Was John Calvin a Nominalist?

Was John Calvin a Nominalist or a Realist? Does this question even have meaning? What were the primary influences of this theology?

Last year (or was it earlier this year?) I published a three-part series addressing these questions and exploring the nominalist roots of John Calvin’s theology. Here are the links to my articles:

The ‘Christian Perspective’

From my article ‘The Abstraction of God and the Culture Wars (Nominalism 7)

“Often the Christian perspective on culture comes to amount to little more than colonizing isolated issues, which are assessed in terms of a divine will that has already been abstracted from any larger sense of teleological and ontological order. Failure to recognize an inner-logic within the world (including human nature) often leaves evangelical spokespersons unable to point to the normativity of Christian moral order, or the fittingness of God’s commands within any scheme larger than, and antecedent to, mere will. A result of this functional nominalism is that Christian contributions to the public discourse can become largely unintelligible to those in different ideological communities. Worse still, such unintelligibility is seen to be inevitable and unavoidable, thus disincentivizing Christians from exploring new and creative ways to communicate.”

Keep reading

2016 and the Triumph of Nominalism

if liberty really does require that questions of ultimate meaning be relativized, as our Supreme Court has claimed, then all that is left for public conversation is to see who can yell the loudest.

if liberty really does require that questions of ultimate meaning be relativized, as our Supreme Court has claimed, then all that is left for public conversation is to see who can yell the loudest.

As the tumultuous year of 2016 draws to a close, new political forces, impulses and ideologies dominate American public space and demand to be taken seriously. From the surprising groundswell of support for socialism that we saw in the Democratic primary to the political potency of social media in the Presidential election, it is clear that American politics is entering a new era where the winners and losers can no longer be easily quantified according by familiar canons.

However, one force that has been all but overlooked this year, but which remains central to understanding the emerging political scene, is the triumph of philosophical nominalism.

Continue reading

The Fittingness of Biblical Ethics

From my Colson Center article ‘The Abstraction of God and the Culture Wars‘:

In talking about sexual morality, it is typical to find pastors, Christian spokespersons and lay people alike, operating as if there can never be any question of a right-ordered nature that precedes and animates God’s commands: we simply need to know what the rules are and to keep them.

Under such a scheme, all the ordering of our world is deliberate ordering and creation becomes radically contingent. It thus becomes difficult to speak of certain sexual patterns as being “rightly ordered” or “fitting” in any sense more general than, or prior to, God’s pedestrian commands.

Indeed, it is easy to slip into assuming that for God to be truly free and all-powerful, the categories by which our moral and material lives are ordered must be wholly the result of God’s disposing will and not rooted in structures antecedent to His commands, such as the fixities of His nature that find expression in the inherent patterns embedded in creation’s design.

Among evangelicals from legalistic backgrounds, this functional nominalism often finds expression in the notion that the only objective criteria for making decisions is sin-avoidance. In areas where the category of sin does not apply, the only criteria to influence our decisions is personal subjective choice. There are thus no categories with which to talk meaningfully about the telos of a thing, or the internal logic of nature’s ordering, independent of moral questions about right and wrong.

This type of abstraction from teleology turns creation into a playground for us to do with as we like provided we do not sin, while the criteria for determining what counts as sin is truncated to specific divine commands interpreted independently from the teleological-directedness of how creation is. (The recent flare-up in Moscow Idaho’s food debates hinge on this very problem, as do some of the modern music myths that have taken the church captive in recent years.)

Read more

Colson Center Series on Nominalism

I’ve been publishing some articles with the Colson Centre dealing with the debates between the medieval nominalists and realists, looking at the relevance these debates have for issues in contemporary culture.

Throughout this series I hope to show that these seemingly archaic philosophical distinctions are actually of profound practical significance for how we understand our world today, in everything from sex to food. To read these articles, click on the following links:

Also see my series on Nominalism and John Calvin:

Realism and Moral Communication

From ‘Gay Marriage and Creational Realism‘ (part 5 in my 6 part series on nominalism vs. realism)

For the nominalist, in order for God to be truly free and all-powerful, the categories by which our moral and material lives are ordered must be the result of God’s disposing will and not rooted in structures antecedent to His will (i.e., the fixities of God’s nature or the inherent patterns of creation). The nominalist will thus find it difficult to speak of things being “fitting” or “rightly ordered” in any sense more general than, or prior to, God’s pedestrian commands….

Unfortunately, the impasse of communication that persists in the “gay marriage” debate has left some Christian thinkers suspecting that genuine dialogue with unbelievers about the meaning of marriage is impossible. The thinking tends to run something like this: if someone doesn’t share our Christian worldview, there isn’t much we can appeal to when defending traditional marriage. Moreover, why would it even make sense for the other side to listen to us given that they don’t share the worldview that gives rise to our understanding of marriage in the first place?…

If the Christian understanding of marriage arises from the raw command of an omnipotent God arbitrarily constituting the world in a certain way that might just of easily have been otherwise, then I agree that there is little we can say about the moral constitution of the world to those who do not share our theocentric worldview. On the other hand, if we are realists then we believe that God’s commands about sexual ethics flow out of the teleological directedness intrinsic to creation itself. Under the realist scheme of things, it becomes possible to appeal to unbelievers on the basis of that ordering without needing to invoke explicitly Biblical arguments.

Continue reading

The Abstraction of God and the Culture Wars (Nominalism 7)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

Last week I attended an event at the classical Christian school my son attends where I had the opportunity to watch two girls debate the source of morality. They both did a remarkable job, with one student arguing that God’s commands are the ultimate source of moral values, while the other student took the position that God’s nature is the ultimate source of moral values.

The debate harked back to the famous question that Plato recorded Socrates’ asking his interlocutor Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” This is a question we have also visited a number of times in this ongoing series on realism and nominalism. Throughout this present series I have been suggesting that neither the goodness of an action nor the goodness of God’s commands can be related to each other as efficient cause and effect, but that both are themselves effects of a prior cause: God’s absolutely perfect nature. I have attempted to show that this seemingly detached academic question actually has enormous practical significance in how we view the world around us and our obligations to each other and to God.

In this post I intend to wrap up many of the themes we have explored so far in our series, and conclude with making some observations about the ramifications these questions have for our involvement in the, so called, ‘culture wars.’

Is the World Good?

Many Christians—Protestant evangelicals, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox alike—have imbibed various forms of nominalism, theological voluntarism and divine command theory which have oriented them to perceive the world as essentially a collection of disconnected particulars but with no intrinsic teleology integral to, and discoverable within, the created order. Instead, order is seen to be imposed extrinsically through mere fiat by the raw injunctions of God. But moral order that is imposed on creation is not order at all, but isolated commands that might just have easily been otherwise. According to this more nominalist understanding of the world (which again, is often more implicit than explicit), while creation may not be evil, it is without inherent meaning and therefore not fully ‘good’ in the most complete sense. I have suggested that this nominalist turn often emerges when teleology is defined externally by God’s will, with no reference to the internal nature of things.

