Post Tenebras Lux?: Nominalism and Luther’s Reformation

Jan 7th, 2014 | By | Category: Blog Posts

From the earliest period of Luther’s Reformation, there was an overt antipathy towards what was deemed to be the undue philosophical speculation of the medieval scholastics. According to Luther (as well as subsequent Reformers, though often with less vitriol), the influence of Aristotle had caused theologians to turn from the God of revelation to a foreign God of philosophers, whether under the appellation of the ‘First Cause’ or ‘First Mover.’ As Luther wrote in his early Disputations Against Scholastic Theology, “no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle.”1 Or again, “the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light.”2 This philosophical attempt at knowledge of God could not be deemed true theology, but rather a ‘theologia gloriae,‘ a theology of glory which, not unlike the Tower of Babel, constituted an illicit and prideful attempt to reach God through human strength rather than by humble acceptance God’s gift of grace.

WilliamofOckhamT
William of Ockham

Luther and the theologia crucis

In contrast to such a theology, Luther proposed a different way, namely, the way of the Cross. In his Heidelberg Disputation he set about differentiating two theologies which, in many ways, provided the fundamental basis of his own understanding of God: one could go the above mentioned route, that is, according to the theologia gloriae, or one could seek God, not by climbing a ladder to see the ‘Deus nudus,‘ but to seek God by faith alone in Christ alone, that is, according to the theologia crucis, theology of the Cross.3 “That person,” Luther wrote, “does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened;” on the contrary, only the one who “comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through the suffering and the cross,” can be called a theologian.4

With the contrast posed and assumed between a theologia gloriae and a theologia crucis in such stark fashion, Protestant theologians subsequent to Luther have rarely asked the deeper question of the validity of such a contrast to begin with. To put it differently: Is it necessary to conceive of philosophy (theologia gloriae) as that ‘whore’ that Luther thought it to be or is there perhaps a different way to understand philosophy’s relation to theology, namely, as St. Thomas understood it, as ancilla theologiae, a handmaid of theology?

Nominalism, quid est?

To take a step back and question Luther’s very way of framing things, put forward early on and most clearly in his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology and his Heidelberg Disputation, raises the question of Luther’s often overlooked philosophical heritage, namely, that of Nominalism.

The nominalist roots of Luther’s theology are undeniable. Historian and theologian, Heiko Oberman says quite forthrightly, “Martin Luther was a nominalist, there is no doubt about that.”5 Even a cursory glance through Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation and his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology reveals that his primary interlocutors were precisely the nominalist magistri, William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel. One might attempt to distance Luther from Nominalism, arguing that by criticizing Ockham and Biel in his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology he was moving away from philosophy as a whole and towards Scripture alone. Yet, a closer look at the Disputation reveals Luther’s continuing debt to the movement. Luther contests certain views held by his magistri but nowhere does he challenge the fundamentally Nominalist orientation that he shared with them). In 1520, in good Nominalist fashion, Luther would write, “I demand arguments not authorities. That is why I contradict even my own school of Occamists, which I have absorbed completely.”6 We turn, therefore, to the question ‘quid est?’ What is this philosophy which prepared the fertile soil for Luther’s Reformation?

Nominalism, as it is commonly understood, is the philosophical view in which universals are regarded as having no objective weight, and no intrinsic correspondence to individual, concrete things. For instance, according to Nominalism, to say that Peter has a human nature and that John has a human nature is simply to say that both have extrinsically predicated of them a common name (nomen), which happens to be “human nature.” To predicate the same ‘human nature’ to both John and Peter is not to say that they share any metaphysical reality or nature in common; it is simply to say that we predicate something common to both on the basis of observation. The common features that are shared by John and Peter (e.g., intellect, will, arms, legs, nose, etc.) do not and cannot, from a Nominalist point of view, be understood to be based upon a common shared ‘human nature’ except in name. There is no ‘human nature’ that transcends or norms what it means to be human in anything more than an extrinsic sense; in other words, human flourishing is not based on an objective human nature that exists apart from the collection of individual beings called human, but can be only something imposed onto this group of individuals without any inherent reason that corresponds to their given nature (e.g., for vegetative beings, flourishing would be to grow physically and to do it well, while for rational beings, flourishing would pertain not only to physical growth, but also growth in knowledge and love of truth and goodness—this based on the objective nature of the being in question).

A common illustration used to explain Nominalism is found in the use of paper currency. Unlike coins that may be made out of silver or gold, carrying a value that corresponds to its ‘nature,’ paper currency, has a value imputed to it extrinsically. On this basis, a $100 bill would be identical to a $10 bill in nearly everything except for the fact that one is deemed to be worth several times more than the other—solely on the basis of what some authority judges. There is nothing intrinsic to the paper bill that gives it its value. The problem arises when this mode of understanding of the nature of things is applied across the board to human nature and other universals.7 According to Nominalism, observations are made, a name is given from said observations, but this name has nothing to do with a shared nature or ‘essence’ of the thing, as such.8 Such a process of exclusively extrinsic denomination stems from a radical emphasis on the reality of the particular accompanied by an explicit denial of an objective universal shared reality inherent to things.9

According to classical philosophy, by contrast, given the link between particular, concrete things and corresponding ideas or universals (whether these ideas or universals were thought to exist independently of the concrete individual or in conjunction with it), the ideal was seen to be something objective, rather than a result of extrinsic imposition. From a Nominalist perspective, focusing as it did solely on concrete and individual realities to the exclusion of the immaterial aspects of material things, and a fortiori anything purely immaterial, metaphysics as the study of being qua being (i.e., not necessarily material and therefore distinguishable from the empirical or sensible reality) could only appear as the height of speculative arrogance.10 Such a view of metaphysics in the traditional sense remains today, not only within Protestantism, but also pervades our post-Enlightenment setting.11

Philosophia: ancilla theologiae or theologia gloriae?

The denial of the dominant Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian view of reality was not, however, a movement away from philosophy per se, but rather a movement away from a particular philosophy, towards another. As is often the case, it is easy to confuse what is commonly accepted for what is incontestably true; in the face of many compelling arguments in favor of various forms of Platonism and Aristotelianism, the triumph of Nominalism was not so much due to a more compelling explanation of universals but a denial of it all together. Because of the nature of Nominalism, with its exclusive emphasis on the particular, it was much easier for the children of Nominalism to understand themselves as simply sticking with ‘concrete’ reality without the accretions or additions of that ‘abstract’ realm that would very soon come to be associated with a certain disconnectedness from the real, tout court. In other words, Nominalism was an attempt to attain Truth while denying the possibility of its objective existence as a universal—having one’s cake and eating it, too, as it were.

While Nominalism provided an easy answer to certain philosophical questions regarding multiplicity (e.g., how to explain the individual characteristics of John as different from Peter), it nevertheless failed to address sufficiently the deeper philosophical question of unity, that is, whether and how John and Peter could be said to participate in the same human nature despite their differences. Such a question is vitally important for Christians who affirm the human nature of Christ. For if humanity is simply a name without any intrinsic correspondence to a universal nature, the dogma of Nicaea and Chalcedon no longer carry any weight. What would it mean for Christ to redeem human nature, if human nature is not something real? Far from confronting the question of universals, Nominalism simply eschewed the matter, with the result that philosophical speculation involving abstractions that were not immediately linked to a concrete individual were thrown out a priori as ‘vain speculations.’ But this was not because classical metaphysics had proved to be an unnecessary imposition on reality, but rather because of a novel way of understanding reality that simply avoided the difficult question. Just as the denial of Tradition is not to return to a Tradition-less time, but to invent a new one, so the denial of classical metaphysics, rather than being a return to the real, was nothing other than another metaphysics, far removed from the worldview of Scripture, the Apostles, and the Early Church—at least in terms of time, if not in terms of its content.12

Returning to the question of the relationship between philosophy (Luther’s theologia gloriae) and theology (theologia crucis), it appears that Luther’s pitting one against the other is not actually the result of a move away from philosophy, but results from the assumption of a thoroughly Nominalist denial of universal realities. In other words, Luther’s theologia crucis is not simply about revelation and the Cross, but is deeply rooted in the philosophical school of his predecessors. Far from proceeding from Scripture, the reverse is actually the case, Luther’s philosophy provides the groundwork for his theology. The most dangerous philosophy is the one held without acknowledgement, in this case living in the contradiction of holding a theology-determining philosophy while denouncing philosophy. Luther’s view of philosophy as starkly opposed to theology is part and parcel with his understanding of the inability of philosophy to gain any real insight into the immaterial realm. Due to the denial of the objective reality of universals by Nominalism, the project of Plato and Aristotle along with their subsequent Christian disciples could only appear highly suspect.13

One might ask: so what? What if Luther was influenced by Nominalism? Does it really make that much of a difference, as long as his philosophy conforms to Scripture? But this is to beg the question: such a response betrays an unconcern for the reality of metaphysical truths, an attitude that arises from a distinctly Nominalist view of the non-existence and therefore irrelevance of universals. The question at hand challenges precisely such a way of understanding reality as well as interpreting Scripture.

The denial of universals raises a question that is highly pertinent to Luther’s Reformation, namely, if ideas or universals, which were thought to be known through abstraction from concrete realities are not objectively real, but only extrinsically applied names, how do we know what real ‘goodness’ or real ‘justice’ is? Luther would discover that absent any real connection between the human experience of reality and universals or ultimate reality, knowledge of such reality could be had only by direct revelation from God. An understanding of the true meaning of goodness, justice, etc. could not be had through a philosophical or dialectical analysis as seen, for example, in Plato’s inquiry into the nature of justice in his Republic, but could be attained only through divine revelation, particularly the revelation of Christ at the Cross, theologia crucis.

Commenting on Thesis 19 of the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther described the philosopher’s recognition of “the invisible things of God are virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth,” as opposed to what is revealed by God, “namely, his human nature, weakness, foolishness.” Nevertheless, as Luther would later discover, even in his own theology, he would have to account for his understanding of justice. Far from avoiding philosophy, this was merely to replace one philosophy for another. Readers will recognize here the basis for Luther’s doctrine of sola scriptura, Scripture alone. Since knowledge of reality could not be attained apart from revelation from God, any other source (especially scholastic theology, based as it was on Aristotelian philosophy) had to be rejected. But given that such an approach was itself dependent on a novel philosophy that arose independently of Scripture, the rejection of all philosophy in the realm of theology, if possible at all, would entail the rejection of much of the theology based upon Luther’s Nominalist philosophy as well.

Louis Bouyer’s description of the matter in his Spirit and Forms of Protestantism is worth quoting in full:

If the Reformers unintentionally became heretics, the fault does not consist in the radical nature of their reform but in its hesitation, its timidity, its imperfect vision. The structure they raised on their own principles is unacceptable only because they used uncritically material drawn from that decaying Catholicism they desired to elude but whose prisoners they remained to a degree they never suspected. No phrase reveals so clearly the hidden evil that was to spoil the fruit of the Reformation than Luther’s saying that Occam was the only scholastic who was any good. The truth is that Luther, brought up on his system, was never able to think outside the framework it imposed, while this, it is only too evident, makes the mystery that lies at the root of Christian teaching either inconceivable or absurd.14

St. Raymond of Penyaford, 2014

  1. Thesis 44. []
  2. Thesis 50. []
  3. In Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Thomas F. Lull (Minneapolis, MA: Fortress Press, 1989), 30–49. []
  4. Heidelberg Disputation, 19, 20. Luther’s view of the relationship between philosophy and theology is the predominant view in Protestant theology since the Reformation until the present. Cf., for instance, Horton’s criticism of medieval scholasticism:

    In order to display the harmony of theology (faith) and other sciences (reason), medieval scholasticism frequently offered various philosophical arguments for the existence of a supreme being and then deduced, ‘And this being we call God, don’t we?’ But this approach is exactly what Luther meant by a theology of glory: ascending to heaven in order to measure the immeasurable God rather than allowing him to condescend to us in humility and suffering. This means that theological science can begin not with speculation, morality, or religious experience but with God’s revelation.

