Review: Are You Alone Wise? The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era
Susan Schreiner’s latest book, Are You Alone Wise? The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era, published under the imprint of Oxford Studies in Historical Theology, is an engaging and enlightening study of an interesting and overlooked area of Early Modern scholarship. An accomplished scholar of the late Medieval and early Early Modern (Renaissance and Reformation) eras, Schreiner, whose earlier major works have focused the theology of John Calvin and the history of the interpretation of the Book of Job, here turns her eye to the hotly debated question of certitude in the Reformations and preceding late Medieval era. This epistemic investigation looks principally at issues of salvific certainty and exegetical and magisterial authority, with a focus, as in the era itself, on the work of the Holy Spirit as bringer not only of comfort and truth but of certitude in doctrine.
Schreiner begins by examining the important issues of the certainty of salvation and of exegetical authority in the Protestant Reformers. Though she spends most of time on the big three, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, she also thoroughly investigates the relevant thought of lesser Reformers such as Carlstadt and Münzter, particularly as they were influential or antagonistic to the thought of those figures whose ideas are now enshrined in traditions and denominations. This attention to relatively minor figures sheds an important light on the theological development of those Reformers who cast longer shadows, whose positions on the questions of the certainty of salvation and exegetical authority were developed, in part, in response to the more extremely subjective mystical theologies of men like Carlstadt.
Schreiner also engages the Reformation-era responses from Catholic theologians and philosophers to the claims to personal certainty made by the Reformers. German Scholastic theologian Johann Eck and his extended debate with Luther, in which, he criticised Luther by calling him a Hussite and, on one occasion, an Arian, feature particularly prominently, as do the polemics of English martyr (for Catholicism) Sir Thomas Moore against Luther and Tyndale. Perhaps the most interesting comparison of Protestant and Catholic positions came in putting Luther side-by-side with Teresa of Avila on the question of discerning between divine and demonic origins of religious experience. Those two very different thinkers had a common concern with ensuring that their religious certainty stemmed from God and not the deceptions of Satan and both could only conclude their own divine inspiration through parallel, circular arguments.
Renaissance skepticism also makes an appearance in the persons of Montaigne and, surprisingly, Shakespeare. The former’s position, contrary to the other figures examined, of radical skepticism and the the inherent goodness of accepting that limited human beings cannot know provides an important counter-point to the impression one gains from the bulk of the study that the entire early modern world was trying to find certainty. Montaigne’s assertion of human limitedness and the virtue of not seeking to exceed it reminds the reader that despite the import of the question of certainty there were then, as always, dissenting voices.
Schreiner is clearly an intellectual historian and her work does not delve deeply into the surrounding social and geo-political contexts of the period under question. While doing so would likely have increased the book’s length to an unwieldy extent (less endnotes it numbers 393 pages as is) and Schreiner does provide an extensive bibliography to expand both the historical and contemporary (relative to the period under examination) contexts of the ideas under examination, the provision of some context to aid in the understanding of those ideas would have been appreciated. The spiritual theologies of Spanish Catholics and German radical Protestants are presented in succession without any time taken to make clear the significant differences in culture and context between these two radically different Sitzen im Leben. The issue of context does make Schreiner’s study somewhat less accessible but this is not a great barrier to a reader with a fair knowledge of the period.
Schreiner’s thesis is, in brief, that certainty forms the core of the debates and polemics of the early Reformation. Certitude, the lack thereof, and the therefor was, posits Schreiner, an underlying issue for the thinkers of this period, prior to their doctrinal disagreements, around which their more well-known theological disputes turned. Precisely how one could attain certainty and what sort(s) of certainty was/were available were, so goes Schreiner’s argument, a defining undercurrent of the age. Certainly Schreiner has opened my eyes to the import of this question in the minds of the authors she highlights, which she ably demonstrates with numerous quotations and citations. However I would not yet hold myself as convinced of her thesis as she is herself. Rather, and likely this was Schreiner’s goal, when I engage with these authors and texts in the future the question of their perspective on certainty will be an added hermeneutical lens through which I read them and which will inform my analyses and evaluations.
Are You Alone Wise? is written for an academic audience and I would recommend it only for such. A sufficient background in the cultural, social, political, and intellectual history of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations is a must and a grounding in the late Medieval intellectual precursors to the Reformation era, such as nominalism, is also crucial. For anyone possessing this background and interested in how an overlooked but nevertheless important frame of reference for Early Modern thought shaped the questions and debates of the Reformations Are You Alone Wise? is a worthwhile and informative study.
Edition reviewed: Schreiner, Susan, Are You Alone Wise? The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).