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Review: Are You Alone Wise? The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era

19 April 2012

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).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    26 April 2012 11:17 pm

    The search for certainty is of course motivated by the effort to control the seeming chaos of existence.
    And True Wisdom seldom, if ever, enters the picture.

    The entire Western cultural project is driven by the impulse to gain total power and control over all human beings and the natural world too.
    This reference provides a unique Understanding of this project.
    This reference provides a shocking assessment of what Western “culture” in both its secular and so called religious forms is really about.
    This reference describes the state of the world in 2012 as created by the above totalizing mind-set
    It is also motivated by the un-answered question of the meaning and significance of death – which is THE first question to be deeply considered and felt.
    Also for a more comprehensive context

    • Matthew SG permalink*
      27 April 2012 10:27 am

      I must say, John, that I disagree with your perspective on the search for certainty. A quick perusal of your links seems to suggest that you are coming from something of a New Age place on the question, though I also detect the perspectives of Madhyamaka and Hindu religious philosophy at least informing the ideas. I think the most fundamental point of contention here (at least as it relates to the question at issue) is that I do not think that the search for truth stems from a desire for domination. While it is true that the West has historically been characterised both by the search for truth and the desire to dominate I think it unreasonable to make the latter causative of the former. Illustrative of this point would be that a quest for political and even natural dominion has characterised non-Western civilisations, such as the early Arab-dominated Ummah or Imperial China in the era of Great Qing, which did not share the West’s concern with discovering and imposing universal (or just universalisable) truth. I would agree that the two have influenced each other with undesirable results, most notably the pronounced tendency of powerful Western societies to attempt to impose their understanding of truth, be that religious, social, or political, onto other societies and cultures. I would imagine that the equally characteristic Western love of order has something to do with this unfortunate reality. Nevertheless, the search for truth can be carried out fruitfully and without reference to any project of universal dominion.

      If I might conclude with something of a counter-critique, I would posit that your own notion “True Wisdom,” emphasis of the word ‘true,’ is not some transcending of the Western search for truth but a new instantiation of it, this one influenced by Eastern philosophical and religious perspectives but no less characteristically Western for it.

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