    In Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 109. Cf., also Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).  []

  5. Heiko A. Oberman, Man between God and the Devil (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 122. In fact, for Oberman, nominalism is seen to be the link by which the Reformation can claim ‘catholic’ roots. Cf., Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000).  []
  6.  D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Abteilung Werke, vols. I– (Weimar, 1883–), 6.195, 4f. Quoted in Oberman, Man between God and the Devil, 120 emphasis added. []
  7. And even in the case of paper currency, problems arise if there is no real corresponding value; the absence of an objective correspondence leads to problems like inflation. So this example is also imperfect as the extrinsic denomination is not based on pure will, but on some objective value. []
  8. This is not to say, however, that realists, such as Thomas, for example, believe that there is a separate form existing somewhere that is human nature (a view typically associated with Plato). Rather, it is simply to say that the shared nature between John and Peter corresponds to something inherent to both, and this shared nature is objective. Its existence is not the result of merely an extrinsic recognition followed by an arbitrary naming process; on the contrary, the name follows from a reality discovered to be present in both Peter and John. []
  9. Cf. with Aquinas’s treatment of man’s knowledge in ST I, q. 94, a. 3, s.c., where he asks whether the first man knew all things. Aquinas argues from the fact that Adam named the animals that he had to know the very natures of the animals, “Nomina autem debent naturis rerum congruere.” That is, the names should be congruent with the nature of the thing. This is a way of thinking about creation that is absolutely foreign to the view of Nominalism. []
  10. And the logical outgrowth of this is evidenced in later thinkers such as Hume and Kant, who have influenced all of subsequent philosophy, for better or for worse. Cf., Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York, NY: 1995), 166-79. As Bainton recounts: “The Occamists had wrecked the synthesis of Thomas Aquinas whereby nature and reason lead through unbroken stages to grace and revelation. Instead, between nature and grace, between reason and revelation, these theologies introduced a great gulf. So much so indeed that philosophy and theology were compelled to resort to two different kinds of logic and even two different varieties of arithmetic” (169). []
  11. For varied accounts of the relationship between Nominalism, the Reformation, and secularization cf., Bradley Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2012), Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2007), Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007), and Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 2009). []
  12. An additional post in the future will explore Nominalism’s profound effect on Luther’s view of God, the law, and human freedom. Following Servais Pinckaers’ work, The Sources of Christian Ethics (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 1995), I will examine the deep caesura found between the theology of Luther, as it was influenced by Ockham’s Nominalism, and that found in the Fathers and Scholastics—primarily Augustine and Thomas. In nuce, there is a reason that the existential angst as found in Luther could not be thematized as it was apart from a distinctly Nominalist view of God’s freedom. []
  13. For an overview of how Christians before the Reformation interacted with philosophy before the Reformation cf., Etienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (Random House, 1955). To be sure, there were Church Fathers who were much more wary of intermingling Christianity with the philosophy of the Greeks, but despite such wariness, there is a general acknowledgement of what might be called metaphysical realism as opposed to the radical nature of Ockham’s Nominalism. []
  14. Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (London: The Harvill Press Ltd, 1956), 184. []
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  1. Josh,

    I’m definitely a novice on this topic, but like you was blessed to study under Dr. Horton (and thus influenced by his study of philosophy), so I found this article very interesting and informative! Thanks for writing it. Per endnote 12, I and many others will be excited to read your follow-up article examining more deeply how Okham’s influence on Luther affected his “existential angst” and theological conclusions. God bless, – Casey

  2. Wow, that was quick! (I’m sure this wasn’t based merely on my request). I look forward to reading this when I get the chance.

  3. Thank you, Joshua, for this. I have long felt that an essay on nominalism was wanted here. I found this excellent.

    jj

  4. Hi Josh,

    Thanks for the article. I confess to liking Luther less and less the older I get, and his nominalism is definitely one reason why. Barring any real knowledge of “goodness,” or “justice,” divine command ethics (identifying “divine command” with Luther’s own theology) followed logically. Even when his ideology ran flat up against common sense or human decency, in consequence, he could always deflect criticism with a “Thus saith the Lord.”

    One of the most telling passages in Luther is from Bondage of the Will:

    But as He is the one and true God, and moreover incomprehensible and inaccessible by human reason, it is right, nay, it is necessary, that His righteousness should be incomprehensible. –Luther, On the Bondage of the Will.

    If anyone would like a good description of how such views made Luther intolerant, hateful, and self-righteous, I recommend Mark Edwards’s book Luther’s Last Battles.

    -David

  5. Since knowledge of reality could not be attained apart from revelation from God.

    How is this not also a RC belief? Isn’t all knowledge attained by investigating God’s revelation, whether in nature or in Scripture. The whole enterprise of natural theology is built upon it.

    The Reformed do not deny God’s revelation in nature or that knowledge of reality is unobtainable without Scripture. We’re just far less confident in the abilities of fallen men to come to a knowledge of it.

    I realize that this essay deals largely with Luther, but the fact is that the Reformed are not nominalists in the strict sense. What God says is good reflects reality, namely His character. He does not just arbitrarily call something good. Yes, it is good because He says it is good, but He says it is good because it reflects His character.

    I’m no expert on Luther’s thought, and clearly he is in the nominalist tradition. But if this essay is meant in any way to criticize Protestant philosophy in general and Reformed thought in particular, it misses the mark substantively. You are correct, however, to note that the most dangerous philosophy is the one that the thinker does not acknowledge.

  6. Robert – (#5)

    How is this not also a RC belief? Isn’t all knowledge attained by investigating God’s revelation, whether in nature or in Scripture. The whole enterprise of natural theology is built upon it.

    I say right up front that I am ‘way out of my depth here – I am neither philosophically nor theologically educated! – but it seems to me that the point is that from a nominalist point of view, there basically is no revelation of God in nature. There is just uninterpreted stuff.

    I remember when I was Reformed (not, I hasten to say, Lutheran), I was told that natural theology was nonsense – it was just a way men had to avoid facing the truth of God in the Bible. Natural theology was making a prophet out of Aristotle.

    jj

  7. I wonder what Marilyn Adams (and Ockham himself) says about the possibility for a nominalist to inquire into the nature of goodness and justice.

  8. Josh,

    Your article here is excellent! Back when I was going through my own existential angst, I was told about the theology of the cross as explained by Dr. Horton and so since I had his systematic theology, “The Christian Faith”, I tried to read it, but in honestly was paralyzed by his admittance of a Reformed presupposition of biblical orthodoxy while saying that he was writing for the church of a commonly held faith. That discrepancy along with trying to figure out what bridged my internal subjective witness to the unchanging external object of the covenantal relationship, if there was no visible church,really had me bewildered!
    I too, look forward to the next part!

  9. Thank you for the excellent post, Joshua.

    Brad Gregory, mentioned in your post, has a succinct summary.

    In the early fourteenth century, Occam radicalized Scotus’s views on univocity and much else, rejecting more thoroughly Aquinas’s way of speaking about God, for whom “ana-logical” had not meant comparable or proportional to creatures or creation. According to Aquinas, God in metaphysical terms was, incomprehensibly, esse — not a being but the sheer act of to-be, in which all creatures participated insofar as they existed and through which all creation was mysteriously sustained. In Occamist nominalism, by contrast, insofar as God existed, “God” had to denote some thing, some discrete, real entity, an ens — however much that entity differs from everything else, a difference Occam highlighted by emphasizing the absolute sovereignty of God’s power (potentia Dei absoluta) and the inscrutability of God’s will within the dependable order of creation and salvation he had in fact established.

    Robert, the problem with what you said is that confusion of character with nature necessarily reduces God into a being among beings, rather than “to-be” as Aquinas has Him. Created persons establish their character by what they do. But in God, this would collapse God’s nature into His free creation, which is exactly what the apophatic method of Christian theology is intended to avoid.

    Because Occam reduces nature to character, he distinguishes God by His absolute power over created effects. This is why Protestantism, and particularly Reformed theology, defines God by His sovereignty over creation. That is likewise why you separate revelation into two categories and place the mode of special revelation in opposition to the mode of universal (natural) revelation. It is this artificial separation, read back in to Paul, that causes the zero-sum relationship between God and man in works, so that all works are opposed to grace, the Law is opposed to the Gospel, etc.

    Claiming that you believe in natural theology is no guarantee that you don’t believe in nominalism, although taking it to its logical extreme results in absurdities like the one John mentioned (or like presuppositionalism). Short of those extremes, there is a nominalist account of natural theology in which natural revelation is walled off from special revelation, revelation of the hidden divine will. Occam believed in that nominalist version, and it seems to me that the Protestants did as well. It is essentially just a question of where one puts the wall of God’s transcendence, the creature/creator distinction. If that distinction is placed in the sphere of divine activity, as opposed to the divine nature and the essential divine mode of existence, theological problems ensue immediately.

  10. Josh,

    Excellent and helpful! Thanks!

  11. Jonathan, # 9

    Robert, the problem with what you said is that confusion of character with nature necessarily reduces God into a being among beings, rather than “to-be” as Aquinas has Him. Created persons establish their character by what they do. But in God, this would collapse God’s nature into His free creation, which is exactly what the apophatic method of Christian theology is intended to avoid.

    Who says created persons establish their character by what they do? My Bible says Adam was created with a “very good” character and that since the fall, we have a character wholly against God. “No fear of God before our eyes.” All I’ve said is that the standards God reveals to us are an expression of who He is. They are analogical expressions to be sure, but they are true expressions. When God says something is good, He says it is good because it reflects His nature. It’s not “pure” nominalism. God does not arbitrarily call something good or evil. If it is good, it is good because it conforms in some way to His nature and character. If it is evil, it’s the opposite. God is incomprehensible, so we know Him by analogy. But that analogical knowledge is true.

    Because Occam reduces nature to character, he distinguishes God by His absolute power over created effects. This is why Protestantism, and particularly Reformed theology, defines God by His sovereignty over creation. That is likewise why you separate revelation into two categories and place the mode of special revelation in opposition to the mode of universal (natural) revelation. It is this artificial separation, read back in to Paul, that causes the zero-sum relationship between God and man in works, so that all works are opposed to grace, the Law is opposed to the Gospel, etc.

    None of this follows or is an accurate summation of Reformed thought. We don’t define God by His sovereignty over creation. God is a simple being. His sovereignty is one attribute and is no more important than His love, holiness, etc. We distinguish the attributes for our purposes, but they are all ultimately identical. The Reformed emphasize God’s sovereignty more than other traditions for a variety of reasons, including historical ones—other traditions neglect it—and biblical ones—Scripture emphasizes the Lordship of our Creator. But God is not “defined” as being sovereign over creation any more than He is “defined” as being love, as being holy, as being just, etc.

    We don’t put special revelation in opposition to natural revelation either. Properly understood, both teach the same thing. When one conflicts with the other, it is only an apparent conflict. So, either our understanding of special revelation, natural revelation, or both is mistaken. Sometimes our understanding of natural revelation corrects our exegesis. But where our exegesis of Scripture contradicts our exegesis of nature, and our exegesis of Scripture cannot be changed in a way that remains faithful to the author’s intent by natural revelation, then the exegesis of Scripture always corrects our exegesis of natural revelation.

    This really should not be conceptually hard to grasp. Rome affirms something similar, if not in the same terms and if not allowing Scripture to correct natural revelation. You all believe that you can know some things by reason—that God exists—but only some things by revelation—the Trinity. We just refer to that which what we can know by reason without special revelation as natural revelation. Its still revelation, and rightly understood it never contradicts special revelation.

    The fall is what makes grace and works opposed. And the Reformed do not believe Law and Gospel are opposed in all senses. They are only opposed in justification, and then only because of sin. If there were no sin, there wouldn’t even be need of the gospel. Grace enables us to fulfill the law in our sanctification, but that is never good enough because even the best of our works remain tainted by sin, and God demands perfection. He kicked Adam out of the garden for ONE sin.

    Because of the fall, special revelation must set the parameters of philosophy. Philosophy would never tell us that three persons could all share the one and some nature. Philosophical language is used in service of Scripture, and special revelation so very often takes “natural philosophical/theological concepts” and redefines them, investing them with content. For example, the concept of the Logos is borrowed and invested with new meaning, not the least of which is that the Logos becomes not an abstract concept but a personal being.

    All of this ultimately is to say that what is possible is what God has revealed is possible, not what we have determined is possible by the exercise of our reason alone. One of my biggest beef with Rome is that it takes what it considers philosophically possible and uses that to determine what Scripture says is possible. Human experience and notions of goodness, justice, and truth do not define goodness, justice, and truth.

    Short of those extremes, there is a nominalist account of natural theology in which natural revelation is walled off from special revelation, revelation of the hidden divine will. Occam believed in that nominalist version, and it seems to me that the Protestants did as well. It is essentially just a question of where one puts the wall of God’s transcendence, the creature/creator distinction. If that distinction is placed in the sphere of divine activity, as opposed to the divine nature and the essential divine mode of existence, theological problems ensue immediately.

