The Reformation and Metaphysics: Against Brad Gregory


Brad Gregory’s controversial 2012 work The Unintended Reformation sets out to argue that many of the problematic features of the modern world have their origin in the Protestant Reformation. Although Luther and the other Magisterial Reformers never intended such a shift, the Reformation is blamed for everything from the shallowness of the contemporary global market to the peril of global warming. The work is made up of several case studies to prove these charges.[2]

One of the more interesting and provocative of these case studies is a chapter that deals with late medieval and early modern metaphysics.[3] It is asserted by Gregory that the shift from the analogy of being to the univocity of being in the late Middle Ages resulted in the growth of nihilism in the modern world. Although Duns Scotus (c.1265-1308) is the main progenitor of the doctrine of the univocity of being, Gregory believes that he can also implicate the Protestant Reformers in promoting the doctrine and therefore unwittingly destroying the Thomistic synthesis with analogy at its center.[4] Below we will examine Gregory’s claims first by studying the teaching of Duns Scotus on the subject and then shift our focus to the Protestant Reformers and later Protestant Scholastics.

Analogy and Univocity in Aquinas and Duns Scotus

Of extreme importance to the historic Thomistic tradition (particularly in the twentieth century) is the notion of “the analogy of being” (anlogia entis).[5] Aquinas discusses the concept of analogy at some length in the Summa, and it is an important feature of his system.[6] In modern Thomism, the notion of the analogy of being has grown in ever increasing significance.[7] In Aquinas’s thought and the tradition that he sparked, there are essentially two dimensions to the doctrine: metaphysical and epistemic. Below, we will deal with these two dimensions of the doctrine in tandem with each other.

First, the analogy of being is a claim about God and his relationship to that which he has created. The Triune God of the Bible is not a being among other beings. He is not the highest instance of a general category of existence. The biblical God is not simply a bigger version of what his creatures are. Indeed, that would make him out to be like one of the Greek gods, simply the most powerful entity on a continuum of entities.[8] Instead, to paraphrase a frequent Thomistic maxim, God is what his creatures only have by participation and derivation.[9] God does not have the qualities of wisdom, goodness, being, and love, rather, he is in fact wisdom, goodness, being, and love itself. In creating the world, God expresses these transcendental qualities throughout the created order.[10] In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), there is a similarity between creature and creator, within an “infinite dissimilarity.”[11]

Secondly, this similarity and infinite dissimilarity between God and his creation results in the ability of humans to speak about God’s being and attributes in a critically realistic manner. On the one hand, since God stamped traces of his being on creatures and expresses his transcendental qualities in making the universe, there is an inherent similarity between how we apply words to creatures and how they are applied to the creator.[12] This allows for Christian doctrine to make accurate and epistemically realistic statements about God’s being and attributes. On the other hand, since God infinitely transcends creation and our language, our ability to use realistic language about God is checked by a recognition that our words and concepts can never fully encompass the divine being, and that a full knowledge of their meaning will only occur at the eschaton with our possession of the beatific vision (visio beatifica). The epistemic value of this doctrine therefore becomes clear: Epistemically realistic knowledge of God is attainable, without dragging God down to the level of creatures.[13]

In contrast to Aquinas’s position, the Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus affirmed the doctrine of “the univocity of being.”[14] Although all agree that Scotus held this doctrine, there is a dispute as to what Scotus meant by it. Gregory asserts that what Scotus means by the doctrine is that God and creatures are encompassed by a single category of being.[15] Hence, God exists as a larger version of his creatures, as do the gods of polytheism. With such a view, God and his attributes can be dragged down to the level of human reason and picked apart like any other entity. All mystery is destroyed from the divine being. Moreover, since God exists like any other entity, his power hems in and excludes the causal agency of other entities. Later metaphysicians would see this as problematic, and therefore sought either to place God hermetically sealed off from his creatures so that they might have freedom (as in modern Deism), or conceptualized God as absorbing their freedom in a form of Pantheism (Spinoza, or Hegel).[16]

The account of univocity offered by Gregory is common both to the historic Thomistic tradition, as well as newer movements like Radical Orthodoxy.[17] Nevertheless, as recent interpreters like Richard Cross and Daniel Horan have demonstrated, this picture of Scotus’s position as well as what he meant by the univocity of being is a fundamental distortion.[18] The key seems to be attending to the primary sources themselves, something that Gregory does not do.

When one examines the primary sources, as Cross shows, a very different picture emerges. First of all, Scotus does not define being in the same way that Aquinas does. For Aquinas, God is being itself and creatures possess being by derivation and participation.[19] By contrast, Scotus regards “Being” as a label placed on entities that simply affirm that they exist and tells us nothing about the quality of their existence.[20] Hence, it is completely inaccurate to claim that Scotus holds that God and creatures simply exist on a continuum of being, and that God is simply a bigger version of creaturely existence. Rather, for Scotus, God and various creatures exist in different ways. Hence the implication seems to be that “Being” must be modified by other adjectives in order to differentiate between created and uncreated being.

