In this rich and dense book, Michael Allen Gillespie is self-consciously trying to correct the “standard” understanding of the origin of modernity.  Rather than being the “victory of secularism,” modernity, he says, is a series of attempts to grapple with fundamental theological issues: the realities of God, man, and nature, and, in particular, how meaningfully to construe the relationships between divine omnipotence and freedom, and human action and freedom: “[I]t is a mistake to imagine that modernity is in its origins and at its core atheistic, antireligious, or even agnostic . . . ”  Rather,

from the very beginning modernity sought not to eliminate religion but to support and develop a new view of religion and its place in human life, and . . . it did so not out of hostility to religion but in order to sustain certain religious beliefs.

We should see modernity as

an attempt to find a new metaphysical/theological answer to the question of the nature and relation of God, man, and the natural world that arose in the late medieval world as a result of a titanic struggle between contradictory elements within Christianity itself.

At the heart of the matter is the ascendency of nominalism within the framework of scholasticism: “Modernity came into being as the result of a series of attempts to find a way out of the crisis engendered by the nominalist revolution.”  As Gillespie writes, “While nominalism undermined scholasticism, it was unable to provide a broadly acceptable alternative to the comprehensive view of the world it had destroyed.”

In Gillespie’s view, nominalism entails a shift in understanding of three key areas: man, God, and nature.  God is viewed as radically omnipotent; He can do whatever He chooses, and thus we do not really know if God will always do what is good or right.  As nominalism took hold, man was increasingly viewed as an autonomous actor.  Nature does not in any way participate in what Gillespie calls “divine reason”; it simply is.

Gillespie can suggest that at

the end of modernity, we are thus left to confront the question whether there is any solution to this problem within the ontological horizon that modernity opens up, and thus whether modernity even in its most secular form can escape from the metaphysical/theological problem with which it began.

Gillespie goes on to offer summaries of the key thinkers involved in the attempt to find a way out of the nominalist crisis.  During the Renaissance, Petrarch attempted to synthesize an Augustinian understanding of man’s dependence on God with a Stoic one of man’s independence.  Erasmus espoused a Christian humanism that would counter Martin Luther’s more thoroughgoing “nominalist” doctrine of an omnipotent God.  Luther enters Gillespie’s account as the main representative of the Protestant Reformation.  Whereas Erasmus gave more attention to the dignity and freedom of man, Luther placed more emphasis on the omnipotence and freedom of God.  Thus, while Erasmus and Luther became opponents, they were both working against a shared backdrop: Both tried to comprehend in some meaningful way the relationship between divine and human action or willing—ultimately a case, in Gillespie’s view, of theological issues setting the intellectual agenda.  Descartes then joins the narrative.  Again, the “problem” of an omnipotent God—sparked by nominalism—was the backdrop for Des-cartes’ intellectual project.  Des-cartes ultimately deified man, and thus navigated the “conflict” between an omnipotent God and human freedom by adding another deity—man—to the mix.  Thomas Hobbes could be considered as a Calvinist without the Gospel.  He confronted the conflict between divine omnipotence and human freedom by accepting the reality of an omnipotent God but positing that He is a radically distant God; he also construed human freedom in terms of materialism.  Finally, Gillespie traces the “nominalist revolution” forward through the Enlightenment.  What at one point was a fundamental conflict between divine freedom and omnipotence, and human freedom and action, develops into a conflict between natural necessity (i.e., a feature of the mechanistic, naturalistic worldview) and human freedom.  Earlier streams of modernity were locked in a conflict between God and man.  As modernity developed, it placed an increased emphasis on nature.  Thus, Romanticism resolved the more recent conflict between nature or natural necessity and human freedom by virtually erasing the distinction between “nature” and “human nature” (suggesting that “nature was itself a vital spirit or world-will akin to the human will”), and naturalistic science contributed by effectively denying human freedom, since there is no ultimate qualitative difference between “nature” and “human nature.”

A brief Epilogue considers Islam.  Gillespie suggests that as long as Westerners fail to grasp the theological origins of modernity, we will be unable to understand who we really are.  And if we do not understand who we are, we certainly will not be able to engage Islam.

Any attempt to offer an architectonic construction of an era and its thinkers is inevitably open to criticisms of overgeneralization or getting this or that detail wrong.  It seems completely appropriate, however, for Gillespie to treat the question of the origin of modernity in explicitly theological terms.  One might reasonably ask, however,  if Gillespie’s narrative is theological enough.  Can it account for the reality that in both pre- and post-nominalist Christian thought men were able—at least to their own satisfaction—to affirm both divine omnipotence and freedom as well as human action and freedom?  Throughout Church history, Christians have wrestled with notions of divine and human action or freedom, and have been able to affirm both divine and human freedom or action, even if there has been ongoing debate about the specifics.

The main players in Gillespie’s narrative wrestle with very difficult matters.  It seems mistaken to view modernity as the tale of various persons who are “simply” trying to make sense of a certain intellectual conundrum (i.e., how to make sense of divine freedom and human action in light of the “nominalist” revolution).  Rather, might we say—with Augustine—that our ability to “see” things is linked to the state of our hearts?  The bishop of Hippo wrote that the reason people often fail to “see” the manifest beauty of creation is that their loves are disordered.  If modernity is marked by an increasing emphasis on human autonomy as well as by a tendency to displace God, might one not be more critical of the motives and desires and intentions of the figures who make up Gillespie’s narrative?  Shouldn’t we be asking why these specific ways of thinking developed at the points in history that they in fact did?  Might there be more going on than simply an effort to come to terms with a supposed “nominalist revolution”?


[The Theological Origins of Modernity, by Michael Allen Gillespie (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 368 pp., $35.00]