    No one is walling off special and natural revelation. All is being said is that both reveal different, though sometimes overlapping things. For example, both nature and Scripture reveal that God is Creator. However, while Scripture reveals God’s triune existence, nature does not. This is really no different than the RC notion of revelation, except that we have a much lower estimation of man’s ability to read nature rightly than Rome does, and Rome—I think—tends to grant natural revelation as giving more information than we do and as having a salvific purpose. This is why you all essentially believe that people can be saved by natural revelation. (The good Muslim who never hears the gospel). The only problem with this is that Paul says natural revelation saves no one but only increases our guilt. Knowing the truth we suppress it apart from the special revelation of God made alive by His Spirit (Rom. 1).

    The Creator/creature distinction is at the level of God’s nature and His mode of essential existence. We are not self-existent. We are not autonomous. God is self-existent, and He is a law unto Himself. It’s not at the mode of activity. We can know His activity insofar as He reveals it to us. And, we can even do some “divine” things such as miracles, though it is more proper to say God does those things through us. So your last statement misses the mark especially.

  12. Good start, Josh. There’s a considerable literature out there about the nominalist antecedents of the Reformation, but I think you’ve got part of the picture down well.

    A thought I’ve long had about nominalism is that it’s one kind of reductionism. It can be said, truly, that learning language and learning concepts go hand-in-hand: We learn concepts by learning language, but as we do the latter, we become better and better equipped to do the former. Nominalism, however, reduces the former to the latter. It concludes that what we know when we learn concepts is nothing but the meaning-in-use of the appropriate linguistic terms; we do not also gain insight into metaphysical reality.

    As you’ve implied, such philosophical reductionism lends itself to Protestant theological reductionism.

    Best,
    Mike

  13. Thank you for a superb article. I have execrated nominalism for all of my adult intellectual life (at least since my first reading of Chesterton’s little book on Aquinas) and so nothing in your article was substantially new to me, but it is most elegantly and eloquently presented.

    Of all nominalism’s noxious fruits, the worst, from my point of view, is legal positivism (a.k.a. legal realism). The nominalists, having abandoned the notion of objective universals, also had to abandon the notion that the authority of the law is derived from its conformity to objective reality expressed in divine and natural law. This led inevitably to fixing the authority of the law, not in its conformity to reality, but in the will of the lawgiver — a position which works if and only if the lawgiver is God himself.

    Having taken a position which — denials to the contrary notwithstanding — inevitably led to a denial of He Who Is (as contrasted with the idea of He Who Wills), the nominalists left nothing that could prevent the rise of the idea that legal authority can only be referred to human lawgivers (be they democratic majorities, oligarchies, plutarchies, or dictatorships).

    It is noteworthy that this philosophy of law — which for some time now has been destroying the constitutional order of the United States — first came to articulated dominance in the very German areas where Lutheranism predominated and was fertilized (no, rather, was further sterilized) by an infusion of “Enlightenment” ideation. It laid the groundwork for both the National Socialist and the International Socialist excuses for judicial systems in Europe, while its advent in the US was midwifed by the “Yankee from Olympus” (more like “from Mount Doom” really), Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and has since become the position to which — in the absence of requirements by most law schools that their students actually study jurisprudence rather than legal technique — the American judicial system increasingly defaults.

  14. Robert (#11):
    It would be helpful if you made more of an effort to understand what I am saying instead of quibbling and debating. This isn’t a debate; I am making an effort to explain to you what Catholics believe and why they believe it.

    As Joshua helpfully explained, nominalism is collapsing the nature into the concrete or, in the case of rational beings, collapsing nature into person. You have explicitly confused nature with person by equating character (personal habit) with nature. For example, you say

    My Bible says Adam was created with a “very good” character and that since the fall, we have a character wholly against God.

    No, your Bible says that Adam was created very good. What this means is that he was created both upright in nature (necessarily true, since God, who cannot be the author of evil, is the author of natures) and in an upright condition, in that he was in communion with God. That also means that human nature itself can never be corrupted in itself, since God is its author. Rather, the nature can be received in a fallen condition, which is what we refer to as fallen human nature (not that it is fallen in itself, but it is fallen in the way it is received). So here you have confused character with nature twice, prelapsarian and postlapsarian.

    There appears to be a similar confusion with respect to God. Person and nature in the context of God are not the same as they are in the case of humans. In the case of God, nature is associated with God’s absolute being, while person pertains to God’s mode of existence and relation. That is why the human nature can be assumed by the Word without confusing the natures. It is also why God is absolutely free with respect to creation, either to relate it to Himself (creating from nothing) or not to create at all. You say the following:

    All I’ve said is that the standards God reveals to us are an expression of who He is. They are analogical expressions to be sure, but they are true expressions. When God says something is good, He says it is good because it reflects His nature. It’s not “pure” nominalism. God does not arbitrarily call something good or evil. If it is good, it is good because it conforms in some way to His nature and character. If it is evil, it’s the opposite. God is incomprehensible, so we know Him by analogy. But that analogical knowledge is true.

    The problem is that you’ve collapsed God’s “character” (meaning His pattern of relations with creation) with His nature. That is precisely the place where Thomas’s doctrine of analogy or the Eastern apophatic theology puts up a wall. We learn about God as Creator by His grace and His economy, but we do not know what He is in Himself, that is, His nature, because creation bears no essential relation to Him. That destroys the basis of any conventional “analogy,” as if we were comparing two like things in some proportion, and that is not the sort of “analogy” Thomas has in mind. That would instead be univocal predication, as if God were truly good in the same sense that created things were good only to an incomprehensibly greater degree.

    We don’t define God by His sovereignty over creation. God is a simple being. His sovereignty is one attribute and is no more important than His love, holiness, etc. We distinguish the attributes for our purposes, but they are all ultimately identical. The Reformed emphasize God’s sovereignty more than other traditions for a variety of reasons, including historical ones—other traditions neglect it—and biblical ones—Scripture emphasizes the Lordship of our Creator. But God is not “defined” as being sovereign over creation any more than He is “defined” as being love, as being holy, as being just, etc.

    I’m not saying that you are defining God in an absolute sense, but what I am saying is that you are defining predication of His attributes in the same univocal way that I have described. So you are saying that God has this attribute of sovereignty, and while sovereignty does not exhaust His omnipotence (i.e., His omnipotence is not comprehensible), it nonetheless is truly a piece of it.

    It’s that concept, breaking God into pieces via attributes, that is quintessentially nominalist; if I can name (attribute) it, it is truly part of the nature. But with that kind of univocal predication, the entire concept of divine simplicity becomes senseless. Even if you nominally affirm it, it has no meaning, because divine simplicity depends on the divine transcendence embodied in analogical predication.

    We don’t put special revelation in opposition to natural revelation either. Properly understood, both teach the same thing. When one conflicts with the other, it is only an apparent conflict. So, either our understanding of special revelation, natural revelation, or both is mistaken. Sometimes our understanding of natural revelation corrects our exegesis. But where our exegesis of Scripture contradicts our exegesis of nature, and our exegesis of Scripture cannot be changed in a way that remains faithful to the author’s intent by natural revelation, then the exegesis of Scripture always corrects our exegesis of natural revelation.

    I have no objection to the idea that there is one truth. But then you come up with this idea of one “correcting” the other, which is exactly the opposition of which I speak, as if there could even possibly be a conflict between authoritative truth. If there is only apparent conflict, then one needs only resolve the apparent conflict, and the idea of correction is removed. But the very idea comes from this idea that one is interpreting nature, putting names on it. You even called it “exegesis,” and one could hardly be more nominalist than that! You have framed the discovery of truth in terms of conflicting interpretation, a quintessentially nominalist view, rather than, as Mike Liccione said above, a discovery of metaphysical truth.

    This really should not be conceptually hard to grasp. Rome affirms something similar, if not in the same terms and if not allowing Scripture to correct natural revelation. You all believe that you can know some things by reason—that God exists—but only some things by revelation—the Trinity. We just refer to that which what we can know by reason without special revelation as natural revelation. Its still revelation, and rightly understood it never contradicts special revelation.

    No, it’s not conceptually hard to grasp, which is why, again, I don’t have any trouble perceiving that it is nominalist. The difference is that we believe that what we know by reason is no less true than what we know by special revelation. Truth is one. This idea that Scripture somehow has greater authority in the sense that it is more true doesn’t make sense, unless you’re in the nominalist world where even natural revelation is a form of interpretation.

    The fall is what makes grace and works opposed. And the Reformed do not believe Law and Gospel are opposed in all senses. They are only opposed in justification, and then only because of sin. If there were no sin, there wouldn’t even be need of the gospel. Grace enables us to fulfill the law in our sanctification, but that is never good enough because even the best of our works remain tainted by sin, and God demands perfection. He kicked Adam out of the garden for ONE sin.

    Again, this is trying to project what happened into creation onto God, collapsing God’s nature into created things. The fall, an event within creation, cannot create an opposition between grace and nature, which is inherent in creation itself. Everything you’re saying here simply turns on exactly the same nominalist concept that I’ve been pointing out. It doesn’t matter whether Law and the Gospel are opposed in every sense, because they are opposed in the relevant sense, namely, the one that violates the divine transcendence.

    This is really no different than the RC notion of revelation, except that we have a much lower estimation of man’s ability to read nature rightly than Rome does, and Rome—I think—tends to grant natural revelation as giving more information than we do and as having a salvific purpose. This is why you all essentially believe that people can be saved by natural revelation. (The good Muslim who never hears the gospel). The only problem with this is that Paul says natural revelation saves no one but only increases our guilt. Knowing the truth we suppress it apart from the special revelation of God made alive by His Spirit (Rom. 1).

    There’s that concept of reading nature again; that’s nominalism. And you’re projecting that belief onto the Catholic belief, as if the fact that people can perceive truth by natural revelation somehow vitiates the role of special revelation. That’s what comes of collapsing what are two separate and parallel forms of discovering truth (natural and special revelation) into one does. For the nominalist, both natural and special revelation are received in the same way (by interpretation), so Scripture, which has the higher authority, must win the conflict. Those aren’t Biblical concepts; you’re just reading the nominalist view back into Paul.

    I completely agree with you that uncritical philosophy is a bad thing. But you are essentially putting on a clinic of what nominalist theology looks like, so maybe it is worth taking a critical look at what I’m saying. Your whole concept of Scripture, the Fall and its effects, and theology in general is steeped in nominalism, but you don’t even seem to see that what you’re saying is exactly the same thing that a nominalist would be saying.

  15. Mike,

    You wrote:

    “It concludes that what we know when we learn concepts is nothing but the meaning-in-use of the appropriate linguistic terms; we do not also gain insight into metaphysical reality.”

    Right, and also nominalism rarely attempts to explain the primordial genesis of language and its use. For it is not as if there has always been a human language-in-use. Apparently, there was a time before any human language was used, and one must give an account of that which gave rise to the first use of language. The most obvious explanation would seem to be the intellect’s encounter with external things, such that concepts were first knowledge of things, before they were related to linguistic use, syntax, etc.

    No doubt, once human language and communication within diverse cultural contexts developed, the facts about cultural-contextual language-use must also be taken into account to gain a robust and balanced account of the concept. The developing child has his concepts formed simultaneously by encounter with things as well by the linguistic environment of his nurturing; an environment which certainly affect the aspect under which the things in his environment are understood. One crucial purpose of philosophical reflection is to consider human knowledge more carefully so as to differentiate that within our knowing which properly reflects the real outside the mind, over against disfigurements of our understanding of the real, arising from any number of sources – including cultural linguistic habits. That is one way at least of understanding what is involved in the effort to “adequate the mind to reality”. I too see early nominalism and its modern philosophical incarnation among those enamored by the “linguistic turn” as a form of reductionism.

    Pax Cjhristi,

    Ray

  16. Jonathan, you said in#14 to Robert ” that means that human nature can never be corrupted because God is the Author. Isn’t God the author of the whole man, the person the soul, the mind. Exactly what is corrupted? Didn’t Paul teach the whole of man was corrupted? thx

  17. Jonathan #14:

    Jonathan,

    It would be helpful if you made more of an effort to understand what I am saying instead of quibbling and debating. This isn’t a debate; I am making an effort to explain to you what Catholics believe and why they believe it.

