Christian History – Gabriel Biel and Sowing the Seeds of Reformation

Sistine Chapel

Gabriel Biel didn’t get all sorts of art dedicated to him…you will find out why shortly.

Given all that we’ve talked about in this long, drawn out series, you would imagine that something appears missing in the whole discussion. That something, you might expect, is the Protestant Reformation, and literally no thinker or theological concept discussed so far comes anywhere near the common Christian dichotomy of faith versus works. Well, maybe a little bit in Augustine and elsewhere,  but it wasn’t a major concept to which everything relied.

There’s a tendency to take the elements of any one denomination and make them primary. In fact, I imagine I inherited many theological prejudices of my own simply by being raised in a Protestant household. Going to a Catholic college changed that almost instaneously – truly, Catholics and Protestant share nearly the same beliefs, only they fail to communicate very well to each other. Ecumenical dialogue, thankfully, continues today, and many conservative churches present a united front against the forces of secularism.

Still, where did this divide emerge? What made the nature of salvation such a grandly contested issue to the point of the Reformation’s massive upheaval? It’s not so much an issue of theology, although we can pinpoint the first emergence of the thought. We look to the little-known (and much reviled, natch) theology of Gabriel Biel, whose philosophical musings came from the tradition of the scholastic school. Of course, setting a theology compatible with Aristotlean metaphysics carries its own problem, namely copying its notion of virtue ethics.

He was a German professor of Theology in the later 1400s. In fact, he nearly revived Augustine’s old rival, Pelagianism. As you might remember, Pelagians believed that human beings were basically good, and that God provided mankind with all the tools necessary to do good works. He received grace to “earn it”, so to speak, and Augustine spoke out against such a thought process.

Gabriel Biel Something

Geeze, you gotta search long and hard to find an inkling of this guy in visual form.

Time heals all wounds, at least when it comes to nearly heretical ideas, and so Gabriel Biel gives us a taste of it with his hierachical system of Christian virtues. He sets out an order of salvation for the sinner. First, the sinner must cease from sinning and turn to God, loving Him supremely above all else by doing their best. What is their best? Well, trying to achieve good works within the tradition of Christian saints. This sounds nice and lovely, like the Pelagian idea of man’s status before God as “good” creatures, but it hides a hidden terror that Luther discovered.

The sinner, in Biel’s view, has to achieve this without the grace of the Holy Spirit under free will. The human initiative merits God’s grace, not as a wage earned but as a response to doing your best. In other words, God only responds in kind; salvation isn’t a free gift granted to the believer who confesses Jesus Christ as Lord.  Romans 10 tells us this:

8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, 9 that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; 10 for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. 11 For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.”

And you might think: how did Gabriel Biel miss something so obvious? The answer: he didn’t. In fact, scholasticism changed the whole dynamic of Christian theological explication. As I harp again and again, scholasticism uses philosophy as an aid, and Scripture becomes one of many sources. The Church itself is an authoritative body, and Scripture, seen as allegorical and analogous as per Aquinas’ ideology, came as the standard. Gabriel Biel simply performed the function under the same presuppositions as his forebearers. Nothing seemed wrong at all, considering that framework. Most people couldn’t read Scripture, and even in the 15th century many parts appeared quite unpalatable to their ears. Of course, I believe this is entirely wrong and unrepresentative, but once you mix up your authorities, everything is permitted. So it is that we find ourselves with a strange extrapolation of the salvation concept.

In Biel’s idea, the sinner gets the state of grace whereby they can proceed to do good works. By doing these, they merit the reward of being accepted by God due to their merit. Basically God has a pact of generosity, where he promises to reward those who try with his grace, and the pact of justice, whereby those who perform good works in grace deserve acceptance as righteous. Both flow freely from God’s free choice. So God didn’t have to provide opportunity for sinners, but He did, and this Biel sees as God’s grace.

However, this is a system of justice and order, not grace. Is there a magic counter by which we know whether we are right with God, or shall we suffer eternal fear of death and
damnation without a clear message? How do I know if I am filled with the Holy Spirit? How do I know God won’t change his mind? It’s a God of uncertainty and bizarre rules, not of clear promise shown throughout Scripture. God might be a god of justice, sure, but God is love has always been first and foremost; to take one in lieu of the other is just begging for that fire and brimstone feeling. And that’s really the problem with the Scholastic era – it tries, in many respects, to quantify God when He is very simply understood and worked out in your life.

Nor, I imagine, did it help the Catholic Church. They have all but abandoned Thomas Aquinas’ theology due to the circumstances of change and to the validity of Luther’s theological dispute (there’s much more than that pat statement, but we will get there, I promise!). It is due to the increasing literacy of modern culture and the problematic way in which scholastic intepreted and fashioned theology. Truly, I’m sure it gave the word “theology” a bad reputation, less a working-out of one’s faith and more the oppressive fear-based ethics it helped birth.

Of course, you read the rambling writings of a hardcore Protestant, so of course I would say that! But when the Catholic Church finds fruitful conversation with modern Protestant theologians like Karl Barth, I think we can make a valid case that the Catholic doctrines found themselves in a bad way starting with scholastic presuppositions, if not necessarily intentional. Gabriel Biel deserves mention, at least, for scaring some monk named Martin Luther out of his stupor and into divine fear. turning an aspiring German lawyer with business prospects into an Augustinian monk. And from there, we ended up with the Reformation.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.