The Given-ness of Creational Order

In Reformed circles especially, the notion of God’s will flowing out of, and conforming to, a teleology intrinsic to the world’s design, is often treated as an imposition to God’s total freedom or as undermining the importance of special revelation. Moral order is thus seen to be imposed on creation externally without having an organic relationship to how creation is by virtue of its design. Resistance to what Oliver O’Donovan has termed “the linking of moral obligation to the natural generic-teleological order” leaves order eclipsed by law, so that the moral order we are bound to affirm is seen as arising externally through the imposition of “the Christian perspective” onto the otherwise formless raw material of the universe.

The Fittingness of Biblical Ethics

In talking about sexual morality, it is typical to find pastors, Christian spokespersons and lay people alike, operating as if there can never be any question of a right-ordered nature that precedes and animates God’s commands: we simply need to know what the rules are and to keep them.

Under such a scheme, all the ordering of our world is deliberate ordering and creation becomes radically contingent. It thus becomes difficult to speak of certain sexual patterns as being “rightly ordered” or “fitting” in any sense more general than, or prior to, God’s pedestrian commands.

Indeed, it is easy to slip into assuming that for God to be truly free and all-powerful, the categories by which our moral and material lives are ordered must be wholly the result of God’s disposing will and not rooted in structures antecedent to His commands, such as the fixities of His nature that find expression in the inherent patterns embedded in creation’s design.

The Playground Mentality

Among evangelicals from legalistic backgrounds, this functional nominalism often finds expression in the notion that the only objective criteria for making decisions is sin-avoidance. In areas where the category of sin does not apply, the only criteria to influence our decisions is personal subjective choice. There are thus no categories with which to talk meaningfully about the telos of a thing, or the internal logic of nature’s ordering, independent to moral questions about right and wrong.

This type of abstraction from teleology turns creation into a playground for us to do with as we like provided we do not sin, while the criteria for determining what counts as sin is truncated to specific divine commands interpreted independently from the teleological-directedness of how creation is. (The recent flare-up in Moscow Idaho’s food debates hinge on this very problem, as do some of the modern music myths that have taken the church captive in recent years.)

Creation and Common Grace

Creation expresses God’s nature; as such, the ordering of reality creates the context in which God’s commands can be seen as normative. Precisely because of this, we shouldn’t think that individuals or cultures without access to God’s explicit commands are completely bereft of ethical consciousness.

Though this may seem like a small point, this has profound ramifications for how we approach apologetics. For example, we should be filled with horror at the way Karl Barth (and many advocates of, so called “presuppositional apologetics” as well) taught that until an unbeliever explicitly presupposes the truth of scripture that there is no point at which we can, or ought, to try to connect with them philosophically. Barth expressed this erroneous view in The Doctrine of the Word of God, when he declared that

“Man’s capacity for God, however it may be with his humanity and personality, has really been lost. We cannot, therefore, see that at this point there comes into view a common basis of discussion for philosophical and theological anthropology, the opportunity for a common exhibition at least of the possibility of raising the question about God.”

In later 20th century thought we saw a similar error in the attack against evidentialist apologetics that became trendy for reformed theologians following Cornelius Van Til. In its worst forms, the rejection of evidentialism was often proffered on the spurious ground that one must first buy into the whole Christian package in order to make sense of anything. What is missed, or at least not given sufficient attention in this paradigm, is the fact that there are verities which believers and unbelievers share in common by virtue of our shared creation; verities that form a basis for discussion for philosophical and theological anthropology. (I have argued this point in more detail in my article ‘Gay Marriage and Creational Realism.’)

Creation and Literature

Overemphasizing the noetic effects of sin and underestimating the reality of common grace has enormous ramifications in how we approach pagan literature. When we come to a text like Homer’s Iliad, or the plays of Sophocles, is our knee-jerk instinct to assume these texts have nothing valuable to teach us regarding human nature and God’s world? If so, we will conceive our task primarily to unearth worldview deficiencies in these writers: to attack, criticize and condemn.

But if, on the other hand, we recognize that the ordering of reality has left the imprint of a divine grammar that even pagans cannot help but recognize, then we will come at these texts expecting to find additional confirmation of the inherent logic of creation – a logic which not even human sin can fully eradicate. Once again, there is a structural order to creation that is larger than, and prior to, God’s pedestrian commands.

Christian Order and Public Dialogue

While the realist understanding articulated by Alister McGrath when he declared that “God’s nature is somehow expressed and embodied in the ordering of the world,” may be recognized as a theological truth, in practice we often fail to see this as providing a coherent basis for talking objectively about moral order with unbelieving communities. A practical result of this is that communication between Christians and non-Christians is brought into atrophy, since the Christian is neither able to make appeals to creation nor to contextualize the moral law in terms of natural teleology.

Under these erroneous ways of thinking, the Christian perspective on culture comes to amount to little more than colonizing isolated “issues”, which are assessed in terms of a divine will that has already been abstracted from any larger sense of teleological and ontological order. Failure to recognize an inner-logic within the world (including human nature) leaves evangelical spokespersons unable to point to the normativity of Christian moral order, or the fittingness of God’s commands within any scheme larger than, and antecedent to, mere will. A result of this functional nominalism is that Christian contributions to the public discourse can become largely unintelligible to those in different ideological communities. Worse still, such unintelligibility is seen to be inevitable and unavoidable, thus disincentivizing Christians from exploring new and creative ways to communicate.

We saw this repeatedly in the 2013 debates about gay marriage, as Christian pastors, lay people and public figures alike tended to shrink from appeals to the intrinsic telos and purposive direction in creation, as if the traditional understanding of marriage arose merely from the raw command of an omnipotent God arbitrarily constituting the world in a certain way that might just of easily have been otherwise. Any sense of teleology becomes posterior to the particularities of the revealed moral law rather than prior. What is lost is the notion, articulated so well by Oliver O’Donovan, that “The way the universe is determines how man ought to behave himself in it…”

Voluntarism and the Spiritually Neutral Universe

Once the world is bereft of intrinsic ordering, the category of divine will becomes a mechanism for reinvesting the world with moral order. Under such a scheme, the will of God comes to have an extrinsic relationship to the world, which is rendered passive, neutral and dead (read: mechanical) in itself. It is through pious choices that meaning is brought to bear on the raw material of the world. But this means that order is ultimately derived voluntaristically rather than being inherent to creation by virtue of its original design.

In the mid to late twentieth-century there was a significant rejection of a spiritually neutral conception of creation through the recapitulation of a Kuyperian understanding of ‘worldview.’ Yet without a fully sacramental understanding of integration, this emphasis on worldview often amounts to little more than the imposition of ‘the Christian perspective’ on what is still conceived as the neutral and formless raw material of the world. Under such a scheme, in order for a topic of study or an area of life to fall under ‘the Christian perspective’, we must place something alien onto it rather than uncover the divine order already present.