    Well, those are good words, and I say right back at you. I can’t tell you how many times that you have assumed that I mean certain things when I actually don’t. Protestants, RCs, and the EO often use the same terms but mean different things by them, and we end up talking past each other.

    As Joshua helpfully explained, nominalism is collapsing the nature into the concrete or, in the case of rational beings, collapsing nature into person. You have explicitly confused nature with person by equating character (personal habit) with nature. For example, you say

    I’m quoting here from Patheos.com in an article on the influence of nominalism on Luther:

    “Nominalism rejected a widely accepted philosophical idea that behind every object is a divine essence and that we know what objects are because our minds contain a complete set of essences by which we recognize the objects.”

    “This impacted theology by arguing that, since there are no divine essences in the world, it is impossible to know anything about God just by looking at the world.Though God created the world, the world does not reveal God. The only things we can know about God are what God chooses to reveal in scripture, and God tells us only what we need to know for our salvation. God is otherwise completely hidden.”

    I hold to neither of these things, nor do the Reformed theologians that I know of. Let me get all Platonic on you. There is a world of forms that exists, whether we want to say that it exists in God’s mind or that the good, the true, and the beautiful are somehow identical to God Himself. My point is that there is no standard of goodness that exists outside of God Himself, and when He calls something good it is because it conforms (analogically as is possible for creatures) to God Himself. Extrapolate that for all concepts—righteousness, holiness, justice, etc., etc. If He calls something evil, it is because it does not conform (analogically as is possible for creatures) to God Himself.

    I’m not using character in the terms of personal habit. I’m using it as a synonym for nature. You’re critiquing me, then, for beliefs I do not hold.

    No, your Bible says that Adam was created very good. What this means is that he was created both upright in nature (necessarily true, since God, who cannot be the author of evil, is the author of natures) and in an upright condition, in that he was in communion with God.

    And that is basically what I mean when I say that Adam was created with a “very good” character.

    That also means that human nature itself can never be corrupted in itself, since God is its author. Rather, the nature can be received in a fallen condition, which is what we refer to as fallen human nature (not that it is fallen in itself, but it is fallen in the way it is received). So here you have confused character with nature twice, prelapsarian and postlapsarian.

    Well, insofar as there is a universal concept of human nature that exists in the mind of God, sure. I may be misreading you, but it seems to me that you are saying that when persons fall, it has no impact on their nature. This would seem to contradict experience and revelation. It would even seem to contradict RC theology at certain points. Why do the bodies of the saints—presumably those who achieve theosis or the “fullest” theosis possible in this life—decay and die if their nature is not affected? Why did Mary die (presuming she did in RC theology) if she was spared the stain of original sin and did not sin herself?

    Sin has corrupted my nature. My body dies. My mind is susceptible to confusion. My emotions are not always in sync with reality.

    There appears to be a similar confusion with respect to God. Person and nature in the context of God are not the same as they are in the case of humans. In the case of God, nature is associated with God’s absolute being, while person pertains to God’s mode of existence and relation. That is why the human nature can be assumed by the Word without confusing the natures. It is also why God is absolutely free with respect to creation, either to relate it to Himself (creating from nothing) or not to create at all.

    I don’t see where I’ve denied any of this.

    The problem is that you’ve collapsed God’s “character” (meaning His pattern of relations with creation) with His nature. That is precisely the place where Thomas’s doctrine of analogy or the Eastern apophatic theology puts up a wall. We learn about God as Creator by His grace and His economy, but we do not know what He is in Himself, that is, His nature, because creation bears no essential relation to Him. That destroys the basis of any conventional “analogy,” as if we were comparing two like things in some proportion, and that is not the sort of “analogy” Thomas has in mind. That would instead be univocal predication, as if God were truly good in the same sense that created things were good only to an incomprehensibly greater degree.

    Again, I’m using character as a synonym for nature. And I’m not saying that God is good in the same sense that created things are good, only greater. Neither are the Reformed. There was a whole debate about this between Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til in the early part of the twentieth century wherein Van Til, in line with Reformed theology in general, affirmed the incomprehensibility of God in essentially the same terms that you just postulated. Even those of us who are not presuppostionalists have by and large sided with Van Til. There are almost no modern Clarkians, in other words.

    At the same time, unless there is a correspondence of some kind, then there would seem to be a standard of goodness that exists outside of God Himself.

    I’m not saying that you are defining God in an absolute sense, but what I am saying is that you are defining predication of His attributes in the same univocal way that I have described. So you are saying that God has this attribute of sovereignty, and while sovereignty does not exhaust His omnipotence (i.e., His omnipotence is not comprehensible), it nonetheless is truly a piece of it.

    It’s that concept, breaking God into pieces via attributes, that is quintessentially nominalist; if I can name (attribute) it, it is truly part of the nature. But with that kind of univocal predication, the entire concept of divine simplicity becomes senseless. Even if you nominally affirm it, it has no meaning, because divine simplicity depends on the divine transcendence embodied in analogical predication.

    I’m not doing any of this. I’m speaking of God as I can as a creature. God’s attributes and essence are identical. I’m doing nothing other than what Thomas Aquinas does when He affirms the simplicity of God but then goes on to consider the attributes individually. We have to consider them individually because of our limitations, but His love is His holiness is His Lordship is His justice, etc., etc. This is standard Reformed theology. We cannot know God as God knows God, but the way in which we know God is nonetheless true.

    I have no objection to the idea that there is one truth. But then you come up with this idea of one “correcting” the other, which is exactly the opposition of which I speak, as if there could even possibly be a conflict between authoritative truth. If there is only apparent conflict, then one needs only resolve the apparent conflict, and the idea of correction is removed. But the very idea comes from this idea that one is interpreting nature, putting names on it. You even called it “exegesis,” and one could hardly be more nominalist than that! You have framed the discovery of truth in terms of conflicting interpretation, a quintessentially nominalist view, rather than, as Mike Liccione said above, a discovery of metaphysical truth.

    If my understanding of Scripture and my understanding of nature conflict, the problem is either in my understanding of Scripture or my understanding of nature, or both. There cannot be a conflict between authoritative truth, but we can misunderstand divine revelation whether it comes to us through Scripture, through reason, or through nature. That is all I am saying.

    When correction happens, it is a correction of our understanding to remove the apparent conflict, not a correction of truth. Scripture doesn’t correct nature. Both are equally authoritative. But there are some things we learn only from Scripture that we cannot learn from nature, for example, the life and ministry of Christ, the gospel, etc.

    If we cannot speak of the “exegesis” of nature, then what in the world does Paul mean when He says that God reveals His power and goodness both in what He has made and through the conscience? When I see mountain grandeur and think, “surely their must be a Creator of all of this,” how have I not “exegeted” nature?

    No, it’s not conceptually hard to grasp, which is why, again, I don’t have any trouble perceiving that it is nominalist. The difference is that we believe that what we know by reason is no less true than what we know by special revelation. Truth is one. This idea that Scripture somehow has greater authority in the sense that it is more true doesn’t make sense, unless you’re in the nominalist world where even natural revelation is a form of interpretation.

    Well, again you are criticizing me and the Reformed in general for beliefs we do not hold. We likewise believe that what we know by reason is no less true than what we know by special revelation. Scripture isn’t “more true” than revelation outside of Scripture. What I have said is that Scripture must qualify our exercise of reason. If I exercise my reason apart from divine revelation, I would never get to the Trinity. The best I can get is that there is one God that exists, which is true as far as it goes, but it is insufficient. If I exercise my reason alone, I cannot come to the conclusion that the Trinity is rationally possible. I’m not saying it is irrational. It is most certainly rational. But it is only rational when you allow Scripture to qualify the normal exercise of reason so as to make it possible for three different persons to all possess the same essence.

    Muslims affirm that the Trinity is an irrational doctrine. They’ve used their reason apart from divine revelation, and this is their conclusion. Unless they are willing to accept the authority of Scripture, they will never use their reason properly, at least in this area. It is not the exercise of our reason alone that convinces us of the rationality of Trinitarianism.

    All I am saying is that because of how the fall has affected our minds (an aspect of our nature, btw), we do not always use our reason properly. This should not be a point of contention. The fool says in his heart there is no God.

    At the end of the day, divine revelation determines what is rationally possible, not the exercise of our reason or reading of nature apart from divine revelation. (BTW, this is why criticisms of imputation as having no logical or metaphysical basis fall flat.) Reason alone can give us some truth, but where our exercise of reason contradicts our exegesis of Scripture, one or both are wrong. Ultimately, the truth taught by both reason/natural revelation and Scripture is one. The question is, which one serves in some kind of logical priority. If our minds were not fallen, perhaps neither would have priority. But our minds are fallen, so I have to say at the end of the day that the exegesis of Scripture takes priority (which we have to use reason to interpret, BTW). So if Scripture tells us something is possible, it is possible. It is at that point that we are to use reason to show how it is rationally possible. We don’t just come up with what is rationally possible on our own and then try to make Scripture conform to it. That leads to heresy every time. It’s exactly what Arians do.

    One of my beefs with you guys is that you grant reason logical priority without taking full account of the effect of the fall on our use of reason.

    Again, this is trying to project what happened into creation onto God, collapsing God’s nature into created things. The fall, an event within creation, cannot create an opposition between grace and nature, which is inherent in creation itself. Everything you’re saying here simply turns on exactly the same nominalist concept that I’ve been pointing out. It doesn’t matter whether Law and the Gospel are opposed in every sense, because they are opposed in the relevant sense, namely, the one that violates the divine transcendence.

    I’m not following you here, because it seems as if you are saying that grace and nature are inherently opposed, which does not seem to be the RC position. It may be that I’m not following your syntax. Feel free to clarify.

    God and creation, specifically, God and man are in opposition to one another. If they weren’t, there would be no need for redemption.

    Gen. 6:21a: “The Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”

    Rom. 8:6–8: “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

    There’s that concept of reading nature again; that’s nominalism. And you’re projecting that belief onto the Catholic belief, as if the fact that people can perceive truth by natural revelation somehow vitiates the role of special revelation.

    I have nowhere said that. What I have said is that RC tends to be more confident of their ability to arrive at truth apart from divine revelation than Protestant does. I believe people can and do perceive truth by natural revelation and that this means of arriving at truth in no ways vitiates the role of special revelation.

    That’s what comes of collapsing what are two separate and parallel forms of discovering truth (natural and special revelation) into one does. For the nominalist, both natural and special revelation are received in the same way (by interpretation), so Scripture, which has the higher authority, must win the conflict.

    So your mind does not read Scripture and use reason when you receive special revelation? When the apostles listened to Jesus speak, they did not interpret His Words? When the Eucharist is taken, there is no interpretation going on to remind yourself that Christ is truly present?

    For the last time, Scripture does not have higher authority than natural revelation, so the two are not in ultimate conflict. The conflict is between our reading of the two, and it is only an apparent conflict. But Scripture must tell us what is rationally possible and not reason alone, otherwise we’d all be Unitarians.

    Those aren’t Biblical concepts; you’re just reading the nominalist view back into Paul.

    Men can learn a great many truths by the exercise of reason alone. However, the exercise of reason alone apart from special revelation will not give us the gospel, so it is ultimately useless for salvation. Let’s quote Paul Himself:
    “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Cor. 1:20–25)

    Unless we allow divine revelation to be the final arbiter of what is rationally possible, we are done for. Apart from special revelation, it is foolish—irrational—to believe that a crucified Messiah is the means of salvation. But apart from special revelation, no one can consistently exercise reason properly, so this judgment of irrationality is not a true one. Again, divine revelation is the final arbiter of what is rationally possible.

    I completely agree with you that uncritical philosophy is a bad thing. But you are essentially putting on a clinic of what nominalist theology looks like, so maybe it is worth taking a critical look at what I’m saying. Your whole concept of Scripture, the Fall and its effects, and theology in general is steeped in nominalism, but you don’t even seem to see that what you’re saying is exactly the same thing that a nominalist would be saying.

    As I have shown, no I’m not, at least not in an unqualified way. Are there strains of nominalism that affect my thought? Sure. But I’m no nominalist. Are there strains of Platonism and Aristotelianism that affect my thought? Sure. But I’m no Platonist or Aristotelian either.

  18. Thanks for all of your comments. I’m a bit busy with studies so I’m afraid I can’t contribute to what seems to be a helpful dialogue. I just wanted to make a quick comment.

