The theological landscape prior to the Reformation was going through great upheaval, debate, and shift. Thomas Aquinas had been a major theological influence, but his thought was being dramatically challenged by other theologians, most notably Duns Scotus and William Occam. The schools of Scotus and Occam made significant contributions to the pre-Reformation scene, which would lead the Reformers in the development of key doctrinal concepts.
One of those doctrines was the doctrine of the freedom of the will. The doctrine was most fully developed by Johannes Duns Scotus (d. 1308). Scotus was no intellectual light-weight. He is generally regarded as one of the most significant philosophers of the Middle Ages. For example, his doctrine of the Immaculate Conception would eventually become the accepted formulation of the concept within Catholic dogma. Here he was challenging the views and teachings of Aquinas particularly (though I think both Aquinas and Scotus were wrong on this point), and his work became known for its opposition to the “Great Doctor”. His views on the primacy of the will over the intellect was another departure from Aquinas; for Aquinas had insisted that the will was directed by the intellect. Scotus held to a Libertarian view of freedom, meaning the will is not determined by anything else. John Frame explains:
So he believes that the human will, even after the fall, can choose to act according to moral law, but he still believes that God’s grace strengthens the will in these endeavors. (A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, 155)
Such a view would become ardently challenged by the Protestant reformers in the years to come. Justification is by faith alone, apart from works. In fact they would argue for a monergistic salvation, one-sided and all of God. There is no amount of our own effort that contributes, even with an added dose of grace, to our salvation. It is all of God.
“Voluntarism” was a key distinctive of Scotism. This freedom of will begins with God. So, Scotus argued that God is defined as will and, because He is God, He is an absolutely free will. God, for example, could have created any number of possible worlds, ones completely different from that which currently exists. Neither the world, nor the order of salvation, must necessarily be the way that they are. This is a significant point for Scotism, for it would lead to a great divide between reason and faith.
Since, God’s laws do not stem from the intellect, but are pure will, they do not have a logical connection. They are not rational laws, but arbitrarily chosen by God. He could have done otherwise, but He chose to do as such. This meant one could not prove the existence of God by means of natural law, nor could one argue for faith from rationalistic grounds. As Samuel Stumpf puts it:
Rational knowledge is thus limited to the empirical world, and religious knowledge in general becomes a product of divine illumination or revelation. In this way, the subject matter of philosophy is split off from that of theology. (Philosophy: History and Problems, 184)
This dissociation of reason and faith, philosophy and religion, meant that the only basis for proving religious truth was Scripture. Such a strong emphasis on the role of Scripture in the substantiation of faith would become a positive key for Luther in particular. While he would debate Erasmus on the freedom of the will, he would debate many others on the supremacy of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.
This division of faith and reason would be carried further by one of Scotus’ most promising students, William Occam. Occam would depart from his teacher in some important ways that also went on to shape the theological landscape of the time, but he upheld and strengthened the argument that Christian theology can only be founded on faith and Scripture. John Frame summarizes:
As occam and Duns Soctus relegate philosophy and science to the realm of autonomy, they reconstitute theology on a Biblicist foundation. Our knowledge of Christian doctrine is by faith and Scripture alone. Occam also becomes a critic of the tradition and claims of the organized church. In these respects, Occam (and his followers, such as Gabriel Biel and, later, Johann von Staupitz) influenced Martin Luther, who once claimed, “I am from Occam’s school.” (159)
The role of these two men prepared the soil for the Protestant Reformation in a vital way. Understanding their doctrinal contributions allows us to see that the seeds of Luther’s ideas preceded him. Such a conclusion is important as we continue to remind ourselves that the Reformation has a context.