Seen from this vantage point, Cross convincingly argues with much textual support from Scotus’s Ordinatio, (the Subtle Doctor’s longest discussion of the univocity of being) that the univocity of being in its original form is actually a linguistic theory and only indirectly has any metaphysical significance.[21] This raises the question of why Scotus would propose such a theory. Cross argues that Scotus’s major target in developing his theory of univocal predication is Henry of Ghent’s theory of equivocal language for God. Henry insisted that since God was infinitely different from his creatures then it followed that all predicates applied to God had an utterly different meaning then when applied to creatures.[22] Functionally this made it impossible to know what words meant when applied to God and to draw logical inferences from certain propositional statements made in the Bible. Indeed, as Scotus argues, the belief that syllogistic logic could be applied to theological propositions would be entirely destroyed, since equivocal language meant one could never be certain of the meaning of the variables that were plugged into the syllogisms. In this manner, Scotus appears to not be at odds with Aquinas, but the two actually share a concern that theology be a rational enterprise of investigation.[23]

If there is such little evidence for the notion that Scotus created a metaphysic where God and creatures were roped into a common category, then what accounts for Gregory’s insistence otherwise? One element seems to be a lack of attention to the primary sources and reliance on the historic Thomistic critique of metaphysical univocalism. Gregory certainly does not seem to cite much of Scotus’s own writings. A second element is that Gregory–like many twentieth century Thomists and more recently members of the Radical Orthodoxy movement–wants to tell a story about the history of Western civilization wherein Thomism is the pinnacle of philosophy and theology, with anything that comes after it as a degenerate falling away.[24] Similarly, since the period of the Counter/Catholic Reformation, and even more since the Neo-Thomistic revival, Catholicism has identified itself directly with the teachings of Thomism.[25] Since the fall away from Thomism (i.e., the Catholic Church) means decline into decadence and nihilism the only solution to the contemporary decline of Western culture is a return to the Roman Catholic Church–so it is said.

Moving onto the theology of the Reformers and the Protestant Scholastics, Gregory’s insistence that they promoted metaphysical univocalism seems to be motivated by the same apologetic strategy and has little to do with what they actually taught. In light of the very modern Catholic apologetic story he is telling, the Reformers cannot be a viable alternative to Catholicism if one wants to resist nihilism. They must be lumped in with the rest of the decline into nihilism and decadence brought on by Scotus and the rise of metaphysical univocalism. The major difficulty with this assertion is that Gregory does not really offer much textual evidence for his assertion. Rather, Gregory’s implicit assumption is that since chronologically the Magisterial Reformers came after Scotus and Ockham, then they must be a continuation of their metaphysical project, a major facet of which is the univocity of being.

The first difficulty with Gregory’s implicit claim is that there was no straight line of progression from Scotus to the Reformers. Rather, there were competing and diverse traditions within the later medieval church that form the background of the various Reformers.[26] Thomism, Scotism, and Ockhamism were all present in various permutations. Secondly, most of the Protestant Reformers were not from Scotistic or Ockhamistic schools of thought, as a brief sample suggests: Martin Luther: Augustinian and Nominalist;[27] Ulrich Zwingli: Thomist and Scotist;[28] Nicholas von Amsdorf: Scotist;[29] Martin Bucer: Thomist;[30] Peter Martyr Vermigli: Thomist;[31] Andreas Karlstadt: Thomist.[32] It should also be observed that there is no direct correlation between confessional alliance and philosophical orientation, though the Reformed tradition does lean somewhat more heavily toward Thomism. Beyond the fact that the Magisterial Reformers were of diverse philosophical orientations,[33] there is the difficulty that in surveying their works one finds few philosophical discussions of analogy and univocity.[34] They were primarily interested in soteriological issues and matters of practical reform.