    By way of clarification, I’m not arguing that all Reformers were Nominalists in the strict sense. In fact, most were not. Calvin was certainly not a Nominalist, and I’m sure that he never actually studied Nominalism in a formal setting. What I am suggesting (though perhaps this is not so clear from the post) is that without Nominalism, Luther’s Reformation doctrines would not have come to be. And to the degree that the other Magisterial Reformers inherited Luther’s theology (and this they did), they were, perhaps unbeknownst to themselves, inheriting a theology that could only arise in the context of Nominalism. In other words, without Nominalism the Reformation would not have taken place in the way that it did, if at all.

    If the major doctrines of the Reformation presuppose or could only arise from Nominalist soil (even if the fruits of the Reformation might be plucked and consumed without any explicit allusion to said philosophy), then an examination of the truth of Nominalism, if pushed consistently, would have ramifications regarding the verity of certain Reformation doctrines. Again, I’m hoping to go into more details with explicit citations from Ockham and more from Luther and Calvin as well.

  19. Joshua,

    What I am suggesting (though perhaps this is not so clear from the post) is that without Nominalism, Luther’s Reformation doctrines would not have come to be. And to the degree that the other Magisterial Reformers inherited Luther’s theology (and this they did), they were, perhaps unbeknownst to themselves, inheriting a theology that could only arise in the context of Nominalism. In other words, without Nominalism the Reformation would not have taken place in the way that it did, if at all.

    This is an assumption that is notoriously difficult to prove, especially since other Reformers came to Luther’s conclusions out of a more Thomistic background.

    http://percaritatem.com/2007/01/27/nominalism-and-protestantism-an-intrinsic-link-or-an-outdated-narrative/

  20. Robert,

    Thanks for the link.

    I’ve actually read several of Peter Martyr Vermigli’s treatises—and this during the time I was struggling with Catholicism, precisely because I thought he might offer a way out of the impasse that arises from the Nominalism of Luther. Nevertheless, I don’t think he differs from Luther on the main issues. He may have studied Aristotle and Thomas, but his theology can only superficially be called Thomistic. (And on a side note, even Ockham was a devoted student of Aristotle—whether he read Aristotle correctly is another matter.)

    If Vermigli, et al. were Thomists, then they were only Thomists in a piecemeal fashion. Those aspects of the Reformation teaching that they inherited from Luther certainly bear the marks of Nominalism.

  21. @Robert (#17):
    Let me try to bring this back to what Joshua (#18) (or for that matter, Kevin’s #16) says. No one is saying that either Luther or Calvin were doctrinaire nominalists; the problem is that they appropriated specific nominalist denials that were incompatible with the orthodox person/nature distinction.

    One point that I want to address about the article you cited is that it makes what I consider to be a significant mistake up front in stating that “[n]ominalism rejected a widely accepted philosophical idea that behind every object is a divine essence and that we know what objects are because our minds contain a complete set of essences by which we recognize the objects [emphasis added].” The Arisotelian view of scholasticism rejects the idea of innate ideas, a complete set of essences implanted in the mind. Calvin, by contrast, explicitly endorses this idea:

    THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD HAS BEEN NATURALLY IMPLANTED IN THE HUMAN MIND.

    Whence we infer, that this is not a doctrine which is first learned at school, but one as to which every man is, from the womb, his own master; one which nature herself allows no individual to forget, though many, with all their might, strive to do so.

    Moreover, if all are born and live for the express purpose of learning to know God, and if the knowledge of God, in so far as it fails to produce this effect, is fleeting and vain, it is clear that all those who do not direct the whole thoughts and actions of their lives to this end fail to fulfil the law of their being. This did not escape the observation even of philosophers. For it is the very thing which Plato meant (in Phoed. et Theact.) when he taught, as he often does, that the chief good of the soul consists in resemblance to God; i.e., when, by means of knowing him, she is wholly transformed into him.

    Calvin here is essentially trying to backfill the hole created by the nominalist collapse of nature and person. But it’s an example of collapsing person and nature in a way that makes the Platonic account incoherent. If it is innate in nature to become God, as Calvin says here, then we should be universalists, resulting in reabsorption into God (this is the reason that Calvinism risks morphing into universalism). To prevent this, Calvin has to put sin up as the obstacle to prevent this from happening on the side of nature. But if that is the case, then sin is vitiating nature, which is impossible if one is to preserve nature as a real existent. Essentially, he’s now locked into a position that makes separating person and nature in the way Christians historically did impossible.

    By contrast, the Cappadocians, who adapted the Platonist ascent of the soul into Christian terms, formulated it in terms of the person/nature distinction and subjoined to that a Stoic account of natural knowledge. This avoided exactly the problem of natural knowledge collapsing the soul into God and resisted the Eunomian confusion of knowledge of properties with knowledge of natures. So Calvin (and Van Til and lots of other Calvinists) are essentially resorting to an old Platonic error, one that was already rejected by the Christian tradition (particularly in Origen), to solve a problem that was created by nominalism in the first place. There’s an orthodox way to adapt Platonist ideas to Scripture, but Calvin has already cut off that path, effectively sawing the branch on which he sat.

    I’m sure Joshua will do better than I just did, so I should probably leave it to him to explain it further. But I just don’t think that you’re seeing the fundamental conflict between certain ideas of nominalism and the historical Christian understanding of nature and person. The way you talk about the divine and human natures and how we know about them is not the way Christianity historically speaks of them, and it certainly isn’t the way Thomists speak of them. That’s not philosophy talking; it is the voice of Christianity over the ages that confronted this problem and answered it in an orthodox way.

  22. Jonathan (#21),
    I appreciate that you don’t have time to answer everything everyone says; that being said, without providing some specificity, all I see are bare assertions and assumptions.

    Let me try to bring this back to what Joshua (#18) (or for that matter, Kevin’s #16) says. No one is saying that either Luther or Calvin were doctrinaire nominalists;

    Got it.

    The problem is that they appropriated specific nominalist denials that were incompatible with the orthodox person/nature distinction.

    What specifically did they deny that is incompatible with the orthodox person/nature distinction?

    One point that I want to address about the article you cited is that it makes what I consider to be a significant mistake up front in stating that “[n]ominalism rejected a widely accepted philosophical idea that behind every object is a divine essence and that we know what objects are because our minds contain a complete set of essences by which we recognize the objects [emphasis added].” The Arisotelian view of scholasticism rejects the idea of innate ideas, a complete set of essences implanted in the mind. Calvin, by contrast, explicitly endorses this idea:

    I’m not exactly following you here. I assume you are saying that the article is wrong and that nominalism does accept the conception of innate ideas, which Calvin also agreed to, thus being evidence of one of his nominalist positions.

    Calvin here is essentially trying to backfill the hole created by the nominalist collapse of nature and person.

    I don’t know what you mean by the nominalist collapse of nature and person, and because of that, I can’t see where Calvin collapses them. Calvin said God’s essence was incomprehensible but that nonetheless we can know God. If this is not true, we should just all stop talking about God.

    But it’s an example of collapsing person and nature in a way that makes the Platonic account incoherent. If it is innate in nature to become God, as Calvin says here, then we should be universalists, resulting in reabsorption into God (this is the reason that Calvinism risks morphing into universalism). To prevent this, Calvin has to put sin up as the obstacle to prevent this from happening on the side of nature. But if that is the case, then sin is vitiating nature, which is impossible if one is to preserve nature as a real existent. Essentially, he’s now locked into a position that makes separating person and nature in the way Christians historically did impossible.

    So, I read this as you saying that sin does not affect nature. Well, insofar as the Reformed have traditionally had a view of the fall that says the fall affects us more radically than what other traditions have held about the fall’s effects, then that is true. Aside from individuals such as Augustine, and even he did not go far enough, I would have to say that the early church’s understanding of the effects of sin falls short in many places. This continues to this day in the East especially, but I would also say so in Roman Catholicism.

    On the other hand, we must believe that sin has affected human nature, and this would seem to be the belief of at least some early church fathers even if they may not have seen the fall’s effects as radically as I do. Why take on a human nature at all if the fall of a person does not corrupt his nature? Athanasius in the opening paragraphs of On the Incarnation explicitly says that is because of the fall that Christ became incarnate.
    Does the fall affect my nature or not? If not, what’s the point of taking on my nature? If sin only affects the person, how could Christ save us without being a human person? Remember, that which is not assumed is not redeemed…

    By contrast, the Cappadocians, who adapted the Platonist ascent of the soul into Christian terms, formulated it in terms of the person/nature distinction and subjoined to that a Stoic account of natural knowledge. This avoided exactly the problem of natural knowledge collapsing the soul into God and resisted the Eunomian confusion of knowledge of properties with knowledge of natures. So Calvin (and Van Til and lots of other Calvinists) are essentially resorting to an old Platonic error, one that was already rejected by the Christian tradition (particularly in Origen), to solve a problem that was created by nominalism in the first place. There’s an orthodox way to adapt Platonist ideas to Scripture, but Calvin has already cut off that path, effectively sawing the branch on which he sat.

    I’m sure Joshua will do better than I just did, so I should probably leave it to him to explain it further. But I just don’t think that you’re seeing the fundamental conflict between certain ideas of nominalism and the historical Christian understanding of nature and person. The way you talk about the divine and human natures and how we know about them is not the way Christianity historically speaks of them, and it certainly isn’t the way Thomists speak of them. That’s not philosophy talking; it is the voice of Christianity over the ages that confronted this problem and answered it in an orthodox way.

    I’m sorry, but I just don’t see where you have proven this. It could be that I’m just obtuse. You’re positing this fundamental conflict between the way the Reformed know nature and person and the way the orthodox before them said we know nature and person by accusing me of doing things I’ve explicitly denied doing. (Apparently, in this instance at least, because I said the word character and then equated it with nature.) I explained what I meant, and you apparently overlooked that.

    I’ve said God’s nature is incomprehensible. Calvin said God’s essence is incomprehensible. Van Til has said it. This is orthodox Reformed theology through and through. Calvin said that God lisps to us to accommodate Himself to our understanding. Our knowledge of God is true insofar as it is possible for creatures to know God, but God remains incomprehensible.

    Ultimately, while I appreciate the stress on apophatic theology to some degree, what I see you doing is (unwittingly to be sure) promoting a radical skepticism that ends in saying we don’t really know God in any way (perhaps I am misreading you). This is what ends in universalism. I don’t think it is any accident that it is Roman Catholics who have been some of the most radical inclusivists of the past few generations. If God does not reveal himself in any way whatsoever, then sure we’re all groping in the dark and describing the same elephant but by different terms (to borrow a favorite inclusivistic/universalistic analogy). Thus we get Knitter, Panikkar, and Rahner (though in a more orthodox way for Rahner) whereby we’re all really just worshipping the same God and you don’t need personal knowledge of Christ to be saved.

    And, just on a side note, if the accusation is that Protestants do not follow the theological method of the church fathers then in large measure I would have to agree. Of course, I would make the same charge of Rome. Neither one of us employs the theological method of the fathers at every point.

    And there are a lot of assumptions that are unproven anyway:
    1. That the theological method of the fathers was correct at every point.
    2. That the fathers are correct where they are correct because they employed the right method and that is impossible to come to correct conclusions even with a flawed method. I can freely say that the fathers came to correct conclusions at times even if their method had holes. I’d say the same thing of Calvin. I’d say the same thing about myself. This is just plainly evident from our own experience. We’ve all come to the right answers in lots of different areas, including theology, even if our method has had hiccups.

    I would say that at many points the fathers were far less critical of surrounding ideas than they should have been, but that is true of us all. We’re all influenced in ways good and bad by our contexts. It was true of Athanasius. It was true of Thomas Aquinas. It was true of Calvin and Luther. It is true of me. This is why Scripture must continually determine our method of theology. At their best, the fathers did this, taking philosophical concepts and investing them with biblical meaning.

  23. @Robert (#21):
    Just to be clear, it’s not a time question, so much as quality. Joshua has studied this in more detail than I have, so his explanation will be better. But I’ll walk through my illustration.

    What specifically did they deny that is incompatible with the orthodox person/nature distinction?

    According to orthodox doctrine, a person is an individual instance of a rational nature, rationality including the powers of intellect and will, which are characteristic powers (capacities) of human nature exercised by the person. The intellect understands natures, and it is by natures that things are ordered and comprehensible. The author of natures is God; God is by His nature the only being capable of causing natures to exist. That’s the underlying metaphysics for the use of the terms nature and person in the post-Nicene era up through Chalcedon. That is what we affirm (or should be affirming) when we assent to the dogma.