In education this mentality often manifests itself in an instrumentalizing of the liberal arts, so that subjects of study are implicitly conceived to be ‘neutral’ in themselves and only become Christian to the degree that they foster pious choices or can be rendered useful in the attainment of pragmatic ends outside themselves. (See my article ‘More than Schooling: The Perils of Pragmatism in Christian Attitudes Toward the Liberal Arts.’)

Neutrality and the Problem of the Culture Wars

The spiritually neutral conception of the universe bequeathed to us by theological voluntarism is at the heart of the confusion Christians face when engaging in the, so called “culture wars.”

In 2002, David Schindler published an essay in Pro Ecclesia titled “Religion and Secularity in a Culture of Abstraction: On the Integrity of Space, Time, Matter and Motion.” In this outstanding essay Schindler pointed out that much of America’s “culture wars” hinge on precisely this view of nature as spiritually neutral in its primary condition. Both the Christian right and liberal secularism see the relation between God and the saeculum, or between the world and the cosmos, as an extrinsic relation, an addition to what nature already is in its first condition. The disagreement that constitutes the, so called, “culture wars” is simply whether such a relation is good or bad. What is almost entirely overlooked is the way both polarities hinge on what Schindler identified as “a secularity that has been given its original meaning in abstraction from God already [which] in principle conceives any relation to God as an arbitrary addition to itself.”

Schindler observed that the partitioning of the Creator from the world created the conceptual space for secularism to arise within the bosom of the church. Within Christian thought there emerged an implicitly nominalist orientation which shared in common with secularism “an abstraction from God in one’s original understanding of the cosmos.” Such an abstraction creates erroneous dichotomies “between will and intelligence and between God and the world—or between the monotheistic God of ‘natural’ reason and the Trinitarian God of faith—in our original understanding of the world.” There is thus “an intrinsic connection between a religion originally reduced by its dualistic reading of the relation between God and the secular and a secularity that is thereby itself originally reduced by virtue of the same dualism.” In this regard “religion and secularism in American, in their original ‘logic,’ grow from the same soil.” Schindler continued:

“This original secularizing’…remains hidden and appears harmless so long as a relation to God continues to be—arbitrarily—added to the secular, an addition which has been readily forthcoming throughout most of America’s history….

“However significant their differences in assessing our current cultural situation—and these differences are significant—religionists and secularists alike begin by accepting, albeit from different directions and however tacitly and unwittingly, the separation, or extrinsic relation, between God and the saeculum—the world or cosmos—that is a hallmark of American religion’s (Protestant and Catholic) original, and dominant, self-understanding. …what is most peculiar about America is the way in which its religion—and its liberal tradition—have from the beginning dissociated questions of will and morality from questions of intelligence and cosmic-ontological order; the way in which, accordingly, America’s moralized-voluntarized religion has persisted coincident with a secularized cosmic-intelligent order….

“Thus, regarding Americans’ proclivity for relating their secular or ‘worldly’ lives to God: the giving away of the orders of space and time and matter and motion to which I refer does not mean that Christians do not still see these realities as subject to a proper use: see them, that is, as instruments in and through which the will of God is to be faithfully executed. The relevant point, rather, is that his appeal to a (putative) moral or faithful use of things, in its conventional understanding, typically begs the set of questions we mean to be raising. It presupposes and reinforces just the voluntaristic piety we are insisting is the nub of the issue. A cosmos originally understood as “neutral” or “dead” stuff, hence as essentially blind and dumb until appropriated as an instrument of moral or pious choices, is a cosmos that is originally indifferent to God. And such a cosmos itself already and as a matter of principle manoeuvres piety—the pious use of the cosmos—into what now becomes mostly a moralistic—because precisely arbitrary—imposition on the cosmos. The point, in short, is that an appeal to the moral or pious use of the world, as conventionally understood in America, expresses just the defective conception of both holiness and secularity that… lies at the root of current difficulties….

Further Reading

Moral Order, and Wisdom (Nominalism 6)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.


Could God Have Been Incarnated As a Donkey?

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, Saint John declared in the opening of his Gospel. So far so good, but have you ever wondered if the Word could have become a donkey and dwelt among us? Or could the Word have been incarnate as a man and as a donkey at the same time?

This question is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In Stanley Grenz’s book The Named God and the Question of Being: A Trinitarian Theo-ontology, Grenz tells how the philosopher William of Ockham (1288-1347) declared that God might have come to earth an ox or donkey. Other medieval philosophers disagreed with Ockham, and the matter became one of intense dispute. According to accounts left to us by Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), by the fifteenth-century scholastic theologians had moved on to trying to work out more subtle details such as whether God could have been nailed on the cross and sacrificed for our sins if he had been incarnated as a donkey.

This wasn’t just an abstract question for medieval philosophers with too much time on their hands. Rather, it was a question that penetrated to the heart of an entire way of understanding the world and God’s relation to it. For William of Ockham, it was important to emphasize that God has no attributes apart from His freedom to be free from all attributes. Concerned—not without some warrant—that the dominant scholasticism of his day was domesticating God, turning Him into a civilized Aristotelian, Ockham asserted that God’s saving will-acts must be unconditioned by any factors outside the Divine fiat, including the past history of God’s works. Indeed, Ockham insisted that God could even produce in human beings knowledge of a non-existent past if He wanted to, although he never went as far as some of his contemporaries (particularly John of Mirecourt, Gregory of Rimini, and Pierre d’Ailly) in suggesting that God could actually undo the past.

Ockham hoped to combat stagnant views of God’s freedom, yet as Timothy Nonne pointed out in his article on Ockham in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, “in several texts in his Sentences commentaries, Ockham allows that God could command the opposite of practically any act currently contained under his ordered power. Ockham’s reasoning on such occasions is that God cannot be disallowed from doing what seems to involve no contradiction.”

Is Reality Radically Contingent?

What was lost within the framework of Ockhamist nominalism was any sense of a moral order rooted in the teleological directedness of creation. The raw command of God—unconditioned by any factors outside itself—becomes the only mechanism by which we can assert a static moral order, however arbitrary that order might ultimately be.

This understanding doesn’t exactly leave us with a random world in which anything might happen, where vices might become virtues and virtues might become vices, since Ockham made clear that once God had freely exercised the Absolute Power to create the world in a certain way, He will continue to act consistently in that way. However, this system did imply a world in which the moral and teleological order that we find in creation is radically contingent, derived only from God’s will acts. Accordingly, if God had wanted to, He could have commanded that adultery, theft and murder to be right, while He could have ordered kindness, self-sacrifice and love to be sinful.