The later Protestant Scholastics were more interested in integrating the Reformers’ modifications of soteriology with the overall body of doctrine (corpus doctrina) bequeathed to them by the larger catholic tradition.[35] This means there are more discussions of univocity and analogy in their works. Unfortunately for Gregory’s thesis, they largely reject the univocity of being in favor of analogy. Within the Reformed tradition, Richard Muller has shown in a survey of numerous Reformed Scholastics that they display an affinity for standard Thomistic metaphysics.[36] This is part of the phenomenon that John Patrick Donnelly famously described as “Calvinist Thomism.”[37] With very few exceptions, they accept analogy and reject univocity with the standard Thomistic objections (whether fair or unfair). Muller therefore concludes that there is no meaningful evidence that Reformed Scholasticism was structured around the univocity of being or promoted Scotistic metaphysics.[38]

In the sphere of Lutheran Scholasticism, there are a number of different approaches to the question of analogy and univocity, but also a general rejection of univocity in favor of analogy. The mainstream of the seventeenth century Lutheran tradition followed the work of Jakob Martini of the University of Wittenberg. In the wake of the Hofmann Controversy (1597-1601), a debate with Daniel Hofmann over the question of the relationship of faith and reason,[39] Martini introduced into Lutheranism a Thomistic model of faith and reason as well as a set of theories about analogical predication. In elaborating these theories, Martini affirmed the analogical use of language for God and the analogy of being.[40]

In contrast to this approach, at the University of Jena, Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) rejected both analogy and univocity on the grounds that there is no proportion between the finite and the infinite.[41] Gerhard’s position is somewhat difficult to pin down, but he cites a number of Greek Patristic theologians that argued for a form of strong apophatism.[42] Gerhard goes on to say that, when discussing the divine attributes, their meaning is understandable enough from how they are defined by the biblical texts, and also appeals to the Augustinian distinction between “knowing” and “comprehending.”[43] Although this position seems to leave many questions unanswered, it is clear that like other Lutheran and Reformed Scholastics, Gerhard was emphatic about his rejection of univocity.


Overall, Brad Gregory’s construal of both Scotus and early Modern Protestant metaphysics is highly flawed. With little textual evidence, Gregory misreads Scotus’s notion of the univocity of being and draws many inaccurate conclusions from it. Gregory also wrongly promotes the idea that Protestantism rejected the Thomistic understandings of metaphysics in favor of a strawman version of the univocity of being. In reality, the Reformers and the later Protestant Scholastics were either silent on the issue, or largely accepted Thomistic metaphysics irrespective of their confessional commitments.

Jack D. Kilcrease is a professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Christ School of Theology in Brookings, SD. He is the author of a number of books, most recently Justification Through the Word: Restoring Sola Fide (Lexham Academic, 2022).

  1. This essay is a shorter summary of my larger essay: Jack Kilcrease, “An Intended Reformulation: Of Brad Gregory, Duns Scotus, and Early Modern Metaphysics,” in Athens and Wittenberg: Poetry, Philosophy, and Luther’s Legacy, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions Series, eds. James Kellerman, Alden Smith, and Carl P.E. Springer (Leiden: Brill, 2022), 210-233.

  2. Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2012).

  3. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 36-38.

  4. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 40-47.

  5. See summary in: Reinhard Hütter, “Attending to the Wisdom of God- From Effect to Cause, From Creation to God: A Lecture of the Analogy of Being in According to Thomas Aquinas,” in The Analogy of Being: Invention of the Antichrist or Wisdom of God?, ed. Thomas Joseph White (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010), 209-245; Erich Przywara, Analogia Entis: Metaphysics- Original Structure and Universal Rhythm, trans. John Betz and David Bentley Hart (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014).
  6. ST 1, q. 13, art. 1-10; Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologiae, trans. Fathers of the Dominican Provence (New York: Benzinger Bros., 1948), 1:59-70. Here after cited as “FDP.”

  7. See: Thomas De Vio, Cardinal Cajetan, The Analogy of Names and the Concept of Being, trans. Edward Bushinski and Henry Koren (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009); Ralph M. McInerny, The Logic of Analogy: An Interpretation of St. Thomas (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1971); Battista Mondin, The Principle of Analogy in Protestant and Catholic Theology (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1963).

  8. See: ST 1, q. 13, art. 5; FDP, 1:63-64. Also see: Richard Cross’ summary of Aquinas’ position in: Richard Cross, “Duns Scotus and Suarez at the Origins of Modernity” in Deconstructing Radical Orthodoxy: Post-Modern Theology, Rhetoric, and Truth, ed. Wayne Hankey and Douglas Hedley (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2005), 88-89.

  9. See similar observations in: Etienne Gilson, Thomism: The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, trans. Laurence Shook and Armand Maurer (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2002), 133.

  10. See: ST 1, q. 13, art. 6; FDP, 1:65.

  11. See Heinrich Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, trans. Roy Deferrari (St. Louis: Herder, 1957), 171.
  12. ST 1, q. 13, art. 1; FDP, 1:60.

  13. ST 1, q. 13, art. 1-7; FDP, 1:60-67.

  14. See: Jenifer Ashworth, “Can I Speak More Clearly than I Understand? A Problem of Religious Language in Henry of Ghent, Duns Scotus, and Ockham,” Historiographia Linguistica 7, no. 1/2 (1980): 29–38; Thomas Williams, “The Doctrine of Univocity Is True and Salutary,” Modern Theology 21, no. 4 (2005): 575-585. 