    Calvin’s interpretation of Romans 1:16-23, trying to explain how fallen humanity rejects what it ought to know, blows this from the beginning. Calvin requires implanted knowledge to comprehend what should be perceptible by natural reason, meaning he has already crossed the line between intellect and its exercise (knowledge) and likewise stripped the intellect of its capacity to perceive natures, since it requires implanted knowledge to function. (Note the assertion that nature allows no individual to forget; that is the sort of thing I mean.)

    This idea of implanted ideas is a Platonic idea, so it could in principle be realist (although, contra your source, Platonism is not the only realist approach). But Calvin here is bringing it into the nominalist metaphysics, which confused the universal with the concrete. That makes sense in nominalism, where the mind gains knowledge by interpreting the world based on its own internal structure (Van Til’s “autonomous reason” turns on the same error). It makes no sense at all given the concepts of nature and person outlined above; it violates the concept of intellect as the power to know the natural order. And even though Calvin may affirm the incomprehensibility of God in some sense, the way he describes the operation of the intellect already excludes the natural limits on intellect that define the divine transcendence for the Fathers.

    Calvin then goes on, based on this concept of implanted knowledge, to conclude that the natural purpose is to know God (which is true in a certain sense, but as stated, confuses grace with nature). Thus, anyone who does not know this is sinning against the natural (implanted) knowledge and therefore wicked. But if the knowledge is implanted from the womb, then this sin, this will against knowledge, must likewise proceed from the womb, so now Calvin has roped sin itself into nature. The reason that the Fathers won’t go that far is because their belief in the concept of nature and person, with God as the author of nature, can’t possibly allow it. This is why literally no one until the Reformation even took that formulation of sin as a serious possibility, not even Augustine. It would have violated the doctrine of Christ. That’s not a question of theological method; it’s a question of fighting the Gospel, the good news about Christ.

    Ultimately, while I appreciate the stress on apophatic theology to some degree, what I see you doing is (unwittingly to be sure) promoting a radical skepticism that ends in saying we don’t really know God in any way (perhaps I am misreading you). This is what ends in universalism. I don’t think it is any accident that it is Roman Catholics who have been some of the most radical inclusivists of the past few generations. If God does not reveal himself in any way whatsoever, then sure we’re all groping in the dark and describing the same elephant but by different terms (to borrow a favorite inclusivistic/universalistic analogy). Thus we get Knitter, Panikkar, and Rahner (though in a more orthodox way for Rahner) whereby we’re all really just worshipping the same God and you don’t need personal knowledge of Christ to be saved.

    You’ve got it exactly backward. The way that you avoid universalism, radical skepticism, and quite honestly, Calvinism is to make the dogma of Christ into iron. The reason that we are more optimistic is twofold. First, we can’t accept that sin entirely vitiates nature for the reason I gave above, so that there is a built-in opposition to God in human nature. Second, because of the universality of human nature, we believe that the redemption touches all people. Those are dogmas; we can no more deny them than we deny ourselves.

    But we likewise do not deny that it is Christ alone Who is God Incarnate. The Buddha may be a saint (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02297a.htm), but only Christ is God. In other words, it is Christ’s very uniqueness that makes the proclamation of the Gospel fearless; we have no anxiety, because Christ has claimed the victory over the entire world. By contrast, your concern is based on Calvin’s concept of inborn sin, as if salvation were a fight against nature rather than its redemption. This is why I am not worried about these discussions; it’s just a joy for me to be able to speak the truth and to share it with people.

  24. Jonathan,

    According to orthodox doctrine, a person is an individual instance of a rational nature, rationality including the powers of intellect and will, which are characteristic powers (capacities) of human nature exercised by the person.

    The intellect understands natures, and it is by natures that things are ordered and comprehensible. The author of natures is God; God is by His nature the only being capable of causing natures to exist. That’s the underlying metaphysics for the use of the terms nature and person in the post-Nicene era up through Chalcedon. That is what we affirm (or should be affirming) when we assent to the dogma.

    Nice reference to Boethius. Sure.

    Calvin’s interpretation of Romans 1:16-23, trying to explain how fallen humanity rejects what it ought to know, blows this from the beginning. Calvin requires implanted knowledge to comprehend what should be perceptible by natural reason, meaning he has already crossed the line between intellect and its exercise (knowledge) and likewise stripped the intellect of its capacity to perceive natures, since it requires implanted knowledge to function. (Note the assertion that nature allows no individual to forget; that is the sort of thing I mean.)

    I’m not sure you are reading Calvin correctly here. He is saying that God made humanity with the capacity to know God and that includes the knowledge of God or at least with some knowledge of God. I don’t see where this should be objectionable even on a RC notion of prelapsarian man needing an infusion of grace. Is man just a blank slate who doesn’t know God until he first exercises his reason? Does God not give us any immediate knowledge apart from the exercise of reason? By nature not allowing people to forget, all he is saying that human beings since the fall suppress the knowledge and capability to know God, but God’s revelation of Himself in nature is another thing God has given to make that suppression ultimately impossible.

    It seems that for your criticism to hold, human beings would have to be blank slates that have no knowledge at all until they first exercise their reason. But that isn’t a realist account of knowledge.

    This idea of implanted ideas is a Platonic idea, so it could in principle be realist (although, contra your source, Platonism is not the only realist approach). But Calvin here is bringing it into the nominalist metaphysics, which confused the universal with the concrete. That makes sense in nominalism, where the mind gains knowledge by interpreting the world based on its own internal structure (Van Til’s “autonomous reason” turns on the same error). It makes no sense at all given the concepts of nature and person outlined above; it violates the concept of intellect as the power to know the natural order.

    I don’t see where this criticism holds either. When Van Til speaks of autonomous reason, all he means is the exercise of reason apart from the submission of human beings to God, that is, the exercise of reason apart from faith. And on this, neither Van Til—nor Calvin—deny the power of the intellect to know the natural order. The whole problem is that we know the natural order by our intellect but suppress the knowledge that we have. We know what is true, but we deny it. We don’t do this comprehensively, but we do it. Even the most virulent atheist can know truth. The problem isn’t one of knowledge, it is what one does with that knowledge.

    And even though Calvin may affirm the incomprehensibility of God in some sense, the way he describes the operation of the intellect already excludes the natural limits on intellect that define the divine transcendence for the Fathers.

    You’re reading too much into Calvin’s description of the intellect, and in any case, are we blank slates before the exercise of reason, and if so, how do we know anything?

    And the way he describes the operation of the intellect does not exclude the natural limits on intellect. First, God has not planted His knowledge of Himself in our minds. Second, God knows himself analytically; we know Him synthetically. This is standard Reformed stuff, coming from Calvin. Unless you want to tell me that the fathers did not believe we could know God truly, this doesn’t work. We don’t know God’s essence even with God implanting ideas in us (to borrow a metaphor). The immediate knowledge of God that we all possess is not knowledge of God as he is in himself. And, being creatures, we could not attain such knowledge in any case. We’re derivative. God accommodates Himself to us, to our capacities. He did this even before the fall.

    Calvin then goes on, based on this concept of implanted knowledge, to conclude that the natural purpose is to know God (which is true in a certain sense, but as stated, confuses grace with nature). Thus, anyone who does not know this is sinning against the natural (implanted) knowledge and therefore wicked.

    Protestants do have a different understanding of grace, to be sure. In any case, what Calvin (and Van Til and Sproul and Frame and Warfield and the entire Reformed tradition) is saying is that the problem is that we do know our natural purpose is to know God, and knowing our purpose, reject it. The problem is not that we are ignorant of our purpose in knowing God. The problem is knowing our purpose, we refuse to fulfill it.

    But if the knowledge is implanted from the womb, then this sin, this will against knowledge, must likewise proceed from the womb, so now Calvin has roped sin itself into nature.

    Again, this implies that we come into the world as blank slates. This would not seem to be the concept of knowledge of the church fathers who were certainly more rationalistic than empirically oriented.

    The reason that the Fathers won’t go that far is because their belief in the concept of nature and person, with God as the author of nature, can’t possibly allow it. This is why literally no one until the Reformation even took that formulation of sin as a serious possibility, not even Augustine.

    The Fathers, in general, did not understand the impact of the fall on the exercise of our faculties as well as the Reformers did.

    It would have violated the doctrine of Christ. That’s not a question of theological method; it’s a question of fighting the Gospel, the good news about Christ.

    Again, I don’t see how this follows. From all that you have said, it would seem that you would state that the person is fallen but not his nature. If that were the case, then the whole “whatever is not assumed is not redeemed” of the fathers would be violated. Christ didn’t take on a human person, so he didn’t redeem a human person. He redeemed human nature because that is what he took on.

    And again, the fallenness of human nature is self-evident. Our bodies die. There are severely mentally impaired people who lack the power of intellect. I could go on. God didn’t make human nature that way. He’s not the author of fallen nature. It’s our fault.

    Basically, I read you as saying that Calvin’s fundamental problem was that he believed there was some kind of innate knowledge that requires reason to function properly and that this violates the person-nature distinction. How this somehow violates patristic theology does not make any sense. The only way it could is if the fathers believed we’re all blank slates until the first exercise of reason. Maybe I’m just being obtuse, but none of this makes any sense. The fathers definitely believed Scripture—divine revelation—was necessary for at least the proper reasoning about God. They weren’t (with exceptions) universalists. Though they thought pagan philosophers knew some truth, they also thought they fell far short. That’s all Calvin and others are saying.

    The reason that we are more optimistic is twofold. First, we can’t accept that sin entirely vitiates nature for the reason I gave above, so that there is a built-in opposition to God in human nature.

    Sin doesn’t entirely vitiate human nature in Reformed theology. And the opposition is not “built-in” but accidental. It’s actually built in in Roman Catholicism in your understanding of pre-fall man.

    Second, because of the universality of human nature, we believe that the redemption touches all people.

    Because of the universality of human nature, all fallen people do not seek God. In any case, if redemption “touches” all people, whatever that means, it’s no wonder that Rome has been trending in a universalistic direction. But if redemption touches all people, you all are doing them a great disfavor by introducing the church to them and giving them the opportunity to reject it. They’d be better off continuing on in their invincible ignorance.

    In other words, it is Christ’s very uniqueness that makes the proclamation of the Gospel fearless;

    Absolutely. I would just say that RC ends up denying Christ’s very uniqueness by adding other mediators, extending salvation to those who don’t know him, etc. etc.

    We have no anxiety, because Christ has claimed the victory over the entire world. By contrast, your concern is based on Calvin’s concept of inborn sin, as if salvation were a fight against nature rather than its redemption. This is why I am not worried about these discussions; it’s just a joy for me to be able to speak the truth and to share it with people.

    Now this makes absolutely no sense to me. First, I have no anxiety because Christ has not only claimed victory—He’s won victory over the world. Two, salvation is the redemption of nature, but if nature is not fallen, it doesn’t need redemption. Athanasius said the reason for the incarnation was the fall of man. Salvation isn’t a fight against nature, it is a restoration of nature to what it used to be—actually, it’s a restoration to something far greater than what it was originally. You can’t redeem that which is not fallen. Oh, and I’m not worried either. I just don’t appreciate this idea that Protestantism is a new religion that does not reflect anything that came before it. That’s no more true of Protestantism than it is of Roman Catholicism.

  25. Robert,

    “if redemption “touches” all people, whatever that means, it’s no wonder that Rome has been trending in a universalistic direction.”

    Part of what it means is that both the damned, and not just the saved, are immortal – because both share the same nature, which is redeemed. It does not imply universalism.

  26. @Robert (#24):
    Just as I said time would not be the problem, I was called away on a pressing matter. I apologize for the delay in responding.

    Let’s leave aside the question of innate ideas, at least for the moment. Just as background, I would, in fact, maintain that human beings start as a blank slate with the capacity for knowledge but without any actual knowledge. By that, I do not mean the Lockean concept of the blank slate. What I mean by capacity for knowledge is the capacity to receive forms through the senses by experience, meaning that I do not accept the Lockean idea of the mind as a blank slate that also (somehow) interprets reality (sensory experience) based on mental constructs. Suffice it to say at this point that it would be question-begging to assert that human beings start with knowledge of God, and we can move to the more important issue.

    The real issue is whether God’s plan of communion with humanity is a matter of nature or grace. There’s a difference between breaking communion with God and violating the moral law inherent in nature, because communion is a matter of grace, while the moral law is a matter of nature. It is true that a consequence of breaking the laws of nature is that one becomes unfit for communion with God. But for men born after Adam, there’s no communion to break. Nor is there any natural way to know what this communion is, since it is a matter of supernatural grace. You yourself said that the state of redeemed humanity is “far greater” than what it was before the Fall; that is correct, and it is proof that communion with God goes beyond nature.