The Normativity of God’s Nature

In the first article of this series I offered an alternative to this radically contingent view of reality. Following the realist vision articulated by Alister McGrath in his Scientific Theology: Volume 2: Reality and by Oliver O’Donovan in his Resurrection and Moral Order, I have suggested that God’s will is not the ultimate source of moral values; rather, the ultimate source of moral values is the nature of how reality is.

The obvious objection to this realist conception is that it seems to push God to the margins by giving us a standard more ultimate than God Himself. This objection fails when we recognize that God’s own eternal character is the source from which this rational ecosystem derives its meaning and legitimacy. Thus, when we recognize that falsehood is disordered according to the nature and final end of speech, this is because reality has its source in a God whose very nature is truth itself (John 14:6). The reason God could not have made adultery virtuous is because God’s will, like reality itself, is rooted in the unchanging constants of His Holy character.

If we were to express the problem in terms of the classic Euthyphro dilemma, we could say that it is false that an action is good purely because God wills it, while it is also false that God wills an action because it is good, at least where goodness is conceived as something external to God himself. This is because neither the goodness of an action nor the will of God are related to each other as efficient cause and effect: rather both are effects of the same common cause: God’s own nature. John Frame articulated this in his essay ‘Euthyphro, Hume, and the Biblical God’:

“God’s nature is righteous and therefore normative. God loves goodness because he is good, and therefore he commands goodness in his revelation to man. Therefore in one sense, God loves the good because it is good; the concept is not arbitrary. Yet he does not need to look outside himself for a standard of goodness. That standard is his own character….

Because God’s commands are supremely normative, the self-expression of God’s supremely normative nature, they entail normative conclusions….

Some commands in Scripture could have been otherwise; indeed, some are changed in the history of redemption, such as the command to bring animal sacrifices to the Lord. But the fundamental requirements of the law (what the Westminster Standards call ‘the moral law’) are as unchangeable as God Himself.”


Wisdom and the Is-ness of Creation

In the Apocryphal text The Wisdom of Solomon we read that “the whole creation in its kind was fashioned again from above to serve Your commands…” (19:6). Think about that for a minute: all of creation serves God’s commands. Whatever else this may mean, it points to a basic congruence between God’s commands and how creation is.

Moral order flows out of the is-ness of creation, not the arbitrary command of God. This order of creation, in turn, is rooted in the is-ness of God’s eternal character which remains prior to, and the basis of, God’s will-acts. Since creation is an expression of God’s nature, there is a natural ordering to reality that we can observe and make appeals to. The world is an ecosystem of teleological and moral order, and that order is deeper than merely the sub-total of all God’s commands in the aggregate.

Only with this understanding is it possible to fully appreciate the structural dimensions of sin. Sin is not simply an abandonment of isolated commandments; rather, sin as disorder; a turning away from the intrinsic telos of our human nature.

Of course, one has to be careful when making appeals to the natural ordering of reality. Because we are fallen, our reason and our senses are not always ordered towards their true ends. God’s revelation is indispensable in our moral reasoning, and the danger of a natural law approach is that one can begin to think that Biblical revelation is irrelevant or an optional add-on. But in fact, it is only through scripture that we know that reality is ordered towards the Trinitarian God in the first place, and it is through scripture that we are given full insight on the ends towards which the world is ordered.

Precisely because of this, the task to those who would grow wise is to meditate on God’s commands and discern the order to them, rather than just memorizing lists of rules. Indeed, throughout the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, we are told that the wise man is one who meditates on God’s laws long enough to discern their internal logic, the patterns by which reality is ordered, the principles which undergird and interconnect God’s various commands. This is a central precondition to being able to fully delight in God’s laws (Ps. 1:2; 119:97) since without this deeper understanding we are unable to fully appreciate the fittingness of God’s laws within the context of creational order.

Getting God’s Commandments under the Skin

An analogy should make my meaning clear. When I was doing my undergraduate studies in music, I had a professor who could sit down at the piano and improvise in the style of any composer we might name. My classmates and I would shout “play Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary [or some other familiar tune] in the style of Bach” and he would proceed do it without even thinking. After a minute or two, we would say “switch to a Beethoven style” and he would effortlessly switch to sounding like Beethoven. We could continue through all the composers and each time he would improvise flawlessly in the appropriate style. There were two things that made this so amazing. The first was that this professor had never played these tunes before in that style: he was completely making it up on the spot. The second amazing thing was that he actually sounded just like the composer whose style he was imitating. How was he able to do this? The answer is simple: by becoming so thoroughly familiar with each composer’s music, he could sit down at the piano and almost ‘become’ them.

If we consider how a person develops this skill, it provides an analogy for how wisdom works. Suppose my goal is to be able to sit down at the piano and “think” like Chopin, to be able to take contemporary songs and improvise on them in Chopin’s style like my professor did. In order to reach this goal, I need to do more than simply memorize all of Chopin’s works, although that would certainly be a start. I would also need to meditate on Chopin’s works, to analyse the patterns within them, to listen to them constantly, to continually practice adapting Chopin’s style to new melodic contexts. If I did that long enough, eventually I would start to notice the internal grammar by which Chopin organized his musical ideas. By being cognisant in Chopin’s unique musical logic, I could then apply it to new contexts and take songs on the radio and arrange them—perhaps without even thinking—to sound like Chopin.

In a similar way, to grow in wisdom involves more than just memorizing raw commandments: we need to meditate on God’s commandments long enough to notice their internal grammar, their fittingness for this world, the principles that undergird and interconnect the vast array of commandments. We must allow God’s commandments to get “under our skin”, so to speak, in a way that can only be achieved through the application of those commandments in our lives (i.e., holy living). Only in such a way are we fully equipped to apply God-like thinking to new situations not directly covered by explicit commandments, even as my professor could take the style of Bach and apply it to new situations never touched upon by Bach himself.

When the author of Psalm 119 declares that God’s commandments have made him wiser than his enemies, and that by making God’s testimonies His meditations he has gained more understanding than all his teachers (119: 98-99), he means more than simply that he could win a game of trivial pursuit about God’s laws. He means that God’s laws have become part of his whole system of thought so that he begins to see the world through the lens of God’s commands. He has hidden God’s word in his heart (Psalm 119:11) like the musician in my example took Chopin’s music into his heart.

How to be a True Theologian

To be a theologian one must give extended loving reflection to God’s laws, like a musician aiming to know a certain composer’s music inside and out. But to achieve that type of depth of knowledge, the theologian must make God’s laws part of himself on every level: head, heart, hands and body. Hence, a true theologian must also be a mystic. The true theologian is the man whose life is devoted to contemplation, prayer and ascetic disciplines like fasting, almsgiving, prayer vigils and sacrificial love. In short, the true theologian is one whose life is devoted so completely to loving the Lord that the workings of his intellect proceed out of an entire life of spiritual devotion. That is why Saint Thomas Aquinas’s ‘16 Precepts for Acquiring Knowledge’  are almost entirely concerned with practical external matters, and only secondarily with what we might think of us intellectual concerns.