  15. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 36-38.

  16. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 50.

  17. John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of People (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013); idem, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2008). Also see similar line of reasoning in: Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of the Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011). Also see popular version in: Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequence: Expanded Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

  18. See: Richard Cross’ summary of Aquinas’ position in: Richard Cross, “Duns Scotus and Suarez at the Origins of Modernity” in Deconstructing Radical Orthodoxy: Post-Modern Theology, Rhetoric, and Truth, ed. Wayne Hankey and Douglas Hedley (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2005), 90-94; Daniel Horan, Postmodernity and Univocity: A Critical Account of Radical Orthodoxy and John Duns Scotus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 157-188.

  19. See: ST 1, q. 13, art. 11; FDP, 1:70-71.

  20. John Duns Scotus, Ordinatio,–2,–2; Opera Omniavol3. ed. Carolo Balić (Vatican City: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1954), 3:25-27, 3:39. Many thanks to Richard Cross’s discussion for helping me find the sections dealing with these issues in Scotus’s works.

  21. Scotus, Ordinatio,; Opera Omnia, 3:1-48.

  22. Horan, Postmodernity and Univocity, 171.

  23. See: Scotus, Ordinatio,–2, n. 40; Opera Omnia, 3:27. Cross, “Duns Scotus and Suarez at the Origins of Modernity” 92-94.

  24. See observations in: See Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 9. Ozment refers to two books in particular: Étienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (New York: Random House, 1955) and Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages (New York: Charles Scribner, 1963). One could also mention: Joseph Lortz, Die Reformation in Deutschland, 2 vols. (Voraussetzungen: Herder Verlag, 1949).

  25. For Thomas’ standing in the modern Catholic Church see Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris: On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy (Boston: St. Paul Editions, date unknown).

  26. Alister McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the Reformation (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), 20.

  27. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 16-9, 31-33, 51-3, 64-71, 123-5, 387-90; B. A. Gerrish, Grace and Reason: A Study in the Theology of Luther (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2005); Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. and ed. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 196-207.

  28. August Baur, Zwinglis Theologie: Ihr Werden und Ihr System, 2 vols. (Zürich: Georg Olms Verlag, 1983-1984), 1:19-26; G. R. Potter, Zwingli (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 18-9, 111, 150; W. P. Stephens, The Theology of Huldrych Zwingli (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 6, 23-5, 222-3.

  29. Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 167-8; Robert Kolb, Nikolaus von Amsdorf: Popular Polemics in the Preservation of Luther’s Legacy (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1978), 28.

  30. Martin Greschat, Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times (Louisville: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 2004), 22.

  31. Luca Baschera, “Zwischen Philosophie und Theologie: Aspekte der Aristoteles-Auslegung Peter Martyr Vermiglis,” in Konfession, Migration und Elitenbildung: Studien zur Theologenausbildung des 16. Jahrhunderts, eds. Herman Selderhuis and Markus Wriedt, (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 85-97; J.C. McClelland, “Calvinism Perfecting Thomism: Peter Marytr Vermigli’s Question,” Scottish Journal of Theology 31, no. 6 (1978): 571-8.

  32. Euan Cameron, The European Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 121.

  33. See discussion in: Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 1:1:270-310, 1:360-405.

  34. See summary of the meager data in Luther and Calvin in: Mondin, The Principle of Analogy in Protestant and Catholic Theology, 103-110.

  35. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 1:52-59.

  36. Richard Muller, “Not Scotist: Understandings of Being, Univocity, and Analogy in Early Modern Reformed Thought,” Reformation & Renaissance Review 14, no. 2 (2012): 127-150.

  37. John Patrick Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies 7 (1976): 441–455.

  38. Muller, “Not Scotist,” 146.

  39. Georg Christian Bernhard Pünjer, History of the Christian Philosophy of Religion from the Reformation to Kant, trans. W. Hastie (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1887), 178-90; Joar Haga, Was there a Lutheran Metaphysics?: The Interpretation of the Communicatio Idiomatum in Early Modern Lutheranism (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2012), 196-202, 213.
  40. See Jakob Martini, Partitiones & Quaestiones Metaphysicae (Wittenberg, 1615). Also see discussion in Robert Preus, The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism, 2 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1970-1972), 2:39-40.

  41. Johann Gerhard, On the Nature of God and On the Most Holy Mystery of the Trinity, trans. Richard Dinda (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2007), 92-93

  42. Gerhard, On the Nature of God and On the Most Holy Mystery of the Trinity, 93-94.

  43. Gerhard, On the Nature of God and On the Most Holy Mystery of the Trinity, 95.


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