    Communion with God is therefore always personal, never a result of nature, and breaking it is likewise always a personal choice. That’s why confusing sin against nature with inborn resistance to God is a confusion of person with nature. We are all sinners against our own nature to some degree, but that doesn’t determine what our personal response to God’s grace will be.

    That is likewise why lacking communion is only a privation, not an opposition to God and not an actual sin. You say of the Calvinist view “the opposition is not ‘built-in’ but accidental. It’s actually built in in Roman Catholicism in your understanding of pre-fall man.” But this is wrong in both respects. A built-in opposition by nature is impossible; it would place within the human nature the capability of communion with God (albeit one that could be denied). So there is no opposition to God inborn into man, whether accidental or otherwise. Nor is original sin opposition to God in any sense. Man did not originally need to be saved, but he still required grace for communion with God.

    What Christ did universally was to make communion with God, of which man was deprived by Adam’s sin, possible again despite even actual sin (hence, the universality of the atonement). But it is still personal and still by grace; this possibility is still not actuality, meaning it may not be applied personally, nor does entering the communion mean that one will not do the same thing Adam did and spurn it. All we know is that every person, at some point in his life, has an encounter with God’s grace. And again, we do not confuse nature with person; the fact that humanity as a whole is open again to communion with God does not mean that it will be realized in every person.

    Maintaining the distinction between nature and person, we see that the deprivation of communion between humanity and God is undone by Christ, but the personal relationship with God, how it is applied for the individual, is a mystery. That is why we can say, truly, that we do not always know whether people have resisted God’s grace or simply have never received it.

    The fact that grace is both universal and personal makes it completely logical to spread the Gospel as widely and liberally as possible, because it will never interfere with God’s grace but it can always be the occasion of God’s grace. Someone who is vincibly ignorant and willing will be converted, someone who is vincibly ignorant but obstinate would resist God’s grace anyway, and someone who is resistant only through invincible ignorance will come to God’s grace in the end anyway. No one will ever be worse off than they would have been for hearing the Gospel.

    So the real problem with what Calvin says above is this idea that fallen man has an inborn tendency to reject communion with God. That’s a confusion between nature and person; fallen man has no communion with God to reject and no way of even knowing what communion with God is so as to reject it.

  27. Jonathan #26,

    Just as I said time would not be the problem, I was called away on a pressing matter. I apologize for the delay in responding.

    No problem.

    Let’s leave aside the question of innate ideas, at least for the moment.

    Sure.

    The real issue is whether God’s plan of communion with humanity is a matter of nature or grace. There’s a difference between breaking communion with God and violating the moral law inherent in nature, because communion is a matter of grace, while the moral law is a matter of nature. It is true that a consequence of breaking the laws of nature is that one becomes unfit for communion with God.

    No doubt that we differ on the state of pre-fall man. Here is where I have to say that the term grace in the sense of salvific grace does not make sense apart the fall. You all basically want to say that we were in need of salvation before sin entered the world, but you certainly don’t get that from Genesis 1–3 or any of the other biblical passages that describe the state of pre-fall humanity. I understand that there is a strong strand of EO that would basically affirm this, hence the fact that so many of them (and others) stress that the incarnation would have happened even without the fall. This is a consistent position with believing that communion with humanity is a matter of an infusion of grace, of transcending our creatureliness in some sense, but it doesn’t seem to be consistent with Athanasius, at least in the opening of On the Incarnation, not to mention Aquinas.

    But for men born after Adam, there’s no communion to break. Nor is there any natural way to know what this communion is, since it is a matter of supernatural grace. You yourself said that the state of redeemed humanity is “far greater” than what it was before the Fall; that is correct, and it is proof that communion with God goes beyond nature.

    I would say this is both true and false. There is no communion to break in the sense that we are born out of communion with God. There was communion in the sense that I am guilty of Adam’s sin. The fact is that in Adam I broke communion with God. I’m guilty for His sin. I talk about that more below.

    “Far Greater” means that in our redeemed and glorified state, we will have no ability or desire to sin. We won’t be capable of it. But our creatureliness is not transcended.

    Communion with God is therefore always personal, never a result of nature, and breaking it is likewise always a personal choice. That’s why confusing sin against nature with inborn resistance to God is a confusion of person with nature. We are all sinners against our own nature to some degree, but that doesn’t determine what our personal response to God’s grace will be.

    I’m still trying to figure out what is actually fallen in your view. Apparently it is not nature, but it seems you don’t really think that our persons are fallen either. The confusion may lie in our use of terms. When I say our nature is fallen, all I am saying is that everything that makes me who I am is fallen. If it is more amenable to you for me to say that our persons possess an inborn resistance to God as a result of the fall, I’m fine with that, because that is what I mean. My nature isn’t guilty, my person is (but my person doesn’t exist apart from my nature, and my nature has an impact on my person). My nature has been deprived of powers. It is corrupted. The real problem is my person who left to my own devices is guilty of Adam’s sin as well as personal sin and resists with all of its might the use of any capacity I do have to glorify God.

    Basically what I see you as saying is that we are born morally neutral, that we are not pro- or anti-communion with God in regards to our person. Is that correct?

    That is likewise why lacking communion is only a privation, not an opposition to God and not an actual sin. You say of the Calvinist view “the opposition is not ‘built-in’ but accidental. It’s actually built in in Roman Catholicism in your understanding of pre-fall man.” But this is wrong in both respects. A built-in opposition by nature is impossible; it would place within the human nature the capability of communion with God (albeit one that could be denied). So there is no opposition to God inborn into man, whether accidental or otherwise. Nor is original sin opposition to God in any sense. Man did not originally need to be saved, but he still required grace for communion with God.

    What Christ did universally was to make communion with God, of which man was deprived by Adam’s sin, possible again despite even actual sin (hence, the universality of the atonement). But it is still personal and still by grace; this possibility is still not actuality, meaning it may not be applied personally, nor does entering the communion mean that one will not do the same thing Adam did and spurn it. All we know is that every person, at some point in his life, has an encounter with God’s grace. And again, we do not confuse nature with person; the fact that humanity as a whole is open again to communion with God does not mean that it will be realized in every person.

    Maintaining the distinction between nature and person, we see that the deprivation of communion between humanity and God is undone by Christ, but the personal relationship with God, how it is applied for the individual, is a mystery. That is why we can say, truly, that we do not always know whether people have resisted God’s grace or simply have never received it.

    The fact that grace is both universal and personal makes it completely logical to spread the Gospel as widely and liberally as possible, because it will never interfere with God’s grace but it can always be the occasion of God’s grace. Someone who is vincibly ignorant and willing will be converted, someone who is vincibly ignorant but obstinate would resist God’s grace anyway, and someone who is resistant only through invincible ignorance will come to God’s grace in the end anyway. No one will ever be worse off than they would have been for hearing the Gospel.

    If my fate would be the same regardless of whether I hear the gospel or not, then there is no point of spreading the gospel. Why should I care about person X in unreached China if person X is going to be saved anyway without personal faith in Christ. This is the tendency toward universalism I’m talking about.

    But if salvation is only by a personal faith in Christ that results in a relationship with Christ that is tangible, then you better believe I should spread the gospel as widely as possible. Once you accept that there is a category of people who will be saved regardless of whether they know who Christ is and what He has done, there is no reason to share the gospel. But if people won’t be saved without actually knowing Christ, gospel preaching becomes an absolute priority. IOW, there is no such thing as a category of people who don’t know anything about Christ and yet will be saved anyway.

    So the real problem with what Calvin says above is this idea that fallen man has an inborn tendency to reject communion with God. That’s a confusion between nature and person; fallen man has no communion with God to reject and no way of even knowing what communion with God is so as to reject it.

    What Calvin is saying is that sin has affected everything that makes us who we who we are, including our nature and our person. He’s not confusing nature and person. What He is saying is that we were created as persons who were made for fellowship with God and that we rejected it, and that in Adam we all rejected this communion.

    The issue is that we are as guilty as Adam of rejecting communion with God. Apparently, that is what you are denying, and that appears to be exactly in line from my own reading of the CCC. If you want to believe that, I understand, but then you can’t turn right around and say that Calvin speaks of these things like no one else did before Him. Augustine certainly held that we are all born guilty, else there would be no reason to condemn unbaptized infants to hell, however mild that condemnation may be. It seems that Rome recognizes this, hence the progressive elimination of even a place for babies in limbo over the years. Like Augustine, Calvin believes that we are born guilty and not merely wounded. There is a difference in that as far as I know, Calvin won’t affirm baptism as working ex opere operato, but the fundamental anthropology—at least in the post-lapsarian sense—is the same.

    Fallen man rejected communion with God in Adam, and to say that we have no way of knowing what communion is so as to reject doesn’t make sense from a biblical or even a Roman Catholic perspective. It would seem. RCs affirm that there are those who strive after God. They have some kind of knowledge that they should be in communion with God and so they seek communion with Him as far as they are able. And they may not know perfectly what communion with God is, but they at least know that it involves obedience to Him because disobedience makes communion impossible.

    If you want to call that seeking a fruit of grace, that differs from the Reformed to some degree, but we don’t deny that there is grace available to fallen man. We believe in common grace that shows people that they should be in communion with God. The difference is that apart from Christ, that striving is ultimately a suppression.

    To say man has no way of even knowing what communion with God is doesn’t seem to make sense even from a RC perspective.

  28. @Robert (#27):
    There seem to be some points that are going to be helpful for clarification.

    No doubt that we differ on the state of pre-fall man. Here is where I have to say that the term grace in the sense of salvific grace does not make sense apart the fall. You all basically want to say that we were in need of salvation before sin entered the world, but you certainly don’t get that from Genesis 1–3 or any of the other biblical passages that describe the state of pre-fall humanity.

    The “salvific” in salvific grace describes its effect, not its nature. The Catholic (and Orthodox) point is that the grace for communion with God is uniform; it operates the same way before and after the Fall (both of angels and men). The difference between men and angels is that angels are not susceptible to redemption, because they have fixed their wills in opposition to God, meaning they would have to cease to exist in order for their rebellion against God to stop. If men actually had an inborn resistance to God by virtue of creation, then we would, like angels, be essentially beyond redemption.

    I understand that there is a strong strand of EO that would basically affirm this, hence the fact that so many of them (and others) stress that the incarnation would have happened even without the fall. This is a consistent position with believing that communion with humanity is a matter of an infusion of grace, of transcending our creatureliness in some sense, but it doesn’t seem to be consistent with Athanasius, at least in the opening of On the Incarnation, not to mention Aquinas.

    In On the Incarnation, Athanasius says literally the same thing that I am saying: “This, then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word.” Whether the Incarnation was necessary for grace is a separate issue than whether grace was required for communion with God.

    Nor is it a question of transcending creatureliness. I have no natural capacity to fly, but I don’t turn into a bird when I get on an airplane. There are plenty of things outside of my natural capabilities that it is nonetheless still personally possible (i.e., not incompatible with my nature) for me to do.

    “Far Greater” means that in our redeemed and glorified state, we will have no ability or desire to sin. We won’t be capable of it.

    I’m still trying to figure out what is actually fallen in your view. Apparently it is not nature, but it seems you don’t really think that our persons are fallen either. When I say our nature is fallen, all I am saying is that everything that makes me who I am is fallen. If it is more amenable to you for me to say that our persons possess an inborn resistance to God as a result of the fall, I’m fine with that, because that is what I mean.

    The real problem is my person who left to my own devices is guilty of Adam’s sin as well as personal sin and resists with all of its might the use of any capacity I do have to glorify God.

    Basically what I see you as saying is that we are born morally neutral, that we are not pro- or anti-communion with God in regards to our person. Is that correct?

    What Calvin is saying is that sin has affected everything that makes us who we who we are, including our nature and our person. He’s not confusing nature and person. What He is saying is that we were created as persons who were made for fellowship with God and that we rejected it, and that in Adam we all rejected this communion.