One of the benefits of prayerfully meditating on God’s commands within the context of a life of obedience, is that we begin to see the fittingness of His laws instead of viewing them as arbitrary impositions on a neutral world understood separately from the Trinitarian God revealed in Jesus Christ. We begin to appreciate how God’s laws are the natural correlates to the is-ness of Christian. As a consequence, we are better able to take what the Bible says in one area, and apply the principles to other areas not directly addressed in scripture. This is because we are no longer simply looking at raw commands, but appreciating the moral order reflected in God’s commandments. This is essentially the task of wisdom as it has been practiced by saints and Christian mystics throughout history.

Aquinas argued that there is a reciprocal relationship between knowing and loving. If you really love someone you want to know them, but the only way to really know someone is to love them. In this regard, it is no coincidence that scripture describes the nuptial union between husband and wife in terms of “knowing.” Similarly, to truly know God, one must love Him – not in the sentimental feeling-based way that we have come to associate with the word ‘love’, but the type of love expressed in doing what God has commanded.

To summarize, the true theologian is a student of how reality is, and the eternal patterns disclosed in the teleological and moral order of creation. However, in order to truly discern these patterns, the theologian must allow God’s commandments to soak into every fiber of his being through living out the reciprocal relationship that exists between Being, Loving, Knowing and Doing.

Further Reading

Gay Marriage and Creational Realism (Nominalism 5)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

Do things in our world have an inherent purpose according to their nature, or is purpose purely the function of external will?

Do universals have a real existence independent of human perception, or is the world simply a jumble of particulars that achieve significance only as human beings arbitrarily define the raw materials of the world?

Did God create the world with built-in patterns that are consonant with His character, or is God’s ordering of the world purely nominal, deliberate and arbitrary?

These are some of the questions I have been exploring in my ongoing series of articles on nominalism. In these articles I have tried to show that an extreme nominalist approach to the world expels inherent teleology and purpose from the universe, relocating these categories in consciousness.

Throughout my articles I have tried to draw attention to some ways that nominalism has adversely influenced Christian thinking throughout the ages, including how we conceive God’s omnipotence and how we think about sex and Christian approaches to food.

For the nominalist, in order for God to be truly free and all-powerful, the categories by which our moral and material lives are ordered must be the result of God’s disposing will and not rooted in structures antecedent to His will (i.e., the fixities of God’s nature or the inherent patterns of creation). The nominalist will thus find it difficult to speak of things being “fitting” or “rightly ordered” in any sense more general than, or prior to, God’s pedestrian commands. By contrast, within the realist model that I have been defending, God’s commands flow out of the teleological directedness intrinsic to creation itself.

The present article seeks to add to this discussion by exploring some of the ways that Christian approaches to the ‘gay marriage’ have been tinctured by subtle nominalist assumptions.

Secular Marital Nominalism

In the ‘gay marriage’ debate it isn’t hard to see a type of secular nominalism at work in the thinking of those who wish to change the definition of marriage. In my article “The Meaning of Marriage (Part 3)” I demonstrated that much of the case for same-sex marriage rests on asserting that the meaning of marriage is purely arbitrary and therefore infinitely malleable by human will. On such a view, our most vital connections are products of the state’s naming activity and not something that has a realism prior to positive law.

The problems in this approach have not been hard for the Christian community to grasp and articulate. What is harder for Christians to detect, however, is the way the church has unconsciously adopted some of these same presuppositions, appropriating to their own thinking a more subtle type of marital nominalism.

The Realism of Marriages Outside the Church

One example of this is how Christians sometimes talk about the relationship between marriage and religion. It is often asserted that the traditional definition of marriage is religiously-derived; therefore, to insist that the state preserve the integrity of this definition is to ask the state to impose a religious orientation onto society.

From a Biblical perspective, marriage is a creation ordinance that precedes and exceeds the church even as it precedes and exceeds the state. The telos of marriage is rooted in the creation of the world and therefore it is not something that religions have a monopoly on, just as religions do not have a monopoly on the experience of the earth’s gravitational pull.

When our Blessed Lord was asked about marriage in Matthew 19:4-5, we are told that “He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” Jesus is recognizing a reality that is older than both the church and the state because it goes back to the earliest days of creation. It is an institution rooted in nature, in the way the world simply is according to God’s design. This means that when either civil society or the church recognizes marriage, they are recognizing something that precedes and exceeds itself. (I have developed this point further in my article ‘‘Why Gay Marriage is a Public Threat (part 1).’)

Many Christians will attempt to separate ecclesiastical marriage from civil marriage, to insulate what we as Christians mean by marriage from the contrivances of ungodly governments. This is attractive, since it means that as the state tampers with the meaning of civil marriage it is not touching the same reality that the Church deals with when it treats marriage as a sacrament. In its most extreme form, this notion finds expression in the idea that marriages outside the church are not real marriages at all. This myth persists in Mexico where couples will have an inexpensive civil wedding and then save up to later have an expensive church wedding; yet before the church wedding has a chance to occur, the man will often leave his wife on the grounds that “it was never a true marriage to begin with.”

Some pastors have similar ideas. A pastor recently said to me on Facebook, “until they are married in the Church, the two of them are living together, and having sex, while not married.” Or as Dr. David Dunn put it in a 2011 Huffington Post article, “Strictly speaking, our theology does not recognize the legitimacy of such marriages [marriages conducted outside the church].”

The majority of Christian thinkers do not go so far as to suggest that marriages initiated in a non-religious ceremony are not real marriages at all (though, of course, such marriage may be shorn of their sacramental significance). However, a surprising number of Christians do believe that there is little point of contact between religious and civil marriages, as if the two regulate non-overlapping magisteria. On this view, whatever a Christian might have to say about marriage is of little to no relevance to the debates raging about civil marriage because they are talking about different realities in completely different spheres.

The influence of nominalism should be easy to detect in this way of thinking. If we have been influenced (perhaps unconsciously) by a functional nominalism, then the objective meaning of marriage will be radically contingent on the consciousness of the participants. In such a scheme, it crucially matters whether a couple thinks of their marriage in religious or secular terms.

If we are realists, however, then we must recognize that believers and unbelievers share a common creation in which certain things and events (not least the event of marriage) possess an intrinsic telos and purposive direction to it. The reality, purpose and telos of marriage does not cease to exist merely because a couple did not get married in a church, though, of course, the couple may be missing out on some of the spiritual and sacramental dimensions of marriage. The reality of marriage exists independent to what two people happen to think about it. (I discuss this in more detail in my article ‘Can Ecclesiastical Marriage Be Separated From Civil Marriage?’ and ‘Why Gay Marriage is a Public Threat (part 1)’.

