There's wonderful clarity in Heiko Oberman's The Two Reformations: The Journey from the Last Days to the New World
about movements I'd long found fuzzy in the Late Medieval/Renaissance/Reformation period. Nominalism, for one, had always been hazy in the summaries I'd read. Here, I found a welcome amount of clarity regarding it, and those medievals advocating it, who called themselves "Moderns," which would no doubt confuse many people today.
Certainly it [Luther's movement] was counter to the reform position in the medieval debate between the via antiqua, the Old Way, and the via moderna, or Modern Way, the antiqui and the moderni. The Old Way approached reality with universals in mind, the preconceived ideas which--and herein all agreed--select, interpret, and order the chaotic messages transmitted by the senses. But from here on the Ways split: for the Moderns, these universals are concepts produced by the human mind, a means to access knowledge, to store, and to discern similarities in the surrounding world--and above all to discover the unique characteristics of each individual person or object. For the Ancients, the universal by definition transcends the singular; it possesses an ontological payload that increases along a hierarchical path toward the origin of all that is and has being.
In modern terminology the Ancients were idealists, although from their own perspective they were realists insofar as their universals were not conceptual but real tools through participation in God's order of creation. Fundamental for its treatment of all aspects of metaphysics, this philosophical univeralism appealed to sacred Scripture to prove that God is the highest universal--sheer Being. It insisted that the vocabulary of the Scriptures reflects the eternal Logos, so that the grammar of truth can be spelled by ascending the ladder of meditation to God as supreme speaker and highest universal.
The medieval advocates of the Modern Way argued instead that universals are man-made adjustable models to be defined and redefined in terms which receive exact and ever new meaning depending on the context in which they are used. Thus reclaiming secular responsibility for human discourse, they accused the Old Way of creating a world of make-believe in terms beyond the rule of logic and critical control. However academic and technical the controversy may seem, for both Ways the interpretation of Scripture and thus ultimate authority was at stake. For this reason the debate could not be limited to an abstract disputation about a theory of linguistics, logic, or epistemology, although these are aspects of the controversy that fascinate us today.
The program of the Modern Way set up lasting shock waves in the foundations of knowledge. In the fifteenth century, moderni clashed with late-medieval Thomism and fell afoul of the Inquisition. As late as the nineteenth century, in the heydey of idealism, they confronted the German system builders. Latter-day universalists--New Thomists and their neo-Protestant confessional opponents--found themselves shoulder to shoulder in an unintended coalition in defense of a world of harmony and regularity. The moderni, guardians of contingency, reappeared in a new role when the battle lines shifted from metaphysics to science and history; whereas the latter-day moderni had originally been concerned with logic and with defining meaning in context, they used their critical observational tools to separate science fact from fiction. As they saw it, their charge was to demonstrate the futility of trying to domesticate contingent events by enclosing them in generalizations claiming the status of eternal law.
When the Age of Reason reached Germany, the Old Way reemerged with new force. The three great deviators--Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Karl Barth--although separated by time and by fields ranging from literature and philosophy to biblical studies, each with his own vision, testified by their individual revolts to the might of the system builders of their day. Their voices were effectively drowned out by the sweet music of harmonious reason, the leitmotif of modernity. Increasingly dominating historical discourse, the Old Way rearranged the chaos of the historical drama into a self-evident chain of events and jubilantly announced that full understanding (Durchblick) had been attained. Lost was the element of wonder; amazement was an uncouth sentiment betraying the untutored mind of the common man and the uninitiated.
This history of the battle between the Ways shows how the Middle Ages remain with us. ...
From the essay "Reformation: End Time, Modern Times, Future Times" in
The Two Reformations: The Journey from the Last Days to the New World, 2003 Yale University Press
To begin to see connections in intellectual history between nominalism, German Idealism, and 20th century German historiography (I think I'm right in seeing where this would connect to historical metanarratives like Adolf von Harnack's or the biblical writings of Rudolf Bultmann) has made for very exciting reading for me, as this is out of my range of specializations, if I may call it that. I've a background in ancient history and intellectual history, and pay quite a bit of attention to the last century or two, but I've always felt that early modernity was my greatest weakness as far as my preparation or study goes. This book has been daunting, but as rewarding as my reading in Jewish mysticism was back in October.