    The problem with what you’re saying here is that you are giving the wrong reasons for the right conclusions. It is true that human nature, when left unassisted by grace, will inevitably sin. But there’s no natural reason for that inevitability, nothing wrong in the set of capabilities of nature, that produces this. Rather, it results from being outside of the conditions for correct operation. In other words, there’s something wrong with the world, so that, under the conditions of the world as it is, nature doesn’t behave properly (resulting in weakened reason, concupiscence, etc.). One might think of it like entropy; when undirected human activity takes place, degradation is inevitable. Athanasius attributes this to having been created from nothing, so this possibility of self-destruction in the absence of a real purpose is always there until our wills are permanently fixed on God. What is important about this is that the effects are not uniform from person to person, so neither is the cure. Rather, it’s like a disease; the cause may be the same, but the effects and treatment vary individually.

    If the flaw were in nature itself, then Christ could not share our nature in common, and we would (like the fallen angels) be beyond redemption. Instead, by taking on our nature in the condition of deprivation of God’s grace (i.e., in relation to the world that is broken as I described) and by providing a way that the human nature can achieve its purpose despite these conditions, i.e., a brand new channel for grace, Christ saves fallen human nature. Being fallen ceases to be an insurmountable obstacle, because it now has a way to receive the grace of which its condition (being born after Adam’s refusal of grace) had deprived it.

    The differences emerge as follows…

    The issue is that we are as guilty as Adam of rejecting communion with God. Apparently, that is what you are denying, and that appears to be exactly in line from my own reading of the CCC. If you want to believe that, I understand, but then you can’t turn right around and say that Calvin speaks of these things like no one else did before Him. Augustine certainly held that we are all born guilty, else there would be no reason to condemn unbaptized infants to hell, however mild that condemnation may be.

    The conventional Western, as exemplified by Pope St. Gregory the Great, was that the infants were innocent of wrongdoing but punished nonetheless.
    For there be some that are withdrawn from the present light, before they attain to shew forth the good or evil deserts of an active life. And whereas the Sacraments of salvation do not free them from the sin of their birth, at the same time that here they never did aright by their own act; There they are brought to torment.

    Moralia in Job 9.21.32

    Augustine and those who followed him actually denied that infants did, or were even capable of, resisting God, but they were damned anyway. This was a result of the traducian belief that infants actually derived their souls from their parentage, so they could be punished on account of being created by a corrupt person. You’ve merely assumed (wrongly) that infants must have some guilt in order to be punished, but Augustine and Gregory both said that infants were NOT guilty of any opposition to God, but they were punished anyway because they contracted sin in their souls by generation. Once the traducian belief was ruled out, this was no longer a tenable metaphysical possibility, so the error was corrected by Aquinas, at least until Calvin revived it. You can think of this like geocentrism; it was a non-dogmatic, scientific belief about which many people, including the Fathers, were wrong.

    It is important to note, however, that Calvin’s version had nothing to do with Augustine’s, which was intended to defend the orthodox doctrine of baptism for the remission of sins. Calvin’s notion that infants were damnable on account of an inborn actual opposition to God or the idea of a kind of federal responsibility has literally no antecedents in any Catholic doctrine; no Western author ever said anything like this. So Calvin’s fundamental anthropology, the basic metaphysics, is completely alien to (and incompatible with) the Western history. And his denial of baptismal regeneration, the very doctrine that Augustine and Gregory were defending, is a clear indication that the beliefs are entirely different.

    In short, Calvin did really make this idea of inborn resistance to God and this particular notion of suppressing the truth in unrighteousness out of whole cloth.

    That has implications for evangelization as well. You say the following:

    If my fate would be the same regardless of whether I hear the gospel or not, then there is no point of spreading the gospel. Why should I care about person X in unreached China if person X is going to be saved anyway without personal faith in Christ. This is the tendency toward universalism I’m talking about.

    But if salvation is only by a personal faith in Christ that results in a relationship with Christ that is tangible, then you better believe I should spread the gospel as widely as possible. Once you accept that there is a category of people who will be saved regardless of whether they know who Christ is and what He has done, there is no reason to share the gospel. But if people won’t be saved without actually knowing Christ, gospel preaching becomes an absolute priority. IOW, there is no such thing as a category of people who don’t know anything about Christ and yet will be saved anyway.

    The whole question is whether you believe that you are working with nature or replacing nature. If you’re working with nature, then Christ can in principle save people by working through the human nature even in the absence of the ordinary form of revelation, because Christ has established a channel for God’s grace in all human beings. So we evangelize because that is the norm that God has established, the ordinary means of salvation, but it does not rule out extraordinary means of grace. That has nothing to do with universalism; it simply means that salvation is a personal process, so God has an individual plan for each of us, even though there is a normal course. But if you’re replacing nature, i.e., if there is an inborn sin nature that needs to be removed, then people break into two categories: those with an inborn resistance to God and those who have erased that by an act of faith in Christ. If it’s binary, then accepting the Gospel is not only ordinary but absolutely necessary (which creates a serious problem as to how infants can even possibly be saved, by the way).

    In summary, this idea of humanity being born in opposition to God as opposed to being bereft of God’s grace and therefore falling into sin is the essential difference. In both cases, it is absolutely necessary for the grace of God to save us from sin. But the former belief is heterodox in that it confuses nature and person.

  29. Jonathan (re:#28),

    I have not read all of what you and Robert have discussed above. But, I found this snippet from last post interesting:

    You’ve merely assumed (wrongly) that infants must have some guilt in order to be punished, but Augustine and Gregory both said that infants were NOT guilty of any opposition to God, but they were punished anyway because they contracted sin in their souls by generation.

    Are you saying that the bolded portion is a correct (or at least compatibly) Catholic view? If so, what is meant by they “contracted sin in their souls”?I know you don’t mean what Robert means when he says they have the guilt of Adam’s sin. I got a little lost in that section of your post and wasn’t sure whether what you were affirming was a correct Catholic view or rather an old view that has been reformulated and made more precise over the years.

    Peace,
    John D.

  30. @JohnD (#29):
    I believe that the view was incorrect but also immaterial to any dogma. Essentially, they believe (incorrectly) that sin could be physically transmitted to offspring by the transferal of soul substance, which allowed infants to be punished even though they themselves committed no sin. That has proved false.

  31. I’m coming to think nominalism is the key to understanding the modern world, including its atheism, its relativism, and its inability to conceive of a rational knowledge of God (this being a proposition that Luther would reject).

    I can see how there’s a connection between Luther’s nominalism, and his system of ethics (and from there we get to sola scriptura). I feel instinctively that there’s also a connection between his nominalism and his sola fide. But I can’t quite spell it out. Can anyone help me?

  32. Edward, I am absolutely not the expert in this area, and I suppose that Bryan or Joshua will respond shortly. I have read Dr. Scott Hahn’s recent book in collaboration with Benjamin Wiker. Politicizing the Bible. It is a work of scholarship no popular reading. It was challenging for me to read but yet not too difficult. I had to do some work to mentally track the various actors and events because of my lack of familiarity and do some re-reading to put it all together. However, although not specifically focused only nominalism, it make the effort to trace how events in philosophy and theology interacted with politics and nominalism plays a major part in that story.

  33. Thanks for this article. I have been thinking about this issue and attempted a rough sketch of the logical consequences of nominalism for the reformers insofar as it departs from the classical view. Is this a fair assessment? I welcome correction as I am trying to understand this better myself.

    1. There is no universal Good, only particular goods.
    2. Since only particular goods exist, the set of all particulars would include God’s goodness alongside that held by his creatures.
    3. God is the supreme instance and source of all goodness. Creatures have only derived goodness.
    4. Since there are no universals, a creature’s derived goodness cannot be explained by a metaphysical “participation” in the universal Good. A particular derived goodness can only be explained by reference to some particular underived goodness (God).
    5. The assignment of goodness therefore happens extrinsically, from one particular to another: from God, by decree or imputation, to his creatures.
    6. Since all goodness in creatures is derived, and that derivation can only occur extrinsically, nothing in creatures that is not assigned extrinsically can be considered good.
    7. “Natural” goodness therefore becomes a finite commodity. To affirm a natural goodness in man is to posit another source apart from God, and therefore to compete with God: hence total depravity.
    8. Since God’s natural goodness can be threatened by man’s natural goodness, God cannot be “transcendent” in the classical sense. As a particular among others, his actions have the flavor of an immanent (albeit supreme) cosmic power: hence monergism, double predestination, etc.

  34. CCK,

    I think this is, for the most part, right. I’m not sure about 7 and 8. Perhaps you can clarify what you mean by those two points and how they’re connected with the preceding 5-6. I do think you’re on the right track.

    I should apologize to you and to the other commenters here for lack of participation on my part. I’ve been very busy with thesis work and likely won’t have too much time between now and May. Afterwards, however, I do plan on writing a follow-up post to the current one as well as involve myself more in the discussion.

  35. Josh,

    Thanks for the response. Being pressed for time I packed a lot into 7 and 8, which understandably were not very clear. Here’s what I mean:

    7.1. Natural goodness is a goodness belonging to one intrinsically, not assigned extrinsically.
    7.2. Since God’s goodness is underived, God’s goodness belongs to him intrinsically.
    7.3. Therefore God is naturally good.
    7.4. If any creature is to be naturally good, then that goodness must either be (i) underived or (ii) derived and assigned extrinsically. (from 6)
    7.5-(i). But no goodness in any creature can be underived. (from 3)
    7.5-(ii). But neither can natural goodness be assigned extrinsically. (from 7.1)
    7.6. Therefore no creature is naturally good.
    7.7. If man, a creature, is not naturally good, he is either naturally neutral or naturally depraved.
    7.8. All men sin by nature, and sin is not neutral.
    7.9. Therefore man is naturally depraved.

    What I’m getting at is that the classical realist position leaves room for goodness to be both derived *and* natural, whereas on the nominalist view the categories of “derived” and “extrinsic” necessarily collapse into one, because there is no sense of natural participation in the universal Good. I realize the reformers would hold that man and creation *were* naturally good before the fall, but I have trouble seeing how this is allowed by the metaphysics.

    Point 8 probably doesn’t belong in the list as it needs to be expanded upon, but my thinking was that all this results in a zero-sum view of creation: To claim a higher view of man’s nature is in effect to reduce the unique claims of God, because both God and man exist on the same plane insofar as the goodness of each is always particular (God’s is just immensely greater in magnitude). If God’s nature can be pitted against man’s nature, such that to raise the latter is to lower (or at least offend) the former, then God can hardly be said to transcend creation in the fullest sense. His nature is a discrete particular among all the others. The sovereignty he wields, then, follows from this condition. There is no room for the nominalist God to enlist men to cooperate freely through participation in his universal, uncreated Good. Instead everything must be assigned extrinsically, and therefore there is no self-moving of the will in man, even in the qualified sense that the realist affirms (wherein God is still the ultimate first mover). And his providence, then, takes on a very different character.

  36. CCK,

    Thanks, that clarifies things. I don’t think the Nominalist would accept 7.1, since nothing belongs ‘intrinsically’ to something in a way that can be known by us. Rather, everything would be reduced to extrinsic denomination in a radically voluntarist fashion. Nature, then, is not really about what belongs to something intrinsically, but is attributed to a thing based on particular observations not necessarily corresponding to a deeper reality. To speak of natures as something real is already to have violated certain nominalist principles.

    With regard to point 8, I think your conclusion is right regarding a zero-sum view of created and uncreated freedom. I’m hoping to delve more into this in my next post where I rely on Pinckaers who argues that the difference between someone like Thomas or Augustine and Ockham is a view of freedom as characterized primarily by indifference rather than what he calls ‘excellence.’ This is tied to the deeper question of the reality of habits (virtue and vice) in relation to particular and concrete acts. The loss of habits entails the loss of virtue, which makes obedience or law-keeping a matter of obeying particular acts (checking off a check-list, as it were), rather than forming particular habits to become a certain type of person (i.e., a virtuous person, attaining to the freedom of excellence—those who keep ‘the perfect law of liberty,’ as James puts it). With the change in view of freedom, God’s Law can only represent something oppressive rather than something liberating, something that must be done away with in toto by means of the Gospel. Combine this with Luther’s view of God as the Deus absconditus and you’ve got a formula for a God who is not only shrouded in darkness, but terrifying in his obscurity.

    I’m hoping to expand on this more in a few months, but I hope that much is helpful…

  37. CCK,
    You’ve concisely set forth all the random, jumbled, disorganized thoughts I’ve had about Nominalism and its effects on Protestantism. I think you’re spot on.

    Joshua Lim,
    I look forward to the continuation of this topic after your thesis. Prayers extended to you in this time of academic and no doubt spiritual toil.

    St. Maximos Confessor, pray for us!

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