Recognizing that believers and unbelievers inhabit a common creation offers some hope of communication across what might otherwise seem to be a chasm of mutual incomprehension. But this will take some explaining.

Nominalism and the Problem of Communication

Unfortunately, the impasse of communication that persists in the ‘gay marriage’ debate has left some Christian thinkers suspecting that genuine dialogue with unbelievers about the meaning of marriage is impossible. The thinking tends to run something like this: if someone doesn’t share our Christian worldview, there isn’t much we can appeal to when defending traditional marriage. Moreover, why would it even make sense for the other side to listen to us given that they don’t share the worldview that gives rise to our understanding of marriage in the first place?

Peter Leithart reflected this attitude in his post earlier this year, ‘Gay Marriage and Christian Imagination.’ Musing on a debate that took place between Douglas Wilson and Andrew Sullivan, Leithart suggested that we need “a cultural revolution” before our arguments for traditional marriage can even to be heard. This is because appeals to “liberal polity…leaves biblically-grounded Christians with little to say.” All we can do is fall back on “The Bible says” and make “theologically rich, biblically founded arguments against gay marriage” that will probably not “make any sense to the public at large” but may have an aesthetic pull.

Although numerous thinkers, including myself, have shown that it is possible for Christian to make non-religious arguments to show how gay marriage is a public threat (see here and here and here), Leithart concedes that “it’s a hard case to make” that “gay marriage has harmed society.” In the end, Leithart wonders if we are trapped in our own interpretive communities unable to truly communicate with those outside: “Perhaps we have entered a phase in which God has closed ears, so that whatever we say sounds like so much gibberish….Because the only arguments we have are theological ones, and only people whose imaginations are formed by Scripture will find them cogent.”

The problem here is that Leithart’s approach only works if one begins by divorcing what we know of marriage from the order inherent in creation. If the Christian understanding of marriage arises from the raw command of an omnipotent God arbitrarily constituting the world in a certain way that might just of easily have been otherwise, then I agree that there is little we can say about the moral constitution of the world to those who do not share our theocentric worldview. On the other hand, if we are realists then we believe that God’s commands about sexual ethics flow out of the teleological directedness intrinsic to creation itself (a point I have developed in more detail in my article ‘Sex and the Ockhamist Revolution.’) Under the realist scheme of things, it becomes possible to appeal to unbelievers on the basis of that ordering without needing to invoke explicitly Biblical arguments.

This is exactly the line that Girgis, Anderson and George have taken in their book What is Marriage? These authors have received push-back from the Christian community for being content to construct purely secular and even non-moral arguments. However, the irony is that we actually have good Biblical reasons for making non-biblical arguments. It is clear from Genesis that believers and unbelievers alike share a common world, a common rationality and a common human nature. This remains constant even if an unbeliever’s worldview prevents him from given a consistent account of these things, just as gravity remains constant even for those whose worldview cannot give a coherent explanation for gravitation.

Christians generally understand this principle in other areas. For example, in mathematics we generally understand that even if the worldview of an unbeliever precludes him from being able to give a consistent account of mathematics, a Christian mathematician can still prove mathematical truths to the unbeliever on the basis of a shared creation without having to explicitly invoke the Bible. Now a Christian mathematician may want to invoke scripture for evangelistic purposes, or he may want to use reason to demonstrate that an atheistic worldview cannot consistently explain mathematics, but this is not strictly necessary before a believer and unbeliever can communicate meaningfully about numbers.

Similarly, in talking about the meaning of marriage it is possible to appeal to the realities of our shared creation without needing to invoke the Bible. We can point to the order of the world and the pushback that occurs when that order is flaunted. We can show that biologically, socially, psychologically, legally and historically, there are good reasons to be cautious about gay marriage, and we can make these points by appealing to creation itself. This is because unbelievers live in a world informed by moral truth just as they live in a world informed by scientific and numerical truth. When confronted with unbelievers who deny this fact and attempt to live as moral relativists, we should not shrink back from pointing to the many ways that our shared experiences in the world contradict moral relativism.

The Christian nominalist is not in the same position of being able to appeal to creation. This is because, for him, there can never be any question of a right-ordered nature that stands antecedent to, and the reason for, God’s commands: we simply need to know what the rules are and to keep them. All the ordering in our world becomes deliberate ordering, and creation becomes radically contingent. But this brings communication into atrophy, for then we can never make appeals to creation, and if someone with a different worldview disagrees with our morality, all we can do is to throw up our hands and say “Unless you accept the Bible, we really don’t have any basis to talk about this.”

(We see this same nominalist bent in numerous other areas, where Christian reluctance to appeal to the patterns of creation throws many upon the type of narrow Biblicism that erroneously equates any appeal to creation as either a concession to secular epistemology or an abandonment of scripture’s sufficiency. This error surfaces in theonomy, in certain forms of presuppositionalist apologetics, in neuthetic counselling, in Christian rejections of natural law theory, and in various modalities of Biblical worldviewism when applied to the liberal arts. Such ideas often begin by turning away from a rationality grounded in the patterns of creation and end by attempting to interpret the Bible in a void. The result is often the type of bastardized and non-historical approach to Sola Scriptura similar to what T.M. Moore addressed in his article, ‘Worldview: Biblical or Christian.

An Order Integral to Creation

Ironically, those who insist on only forming explicitly Biblical arguments against ‘gay marriage’ are the ones who have actually surrendered the high ground, for they have conceded any notion of a public order integral to creation. They have made what seems to be a concession that, from a perspective internal to creation, reality is up for debate and therefore the only leg we have to stand on is as is ecclesially mediated doctrine.

Those who have read any of Alastair Roberts writings on same-sex ‘marriage’ will recognize that I am following closely in the trial he cut earlier this year. In a response to Peter Leithart titled ‘Why Arguments Against Gay Marriage Are Usually Bad’, Roberts wrote:

My dismay at the claim that our only arguments are biblical and theological ones is due to its improper modesty. It involves a falling back from a stance upon creational order, an order established and ruled by God, an order that we all hold in common, irrespective of where we stand on such issues. In a willingness to admit our interlocutors’ claims that same-sex marriage can only be opposed on partisan and fideistic grounds, we have retreated to such an unassuming commitment, from which we are increasingly powerless to speak against their retreat from reality…. The conviction that there is an order integral to creation, an order that is public, an order that can be appealed to even in interaction with critics who deny or question the identity of its Author, is not really acted upon.

Roberts went on to point out that once we have yielded any sense of intrinsic teleology, all we are left with is a competition between wills: God says this but man says this. “Once we have surrendered claims to a natural order with a divinely established teleological directionality intrinsic to it, all we are left with is a competition between the wills of the gods and men regarding whose claims should prevail within a formless and malleable creation.” Under this framework, all we can do is to retreat from the public conversation, or else make nuisances of ourselves by trying to enter the public conversation armed with handfuls of scripture verses.

