Was John Calvin a Nominalist?

I have published a three-part series looking at 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.”

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.