credibility, Cajetan’s second objection revealed a substantial difference which had serious consequences for Luther’s ensuing attitude towards the papacy. Luther had asserted that Christians approaching the sacrament of penance should not trust in their own contrition but in the words of Christ spoken by the priest in the absolution. If they believed in these words, then they could be certain of forgiveness, because these words were absolutely reliable, whereas the sufficiency of their contrition was never certain. In reply, Cajetan upheld the prevailing theological opinion: although it was true that contrition was never perfect, its presence still made one worthy to receive the grace conferred by the sacrament. Still, one could never be certain that one’s contrition was sufficient to effect the forgiveness one hoped to receive. To hold the contrary, said Cajetan, was to teach a new and erroneous doctrine and to “build a new church.”… “Part of the reason for Cajetan’s sharp reaction lay in the different concepts of faith which he and Luther espoused. For Cajetan, faith was one of the virtues infused with grace, and it entailed belief that the doctrine of penance itself was correct. For Luther, faith was not this general confidence in the correctness and power of the sacrament but “special faith” in the certain effect of the sacrament on the penitent Christian who trusted the word of Christ. Cajetan quickly perceived the difference but failed to appreciate Luther’s underlying concern. To him Luther’s “special faith” appeared to be a subjective human assessment which undermined the objective power of the keys at work through the pronouncement of absolution. It imposed a new condition on the efficacy of the sacrament beyond that most recently defined at the Council of Florence; therefore, Luther was again challenging an explicit decree of the church. Luther, however, was striving for just the opposite: to put the sacrament on a more objective basis. He was trying to remove the uncertain, subjective element of human contrition as a basis for the efficacy of the sacrament and to replace it with the objective, certain words of Christ pronounced in the absolution” (Hendrix, Scott, Luther and the Papacy, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1981, p. 62)

  2. Robert says:

    This would seem to have enormous implications for the nature of spirituality, Divine/human interaction, as it conceives of it in a works oriented and mechanistic manner, minimizing the mystery and God’s real and abiding interaction. Thoughts?

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