Beyond Constructivism

If the whole debate over ‘gay marriage’ did devolve into a competition between the wills of God vs. the will of man, then we should despair of trying to make our case in a way the other side can find persuasive. As Christians face the prospect of a godless world that is increasingly prepared to reconstruct reality to suit human ends, it is tempting to react by pressing a divine constructionism from the other side instead of claiming the high ground of creational order. But listen again to what Roberts has to say about this:

Unprepared to answer such constructivism by referring to and asserting a divinely established order intrinsic to the creation that resists it, they can only press a sort of divine constructivism against it….

The struggle between the Christian and secular constructivists over who has the right to sculpt the putty of reality is one between divine permission and will and human will. Such a framing of the theoretical opposition will tend to produce inattentiveness to the intrinsic ordering of creation and of social movements. Detached from the conception of created order, divine will begins to be conceived in a manner orthogonal to the creation, pressed down upon it from above, rather than operating through its channels from within. Such a conception of divine will leads almost inescapably to a philosophical neglect of deep reflection upon, and understanding of, the divinely established processes of the creation, and thus the ways in which cutting a new course for the flow of marriage might disrupt entire ecosystems of human relationality.

Its focus upon brute will imposed upon the present world will also lead those who adopt such a perspective to share same-sex marriage proponents’ dullness to the trajectories of ideological, sociological, and political development that their proposals lie upon, and to their possible destinations. As there remains little conception or inner understanding of a deep order of creation, and of how shifts in our practice of marriage might affect this, we can do little but surrender our society to the experiments of social scientists with naught but the most anaemic vision of human nature.

In the minds of our Christian brothers and sisters whose case against same-sex marriage rests solely upon divine will, if you surrender this divinely imposed will upon the creation, there is no order left to which to appeal, and so all positions become open possibilities. Our only arguments are theological, and our only hope the recovery of a Christian imagination. The all-or-nothing character of this position – either imposition of the revealed divine will upon reality or chaos of competing wills in a formless reality – hamstrings argument when that imposition of divine will is disputed.

The divine will does not just submissively knock on the doors of our reality and prove powerless when we turn it away. As long as we exist within the creation, we are besieged by God. The Christian thinker is called to press this divine advantage against all who would lamely flee from its presence. The Christian thinker should be a student of the consequences of particular actions in God’s creation and the ways in which the creation prosecutes the will of God against those who flout it. This is the sort of reasoning that the same-sex marriage debate requires from us. It is also the means by which we can draw the nerve and confidence to prevail.

Roberts is right that many godly thinkers are too quick to concur with the ungodly that marriage is merely a matter of definition. They may disagree on what that definition ought to be, but both see marriage as a function of external will imposed on a world where there are no a priori universals. By contrast, I have tried to show in this article that the Christian need not collapse the marriage debate into simply a question of whether or not to accept the Biblical definition of things, as if marriage were merely a matter of arbitrary naming.

When God proclaimed the union between a man and a woman to be good, He was not simply imposing His will onto the formless and malleable raw material of our world. Rather, the goodness of the sexually dimorphous marital union flowed from features God had built-in to the world itself (rooted, ultimately, in His own Trinitarian nature). The way the Bible orders marriage in terms of sexual complementarity is not an arbitrary law in opposition to what might otherwise be fitting for our lives as fulfilled people. Sexual dimorphism is normative because it is how we were designed to operate, and we would do well to reflect on the push-back that will occur in creation if we insist on flaunting that design.

Towards Mutual Dialogue

Adopting a realist posture towards marriage can help address the chasm of mutual incomprehensibility that currently characterizes our nation’s public discourse. For it is a perspective that allows us to appeal to creational realities that we share in common with unbelievers, so that instead of asserting that gay marriage is wrong simply because God names it to be wrong, we can show that it is actually contrary to the teleology embedded in creation itself. Since ultimately this teleology was embedded in our world by God, this can lead to an argument for a Creator, but that is not where we need to start, just as we do not need to convince an atheist to believe in God’s existence before we can teach him that five and seven make twelve. We can begin with what we have in common, and move from there to what we do not share in common.

This is the approach taken by Biblical writers, especially the blessed brother Paul, who was always keen to find areas of commonality that He could appeal to. When Paul was addressing the Greeks in Acts 17, he didn’t go up to them and say, “You know folks, your problem is that you just don’t understand the Old Testament.” But when he was writing to the Jewish believers in Galatia, that is exactly what he said. Conversely, Paul didn’t begin his epistle to the Galatians by talking about the unknown god, but tailored his message to the specific background of that audience and their background. Because of that, he was able to build bridges and navigate around potential mental roadblocks.

We should be following Paul’s example and trying to do the same in the ‘gay marriage’ debate. Because truth is “out there” in the world and not the domain of a Christian ghetto, and because God’s common grace reaches even the unregenerate, we have shared realities that we can appeal to when discussing controversial moral and political issues with unbelievers. Instead of thinking in totalizing us-versus-them categories which assume an unbridgeable chasm between believers and unbelievers, a realist orientation enables us to appeal to the intrinsic order of creation which all God’s creatures share in common.

For further reading on this subject, see Peter Escalante’s article ‘Who Are You Calling a Modernist?’ and Alastair Roberts article, ‘Why Arguments Against Gay Marriage Are Usually Bad and his follow-up peace ‘Can Arguments Against Gay Marriage Be Persaussive?’ Also read Robin’s recent series of articles on the meaning of marriage where he argued against ‘gay marriage’ based on truths that believers and unbelievers share in common. Finally, read Robin’s earlier articles in his series on nominalism.

Food and Teleology (Nominalism IV)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

The above poem is a masterful example of the way English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) was able to write poetry which sounds like the things he is describing. (This is especially true if the poem is read out loud and properly accented.). In the poem Hopkins explored how each thing behaves according the nature it was given by God. Dwelling ‘indoors’ of each mortal thing is its essence that gives the thing an identity distinguished from other things.

The notion that there is a natural ordering to the stuff of our world has been the theme of this present series of Changepoint articles on nominalism vs. realism. In a previous article I explored the implication that the debate between realism and nominalism has for our understanding of human sexuality. In this article I would like to extend the discussion into the area of food.

Nominalism and Food

Since food is something that has always interested me, I wrote a series of articles last year about the theology of healthy eating. Although I was careful to frame my discussion in terms of wisdom, cultural reformation and aesthetics, predictably I had friends who interpreted my articles as a call for culinary Phariseeism, or who thought I was saying that being unhealthy is sinful. It reminded me of another conversation I once had where I had been arguing that diatonic music best reflects the nature of the Trinitarian God, and a friend thought I was saying that listening to pentatonic music must therefore be sinful.

Those two interchanges alerted me to an important point, which is that many Christians do not even have the categories to address questions about the right-ordering of nature independent to questions of sin. Because we are legalists at heart, we are quick to reduce everything to a moral issue before we know how to think about it. However, consider a question that a friend of mine will often bring up to his students. Is it sinful to put a cow in a chicken coup? Well, no. But is wise? Is it rightly ordered? Is it respecting the nature and inherent telos of a cow? No, no and no. God did not create cows to do chicken-type things, just as He did not create chickens to do the types of things that bees do.

You see, there is a whole realm inquiry that is prior to questions of sin, namely questions about what is most fitting according to the nature of a thing. To understand the nature of a thing, we must appreciate what is the end, or telos for which it was created, and then respect that end unless it interferes with the telos of something more important.

One of the reasons why it is hard for Christians to embrace a theology of food is because our nominalist presuppositions rob us of the categories with which to meaningfully talk about the telos of a thing (whether it be an animal or a human being), independent to questions about right and wrong. Thus, the only objective criteria many Christians recognize for making decisions in the area of food is sin-avoidance, and since sin is not a category that applies to food in the New Testament era, it is assumed that the only criteria we should recognize is personal subjective choice.

However, both producers and consumers of food would benefit from a strong dose of realist metaphysics. According to the right ordering of our nature as human beings, is it more fitting to eat stuff that was grown in the ground or produced in a laboratory? According to the right ordering of a cow, is it more fitting for a farmer to feed his cows grass or recycled animal products? According to the right ordering of a chicken, is it more fitting to treat them like bees and cram tens of thousands of them together in a barn?

Deferring to Nature

Farmers who wish to respect the natural order will defer to this inbuilt ordering wherever possible. They will not treat their chickens like bees just as they will not treat their bees like chickens. As the Christian farmer Joel Salatin has put it, we must respect the chicken-ness of the chicken, the cow-ness of the cow, the pig-ness of the pig, etc. Consumers who wish to respect the natural order of the world will attempt to factor in these considerations to their purchasing choices.

None of this means we are sinning to purchase factory farmed poultry or eggs, because these considerations are on a whole different plane than question of sin. Instead, it is about exercising wisdom in respecting nature and submitting to how the bodies of humans and animals were designed to operate. However, this is nonsense for nominalists, who do not even recognize that things have distinct natures.

For the nominalist, nature becomes what it is by virtue of the categories imposed on it from without. There is therefore no intrinsic teleology to food, and if someday scientists could make beef burgers out of petroleum which taste exactly the same, that would be just as fitting as making burgers from beef. This is actually a state of affairs that Douglas Wilson longs to see as a result of the gospel advancing throughout the earth. (See my article, Jesus and Junk Food: A Response to Douglas Wilson.’) After all (thinks the nominalist) what is food other than the arrangement and re-arrangement of chemicals and organic compounds which are infinitely malleable?

Recovering Right-Ordered Patterns

Nominalism has deep affinities with the postmodern moment, in which it is increasingly assumed that the essence of our nature is the freedom to redefine ourselves, and that the only fixity of our world is its potential for endless adaptability. However, reality is not infinitely malleable but exists in fixed forms and patterns. If we do violence to those patterns, we end up destroying ourselves and our world in either a spiritual or a physical sense, if not both.

Some of these fixed patterns, such as those which underlie Biblical sexual ethics, are necessarily rooted in God’s eternal character and therefore could not be different to what they are. Other patterns, such as those which make certain foods objectively better than others, emerge contingently from the imaginative way God chose to create the world. In both cases, however, there is a natural order rooted in the inherent telos of things.

As food and health have been increasingly abstracted from teleology, the result is that health has become a matter of negation in popular discourse. It is associated with what we can’t do, with the prohibitions, dieting and legalism. This has shifted the emphasis of health away from its more historical context as wholeness. As Wendell Berry pointed out in a section of his book The Unsettling at America: Culture and Agriculture,

“The concept of health is rooted in the concept of wholeness. To be healthy is to be whole. The word health belongs to a family of words, a listing of which will suggest how far the consideration of health must carry us: heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, holy. And so it is possible to give a definition to health that is positive and far more elaborate than that given to it by most medical doctors and the officers of public health. . . .”

Of course, the concept of wholeness presupposes that there are fixed goals towards which our bodies may strive—goals rooted in the right ordering of nature. As simple as this seems, it is a point I have had to debate more than once when having discussions with Christians who were uncomfortable operating within teleological categories. When we consider the pervasive influence of nominalism, however, this discomfort should come as no surprise. For a nominalist, the natural order of creation, as represented in the biological realities of our experience as embodied beings, counts for very little. Reality becomes infinitely malleable, and we are left without the categories to assert that wholesome eating habits, like wholesome farming habits, should even be normative. More devastatingly, however, we cannot even understand man’s place in the universe. This was impressed upon me in 2009 when my friend Brad Littlejohn shared a quotation from Oliver O’Donovan’s book Resurrection and Moral Order. O’Donovan explains how the nominalist abstraction from teleology creates dangerous misunderstandings about man’s place in the world. Since O’Donovan explains things much more eloquently than I ever could, I will end with his wonderful words:

Abstraction from teleology creates a dangerous misunderstanding of the place of man in the universe. For it supposes that the observing mind encounters an inert creation–not, that is, a creation without movement, but a creation without a point to its movement. Thus the mind credits to its own conceptual creativity that teleological order which is, despite everything, necessary to life. All ordering becomes deliberative ordering, and scientific observation, failing as it does to report the given teleological order within nature, becomes the servant of techne. Of course, man continues to eat vegetables; but he no longer knows that he does so because vegetables are food, and comes to imagine that he has devised a use for them as food. And so he looks for other uses for them, which will seem to him to have as much validity as that one which was, if he could only have remembered it, given in nature. That vegetables exist as food for other animals than himself will not impress him–unless, of course, the continued existence of other animals too falls within his deliberative purposes for the world, in which case both vegetation and animal life will continue to hold their value as a feoff from himself. Thus arises the irony of our own days, in which the very protection of nature has to be argued in terms of man’s ‘interest’ in preserving his ‘environment’. Such a philosophy offers no stable protection against the exploitation of nature by man, since he can discern nothing in the relations of things to command his respect. And, of course, this unprincipled domination must extend itself to include his own psychosomatic nature, all that is not itself the devising mind, so that humanity itself dissolves in the polarization of the technological will and its raw material. Man’s monarchy over nature can be healthy only if he recognizes it as something itself given in the nature of things, and therefore limited by the nature of things. For if it were true that he imposed his rule upon nature from without, then there would be no limit to it. It would have been from the beginning a crude struggle to stamp an inert and formless nature with the insignia of his will. Such has been the philosophy bred by a scientism liberated from the discipline of Christian metaphysics. It is not what the Psalmist meant by the dominion of man, which was a worshipping and respectful sovereignty, a glad responsibility for the natural order which he both discerned and loved.

Further Reading